reede, juuni 29, 2007

A meeting of the minds

Now if we could only get in some meetings with Sarkozy and Brown! What are your thoughts on this historic visit, and on US-Estonian relations in general? I am of course pleased, but there is still a smidgen of doubtful foreign policy thinking that makes me wonder just how close Estonia should get to the Pentagon and the fourth branch of power in Washington, Dick Cheney's office. Estonia sees the US as an ally, a partner, and -- it must be said -- a guarantor of security. Estonia is grateful -- with its life -- for Sumner Welles non-recognition policy of the occupation of 1940.

But how does the US see Estonia today? Just another "Baltic state"? A symbol of the triumph of freedom and the Cold War and that's all? A bridge to Georgia and the oil rich Caspian region? A "West Berlin" in a sea of post-Soviet revanchism? Somehow I feel the relationship is still not what it could be. How do you think it could be made better? This relationship is still developing 85 years on.

teisipäev, juuni 26, 2007

Jüri Pihl: Estonia's Bad Ass Interior Minister

About two months ago when Tallinn was undersiege by drunk teenagers loyal to Western name brands, three gentlemen made an emergency, 3 am decision to relocate the most odious monument in Estonia immediately to a military cemetery, as opposed to after May 9.

As the cameras panned on the three, Andrus "Hunt Kriimsilm" Ansip, Defense Minister Jaak "Tartu Ülikoolimees" Aaviksoo, and Interior Minister Jüri Pihl, Ansip looked shaken, but not stirred, Aaviksoo looked barely defrosted, and Pihl appeared unnervingly cognizant, with all the calmness of a Kuressaare fisherman before he lops off another one of his catch's heads.

According to Eurasian Secret Services Review Pihl is now strengthening KAPO with another position that will hopefully enable it to make better decisions and weather political storms in the future. He is in the business, it seems, of building a stronger bureaucracy.

I usually don't like the idea of a bold, efficient secret police. But there is something oddly charismatic about Pihl that makes me think that he knows what he is doing. Even when he smiles for Kanal 2, it is not an evil smile, but at the same time, not one of pure joy either. It is the smile of some one about to flip Elo Mõttus into a full nelson and ask her about her ties to terrorist organizations. Estonia might be a nice, peaceful country of blondes with mobile phones and a cross country skiing fetish, but I am glad such people have found their natural place in its bureaucracy.

What have you heard about Estonia's interior minister? Any disappearing kroon acts, ala Siim Kallas? Ties to shady Gotlander businessmen? Too fond of Saaremaa vodka? Any more info on this key minister would be a plus.

pühapäev, juuni 24, 2007

Identities in Time

Inspired by the information-heavy efforts of fellow blogger Pēteris Cedriņš of Marginalia, I decided to browse the Time Archives to discover how those two loaded terms, Baltic and Nordic, were used in the 1920s and 1930s.

The key to these discussions has been understanding Finland because Finland is not a Scandinavian country, but is purportedly not a Baltic country either. It belongs to the 'Nordic community' which was basically a pre-European Union experiment in open markets and migration in northern Europe following the Second World War. Today Finland is considered "Nordic" while Estonia is considered "Baltic". But the reality is that is a condition of world ideas on geopolitical identity since the Second World War, rather than since the settlements of 1918-1920.

There has been some, but little, discussion of Finland's pre-war identity as a Baltic state or Baltic country, but if you peruse the Time Magazine archives you will see that in the begining, Finland as identified as 1) former Tsarist Russian and 2) a Baltic country. Another oddity is that, more often than not, Swedish names are used to identify Finnish cities. Turku is Abo. Helsinki is Helsingfors. Only sometimes is Helsinki used first. This is obviously not the case today.

Here's an excerpt from 1926 story:

Geographers noted that what was once the Empire of the Romanovs and what is now the U. S. S. R. are indeed two quite different areas. In the West the Baltic countries from Poland to Finland have split off; in the Near East the Transcaucasian Federation of Soviet Republics (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) have been created and linked with the other Socialist Soviet Republics which signed the treaty of union at Moscow on Dec. 30, 1922.

Here's a great description of Finland from Sept. 8, 1930:

Finland, a country some 30,000 sq. mi. larger than Italy, stretches north from Leningrad to the Arctic Ocean, a sort of buffer between Soviet Russia and the Scandinavian Peninsula. It is chiefly known to the U. S. as one of the only three governments in the world* which maintain absolute Prohibition of liquor, and as the country whence come great endurance runners (Paavo Nurmi, Willie Ritola et al.) and house servants who are either very fine and faithful or extremely stupid. Correspondents have described it as a country riddled with lakes, bootleggers and Bolshevik propagandists. Official Finland, puny before the armed might of Soviet Russia, regards the Soviet agents with a sort of affable apathy. Not so Vihtori Kosola and his fellow villagers of Lapua. They hate the sight of a Communist.
Here's another nugget from May 28, 1934, entitled Das Baltikum.

Beyond the Polish Corridor and East Prussia, the Eastern shore of the Baltic is edged with little countries born of the War. Going north, they are Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and vast lake-riddled Finland. All of them were Russian provinces before 1917 and in all of them still goes on a constant struggle of German v. Russian influence. Latvia is mostly an agricultural country. The Letts are an amiable, broad-faced people. Russian for more than 100 years, the country was dominated for 700 years before that by German barons, holding the Lettish peasants as serfs. Today the upper classes and "best people" are still mostly of German descent.
Here's one that gets to the heart of identity issues from June 14, 1937.

Because the Scandinavian nations speak nearly the same language, share the same royal family and were most ardently bound to neutrality during the War, they formed instinctively a tight little group that talked and voted alike during the early years of the League of Nations. Instinctively Baltic Finland joined them and also the Low Countries, Belgium, The Netherlands, minuscule Luxembourg.
The first time the term "Nordic" as applied to Finland is on October 30, 1939 in Time Magazine. In fact, it's the first time that "Nordic" is used in its current meaning. Before Stalin's invasion of Finland and the occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, it is clear that there were Scandinavian states and Baltic states, but not Nordic states. On Oct. 30, 1939, the "Nordic states" is first used.

