teisipäev, detsember 23, 2008

here's €1.7 billion, next time be more careful

Just two days shy of Christmas, jõuluvana, also known as the International Monetary Fund, decided to present Estonia's southern neighbor Latvia with a gift worth €1.7 billion.

The aid is part of a broader €7.5 billion package for the lätlased, which includes financing from the EU, all the nordic countries except Iceland, the Czech Republic, Poland, and the World Bank.

Despite horrible Eurovision entry after horrible Eurovision entry, jõuluvana has taken pity on poor Latvia, and the country will continue to peg its currency to the Euro. In explanation of its gift, the IMF attributed Latvia's problems to "years of unsustainably high growth and large current account deficits" that have "coalesced into a financial and balance-of-payments crisis."

Hmm. That sounds vaguely like the scribblings of that open-faced sandwich-loving analyst from Danske Bank, Lars Christensen. Poor Lars. So many people said he was wrong, but he was actually right, though the ability to forecast economic upheaval is hardly a skill that wins one friends.

In Estonia though, unlike in Latvia, there is moderate faith in the government. The Ansip malaise has morphed into the Ansip apathy. It is not that the people are apathetic about what is going on around them. I think instead they are resigned to the leadership that fate has dealt them. If not the stubborn liberal Ansip, the ardent patriot Laar, and the pig-farming social democrat Padar, then who? Savisaar?

The Mayor of Tallinn himself has been active as of late. He even sent me a Christmas card. It is hard to make sense of Härra Savisaar. Once in awhile he says something relatively cognizant, but most of the time, I have no idea what he is talking about. From my foreign perspective, he appears to be desperately throwing ideas at the wall, hoping one will stick. But Savisaar was last prime minister in 1992, and he wasn't even elected to that position. He's about as shiny and new as Color Me Badd.

President Ilves meanwhile has cautioned against the rise of economic populism while reassuring us that Estonia has seen worse in its history. Next year will see two elections in Estonia, with European parliamentary elections in June and municipal elections in October. If anyone were to play power politics in Estonia, some time before either of those elections would suffice. True, true, and indeed.

And so we sit eating sauerkraut and gingerbread, patiently awaiting what 2009 will bring us, a year for which nobody, including Lars Christensen, has forecast good news. For the rest of 2008, I am looking forward to more tasty küüslaugujuust and the final episode of the historical drama Tuulepealne Maa. How about you?

neljapäev, detsember 18, 2008


My Estonian language has progressed to the point that I am able to get by in daily life without needing to switch to English or relying on my own personal interpreter to explain things to a confused cashier.

This benefits me greatly, as many Estonians think they know English but construct sentences that are equal in absurdity to the ones I have spoken.

One fellow mixed up the words "mean," "mind," and "think." "What do you mean about the apartment?" he asked. "I don't mean anything," I replied. "Oh, I am sorry, what do you mind about the apartment then?" These are the kinds of exchanges that only Timothy Leary or Noam Chomsky would appreciate.

In regular life, I am a bit clumsy anyway. This is why I write, because it is so much easier than talking. I might be physically standing in line waiting to buy some groceries, but, mentally, I am miles away. In New York, this can get me into trouble, like at a deli, where the guys take your order in the local accent. "Soyawanbaloneynmustadonroi?" [Do you want bologna and mustard sandwich on rye bread?] And if you don't answer with a snappy response or a quip about A-Rod, they look at you like you are from another planet.

While living in New York, still a city of immigrants, I developed fairly perceptive ears. Two guys could approach me on the street and say, "Gabba gabba hey?" and I would respond, "Right, just hop on the J and get off at Delancey and Essex." I would think little of their accents. Jamaican, Korean, Kaliningradian -- who knows and who has time to care?

Here in Eesti though, they just think I am hilarious. I went to visit Epp's Onu Tiit the other night, who has infamously bad diction. While Onu Toivo, usually lubricated by a few beers, has excellent diction and is a joy to listen to because I can understand every word, Tiit is a lõuna eesti mumbler.

Toivo would say, "Juu-stiin, kas sa tead, et sa räägid niiiii hääästi eeesti keeelt? Iiniimesed on elanud siiin üümbes 50 aaastat ja mitte üüks sõõõna!" Tiit, meantime, would say something like "J'n, t'd 't, s' r'g'd ni' h's'ti 'est' k'lt blub blub blub blub blub viiskend blub blub blub." Even though these two wild and crazy guys have their own linguistic idiosyncrasies, they are still considered "normal." I, on the other hand, am abnormal.

