It happened on Friday morning in front of the national library on Tõnismägi in Tallinn. The wintery air was crisp, the heavens a lucent grey.
And out of a black car stepped a familiar, medium-sized older gentleman wth impeccibly groomed white hair.
It was Arnold Rüütel, the third president of the Republic of Estonia, and, at one time, chairman of the supreme soviet of the Estonian SSR.
I read somewhere or another that Rüütel was referred to as the hõberebane -- the silver fox -- for his well-coiffed ambiance and political savvy. Maybe some British expert like Anatol Lieven wrote it somewhere. Anyway, I tipped my hat to Härra Rüütel, who responded with a kind acknowledgement of my presence.
For some reason, a sizeable proportion of Estonian males begin to resemble Santa Claus in old age. Rüütel was one of these jolly fellows. He looked as if he might have had a sack of toys stashed somewhere and some gingerbread up his sleeves. With a wrinkle of his nose, Rüütel was on his way, saying, "noh, noh, jah, jah!"
I approached our car and told my abikaasa about my experience. "I saw the silver fox!" I said. "Who?" she answered. "Arnold Rüütel!" I responded. "Oh," she shrugged, reading a newspaper. "That's nice. Will you bring another box from the car?"
Throughout the day, I encountered a similar lack of enthusiasm as I related my Rüütel encounter. I couldn't understand why nobody cared. This was Arnold Rüütel. He had danced with Dubya; he had told Gorby to stick it. He was the silver fox. Our friend stopped by and I told her, slightly fudging the Estonian.
"Kas sa tead, et ma nägin hõbedane rebane täna hommikul? [Do you know that I saw the silvery fox this morning?]," I said, hoping for some response.
"You mean the silver fox," she replied dryly. "Rüütel," she said, spitting the word out. Then she shrugged and changed the subject.
Later I told Epp's cousin Jaanus about the encounter at the dinner table:
"Jaanus, do you know who I saw this morning?" I asked.
"Who?" he asked earnestly.
"The silver fox!" I exclaimed.
"Where?" he asked enthusiastically.
"In front of the national library," I answered.
"You saw a silver fox in front of the national library?! That's incredible," laughed Jaanus. "I didn't even know we had silver foxes here in Estonia. I wonder how one wound up in the center of Tallinn!" he continued.
"No, not a silver fox," I said, "the silver fox. Arnold Rüütel."
Jaanus suddenly looked disappointed, scratched his chin, and looked at his wife. "He's called the silver fox?" he said, laying his utensils beside his plate. "I never heard that before."
His wife Lemme also looked puzzled. "Silver fox?" she toyed with the phrase. "I never heard him called that before either." And then Jaanus and Lemme shrugged and changed the subject.