reede, september 18, 2009

kes siis veel

Politics, politics, politics, politics. You can't get away from it. Like a wizened old drunk on a Tallinn street corner it pesters you for attention.

"Hey buddy, spare a few extra krooni, I'm awfully thirsty."

What to do? Everywhere I go in Tallinn's capital, I'm assaulted by posters for the Estonian Centre Party. Kes siis veel! Kes siis veel! The slogans are laughable and yet work. The Reform Party will cut your pensions. The Reform Party will increase unemployment. The Reform Party cuts money for kindergartens. The Reform Party practices human sacrifice.

"It's a demonstration of power," says a colleague. "Centre wants to show they have the most money. So they have to put a sign on every garbage bin in the city."

You can't take a leak in Tallinn without coming face to face with Edgar or one of his apprentices. Trust me, I've tried.

Where does Centre get its money? Who knows? Estonian parties aren't ones for transparency. But I have a suspicion that Centre's strategic partners in Moscow, United Russia, might be lubricating their Tallinn counterparts' local election campaign with petrodollars.

I know that Centre leader and Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar recently returned from meeting United Russia leaders Boris Gryzlov and Konstantin Kosachev in Moscow. Boris and Kostja have even given Centre their blessing. Edgar & Co. are the only ones, in Moscow's minds, who can heal the riff between these two proud states. Even if I am not Estonian, I found it embarrassing to watch the Centre's delegation to Russia. How could they ever say no to their benefactors? If they were to get into power, what would it mean for Estonian sovereignty?

In light of my disgust, you'd think I'd find my natural home with the right-wing parties. We could sit around, and dance to the day when Laidoner is king. Except, in many cases, they are just as annoying. This constant battle over the interpretation of history, the obsession with the wounds of the Soviet era, the nearly religious genuflection to economic liberalism. I hear about 1940 so much, you'd think it was 1940. I get it already, my Estonian brothers. I get it. But what's next?

There is this odd rift in Estonian political life. Neither of the political forces can truly unify the country. It's either Ansip or Savisaar. 'Pragmatic' relations with Moscow or ardent Atlanticism. Sorry Jaan Kaplinski but, right now, there is no third way.

Which is a shame. I listened to a young woman from Jõhvi last night become emotional as she described her relationship with the state.

"My father is an engineer in a mining company. He's lived in Jõhvi almost all his life. And the Estonians tell him it's not his home. How can it not be his home?"

My question is, what Estonians told her that? Didn't President Ilves go to Narva as soon as he took office and tell a classroom of Estonian Russian students that they were Estonia's compatriots and the country couldn't make it with out them? Didn't he go to Kohtla-Järve and tell the miners that they were the backbone of Ida Virumaa? Wasn't Population Affairs Minister Urve Palo out there, before Andrus Ansip canned her, scarf on head, making nice with MEIE venelased?

From what pungent sewer does Estonia's ethnic strife spring?

"Everyone knows that you can't be the boss unless you are Estonian," she opines.

"It's not true!" I protest. "Savisaar is half Russian. It's literally his mother tongue."

"But this is Estonia," she waves me away. "Everyone has a Russian in their family tree."

The Estonian Russian hates Ansip. She's like a cartoon character, almost as bad as those rural Estonians who haven't seen a Russian in years and keep complaining about kuradi tiblad. Except she's human. And friendly.

"We didn't think he was so bad. Then he took that statue down."

"He had to do it. There were two-right wing parties running, and he wanted to win. Once he won, of course, he had to do it."

She pauses for a second to contemplate how all that nonsense two years ago might have been just about politics. Not history. Not principles. Just politics.

"But he was stupid. He lost the support of all Estonian Russian voters."

"Maybe it was a short-term gain," I shrug. "Long-term loss."


Politics, politics, politics, politics. It's the foulest thing in this town. Tallinn looks great. I don't think it's ever looked better. When I came here for the first time in 2002, Tallinn did not look like this. Where there now stand shiny hotels and business centers once stood vacant lots and ruined buildings. Nearly every street in the center has benefited from a face lift.

I'm proud of how well this city looks. I am proud that international conferences can be held here, and people are surprised by how well things function. "You can get Internet everywhere," says a colleague from San Diego. "Even in a public park!"

A public park? You can get wireless outside the metalworks in Obinitsa on the border with Russia. I've sent mails from there, crouched down in the dirt with my laptop on my, well, my lap. One time the wireless was down in the restaurant where I was eating and I was waiting for an important mail. So I went out to the parking lot and linked up to another signal instead. Sure it was in the middle of a January snowstorm, but, impressive, no?

