pühapäev, jaanuar 23, 2011

europe and me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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