teisipäev, veebruar 24, 2009

paraad narvas

"Why are they having the Independence Day parade in Narva?" asked a friend. "Are they just trying to get up in Russia's face?"

"No, I think it's more of a territorial thing," I said. "You know how the dog makes sure to pee on the bush on the corner of his owner's property? Well, the parade in Narva is sort of similar."

I watched the hosts on ETV ask the same question. "Why are they having it in Narva?" asked one. "Why not?" responded the other. Besides, Narva is kind of an out-of-the-way place in Estonia. Few Estonians I know ever go there and, if they do, it's to see the castle, the border, and to turn around and go home. You can understand why people ask these questions.

A lot of Estonians are also country folk. They are scared of big cities, where they assume drug dealers and prostitutes lurk on every corner. "Don't go to Tallinn!" my niece once warned. 'There are a lot of baddies there!" Having the parade in this piirilinn therefore makes Narva safe for the people watching at home. I mean, if Estonia's leaders don't mind to parade around in the snow in Narva, then it can't be half bad.

Kindralleitnant Ants Laaneots's speech was chock full of symbolism. What's interesting is that Laaneots spent a lot of time in Russia, and mu naine detected a slight accent when he spoke. President Ilves too has a slight accent, though it is getting better all the time. I think the time spent in Mulgimaa is paying off. So, if you ever think that Estonia is a stodgy, homogenous place, just remember that its president and its highest-ranking military commander have accents from all the time they spent abroad.

But back to Laaneots' speech. Some major points: 1) lots of nationalities fought in the War of Independence on the Estonian side, including Russians, Finns, British, Germans, Swedes, Latvians, Ingrians, and Danes; 2) one of them was Tallinn-born Lieutenant General Nikolai Bazõkov (who later changed his family name to Reek and was executed by the Soviets in 1942); 3) NATO has a plan to defend Estonia; 4) the NATO mission in Afghanistan is important; 5) the Estonian army today is as diverse as it was in 1918 and it's great.

Still, why Narva? As Laaneots pointed out, there have been a lot of battles here, stretching back to the Livonian War of the 16th century. But I think there is another reason. Following the war in Georgia, the Estonian foreign policy elite has had to fend off anxious warnings from lazy analysts who conclude that, after South Ossetia, Narva must be next. By holding a military parade in Narva, Estonia shows these lazy analysts that it is capable of holding an independence day parade in its eastern-most city without any problems.

That's just one hypothesis. Another is that the government increasingly likes to get out of Tallinn. They are hungry for a change of scenery. Last year's parade was held in Pärnu. This year's independence day gala will be held in Jõhvi of all places. Maybe next year, they'll have it some place really boring, like Viljandi. You never know.

esmaspäev, veebruar 23, 2009


"So how was it?" asked a friend. "Orgasmic," I replied. Then I toned down my description. "Or primitive."

The truth is that Tagaq's performance reminded me of child birth. When an Inuit woman is on her hands and knees violently sucking air in with her throat and howling like a wolf, then the delivery room comes to mind. I should know, I have been there twice.

At the same time, fellows tend to lose their lunch at any reference to child birth or even the female body. But during the concert, a woman seated beside me whispered in my ear, see on nii erootiline! So my arrow did not miss its mark.

Tagaq is a solo performance artist who specializes in Inuit throat singing. She is unique in that she has married a folk tradition with a new means of expression -- throat singers typically sing in pairs, she sings alone; and with modern technology -- she was accompanied by a percussionist (Kenton Loewen) and a "DJ," that is, to say, a guy (Michael Edwards) standing in front of a laptop.

She performed two dates in Estonia over the weekend: the first at the MTÜ Eesti Pärimusmuusika Keskus in Viljandi and the second at the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn. I chose to see her in Viljandi because it's closer and I had a feeling the audience would be a bit more down to Earth. I mean, who wants to sit next to Edgar Savisaar at a throat-singing concert?