It feels good because a lot of people think Estonia is stuck in some 1991 vortex. They think that they might have to wait on a breadline to get a bite to eat, or get stuck up by thieves in the street. Dastardly eastern Europeans who prey on naive Western tourists. And the people who think these things come from places like London or San Francisco, where there really are aggressive street people, although, I'll admit, some of those thieves do probably come from Estonia. But that's a hidden benefit of EU enlargement -- eastern Europeans got to export their most successful criminals to Frankfurt or London or Paris.

So Tallinn looks good. The people do too. They are so fashionable with their scarves and sunglasses and exotic dogs. Maybe too fashionable for a city of 400,000 perched on the Baltic Sea. The Swedes expect another post-commie bottle depository and they go away thinking that it might be time to give Stockholm an upgrade. And during the conference they all got to watch the masses jog by for the sügisjooks -- the fall marathon. It was sunny the whole weekend. Everything was perfect. The city glowed with goodness. Tallinn to them must have seemed ideal.

It feels great to be in a situation like that because you have no idea how often I have dreaded sharing my biography with strangers. I would tense up when I let slip in front of strangers that I had a relationship with a place called 'Estonia.' There were times when I would just say Finland, or the all-encompassing 'Scandinavia' instead. Anything to avert the horrid line of questioning ('Do they have indoor plumbing there?') As the conference attendees discovered after serial cocktail hours, indeed, they do.


Politics, politics, politics, politics. Obama's decided to scuttle the planned missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland. It's always been controversial, partially because this part of the continent, like most parts of it, actually, have been gutted by war for centuries, and the idea of any change in the 'balance of power' makes people uneasy. It's also been controversial because of the Russians' incessant whining about, well, everything. And wouldn't you know that after Obama and his advisors dropped the plan, Russia said it didn't owe America anything and continued to wag it's finger at the Western allies like a certain Austrian.

The Russians. They keep playing the same old song. It's irritating. But even the most irritating songs disappear from the radio for awhile to be replaced by other irritating songs. With a Putin return to the presidency possible, we could be hearing his tune for decades to come. It would be as if Brit singer James Blunt's detour in sappiness "You're Beautiful" (I saw your face/in a crowded place/and I don't know what to do) stayed at the top of the pops forever. If that's not a reason to jump out a window, I don't know what is.

"Things have never been good between Estonia and Russia," a friend shakes her head. "Why do you think we have our guys in Afghanistan? It's the best training they can get. Because they know it's not a matter of 'if', it's a matter of 'when'."

Her father's in the army. So's her brother. Maybe she knows what she's talking about. Or maybe she's just indulging us in the invasion myth. It stretches back through the generations. It's replayed itself over and over again, from the Northern Crusades to the Second World War. It's in every Estonian. "They're coming." Pack your bags. Hoist the sails. Run to the hills. "THEY'RE COMING!"'

Every Estonian has nightmares about the hordes of evil ransacking the country, raping and burning and murdering and torturing their way back and forth across the soil of Eestimaa, like a fine comb, back and forth, until every tree is charred black with the agony of death, every field flooded with blood and the anguish of geopolitics.

You watch Savisaar seated with Boris and Kostja and it looks like a tunafish supping tea with a pair of great white sharks. You wonder how terrible Russia's leadership is inside. I mean Stalin and Molotov also played nice with their Estonian colleagues before they sucked the country like an egg through a straw and informed the hostages that their nationality was destined to vanish and blend into the great Soviet people.

But those were evil men. They were different. Look what happened to Comrades Zinoviev and Kamenev and Trotsky. And Mihhail Khodorkovsky is only in jail indefinitely. Why, that's like a slap on the wrist. Putin and Medvedev are different. They're pussy cats. As Finnish President Tarja Halonen says, 'we've never had it so good.' Putin and Medvedev want to look respectable at the G20 summit. So we would like to believe.

teisipäev, september 08, 2009


How to get between points A and B in Estonia? If you are going from Tartu to Tallinn or vice versa, it's easy; just take the Tallinna-Tartu maantee, that heavy-traffic ridden, accident-inviting highway to hell. But if you are traveling from Tartu to, say, Haapsalu, you must be more creative.

As driver and lead navigator for the family, finding a relatively straight route from one of these locations to the other was not easy. Tartu, the home of Estonia's oldest university and city of good thoughts, sits almost 200 kilometers (120 miles) directly southeast from Haapsalu, the whimsical seaside retreat of Ilon Wikland and Peter Tchaikovsky.

