1993, Tallinn, Estonia. The sun is barely peaking up over the Baltic Sea as Dad and I leave our hotel in downtown Tallinn. We are driving through the Estonian countryside, parallel to the Baltic coast on our left.
After a few hours of clandestinely switching vehicles behind a series of random petrol stations, we arrive at our destination in Northeastern Estonia. As we get out of the vehicle, I notice a bland building in a field in front of us. I know we are somewhat near the coast, as the mosquitoes I swatted away were the size of small pelicans.
When we walk in, the room is filled with solemn figures carrying hardened faces. The air was stale with the essence of too many men in a small space. The local leader came up to Dad, kissed him on both cheeks, and then bear-hugged him. He followed that up with the same for me. And around we went, kissing and hugging each man in the room. I learned quickly that deodorant was a vital necessity in this part of the world.
As we sat down to eat, people emerged from behind a door at the back of the room with trays of meats, cheeses, and breads. I took a pass on the cow’s tongue. Once we finished the first wave of delicacies, they set a special plate in front of Dad and I for our main course. As the man’s hand let go of the plate, the form jiggled wildly like jello.
Our main course was served. I was eyeing the cured meats, cheeses, and bread as an alternative to Grandma’s jello mold in front of me. Dad squeezed my leg. I calmly talked sideways out of my mouth, “what is this multi-colored jello thing?”. Without hardly moving his lips he said, “It’s sült – jellied pig’s feet.”
He then quickly whispered, once more, out of the side of his mouth, “you must eat what they put in front of you. They sacrificed so much to give us their favorite dish.” With a gracious smile on his face, Dad then loaded up some wobbly jellied pig’s feet onto my plate and his. It took me years to figure out what Dad was doing. He was teaching me an invaluable life lesson in being grateful for all that I have been given, especially here in the West.