Tagaq is small but fiery. When she began to warm up, I wondered if I could stomach an hour plus of throat singing. There were no words I could understand, except when she knelt in the spotlight like a demon and began grunting, "aitäh, aitäh, aitäh." Interestingly, her two releases have Estonian names. The first, Sinaa (2004), means "the edge" in Inuktitut, but could mean "you" in some Estonian dialect. The second, Auk (2008), means "hole" in Estonian, but "blood" in Inuktitut.

Which leads us to a big question: what the heck was Tagaq doing in Viljandi on a Friday night saying "aitäh" to people? My Estonian companions assured me it was because of Viljandi's place in the pantheon of folk music centers, but I proposed a more personal hypothesis.

Simply put, Tagaq worked with Björk on Medulla (2004). Björk worked with Michael 'Arvopoeg' Pärt, born in Tallinn, on Volta (2007). Arvo Pärt, born in Paide, is respected in all avant-garde circles and is a "friend" on the pages of many a MySpace musician. Estonia thus is one of the places where cool people who dig throat singing might hang out. Case closed.

"I'm not sure," said my friend. "I mean, I don't even like Arvo Pärt." She caught herself saying it and cupped her hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry," she blushed. "You're not allowed to say that in Estonia."

"It's not just his music," I said. "He looks awesome. He looks like a mad monk or a science fiction character. People want to come and play in the country of his birth, hoping that his essence will rub off on them."

And so our conversation drifted into the night fed by glasses of wine. But Tagaq? She was a no show at the performance center cafe. She had probably gone home to rest her throat.

reede, veebruar 20, 2009


The Holocaust is still an extremely sensitive topic in Eastern Europe. In Estonia, which was under Nazi Soviet occupation from June 1941 to September 1944, it is also sensitive, though perhaps less discussed than in Poland or Lithuania.

Estonia was the only country designated as "judenfrei" -- free of Jews -- at the Wannsee Conference in 1942, a terrible category to be put in, indeed, and one that continues to haunt the country in the discussion of its past.

At the same time, it is perhaps worth noting that by the time the Germans arrived in Estonia in 1941, Estonia's prewar Jewish community, which numbered around 4,500, had been reduced to around 1,000 persons, thanks to Soviet deportations, executions, and Red Army mobilization. In comparison, there were around 34,000 Jews in Lithuania and up to 420,000 in occupied Poland at the time.

So the "final solution" was carried out in Estonia even before Wannsee, indeed even before Hitler himself decided to eliminate the rest of the European Jewry. Some interesting things I learned in my class on WWII and Stalinism in the Baltic States this week about this nauseating chapter in Estonian history:

* The Germans staged the Holocaust on the Eastern Front as a mass, spontaneous pogrom carried out by locals. This is why so much photographic "evidence" exists of Baltic partisans taking part in atrocities: that's how the German propaganda masters wanted it. They did not want to take responsibility for it themselves.

* The Soviet authorities later used this photographic "evidence" of Baltic war crimes to discredit Baltic emigre leaders in the West who opposed the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In this way, they recycled Nazi propaganda for their own purposes.

* It was not the Estonian and Latvian SS Divisions that were central to Nazi war crimes in the occupied Baltic region. The German-led operation instead used local police battalions to guard the camps and, at times, carry out the mass executions. Sadly, many of the local police battalions were comprised of Estonian or Latvian Russians who were considered too much of a security threat to send to the front.

* Incentives to join a killing squad? Believe it or not, they were voluntary. Members of killing squads got better pay and considered it a dirty job that would advance their careers after the war. It was also safer than being sent to the front. Finally, most of the executioners were inebriated while doing their "work." Alcohol was consumed prior to mass executions.

* There were no gas chambers in Estonia. Mass executions were carried out by police battalions and killing squads using shooting as a means to accomplish their hideous task.

* According to German documents, the Estonians in German civil administration were not considered anti-Semitic enough. The local population did not support Nazi racial theories and it was difficult for the Nazis to enlist locals in their efforts.

* The Germans and Estonians were more culturally similar. They had seen the same Western films and knew the same popular songs. In comparison, the Soviet troops had lived under socialism already for 20 years. This is one of the reasons why German rule was seen as milder by many Estonians, and the Soviets were seen as alien.

* Most Estonian men who served in the German and Soviet armies were conscripted during a military occupation. The conscription of men from an occupied territory is considered a war crime in itself.