It doesn't end there. From March 25, 1940:

On the one side, tearful Finns quoted an old Nordic saying: "Sorrows are our reins, bad days our bridle." On the other, the Russians laughed, drank beer, slapped each other's backs, praised their Red Army "defenders." But among the friends and foes of each side there was a bitter search for reasons, a hunt for scapegoats, a vindictive beating back & forth of the shuttlecock of blame.
From May 6, 1940, describing Sibelius' music:
These miscellaneous pieces, ranging from Op. 9 to Op. 109a, are nearly all bleak, bardic, Nordic, at times sound as relevant to contemporary Finland as an air-raid alarm.
After that, the terms "Nordic" and "Finland" regularly appear as they do today. It seems that with the captivity of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, somebody began feeding journalists the 'N' word during the Winter War to distinguish Finland from its less fortunate Baltic brethren. So that by the 1960s myths of Nordic cooperation, which coincided with a series of pan-northern European initiatives, began freely mixing terms like Scandinavia and Nordic.

With Estonia you find similarities with Finland in the pre-war period. Estonian cities are also referred to with their Germanic names, and Estonia is similarly "former Tsarist Russia." From June 1933:

Next day, pale with fury, the President summoned his Cabinet at Reval on the Baltic. Declaring Estonian democracy "menaced," the Cabinet put Dorpat under martial law, dismissed half the town's police force as tainted with Front Soldier ideology.
The US helped along the concept of the Baltic states by dispatching a minister to "Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania" in 1933. In 1934 you find a definition of these Baltic states -- war born, small, next to Russia:

Those three War-born little states on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea— Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—would hardly seem a menace to anybody. But they are close to the heart of Soviet Russia.
In March 1935, you find the first explicit mention of Estonia as a Baltic state.

Sole exception is the dignified little Baltic State of Estonia. Until a thwarted Nazi putsch so alarmed President Konstantin Pats last year that he declared a state of martial law, Estonia had ignored the death penalty entirely.
And you'll see that the term became extra handy in 1939 to describe the situation affecting Estonia:

When Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler began signing agreements, diplomats guessed that there was more to the partnership than at first met the eye. They suspected the existence of secret clauses, annexes, even verbal understandings that were not made public. They were right. As events began to unravel, and perhaps as Dictator Stalin got unexpectedly grabby, he got a big slice of Poland. Not long thereafter the Eastern Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and perhaps Finland) became an uncontested sphere of Red imperialism. All told, Herr Hitler had won Russian "friendship," but it looked as though, so far, Tovarish Stalin had won the war.
The article was called "Balts' Return", it explicity defined who exactly "Balts" were:

Further south, in Latvia, 60,000 Balts—as the Germans are known in the Baltic—simultaneously began a mass migration back to the "spiritual homeland" they have not known for centuries, while in Lithuania, where Russian troops are expected before long, a mass exodus of 40,000 "racial comrades" was to begin shortly.
In fact, the idea of three Baltic states has its real root in the Second World War. After their occupation and annexation, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are referred to in tandem at nearly every mention.

In 1947, the Cold War identity was formed. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were now kindred "Baltic peoples." From April 14, 1947 in a category called 'The Baltics':

For centuries, Baltic peasants have labored for their feudal lords—Swedes, Russians, Poles, Germans. Today, the Baltic peasant serves an old master under a new form of serfdom. He serves Communist Russia. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were forced, at the point of Red Army guns, to join the Soviet Union in 1940. Ever since then, Russia's westward window on the Baltic Sea has been tightly shuttered.
You should read the whole article for its great description of life in Estonia after World War II. So much for historical revisionism here:

The Russians encourage migrations of their nationals to the Baltics, and the Russians like to come, because they find life there more agreeable than back home. "Russification" proceeds apace. In Tallinn, for example, birth announcements reveal half as many newborn Russians as Estonians. Many schools and churches are closed; Russian (as in Czarist days) has become the official language, and Communism the official religion.
And so they remained. Captive for 50 years. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the West never really did recognize the occupation of Estonia. And when the 'Baltic Republics' pressed for independence in the 1980s, or joined the EU and NATO in 2004, they remained a convenient trio.

They still remain that way. However, different memes are associated with the different countries. Current Estonian stories focus on "tech-savvy E-stonia" that has reoriented towards Scandinavia. Unfortunately, not much is written about Latvia and Lithuania in Time outside of their membership in NATO and, in Lithuania's case, it's relationship between Belarus, Poland, and Russia as a sort of cross-roads of Europe. If anybody can find something, please post it.

reede, juuni 22, 2007

Historical Convergence

The catchall word for the European Union these days is convergence. There's economic convergence, political convergence, and then the muddy waters of social and ethical convergence. In this last category, you find overt convergence -- gay pride parades in Tallinn -- and then the less overt historical convergence, which taints all three layers of converging.

The big issue in the narrative of historical convergence is "the war." No, not the Great Northern War, not the Boer War, but the "Great Patriotic War." You think I am joking by putting all these conflicts together in one sentence. I'll explain later why I am not.

But first, the reason that it is such an issue now is that the generation in power was born after it happened. The childhood world of the Angela Merkels, Jaroslaw Kaczynskis, Vladimir Putins, and, dare I say, Toomas Hendrik Ilveses of the world was colored by a menacing cartoon-like storm called World War II.

The pre-war generation of Chiracs, Yeltsins, Prodis, and Kohls, who experienced conflict first hand, saw it as their mission to avoid and move beyond that conflict. They simply wished never again to revisit the troubles of their childhood. The Putins and Kaczynskis are different. These young children were brought up by parents that no doubt had an opinion about the great maelstrom of death they had endured as young adults, and passed those opinions on to their children at the breakfast table. The young Putin learned that Estonians were fascist betrayers. Can anyone wonder why Russia now sees Estonia in the light, even though to most of us the concepts -- fascist? betrayal? -- seem like some farfetched dialog from a bad movie.

Merkel has no doubt inherited a sizeable amount of post-war German guilt and shame; Ilves has perhaps retained the quiet angst of Estonia being sold out by just about everybody, including some of its own, in WWII. And then there's Jaroslaw Kaczynski who today used the past as a cudgel to defend Poland from what it sees as the rise of a potential Fourth Reich in the EU.

"It was the Germans who inflicted unimaginable injury, terrible harm, on Poles - incomprehensible crimes and Poles like Germans, while Germans do not like Poles," he said.

"We are only demanding one thing, that we get back what was taken from us.

"If Poland had not had to live through the years of 1939-45, Poland would be today looking at the demographics of a country of 66 million."

