Marta Maria

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Location: Viljandi, Estonia

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Marta's World/Upside Down

So in about eight days we heave ho for Marta's birthplace, Estonia, the small northern European country that people can't put their finger on. It's either nordic (lots of blondes on skiis), baltic (lots of brunettes in casinos), eastern european (lots of vodka), or some town in upstate New York, as many New Yorkers are prone to think.

Going back, I remember how we left. Marta was just an infant then. A tiny, cherubic baby, loaded like carry-on luggage onto the Czech Air flight to New York. Now she's a much larger human with a delicate life. She has a room, she lives semi-near her grandparents and two great-grandmothers. She has friends in daycare and people she knows. But, inside, I think my wife and I both feel that Marta's life will be more rich if she is able to have first hand contact with both cultures. Marta knows America, but does she really know Estonia? And, in a situation where there are only about 1.1 million Estonians in the world, if we kept her away wouldn't we be divorcing another Estonian from her culture?

Instead we have a unique window - a handful of years to send Marta to school before she goes to elementary school, to have another baby, for me to get a debt-free master's degree, and for Marta to get to know her mother's relatives better. It's a precious window and I think Marta will do fine. But still, it's so sad to pack up another apartment and leave another life behind. I am looking forward to when we are settled in our new place in Tartu and Marta can go to her new daycare and make new friends and see her cousin Simona, and live in the town where her mother went to school. It's important for me that she knows both of us, that she knows her mother's life just as she knows mine. Marta knows the beaches of Long Island. Now she will know the forests of Estonia. As hard as these next few weeks will be for all of us, I think Marta will benefit in the long run.

Monday, January 08, 2007


This is the dumbest post that I will ever write, but I feel it needs to be written so that I can share with you the tumult of having an intercontinental marriage.

We are having a second child. And so my mind has gone hard to work on what to call the small one. It's a frustrating process. Marta's came simply enough - it was on a headstone in a cemetery in Hiiumaa and I suggested it and it seemed like it fit. For a girl this time 'round we've settled on Anna. We both have many Annas in our families.

Epp's great-grandmother Anna seems to be the main inspiration though. My grandfather Jerry's grandmother was also called Anna. I could spend all day going through them there are so many. But the main reason I like this name is because it's so blank. It's an everyday name that you don't hear everyday anymore. It's up to the kid to define it for herself. That's a good one to have.

The real nightmare is finding a boy's name. We've agreed on a set of criteria that it seems prohibits us from finding a suitable moniker for a masculine child. The name must be the same or similar in Estonian and English AND go with an Italian last name AND be a family name. Christ, what a math equation.

At first I offered up Fred, but then nearly every person I know told me it was an awful name. Yikes, do I have such bad taste in sound? Fred was my great-grandfather. He was born in Canada and I know very little about him. I thought he had a smart name, but I guess I was wrong.

Then Epp offered up Martin, after her great grandfather. But I shot this one down because I didn't think I could cope with having a daughter named Marta and a son named Martin. Too confusing. Plus most of the Long Islandese can't pronounce Marta, either. They call her "Marda." What would they do to poor Martin? Mardy? Ugh.

Then we considered Saamuel - after the name my great grandfather Salvatore took when he lived in America. The only hitch is that Sammy is a name most frequently born by Estonian dogs. And neither of us were really "feeling" it, and feeling it is the most important.

Then Epp offered up Peeter, after her great grandfather Peeter Lenk, who was important enough that if you Google his name, it comes up. He was a school director in Järvamaa in Estonia. Peeter (pronounced Pay-ter) sounds better in Estonian than it does in English, where it is often shortened to just plain "Pete." In Estonia it is shortened to "Pets." This one I was OK with, but my folks don't like it one bit. And I can't say it's my favorite. So I am left with this icky feeling, and I should be feeling good, right? Right?

Then I played with the name "Leo" for a day or two because it doesn't sound bad and it's easy for a tot to spell and it is spelled the same way in both languages. That's nice. But I got weird looks when it came up and I decided to retire the idea.

So, standing on the subway platform at 8 pm one night I tried to think hard about what I could do and I decided that if I followed the "rules" of Italian naming patterns then the first son would be named after my grandfather - Jerry. But Jerry's real first name wasn't Jerry, it was Gennaro, after his grandfather. This Gennaro was an enterprising guy. He left Italy and worked many places from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Rochester, New York. In many ways, he is the archetypal Petrone male -- a guy who travels the world like Ulysses to make a living. From Gennaro to my father to me, we've always been traveling guys. Living out of a suitcase is in our gypsy blood.

"Ugh," I thought again. "I don't think Gennaro is translatable into Estonian." Instead I searched for an Estonian name that sort of sounds like Gennaro and I came up with Joonas.

Joonas (pronounced "Yonas" in Estonia, "Jonas" in English) in the United States seems sort of ideal at the moment. It is inherently Estonian, which is important to me. I want my kids to be fluent in their {literal) mother tongue. I don't want to do to my kids what happened up in my family decades ago where rich and beautiful languages that my family had spoken for hundreds, if not thousands, of years were abandoned just so people could fit in to the Anglo-American culture. I'd give anything to have known some Italian as a child, but instead I am true "homo americanus" -- a human without a past. I don't want my kids to feel that way. They should know where 50 percent of them comes from and be proud of it. I have decided that I really just don't give a shit what the "speak American" crew thinks. I don't sleep with the "speak American" crew, I don't live with them, and as a journalist, I don't work with them. In other words, they can kiss my ass, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, we don't appear to have any Joonases in the family. We've got Johns and Johanneses and Jooseps and Gennaros but no Joonases. Still, from Jerry to John to Justin, my paternal line has been stuck with "J" names. So maybe it's close enough.

