Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Mission Estonia

mission-estoniaI visited Estonia recently for work, and took some time off from the teaching to go book-shopping. I do like to read about a new place when I’m there, or afterwards. It means nothing to me if I read up about a place before I’ve got a sense of it. I need to have had a walk around, observing how the traffic and their parks work, and have an idea of where the locals buy their bread and how they wrap it up, before I want to read about their lives.

There are two bookshops in central Tartu, and both had one short shelf each of books in English. Most of these were translations of Estonian literary giants like Anton Tamsaare or Jaan Kross, or children’s books in English for earnest Estonian parents. But the one author in English that both shops stocked was Justin Petrone, an American journalist married to an Estonian, and an Estonian resident for over ten years. Justin Petrone has an engaging, easy style. His very short essays – mostly collected blogposts and newspaper columns – on the curiosities of Estonian customs and culture, as well as their lovable characteristics, are very, very readable. They are also totally undemanding. After a very long day on a bus travelling across the country (idly counting storks from the window, because there are more storks’ nests than houses on the bus route from Tartu back to Tallinn), and then in front of a laptop in a deadline-driven writing frenzy in an airport hotel, I sank gratefully into his most recent collection, Mission Estonia. I needed something to entertain me, tell me about the country I was in, and explain the strange things I’d been wondering about. Why, for instance, were shopkeepers over the age of 30 stone-faced and suspicious, whereas the younger ones knew about smiling? How did they speak such good English, when they also had to cope with Russian or German as well as Estonian? (As Justin says, Estonian is the second smallest fully functional world language.) And why was my hotel full of what looked like the Russian mafia and giant beauty queens with frozen mascara?


Map of the eastern Baltic: click to enlarge

Map of the eastern Baltic: click to enlarge

Ten minutes into the book, I was laughing. An hour later, I’d given up even thinking of going to sleep, because Mission Estonia was simply one splendidly entertaining magazine column after another. It wasn’t great literature (which I was in no shape to cope with in any case): it was being chatted to, and being told things about this man’s family, his life, how he felt about not fitting into Estonian masculine norms, and how confused he felt about sauna rituals. I learned that Estonian can be incomprehensible to outsiders for decades, and that speaking it right can take even longer (this I know ALL about from my unending struggle with Flemish). Thinking of Estonia as being on the Slavic side of Scandi made a lot more sense for me of the interior decoration and architecture. I remained a bit puzzled about the combination of German, Russian and Soviet building styles that I kept seeing in Tartu, and in magazine furniture adverts. There was also the non-ethnological bonus of learning about another person’s writing life and family life, which is always nice to read about. Checking Petrone out online brought forth a surprising amount of publicity photos, including a very nice professionally shot photo of him with his wife and three little girls in the sunshine, all in white linen, like an ad for Estée Lauder gone Slavic. He and his wife Epp are clearly famous in Estonia, but also seem to be unassuming big fish in a wee pond. The first essay in this collection is on what it’s like to be the well-known foreigner. Since he writes cheerfully and without snarkiness, he sounds like a chap it would be pleasant to have a beer with, not a pompous knowitall. Mission Estonia is gregarious, and genial. I recommend it as a travel book as well as a memoir of the present.

Justin Petrone, Mission Estonia (2013), ISBN 978-9949-502-89-9

Justin Petrone’s blog is here.

Kate podcasts about books that she really, really likes at

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

4 comments on “Mission Estonia

  1. Rebecca
    May 5, 2014

    Oh, I went to Estonia a few years ago on a Leonardo-funded trip. I loved it! I had no idea what to expect, and still want to go back at some point. I cried over fields of cowslips, and saw adders in the grass outside WW1 ruins, and picked fossils up from the dusty roadside. Mission Estonia sounds like a book I’d like to read – thanks for featuring it.

  2. Jackie
    May 6, 2014

    This sounds like a fun book & I’m looking forward to perusing his website when I am less busy than this week. Your responses to the writing & the photos, etc. are very amusing and this was an enjoyable review. Thanks also for the map, I had the general area correct, just not the surrounding nations.
    Your recent reviews of books about other countries has been a great travelogue!

  3. Hilary
    May 7, 2014

    After my one day (count it) in Tallinn, I’ve been rather fascinated by Estonia, and would love to know more – this sounds like a great way of beginning to find out more about the country. Thanks for a very alluring review!

  4. justinpetrone
    September 2, 2014

    Thank you so much for this review. I am very grateful. Suur tänu!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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