Interview: Justin Petrone on My Estonia 2

Justin Petrone
Justin Petrone

My Estonia 2 is the second book in the memorable series about a young American touching down in one of Europe's newest independent countries.

Justin Petrone's humorous memoir tells the story about his wife's first pregnancy and their quest to find a suitable house in one of Tallinn's "up and coming" (read: squalid) areas.

But parents aren't always happy when their children fly the nest and land in countries like Estonia, especially when their new extended family seems awfully cold and distant.

As Petrone tries to resolve the differences between his homeland the land he has come to love, he grows in new ways and finds new meaning in life.

Petrone, who makes his way as both an author and a journalist, sat down with Alfa English to discuss the release of his new book.

The book comes alive in many places because of the shared experiences that travellers have here in the Baltic states. How similar do you think the countries are? Are they really that different?

I actually don't often think of these three countries within the context of the Baltic States. I keep up to date on what's going on in Latvia and Lithuania, but I also follow Finnish and Swedish politics. There is a map in the beginning of my book which articulates how I see the region: basically the Scandinavian countries plus the Baltic Rim - Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. All of these countries have similarities and differences. I could go on and on about them, but I'm not sure I could get actually anywhere or provide you with any wisdom. For instance, I just read a Vanity Fair article about the banking crisis in Iceland, and I swear, you could have swapped the term "Icelandic" for "Estonian" and it would have resonated just the same.

Everyone knows that the Baltic states have a reputation for having beautiful women. In the book there are numerous mentions and descriptions of women and their bodies. Was this a conscious inclusion?

It is a very descriptive book. Rather than coming at the topic of Estonia as a body of information to communicate, I wanted to communicate the actual experience of being in Estonia. What does it look like? What does it smell like? The main character is male, and so he notices women. But there are also some sensual experiences that are specific to this region. Mixed saunas, for instance. You don't forget things like that. I remember the first time I was in a mixed sauna in Estonia. I got out in order to let my wife and her friend in, and then I noticed that my friend went back into the sauna, where my wife and his wife were! So, I of course had to go back in too! And, as a writer, I am going to share my experience with you. I am going to tell you what I see. If I see a naked woman, I'm going to tell you about it. I could tell you it was dark in the sauna, and hot, but it would only be part of the story.

During your hunt for real estate, you refer to yourself as a "snob" after you let a nice opportunity slip through your fingers. In the book you put this trait down to your roots. How do you think you have changed living in Estonia?

Well, we lived in a house in Tartu that had wood furnace heating for three years, so I adapted. But I still am not an expert on furnace heating. It's a whole science -- how often to heat, how much wood to use, how to start a good fire. I don't know these things as I didn't grow up here. I don't know how much I have changed. But living in Estonia has left me in some kind of limbo land. On one hand, I am a foreigner here, and everyone wants to ask me about this experience. "What do you think about Estonia?" But in the US, I'm almost afraid to tell them where I live because then I basically have to retell the story of my life, the story in the books. Imagine, you are sitting next to a guy in Los Angeles and you're like, "Well, actually, I don't live here, I live in Estonia." He usually asks where Estonia is next, and away we go. I was actually seated next to a Czech woman on a plane when I was in the US in January and I felt relieved. "Ah, another European." But I'm not a European!

As a newcomer, Estonia seemed strange to you. People didn't hug, smile, talk or do anything interpersonal really. Now that you have had time to acclimatize, how different do you think your understanding of the country is compared to a newcomer?

This has to do with familiarity. If you are friends with someone, then they let down their guard and can be very friendly. In Estonia, if you don't know someone, then you do not talk to them. In the US, where I grew up, strangers would wish you good morning if they passed you on the street. If you did this in Estonia, the person would be very confused. "Do I know this person?" they would think. "Why did he talk to me?"

Most people that you know are referred to as 'acquaintances.' Even if you have known someone for years, they are still an 'old acquaintance.' Only a few people really qualify as "friends," but once they are your friend, you know you can count on them to drive you to the emergency room when you slip and hurt yourself outside a bar at 3 am. Estonians take friendship seriously. They complain about how people in the US are superficially friendly, but can actually be quite passive aggressive.

Word on the street is that your books will be made into a film. Can you confirm or deny the rumour?

We were approached in autumn by an Estonian production company called Exitfilm about the possibility to make the book into a film. Right now they are seeking investors for the project and we are working on a draft screenplay. It's very embryonic.

This is the second book in the series, but will there be a third?

This has yet to be determined. It depends if I feel I have more to share and a unique way to share it. It also depends on what readers think. Do they want to read more?

My Estonia 2: Berry Junkies, Nordic Elves, and Real Estate Fever is available through Amazon.