* After the war, Western military intelligence integrated existing German networks into their own. German military methods were also studied as the conquered army was still considered to be a well-run and efficient operation. Hence, many officers and officials connected to war crimes were never prosecuted and some continue to live on in the West without threat of prosecution.

And so concludes our history lesson. While I admit the topic is intense and, at times, quite sickening, I felt that these new nuggets of knowledge needed to be shared.

neljapäev, veebruar 19, 2009

eestlane ei karda tööd

I spent two hours yesterday in the presence of Marju Lauristin, and I am still tired from the experience. This is a human being who, even in her late 60s, is tireless and engaging.

At times, as she paced in front of the desk, her arms waving about as she explained the differences between the Popular Front and the Congress of Estonia in the late 1980s, I began to wonder if she really was an Estonian. Estonians don't move their arms around like that, do they? Estonians aren't charismatic, are they? Estonians aren't ... friendly?

It seems that some Estonian thought leaders -- be they academics, politicians, or in betweens -- have some special gravitational pull that makes you believe everything they are saying. I have noticed this with regards to people who have encountered Mart Laar. At first, they might seem skeptical, but once exposed to Laar's unique charisma, they turn into Laarbots. I am almost afraid to meet him for fear that it might happen to me too.

I asked a Laar supporter once if they thought it might be time for the current generation of Estonian leaders to pass the torch to a younger brigade, perhaps less shaped by the collapse of the USSR. "Could you imagine," I said, "that we take a time machine to the year 2030, and Laar is prime minister for the sixth time?!" The supporter smiled and said that she would be very happy with that result, as Papa Mart knows what's best for Eestimaa.

Almost all of my professors are down on the current Estonian government. There are a number of Danes who have infiltrated the halls of Tartu Ülikool along with some Germans (yes, they're baaack) and they can't figure out why the government is cutting away at the public sector, reducing their salaries to a point that even regular Estonians start to cry.

In Denmark, a significant percentage of the population of the country feeds in one way or another on the teat of the state. This is the Scandinavian welfare model: the people work for the state and, typically, vote for parties who will increase their benefits and paychecks, or at least won't reduce them. From their perspective, the public sector must be protected, as it is the backbone of civil society.

If the Danish government started making public employees cry, there would be hell to pay, I am told. In Estonia, they'll shut up and take it for the sake of liberalism. The speck of light at the end of the tunnel is a pot of shiny coins, the leaders tell the maarahvas, and in that pot the money is in the European currency. The Gods in Estonia are not teachers or nurses or trade unionists, you see; they are foreign entrepreneurs. And forget about the poor drunks living in shanties in the Estonian global south. They might not be dead yet, but they will be soon enough!

Ai, ai ai. Estonian politics. It's everywhere; in the classroom, at the bus station, even in my sister-in-law's place where Laar and Lauri Vahtre's most recent works fill the bookcase. Now, with the European parliamentary elections coming up, I even got a free Eesti Eest! newspaper in this morning's Postimees. IRL has some good candidates: Tunne Kelam (the wiseman), Marko Mihkelson (the bold loyalist), and Karoli Hindriks (the slick choice of a new generation).

I can't wait to see who the other parties put forward. Really.

teisipäev, veebruar 17, 2009


The Estonian government appears to be in support of building a nuclear power plant somewhere on the territory of Eestimaa.

A decision in principle is soon expected, though a definitive parliamentary decision could be five years off, and the power plant itself is unlikely to become functional before 2025.

A representative for Eesti Energia with the unfortunate name of Andres Tropp told Helsingin Sanomat that the government is already in the fields and bays of north Estonia scouting up locations. Its favorite site is Suur-Pakri, an island near Paldiski.

Suur-Pakri is known as Stora Rå in Swedish and is one of the few locations in Estonia that is officially labeled in my Estonian road atlas in a language other than Estonian. These coastal islands were inhabited by the Estonian Swedes prior to the Second World War. During reprivatization, many of the former owners reclaimed their property, though only a handful returned to live there. I am unsure of what kind of conflict the erection of a nuclear power plant there would create with the local landowners.

