teisipäev, juuli 29, 2008

where nature is dangerous

A few weeks ago we took a ride out to an area generally referred to nationwide as "the Hamptons" -- a string of English-founded towns* on the southeastern extreme of Long Island, many of which end in the suffix -"hampton" {ie. Bridgehampton, Easthampton, Southampton, etc.}

The "Hamptons" are a culturally distinct entity for several reasons. One is that they are the New York-adjacent playground of the rich and khaki. This is a place where Jerry Seinfeld and Puff Daddy are neighbors. The Hamptons are also the last area on Long Island where the indigenous population plays a political role. Indeed, the "big" question is whether or not a casino will be built on Indian land.

At the glorious Easthampton beach, as seen above, we went to enjoy the ocean, except Epp got a little bit more of the north Atlantic than she bargained for. The waves looked nasty, and I could tell that there were few people in the water because they feared getting beaten in the surf. But Epp waded in, sort of waving off our beach paranoia, until {boom} she disappeared under a breaking wave.

The next thing I saw, as the waves retreated from the shore, was Epp's leg sticking up through the foamy surf. She pulled herself up and started to make her way back, with a sort of surprised, nervous grin on her face, when {boom} another wave knocked her down. I was holding our daughter, so my father, who was with us, made his way down and helped her out of the mess.

It turns out we weren't so paranoid. There have been a number of drownings in recent weeks on the ocean side of the island, following a similar pattern, where the strong currents, encouraged by storm systems to the south, sweep inexperienced swimmers away to a place where teams of divers and rescuers cannot find them. We could sense the danger because we have grown up here, but Epp couldn't, because she hadn't.

It reminds me of an inverse story where Epp ridiculed my lack of natural knowledge. We were in Rhode Island, and we happened upon a crop of mushrooms in the grass. Epp saw them and instantly knew she could make food out of them. But I had been taught from an early age not to tango with wild mushrooms. My friend does pick them, but he learned his 'shrooming skills from books on fungi and a wandering Pole he met one day who enlightened him to 'shroom harvesting techniques.

To your average suburbanite, or whatever you wish to call people who live in suburban-like areas an hour plus from a metropolis, the knowledge of which mushrooms are edible and which ones are not so nice was lost long ago. I have no idea, and no one ever imparted that knowledge to me. But Epp knew, and to her my paranoia about mushrooms seemed silly. In her opinion, something so natural could hardly be seen as dangerous.

But maybe that is just the difference between North America and Europe. Epp was quite amused one day when I told her not to go near the shiny, three-leaved plant preposterously known as 'poison ivy.' To her, no plant could seriously exist. For Estonians, you see, nature is friend. To, at least, northeasterners, nature is a place where one must tread carefully. After several others reinforced my 'stay away from poison ivy' message, Epp came to believe that there really were these nasty plants that could leave you with an itching, oozing rash.

Estonia, though, has its own bounty of natural surprises. One, the ubiquitous stinging nettles, I have already touched on here. But, in my mind, tenderfoot visitors to Estonia should beware of its armies of killer ants. I am serious. A few years ago in Suure-Jaani, I took a wrong step near a playground and my foot was submerged in a sea of moving, red, hostile insects. The litte girl nearby stammered "sipelgad!" {ants!}, which my beginner's ear heard as "sibulad!" {onions!}.

More recently, while mowing the lawn {always a treacherous activity}, I picked up a plastic tube that belonged to one of my daughter's toys. I shook the tube to remove the dirt inside, when it seemed a handful of white rice slid out onto the backyard table. But it wasn't rice; it was a red ant's nest, and those were their little babies. Needless to say, they were really pissed off, and by the end of the day, I had two or three bites on my hand -- and when Estonian ants sting, it hurts.

Sometimes, I guess, the best way to learn about nature is to experience first hand.

* There are Dutch-founded towns on Long Island as well, such as Hempstead {Hemestede}, and Flushing {Vlissingen}.

neljapäev, juuli 24, 2008

só danço samba

The Estonian word for column is often declined as samba, which makes me expect Tom Jobim to spring forth, guitar in hand, anytime the word samba is dropped in Estonian discourse, which, if you haven't noticed, is quite often.

