kolmapäev, aprill 27, 2011

missed america

I've been reading The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up in 1950s Iowa. I curl up with the book late at night after the children have gone to sleep and muddle through a few humorous pages before I hear the sound of the book hitting the floor and I drift off into slumber.

Bryson and I have some things in common. He was a kid from Iowa who by some twist of fate wound up as a writer in the UK. And I am just a kid from New York who by some other, more hilarious twist of fate, wound up as a writer in Estonia.

Anyway, I like Bryson and, moreover, I envy him. I envy him because the America he writes about is one I never knew, and yet long for, as does every American a little bit in his or her heart. The 1950s have been skewered for their open racism and intractable gender roles, their dismissal of everything ancient or spiritual for better living through chemistry. But they still sound good after all these years.

Case in point: Chuck Berry. I listen to his songs as I zoom around Viljandi, which might as well be some place in Iowa. "Maybellene" "School Days" "Brown-eyed Handsome Man" "Thirty Days" "Carol" "Memphis, Tennessee" There is so much energy in the music, energy and hopefulness. You get the sense of what it must have felt like when people got their first cars and were suddenly free to go wherever they wanted to, on their own, at any time, if they just had a few nickles and dimes for gas. Over the mountains. Across the desert. Just like that. Free.

Sometimes I imagine myself following suit, hopping in a car and setting out to explore the roads of America, spending the nights in seedy motels, breakfasts at local greasy spoon diners. Intriguing stories, colorful people, bacon at every meal, and all the time the revving guitar licks of Chuck Berry propelling me forward. But then I think that most of America probably doesn't look much like that anymore. These days it's probably "big box" chain stores from sea to shining sea. Starbucks, Lowe's, Home Depot, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Walmart.

I recently told a colleague from Alabama of my desire to see the South, to sip mint juleps on mossy plantations, to encounter the mystical land where the trees sink into the earth at night and the natives speak some twangy, Huckleberry Finn-worthy dialect, to boldly go where it's not unusual to find a reptile in your sink in the morning. He looked at me like I was crazy. "We've got all the same shit you have up North," he said. "Starbucks, Lowe's, Chick-fil-A. Except there's even more of it down South." I don't want to believe him, but I fear he may be right.

Best not to take the family along for the ride then. My eldest daughter doesn't care too much for Chuck Berry anyway. She doesn't understand why he talks that "weird way," and why he has such a "strange name." I thought this was a function of her ambiguous national outlook, but then again, when was the last time you met a seven-year-old boy named Chuck? While the last rays of the "golden days" of America still warm my shoulders, to my daughter they are more like the redshift of some distant, long-dead stars as measured through a high-powered telescope. "How weird." "How strange." "What does it all mean?" Get out those calculators!

I have a hard time comparing my ideas of America to the Estonians' ideas of their own country. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am living through the country's "golden days" though -- a time when everyone suddenly had their own car and the freedom to drive it wherever he or she wanted, to Narva or Pärnu, or even straight to Portugal, stopping at little mom-and-pop cafes along the way.

The current adult generation of Estonia was born into cramped Khruschevka flats and leaning, wooden 19th century ghettos, and now many occupy grand, well-furnished apartments, drive respectable automobiles, spend their summers at their personal cottages, and take off in winter to sunbathe alongside the Britons and Germans and other Western European purveyors of horrible haircuts in places like the Canary Islands, Turkey, and Thailand.

The country has experienced a "big bang" of improved living standards and increased access to material goods. Some of them are still using wood furnaces and dry toilets, but now they have mobile phones and big screen TVs -- whatever they are good for. Of course, the elderly have been screwed in the scramble, but, lest we forget, the elderly were the poorest group in 1950s America too, afforded a spare bedroom in the homes of their more successful children.

I wonder if Estonians of the future will look back on these years as an era of "happy days," but I doubt it. Despite the efforts of the best song smiths, they are still cranking out crappy europop, and there is no Chuck Berry-like savior in sight. And the country seems to carry on a perpetual doomsday mentality, where the silver lining of every cloud is overlooked to focus on its dark and stormy center. "Don't worry, it will get worse." This is the country's graveyard mindset. While their Nordic neighbors profess to be the happiest on earth, the Estonians often proclaim their deep dissatisfaction with each other and everything else.

