an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Finding My Fish Flat


“How much land does a man need?” Leo Tolstoy asks in his famous story with the same name (Много ли человеку земли нужно?). While I wouldn’t go as far as James Joyce and call it the world’s greatest short story, I do remember reading the Russian Count’s tale at an early age and it has stuck with me ever since. Even when I set out to buy my Tallinn apartment, I asked myself a variation of the same question: “How many square meters do I really need?”

In one of my journeys from Leningrad to St. Petersburg, I experienced both ends of the square meter spectrum. As an exchange student at Leningrad State University, I gained first-hand knowledge of the low end while living in a marginally habitable dorm (oбщага) divided into the recommended Soviet norm of just 9 square meters (97 square feet) per person. Twenty-five years later in St. Petersburg, I was assigned a beautifully restored flat – once home to a senior Tsarist official – that was much too large at 225+ square meters (about 2,500 square feet). When a Russian colleague asked me how many rooms I had in my new apartment, my embarrassed answer was: “I really don’t know.” Part of the problem is that Russians count rooms differently than Americans – for example, kitchens and bathrooms aren’t rooms – and neither are corridors.

Complicating matters even further was the fact that my Russian aristocrat’s apartment was actually two apartments in one. The “main” apartment facing the street boasted beautifully decorated high ceilings with lovely tiled heating ovens (печки) in each room. It also came with its own entrance (парадная) just for the senior Tsarist official and his family. The “other” conjoined apartment was for the live-in servants. It had its own separate entrance (черный ход) as well as a separate access corridor to the kitchen so that the servants would never disturb their masters. The apartment’s tiled heating ovens even had concealed access points where the servants could keep them filled with firewood without their masters ever being bothered. And so, without counting the kitchen, bathrooms, and double corridors, I think the apartment had six rooms (counting Russian style) or four bedrooms and two bathrooms (counting American style and ignoring the large formal dining room and even larger salon). Needless to say, there were some rooms in the apartment that I only visited when I had to get them ready for guests. I lived in just two rooms – the large and comfortable kitchen as well as the back bedroom (originally designed as a combination wood shed and servant’s quarters) as it was the quietest and darkest one in the house. Every day I lived there, I was reminded of the historical context of Tolstoy’s story.

Fortunately, as I’m telling this particular story out of chronological order, I didn’t need this St. Petersburg lesson before I bought my place in Kalamaja as I had already figured out that the perfect apartment for me would have two bedrooms (one for me, one for guests) and be between 80 to 90 square meters (860 to 970 square feet) in size. I figured that as an American capitalist, aiming provocatively for 10 times the former Soviet norm felt about right. But there was definitely no need for me to buy anything bigger as might be expected in the United States as more rooms would only mean more to clean (I’m lazy) plus wasting money on extra space that I would never use or need. Something smaller, however, would have been just fine – as long as it had two bedrooms. And because I love to cook, the kitchen would always be the most important room in any of my apartment calculations.

As I started looking for an apartment in my chosen neighborhood, I realized that 80 square meters was on the large end of the Kalamaja spectrum – especially at the time – since the majority of apartments seemed to fall somewhere between the 40 and 65 square meter range (430 to 700 square feet). As I looked at the different Kalamaja options – there were only a few new buildings at the time beyond those in the Ilmarine development, I ruled out Kalamaja’s Soviet-era offerings as I just didn’t trust their construction. And as I knew I would be coming and going to Tallinn and would therefore have to rely on house sitters to look after my place while I was away, I decided to focus my attention on renovated buildings – although there weren’t many of them at the time because it was before the House Doctor got to work. In any case, I knew I wouldn’t have the time or energy to keep track of any major renovation projects. As I explored the remaining options on foot, I was amazed at just how many of Kalamaja’s wooden building were simply “missing” – most of them vanished during the fires caused by the Soviet punishment bombing of Tallinn on March 9th, 1944. That realization made me think of another story – the one of the Three Little Pigs. Yes, wood is better than straw – but brick is even better when dealing with the Big Bad Wolf.

