You're probably wondering why I spent semesters in Germany and Turkey, summers in France and Japan, and spent three years studying Italian Renaissance literature, yet keep returning to Estonian art, history, and culture.
There are only about 25,000 people of Estonian ancestry in the United States, as opposed to 1.2 million of Swedish ancestry. But when I was growing up in Rock Island, Estonia appeared in my life nearly as often as Sweden, giving me an early impression that it was a "good place."
2. Our 4th grade teacher considered Estonia part of Scandinavia for some reason, and told us Estonian folktales and the story of Kalevipoeg.
Kristjan Raud, plus some shirtless Estonian men (not this photo).
4. In 9th grade at Washington Junior High, I was playing the violin and coveting the position of first chair, when one day in the spring, a slim, sandy-haired 7th grader named George (top photo, left) appeared out of nowhere and easily won the audition.
A few weeks later, I entered a chess tournament, and George was my first opponent. A 7th grader -- an easy win! I thought. Nope, he trounced me in five moves!
It turned out to be Graeco-Roman wrestling. He pinned me easily.
George's parents were refugees from Communist Estonia. His father worked in the factory, but he had been an athlete of some sort back home. There was a picture of him and his muscular, shirtless teammates on the mantle (not this one).
George had a older brother, a 11th grader named Kristjan, who was just as accomplished. One day all three of us practiced Estonian wrestling in their basement rec room.
We never became close friends, but I still have warm memories of two muscular bodies pressed against me.
(Photo from Alo Paistik, an Estonian artist living in Paris, whose Applied Art for a Gay Club is on display at gay clubs around Europe.)
5. At Augustana College, the professor who taught my first-year music class was Estonian (no doubt he was the one who arranged to have the Estonian National Ballet visit a few years before). He gave me a B- on my paper on Peer Gynt. He wore jeans to class -- a remarkable feat of daring for a professor in the 1970s, and one which offered proof of why Kristjan Raud always depicted his models nude.
See also: My Last Wrestling Match and My Breakup with Dan