Estonian Air. That about sums it up, doesn't it? Can all your expectations and all your disappointments in a country be gleaned from an airline? Perhaps.
The branding of Estonian Air, its color scheme, its outrageously blond flight attendants, the cool northern air that wrestles with your clothing all lead you to believe you are flying Finnair junior. And in some ways, you are. The food is semi-decent. The staff is accommodating, yet slightly clinical. The flight to our destination was smooth and on time.
But it was that troubled flight back that changed my impressions. The flight was scheduled for 4 pm, but then it was moved to around 7 pm, then 9 pm, and finally, we were told, it would be arriving at half past midnight. We were not alone, I might add. A group of statuesque blond females were similarly inquiring at the information booth about their flight to Oslo.
Could it be that when air carriers from northern Europe had to pick up travelers from southern Europe, they did it at a nice, relaxed southern European pace? We got vouchers for lunch and dinner, but all the chorizo sandwiches in Spain could not take away the pain of a delayed flight.
When they did arrive, I was just glad that the plane made it and still had two wings. There seemed to be an enormous grouping of Russophone males ahead of us, who I later learned belonged to Estonia's hockey team. We were seated in the back with them, although an Estophone member of the team let us know that we could have seats up front, if we wanted. we were too tired to move seats, so we stayed with the hockey guys.
Russophones have this funny idea that everyone, or at least everyone on an Estonian Air flight, is capable of speaking their language. Several times, conversations were started with me to which I just looked to Epp to translate. Russian is not like Spanish or French. There are fewer familiar-sounding words to work with. When Epp was a little girl, one of her best friends was of Ukrainian background. So Epp actually was exposed to Ukrainian before Russian, and her early Russian language teachers in school had to correct her "Ukrainian accent".
I have no idea how terrible my Russian accent is. But I tried out my few words. "Skaska," I said, pointing to my book. "Mujina", I said pointing at the very loud gentleman seated in front of us. There seemed to be some Estonian language comprehension on their part. When a young mother began yelling "tasa!" (shut up) at them, they got the point.
At one point there was a heated bilingual conversation between the flight attendant and my beer-supplier where she scolded him in Estonian and he answered back in Russian that the airline should refund our tickets for making us wait eight hours. For Estonians, such bilingual conversations are a part of life. It has happened to me too that I have had conversations where I spoke only in Estonian and the other person only in English.
Some guy violently sneezed three times. I decided that 'terviseks' would be the best thing to say, since I doubt he felt like being blessed by God in English or in German. "Pivo", I then said, pointing at the beer they had smuggled on board. "Do you want some," the guy next to me said in English. He assumed I was Spanish and started querying my Spanish vocabulary ("How do you say beautiful in Spanish?") until I let it known that I was from New York and my abikassa was from eesti. Another guy turned to me and gave me the thumbs up, a sign of his approval. Our conversations then proceeded in English.
I had a terrible flight back from the US last time and the associated bumpiness of flying over the Alps was making me tense. I drank two cups of beer. Then he brought out the whiskey. At that moment, I was really glad they sat us next to the Estonian hockey team. I downed a full cup of that stuff, while an Estonian father looked curiously at me from the seat ahead, as if I had broken one of the rules of fatherhood. Maybe our daughters would now grow up to drink whiskey with hockey players. And they could only say, "I learned it from watching you, issi!"
Anyway, the whiskey was great, and it allowed me to sleep all the way to Tallinn. It also allowed me to rid myself of any harsh feelings towards Estonian Air. The flight attendants were nice, and I got some free sandwiches and whiskey out of my dilemma.
While I was in Spain, I suffered from one might interpret as the common questions about Estonia's European identity. ICDS' Maria Mälksoo published a very insightful and readable article on this in February. Even though Estonians look like Europeans and call the Evangelical Lutheran church theirs, they still don't feel themselves to be as European as the French or the Spanish. "Where are the supermercados staffed by Turkish immigrants?" they ponder. "How come nobody knows who we are?" they opine. And, my absolute favorite, "How come our politicians are corrupt?"
Europe, after all, feels safe, right? Europe doesn't continuously fight over the past! Europe doesn't have recessions! Spend some time in Spain and try to figure out the inheritance of the Spanish Civil War, though, and I believe, you may begin to think you're back in Estonia. There are similar characters -- partisans, nationalists, communists, fascists. There are similar icky feelings that people would prefer you not dredge up. And there are similar instances of blatantly self-serving interpretations of history. It seems that Europe is actually quite complicated. And Estonia is definitely part of that Europe.