After months of keeping an eye on the real estate ads, one popped up which caught my attention: a 98 square meter apartment (1,050 square feet) in a 1938 vintage stone building built back when people knew how to build. I immediately hopped on my motorcycle and went to give the place a look. I liked what I saw: a recently renovated building with a new roof where everything had been painted in different shades of Kalamaja green. And so, I called the real estate agent and made an appointment to go have a look inside. When the day and time was set, I asked my Kalamaja friend if she would join me and help interpret if my Estonian failed me. Tallinn being Tallinn, one of my co-workers confronted me at the work the next day wanting to know what I was doing going into “some Kalamaja building with some mysterious blonde.” Although the neighborhood was still rather iffy at the time, it turned out that her daughter lived in a building nearby …. If people in the United States like to talk about “Six Degrees of Separation” (a concept originally proposed by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy), this particular Finno-Ugric country probably has about two degrees of separation as later on I learned that my apartment’s owner was engaged to another co-worker’s sister and one of the second floor apartments in the building was home to someone that I’d met through work – although I wasn’t aware where he lived at the time.

But to get back to what the Mysterious Blonde and I were doing in that Kalamaja building, we were only inspecting what would become my future flat. I must admit that I fell in love with the place at first sight even if (or maybe because) it was the product of the warped imagination of a wannabe interior designer. Yes, I could ignore the four different types of wallpaper in the combination living and dining room because the apartment had the largest and most functional kitchen that I’d seen in Tallinn until then. Yes, I could ignore the cheap laminate floors because my kitchen was equipped with what must have been one of the last gas ranges left in town (to cut its dependence on Russian gas, Estonian started switching everything over to electric back in 1992 when Yeltsin first cut off the natural gas). Yes, I could ignore the fact that the largest room in the apartment was the least useful – the sauna eesroom (or the room where you cool down between your stints in the sauna – a mandatory feature in any Estonian apartment including this one) – because the lovely old Estonian building was completely surrounded by trees. And, yes, I could ignore the various clashing colors of the light shades, drapes, and even walls because the apartment came with a panipaik (a storage room in the cellar) whose 10 square meters looked far more habitable than my old Soviet dorm room in Leningrad.

While the apartment was not without its flaws, its many pluses far outweighed its various minuses – especially as everything that was wrong with it was ultimately fixable. Never a fan of square rooms, I also loved the fact that every room in the apartment was a rectangle of a different dimension – the main bedroom plus living and dining room combination even came with extra and somewhat superfluous fifth walls. But the crowning touch was that the place was split onto two floors – and it just so happens that I’d developed a soft spot for two-story apartments at a young age. And so, I made an offer and then went off to line up a bank loan. Before too long, I’d made my own small investment in Kalamaja’s future.

While I did exceed my square meter target – too bad there were never any awards for exceeding this particular Soviet norm by almost 11 times, I make use of all of my rooms. While I sleep in my bedroom, I essentially live in my kitchen as it doubles as my “office” thanks to the lovely view of trees and Kalamaja’s wooden houses out the window.  I read, watch DVDs, and sometimes just hang out in my combination living and dining room – although I don’t entertain guests there as often as I should or had planned. True, I use my tiny guest bedroom mainly for storage these days – but I hope to fix that soon. Even my oversized sauna eesroom has found various uses as a laundry room, clothes closet, and now as my flatfish photo studio.  So, until the inevitable time comes when I’m forced to downsize to Tolstoy’s final two square meters (20 square feet), I’ll do my Goldilocks best to enjoy my fish flat while it feels “just right.”


Image: An oversized Zuni fish fetish carved by Brian Yatsattie. While most Zuni fetishes are only a fraction of this fetish’s size, I guess if you’re going to catch a fish worthy of a story then it better be a big one.

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