The problem with Kaczynski's outburst is not that it's necessarily wrong, but that it's not actually productive. I mean if you lived between the cold-blooded Germans and the compulsive-liar Russians, you'd be paranoid too. Yes it's true that Germany and Russia tore Poland to pieces in the 1940s. But it's also true that after the Great Northern War there were about 250,000 people left in Estonia, no thanks to the imperial clashes of Stockholm and Petersburg. And that's sort of the point that Kaczynski and Putin and all of Europe's post-war babies need to understand: the past is most often awful, and the actions of the past cannot really be rationalized or defended. They can only be acknowledged.

We must see World War II for what it was: a territorial war, no different from the First World War, no different from the Boer War, or the Great Northern War, or the American Civil War. Like most conflicts it was about land and who gets to control it and for what purposes. Hitler did not expand into Poland because he wanted to get his hands on the Jews and Romas there, he did it because he wanted Germany to be bigger. Stalin did not seize Riga, Tallinn, Vyborg, and Kaunas because he wanted the fishermen of Klaipeda to feel the wonders of Marxism-Leninism, he did it because he wanted ports in which to put his war ships because the Soviets believed that it was their manifest destiny to paint the world red in giant cyrillic lettering.

So let's stop kidding ourselves. War is terrible and illogical. For all the blood each side spills, the rewards are instantly diminished. No one alive today is responsible for the great territorial war in Europe of the 1940s. Molotov is dead. Stalin. Dead. Beria. Dead. Even Joseph Mengele died in the disco years in Brazil after having a stroke while swimming. It's over. Merkel, Putin, Kaczynski -- none of these leaders bear responsibility for those crimes. Moreover, those of us who are even younger should do our part to put history where it belongs -- in books and museums.

That's why Russia doesn't really owe Estonia an apology for the 50 years of occupation. But it does owe Estonia an acknowledgement of what happened along with a strong expression of empathy. Therefore, the best bet for Angela Merkel is to simply acknowledge the grains of truth in Kaczynski's statement, but to move ahead by telling us what we all know -- that we cannot dwell on the past, nor live on it, and the only route we collectively have is forward. That would be the stateswomanly thing to do, and it would be to the benefit of Europe.

neljapäev, juuni 21, 2007

Tere Tulemast Sudaanisse

The photo to your left is not of a beach near Kuressaare. No, it's one of the few 'tame' photos to emerge from the nightmare imagery of Darfur, the famine-cursed, genocide-happy region of western Sudan.

The crisis in Darfur has stirred the souls of millions of Westerners due to its similarities with a similar crisis in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. The challenge of the Rwandan genocide to the Western mindset was this:

For 60+ years, we have all used the crimes of Nazi Germany to reinforce respect for our position of power in the world and to create a sense of social identity based on common values. Therefore, we may not be able to agree whether The Beatles or the Rolling Stones were better bands (obviously the Stones, I mean they still haven't broken up yet), but we all can agree that Nazi Germany was bad, death camps were bad, Auschwitz was bad, Hitler was really bad, and anybody else in the world that is bad can be likened to those who committed crimes against humanity.

If you don't agree that Hitler was bad, you may be guilty of a "hate crime". If you write a book saying the Holocaust never happened, or wasn't as bad as they say it was, then you are a "Holocaust denier" and must promptly go to jail, preferably in Austria, where you are forced to eat Viennese sausages and think long and hard about your crime. We in the West take that stuff quite seriously.

Even in the Russian Federation, the ghost of Hitler still helps them forget the ghost of Stalin. I mean Stalin may have killed more people, but they were just Ukrainians, and besides, Stalin induced famines or sent them to death camps to starve, he wasn't as ingeniously evil as Hitler and his gas chambers. So even in logic-suspended Russia, Hitler is used to reinforce the idea of the state as good and Russians as a good people.

Rwanda challenged that because, unlike in Yugoslavia, the world sat by and did mostly nothing during what most describe as brutal genocide. Since this occurred at the same time as the situation in the states that used to comprise Yugoslavia, people began thinking, "why Europe and not Africa?" One of the answers was that (perhaps) we cared more about the lives of Europeans more than Africans, and if we did, then that was very bad.

So Darfur means more to the West than just stopping endless bloodletting. It's a test over whether or not we can redeem ourselves on that continent and redeem our values to ourselves. In that vein, it appears that the first place our Nordic Battle Group of the EU, which includes 2,000 self-absorbed Swedes, 200 taciturn Finns, 150 egalitarian Norwegians, and 50 cocky Estonians and has an awesome flag, will be Darfur.

Jyri Häkämies (cons), the Finnish defence minister, told the Finnish News Agency (STT) in an interview released Thursday that the EU might deploy its Nordic battlegroup into Africa next year.

"Darfur is a very challenging mission. I have observed in the Nordic context that these countries have forces on stand-by for which challenges are being sought. When the battlegroup becomes active under Sweden's leadership next year, there is quite a strong sense that the destination may be Africa," Mr Häkämies said.

The Scandinavian mainstream media has been clamouring for peacekeepers in Darfur, and this could be seen as another attempt for the Nordic countries to put themselves in harm's way to show that they still adhere to certain values, ie: "genocide = bad, when genocide occurs, we do something about it."

Indeed, if you read Swedish or Norwegian blogs, you'll see that rather than bitching about Carl Bildt's latest real estate scandal, they are morose over prospects of peace in the Middle East and solving the problems of Darfur. That is, they are even greater fans of uphill skiing than the Estonians.

I'd put good kroner/krooni down on this deployment taking place. You don't just train for a few years in Sweden and then sit on your hands waiting to take back Viipuri. At that point, Estonians will be in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan, doing their part for Western self-respect and the world community.

teisipäev, juuni 19, 2007


Tänapäeval, iga inimene on blogija, ja poliitikud on ka inimised ja nad on eriti andekad blogijad. Carl Bildt, Erkki Tuomioja, Edgar Savisaar -- kõik mõtlevad, et blogid on poliitilisevahend. SDE mees Hannes Rumm on ka nii tärk kui need teised poliitikud, ja Hannesil on oma blog mis ... nimi ... on ... Hannes Rumm.

Ma proovisin lugeda Hannesi uus post, aga see oli nii räske töö! Iga teine sõna oli võõr sõna. Ma otsustasin kutsuda mu lemmik Interneti sõnaraamat,, ja ma arvan, et ma sain aru millest sõber Hannes on kirjutanud.

Uued sõnad minu poolt on "väärtsustama" (to appreciate), "liikmelisus" (support * I think*), "arutelu" (discussion), ja "võimatu" (impossible). Aga Hannesi post oli natukene võimatu lugeda.

