Visiting estonions on the french riviera: a reunion with anu-liivi

I’d confessed to Derry, immediately after she picked me up at the airport from my Russia vacation in 1988 that there had been “…a lot of bizarre encounters with women” on this trip, adding quickly: “…don’t worry, nothing happened, but I have to tell you the stories because they’re so funny.”   And she agreed they were. 

Eventually I wrote them all down in what became the book-length travel story Night Train To Russia

Decades later, the rise of social media had allowed me to re-discover most of the people I’d met.  Jaime Wan, from China, I’d seen twice—once in Australia, and later, Beijing.  The ballerinas Ella Gorodetskya and Maria Turpogova from St. Petersburg were these days providing useful tips for me on “The Covert Ballerina,”  second book in the Angel of Death trilogy, and which was partially inspired by the two of them.   Robert Jarva, Anu-Liivi Karu’s boyfriend in Estonia, had actually visited us in Summit County, and had stayed in touch over the years.

But Anu-Liivi herself, the cabaret dancer from Tallin, had fallen off the radar until we reunited a few years ago via Facebook.  We’d known each other less than 24 hours before we’d had to exchange hasty goodbyes on the station platform when I finally boarded that night train to Russia. 

An excerpt from “Night Train” said it all: “The chance of ever seeing her again was close to zero.”  

And I truly believed it was.

So I was shocked when—in response to my Facebook post regarding attending a conference in Monaco—Anu-Liivi herself responded:

Via messenger the story came out quickly.  She’d be staying in a rented villa in the mountainous area north of Nice, with her husband Vigor, and a second couple Ave (pronounced AAY-vah, as in Ave Maria), her husband, and their two daughters. 

The husbands were fanatic bicyclists, and that was why they were all coming to France.  Running in the shadows of the Tour de France is another similar event for non-professionals.  I guess we’d call them amateurs, but they seemed pretty hard-core.  That event had been covid-cancelled a year ago, but was on for 2021 and the group had moved their villa reservations accordingly.  The race essentially started just north of Nice, so that area was a good place for Ana and her group to rent the villa. 

Disaster!  A week earlier, the 2021 event also got cancelled.  But no one wanted to postpone again.  So they were all at the villa for a week, the two husbands making long bike treks with their team members each day, while the women enjoyed southern France.  There was a lovely pool on the grounds which the young daughters could enjoy. 

“You must come visit us,” Ana texted. 

Saturday was free, with the Ritossa event over Friday night, and the Swiss Growth Forum not starting until late Sunday.  

The real adventure turned out to be getting there and back.  I hadn’t driven in Europe since 2007 but I was able to rent a car from Hertz in Monaco.    

The car’s tiny size was shocking.  Economy or not, this was more like a large motorcycle with a covered roof.  I played with the stick shift, which was a standard five-speed, just like my Audi. 

Ana had sent me the location link by Messenger, which I only had to double click, and soon Google Maps was directing me all over southern France, in the form of a pleasant female voice giving me crisp, clear directions in American English: “Take the second exit at the roundabout.  In 1.2 miles turn left at the…”   And so forth.   It was easy.  How did we ever survive without GPS?

While the navigation was easy, getting to Anu-Liivi’s villa turned out to be the most challenging driving experience of my life.  Well, second most.  First place goes to February, 2020, driving from DIA back to Summit County in the worst blizzard conditions ever on I-70.  That eight-hour nightmare from hell has a firm grip on first place. 

But winding my way over world’s tiniest roads, and sharpest corners, in the French Provence mountains has now grabbed second place.  Thank God the car was as small as it was, and had a five-speed stick.  You need total control on these kinds of roads—which only manual transmissions can provide.  Yet despite this, and even with its diminutive size, I almost scraped paint every time I passed another car—either from the other car, or from the brick retaining walls built up on the inside of the lanes.  Not only were there no shoulders, not only were the roads ridiculously narrow, but where the shoulder should have begun there was a brick wall!  It was terrifying. 

I found myself wondering, yet again, how my parents could have possibly navigated around Europe with their monstrous Ford Econonline van in 1963.  Surely the roads had not been wider half a century ago. 

The GPS said I was about five minutes from the villa, but then directed me up a tiny lane that seemed a glorified driveway feeding perhaps several small homes.  It was a 30% incline, according to the sign. 

I got to the top and it didn’t seem to be the place Ana had described.  I called her via Facebook. 

“Let me walk outside and see if you’re here.”

