Toole Castle on the Gulf of Finland [again, courtesy of the panorama setting on my camera]

Friday, September 3, 2010

Entry III: Meeting the Family [or: how much of this awkwardness can be chalked up to a cultural divide, and how much is simply my social ineptitude?]

7:20 p.m. 
    On the train to Tartu, only a few minutes from our final stop. It's been a lazy ride spent fooling with my point-and-shoot camera settings, reading my novel, practicing some Estonian words, and drifting off to sleep. But now I can't sit still. Nervousness at the thought of meeting my host family has seeped under my skin and won't go away. After holding off the anxiety all day, I can't stop thinking about how things might go. How do I behave when we are first introduced? Do we hug? What will we talk about on the car ride home? I even started rehearsing potential conversations in my head, plotting a course of action for every possible conversational parry and thrust I might face. If they say "Welcome to our home (or in Estonian, tulemast), then I will reply, "Thank's a beautiful house." That's the only appropriate response I can think of. Even if it is not a beautiful house, I know I will use this line. The bits of dialogue I am storing up right now comprise my safety net, they make me feel a little secure.
     My nerves aren't unwarranted. Every other student has been in contact with their family via email, but somehow my introduction email didn't get through to my host mom's address. She didn't receive my message until two days earlier, and I only read her response (a brief message assuring me I was indeed still her host son, and she would pick me up and bring me to shelter this evening) about ten minutes ago. She signed off at the bottom of the message: Riina. Deja vu. I think back to the frisky drunk girl in Tallinn. For a second I'm lost in thought, imagining a household with her as a mother figure. Odd. I'm pulled from this bemused reverie when we clatter to a halt at the Tartu station. We pile off the train and into the crisp dusk air.
     There's a gang of Estonians down the track, a loose assemblage of small families, solitary men and women, and a few couples. Our hosts. We walk towards them, and stop about ten feet away, luggage set down at our sides or in front of us like shields. We all--students and families alike--smile nervously at each other, never settling on a particular person, not sure who belongs to whom. One by one we are introduced to the family mob, and we depart with our matches.  I am last, and the only host left is a round-faced woman with silvery hair. She's beaming kindly, and her eyes crinkle in a way that reminds me of my parents. This is Riina. I walk up to her and extend my hand for a handshake. She puts her arms out and steps up for a hug instead. I think we'll get on fine.

      My premonition from yesterday is right on: things are going smoothly with the host family. A quick introduction: Riina is my host mom. She's a good-natured woman with a soft voice and an easy smile. She works in the Information Technology department at Tartu University. Aivar is my host dad. He's a quiet man, though my impression is colored by the fact that his English isn't very good (so he says; but I think it sounds pretty great considering he didn't begin studying the language until adulthood). Aivar has a wiry, solid frame, craggy features, and a wry sense of humor that breaks through the language barrier in the form of impish grins and the occasional wink. He is a woodworker, a dog-lover, and the best cook in the house. Ott is my host brother. He's 22 years old, and starting his first year at the agricultural university in Tartu where he studies hydro-engineering. Maili is Ott's girlfriend, and she is completing her last year of flight school, where she studies navigation. Ott and Maili just moved into an apartment across town. Riina and Aivar seem to expect them to return soon, seeing as they don't have any money for food. There are two big, friendly dogs in the house named Ups and Nuki, and one elusive cat named Minni. (Or "Minni-Raisk" when she's stealing food. Riina tells me this nickname translates roughly to "Facking Minni.") This is the family.
 Tonight, I take a sauna in the Estonian style with my host parents. The first step is going to the store for beer, because as Aivar informs me, "sauna is not sauna without beer."
    Riina and I drive a few blocks to Konsum, an Estonian chain grocery store. Walking in through the sliding doors, I feel obnoxiously eager to soak up new sights and make observations (e.g. "Oh wow, the grocery carts are a little bit smaller here," or "there sure are a lot of beers sold in plastic bottles"). I'm a little more excited than I should be for a trip to the store, I suppose. It's just that the idea of foreign products and advertising is really cool and unusual to me: what are Estonian staple items? What is Estonian "junk food?" What's difficult or impossible to find in your average store? How do Estonian companies get people to buy their stuff?
     Tonight, our only goal is sauna beer, but once we enter the store Riina wants me to take my pick of drinks and snacks. I'm not very good at receiving this kind of generosity, and besides, the huge variety of choices--all labeled in Estonian--paralyzes me completely. Mostly I follow her around and release non-committal ho-hums at her suggestions, then arbitrarily pick something off the shelf and say aitah ("thank you") as I put it in the cart. Our haul includes little hotdogs, kefir, apples, garlic black-bread croutons, a Latvian fruitjuice that is supposedly quite tasty, and a giant milk chocolate bar called Mesikäpp (meaning "honey paw" or bear; the mascot is a teddy bear). Also included in our cart are the ingredients for the Mexican food I'll cook for family dinner later this week (side note: tortillas at Konsum don't come in little rounds, but in towel-sized sheets folded up in a square). 
      After we check out, I steer our cart to the door. Riina stops me with a hand on the shoulder and directs me to pull the cart our of the flow of traffic. We stand by the storefront window, next to a rack of toilet paper. Riina has the receipt in her hand.
     "I always check," she says with a smile, and begins reading through the receipt from the top down. She holds the long strip of paper with her finger tips at either side and feeds it through her hands like a typewriter's platen. It doesn't take long, but long enough for me to wonder if this is common practice in Estonia or just my host mom's unique behavior.
     "Okay, it's good," she says. As we wheel the cart out to her car, a little black SAAB, she explains that many stores frequently overcharge customers. Konsum and Maximart are two of the worst places for that sort of thing, she says. She doesn't know why this is--doesn't know if it's some devious part of cashier training, or just incompetence or technological error. Whatever the case, she's made the best out of a bad situation: Instead of paying the fee required to withdraw cash with her debit card, she just uses her card to buy groceries where she knows she'll be overcharged, then confronts the cashier and collects the money she is due.
     This host mom of mine is a crafty lady. This craftiness, along with her fondness for chocolate and good taste in beer, make her very well-suited for stocking the pantry.

P.S. Stay tuned! More on the inevitable Estonian weight-gain as it develops.


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