Estonians are said to be a quiet, reserved, and polite people, or so the guidebooks would have us believe. Judged from the vantage point of my own loud, obnoxious middle-American standard, I suppose there’s a scrap of truth to the quiet part, but let’s be honest, most of the world’s peoples are publicly quieter than me and my brothers and sisters in the good old USofA and by a long shot, saying nothing of northern Europeans. As for reserved and polite, that’s harder to get at. Certainly, my experience has been that Estonians are more formal than Americans in speech and dress (they observe the formal/informal “you” when they speak to strangers, for instance, and I have yet to see an Estonian publicly wearing sweatpants). I will observe, however, that for a supposedly reserved people, they sure like to sing in public a lot and celebrate every minute occasion with feasting, flowers, and yet even more singing. It strikes me that the reserved part is maybe more a holdover from the Soviet-period when being reserved might have been all that spared a person from a one-way cattle car ride to the gulag. In my personal experience, Estonians are a whole lot of loud, gregarious fun (just my kind), once they’re done with telling you how quiet, reserved, and not fun they are.
Case in point, the Tartu Rattamaraton, which is the largest mountain bike race in Estonia, and the third largest (claim the organizers) in the world. There were 8,400 cyclists across three events in this year’s event, held September 21 – a children’s race, a competitive 89K race, and a genial 40K race. I learned about the race from my wife who’d mentioned to my daughter’s homeroom teacher that I liked to bicycle, to which my daughter’s homeroom teacher exclaimed, “my husband, too!” Then the homeroom teacher went home and said to her husband something I can only imagine as, “the nice American man likes to ride bikes and so do you, do something about it,” which must have elicited both a roll of the eyes and a sigh, but did end with a very nice email informing me about the race.
Now, I’m a pretty experienced mountain biker, if I do say so myself. I’m not claiming to be particularly good at it, and I’m certainly not competitive, but I’m a shade better than the average bear, and as my home trails in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula provide some of the best single-track riding anywhere in the world, I’m also decently practiced. More importantly, perhaps, I’m annoyingly fey about the whole thing. For instance, I exclusively ride a 29+ single-speed, only on a Brook’s saddle, I prefer Bern helmets and 5.10 free ride shoes, among other accouterment, and I have very strongly held opinions and prejudices regarding riding style. What does any of this mean, you ask? In terms of actual mountain biking, it means fuck all, save that I can be a precious and profoundly pompous ass about it when I choose. And/or it means I had picky questions about the race to which I received unsatisfying answers from my sources.
Was the Tartu Rattamaraton a road race? No, a mountain bike race. But from the website I can see that it’s not really on trails? No, a mixture of pavement, dirt roads, grassy farm lanes, and wooded two-tracks, with the occasional small knoll thrown in for interest (the highest point in the whole damn country, after all, is Suur Munamägi – literally, “Big Egg Mountain” – at only 318 metres or 1,043 feet above sea level). But everyone rides mountain bikes? No, they ride whatever. What’s whatever? Whatever is whatever, ride what you want. But all I have here in Estonia is an old jalopy of a cruiser, single speed, coaster brakes, fenders, a bell, and all I see online are pictures of people riding mountain bikes? Your bike will do fine, people use similar bikes all the time. For forty kilometers? Yes, yes, yes, some even wear costumes. Wait, costumes, what?
And so on because I couldn’t reconcile what I was being told with what I was reading with what I was seeing online with what I thought I knew about mountain biking and mountain bike races. Was my daughter’s teacher’s husband being honest with me, obtuse, merely polite, or was he yanking my chain? And there’s the crux. I can’t tell. True, Estonians are a polite people, but the way politeness combines with the reserved and quiet part comes across as something closer to cagey, not to mention they have a wickedly subtle and dry sense of humor that means you can’t ever quite tell when they’re taking the piss out of you, and also they are adept at playing every side against the middle (try being the tiny guy who endures for 10,000 years on a playground full of enormous bullies and see what kind of skills you develop). Be that as it may, politeness here can sometimes translate to dealing out all the rope someone needs to tie his own noose. Accordingly, I hemmed and hawed over it all, checked into renting a proper race bike (too expensive), and finally decided just to skip the whole damn thing and do nothing. My wife’s advice: “Say yes and see what happens.”
