pühapäev, oktoober 28, 2012

letter from helsinki

Perfection comes at a price.
I'm getting fleeced, maybe by my own idiocy, maybe by the metric system, maybe by the Finns, and, just maybe, by all of these things. Macadamia nuts and dried strawberries at 2.99 for 100 grams at the Kamppi shopping center in downtown Helsinki. It sounds reasonable, though I have a hard time conceptualizing 100 grams of anything. And yet when it's time to pay up, the cheeky Vietnamese Finn at the booth charges me 24.99 ($32) like it's no big deal. And, after a brief "you must be joking" look, I pay it anyway, handing her a €50 bill, only to be handed back half of the amount in currency, and the other half in two, half-filled bags of nuts and strawberries.

The higher price tag must have been linked to the products' innate superiority. It was one of the few reasonable explanations. But how were they superior? I am not going to speculate that each nut was fashioned with laser-like precision by some local titan of design, named Timo perhaps, to exude the correct art nouveau properties, though in Finland, I might believe it. Or could it be that these nuts and strawberries were superior because they were in Finland, and in Finland, things are superior and cost more, by nature?

It's no wonder that so many Estonian workers flock to this northern land of perfection. The salaries are many times higher. A babysitter in Viljandi will work for €2 an hour. In Helsinki, our Estonian friend pays her babysitter €14 an hour, to do pretty much the same job. The Finn earns seven times more than the Estonian! Little did I know, but all of my neighbors and acquaintances who do the weekly trek to Helsinki are rolling in it. Maybe that's why they all drive such nice cars.

And I would wager that it is easier for an Estonian to integrate into Finnish society than most other nationalities. Even I felt disarmingly at home there, despite the parallel universe prices. The faces were familiar, the names were familiar, as was the language. After getting lost, I was able to get directions from some grocery store sellers and understand what they were telling me. I realize that just hearing all of this Estonian all the time has opened my mind to Finnish, Karelian, Vepsian, a whole new linguistic world.

And yet the Finnish-Estonian relationship is complex. Consider the English text on the Viking Line ferry screens. These are large monitors found in the corridors of the ship that provide information about various destinations. Tallinn's includes the lines, "Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991" and "hotels are up to Western European standards." Either they haven't changed those informative blurbs since 1996, or somebody is living in a timewarp. My experience is actually that hotels in old Western Europe are not up to Estonian standards. At my hotel in Hamburg, I was given a large, old-fashioned key, to be left at the reception desk. In Rome, wifi was free, but only in the lobby, and it didn't work half the time. And in Helsinki, I had to actually pay for parking across the street from our hotel with coins from the "lippuautomaatti." Can you imagine? Estonian radio stations may be stuck in the 1980s, but when it comes to "Western European standards," the world's only post-communist nordic country has left them all behind.,

A bit more on the dreaded "N" word is warranted. I sometimes get the feeling that "Nordic" is a code word for Finnish, as if one means the other and vice versa. Few nationalities are so keen on the term, other than the marketing savvy Estonians, who see it as a self-promoting "in." But what exactly is "Finnish" and what exactly is "Nordic?" Where is the line between the two? It seems as if "Finnish" is some kind of premodern concept, of saunas and national folk costumes and accordions, 19th century prints of flaxen maidens working in the fields.

But "Nordic?" "Nordic" is ocularly appealing coffee mugs and aerodynamic chairs, Marimekko prints, a pair of smart, dark-framed glasses on every face. "Nordic" is some kind of 1968-minted version of "the future" that has been tweaked by time and technology. Because of this, a person in Finland can feel as if he is both simultaneously stuck in the past and living in a science fiction film.

