pühapäev, jaanuar 23, 2011

europe and me

On January 1, 2011, Estonia adopted the euro as its currency. A day or two before, I had been contacted by The Observer, a UK paper, to write a quick on-the-scenes piece about the currency switch, to which I immediately agreed without asking about content, pay, et cetera. "A UK paper wants me to write for them!" I thought. "How neat!"

Fortunately, the editor wrote back and said they had found someone else to write the piece, and I say fortunately because on January 1, 2011, I was nowhere near Estonia. I did have euros in my hands though because I was in Madrid.

I am sure I could have made up a good on-the-scenes piece for The Observer. I would have thrown in an anecdote about how some coins had fallen out of my pocket at the local Alati ja Odavalt and one old Estonian lady (who had just procured a bottle of vodka) had told me that I had dropped some kopeks, even though Estonia hasn't had kopeks for almost two decades. Instead I waited in line at the Madrid airport to check in early for a flight that was overbooked.

The woman behind the desk was thin with thick, chocolate-colored hair. She looked like a middle-aged Penelope Cruz. She had begun to look at my passport when her friend approached her with something. When I peered closer, I saw it was a toy snail, plastic and blue with cartoon-like eyes. The two Spaniards laughed at the toy as I waited and waited. Then they hugged and kissed each other -- twice, once on each cheek -- and then the one with the snail left and the middle-aged Penelope Cruz returned to checking me in, as if it was normal that something like that would happen. Maybe it was normal in Spain, but not in Estonia.

Most things that happened in Madrid didn't seem to have an equivalent in Estonia. When I went to the bakery to get some lechera, I wasn't greeted by that morose "What do you want?" attitude of Estonians who rush every transaction as if it was such a hassle to take my money in return for goods and services. Instead, a line accumulated behind me as the baker, an older woman, tried to convince me to buy a loaf of bread. Of course I said yes, or rather si. In the end, I wound up buying two loaves. And the Spaniards in line behind me didn't seem agitated. They were talking to each other, perfectly happy to wait in line.

How could it be that this country has the same currency as Estonia? I thought to myself as I walked back to the hotel with two loafs of bread under my arm. How the heck did that happen?

The answer to the question of how Tallinn wound up with the same currency as Madrid is perhaps the same as the answer to the question of how this writer wound up living in Europe. The most readily available explanation has always been "a beautiful girl," but I was in Europe before I met the beautiful girl, so that doesn't explain it exactly. We forget these days, now that the eurozone is in crisis, now that the EU economies are enacting austerity policies, now that NATO is mired in Afghanistan and is suffering an identity crisis, that for the better part of the last two decades, the momentum has actually been on Europe's side.

After a nine-year "lull" -- that saw the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrate and Germany reunite -- the EU began expanding again, to Sweden and Finland in 1995, and then to Estonia and nine others in 2004. Even Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007, and I use the word "even" because I think that most Western Europeans could not have conceived of either country (or Estonia for that matter) in the EU just 10 or 15 years before.

The EU had long had its own flag but by 2002, it had its own money, money that was good from Dublin to Athens. The currency soon became stronger than the dollar, so strong that American rappers and divas were requesting to be paid in euros rather than greenbacks! From an outside perspective, the EU was close to becoming a multilingual superstate where all conflicts were worked out peacefully via football matches and song competitions.

For the first time in decades, if not centuries, Europe seemed as if it was pulling ahead of all the competition. Rather than impoverished or battle-scarred Europeans seeking better lives in America, it was now some underemployed Americans who set their sights on Europe. From Prague to Moscow, they set up bars and newspapers and restaurants. There are so many English-speaking foreigners in Estonia now that they even have their own comedy troupe!

And who could blame them for coming? To foreigners, Europeans seemed freer, healthier, more progressive, better looking. They supposedly cycled to work and took obscenely long vacations. They heated their homes with geothermal power and wind turbines. Europe was becoming what America had once been: a place tantalizingly close to some idea of perfection. And I write all of this in the past tense because, though all of these things are still mostly true, the magic has worn off in recent years. Every other news headline about Europe these days includes the word "crisis," though the ladies at the airport in Madrid didn't seemed to be too concerned about their country's finances.

The centripetal force that had once pulled young idealists and young idealistic countries into its orbit has lessened, if it still exists. Even as Estonia adopts the European currency, people question that currency's future. The idea that a shiny new Europe, crafted with laser-like accuracy by the brightest of bureaucrats, can solve all of the continent's problems, seems risable now. But what other alternatives are there, really, for Europe and me? We may have been lured by the ruse of a better tomorrow, but does it make sense to turn back when you are already halfway there?

19 kommentaari:

Lingüista ütles ...

Is Europe really broken? Some claim it was already since the Yugoslav war, which it couldn't handle by itself. Kosovo also made it sound as though Europe isn't really capable of doing much without American help. Georgia...

Let's hope it's just a phase. We've been treated to stories about "how Europe is in crisis" before. Every other year there were "crises", and every ten years there even really was one. Still Europe is there...