Nope.  She couldn’t see me.  Clearly I was in the wrong place and now had to back down (no way to turn around) that horrible, winding, near-vertical driveway.

Once again on the main highway—‘er, winding goat path masquerading as a road—the GPS took over and guided me onwards with no apology for having sent me up that weird driveway.

Another problem were bicyclists all over the place, on roads where no bicyclist should be.  Bikes (and bikers) are happiest where it’s flat.  You know, like Holland.  And also happiest when they have their own bike paths.  Or at least when they are on roads with broad shoulders.  This place was the worst possible in the world for biking—which I suppose was why they were holding a major bicycle rally here.   You know what they say: If you can bicycle on the tiny mountainous roads in the south of France, you can bicycle anywhere.

One bike I followed up the hill slowly, there being no way to pass at least in my lifetime.  Ah!  Here was a chance.  A blind corner, sure, but slightly less blind than others.  I took the chance, downshifted, changed lanes to pass, came around the corner and—holy crap—there was another car coming at me full speed!  How to avoid collision without killing the biker?  I downshifted again, floored the accelerator, redlined the engine, and just managed to get back in my lane with a quick swerve before causing a two-car, one-bike, multiple-fatality pile up. If I’d been in an automatic I’d either be dead or in jail right now for vehicular homicide. 

The next bicyclist I played more conservatively.  But after ten minutes of following slowly up the tiny road, I lost patience and repeated the earlier maneuver, this time without an oncoming car to avoid.

Finally, soaked in perspiration, terrified out of my mind, and needing a drink, I found the villa.  And here was Ana.  I knew her last as a 17 year old. 

Now married, with a grown son, she was 49.   She’d kept herself in good shape—no doubt having a super-athlete husband provided a role model—and her eyes were as warm and intelligent as I’d remembered.   She gave me a long hug, and we remarked on how neither of us had changed.  But of course we  had a little.  In any case, this woman—who’d once won the Miss Tallinn beauty contest—was as lovely as ever.  

The others were away on errands, so we were alone for the moment.  She gave me a quick tour of the villa, which was very “countryside-traditional,” with lots of wood beams, tile, elegant windows opening onto a broad terrace, a swimming pool at the bottom of a gentle, sloping lawn, and heavily-forested hills rising up steeply in all directions. 

We sat on the terrace, Ana served wine,  we talked, and—it was as if there had been no break in our conversation from thirty-two years ago. 

Those 24-hours in Tallinn could not have been more hectic, with the three of us running around doing errands, sending telegrams, Robert picking up his bag at the Marine Academy so he could come with me to Russia, frantic calls to reach the newspaper editor, several times the two of us being left alone where Ana had shared her most personal thoughts about her life, her challenges, her hopes for the future.  But there had never been enough time, before we were whisked off again, racing to the train station, and finally that hasty, goodbye hug…

But now it was the opposite.  Everything was calm.  Including me, after the wine took effect.  We were alone on an expansive deck at a broad table, in comfortable chairs, looking out on the hills of southern France, staring into the distance, remembering how much we enjoyed just talking.

I got the sense things were good in Estonia these days.  People were making money easily.  There was almost no poverty. None of the refugees from the Middle East and Africa had ended up in Estonia because its welfare system was so thin, compared to places like Sweden and Germany which coddled the unemployed, unskilled, and unwilling-to-assimilate.  Estonia (and most of Eastern Europe) was following in the path of what had made the U.S. so economically powerful a century ago: free markets, plenty of opportunity, and no overbearing welfare state to keep the poor frozen in poverty.  “No thanks,” said the de facto invaders from south of the Mediterranean.  “We prefer the easy life.”  And off they’d gone to Sweden.

So while Estonia and so many other Eastern European countries—a region which had been the backwards, impoverished part of Europe under Soviet domination—were thriving, Western Europe was now wallowing in dysfunctionality.  For that matter, so was America, firmly in thrall to leftist policies. 

So even if Ana hadn’t changed much, her world had.  Thirty-two years ago she’d been living in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, and things like health care were so bad a boyfriend had died in her arms, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.  She’d been desperate to leave, ready to move anywhere, seeing only despair in her future.

Who could have predicted the miracle that would happen to her country?  A year after we’d met, the Berlin wall fell, Estonia became independent, and ultimately a member of the EU and even NATO.  Fortunately their leaders were wise enough to avoid the socialist, economy-destroying welfare trap that much of Western Europe had devolved into.  Thanks to Soviet domination, Eastern Europeans knew what lay down that road, and wanted none of it.  The results could not be more clear about what works and what doesn’t, in terms of growing an economy.