"Justin, kas sul kitarri on?" asks Ave-Liis, Tiit's daughter.

"Jah, on olimas," I respond. It should be olemas, "O-leh-mas," but I said olimas, "O-lee-mas," by mistake; a slip of the tongue caught too late. This prompts a chuckle and a repetition of my mistake. "Ol-i-mas, Ol-i-mas," she teases. I suddenly know how those poor first-generation Sino-Americans feel when they are ridiculed for substituting the letter 'R' for the letter 'L' and vice versa.

Inside the house, where I meet cousin Tomi for the first time, I notice his cheeks ballooning in suppression of laughter as he listens to a Yankee speak his language. I remember another cousin, Ken, now in his early teens, fighting a similar urge to burst out laughing as he heard me try to mumble like the best of them. Estonians, the sober ones at least, are usually reserved and not prone to fits of giggles. But have me speak to them and they are one "olimas" away from losing all control.

Yesterday at Tartu Kaubamaja, I engaged another acquaintance, whose cheeks grew equally rosy as I rattled through my accented words and awkwardly constructed sentences. [I use a lot of English constructions: "Have we met before?" is "Oleme kohtunud enne või?"] And then I crossed the boundary by wishing Häid Jõule [Merry Christmas], to which I received a terse "Jah" and a dry "suurepärane" [wonderful] in response.

I complain to Estonian friends, but they assure me that my language is suurepärane, and that they too have bad English accents [which is probably correct, though I don't notice their accents that often]. And even if I say it right, I still get it wrong. I remember walking into a friend's place in Tallinn and exclaiming "noh, kuidas su käsi käib!," only to be met by reticent stares. "You didn't say anything wrong," my friend said later. "It's just the way you said it."

There is a great scene in the film 101 Reykjavik where one of the main characters has a chat with his foreign-born brother-in-law in Icelandic, then makes fun of his foreign accent behind his back. [Hlynur, the 30-ish main character in that movie, is also shiftless and has an absent, alcoholic father -- oh, the similarities between these two, small countries!] With so many encounters like these, I can't help but wonder if I have become that guy.

pühapäev, detsember 14, 2008


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.

kolmapäev, detsember 10, 2008

nõukogude naine

The other day, an acquaintance dropped off a batch of newspapers and magazines, including a treasure trove of old copies of the Estonian woman's magazine Nõukogude Naine [Soviet Woman].

Several years ago I stood in the office of Eesti Naine in downtown Tallinn and asked the editor if she was the first editor of the publication, which I assumed was only a decade old, like the magazines Anne or Stiil.

"Oh, no," she replied. "I might be editor number 13 or 14." The publication Eesti Naine was actually launched in 1924. After the Soviets took over, it became Nõukogude Naine, a publication of the Estonian Communist Party.

Nõukogude Naine
may have published some copies in 1940 and '41, but, according to the party, it was launched in 1945. It reverted to being Eesti Naine in 1989. The first issue of that year says that it is a party publication, the fourth issue makes no mention of it, and later issues no longer use 1945 as the start date of the publication, but 1924.

I have read somewhere before a mention of the "Brezhnev stagnation." This was a period, from approximately the late 1960s to the mid 1980s when the Soviet Union forever lost its ability to keep up with the West. From the vantage point of 2008, it is hard to gauge what this really means. Some Estonian homes look like they haven't changed much since the 1930s, aside from a laptop here and a television set there.

Looking at copies of Nõukogude Naine, though, you can witness stagnation in the form of clothing and hair styles. If you picked up an American magazine from 1966, you might be greeted by a beehive hairdo, while a 1976 issue might have a woman with a shag, and the 1986 issue might be framed by shoulder pads and exorbitant amounts of cosmetics. In Nõukogude Naine, though, the women mostly look the same, year in, year out. They care not so much for looks, but for hard work in service to the state.

One evening last week, I met with our friend's mother, a grandmother who was in town to spend time with her grandchildren -- friends of our daughters'. Vanaema complimented me on my Estonian language skills, and informed me that her first foreign language was Russian. She had learned it in Siberia.

I was surprised, because most of the deportees I have met are in their seventies or eighties. But this Vanaema was only 5 years old when they deported her family in 1949. I asked her how it happened, and she then launched into a long tale of how the secret police had first picked up her brother and then went to get her mother, with the kid sitting in the car to drive the hopelessness of the situation home.