But there's no Tartu-Haapsalu road. And I refused to do something so counterintuitive as to make the L-shaped drive west to Pärnu and then north to Haapsalu. No, I was going to drive that damn diagonal straight up to Põhjamaade Veneetsia ("the Nordic Venice" as Haapsalu is called) even if I had to plow through fields or burst through buildings, like Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise in Cannonball Run.

The course I plotted went north past Poltsamaa, southwest at Imavere (pop. 501) to Kabala, then north to Türi. Not like one could tell the difference between any of these places; they were covered by the same seas of fields and dense forests. At Türi, we headed northwest to Rapla, then southwest to Märjamaa, before turning northwest to Koluvere (pop. 404), where we encountered the first sign for Haapsalu. From Koluvere, we headed north to Risti, where we made a final turn west and burned the last 33 km to Haapsalu.

Later when we were having dinner with the film producer who my wife was dispatched to interview, she asked which way we came.

"We took an unusual route," Epp told her. "We didn't use any of the main highways."

"Let me guess," said the producer. "You took the Tartu-Imavere-Kabala-Türi-Rapla-Märjamaa-Koluvere-Risti-Haapsalu route."

We looked at each other and realized we weren't the only creative navigators in Estonia. It was comforting to know that other Estonians who tackled the difficult issue of getting from point A to point B in a country routinely describes as "tiny" had settled on a similar course.


I was happy to zigzag across Estonia because, aside from the elusive Narva, Rapla and Märjamaa were two of the few places in Estonia I had yet to visit. Rapla and Märjamaa. What to expect from this duo? More of the same.

After you've visited most of Estonia, you come to understand what an Estonian town or city is made of. Most of them are centered around some body of water -- be it a silty river or manicured lake or a broad harbor. The rest invariably grew up like shantytowns around a castle or a railroad stop. Most city streets in Eesti are woven around one heavenly object: a sober-white Lutheran Church that either dates back to or is built on top of the ruins of a place of worship established shortly after the Teutonic conquest in the 13th century.

Beyond the church are main commercial streets dotted with a variety of dwellings. The oldest date back to the 18th century as most of Estonia was trashed during the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, while the youngest are postmodern erector sets of metal and glass that would be at home in any city in northern Europe where they sell stuff you really need, like designer jeans.

Outside the city center, you'll find the brightly-lit evidence of Estonia's love of consumer goods: supermarkets with names like Säästumarket, Konsum, and Selver; home-improvement oases dubbed Bauhof and Ehitus ABC. Beyond them lie the big box apartment blocks of the Soviet era, the valley of the average Estonian. These Khruschevka pueblos may have once beamed with modernity upon move-in day back in '62, but today they look worn, and, when you have that many owners living in the same residence, most of them uppity individualistic Estonians who will go to war over whether to paint the front door red or green, then it takes time to settle on a scheme for renovations.

And that's Estonia. That's Rapla. That's Märjamaa, though I admit I was attracted to Märjamaa's colorful main street with its wooden homes styled in orange and red and blue. It seemed like a special, secret place. A good setting for a great Estonian novel in the vein of Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Oskar Luts, or Andrus Kivirähk.

What can you tell about the Estonian people from a car window? Preciously little, other than they go about their business as if nobody was watching. You forget that most people on Earth remain true to the communities into which they were born. The Raplakad and Märjamaalased are no exceptions. Remember that Maria Tomson, the oldest Estonian on record, spent all of her 112 years between 1853 and 1965 in a small parish in Viljandi county. Century in and century out in, for many Estonians, life is still centered on the Kinder, Kirche, Küche, and Konsum.


Haapsalu, though, is the jewel of them all. It was only my second time there, and already the city moves with me like an old pair of pants. Imagine, ornately decorated, candy-colored homes built around a charming old castle with a face to the islands and the sea. When writers and musicians and handicraft merchants need to get the hell out of the figurative Dodge City, wherever it may be, they pack their bags and head to Haapsalu for a little R&R.

The producers' house shines as much as a home meant to revive the styles of the 1930s can. With its soft wooden floors, rolling couches, and grand maritime views, one hesitates to even disturb a book from one of the sturdy shelves, nevermind throw a wild house party where half of Estonia and a quarter of Finland docks in the front yard, gets smashed, and then violates the place.

All Estonian conversations flow to the question of languages. "Estonian is difficult." "It is." "Do you know any Russian?" "Izvenitsa. Zat knies." Then there's that moment when you tell them you've been studying Swedish. Speakers of all big European languages turn their heads when you confess that your German is nonexistent, but Jonas bakar bröd, Emil spelar musik, och Anna pratar i telefon.