At the Monaco conference several people had mentioned how Estonia was turning into Europe’s Dubai: a center for entrepreneurial startups and blockchain ventures.  Ana and her husband seemed to be living proof.  I got the impression that it was very easy to become—if not rich—at least very (her words) “financially comfortable” in Estonia. 

A blonde woman, with almost platinum hair, joined us on the terrace, with her two daughters.  This was obviously Ave  (remember, pronounced Aay-vah).  The others would be back soon, and we discussed logistics, and whether we should try to go somewhere or just hang out at the villa.

Having been racing around at a business conference for three days, and having just survived an insane car ride, the latter option sounded good to me. 

I wanted to make clear I had no conflicts, either way.  “I’ve been crazy busy all week, but I have absolutely nothing going on today, nothing at all, I’m completely flexible.”

Ana pretended to be angry.  “Nothing going on today?  Are you crazy?  You’re seeing me today.  That’s the most important thing of all!”

Everyone laughed, but I sensed she meant it, and was touched.    

Soon the others arrived.  The two husbands were uber athletic.  If there was an ounce of body-fat on either, it wasn’t visible.    Snacks were laid out and soon we were all chatting amicably.

Finally Ave asked: “So remind me again how you two met?” 

“Oh, you must tell the story!” said Ana, excitedly. 

And so I did, at least the brief version, of how I’d arrived in Estonia and managed, within thirty minutes, to become more lonely and depressed than I’d ever been in my life, regretting the entire trip and dreading the rest of it.  And how I’d then sort of fallen down a rabbit hole and everything changed and in 24 hours  had met the most welcoming and friendly people I’d ever known and…well, all of it.

There was laughter at the right points, and then Ana suddenly remembered where this story was going and sat up quickly.  “Oh wait, don’t tell them about what happened that night!!  You can’t tell that part!”

Well, with her husband sitting at the table, I’d already decided this was going to be an abbreviated version.  But Ana had said just the wrong thing, because now everyone wanted to know what had happened that night, and she finally had to blurt out: “Look, it wasn’t anything kinky, it was just…”

And then she had to tell the story herself, about the innocent bedroom farce (at least the abbreviated version) that had transpired around midnight, and everyone laughed.  Her husband seemed to be laughing less than the others, but that might have been my imagination.

Finally it was decided that the two men would go out and buy things for dinner.  The daughters drifted off to their rooms.  And Ana, Ave and I walked down to the pool to enjoy the sun.  We chatted pleasantly until finally Ave—perhaps knowing when three’s a crowd—made an excuse about needing to attend to something, and Ana and I were left alone, again.

We talked two hours, nonstop.  Her story was straight-forward.  After a dysfunctional post-Robert relationship, she’d been swept off her feet by a guy she’d immediately fallen for—her taxi driver.  They married only a year after I’d met her, and had both done well financially.  Vigor has become an oil industry executive, and she a high-level professional in the cosmetics business.  They were now both semi-retired.  Nice work if you can get it.

She was as alert, inquisitive, curious, and willful as I’d remembered.  And, with the added privacy, she opened up on everything, just as she had 32 years ago—including the highs and lows of her marriage.  It was as if I were her best friend and she had a deep need to tell me all of it.  She hadn’t changed one bit from those Tallin days.

After covering personal issues, we moved into politics. 

“How is it possible anyone in America could have voted for that clown Trump?”

So I explained it to her.  “I voted against him the first time, but I voted for him the second.”

“But how could you vote for him?”

“Americans were given two choices.  We could vote for a clown, who was embarrassing, and mean-spirited, and nasty, and said horrible things out of his mouth and on his Twitter feed, but who actually implemented all the right policies.  Or we could vote for someone very presidential, mature, well-composed, dignified, and who would implement all the wrong policies.”

“Give me an example.”

“Sure.” I told her about the individual mandate and how Obamacare had raised my health premiums from $400/month to $1,650/month, while raising the deductible from $1,000 to $12,500, which made the expensive insurance worthless.  And how Trump had removed the individual mandate so if we wanted to self-insure and not buy the worthless insurance, we’d be able to do so without penalty.  I explained how that had saved my family over a thousand dollars a month.”

I explained that if your choice is between an embarrassing clown who says all the wrong things, but does all the right things, versus the opposite, then of course you’d choose the former.

