Estonia isn't quite small enough that everybody knows everybody, even if it does sometimes seem like it. But it is a small enough country that you can meet anybody you want. Even the president's mobile phone number isn't a secret, and while it doesn't happen to be stored in the memory of my cell phone, it probably wouldn't take more than a few minutes for many citizens to obtain. Welcome to Estonia, where almost everyone who gets out of bed in the morning is famous for something, yet is still completely accessible. Including Justin Petrone.
I first heard of Justin through his wife, Epp, who is a "famous" Estonian journalist, which is to say her byline is familiar to Estonians who read. Epp had attracted my attention for her blogs about the United States, which chronicled her crusade to convert Justin's American parents into vegetarians who save Christmas wrapping paper for use again in future holidays. She didn't have much luck, though it made for interesting reading.
So when Justin and Epp moved to Estonia several years ago, I made it a point to meet Justin. We met over a beer and compared war stories. I too had married an Estonian. I too had lived with her in the United States where she struggled to understand a culture too often represented by twelve CDs for a penny. I too had returned to Estonia with my wife where I was routinely perplexed by "the world's only post-Communist Nordic country," as Justin refers to it on his blog.
There aren't many people writing about Estonia, and there are fewer still writing honestly about Estonia. The tourist brochures are generally nothing more than a long string of suspicious superlatives. Only the photos may be believed. The real Estonian character is dry humor coupled with almost disturbing sincerity, as illustrated by an Estonian aphorism which characterizes the nation as "f**ked up in the Russian way but with German precision." That characterization isn't so true anymore, but it's certainly worth reading about. And that's a void in the literature of this nation which Justin's book fills.
I confess I don't always believe Justin. He sometimes casts himself as a seeker finding crumbs of wisdom and life lessons in the darkest, smelliest corridors of this small nation, as well as in forests so sunny and pristine that hobbits might dwell there. I don't know him well enough that I can say what The Real Justin Petrone is like, but then again knowing The Real Justin Petrone isn't the issue. I read for the ride. I read for a whiff of post-Soviet stairwells and the bleach-drenched floors of Estonia's sleek, modern e-state, not to mention the meadows filled with perfect wildflowers. Justin Petrone gives us them all.