Anyway, ma arvan et Hannesi blog on ju hea. Kui te ei kärda lugeda rahvusvahelisest probleemidest, siis muidugi IRL poiss Marko Mihkelsonil on eriti lahe blog ka.

reede, juuni 15, 2007


It is becoming more and more apparent that Latvia is taking advantage of the recent fray between Estonia and Russia to make itself look like a good boy in the eyes of the eastern, more often genocidal neighbor.

First came the ratification of the border treaty where -- in Russia's eyes -- Latvia abandoned its land claims to the Pytalovo district or its uninterupted legal continuity during the Cold War period.

That's not to say that Latvia had any land claims or that it gave up its legal continuity when it did so, but from the perspective of the Russian media, which is like FOX News on steroids for Russia, it did. And what did Latvia gain? Well, it already had a border and it already is in the EU and NATO. So I guess it gained the image of being a good boy in Moscow.

This was confirmed by the recent invitation of President-elect Valdis Zatlers to visit his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, sometime in autumn. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov himself will also visit Latvia, after the border treaty is ratified, of course. One can only dream of the day when such Russian dignitaries offer the same access to Estonia's elite.

Finally, there's this tidbit. Latvia will restore an inscription on a monument in Riga that reads: 'to the soldier liberator of Soviet Latvia and Riga from German Nazi troops.' It was removed in the 1990s during a period of ideological fervor, but now, since Latvia is a good boy, it's time to address the needs of 'dozens of thousands of Riga residents who treasure the monument,' Latvian politician Janis Urbanovics said in a report.

In Latvia's recent posturing one sees signs of the kind of self-censorship that marked Finland's position during the Cold War. But does that mean that the new Cold War is upon us, or is this something else. It could be the pragmatic thinking of Latvia's political elite to accept reality -- that ethnic Latvians lack critical mass in Riga to ever attempt what the authorities did in Tallinn, and moreover, they are terrified of provoking a similar response among their residents.

Or maybe they just see a window to escape the hostility of Russia. I recall that in 2003 and 2004 the news reports similarly smacked of the hysteria towards Latvia that now has been shown towards Estonia. Who could blame them for making superficial sacrifices to maintain stability with its increasingly rich and powerful neighbor? Afterall, the school reforms will go on, won't they?

Well, that's another question. Is there a slippery slope to this behavior. Will we soon see the elimination of the citizenship policy? Will the unilingual policy fall after that? And sovereignty after that? One hopes not, but I am sure that rightwing Latvians are already saying it's the case.

At the bottom of comparison with Estonia is that the two countries are different states. I know that Estonia sees itself as part of the Nordic community if not a Nordic country per se. Although the Russian relationship is often the most discussed and emotional, it is the Swedish and Finnish and Danish relationships that are as, if not more important.

That's not to say that Estonians are more like Danes, or have nothing in common with Russians. But in terms of the state, its perspective is guided by its place as a state among states in that community. For example, the national coat of arms in Estonia is a derivative of the Danish coat of arms. In Võru, there are photos of Gustavus Adolphus up to commorate the 375th birthday of Tartu University. This is in Võru, not even in Tartu.

At most junctures in Estonia -- the name of the capital, the seafaring nature of the islanders, the main university that has served a cultural and political engine for Estonian life, the national epic -- there is a Scandinavian or Nordic root. So, Estonia sees itself as part of this family of northern European nation states. Relations with Russia are important, but not essential to the identity of the state, if only as an antagonist to help prop the state up and reinforce its vision of itself.

In Latvia I have read that there is a history of viewing the country as an interface between Germany and Russia. Then again, perhaps that history was authored by Artis Pabriks, the current foreign minister of Latvia. But Latvia's recent actions are more in tune to this concept of Latvia -- as a mildly nationalist civilizational conductor between Germany and Russia, neither of which give a crap about inscriptions on monuments, uninterupted legal continuity, or most of Latvia's policies if they aggrevate or complicate the German-Russian (Nord Stream) agenda.

On the flipside, when the anti-Estonian Putin is gone from office, perhaps Estonia will see similar efforts from Russia to have a 'normal' relationship -- the kind it has with Norway or Finland as Russia comes to accept the Baltics' EU status. This is the kind of relationship that the EU and the US have both been urging Russia to take towards the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. Maybe the softening in Latvian-Russian relations will have even positive implications for other countries too.

Travelin' Man

So I am back in New York after a whirwind journey that started at the Tartu bus station at 4:00 AM. We flew Czech Airlines this time, which isn't a bad airline. People in the US -- I suspect -- are a bit sketched out by the prospect of flying any airline that has the name of a former communist country in front of it.

Therefore Icelandair and Finnair are good, safe, wholesome, clean, Aryan airlines, while flying Czech Airlines, LOT, and others means you have to sit between chicken coops and sacks of potatoes. The truth is that there are many US airlines that are far more untrustworthy than anything that comes out of Prague, or as Vice President Dick Cheney still calls it, Czechoslovakia.

Anyway we met a nice woman on the first flight from Tallinn to Prague who was reading a romance-themed novel in Russian but spoke to my daughter in Estonian and played with her. Her name was Natasha, or as my daughter called her, 'Patasha' and came from Narva. I told her that I wanted to visit Narva and she seemed a bit interested in this because I have a feeling that in Estonia telling people you want to visit Narva isn't your average conversational topic. It's like saying, 'North Philadelphia? I always wanted to visit North Philadelphia!' But I do want to visit Narva. So there.

On the flight from Prague to New York there were many Lithuanians. I felt like every other person held a passport that said Lietuvos on it. Lithuanian is an Indo-European language. I know that you know this, but to actually hear it makes a world of difference. Because if you know Latin -- and I took three years of it -- you can guess the meanings of Latvian or Lithuanian words just by looking at them.

Also, subconsciously your mind digests languages differently -- I think. Because Estonian word order and its unique case system are so different, what happens in understanding Estonian is that you are literally thrown a series of random words that your Indo-European mind must then decipher, rearrange, and digest within seconds. With Lithuanian, even though you don't understand the words, your mind is more receptive to the pace and the sounds. It's hard to explain, but there is a difference.

I also got to travel with Estonians on the plane. This was interesting to me because I got to listen in on conversations and test my language comprehension. What could be a better place to learn Estonian than standing at the baggage retrieval in JFK and trying to figure out what jet-lagged Estonian teenagers are saying to each other.