Even now, as warm summer sets in, people are openly friendly to one another, but probably think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Given that most of them have never had it so good, I wonder why that is.

33 kommentaari:

LPR ütles ...

Comparing how you feel about America to how Estonians feel about Estonia?

Good luck:

A long, long time ago
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while ...

And we were singin'
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singin' this will be the day that I die,
This will be the day that I die ...

Pare this with:

Nyyd elan Mustam2el, korter on aus ja hea, ning selle 6nne eest Fortuunat kiitma pean ...

Wahur ütles ...

With an Estonian mindset as you describe it most surprises will be good :)

Lingüista ütles ...

Funny how you describe the "homogenization" of America... something that the rest of the world accuses the US of doing to them! The French all going sapristi about McDonalds and Coca-Cola, etc. etc. etc.; all that in a smaller (?) scale already happening when you think of 'the South' or 'Iowa' as having become simply part of his homogenized, Walmart-cum-Starbucks America.

And yet I wonder if people your age didn't sometimes feel like this already in the '50s, thinking that things looked good but were superficial when compared to how they were like before, say in the '20s... Or even before that, the South thinking how everything lost its soul there after Reconstruction... In fact, isn't Gone with the Wind also about how your the-good-times-are-over-we've-lost-our-distinctive-flavor mindset happened in their post-Civil War world already?

Or conversely, the children of today, who don't know any young boys named Chuck anymore, won't they be reminiscing like you about something abstract and undefinable, some je-ne-sais-quoi from the 80's the last golden rays of which they still received but which the generation of the 2020's simply cannot fathom and finds totally alien?

Tempus fugit...

Mardus ütles ...

"...and there is no Chuck Berry-like savior in sight."

* We have Jaan Tätte, who has this low and husky voice. If only he had short hair.

* In a recession or any other bad period, we think of the good times and give them names. I guess it's called nostalgia.

More on all that and Mustamäe (again) in my own blog post, because I decided that my original comment was so original (and extensive) that it deserved a safer place.

Mardus ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Sharon ütles ...

I feel more "nostalgic" for the seventies than the fifties - especially England.

I was born in the eighties (and in Australia), but spent a lot of my childhood watching repeats of 70s British comedies and kids programmes.

Also, most of what I knew of Europe as I was growing up came from Bond films as well as second hand books and brochures from the 70s and early 80s. I was always bitterly disappointed that I would never be able to visit the same Sweden that ABBA came from.

Doris ütles ...

compare to the "good old Swedish times", the Golden Age that is still remembered with a smile. Technically speaking it really wasn't that great... the Estonians were still serfs, bought and sold like cattle under the German landlords. The main difference was that the Swedish king didn't like the German landlords to have too much authonomy so he tried to curb it a bit...

But. The reason why it's known as the Golden days is because of the famine-plague-North-war-more famine-more plague catastrophe of the years 1694-1721/22 when an estimated 2/3 of the population died. Not to even mention the material damage of the sieges and battles. Compared to that, anything looks good.

Marko ütles ...

@Doris. I think we have long established that the myth of 'permanent serfdom' was widely accepted to be just that, a myth. There is considerable amount of historical evidence to support that the medieval Estonia had a lot more social mobility then previously thought. Names like Russow, Sittow come to mind at first instance, Google search will give you plenty more. Also research the way Hanaseatic Leage operated - the Guild system was actually rather flexible - from serf to apprentice, from apprentice to master, from master to merchant and from merchant through marriage to nobility. It happend more often than you think.

It's mainly the right-wing politicians/'historians' who like you to think otherwise. To give us common enemies to make us feel like victims and align accordingly.

Similar way of looking at it is the way Native Americans live in North America today. One might say that they are all fenced off in remote areas and treated like a cattle, but thats not the whole truth. There are still people like Johnny Depp and Cher, that first come to my mind, Google search will give you plenty more.

I think you should read more in to it and perhaps revise your comment because it is not true per se, and would give falsified information on countrys history to many foreign visitors of this blog.