In all honesty, the ongoing and somewhat predictable controversy over the victory column in Tallinn has passed me by. I mean I don't live in Tallinn, and some construction and a large obelisk definitely will not eclipse the roving gangs of inebriated Britishers in search of a late night hamburger in terms of Tallinnese unpleasantness.

I agree that the gentlemen of 1918 deserve an imposing monument that reminds us all that without their sweat and blood this blessed peninsula might have gone the way of Ingria or Karelia. And yet ... the first time I went to Tallinn my naine-to-be and I ate pizza on that hill overlooking Vabaduse Väljak. She told me a story about the 1980 Olympics and I said nothing, as I have no memory of the 1980 Olympics.

If we climb the same hill next summer, our view will be interrupted by what feminist scholars might refer to as a large, white, phallic object with a cross on top of it. Fine. States build monuments; people are resistant to change; I'll always have the memories.

It's a funny thing, too, because I really feel 1918 like only a history-loving weirdo can. What I love about Estonian history is that it is so globalized; there are always so many players, there's always subtlety and intrigue. At various times, the Estonians of 1918 fought alongside Finns, Swedes, Danes, Germans, Brits, and Russians.

Surely, they deserve some attention-grabbing monument in their country's capital. And yet, when people actually build one, I zone out. Maybe it's because I don't live in Tallinn. Or maybe it is because a story will always be more powerful than a monument can ever be.

esmaspäev, juuli 21, 2008

a real economy

In case you haven't heard, the American economy is a bit jittery at the moment. The real estate market is not well, the large investment companies are trying to stay afloat during the national credit crisis, and gas costs alot more than it used to cost.

And yet, the SUV drivers soldier on, filling up on oversized foodstuffs at gigantic supermarket chains, making pitstops at the local Starbucks to buy a coffee that costs about as much as a whole bag of coffee elsewhere, and generally spending themselves silly on consumer items they do not need, nor can afford.

But there is trouble in the air. People are beginning to realize that they have been living way above their means for quite some time. When I was in high school, it was the high school students who had the shittiest vehicles. Several years afterwards though, one would not be shocked to see a caravan of teenage girls all go driving past in a BMW on the way to the beach, expensive cellphone in manicured hand.

The reality is that people couldn't afford those goods back then, and they are starting to understand that they cannot actually afford them now. When I was younger and trying to figure out the principle of credit, I understood it as borrowing money from my future self to pay for things I need today. What I think is occuring in 2008, is that we have now become our future selves, and we are angry with our past selves for incurring all this debt.

In some ways we have been ahead of the curb. I sold a lot of belongings to get rid of our credit card debt back in 2006. Since then, I have tried to operate on the principle of the "real economy" -- making financial judgements based on the amount of money actually in your bank account -- versus the "fake economy" -- making financial judgements based on future wealth generated by a hypothetical miracle market.

I think that Estonia is in the same boat here too. Like Americans, Estonians came to think that they deserved to drive the most expensive cars and could afford the most ambitious renovation projects or vacations. I mean, they had been stuck in the post-Soviet economic toilet for so long, that they were owed only the finest quality consumer goods. Estonia was now the West, and Estonians would live like their Norwegian or Swedish compatriots.

Except it took a long time for those countries themselves to become wealthy, and their high standard of living owes a high debt not to just Nokia or Ericsson, but also to, gasp, wealth redistribution. Moreover, they also are learning that they can no longer afford to live so extravagantly. Needless to say, the Swedes and Danes aren't all speeding to their summer cottages in BMW 3 Series; many are probably taking the family Volvo instead. Thrift is a Scandinavian virtue, and it is one that is probably being rediscovered in Estonia on a daily basis.

In some ways, I liken the economic forboding to a well-deserved diet. We've eaten ourselves fat and now it's time to ration our supplies. But the American shoppers in the supermarket are going to need to start rationing soon. The morbidly obese have a lot of weight to lose indeed. I wonder what products they'll cut out first.

esmaspäev, juuli 14, 2008

summer reading

I have a weird rule by which I abide, and that is that if I decide to read a book, then I must finish it before I allow myself to read any other books. Even if that other book looks outrageously awesome, I may not read it until I finish the book I am working on at the moment.