One thing that has been difficult is that Estonian-speakers often start sentences but don't finish them. That is they say a few important things, then mumble the rest incomprehensively. This is followed by a series of 'jah's which are uttered as one sucks air in.

Another thing that is a bit odd about Estonian, especially among younger people, is the use of totally irrelevant words to get a point across. My niece does this all the time. Because the most important words are often at the end of the sentence -- the verbs -- I am left fishing for meaning through a series of 'tegelikult' (actually), sellepärast (because), 'noh, ma arvan' (well I think), and a few more 'tegelikult' just for good measure.

I think people do this in all languages. I do it too. I use the word 'like' and 'just' too much. But when the most important word is often the last one, it leaves me hoping that the speakers will just, like, get to the friggin' point already!

Two of the best Estonian words are 'onu' and 'tädi'. Depending on the context, your 'onu' -- which means 'uncle' but is synonymous with 'adult man' for children -- is generous and friendly, or standoffish and dull. Either way, the word has a hint of clumsiness to it.

'Tädi' -- or aunt, but again 'female adult' -- has similar undertones. I feel that your average 'tädi' though is the kind that is on time, has her own personal library, and drinks a lot of tea with her friends. That is, she is a bit older and perhaps does not want to be bothered. A generous tädi will perhaps stoop down to the child's level and give her a piece of chocolate and a smile. Because of this conservative image, it's kind of funny that our younger kindergarten teachers were called 'tädi'.

Either way, I am very grateful to all the onus and tädis that made it possible for me to travel with a three year old from Tartu to Tallinn to Prague to New York. Whereever you are, thanks for your assistance in making it happen. I will be traveling to San Francisco and Vancouver during this trip, so I will be sure to follow up with some California and Canada bashing in the near future.

kolmapäev, juuni 13, 2007

Mats Hobusega

One thing I have always had a hard time doing is finding a national personification for Estonia. That is the US has Uncle Sam, and the UK has John Bull, and closer to home, Sweden has Svenson and Finland has Pekka Põder.

But who is the national personification of Estonia? Is it some cute coincidence of names -- Juku Jänes or Tanel Tamm, or is it a genuine national figure like Marko Märtin or Mihkel Mutt that sums Estonia up?

One character that always seems an apt metaphor for the average Estonian is Mats Hobusega -- Mats with the horse, a sort of self-deprecating view of Estonia's humble, agricultural background.

To me, all Estonians are a bit Mats Hobusega. But then again, it's hard for Estonians to agree on anything, let alone what kind of slogan they should have in their airports or who their next president should be. Estonians would rather eat other Estonians that decide on who their national personification should be. But what the hell, this is a blog, we might as well try.

pühapäev, juuni 10, 2007

Võrumaa -- oma ja hää

Today I fulfilled one of my major Estonian ambitions, I traveled south through Põlvamaa to Võru, the home of the mysterious speakers of Võru kiela, a dialect of Estonian similar to Finnish.

As a city, Võru is larger than Põlva. It seems a bit smaller than Viljandi, but not by much. However I found it more attractive than some cities in Estonia because there is simply less rotting Soviet-era crap around.

When we got to Võru we visited an antique store -- yes, I am getting old and boring -- and I got to look at old copies of Kalevipoeg, photos of Konstantin Päts, and, of course, creepy 1950s Soviet stuff -- you know the picture of Stalin with Lenin's head floating in the clouds above him, symbolizing how, even though Lenin is gone, his genius lives on through Stalin. Yeah, that kind of stuff.

Võru is layed out in a pleasant enough grid around a lake with fairly well kept buildings. Every bench in the park in the center of town was warmed by the rear-end of an elderly resident of Võru. They were all very quiet and seemed a bit perturbed by this large male with his small yet very loud daughter trailing alongside him on the way to the Konsum.

In the Konsum, I sensed an accent. I was listening for the Võru dialect, but I just heard Estonian spoken with a bit of an accent. Maybe it was dialect, maybe it's just that the Lõuna-Eesti murre is especially thick here. The people were a bit slower. When they counted my money it seemed like it took forever. I felt like I was in a real farm town. Perhaps what Iowa might feel like if I ever went there.

As we headed for the beach on Lake Tamulina, we got sucked into a parade. There were many, many older ladies in folk costumes holding signs that said things like "Itä Virumaan Seura" and holding a yellow flag with a Nordic cross on it that looked slightly familiar. Many of them had hats on that said "Inkeri" and it turned out that we had just stumbled into a parade and laulupidu of Inkeri Finns who had traveled from all parts of Estonia to sing songs in Finnish and Estonian in Võrumaa of all places.

I heard words like "kiitos" and "hyvä" floating around me and I suddenly felt like I was back in Seinajöki five years ago. The feeling was the same. It was as if Finland was in Estonia or rather, Estonia was part of Finland. But there were Russian-speakers there too. We thought they might be from some place exotic, like Mari-El, but no, they were from Kohtla-Järve. They also switched to Estonian when we asked them questions about their costumes, another part of the daily proof that the language issue isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Yesterday at the beack in Tartu I encountered a little boy, about six years old, who yelled at one little girl in Russian (I presume his sister) then at another in Estonian (I presume his sister's friend) and then got up and ran down the beach yelling, "Kes tahab jäätist?" It's amazing. He was just a little boy and bilingual.

Anyway, not only were there Inkeri Finns from Itä Viromaa, but there were Chuvash there and Latvians and Lithuanians and even some fiesty Ukrainians with their yellow and blue flag and emotive speaking style that was a welcome cup of coffee after snoozing through speeches by Estonians and Finns. Plus, we got to listen to the Estonian national anthem twice -- in Finnish and in Estonian! Altogether, it was an interesting experience. So if anyone ever tells you that the Inkeri Finns don't exist, just send them to Võrumaa.

After we left Võru we traveled to Umbsaare to visit a friend. She has two golden haired children -- both under two years of age -- and it was interesting to think that pretty soon we'll be dealing with a baby again that cannot speak or tell us when it has to go to the bathroom. She made us lunch which included kama, the yummy Estonian snack that leaves the foreigner feeling a bit off after consumption.