Rainer ütles ...

"Names like Russow, Sittow come to mind..."

In what context, pray tell? Only Russow was half Estonian of the two, Sittow's "Estonian connection" was Jaan Kross' fanciful imagination (or wishful thinking).

Doris ütles ...

Marko, you are right as far as it comes to the events right after the initial conquering. There's plenty of evidence that several of the former Estonian chieftains continued to be leaders within the Germanic order. Eventually they got intermarried and melded into the Baltic German upper class and lost their identity.

However, you are wrong about the time period I'm talking about. 17th-18th century were probably the most rigid you can get. For the few exceptions that we know of, the evidence suggests that even if (and that "if" is rather tenuous at times) they were ethnically native, they did their best to distance themselves from that ethnicity. Kristjan Jaak Peterson was absolutely scandalous within his own time, and that's early 1800's.

Jaan Kross' books are lovely and if you try really hard, maybe you can find some credibility in what he writes. But scientifically speaking, there's no proof. Sadly.

Deborah ütles ...

I know an old man named Chuck Berry. He can't get quite as low as he used to. But, he still does the duck walk and still puts on a show once a month here in St. Louis. You can catch his act at Blueberry Hill, in the Duck Room (named in his honor), Chuck can still make his audience smile the hopeful smile of the 1950s.
So bring your daughter for a visit and show what a guy named Chuck looks like.
I'll be visiting Estonia for a month beginning mid-June. Hope to run into mostly happy people.

langust ütles ...

"I wonder if Estonians of the future will look back on these years as an era of "happy days," but I doubt it."

It's quite possible, as we seem to like to hate the present, not the past. The same way as many have an extremely rosy picture of Soviet Estonia today, why not? At the 1990s even the period of Great Northern War (war+hunger+pest) was used as a positive(!) background against the here and now.

"Even now, as warm summer sets in, people are openly friendly to one another, but probably think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Given that most of them have never had it so good, I wonder why that is."

And don't forget, in march we voted for this process to continue. So we could continue the whining. As we believe that it makes us more .. ee .. grown-up? intelligent? realistic? As positivity, faith, or even hope will be interpreted as a sign of being mentally challenged.

moevenort ütles ...

just to bring the idealized neoliberal picture which is drawn here a little bit down to reality:

As far as I remember there once has been a public debate about the so called "Two Estonias Memorandum" even in Estonia. Unfortunately nothing has changed since them. The problem is still there and the Estonian society is still not able to deal with it. So what was written remains valid:

„Estonian society has run into a political, social and ethical crisis. Governance is alienated from the people to the extend that we have to speak about two different Estonias. Two-thirds of Estonian children grow up in poverty, people suffer from the lack of basic security, many young people want to leave the country. (…) As long as most of the steam is used to create for foreigners a glamorous illusionary image of Estonia as a sucessful developed country, social problems will not find solutions.“

Marju Lauristin wrote about it:

„The divide in Estonian society (…) is found in the every day lives of people whose living conditions not only have not improved, but also become less promising. Economic progress means more opportunities for consumption, more travel and other pleasant leisure, and more possibilities for self-realization for approximately half of society. The other half of society experiences more self-restriction, more unfulfilled wishes, and more bitter feelings of exclusion and deprivation.“

the text continues:

"„72 percent of the population could only dream about a week´s holiday abroad, 47 percent could not afford to buy fashinable clothes, 26 percent had to give up visits to theaters, cinemas, or concerts once in a month, 20 percent could not afford to host friends, 13 could not afford meat, chicken or fish at least three times a week, 11 percent could not cover urgent medical expenses."

source: Lauristin 2003

just to make it clear - the numbers Lauristin quotes here are not reflecting the situation in 19th century or during communism. They are out of an survey carried out after Estonians elite decided to go the neoliberal way.

btw Justin: ever thought about working in politics? doing spin-doctoring for a political party e.g.? I am sure with your abilities you could work in a propaganda department either for the neoliberals of today or the communist of the past. The business and the techniques of spreading propaganda and / or ideology remain always the same. and its always the same kind of people being ready to do it.

Mardus ütles ...