I still haven't seen any Eesti euros here in the Netherlands. If I get to see some I'm going to keep them as collector's items. :-)

karLcx ütles ...

i think it's kind of a novelty to remember that the "crisis" aren't limited to the east. the currency crisis covers the entire eurozone, but governmental political crisis has struck in belgium just as hard as in say the czech republic. these european countries must be terribly difficult to run, but equally so and without a tired east/west division. seems perfectly natural that they adopt a common currency, perhaps :)

Piimapukk ütles ...

So, maybe there is no need to worry about the better future. After all, the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. We may be in for another treat, witnessing yet another remaking of the world order.

Note to self - stack up on dry goods and ammo.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Europe is still undone. It cannot exclude Croatia, not Serbia and others, and even Iceland is probably becoming a part of it. This thing is very much about history forgotten in daily business. I hope we will not lose the idea.

I saw parts of the controverse between the Hungarian Orban and members of the European parliament about the new media law. That's the way.

Justin ütles ...

Maybe the people behind you in line at the Spanish bakery weren't agitated as they weren't in a rush and had nowehre else go to. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the EU.

Giustino ütles ...

Hi Justin,

It was a Sunday morning, and the people in line were mostly older -- not sure if they were pensioners.

_nagilum_ ütles ...

The EU is losing its appeal because its administration is the antithesis to citizen participation. Once an area is united/connected at a political level, what needs to be developed are an actual common society and possibilities for the active participation of voters. This might not lead to slick, corporate-style leadership, and it may take a lot of money and time, but ultimately lasting stability is a matter of the people, not governments and multinationals. At the moment the EU is actively and deliberately producing legislation that will lead at least to the partial destruction of Europe's variety of small/local businesses and farms; the only thing that seems to matter is centralisation, and we seem to be repeating the US' mistakes and on the way to a state run by big business rather than a democratically elected government.

Temesta ütles ...

"Maybe the people behind you in line at the Spanish bakery weren't agitated as they weren't in a rush and had nowehre else go to. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the EU."

Estonia also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU. Have you noticed similar behaviour in Estonia?

Kristopher ütles ...

You would have done a fine job writing the piece. The person who ended up writing the piece was nowhere near Estonia either but used two stringers, one of whose quotes was not used. Between those expenses and the lack of any legitimate receipts for carfare to show London, the whole venture may set him back a few coins, although he says the journalistic immortality was worth it.

Giustino ütles ...

It's not about the money, Kris. It's about the glory.

Martasmimi ütles ...

"Europe was becoming what America had once been: a place tantalizingly close to some idea of perfection. "

Sure Justin and Europe is well efin perfect.

I am pretty tired of the drum that you beat.

Rainer ütles ...

Mom is so gonna whoop your ass...

Piimapukk ütles ...

Always look at the sunny side of things like they sang in the Monty Python. Let us try to hang on to this attitude even as we get older and grumpier and bitter. Life is an absurdity so let us laugh, laugh, laugh ...

Jéssica ütles ...

Congrats, your blog is just amazing! I'm from Brazil and I found really interesting to read (and then see) points of view from somebody who lives so far away, talking about his daily life with such sensibility.
Keep writing!

Jéssica ütles ...

Congrats, your blog is just amazing! I'm from Brazil and I found really interesting to read (and then see) points of view from somebody who lives so far away, talking about his daily life with such sensibility.
Keep writing!

Lingüista ütles ...

Hi Jéssica, I'm from Brazil, too, but I've always been interested in the Baltics. What brings you here? I always thought that people in "nosso Brasil brasileiro" weren't very interested in the Northern Seas...

moevenort ütles ...

concerning Europe and Estonia: Here is a quote out of an assesment of Estonian social scientists some years ago:

"When measured against Europe, Estonian society seems contradictory. On the one hand, we have fast economic growth, exellent employment levels, and a thriving digitalization process. On the other hand we are characterized y poor health, xenofobia, incompetence in battling HIV, and overcrowded prisons. ...Our human development has taken us towards freedom, but not enough responsibility and common values. The result is a fragmented and individualistic Estonia that find it difficult to fit conventional notions and way of live of Europe."

source: Heidmets 2007, p. 115)

I would contradict the assesment in terms of "fast economic growth" ( it was rather a bubble) and "exellent employment levels" ( crisis has shown what remained of that). but everything else sounds quite accurate in the description.

Giustino ütles ...

I think it's telling that Obama referenced Sputnik in his state of the union speech. That was over 50 years ago. Why is that the reference point for American achievement? Surely, we've done a lot since then. Yet it seems that we are "losing the future" to the Chinese. Hmm.

The US has got to do something about the education industry, by the way. The average income is $50,000, which is about the cost of a semester at NYU.

saare-snowqueen ütles ...

I think there are those who would like to see 'Europe broken' and Estonia along with it. I think they shouldn't hold their collective breaths.
Every country goes through cycles; Europe is no exception. Here on Saaremaa at least, things are slowly getting better - the operative word being better - and the changeover to the Euro has been quite painless.
I would like to take issue with nagilum's statement that: At the moment the EU is actively and deliberately producing legislation that will lead at least to the partial destruction of Europe's variety of small/local businesses and farms; I work with LEADER projects and PRia here on the island, and while the Farmer's Union could be better organised with regard to their financial payments, many useful and effective projects ARE being funded which directly support the development of small rural businesses.