More likely, the idea to place the plant close to Paldiski, which is now home to a farm of wind turbines, made sense to the government. The area could become a small power generating corridor within the country, far away from the troublesome border with Russia, where several hydroelectric plants are already located.

As for the option of connecting the Estonian grid to the future replacement for Ignalina in Lithuania, here is a demonstration of Baltic unity for you in a nutshell:

Originally the Baltic States were planning to set up a joint nuclear power station in Lithuania. Estonia and Latvia, however, grew weary after Lithuania decided to include Poland in the project the year before last. The project has advanced sluggishly.

pühapäev, veebruar 15, 2009

kristjan jaak

And so our Estonian Literature class turned its attention to the curious case of Kristjan Jaak Peterson, an Estonian born in Riga in 1801 who, by virtue of his linguistic genius and well-kept journals and homespun poetry, made a lasting contribution to Estonian national consciousness before his untimely, TB-caused death in 1822.

During his student days in Tartu, Kristjan Jaak would parade around in Estonian folk costume much to the consternation of his more conservative friends. Indeed, Kristjan Jaak was ahead of his time; a hip gentleman who would have been more at home in the Estonian national awakening of the 1860s than the tsarist winter of the Napoleonic era.

And there is something else you should know about Kristjan Jaak: he dedicated much of his work to some person or thing named 'Alo.' Alo is a male Estonian name -- a derivative of Aleksander. The fact that the flamboyant dresser and poet was pouring his heart out to some guy named Alo raised eyebrows in our class. Could Kristjan Jaak have ... been playing for the other team?!

"No, no, no!" says the Estonian Lit teacher. As tempting as it is to expand gay iconography to include any possible historical hint of same-sex affection, we have no evidence of kreeka armastus on Kristjan Jaak's part.

Besides, guys back then loved nothing more than writing letters laced with erudite homoeroticism. The correspondence of many well-known men from the 18th and 19th centuries could be used to subtitle foreign softcore pornography films these days, argue the experts. And isn't President Ilves another foreign-born Estonian who likes to parade around Eesti in folk costume? He seems pretty straightlaced. Why, I even saw him kiss Proua Evelin on TV.

All too quickly, our ultramodern mosaic of Kristjan Jaak the gay icon falls to pieces. Just as Queen Christina of Sweden had her ladies in waiting, she had her Cardinal Azzolino. Sure, David Bowie dithered with Lou Reed, but he also dallied with Iman. Human sexuality, like humans themselves, is a complex thing. I am sure Alo would agree.

reede, veebruar 13, 2009


Much has been made of Estonian customer service skills or lack thereof. My encounter with the receptionist at the polyclinic the other day could be seen as a typical one of my daily adventures.

To set the stage, I am a bit of an odd bird. I am a foreigner who is mostly functional in the Estonian language. That doesn't mean I understand every word tossed in my direction; it means that I understand about 80 percent of what people are talking about, depending on the speaker.

So I made it up the five flights of stairs to the office of my doctor to be informed that my chart, which is typically ordered to the office from a lower reception and archival area when an appointment is made, was not there. I would have to go get it myself.

I bounced down the five flights of stairs again, took my number, and waited patiently for #527 to be called. I was a bit mentally tired when they finally called my number but, fortunately, you can be aloof in Estonia and nobody cares.

"My chart, please," I said, pushing my identity card through the window.

"Why do you need you chart?" the woman behind the desk responded.

"Because I have an appointment with my doctor," I answered.

"What doctor?"


She typed furiously at her PC with her manicured fingernails. I noticed that parts of her hair were dyed purple. She was a very fashionable receptionist, in my opinion.

"But you have no appointment with Dr. Kõrvits today," she said.

"Yes, I do," I responded. "I just came back from the office." I stuttered when I said the word for office. The receptionists eyes lit up, understanding that I was not a native Estonian speaker.

"But the computer says that you don't." She clicked a few more times with her long fingernails.

"But I just came from the doctor's office and his assistant said that I should get my chart from here."

She looked at me as if I was crazy.

"If you have an appointment, then how come it is not in the system?"

"I don't know," I answered.