Twenty years ago, post college, while backpacking through Europe and North Africa, my wife and I agreed on a set of basic travel rules. Most were pretty prosaic, things like don’t try to settle a disagreement while hungry, or don’t willingly separate without a contingency plan for how to find one another again (this was pre-cellphone ubiquity). Many of those rules were administrative and forgotten over the years, but the ones rooted in cultivating adventure stuck. My favorite has always been, if a little old lady is selling food out of a five-gallon bucket at a bus station, you must buy it and eat it. Awfully wordy and literal, I’ll admit, but I stand by this particular rule as god’s own gospel truth. Those donuts or pierogis or tamales or whatever the little old lady is selling for pennies will probably be the best thing you’ve stuck in your pie hole all day, but I digress. No doubt, as a life philosophy applied injudiciously, seize the day can sometimes turn into rue the day, but while one might get the occasional burn while pursuing the moment (I’ve certainly got the scars to prove it), the burned will seldom suffer from being either bored or boring, however boorish.
So it went when Marika and I were twenty, so it goes with us, for better or worse, nigh onto middle age. I said yes, registered for the race, and on the day decided that if I was going to ride a stupid bike in a confusing race, I may as well look the part. As I don’t generally travel with costume, per se, I dressed up in a white shirt, orange tie, and black boots. Everyone else looked like they were about to embark on the Tour de France. I looked like I was headed to the local pub to catch a punk rock show. It turned out to be true, that within the sea of mountain bikes and brand plastered spandex there were, indeed, a handful of comrades in clownishness. There was one other guy in a full suit, albeit on a mountain bike. There was a woman on a bike like mine, but outfitted for an Olympic speed skating event. There was a man in a pink tutu and matching pink wig who gave me a high five as we wheeled past one another while warming up at the race start. It was immediately after that high five that I careened headlong into a racer bedecked in branded racing regalia and astride an incredibly expensive mountain bike, knocking us both to the ground.
Like any place with a high proportion of outsiders to locals, there are two distinct Estonias. There is the small, well-curated one for tourists, and the larger messier one for Estonians themselves. What makes the separation so incredibly striking here is the intensity of the language barrier between the two. Often, in situations where the Estonian language is assumed, it is also assumed that there simply won’t be anyone but Estonian speakers present. Not that foreigners from further afield aren’t welcome, far from it. Estonians always seem genuinely pleased that you’re there, that you’re trying to speak their language, however badly, that you’re participating in Estonian culture, that you like Estonia and them (who isn’t pleased by this?), they just seem perpetually surprised by it, it apparently happens so seldom. Which is to say I was not expected at this race to begin with, let alone dressed absurdly, riding an absurd bicycle, and then crashing into Estonians and knocking them to the ground. As I apologized in English, my victim, the man on the mountain bike, looked upon me like I were an evil phantom, picked himself up cussing, gave my bike a little kick for good measure, and rode away fuming. Not two minutes later, a colleague from Tartu University was pointing me out to her boyfriend who was also riding in the race. “Look at that guy dressed up on the funny bike,” she was saying, then “wait, I know that guy,” then, to me, “what on earth are you doing here?” What, indeed.
The race itself was fun, though there isn’t really much more to tell. I had a bent front rim from my prerace collision, which while not a deal breaker, added a distinct wobble to my ride, thus completing the Benny Hill effect I was apparently going for. Otherwise, it was a beautiful, sunny day on a course that took me past green fields, adorable peasant farmsteads, and through rolling autumnal forests. I finished in two hours and seventeen minutes, well ahead of most, if not all, of the children and old ladies who made up the field. And at the end, I got to have a sauna where I stood naked in line (small sauna, big race) to get in. While I queued up, I couldn’t help but notice that we men were in direct line of sight down a short open hall from a café that occupied the same building. Spectators from the race, men, women, and children, were lined up to buy a cup of coffee or bottle of water. Some of them watched us naked men. Some did not. No one really seemed to care. Two women drinking coffee were talking together matter-of-factly, pointing to us occasionally, conferring, nodding, bored. As no one else in the sauna line seemed to mind this, I decided I probably shouldn’t either. I’m not a shy man. The guy standing next to me, also belly and balls to the breeze, turned to me and asked me something in Estonian. I’m sorry, I replied, but I don’t speak very much Estonian. He was so delighted by my not understanding very much Estonian in Estonian and asked in English why I was there. I raced, I replied. “Of course,” he said, “you must have been our American, welcome to Estonia.” Yes, I replied in Estonian, thank you, I love it here.” He smiled warmly at this, visibly pleased, and we both returned amiably to our silence, arms crossed across our chests, bare assed come whatever, come what may.