My great grandfather left Lithuania for New York City on a boat at the turn of the 20th century and ever since I heard his story, I dreamed up a roadtrip through the Baltics and into Lithuania whenever I had a break in tournaments. That break was now, and off the boat in Tallinn at the top of the Baltic states, I grabbed a seat on a bus heading south along the coast and through the forest to the Estonian summer capital of Pärnu.
Aliis Allas was my one squash contact in Estonia- a squash fanatic, the Estonian women's champion as well as the best player, man or woman, in Pärnu. Along with her husband Ardo, Aliis runs the Estonian Squash Federation and when we were put in touch, went out of her way to get me to Pärnu for training and junior coaching. We had traded only a few sporadic messages when she picked me up at the tiny town bus station, handed me the keys to the guest cottage at her parents house and explained that everything here was walkable- fifteen minutes from "downtown" to the beach, another thirty seconds from the beach to her parents home a block off the water, where I would be staying. White picket fences and all, the homes and streets and shops were idyllic in the way I imagine Santa Monica or Long Island must have been back in the 1950s- open white sand beaches, boardwalks with families and few tourists, artisan coffee shops and cafes, stirred around from the salty ocean air coming off the Baltic Sea. I fell in love pretty quickly with Pärnu.
Aliis grew up in this town of 35,000 and found squash as a kid, rising up the ranks and taking over the three court squash club from an older member a little while back. She met Ardo while coaching him a couple years ago, and the two of them are singlehandedly pushing Estonian squash forward. By day Aliis is a physio and Ardo runs a forestry management company he started from scratch three years ago, selling all of his belongings to get it off the ground and almost folding shop three different times along the way to becoming the market leader in his industry. By night they try to rally their country around our sport.
For Aliis, the challenge for squash here is exposure and resources- "the players don't know what good warmups, good drills, better players look like. I am the only coach, and I can only coach part time. But we are growing." From hardly any juniors when she took over, the club now has a dozen, expecting to double in the next year. On court, I was surprised by the play of the top juniors. They were raw but they had the part that most kids don't: the passion. They joined me for my court sprints and fitness, took in every little tip and idea I could think of, drank up every last bit of the squash kool-aid I could offer.
Things took an unexpected turn for the best when I learned my weekend in Pärnu coincided with the town's annual Grillfest, a "Good Food Festival." You. Must. Be. Kidding. Grilling + Festival: a one-two punch of the two things that I enjoy most. It was just heaven: barbeque sets for miles, food stalls and pop up tents for as far as you can see, the sweet smokey scent of charcoal leading you in a hundred different directions at once. Rack of lamb and ribeyes roasting on open spits, chicken kebabs and pork tenderloins and full pigs rotating over charcoal, dozens of salmon filets charring against aluminum foil over fire pits. Craft beers and homemade truffles and toffees and ice creams, one stand selling pancakes because why not? Country music, cowboys and swing dancing, a parked bus with a bar and more food inside.
I have experienced grilling in grilling hotbeds like Wisconsin and I had celebrated July 4th barbeques all my life and yet I had never experienced something like this. Running into two Americans near one of the salmon pits, surrounded by dozens of charcoal grilling salmon on all sides, we exchanged our mutual disbelief. I did a lot of training to balance the glory that was Grillfest 2015.
It turned out the Estonian national soccer team was taking on the tiny country of San Marino up in Tallinn for European Cup Qualifying, and it also turned out that Aliis' brother is a former Estonian soccer legend who now works for the organization and came up with two tickets for the game. So after squash training and a clinic with the juniors I said so long to Pärnu and with Ardo headed back up through the forest and to the capital city. Found our name on the 'VIP List' at the stadium and slipped on our bracelets, scarfed down the buffet of kebabs and saurkraut with a few ciders on the side, took our seats in the second row from the field and cheered on the country with a few thousand other die hard Estonians. All the while I did my best to play the part and blend in, did my best to pretend that this all wasn't one big absurd, surreal dream.
After the game I was dropped off at the home of Külliki, the mother of Janika, who I met for an hour at the squash event in Copenhagen a few hours a week earlier. Külliki and her three dogs- Delandros Archie Elliot, Perfect Stranger No Problem (which felt fitting), and Tazkia Bohemia Genao, or Vip, Rap, and Teeba, for short- became home in Tallinn for my last days in the country. I learned how to cook with coconut oil and roll up eggplant with garlic the way the Estonians do it, shared my special Egg Stir Fry: Tallinn Edition, and became buds with Delandros Archie Elliot, who Külliki informed me was the European Champion in his breed a few years back. At the dinner table my last night Külliki marveled at how things have changed in Estonia- how I would be cruising on bus across the border to Latvia the next day. In her twenties was a different scene: a brutal occupation by the Soviet Union, closed borders and armed guards, nowhere to go, living in fear. How was it? "Lousy...dangerous."
Over leftover salad and a bottle of white wine we put on Drew Barrymore's latest romcom with Estonian subtitles and later The Bachelorette Season Finale. Janika's mom and me and working our way through the wine as the last two bachelors squared off on the TV before us in her flat near the edge of the city, the three dogs stretched out on the cushions, Delandros Archie Elliot, the former European Champion, fast asleep on my lap.