When it came to reading Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History, work was the appropriate word. The book is all about labor, laborers, and labor camps, and it is in some way a chore to read.

That is not to say that it was an unpleasant read; I enjoyed nearly every chapter, nearly every personal narrative. The chore was that it was 586 pages, and it was just not humanly possible to read this book in one sitting or two sittings or three sittings. The book demanded that you work to finish it and work I did.

I am not going to tell you about what is in it; that's for you to find out. I will just say that Applebaum's work is exhausting. I have no idea how a person can even write a book so comprehensive on such a topic. Where does one start? Where does one end? How does one know what to keep in and what to exclude? I have no idea.

Let me add this: Anne Applebaum scares me. Sure, the horrors of the Gulag as related by this book were sickening, giving you that nauseous feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get when you read the end of the Diary of Anne Frank. But this intrepid reporter genuinely frightens me because I know somewhere in my heart that there is just no way that I could ever produce something like Gulag.

It's perhaps like being a guitar player and listening to Jeff Beck conjure airplanes in his amplifier. You just know that you may be able to play your tune and play it well, but you also know that you will never be able to play it like Jeff Beck. Where there is wonder, there is also sometimes disappointment.

Despite my newfound fear of Applebaum, in some odd way I felt I came to know something of her personality. She dwells a bit on the reading and writing opportunities for political prisoners, and I guess that she must have in some ways identified with those young social revolutionaries imprisoned on Solovetsky in the 1920s who spent their days alone with their thoughts and the local mosquitos. Paper and pen have additional meaning to her, and why wouldn't they? As she has proven with this work, she's a writer.

A friend of mine once said that when you marry a foreigner, you marry the whole country, and in Applebaum's case, she is married to Poland. Legend has it that her next work will be more exclusively about Poland and its neighborhood. Stay tuned.

pühapäev, juuli 13, 2008

watch out for the poison

When I was on the West Coast two weeks ago I met up with an old friend who was part of our foreign correspondence program in Finland six long years ago.

In recounting how small and intimate Estonia is as a country, I referenced a moment from March where I suddenly found myself in an elevator with Boris Nemtsov and Marko Mihkelson.

"Who's Boris Nemtsov?" he asked.

"He used to be deputy prime minister of Russia, but now he's a critic of the Kremlin," I replied.

"Oh," he laughed. "I hope he didn't get any poison on you."

I thought my friend's comment was interesting because so many of us in "the West" have come to see Russia as an assertive country growing in influence while at the same time viewing our own democracies as weak. The Brits dislike Gordon Brown; the general feeling in the US is that, come Obama or McCain, at least by January we'll be done with W. In Estonia, the people are frustrated with Andrus Ansip. Äripäev put it so well recently:

It’s time for Ansip to take off his pink glasses and show that he still is the authoritarian leader he was during the bronze night. It’s not about how you understand history or whether you’ll offend or insult someone. It’s taking responsibility before voters and citizens who have gave you a job to do.

In this simmering cauldron of political disaffection, the newly elected president of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, looks like a shiny new toy. He's young; he likes Deep Purple; his name means "bear" -- what else could you want? Russian imitation democracy gave him a "mandate" of 70 percent: so he's loved by his people. And yet, even by pairing the words "Russian" and "tea," one does not think of some tasty byproduct of the country's economic boom; one thinks of death by radioactive element.

Everyone is being nice to Medvedev now because they are generally nice to whomever is the new leader in Moscow. But the truth is that the fellow is facing some serious PR challenges. His legitimacy is questioned because of the nature of his election; his independence is questioned because of his relationship with Putin; and the stability of the political environment in his country is questioned, because whenever someone thinks "Russian politician" they think "polonium-laced tea."

It's going to take a lot more than cheesy jokes about rock concerts to spruce up that image. We should remind ourselves of that fact anytime we feel intimidated by the aura of a resurgent Russia.

neljapäev, juuli 10, 2008

zombies of the living dead

Back in San Francisco the other day, I decided to ditch my hotel room for the hotel lobby to get some work done. I stayed in a French-owned hotel where music by Django Reinhardt and Edith Piaf played in the background, and my articles seemed to rip free from my fingertips like one of Django's many amazing guitar solos.