The Estonians, for all of their tech agility, still seem to have a complex in regards to the Finns. I won't call it an inferiority complex, but as a friend informed me, anytime she confesses that she is Estonian, she is looked upon with disapproving glances, as if a plumber had barged into a meeting of bankers, his ass crack hanging loose for all to see. When my wife had trouble returning a sweater at Kamppi, thanks to a particularly difficult seller, she was heard to ponder aloud, "I wonder if she treated me like that because I am Estonian." And when I asked her why she didn't try to speak Finnish with the locals, she answered, "Why should every Estonian speak Finnish to the Finns? They should try speaking Estonian to me." I was pleased to see how Finland got under her skin, after being mocked during our visit to Russia for my "illogical" fear of being trailed by the FSB, "as if I was so important."

In the midst of this, I started to better understand the Estonians' desire to take the Finns down a notch. Sure they may be wealthier, and more "Nordic," but the Finns and Estonians spring from the same rough country roots, as do most Europeans. Let's go back a few generations before the Finns got their Marimekko sweaters and Urho Kekkonen glasses and progressive politics and take a look at all the peasants sawing timber and sullying their hands in the fields. So when Estonians begroan Finnish haughtiness in the media, they are actually just trying to keep their old friend's ego in check. And that is a mark of true friendship.

I have to end here by saying that in spite of its high prices and obsession with perfection, and occassional haughtiness, I really do love Helsinki. It is the place where I fell in love. And there was a moment when I was looking out the apartment window before the snow fell, and the golden and brown leaves were swirling around an adjacent playground, that I felt that the place actually might be perfect, in its own rugged, rocky, Finnish way. So I recommend a visit to all. But first practice by standing in front of a toilet and flushing €50 bills down, one after the other. And when at last it doesn't hurt anymore, then you are ready to experience Finland.

teisipäev, oktoober 16, 2012


Food, glorious food.

You are what you eat, so they say, and what you eat defines you. On the road north from Tartu, I would often pass a sign spraypainted on the side of a bus stop with a curious bespeckled cartoon face and a bubble above in which was written, "Fuck milk. Go Vegan!"

The sign always made me angry because it was in English, and so was aimed at tourists or truck drivers from foreign lands. They didn't have the common decency to figure out how to spread their message in the national language! Or perhaps it was intelligent for the animal rights activists to go after them rather than the Estonians, because the day the Estonians forsake verivorst in favor of tofu blood sausages en masse is the day I win the Eurovision Song Contest.

The gulf in perceptions toward food between the well-meaning cosmopolitan who has eschewed factory farming and all of its ills and the average Estonian is vast. I know many people in Estonia who are largely responsible for their own food supply, hell, they give it away to us, in the form of smoked meats and fish, gallons of sauerkraut and apple juice, cartons of potatoes, carrots, and beets. If meat is murder, then our neighbors and family members in Estonia are guilty as charged -- they raise the animals and slaughter them as they wish, they pull the fish from the lakes, smoke them and gobble them up.

Could I really pull one of them aside and say, "Hey, buddy. Fuck milk. Go Vegan?" No I couldn't. The larger ideas that have led Global Citizen X to abstain from animal products on principle would be lost on the rural Estonian who maintains his own food supply, animal and vegetable alike, much as his fathers before him. And that's what makes "food totalitarianism" objectionable to me. In my heart, I am a traditionalist. No verivorst for the Estonians, no chorizo for the Spaniards, no pepperoni for the Italians? Again, food defines us, and to abandon millennia-old recipes for tofu cutlets is to cast off one's heritage for the culinary equivalent of Star Trek, to boldly go where no man has gone before, a diet without animal products, the final frontier.

I wrestled with these ideas while reading Jonathan Saffran Foer's landmark Eating Animals, contemplating an Estonian translation. Would it sell? Would the audience be receptive? Is it my civic duty as a global citizen to present alternative viewpoints to the northern European blood-eating masses? The author resides in Brooklyn, where the only farmland left has been turned into an open air museum, and one has access to animal-free food products at the snap of his fingers.

But Brooklyn is far and away from Viljandi. One fellow I know here in town is"Jutukas Kalev," so called because he is jutukas, talkative, meaning that he never shuts up. He lives on the edge of the city in a ramshackle dwelling beside a condemned barn where he makes apple juice for his patrons, you bring him the fruit, he gives you the raw by-product, that's his business. During one of his many soliloquys, which generally focus on local police department corruption, he explained how he only uses searasv, lard, to grease his frying pan, because the dairy products are too expensive. "Who can afford butter in this economy?" he said, thrusting an apple-grimed finger in the air. I just nodded and paid him. It's the best thing to do.