"So, you don't know," the receptionist sighed. She did not like this answer. I guess I was supposed to know why I wasn't in the system.

"Look, I made the appointment yesterday," I said. "Maybe the system hasn't been updated."

After this she decided to discuss the matter with her colleague in the next booth. The two of them went back and forth as our purple-haired, well-manicured receptionist explained the conundrum: some weird guy wants his chart, but his appointment isn't in the system. Following this lengthy discussion, a solution was found. She would call Kõrvits' assistant and ask her if I had an appointment!

"Yes, yes, certainly, certainly," she said on the phone. She asked them why I wasn't in the system and received a satisfactory answer. Finally, the receptionist stood up, walked ten feet away, pulled my chart from the wall, and pushed it under the window to me. She said nothing.

"Thank you," I said, holding my chart. The receptionist quickly sucked air in and said a breezy "jah" at the same time. I then turned to bound up the five flights of stairs to see my doctor.

esmaspäev, veebruar 09, 2009

belated obit

Samuel Huntington, the highly influential thinker who authored The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, died on Dec. 24 on Martha's Vineyard -- of all places, not a bad place to go.

One of the first books I read about Estonia was Marju Lauristin and Peeter Vihalemm's Return to the Western World: Cultural and Political Perspectives on the Estonian Post-Communist Transition (1997).

Return to the West lays out Estonia's historical narrative for inclusion in the nordic and European community. The book heavily references Huntington's theory, and the authors are quite pleased to reprint his map with a thick border running through the middle of Lake Peipsi separating Orthodox Russia from Western Estonia. The differences are not merely about interpretations of history; these two countries sit on different civilizational tectonic plates.

Is this just smart geopolitical repositioning? Partially. Estonia's political leaders at that time passionately used such civilizational rhetoric. To President Lennart Meri, for example, Estonia was not "FSU" but "FSE" -- former Swedish empire. But even in the Soviet era, Estonia was a different kind of Soviet country. Magazine articles from the 1950s and 60s talk of a similar kind of limboland, where Soviet power was apparent but eastern civilization was not.

The genius of Huntington's work, like the best theories, was that it confirmed something we already intrinsically knew. What is interesting is how it continues to drive Western policies. At the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn last year, I listened late at night as an older British diplomat explained his country's support for Baltic EU and NATO inclusion. "Tallinn could be Copenhagen," he said. "Riga could be Lübeck, Vilnius could be Krakow. This is the West!"

But Kiev? Tbilisi? The Western thinkers know not what to do. The strength of their convictions atrophies in the civilizational confusion that ensues whenever big questions over the future of Ukraine and Georgia are raised. As Peter Millar wrote in the Times in August. "For [David] Cameron to equate Estonia and Ukraine, as he did last week, is stupidity. Estonia’s history, language and culture are markedly separate."

That was a civilizational argument underpinning a contemporary foreign policy. And here you can begin to see why Huntington is still controversial and his theory is not loved in certain quarters.

pühapäev, veebruar 08, 2009

palmisaarel - 5. osa

Before Vello Vedelik began to wander the Earth, he became skilled in animal husbandry, with an area of concentration in fish breeding. He is said to know how to pair the right animals to produce a new generation of fish that is better than its predecessor generation.

Vedelik believes that Epp has strong genes. In 1999, when young men would flock to Vedelik's booth to chat up his lovely assistant Epp, Vedelik would tell her to pay them no mind on account of their average genetic potential. They were not worthy of her time. Vedelik knows fish; he seems to know humans too, as the Persian episode demonstrated.

But the last night on the island, Epp asked Vello for his expert opinion on me as a breeding specimen. Since we have two children, it's after the fact but, still, when you are in the presence of an expert who can identify a person's ancestral lineage by eye, you take advantage of your opportunities.

Vedelik pointed out that the fact that our two daughters are lighter than I am confirms his original assessment of Epp's strong genetic make-up. However, because they are incredibly cute and talented -- Anna, aged 1.5, has started saying "Hola" -- it indicates that I am no slouch myself.

"He seems intelligent and well balanced," Vedelik affirms. "He is definitely above average." I feel embarrassed and at the same time proud. There is nothing like having your genetic constitution judged by a fish breeder.