I noticed in the adjacent room that people were asking about Internet connectivity. I bought a $5 24-hour pass to use a city wireless service, but there was apparently some free wireless in the lobby that wasn't working. At least three people inquired with great urgency at the front desk about the lack of an Internet connection. One older woman in particular seemed extremely agitated.

This was occurring at about 8 am in the morning, and every Internet cafe that was recommended to her by the concierge would not open until 10. And so she paced, and checked again, and then, out of the corner of her eye, saw me seated in front of my very functional laptop, clicking away. She strode over to me, her hands clutched out front in nervous anticipation.

"Are you connected to the Internet?" she asked giddily.

"Yeah, I bought the city wireless pass. It's about $5," I said.

She left for some time and then returned to the door to the lobby. Hovering around the door, I could sense the agitation in her awkward, writhing body language. You see, I had access to the yummy, mind-tickling Internet and she didn't. She would have to settle for reading the latest issue of Le Point.

She finally approached me with some hesitancy. "Do you mind if I ... use your laptop?" she asked, hoping, praying that I would say yes. I was on deadline. My superiors were awaiting my work. There was simply no way that I was going to let this Internet addict anywhere near my computer. Sure, she'd pledge to just check her e-mail "for five minutes," but that five minutes could stretch to several hours. She was a junky and I had work to do. I declined her request.

She threw her arms up in cartoonish abandon, as if to say "drats" or "blast it all to hell." And I derived a sick pleasure from helping her go cold turkey, at least until the hotel wireless went back up or the nearest Internet cafe opened its doors. It is indeed sick because there used to be no Internet and thus there used to be no Internet addiction. Back then, people had to settle for more mundane addictions like alcohol or gambling. Today, though, nearly everyone is a junky of this harmless virtual world sur Internet.

It's not that I am not guilty myself. I do enjoy the days, though, when life and travel keep me off line and back online in the "real world." What is sort of odd to me is that to the generation directly beneath mine, for whom e-mail addresses and puberty coincided, there is no separation between online and offline. As someone only a few years my junior once confided in me, "I cannot live without the Internet; it's like another part of my brain." That sounds a bit frightening. The Internet is a tool; not a part of my brain. I am a human being; not a cyborg.

My wife's younger brother actually went through a severe case of Internet addiction about half a year back. It's normal these days that younger people spend a significant chunk of their time online. But he was online all the time. I even drove somewhere with him once and he was using his laptop in the car, periodically accessing local free wireless. It got to the point that we were actually worried about the dude. His life was turning into some kind of Trainspotting minus heroin plus YouTube.

Fortunately, he has kicked the habit to some extent, and the last time he came over, he spent most of his time with us unconnected. I should spend less time online too, which I guess means less blog posts. But, as my seventh grade English teacher used to say, it's about quality, not quantity. Know what I mean?

laupäev, juuli 05, 2008


It's the Fourth of July, and the Fourth of July demands an obligatory American post.

I'll say this. At the airport in Helsinki, the luggage carts were free. They were as free as the chairs; as free as the toilets. At the airport in Vancouver, the carts were free; as free as the view from the windows; as free as the napkins at the airport cafes. But at the airports in New York and San Francisco, the carts for your luggage cost $3.

That's right, you get off a plane -- hot, sweaty, jet-lagged. You wait to go through customs. You stand among your fellow travelers, eager that your bag made it through the labyrinthine underbelly of your departure point onto your plane. And then, after you lug it off the baggage carousel, you swagger on over to the line of carts, dig out your credit card, and deduct three measly dollars from your savings so that you can use it. This is America, after all; and America's business is making money off of you.

I paid it, of course. But I felt a little dirty. Canadians and Finns were getting things for free that I, as an American, had to pay for. Sure, it was only $3. But in Canada it was free. In Finland it was free. Why is it free there, but not here? I just don't understand.