"Would Kalev buy an Estonian translation of Eating Animals?" I pondered while leaving his property, three large containers of raw juice in the back of my car. "Would he 'fuck milk'? Would he 'go vegan?'" In a word, no. Kalev didn't seem like a reader I could count on. Too bad, because there are a lot of good points in that book and many others that recount the horrors of factory farming because they are, well, rather horrific. And some of it hits close to home. There is a pig factory across the lake. On certain days you can smell the death and shit wafting through the air.

Yet some things are changing in E-land. Local activism has recently pushed food producers into selling sausages that are "e-vaba," minus dreaded "e" chemical additives, emulsifiers and food colorings and "flavor enhancers," stuff your great grandmother's great grandmother wouldn't eat. Don't forget, just as an animal product-free life is one futuristic pipe dream, the yellow #5 reality we inhabit isn't too far from being another form of science fiction.

As for me, I live in limbo, the shadowy borderlands between the totalitarian food regimes, scorned by the vegans and the hot dog contest judges. It has become apparent to me that a diet comprised of too many animal products is unhealthy. One need not completely "fuck milk" to appreciate that soy and rice-derived products are easier on the constitution. Moreover, the more I read about traditional lifestyles, the more I see how much our ancestors valued precious animal products. Shepherds in the Italian countryside ate their pasta with eggs because they were starved for protein. The bulk of their diet consisted of fruits and vegetables. Whether or not their protein source was the product of a chicken's menstrual cycle, or disrespectful toward these sacred birds, didn't enter into it.

So here I am at the checkout line at Selver on a Tuesday afternoon, a schizophrenic shopper, buying soy milk and regular milk together, buying packages of tofu cutlets and salmon steaks, and real butter too, because I am lucky enough to be able to afford it. That graffiti on the road out of Tartu still annoys me, because it was in English, and also because it seemed so far removed from the lives of men like Jutukas Kalev. At the same time, I like the vanilla-flavored soy milk because it goes down easy and, most importantly, because it tastes good. I'm glad that I am able to buy it whenever I want. My satisfaction trumps all.

neljapäev, oktoober 04, 2012

hot cakes

In a small town, even pastries are political.

Sven knows I buy bread at Selver. How Sven found out, I do not know, but he's given me hell for it a few times now. "You keep eating that shit," he says, "and you'll be dead in, like, three weeks!"

Sven takes an interest in where I buy my bread in Viljandi because he is a baker, and would prefer that I buy only bread from him. I often do, but sometimes I can't help but bring home a doughy loaf of rosinasai from the archenemy of all independent food stores across Estonia.

Sven the baker keeps an eye on the market. He knows where each man gets his daily bread. When a cafe opened up nearby he wasted no time in tearing apart the competitor's wares. "And did you see those cakes? So puny and dry. Let me tell you, anyone who eats that stuff will be dead in, like ..."

I did go into the rival's bakery once just to see what was on offer. I made sure to look over my shoulder when I stepped through the doorway, scanned the windows on the opposite building, hoping that no one in the town would report back to Sven that I was seen entering the "other" cafe.  And, sure enough, the cakes inside were small and dry. As many Estonian bakers suffer from severe myopia, they only see dry and small cakes and pastries on the shelves of other bakeries, and assume that these are the only kinds of cakes that exist the world over.

That keeps me going back to Sven's cafe for baked goods, with the occasional guilty trek to Selver, but now I hear a high-end cafe is opening up just around the corner, a place where a stale roll graced with a dead fish isn't the resident baker's idea of fine cuisine. Sven and I haven't discussed the new cafe, but we both know "it" exists. Needless to say, if I do go there, it will be early in the morning, or just before closing time. I'll have to wear a trench coat and a false mustache. Such is life in a small town.