Vedelik also knows that we have been writing about him on the Internet. He does not use the Internet, but one of his accomplices has sent him telepathic messages about it. "You have been writing about me and you haven't even asked my permission," he accosted us.

"It's ok," Epp said, soothing him. 'I was just trying to find my bag, and Giustino? Well, he calls you 'Vedelik.'" "Vedelik?!" he smiles, approving of the strange moniker. "Well, you can write what you want about my theories," he said, "but, whatever you do, don't give away my trade secrets." He is afraid that other Estonians will copy him and try to capitalize on his ideas.

We left Vedelik at the bus station. We all waved to him from the bus windows as it pulled away into the night. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, väga meeldiv. He even smiled. I began to suspect that he might like me as a person. I saw him once more from the bus window, standing below a lamp on a street corner. A small halo hovered above his gray hair. Then he was gone.

Poor Manuel meantime had tried to link up with us on the last day, but, in true Spaniard style, did not call before hand. While we were on our bus, he and his old pal Gallo stopped by to see "Epah" one last time. He left us a present instead at the front desk. I thought it could be the bag, but it was the idola de tara -- a statue of the Canarian God who shares her name with Estonia's Taara.

At 4 am, we huddled to board our buses. The Finns were on their flight back to Vaasa. Marta hugged Jennifer, and I wished them hyvää matkaa, to which they replied jo and nii and kiitos -- all three of their favorite words. I loaded our overstuffed bag, now filled with t-shirts and bags of gofio and a little idola de tara, and helped my family on board. Our bus then slowly stole away into the early morning. Our vacation was over.

neljapäev, veebruar 05, 2009

palmisaarel - 4. osa

Nude beaches and regular beaches in Gran Canaria are ruled by their own, unspoken codes of conduct.

In the Zona Nudista, nakedness is normal. You are surprised to learn that all of those masses of similarly clothed people you pass on the street day after day also look homogenous without their bathing suits on, give or take stages of sun tan, extra pounds, and gray hairs.

When a clothed person walks by, they look hilarious in their baggy shorts, polo shirts, and caps. They also seem foreign and a bit rude. "Where is your nakedness?" The nude sun bathers glare. "What are you doing on our beach?!"

On the regular beach, it is the opposite. The sight of a topless sunbather draws similar stares. Couples look at each other, wondering whether or not the woman in question knows she has strayed from the Zona Nudista. No male dare remove his trunks on the regular beach, lest he be hauled away by the police for scaring little children. Here, it is the nudists who are unwelcome and suspicious.

The most interesting place is where the two beaches meet, the brackish water between the salty clothed bathers and the fresh-water nudists. Here the two tribes mix freely, quietly acknowledging that their borders are porous. In this No Man’s Land, bathers of both stripes tolerate the others’ differences.

I lay here in the golden dune sands oppressed by visions of the past. They swoop down on me like vultures, plucking at me. What are these sandstorms of feelings that harass me? Do they have names? Alienation? Vulnerability? I ask Epp, and she says that it's normal to feel vulnerable when thinking about one's past.

Our trip to recollect Epp’s bag from 1999 has dredged up the memories of a past that, on its face, seems more freewheeling and carefree. At the same time, some kind of melancholia lurks behind the nostalgic glow of not so distant history. It has been 10 years since Epp left the island. There are reasons for these things.

Part of the reason for this onset of Canarian blues is that Epp is such a good story teller. The characters – their names, faces, and situations -- come alive. People I have never met and will likely never meet become characters with whom it is easy to empathize. I can see the different sets and watch the actors block their scenes. The zestful yet absent minded young traveler. The sea captain turned supermercado padrone. The Estonian prophet. Many others. Why, it’s as if I am there, except I was not, nor am I.

Who are these people? What are their stories? If only we had Epp's journal, I could tell you more clearly. She tells me she can't recall one line of it. Such is the conundrum of our lost youth. If only Henry Miller were here to fill the rest in.