They were marked for deportation because her father was a member of Omakaitse -- the equivalent of the Estonian national guard. Many Estonian men, young and old, were in this organization. My wife's great-grandfather, then aged 50, and his immediate family were also deported because of his membership in this organization. According to Vanaema, her mother was forced to sign a paper by the police saying that she willingly went to Siberia.

They were deported at night. She said they traveled by armed convoy to the train station -- apparently, the Soviet troops were getting picked off left and right by bandiitid -- forest brothers. The family was put into a cattle car and shipped east for two weeks until they reached their destination. They didn't return until the late 1950s. There would be no Happy Days for their family. The father, who had been sent to a separate camp, also made it back, but in bad shape. He didn't live long after his return. At this point Vanaema -- and Estonian grandmas are pretty stoic -- started to cry.

"You don't have to keep going if you don't want to," I said. "No, I have to tell the story so that people know what happened to us." She said that when she has told some foreigners about it they ask, "Well, why didn't you call the police? But it was the police that were doing it!" At that point, her two tiny grandchildren, who seem so far removed from this sordid tale to almost render it surreal, ran up, and the ghosts of the past faded into the shadows. The conversation switched to lighter fare.

In the May 1976 and May 1985 editions of Nõukogude Naine, there is the same photo -- of the Soviet soldier hoisting his banner aloft from the burning rooftop of the Reichstag. This is a "victory photo" -- meant to reinforce faith in the state leadership. Almost every state has such symbols. But how real could they have been to women like this Vanaema? Nõukogude Naine may have "officially" launched in 1945, but many of its readers into the 1970s and 80s must have started reading it back when it was Eesti Naine.

It was a social reality built on an illusion -- that history started only 30 or 40 years previously. Before that, it was some messy mix of workers' uprisings and secret meetings where Estonian communist martyrs like Viktor Kingisepp were in attendance. I wondered what it would be like if one Estonian political party took over the state today. It would be like the free party papers we get in the newspaper, Eesti Eest -- the Isamaa-Res Publica Liit publication, or maybe Kesknädal -- the Center Party weekly, except all magazines and television programs would be like that. Marko Mihkelson's gardening tips. Ain Seppik's baking secrets revealed. The thought is almost too much to bear.

I first heard about the deportations from a deportee. It was my wife's Aunt Salme. I had opened some of her photo albums, and seen photos of earthen shacks in what appeared to be the tundra. It was from her stint in Siberia, she had explained.

Salme had been deported in 1949 for being the daughter of a prosperous farmer, Estonian War of Independence veteran, and national guard member. These connections made her a prime candidate for servitude in the eastern wilds of the Union. Earlier this decade, she received a medal from President Arnold Rüütel for surviving the ordeal.

Salme took an interest in her family, and usually had some questions for us written out on a sheet of paper before we would visit. She wanted to know about my job and to see our children. She had a reputation for being an organizer within the family.

We last saw her in early summer -- we took our youngest daughter to her Tallinn apartment. Salme said she wanted to see the girl who has the same name as her mother before she runs out of time. Our daughter, though, slept most of the hour or so that she was there. But at least she got to see her, because Salme passed away last week.

When I think of Salme's story, the story of Vanaema, and the story of many of those Eesti Naine, then Nõukogude Naine, then Eesti Naine readers of years past, I can't help but feel a bit befuddled. These women are no different than the young women of today, except life dealt them unfortunate circumstances that they ultimately had to digest and live with.

Why did they get the booty end of the stick? Why did they, of all people, have to travel to Siberia via cattle car, their families broken, their property confiscated, their health imperiled, only to come home to a fresh issue of Nõukogude Naine that made no mention of their very immediate history?

When Nõukogude Naine reverted to Eesti Naine, suddenly the Soviet crypts were opened. In the pages of the 1989, 1990, and 1991 issues there are photos of cultural societies from the 1920s and 30s. There are stories of the anguish of the 1940s, spilled across the pages. In recent years, the personal memoir has become one of the most appreciated literary vehicles in Estonia. One can read Imbi Paju's Memories Denied or Leelo Tungal's Comrade Child to start. For some reason, most of the authors happen to be women.

esmaspäev, detsember 08, 2008

what's the matter with kohtla-järve?

The other day I asked a typically boisterous friend about her hometown. Noh, kus sa oled pärit?

"You mean, like, where I was born?" she answered. I replied in the affirmative. Then she grimaced, and blurted out ... "Kohtla-Järve."

The funny thing, is that I have seen that look of "please don't kill me because I am from Kohtla-Järve" before. Last summer, another friend similarly confessed her origins, with the same startled hesitancy.

