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Petrone’s Estonia

Source: Photo courtesy of Mr. Petrone.

Justin Petrone’s second installment of "My Estonia" was published last month, and it was recently announced that a film version will be made of the two books. ERR News talked with Petrone about the books and the movie.

In your second book, your father’s character says, “Justin, understand something. You chose to live on the margins. You chose this life for yourself. I didn’t raise you to live in a little apartment in the former Soviet Union.” Do you think this is representative of a candid foreign view of Estonia?

It often is. I once told a British colleague of how I lived for a few weeks with some Lithuanian workers in south London, and he was a little shocked, mostly because of the vast class divide between us "highly educated Western professionals" and migrant workers from "sketchy Eastern Europe."

Another time I told a colleague, also from the UK, that I flew AirBaltic from Tartu to Dublin. I could tell immediately that he was intrigued. To him, AirBaltic probably sounded like the plane was loaded with chicken crates and sacks of potatoes and old babushkas. "But is that airline safe?" he asked. "Yes," I answered. "I mean, I hope it is."

The books take place eight years ago though. Things have changed. People I know who have visited Estonia are surprised. Some still expect lawlessness and poverty, so when they get free wifi in the park, they are genuinely impressed. Tourism has changed attitudes about the country too, as has European integration.

You portray your father as concerned mainly with money? How has he reacted to that? Does he feel you’ve been fair?

Well, I also portrayed myself as a bit of an aimless slacker, so perhaps he felt he needed to encourage me at that time to be more driven and focused on our finances. Maybe he comes across as materialistic but, in my experience, most parents hope to encourage economic self sufficiency on the part of their offspring. He hasn't offered a personal reaction to the book though.


Your character in the book remarks at one point that he’s never had physical contact with his Estonian relatives, no hugging, no touching. Have readers reacted to this? 

Some people have had completely different experiences. A few think Estonians are a warm and hospitable bunch, and I have to say that the Estonians I know are friendlier to me now than they used to be. Or maybe it's that I understand what they are saying better now.

Estonians are not emotionless, but they are definitely not as openly emotional and physical as, say, the Italians. An Italian man will kiss another man on both cheeks. Could you honestly imagine Andrus Ansip kissing Sven Mikser on both cheeks? Me neither. The touching rituals that are common in southern European cultures are absent in Estonia.

Estonian aloofness is certainly affected by the seasons. Estonians in late autumn (as described in the book) are certainly a moody, brooding, bitchy, taciturn lot, when compared with Estonians in summer, a time when everybody is getting drunk in the woods and congregating around bonfires and swimming nude in leech-infested lakes. It really is like night and day.
I have a feeling that those people who think Estonians are as friendly and outgoing as any other nationality have come at the peak of tourist season, when everyone is roasting sausages and singing songs from old movies around the campfire.

Your character tells your father about slipping on an icy sidewalk someone didn’t clean: “In Estonia, everything bad that happens to you is your own fault.” You’ve very well captured the still-present element of resignation in the culture. Do you see this changing? Or is it necessarily a bad thing and something which, at least to some degree, should not change?

I am also poking fun at American attitudes in that scene. The extent to which we Americans blame others for our own misfortunes is somewhat embarrassing. I allude to some of these petty lawsuits from personal injury lawyers in the book, but also the general idea that some genetic glitch or flaw in nurturing has made us less than who we really should be.

On the other hand, the indifference of some Estonians to their neighbors is equally problematic. For example, I lived in a nice, walkable neighborhood in Tartu for three years, where we had four neighbors. I knew one of the four, but only because he was my doctor. Of the other three, I spoke only with two, briefly with the one in the back because her cat got stuck in my tree, and once with the one next door on the day we moved out. After three years, I finally learned his name. If something bad had happened to us during that time, I doubt if any of them would have really cared. Nor would I have cared much about them, as I didn't even know them. 

But maybe things are changing. I was particularly touched by the domestic response to the Haapsalu fire recently. People around me were genuinely saddened by that event. The next day I saw all the flags out. I got the sense that the Estonian people really did care about each other.

You are working with the Estonian company Exitfilm on developing a film based on the books. Had you been courting them or did they approach you?Y

We were approached by them. While the book did have some cinematic qualities, to be honest, I never conceived of it being made into a film when I wrote it. They saw the potential in it and contacted us.

We are cooperating with them quite closely. [Petrone will be the screenwriter. –ed.] I think what has interested them most is the story itself as opposed to the idiosyncrasies of the characters, while sometimes amusing. Of course it's a roll of the dice. Writing the book was a roll of the dice, too.

You also write a column for the women’s magazine Anne ja Stiil. Have you developed a following there?

I have a strong female following, but I suspect most Estonian males that see it want to kick my ass on account of the ultra stylish photograph they run with my column. I detailed my experience with fashion photographers and stylists in the prologue of the new book and, I admit, I sometimes want to kick my own ass when I see my photo in there, but what can you do? Writing for Estonian women is a real challenge. It may be one of the hardest writing gigs I've ever had.


Interview by Scott Diel

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