Kama is made of ground peas and wheat and all sort of good stuff and it is mixed with hapupiim -- literally sour milk, but not sour cream, more like yogurt but softer -- and consumed as a sweet dish. This is good as Estonians like to put salt in most everything. They even put salt in their porridge! But not, as far as I know, in their kama. After I had the kama I felt as if I had eaten drain-o for my digestive system. I could feel the kama weighing down on my intestines, the powder scraping the sides as it worked its way towards its eventual destination. To put it simply, kama is some heavy duty shit.

After kama we went to Vastseliina vald, a parish to the southeast of Võru. Võrumaa isn't altogether that huge as a county and pretty soon we were near the Russian border, although I imagine that the Russian side also looks like the Estonian side -- thick with forests, the kind of forests that would be good for, hmm, I don't know, a guerilla war?

That's right. Vastseliina vald was among the old hiding places of Orion, a guerilla organization led by Jaan Roots, a Võru high school student loyal to the Estonian state that joined a group called Põhjala Noored (Northern Youth) and subsequently came under investigation by the Soviet authorities. Roots fled to the forests and conducted raids on Soviet forces until he met the fate of most metsavennad, dying in the forests of Võrumaa in a shoot out in 1952 at the age of 25.

We didn't meet any guerillas in Vastseliina though. Instead we met mosquitos, thousands of them. As soon as I stepped out of the car the droning of the sääsed filled my ears. I tried wading into the nearby creek to escape them, but the just wouldn't leave me alone. Our friend led us up the creek to a scenic waterfall -- she's accustomed to the sääsk treatment -- but before we could get there I had to bail with my small child, carrying her up a hill through the forest, all the time swatting away the swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitos and avoiding the many pinecones that punctured my New York tender feet.

Finally we got to the bluff above the waterfall, took our photo there, and walked quickly back to the car to hide from the nasty mosquitos that followed our fresh wounds everywhere. I managed to kill a few and boy did I enjoy swatting the shit out of those sääsed. Believe you me, they felt my furious anger as the Estonian map came swinging through the air, crushing their tiny blood sucking exoskeletons. Let this be a lesson to you, sääsed.

At this juncture, I decided that Võrumaa wasn't really for me. I was heading back to Tartu, home of blonde chicks in hot pants, friendly pubs, a multitude of supermarkets, and other such civilized things. I wanted to be in my little Tartu apartment, sääsk free, recuperating from the havoc that the kama had wrought on my body. I left Võrumaa fulfilled but wary of the wilderness. The next time I am in the mood for Võrumaa I just might have some Wõro sausages instead.

reede, juuni 08, 2007

Lula, Tarja, and Toomas

As an American, I feel a deep kinship with Brazil. To me, Brazil is the other "American" country. It shares our sordid past of slavery and our rich heritage of exporting the cultural stew of the new world back to the old one. We have given the world jazz, and blues, and rock. They have given the world bossa nova, and samba, and capoiera. We are so different yet similar.

I was pleased when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became president of Brazil in 2003 because it reinforced a long-standing idea of mine with regards to our neighbors in the south: that not all Latin lefties were Soviet sycophants, and that socialist ideals, while marginal in the US, will remain attractive in South America and that the best course of action from the US perspective is to work with genuine democratic partners like Lula in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile while working against people like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

With that in mind, let me pose the following question: why the hell is Brazil not in the G8? This question is followed by the clarifying question: why is Russia in the G8 and Brazil is not? The G8 was founded in the early 1970s as a club for the world's large industrial democracies. Canada (pop. 33 million) perhaps no longer deserves a seat at the table, but due to its political ties to the UK, its cultural ties to France, and its economic ties to the US, no one questions the presence of Stephen Harper at the summit this week.

But if there is a question of who deserves to be the eighth member, then I think that Brazil wins it hands down. 188 million people live in Brazil, as opposed to just 142 million in Russia. Both the IMF and the World Bank rank Brazilian GDP ahead of Russian GDP. Brazil has been democratizing for far longer than Russia, and its elections are more competitive today than in Russia's managed or sham democracy. So again, why isn't Lula sitting in Vladimir Putin's seat this week?

The obvious answer is the complicated one. The West wants to influence Russia through institutional partnerships and the G8 is a mechanism for doing that. But when it comes to the West and Russia I think of the positions of two countries on Russia's border that have astonishingly different relationships with Russia and try as I might I can't find definitive reasons why the Russians, in particular, see these countries so differently.

I keep coming back to the idea of Toomas Hendrik Ilves: that Russia sees Estonia or Georgia as threats because it sees democracies on its borders as threatening Russia's own sham democracy by example.

The obvious counterpoint to this is that Russia shares a very long border with a former province that has been democratic for quite some time. In fact, wasn't it Finland that first allowed womens' suffrage in 1906? I know that Finland has a very different history from Estonia, but at the same time, the Finnish and Estonian reactions to Russification in the late 19th century caused similar results, the birth of national republicanism that led to all-out independence, granted by the Russians to the Finns and Estonians in the same house at the same time, just a few blocks from where I am typing this.

Yet Putin has visited Finland uncounted times, and Estonia remains a continuous focus of anti-everything Russian propaganda. The Finnish example certainly poses a direct challenge to Russian democracy, yet for whatever reason the Russians choose to ignore it, to the point that discussion of the Winter War is, as journalist Christopher Marcisz recently noted, off limits.

Russian financial interest in Estonia can also be discounted in a similar manner of comparison with Finland. Finnish trade with Russia substantially dwarfs Estonian trade, and the Finnish market of 5+ million people is enormous compared to any profits gained by a presence in Estonia.

So it interests me why Finland is continuously ignored from the man on the Russian street, while Estonia is paid attention. Finland is "different" and "far", while Estonia is "closer" and "more threatening". This is interesting because most Russians that I have spoken with indeed see Estonia as "far" culturally. To the bemusement of real Scandinavians, the "Soviet Scandinavian" image remains. In all times that I explained my knowledge of Estonian or my daughters usage of it to Russians, I was told that "Estonian is one of the Scandinavian languages" (contain your laughter). And I have seen on forums, like Lonely Planet, Russians who think that they can't use Russian in Estonia because of this cultural and national gulf!

Yet, again, we come back to statements made in the past week. Tarja Halonen exclaims that the "world needs a strong Russia", while Toomas Hendrik Ilves jets off to Prague to hangout with Vaclav Havel and constructively criticize Russia, even questioning its membership in the G8.

"If it is true that Democracies do not go to war with each other, then what is a country that threatens to target its nuclear missiles at Europe doing in the G-8, the club of large industrial Democracies? Either the proposition is wrong or the G-8 is based on something else than a common commitment to democratic rule," Ilves said.