I have driven through Kohtla-Järve. In the Estonian psyche, or as much of it has rubbed off on me about how eestlased view the place, Kohtla-Järve is one of these Soviet labyrinths of apartment blocks, poverty, and Russophones, where if you ask for milk in the store in Estonian, you might get carbonated water or eggs. Since there are no water parks or medieval buildings, it is undeserving of a visit, and so nobody goes. But when I drove through, it looked pretty normal. Why, they even had their own Selver.

Intrigued, I pulled our friend aside and asked her why she made "that look" about her hometown. She at first denied having made a look, but launched into a long tale of a small village called Järve that had blossomed into a Soviet factory town home to "Homo Sovieticus" -- Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazaks, Koreans, and every other nationality under the sun of Stalin that had been uprooted and replanted on conquered Estonian soil.

With little connection to the actual place where Kohtla-Järve was located, the logic went, its first and second-generation residents cared little for its upkeep, and "the city" -- actually a grouping of several, geographically distinct islands of settlements, went downhill after 1991, hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet state-planned economy.

The population censuses from the second half of the 20th century tell the story of Kohtla-Järve's rise and fall. In 1934, there was no city of Kohtla-Järve. In 1959, the city claimed 40,000 residents. By 1979, KJ was home to 87,000, and in 1989, 92,000. Today, 20 years later, around 44,000 people live in Kohtla-Järve, one fifth of whom are older than 60. How low will Kohtla-Järve go? I don't know, but I expect Pärnu to to replace Kohtla-Järve as the fourth largest city in Estonia -- after Tallinn, Tartu, and Narva -- within a few years.

According to our knowledgeable and very young friend, who -- surprise, surprise -- has no intention of returning to her hometown, KJ is dominated by an aging class of Keskerakond politicians and little old ladies who adore Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar and represent reliable votes in parliamentary elections [indeed, KESK won 55 percent of the votes in Ida Virumaa, compared to rivals Reform, who garnered only 15 percent support in the March 07 parliamentary elections].

That may represent her political interpretation of Kohtla-Järve's political life, but it does not seem like a sustainable dynamic for the future. Eventually, Kohtla-Järve's geriatric voting class and the politicians they favor will pass from this Earth. And then what? Sadly, neither of our Kohtla-Järve-bred friends will be there. Nor will KJ native and former Estonian Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland. Like so many Kohtlakad [or whatever you call residents of that city], they have simply moved on.

kolmapäev, detsember 03, 2008

not bad.

There is a surprisingly readable story in Spiegel Online about the "NATO-Russia" border, as if NATO was a great power with its own leadership, flag, and military ... oh wait, never mind.

Predictably summoned is the metaphor of Narva, the two castles opposing one another on the Estonian-Russia border, the one on the left symbolizing the Catholic and, later, Protestant West, the one on the right symbolizing the Byzantine, and later Orthodox, East. Except the city on the left is inhabited by people of the city of the right's persuasion. The world lacks ordnung, as writer Walter Mayr learns:

In the city of Narva, where Stalin had apartment buildings and factories built over the ruins of blown-up Baroque houses, 96 percent of residents are ethnic Russians. Only 40 percent have an Estonian passport. To this day, almost one in five city residents have no citizenship to this day, while the rest have opted for Russian citizenship.

There is an interesting correlation in the minds of some writers and readers between citizenship and loyalty: as if passports were handed out in Narva from the back of the lorry, the situation would change. I would like to remind those who would read, that most of those on trial for the pronksöö riots are Estonian citizens. But I will accept that citizenship serves here as a metaphor for national influence. The Estonians, I suppose, are free to do as they like with their own citizens. The Russians, as we learned in Georgia, feel the need to protect theirs, wherever it suits their geopolitical interests. And the stateless? Under whose dominion do they fall?

Spiegel's Mayr is definitely not the first to play with these ideas of Estonian apocalypse. But what frustrates me is the extent to which local officials play along.

See Mart Helme, former Estonian ambassador to Moscow and patron of the Estonian National Movement, describe Narva as a ""frozen and hungry fifth column," full of Kremlin spies waiting "to creep out into the streets and provoke clashes because Estonia troops are incapable of staving off the Russian army as it marches into Narva."

Now witness Narva City Council head Mikhail Stalnukhin conjure up a South Ossetia situation for Narva: "Such a scenario can only become reality," Stalnukhin is quoted as saying, "if people in Estonia interested in seeing it happen make the preparations. In other words, if a genocide takes place first."