In the '30s, Haapsalu used to be known as the 'capital of the Estonian Swedes.' Most of them have joined the 9 million Swedes in the mother country, and and most of those Swedes prefer not to speak their tongue in the company of foreigners. But I like svensk anyway. In my dreams, I am getting into arguments with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on his blog. I'm not there yet, but it could happen. It's true. The 'Languages' section of my CV renders me entirely useless. Except for the English, of course.

The producer, a slender former model in her early 40s, is part Russian, part Estonian. She still has a big toe permanently in Moscow. But she fits in here. It comes naturally. Haapsalu, for all its Scandinavian ambiance, has a distinct tsarist touch. You can walk by the house where Peter "the Great" stayed in 1715. Alexander Gorchakov, state chancellor of Russia from 1867 to 1883, was born here in 1798. It's a shame the Russians' leaders are such shitheads, I think to myself as I make my way up a verdant lane in the old city center. They would really enjoy this place.

Could you imagine? Dmitri Medvedev takes an armored train to the old tsarist-era Haapsalu train station where he is met by Toomas Hendrik Ilves in full mulgi regalia. The duo are transported via horse-draw carriage to a local bakery where they are served delicious moskva sai pastries fresh from the oven. From there, the lynx and the bear don old-fashioned swimming trunks for a photo-op and dip at Aafrika Beach before embarking on a public tour of Gorkachov's birthplace, Peter's cottage, and Tchaikovsky's bench. Medvedev compliments the Estonians on their tidy streets and hospitality, while Ilves emulates Halonen and manages to construct some random historical fact into a symbol of good neighborly relations, spicing it up with a Mihhail Veller quote.

But it doesn't happen. Some of the Russians still haven't figured out that, though Peter slept there, Haapsalu isn't 'ancient Russian land.' Some of the Estonians are still walking around with their fists in their pockets like an oppressed imperial minority, rather than the overwhelming majority and political masters of the land that bears their name. What a shame, I shake my head and pass an orchard. There are apples on the ground and autumn is in the air. A shame.


Where is eternity? Some people seem to have found it. But my spirit is restless. It won't let me be. After just a week and a half in Tartu, I had to get out. The same streets, the same river, the same baskets on sale at Jysk. Do you know what song they were playing there in Eedeni Keskus? "More than a Woman," the Bee Gees' 1978 hit. That song has been following me all through my life. Even when I was a little loaf of bread in nappies, they were playing that song at the supermarket. I can't get away from it. Some things are fixed. It's just the Bee Gees and me, from here until the end of time.

But Tartu. It's endearing, but I'm restless. I've got to keep moving. I feel like that wherever I go. When I lived in Washington, DC, years ago, I might sojourn through Foggy Bottom over the bridge to Arlington and back, greeting the black squirrels and fitness freaks along the way. But the itch, the itch, the itch. It could not be scratched. You can't tell your professors these things.

"How come you didn't complete the assignment?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I had another existential crisis."

Not like the film producers are any less itchy. They split their time between the Hap', Tallinn, and Moscow. They keep things interesting. Interesting. That's how things should be. And then I feel that other little itch: the desire to say inappropriate things. The desire to make things interesting. Maybe because there's nothing else really to say. With priests, there's that overwhelming yearning to crack a George Carlin joke (The invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. But He loves you and He needs money.) With film producers, you must overcome the desire to swing your feet up on the table and pitch them your movie, a movie that's going to be big, big, BIG.

"I've got a a great idea for a picture," you say, munching an imaginary cigar. "It takes place in Tallinn at the American embassy. It's like Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets The Hunt for Red October."

But you won't do that. That would be impolite. You wonder if film producers lives really are like that. If they can't go to the local R-Kiosk without the seller trying to pitch them a movie about a woman who works in an R-Kiosk. It will be big, she tells them and hands them a candy bar. HUGE.

But Haapsalu. Haapsalu could be an eternity. I couldn't design a more perfect city: centered on a castle, face to the sea, candy-colored homes. When Estonia's restless writers need to get away, they come here. If take a walk down along the promenade, be careful not disturb a soul. They're wrestling with a plot twist. It's best to let them be.

Still, I'd like to jet the world into Estonia just to show them this place, show them the castle, show them the buildings, show them the sea, envelope them in the spirit of Haapsalu, the Haapsalu vaim. It's one of the best places I've found. I get scared though. I am afraid that if I linger too long, my shoe will begin to itch. It could be more of the same, same castle, same sea, same vaim. It's best not to spoil the mood. And so we pile back in the car, and prepare for the long, zigzagging journey home.