"moevenort" has posted the above comment in "Igal tibil on auto tänapäeval", completely verbatim.

I now wholly understand AnTyx's total loath of "moevenort" :>

moevenort ütles ...

so catched in word-bubbles and newspeak already? is it so hard to hear some facts?

Lingüista ütles ...

No, moevenort, it's not so hard, I don't know why you don't do it.

Ah, moevie, if one day you'll let go of that Baltic girlfriend that dumped you!...

Lingüista ütles ...

Indeed, Mardus, moevie has progressed past mere discussion (at the very beginning he would still actually present argumetns) into mere propaganda. He's now into copying anything anti-Estonian anyone anywhere ever said. For the good of the Vaterland. Wir marschieren weiter...

Lingüista ütles ...

On a different topic, in case any of you knows or follows Gary Brecher, the War Nerd, I noticed he's written a column on the Baltic countries and their (well, Latvia's and Estonia's, but not Lithuania's) decision to specialize their armies. I know it's not the topic here, but I thought someone might be interested. Here is the link.

Mardus ütles ...


The discussion had turned humorous enough to not merit my long reply to "moevenort" :).

Rainer ütles ...

"moevenort" :).

The freak show is in town again...

Giustino ütles ...

Most of Lauristin's words still ring true. At the same time, the Estonia of 2003 is not the Estonia of 2011. Every person I know in my extended family here has it better today that he or she did in 2003.

That is not to say that their lives are perfect. They are very hard. Many are still unemployed or looking for work. But enough money and social support has found its way to them to increase their living standards and, in some cases, literally extend their lifespans. And life expectancy has gone up -- it's now about 70 for males and 80 for females. In 1991, it was 64 for males and 75 for females. People in Estonia have apparently never lived as long as they do today.

That being said, Estonia has huge social problems, but the degree to which these are linked with neoliberal policies is uncertain. I think that the neoliberal philosophy is so focused on economic indicators that social problems, as revealed by these messy "social sciences" that Lauristin is so fond of conjuring, are ignored or overlooked as inconvenient. Social darwinism apparently isn't the answer, as even in these extremely free economy, the problems do not abate.

One massive social problem is alcoholism. This social problem is the gift that keeps on giving. Alcoholism breaks families (who wants to be married to a drunk?), it increases unemployment (who wants to employ a drunk?), it increases criminality (drunks in need find other means to get what they want), and it reduces life expectancy (how many old drunks have you seen around lately?).

I live in a smaller Estonian city and I can tell you, the one group of people I fear most are the drunks, because they are desperate and unpredictable and there seems to be no shortage of them.

The state should really include an indicator in the 2011 census -- take note of who is an alcoholic. Then we can get a good idea of the "scope" of the issue.

moevenort ütles ...

@Guistino: concerning the alcohol: in my opinion you are mixing cause and consequence here. I think the precarious living and working conditions for many people in Estonia have to be seen first. Because they make ill. not only physical but often also in a psychological sense. There are a lot of studies about it, claiming for example that a significant amount of people in Estonia would need psychological treatment for that reason. But instead of going to a psychologist or searching for help, people start drinking. thats how the circle often works. putting the finger on the alcohol only would again camouflage the real problems. and btw: alcohol is by far not the only symptom for the social problems. Have a look at the HIV rate, this issue is much more dangerous. The problem with Estonian society is that problems are always camouflaged, far too few people ignore things instead of talking about. In that sense Lauristin is perfectly right: too much energy is put to create an Potemkin - Image of a perfect neoliberal dreamworld for the outside world with PR-speak and plastic words. But it won´t solve the problems. It makes it only worse.

Giustino ütles ...

Alcoholism is a long-term social problem in Estonia. And by long term, I mean that scribes in the Middle Ages remarked on the drunkenness of the indigenous population.

The high HIV rate can be attributed to proximity to St. Petersburg metropolitan area (this was the source of the HIV infections that began appearing in Estonia in 1999-2000). The disease came and spread rapidly in the injecting drug using community. Then it began to expand to their sex partners. But back in 2001, when you saw that spike of nearly 1,500 new cases, most of them were drug users.

