They couldn't find it.
"Ya'll going somewhere that ain't on the map," Josh's mother, Alfreda, exclaimed, shaking her head. "Oh Lord, help us."
Eventually, however, the Akognons found their spot: Estonia, northernmost of the Baltic states, nestled between Russia and the Gulf of Finland. The family's advice: Dress warmly.
Turns out, that was a wise suggestion. Tallinn, the Estonian capital Josh and Ariana currently call home, is farther north than Stockholm, Sweden, or Juneau, Alaska.
"I think yesterday it was negative-10," Josh Akognon said by phone recently, skirting the 10-hour time difference. "The doors are actually freezing shut, to the point where you have to yank on them to open 'em. There's ice inside the car, so you gotta scrape your windshield outside and inside the car. I couldn't get my back trunk open for a month, because it was just frozen shut. Finally it gave a little sun here for about two or three days, and that defrosted my lock."
Kalev/Cramo, Akognon's basketball club for the past three-plus months, has set up the couple in a comfortable apartment, Internet and utilities paid for, and has loaned them a new-model car. But there have been challenges that go beyond the cold. The electrical outlets are different in Europe, so Akognon had to buy converters for the recreational trappings of the young American — Xbox, Wii, etc. Then there was the Christmas tradition of blood sausages.
"The minute you cut into it, everything disgusting comes out," Akognon said. "It's blood and cream. So I actually ate a little bit of that. It was definitely awful."
Ariana Akognon, who played point guard at Washington State (when her last name was Scales) and actually filled in for a team in Estonia, finds it hard to read the Estonians.
"The thing about here is that the sun hardly ever comes out so people always look so gloomy or depressed," she wrote via e-mail. "There is never any type of emotion on their faces. Like at home when you walk past someone they give you a head nod or a smile, here they just stare and keep walking."
By far the biggest hurdle for the Akognons has been the language. Their Estonian doesn't go much beyond "tere," which means hello, and most people there speak little English. Ariana remembered getting off of the Kalev/Cramo team bus on a road trip and trying to buy a snack in a small market. Prices weren't marked, and she and the cashier wound up staring blankly at one another.
"I stood there holding my money and then she just grabbed the amount that was needed to pay for the food," Ariana Akognon wrote.
The Akognons are devout Christians, and Josh Akognon was excited recently to hear about an English-speaking church in Tallinn. He and center Ken Johnson, who played at Ohio State and had a brief stint with the Miami Heat in 2002-03, set off to find it one Sunday.
"We had no luck at all," Akognon said. "The GPS was taking us one way, we thought it was the other way, so we actually didn't even find the church."
Even if they spoke fluent Estonian, the Akognons wouldn't exactly blend in. There are practically no black people in the Baltics.
"It's funny, because when you're out here and they see you, they know you play basketball," Akognon said. "I don't think people know who I am, but they're honking their horns and they're yelling out the window, &‘Good game!' I have a ski mask that I have on that covers up everything except my eyes, so you know that you can't see my face. But I think they just see the skin around my eyes and know I'm black, so they say &‘Good game! Great game!' They know you're not in Estonia just to live in Estonia."
Resources for fire survivors
FEMA helpline: 800-621-3362
Joint access and functional needs hotline: 916-361-0380
Legal Aid of Sonoma County information hotline: 707-542-1290
Legal Aid housing hotline: 707-843-4432
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