“OK, I understand,” she agreed.  “Yes, that makes sense.”

“Of course the media never talks about all the great things Trump and his policies accomplished.  Like driving black unemployment down to the lowest levels ever recorded.  They only talk about the stupid things he says and that he Tweets.  That’s why people like you, living in Estonia, and so many Americans for that matter, can’t understand how anyone could vote for him.”

“But now I do.  Also, your President Biden seems to be, well, senile.”

“Yes, everyone knows it, but the media’s trying to cover it up.”

“They’re not succeeding.  Every time he opens his mouth, it’s obvious.”

We enjoyed an early dinner on the terrace, as the sky clouded over and a pleasant breeze descended on the valley.  A rain shower came through but we were protected.  The trees swished back and forth.  The temperature was mild.   Everything was relaxed. 

At one point the younger daughter said something in English, and I was surprised she spoke with a perfect American accent.  I remarked on this to the group. Ave explained.  “She learned English from playing online video games.  Yes, others have noted she speaks with an American accent.   She’s always correcting my pronunciation when I speak English.”

“She should meet my son, Alex,” I noted.  “He learned English from American video games too!”

At one point the conversation somehow turned to Latvia. 

“So how do you Estonians feel about Latvia and the Latvians?  Are you friends, enemies, or what?” 

Ave and Vigor spoke almost simultaneously.

“Friends,” said Ave.

“Enemies,” said Vigor.

And then everyone started talking—mostly in their own language—and I realized this must be a sensitive topic.  One can imagine the Latvians and Estonians would have strong feelings about each other.  Or at least an opinion.

After several minutes of debate, Ana delivered the verdict, in English. “They are very different from us but we don’t particularly like them or dislike them,” she announced.  There was grudging acceptance of this compromise from the others. 

“Oh,” said Ana.  “I saw your Facebook post about your parents.  77 years of marriage is amazing!”

The others were appropriately startled and impressed, by such a long marriage.

Ave, who was sitting close, looked at me meaningfully.  “What is their secret?” she asked. 

“I don’t know,” I replied, innocently enough.

She put a hand on my arm.  “I’m serious.  You must find out.  You must find out their secret.  And then bottle it.  And share it with the world.  Such information is priceless.”

I realized we were doing more than making polite conversation.  Ave was taking this 77-year marriage very seriously.  I responded in kind.

“You’re right.  I will try to find out.  It is very important.”

The sun was approaching the mountainous horizon.  No way did I want to navigate those tiny, winding roads after dark.  It was time to leave.

Everything was so minuscule—the parking lot, the stone entrance, the petite road I had to get back onto—I wasn’t sure I could manage it, geometrically. 

“Would you like me to do it?” asked Vigor, and I accepted the offer.  I wanted to stay on his good side and I sensed letting him skillfully maneuver my car back onto the road would help.  Plus, no way could I attempt it myself with everyone watching. 

It was difficult even for Vigor but he managed in the end and we all clapped.  Ana’s husband climbed out of the car beaming.

We said our goodbyes, this time even Ave giving me a hug. 

Ana leaned close and whispered.  Last time her parting words were “I’ll miss you.”  This time she said “Give my love to Derry.” 

It was only my second encounter with Estonians, and I once again found them the friendliest and most welcoming people on Earth. 

The roads were less terrifying on the return trip, as the tiny car and I became more accustomed to each other.  Again, thank God for the GPS. 

Back in my hotel room, I tried to mentally process the day.  Had I managed to go back in time, and meet someone I once knew, 32 years ago?  Or had I somehow brought that person forward, into my own time?

Neither.  We were just two friends who’d gone three decades between visits.  We’d had some catching up to do.   Our respective life journeys had changed us immensely.  Or maybe hadn’t changed us at all. 

There was a  lesson here, I was sure.  But I had no idea what it might be.  One thing I did know: my memories of Anu-Liivi, on that cold winter day (and night) in Tallinn, trudging through snowy streets in the dark, dancing at the elegant nightclub, and racing down the train platform, would now be supplemented with visions of a pleasant terrace overlooking the hills of southern France, a soft wind blowing, sipping wine, and reminiscing together about an earlier time. 

One of the main characters from “Night Train To Russia,” had jumped off the pages and come fully back to life.  It seemed a miracle. 

See photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmWg8fmn

Anu-Liivi Karu, from her Facebook profile pic.

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