These are approaches commensurate with each country's needs and they also highlight the two different approaches of the West to Russia and how it is that Vladimir Putin gets to share jokes about, no doubt, dead donkey ears and monsters with claws and horns, with Angela Merkel while Lula's presence at such a summit would merely be in an auxiliary capacity, even though his country is more deserving of being there.

The Finnish approach stresses accomodation with the realities of Russian illiberalism, while the Estonian approach is to continuously take the offensive against Russia so it has to play defense less of the time. These are both related to the security needs of both countries, and have as much to do with Estonia and Finland as they have to do with Russia.

But somewhere in the middle one can see that Finland is shown respect from Russia while Estonia is not, yet at the same time Russia gains power at the expense of Russian appeasement while more true democrats like Lula are left out in the cold.

So the question presents itself: what do we want out of this West in which we live vis a vis Russia. One where we ignore Russia and Russia ignores us, or one where we challenge Russia and hope it lives up to that challenge?

kolmapäev, juuni 06, 2007

Highway to Hell

Last week I had to ferry a car load of passengers to Tallinn from Tartu and back. To get there I had to take the dreaded road that winds north through Põltsamaa, past Paide, and eventually into the belly of the beast, Tallinn.

I was afraid of this road, having been exposed to cover after cover of SL Õhtuleht, the daily tabloid that enjoys featuring pictures of burned out car wrecks on the front page. Because most of my passengers were well liked, I had a hunch that God had no motive to remove us all in one fell swoop. Still, it was raining and misty and the desire not to die was extremely strong as I set out on the journey.

The road to Tallinn is not in bad condition. However, the first problem you encounter is other Estonian drivers. Estonian drivers don't drive to get places. Theirs is not a destination-based travel. Instead, Estonian drivers drive to go fast in their new cars. They also drive to pass other people, which is a way of showing off their Finnic machismo. Even if you are doing 70 miles per hour on the road, the Estonian driver will speed up to do 90 miles per hour, just so he can pass you and resume doing 70 miles per hour in front of you.

The second biggest problem is that the Tallinn-Tartu road is clogged with truckers hauling goods back and forth between Estonia's two largest cities. That means you have to pass these gigantic vehicles that may be lugging such hazardous, life threatening materials as timber, which could fall off the back, crushing your car to pieces, gas, which could explode, barbequeing your body, not to mention the awful smell of burnt hair, and leib, which could fly out the back of the truck, break through your windshield, and slice your head clean off.

The final problem with the Tallinn-Tartu road is that it is a two lane road. This means that on a wet, misty, rainy day, you might get stuck behind a leib truck and be barely able to see if you are able to pass the truck or if any attempt to move ahead will be met with a head-on collision, which would, for lack of better terms, really suck.

Driving in all three conditions the other day, I have to say there were a few times I held my breath, my focus trained on the road ahead of me like Luke Skywalker's focus when he blew up the Death Star in the first Star Wars movie. At one point on the way back in rained so hard that visibility was basically reduced to making out the tail lights of the car in front of you and gauging the distance. And remember, you're traveling at 65 miles per hour on slick roads surrounded by jerk-off Estonian drivers who insist on passing you in the least savory of weather conditions.

In that moment I didn't think we would die, but I also wasn't entirely convinced we were going to live either. Then just as I thought we were done for, we saw a bright light. It wasn't raining up ahead. There were blue skies, and sunshine. Birds were singing in the trees. It wasn't heaven. It was Järvamaa. As we headed into safety we stopped at Sämmi Grill and had lunch/dinner. Then continued, me blissfully unaware that we were out of gas. I drove farther south until I saw the read [empty] light, then asked where we were.

"Laeva Vald" was the answer. "Good" I thought," just a few more kilometers and we'll be in civilization where they have toilets and gas stations." But we drove. And drove. And drove. And I began to curse this blasted country where there is one house every five miles and having a gas station denotes a spot on the map. We drove for 22 kilometers until I was able to fill up the gas tank and take a leak. At one point we had to wait, my gas tank empty and bladder full, because half of the road was closed for construction.

Then a little farther down the road we had to stop. The whole road was backed up. The sun was going down in the distance, and thick mist hung in the fields alongside the highway. People began getting out of their cars. Young women ambled by in their high heels, talking on their cellphones. I also stopped and we got out of the car to see what kind of Stephen King book we had stumbled into.

It had happened that two huge trucks had collided. One was lying in the road where a small crowd of onlookers had gathered to take pictures with their mobile phones. The other was strewn across one of the fields. I am not sure if anyone was killed, but I am glad I wasn't there when it happened. Slowly they pulled the truck from the road and reopened traffic. We all got back in our cars, ended our conversations, and drove on.

I didn't look in the news though to read about what happened. When you live through something, somehow the news isn't as interesting anymore.

esmaspäev, juuni 04, 2007

A proposal on resolving Estonia's minority issues

I don't have a lot of time to write this, but the ideas are fresh in my head and I want to get them out there. For about a month now, especially after the riotathon in Tallinn a few weeks back, and also in light of last year's Amnesty International report, I have been scratching my head over how to deal with Estonia's so-called minority issues.

I say so-called in that it is abundantly clear that Europe today faces integration problems from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. Some of the minority issues are longstanding -- Roma in Slovakia. Others are newer -- Muslims in Denmark. And some are agewise in between -- Russian-speakers in Estonia. Because of general European convergence these issues are being pushed to the foreground at a time that the absolutist nation state ideal is being tested by the formation of a supranational organization in Europe -- the European Union.

But the question is, how can Estonia act locally in the quest to both preserve its language and make its minorities feel wanted and comfortable and, well, integrated into a larger social whole?

I would like to start this discussion by pointing out a few facts. The first fact is that no major international organizations take issue with Estonia's unilingual state language policy. The fact that the sole official language of Estonia is Estonian is not an issue. It is not even an issue in the Amnesty Report, which endorsed this tenet of Estonian language policy at the same time as critiquing some of its repercussions -- like the existence of the language inspectorate.

A second fact is that no major international organizations take issue with language reform in the Estonian school system. No one is willing to argue that a certain of percentage of schooling in Estonian language is wrong. They critique its implementation, but not the philosophy behind it. Why? Because it is acceptable. The Germans, French, and others know full well that they would do the same when put in a similar situation. So it's not an issue.