At the hotel where I stayed in San Francisco, I became increasingly paranoid. The food in the room was hooked up to sensors that went off when you removed an item. I didn't find out about this until I located a small book that warned me of the perils of eating a Snickers bar in a San Francisco hotel. It would cost me $4 plus sales tax and a 20 percent restocking fee to eat said bar. Therefore, candy I bought across the street for $1 could wind up costing nearly 10 times that in my hotel!

I became worried that other things were not free. Maybe there was a special charge for flushing the toilet, or even turning on the TV. Maybe I would go to check out and find out I had watched TV for 15 minutes at $4 per minute. I am sure it was written in fine print somewhere in my room. TV+San Francisco real estate prices = money, right?

So I didn't watch any TV and I am smart (and cheap). I went to the little Arab-owned and operated convenience store across the street, bought a new Snickers bar for $1 and replenished my own hotel mini-bar. Inside the shop, the clerk watched a French film from the 1950s dubbed into English.

"How cool is this country," I thought to myself. "Arab guys watching French film noir while guys like me buy Snickers bars." There was also an Asian guy there with a goatee and an Obama '08 t-shirt. The fog covered the buildings outside. On the counter, under a panel of glass there was money from all different countries. Mexican money. Malaysian money. And, representing Europe, a five kroon note. I proudly whipped out my 25 kroon bill featuring Estonian national writer Anton Hansen Tammsaare and showed it to the Arab clerk.

"Are you from Estonia?" he asked. "No," I responded. "My wife is." "Do you know who that is?" he inquired. "Sure," I said. "It's Paul Keres, the chess player." He looked me in the eyes. "Keres was very famous. Veeeerrrrrry famous." I paid for my chocolate and was on my way. But I felt immensely proud of the country of my birth. Here was a place where Arab store clerks watched French films and collected Estonian money in a city founded by Spanish missionaries. Fees for luggage carts aside, it's hard to get any cooler than that.

neljapäev, juuli 03, 2008

foolish games

The Russian Federation is playing games with the Republic of Estonia. It's not that it's a one-sided game. The Estonians have been taking the bait since 2005.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves returned from Moscow with a special message for parliament: maybe you should swallow your pride and remove the preamble to the border treaty with the Russian Federation, signed in 2005.

This would be seen presumably as a token of Estonia's goodwill towards Russia, especially since last year's events which made Estonia a household name for riots and cyberwar, rather than medieval tourism and IT development.

This was Ilves' position back in 2006 when he was running for president. He noted, correctly I think, that the preamble -- which references the Treaty of Tartu, signed in 1920 -- was not necessary and that its lack of presence atop said treaty would not threaten the legal continuity of the Estonian state. Estonia's objective was to have the treaty in force, and it was dealing with a very illogical 800-kilo Muscovite gorilla. When he went on television this week, back from his sobering trip to the east, he reiterated his point, which, in turn, set more right-wing lawmakers aflame with discontent.

To remove the preamble for the sake of making Estonia look like it was willing to reconcile its differences with Russia would mean sacrificing Estonia's stalwart principles and, some more populist lawmakers warn, invalidating the birth certificate of the Republic of Estonia.

Unfortunately for them, basically everyone outside of Estonia would agree with Ilves. Changing the preamble would actually have no legal effect, because the documents it references were already passed by the Riigikogu. It is, in all honesty, entirely meaningless whether there is a preamble or not. That is why Ilves is perhaps so willing to encourage this sacrifice.

Anyway, it is unlikely Isamaa-Res Publica Liit or the Reform Party will support such discussions. Now the lawmakers of these parties are unhappy with Ilves, which makes the Russians happy, as they don't like him or his bow-ties much either. It weakens the Estonian coalition, as it draws a wedge between SDE and parts of Reform that don't care that much whether there is a preamble or not, and other parts of Reform and IRL who do care. And since Russia isn't a democracy, they get to maintain their position while the Estonian domestic political debate rages over the preamble to a friggin' border treaty. Is Karl Rove advising the Kremlin on how to deal with its neighbors? Inquiring minds would like to know.

This is nonsense. As a person who lives in Estonia, I can tell you that Russia is using the border treaty to meddle in Estonia's affairs because it has so few other levers to control its neighbor. The gray sanctions hit the transit sector, but most of Estonia's trade is with Sweden and Finland. And, trust me, if Sweden and Estonia signed some legislation, nothing like this would ever have happened because Sweden matters more. My money is in Swedbank; get the picture?