Last night, Vedelik indulged us one last time in his theories of the connection between the Estonian and Canarian peoples. “The Estonians worship Taara,“ he pointed out, “while the Guanche Canarian idol was called Tara.” Vedelik believes that Estonia is a juhtriik, like ancient Greece or Rome that all countries will eventually follow. “It would be better for Russia,” he argues, “if they readopt their lost Finno-Ugric languages and reconnect with their kin peoples in Suomi and Eesti.

"Forget about Ukraine," advises Vedelik. Once these latent Finno-Ugrics reconnect with their past, the cultural confusion that has driven their country through the preceeding neverending chaos will cease. At that moment, all will be one. Om.

On Gran Canaria, the promenades are home to slick marketers trying to sell naive tourists time shares. "Just come to our beach," they smile. "It's the best beach on the island." They always start hitting on you by asking where you come from. The time share sellers in Maspalomas are quite talented in this regard: I have heard them switch freely from Spanish to English to ... Swedish.

They asked us where we lived. "Estonia?" the Spanish time seller announced from behind his cool dark shades. He then began speaking to us in Russian. "Nyet!" I protested. "But didn't you learn it as a little boy in school?" he said. "Nyet!" I said again. Finally, Epp decided to tell them that we already had a place on the island.

Yesterday, we took a glass-bottomed boat from Mogan to Puerto Rico. No, it was not a nude, glass bottomed boat. I was waiting for Jaws to rear its great white head in the underwater window, but we only saw a few small schools of hungry fish. Over head, a plane flew by advertising a Boney M concert on the island.

Boney M’s disco-pop career peaked in the late 1970s, probably around the time that most of Gran Canaria’s middle-aged tourists were enjoying the swinging, single life. In our hotel restaurant, they indulged us in Boney M’s greatest hits, including “Rasputin.”

'There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear'

One of the only things I really look forward to, as we headed back from this sandy paradise to Eesti Vabariik, where the temperature is -5 C today, is that I will get these Boney M songs out of my head.

teisipäev, veebruar 03, 2009

palmisaarel - 3. osa

My high school girlfriend's father was a man of the 1970s. This meant that he could stroll around town wearing platform shoes without fear of having his masculinity questioned. It also meant that he imbibed various substances during many long, lost weekends.

One of his maxims was "when it doubt, it is best to puke." I thought about this as I circled our WC and regurgitated the several bowls full of gofio and lechera I had consumed only hours before.

The cause of this sudden illness? Perhaps the gray weather that set in on Sunday, or, even more compelling, our family's visit to the Faro Maspalomas shopping center where we were treated to the overcommercialized underbelly of Gran Canaria tourist civilization. If you are in Spain and they are advertising bratwurst mit sempf, you may find yourself stricken with nausea.

All Sunday night I floated on a sea of post-vomitory relief as my aching stomach soothed itself. My children have also been afflicted. We actually think it's the local water, consumed accidentally while brushing teeth, that is the culprit. Why is it that wherever Spanish is spoken the local water gives outsiders the shits?

Monday was better. The glowing orb of the sun returned, prompting expeditions to Arguineguin and Puerto Rico. In Arguineguin, a salty port dominated by a mix of locals and Norwegian pensioners, the captain Manuel returned to talk with Epp. I let them reminisce by themselves as I scarfed down my first post-gofio meal, spaghetti aglio e oglio. According to Manuel, he really gave the bag and its prized journal to Vello, who is refered to by Spaniards as "Vejo". Epp returned with a look of confusion on her face: who to believe, the Canarian sea captain or the Estonian prophet?

We walked the promenade and bathed in the salty, clear ocean waters. Here too, I was surrounded by the occassionaly nude bather and bratwurst peddler, but I retained my constitution. I began to secretly hope that my illness had passed.

Later, we returned to Rico to find Vello. Again, I let Epp conduct her interrogations without me near. Vello insists that Manuel offered the bag to him, but he said no, and that Manuel threw it away. Epp is even more confused. I began to wish that the bag had a secret tracking devices sewn into its seams. Who knows where it is? Lost in Vello's secret Puerto Rico stash? Buried in Manuel's basement? Degrading in the local dump?