However there are several issues that seem to hover unaddressed, and perhaps now is the time to discuss them. One is the idea that Russian-language speakers are not a recognized national minority in Estonia.

My proposal to handle this situation would be to emulate the Swedish model. That is, declare any number of minority languages to be "official minority languages". In Sweden there are five official minority languages -- Finnish, Meänkali, Sami, Romani, and Yiddish. The "test" for determining a minority language rests on the presence of that language in the country for a period of longer than 100 years.

So an Estonian "declaration of minority languages" could follow a similar pattern. Russian, Swedish, Võru, Setu, and other minority languages would receive official recognition of their existence. I think it is correct not to give preferential treatment to one minority group over another depending on size. They all should be treated the same and given similar measures of official recognition.

This will also benefit Estonia in the international environment. It's pretty obvious that Russia's anti-Baltic posturing is used to deflect criticisms about its own dismal human rights situation. By taking such steps, Estonia would be shown to be proactive and the EU would be able to deflect that criticism. And who would argue with the same language policies that they have in Sweden, the greatest country on Earth (TM)?

Secondly, there is the issue of a lack of higher education in Russian. This was one of the central points in the Amnesty report. To handle this policy, I believe that Estonia should look outside of its borders because it is unrealistic to expect that a country of 1.3 million people will be able to support a full higher education system for the benefit of 340,000+ people. It's not feasible.

During the Soviet era, Russian-language instructors could easily be relocated from within the Soviet Union. Now that Estonia is an EU country, it's probably easier to find English language instructors than Russian ones. So the solution here is to form active partnerships with Russian universities. Rather than importing instructors to build a university system for the benefit of 340,000 people, Estonia should work to export its students to universities in St. Petersburg, for example. Make it easy for them to go in terms of getting a visa and sending transcripts. That makes more sense to me. Maybe this option already exists, but, hey, I'm just a blogger.

Finally, on condition of employment and political rights, especially in Ida-Virumaa cities like Kohtla-Järve and Narva, I think that any two speakers of a minority language should have the right to communicate with each other in that language. It's a bit silly to say this because the fact is that this is a right that is already taken. People in Narva aren't preventing from getting a cab in Russian just because of Estonian language policy.

In fact, I believe that this kind of behavior is already protected. But that doesn't matter because sometimes useless acts of political niceness go a long way in making people feel like they count. Never underestimate the value of feel-good statements from politicians. Therefore Toomas Hendrik Ilves should continue making speeches about how "we're all in this together" and "Estonia needs you." It doesn't change much officially, but it helps set the tone.

pühapäev, juuni 03, 2007

Varbla hauad

This weekend we drove west to visit part of my wife's family's roots in Varbla vald, a small district north of Pärnu, which is about as spread out as an Estonian village can be and still be called a village.

The reason for the visit was the annual cleaning of the graves. Martin and Anna, my wife's great-grandparents, needed their final resting places cleansed of unwanted weeds and tended to with new flowers and candles lit. Anna died in 1957. Martin passed in 1968. But the graves still look pretty good, and these two people from Varbla were remembered for one day.

The cemetery at Varbla is hilly and littered with trees and bushes. Different fashions of gravemarkers dot the sloping hillside, rotting wooden crucifixes, metallic crosses, and finally stones of all sizes and inscriptions. I once visited a cemetery in Hiiumaa where most of the markers were written in German. But here in Varbla the language of the gravemarkers was Estonian. This was interesting. Even metal crosses from 1873 said "puhka rahus" -- rest in peace.

Anna and Martin have their own stories to tell. Martin was a soldier in the Estonian Liberation War in 1918. During the land reform following independence, he received a parcel of land in Varbla where he built a house and raised his family. However, Martin's service in the Estonian Liberation War earned him a trip to a prison camp in Siberia in 1948, where he stayed until 1956.

Anna learned of her impending deportation -- for being the wife of a Estonian Liberation War veteran -- and hid in the forests with her youngest daughter for enough time that they stopped looking for her. So she did not get sent to Siberia, fortunately. However, when Martin returned in the mid-1950s, he was a changed man, and the two were never able to put their family back together. Anna died in 1957. They are buried in separate plots in the cemetery.

After we visited and cleared the graves we met up with a cousin of my wife's grandmother and visited Martin's house in Varbla for a picnic. The home no longer is in the family. It was returned to the family in the early 90s, but sold for a reasonable price during the height of inflation at that time. However, the homeowners allowed us to look at the house and have a picnic.

It was nice to see my daughter playing so close to a structure that someone further up her family tree had obviously put a lot of sweat into building. I am not sure how Martin would feel, his nerves fried from eight years in Siberia, looking down on us from wherever he is, but perhaps he'd be happy to see us eating võileib and talking about our jobs.

The older Varbla cousin pulled me aside though to let me know that the old people of Estonia have gotten a raw deal in the post-1991 period. To this generation, the 1930s were a sweet time of goodness, followed by 50 years of "palju venelasi", followed by Siim Kallas and his magic disappearing kroons act. But anyway, I had a feeling that when Edgar Savisaar pledged to raise pensions during the last campaign, he was pushing people like this womans' buttons.

That got me thinking of how political populism is actually quite sinister. Because it is wrong to promise people something you can't give them, just so you can have a lot of power and shake a lot of hands. Christ, what's wrong with politicians? Anyway, we ate our lunch and drove south.

While Varbla is spread out and beautiful, Tõstamaa is a real gem of a town. The people have a knack for painting their homes attractive colors, and everything about it -- the trees, the proximity to the beach, the old lady riding the bicycle -- it all feels good. I am not sure if I would recommend going there for the sake of it, but it is worth passing through.

Of all the parts of Estonia, I feel in my heart that the West coast speaks the most about the Estonian soul. The Estonian spirit is connected to the sea. It is from across the sea that many of the ideas that have nurtured Estonia have come, from the relatively liberal administration of the Swedish kings to the first copies of Kalevipoeg, printed in Kuopio, Finland.

When you see the sea from Pärnumaa it is mostly unthreatening. It has the capacity to flood your house, but from a distance it is a healthy color and it's white caps jive like TV static; no surf pounds the beach.

In Pärnu, you are reminded again that Estonia is not just Tallinn and Tartu and some spas in Saaremaa. About 43,000 people live in Pärnu, yet for some reason, Pärnu is a political eunuch. Oh, how I wish that a Pärnu cartel would rise up and conquer this country. But until then it's still got ice cream and great beaches.