Estonia isn't that important for Russia, either. That is the real reason why the Estonian and Russian presidents haven't met for 14 years. By getting the border issue over and out of the way, Estonia and Russia will have one less contentious issue to discuss with their Russian colleagues. And the less avenues there are for Russia to discuss/meddle with Estonia, the better. Of course, some lawmakers benefit from friction with Russia. And, as much as I respect their principles, we must admit that they are politicians, and the politicians' objective in life is to stay in office.

That revelation, though, begs the question: in what ways does the president benefit from this? He's not up for re-election until 2011. What's on his mind?

teisipäev, juuli 01, 2008

nordic paternalism

I was leafing through Geert Mak's In Europe: Travels Through the 20th Century, and I read the chapter on Riga, which is loosely about the Baltic countries, with great interest.

Mak traveled around Europe in 1999, and even back then the discourse in the Baltics was as hung-up on the past as it is today. My interest was piqued when Mak, and interviewees cited in the book, consistently referenced Estonia's Scandinavian orientation.

According to Steven Johnson, the former editor of the Baltic Times who was quoted, Tallinn would forever be a "Danish village," Riga an East-West German trading port, and Vilnius, an eastern European metropolis ala Warsaw and Minsk. "Danish village, eh?" I thought to myself.

Outside of Estonia, Denmark is perhaps the European country I know best, as I lived there in 2001 for four months. Once asked at a party in Tallinn to summarize the differences between Danes and Estonians, I fixated on the Danes' Scandinavian elitism, versus the Estonians' lack of self confidence.

The Danes are still a bit irritated that they don't run the world. If they did, they'll assure you, everything would be much better. But the Estonians never speak of running the world. They know it's not up to them, and so they cast their lot with others. The Danes think of themselves as equals, nay, leaders in the Nordic world. The Estonians think of themselves as a kind of supplement to Scandinavia.

That being said, both countries are equally proud; arrogant even. When TH Ilves and Mart Laar went on their "Estonia is a Nordic country" roadshow back in '99, the Balts balked at the Estonians' self-importance. "They think they are better than us," they opined. That's right, they do, and if you explore the Estonian worldview, you'll find they think they are better than everyone else, too.

The Finns? Inbred drunks luckier only in size and history. The Swedes? Pompous windbags, but preferable to the Russians. The Russians? They think cockroaches are lucky. The Germans? Land-hungry morons. The Latvians? I don't know any Latvians, do you know any Latvians? In this atmosphere, to be all other nations is to be in someway cursed. To be Estonian may bring with it undesirable baggage, but it is worth it when you are the smartest and best little country on Earth.

And, so, how interesting that I realized that Mr. Mak and Mr. Johnson were kind of right. The Danes and the Estonians had something in common. Just as the Danes think that everyone should adopt their egalitarian social welfare state, the Estonians believe that it is only a matter of time before everyone realizes the genius of their flat taxation policies and e-governance. It's pure nordic paternalism; Danmark and Eesti know best.

And if there are problems, well, there aren't actually any, because you are in Denmark/Estland, where everything is perfect, or at least as good as it can get given the circumstances. Danes will tell you that their society is open and tolerant. But in private they confess that they have no idea how to integrate people who wear head scarves and torch buildings when cartoons of their prophet are published in Danish newspapers. And, so, they ignore it. "Oh yeah, the cartoon scandal," they sigh dreamily. "I seem to remember reading something about that."

The Estonians have the nerve to tell you that there is no discrimination in their country, although of course there is; there is discrimination in every country. Paris is occasionally in flames and you can get stabbed in the Netherlands for making a film, but everything in Estonia is as it should be; and if it isn't, it's somebody else's fault. "Ah, yes, the cyber attacks," they say aloofly. "I remember seeing an article on that in Wired magazine."

Still, Tallinn is not Copenhagen. There are not enough bicycles, not enough jazz festivals, not enough guys selling sausages on sticks. But there are plenty of northern individualists riding around in expensive cars. And if you ask them in which direction they are headed, they will assure you that it is the right way.