Comments like these make Andrus Ansip and his rival/partner Edgar Savisaar look like adorable, centrist teddy bears. Grown-ups are desperately in need to calm Helme's déjà vu vision of Baltic eclipse and Stalnukhin's nutbar allusion to genocide. And in walks Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, "a man with a typically Nordic mix of a gloomy and placid temperament, " to assuage the the working people of Narva's concerns over the war in Georgia:

"For two hours, speaking in Russian, I attempted to explain to the angry workers why the Estonian government supported the Georgians, not the South Ossetians," says Paet in his office in the Estonian capital Tallinn. "We have a communication problem with the ethnic Russians in our country, and that must change."

What I have found interesting in recent months, is how Estonia has suddenly become a focal point of those describing a "new cold war," while Latvia, where even more people are stateless, where even more people belong to ethnic groups other than Latvian, seems to have been forgotten. Is it just strategically unimportant? Is the focus on Narva as a future possible site of discontent just part of an amazing spin-job launched from the Estonian Foreign Ministry to squeeze NATO for more support? Is Kaval Ants picking the master's pockets?

President Ilves now appears, sans colorful descriptions, to address the shortcomings of the alliance to which Estonia so proudly belongs. The American writer Tom Bissell once described Ilves as Estonia's "bow-tied and owlishly appealing president." I like that word "owlish." I'll make sure to use it sometime:

Says Ilves, it is high time to clarify how much Article 5 of the NATO Treaty would be worth for Estonia in an emergency. Article 5 describes the obligation of alliance partners to protect a fellow NATO country in the event of an "armed attack." But, as even Ilves knows, NATO is not responsible for domestic conflicts within Estonia.

Hmm, fearmongering much. Or just being prepared? If I make it to Narva one of these days I'll make sure to bring along some protective nordic walking poles to fend off any domestic conflicts at the Kerese Selver or occurrences of genocide at the local Swedbank office. A dispute over the last six-pack of Jõuluporter could trigger World War III! But, in all, a pretty fair piece with some honestly included. Not bad.

esmaspäev, detsember 01, 2008


15:30, or 3:30 in American parlance. That's the time in recent days I have decided to close the curtains in our home. It's not that it ever really got "light" outside, but by half past three, it's dark enough that our neighbors can easily see inside, and we'll have none of that.

I am somewhat proud of myself this year, because that overwhelming desire to have a glass of wine or bottle of beer every evening has yet to set in.

Last year, I easily found out why alcoholism reins supreme in northern Europe. The pressure of light deprivation makes alcohol consumption an easy out. It's not that I became a drunk in anyway; it's that I consumed more during the winter and then, as soon as the snow melted away and the sun came back out, the consumption noticeably stopped.

If Estonian summer, with its infinite possibilities of endless daylight and open terrain, embodies opportunity for self-realization and enjoyment, winter is the opposite. Instead of wanting to be outside, you find yourself asking, what's the point of leaving the house at all, unless it's to buy some more food and ... alcohol? The days of late November and early December pass by into a fog of grayness that brings to mind the smokey moors of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I begin to wonder if my generation's lust for extreme experiences has manifested itself in some peculiar way by my choice to domicile in a northern country. Some guys bungee jump off bridges; some ladies pierce their tongues and eyebrows; I currently live in the environmental equivalent of a submarine.

At the moment, I am not exactly happy in the, "warm up the feijoada and grease me up, it's time for Carnaval!", kind of way, but I am also not depressed in the, "I wanna listen to the Depeche Mode album alone!" kind of way, which seems to be a common condition among many Estonians. I feel pretty normal. Normaalne. See. I have adjusted, and with limited need for alcohol or chocolate to balance my outlook.

In fact, I feel more creative than usual. I feel like writing and reading and making mixes of my favorite tunes. Maybe we will even steal away some time to go to Pöff, the Black Night's Film Festival. This year it is taking place also in Tartu and in such far flung Estonian locales as Kärdla and Jõhvi.

Yes, in a time of endless darkness, the dividing line between sleeping and waking is even more blurry. Films taking on superior meaning. If it feels like you should be tucked in and in bed by 7.30 pm, then how exactly do you feel at 9.30 or 11.30 pm? I'll tell you how you feel, you feel like eating gingerbread, drinking glögg, and watching Singing with the Stars [Laulud Tähtedega]. Oh wait, Glögg has some alcohol in it.

Well, while Itching for Eestimaa does not condone alcoholism, it does condone the judicious use of glögg, movies, and other guilty pleasures to see you through the darkest time of the year. What special recipes do you have for making it through what can be a trying time?