After market hours, we sat with Vedelik as he expounded on possible solutions for the crisis in the Middle East. Vedelik is a strong supporter of Israel and is irritated about how Hamas fighters fire rockets into Israel and then take refuge among the civilian population of Gaza. I asked him for his opinion of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, but he said he had none. "Ma ei tea mitte midagi eestist!" he said, pushing the thoughts away. "Mitte midagi!"

Vedelik then launched into his theories about how the ancient Estonians were kin to the Etruscans and local Guanche people who settled the Canary Islands. He supposedly is able to tell the tribal origin of a person merely by looking at their face. "But what about him?" said Epp, gesturing at me. "What does he look like?" Vedelik paused to think. "This is a hard one," he said, studying me. Finally, it came to him. "Jah, jah, nüüd ma tean!" Vedelik exclaimed. "Tema on pärslane!"

"Pärslane?" I said to Epp. I had never heard the term. "He said you look Persian," she said. "I do?" I said, trying to imagine Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a relative. "Well, he has been to Iran," shrugged Epp. "So maybe he knows what he's talking about."

pühapäev, veebruar 01, 2009

palmisaarel - 2. osa

I had never before intended to see the bare breasts of a 70-year-old Swedish woman, but on the beaches of Gran Canaria, such occasions are inevitable.

The atmosphere here is eclectic, to say the least. Frightening cliffside roads stretch down into hotel-marred coves and tourist-thronged playas. We ate churros with our coffee in the coastal town of Puerto Rico and contemplated our search for Epp's distant past.

We were in Puerto Rico to find Vello Vedelik. Epp described him as an old hippie who never cut his hair or beard, and after strolling past a few kiosks, I saw an old man in Indonesian attire seated in a chair. Epp walked up to him, peaked under his broad hat, and in a few minutes I had come face to face with the man with no phone and no e-mail address.

"Kott? Kott? Mis kott?" he said, when asked of the missing bag. Vello spoke in clean, crisp Estonian. This was not a man from Mulgimaa. I watched Vello's body language for evidence of lying, but could find none. According to Vello, Manuel the hotel owner did indeed offer him the bag, but Vello said no, and Manuel threw it all away. It seemed unbelievable, but Epp looked Vello in the eye and said, ma usun sind -- I believe you.

Then somehow Vello went off on a diatribe about how Russians are not really Slavs but are Finno-Ugric peoples who have adopted a Slavic language and about how the economic crisis is bringing the world to the edge of catastrophe and how one of the few safe places in Estonia is Suure-Jaani and how he came up with all the ideas for Star Wars. And I believed him, because he is very believable.

Well, good old Manuel decided to face the music and came down into Puerto Rico to acknowledge that, yes, after waiting for Epp to return for seven years the bag went in the trash when he renovated his supermarket. Epp forgave him, and he said he would drive us home. He then loaded us into his jeep and we made for the Canarian hills. Manuel used to be a captain of a ship and lived in Gambia for awhile. He's a native Canario, and he owns multiple properties and seems to have many relatives on the island.

The interior of Gran Canaria resembles the American Southwest, at least to me, a person who has never visited the American Southwest. Ranches overlook huge canyons; dogs chase each other on the floors of endless, treeless ravines. The natives dislike visiting the touristed parts of the island, and, if Manuel is exemplary, they have no time to do so, because they are always driving around, visiting their friends, visiting their cousin, stopping the car in the middle of a road to chat with a friend in another car. Such is Spanish life.

For example, Manuel took us to visit the ranch of a friend he called "Gordo" -- fatso. Gordo also is known to Manuel as "maricón." Gordo acts as a local sherrif and drinks too much whiskey. He grows pigeons that he sells to local Cuban migrant workers for use in shamanistic sacrifices. My children were very impressed with the animals. Anna said "owf owf" many times in response to the tough looking guard dog. Gordo was sober, and I still don't know his real name, even though we shook hands. He said that beer is for poor people; whiskey is the only real drink.

We may see both Vello and Manuel before we leave. Vello has no new fangled communication devices (he says he uses telepathy to communicate), but he said that he can be found in that one spot, always in that one spot, until April when he heads east. Though Epp has lost her journal for good, life is at least repaying her with new tales to tell.