Epp says it's a "pretty boy" name in Estonia, which it is here as well, but at the same time, don't "pretty boys" get all the girls? Don't "pretty boys" benefit from being pretty? Don't "pretty boys" get jobs? Or maybe it is bad and I just can't see it. Maybe Joonas is the new Fred in my life.

Anyway, I think it's a name that I am going to privately route for for a few weeks until I get bored with it and the next one comes along. For the time being I'll rest my weary head. I'm tired of banging it against the wall.

I want *girl* music

Last night we drove back from my folks' place, taking the Southern State Parkway back into Queens. Along the way I tried to listen to some CDs I borrowed from the library, including The Queen is Dead by The Smiths. But Marta wouldn't have any of it. She wanted "girl music" - yelling at me whenever a male voice would escape from my speakers. I tried to convince her that Morrissey, the flamboyant lead singer of the Smiths was actually a girl, but his voice was deep enough to not be "girl music."

Desperately, I found The New Pornographers' album Twin Cinema which features, as you can see in the photo of the band, one female singer named Neko Case. Neko only sang on four or so songs on the record so I had to keep revisiting the same songs over and over again so that Marta could inhabit her realm of femininity on the drive home.

Marta has been getting into the female world of barbies and princesses and things of that nature. I am not sure what I should think about it. I don't want my daughter to take home the simplistic messages of material barbie culture: ie: starve yourself to be thin, base your self-esteem on your appearance, and always be on the look out for a prince. But I also want her to have fun, and what's wrong with a little girl in a nice dress playing in her princess castle? Nothing. There is nothing wrong with that.

I am painfully aware what a huge role I will play in Marta's life and with her relationships with other men. Every woman I have met is defined in some ways by her relationship with her father, perhaps more so than with her mother. I've known women with no fathers, women with absentee fathers, women with brooding fathers, women with tough guy fathers, women with alcoholic fathers ... and it's not unusual that they wind up with these archtypes later in life.

Some other Dads I have met with sons say that they are glad they don't have daughters. But I am very happy with a daughter. All the little boys I know are miniature action heroes - launching themselves off of swingsets and taking things apart. But the girls, they play a bit more quietly, and even if they're bratty, they're sweet too.

Now that we are expecting numero due, I wonder will it be a little Anna or a little Caetano. If it's the first option then I will be living in a house full of princesses. If it's the second option then maybe we'll be able to listen to boy music in the car too.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy Birthday Marta!

People always warned me that birthdays around Christmas were the worst kind because people tied to skimp you on the presents. Marta's is nudged right between Christmas and New Year's, and I can imagine that people aren't too interested in one small, blond, three-year-old girl out of all the infotainment in the universe. Marta's day started in a very infotainment kind of way -- with the hanging of Saddam Hussein. Just the kind of news item I need on my mind as I head to the Botanical Gardens of New York to celebrate with my small child and other happy-go-lucky midgets, unaware of the f*d up world they are to inherit. No matter. Let me tell you the things on my mind:

1) What do you get your daughter for her birthday after you already got her a guitar, and clothes, and DVDs, and books, and basically everything you can get for a kid for Christmas? Answer: A xylophone. That was Marta's main gift. It's multicolored and made out of wood. I like wooden toys, not because I am a hippie, but because when I was a kid I played with blocks. One of these birthdays or Christmases Marta will be getting more wooden toys.

2) How do you organize a birthday party between Christmas and New Years? Answer: You marry Epp Saluveer and let her provide you with lists of local events gleaned from Internet searches. Then you cross out all the ones that start with "Kwanzaa!" and you are left with the Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo -- both which had winter and holiday-themed tours for little kids.

I am talking holiday trains, and Christmas lights, and gingerbread houses! That's what we did. Birthday phase I included Marta and some of her friends - Christopher and Johanna (JoJo), Paul, and Tobias. These small, grey-eyed individuals made quick work of the Botanical Garden. It's too hard to explain everything, but by the end, I was really tired, and the kids were really satisfied.

It was cold - this is December 30 we are talking about here - but we all held up. Later we went to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and ate REALLY good Italian food with my folks, my brother Ian, his girlfriend Suzanne, her niece Julia, nephew Quinn, and neighbor Michael, and sang happy birthday to my small, wonderful child, who we all love so much.

My life has really been great since Marta came into it. Marta's coming was a decisive action that said, "This is how it's gonna be." If she hadn't come, I might be crying in my beer right now trying to "figure out my life." I might be crying in a lot of beers. Thanks for making my life special. It's a pleasure being your daddy.

Anyway, afterwards we went to the Bronx Zoo, which was also chilly and laced up with holiday lights and filled with bored children off from school that came to see glistening butterflies and pulsing dinosaurs. I am surrounded by children so often. It's funny hearing the common names "Olivia!" "Liam!" followed by the family names "Dominick!" and then, of course, MY name, which is still born by many a six year old. Standing in a zoo hearing people yell, "Justin" just makes me edgy. Because inside I am responding to everyone that says my name. I'm being pulled apart in multiple directions. Ouch. Drawn and quartered.

This is what is good about Marta. No one has her name. There is no confusion. Blessed be all Martas.

As we sauntered home from the event later that evening, I was exhausted, but, moreover, I felt that I had done my daughter good. She had one rocking birthday party from morning 'til night. There was limited napping, and plenty of fun and surprises. And I am happy to note that Marta got exactly what she deserved on her birthday. A really good party.

To be artistic

People don't get it, but we are very much about something. The other night my dearest daughter Marta looked up at a half moon and uttered, "Daddy, look! The moon is broken!"

This is the mind of the young renaissance woman, a woman who pogod to Paris Combo as an infant. Her parents express themselves in the home and so she expresses herself. We're not weird, we're just artistic.