I always wondered how it was possible to keep an expensive drug habit going and be unemployed, disenfranchised. How does one support the habit?

moevenort ütles ...

@Guistino: I disagree with your remarks. It sounds rather racist to me to imply having a certain habit to alcohol to someone or to certain groups of society. Alcohol is by far not only a problem of certain groups. Its a problem of all segements of society, rich or poor. It is an indidual disease, but it is not the cause for Estonias social problems. But especially in some areas of Estonia some social scientist describe something what they call a vicious circle of declining industry in the 1990s, connected with the massive loss of job opportunities and low chances to building up life chances there. This leads to experiences of deprivation, leads to frustration, alcohol, drug abuse etc, mimimizing the low chances even further. this is what happened. The reals scandal is that no-one ever cared about it for the last 20 years. in the neoliberal paradigma, its just not important. Neoloiberals have a perverse attitude similar to the "survival of the fittest" sheme out of biology. Only the strongest survive, so we do not care about the rest. Thats the attitude of many Estonian politcians. But no country will manage to not taking care of approximately half of its population. Because this kind of politics causes rage, anger and frustration to anyone who is not on the winning side. its a perverse competition logic which will inevitable fail in the long run.It just creates too much losers and fewer winners from year to year. one just needs a little common sense to see it.

concerning the HIV: I dont think that your description is correct here. It is by far a problem only of Russians in Estonia. Additionally the main source of infection are not the sexual contacts but drug abuse. There was an interesing documentary at Arte TV, the French -German TV channel well-known for the quality of investigative journalism. They have show the HIV problem in Estonia using the example of the Kopli-district in Tallinn. The HIV rate there is ten time higher as in comparable west-european areas. A social worker there explained very detailed how the problem begam with just some young poor young people years ago and than has spread around various segments of society. As the expert said, now even the rich ones take the drugs as a party experience for the weekends and hope, thinking that they use the drugs in a safe way. but they are betraying themselves as well. btw: the documentary can be found in French and German language here:


moevenort ütles ...

ps: of course I meant HIV is by far not a problem of Russians in Estonia only.

LPR ütles ...

Whatever it is, it cannot be racist anything when we are criticizing Russians. Or Germans, or Finns. For cryig out loud.

Come on. Racism? Really?

Giustino ütles ...

Alcoholism in Estonia definitely does not go back just one generation, Moevenort. It is perhaps exacerbated by neoliberal policies, but it was also a outcome of Soviet policies. Who do you blame?

As for the HIV situation, I don't see how our accounts differ. It is a fact that HIV was spread to Estonia from Russia by drug users and and transmitted to the general population from there.

I do not doubt those HIV rates in Kopli. I have seen some really ugly poverty in that district. But the whole scenario is not solely the making of neoliberal policies. Soviet authorities moved millions of people around the USSR to work in industries that went out of business when their bizarre economic system collapsed.

It is not surprising that social pathologies like drug use increased because of this. Here I am not laying this problem at the feet of the Estonian Russians. If some stupid central authority relocated thousands of Estonians to some remote port on the Pacific to work in a factory and suddenly the factory went out of business, am sure the same things would occur.

This has happened in the US too. People were moved to work in industries that later were relocated elsewhere and closed down. The result is a ghetto, and if the people are of one background, then it is an ethnic ghetto. And you will find increased rates of HIV in this ghetto, no matter where it is.

The reason the neoliberals won elections in Estonia was in part because they promised a "get rich quick" path to prosperity. Estonia in 2011 is certainly wealthier than it was in 1991, I am sure you will agree to this (if you have even been to this country).

The huge chasm between the upper and lower classes though has been the outcome of these same policies. This is probably why the Social Democrats did so well in the last elections. Maybe they really will take power in 2015, like their young leader has promised.

moevenort ütles ...

@ Guistino: I acknowledge at least your attempt to explain things for yourself. although I still believe you are mixing cause and consequence. Concerning Estonian Social Democrats: I remember we had a discussion about them here some time ago. the point is: I do not perceive them as social democrats. All the time they participated in governments they have done exactly the contrary of their programatic approach. They are may be a little less neoliberal than Reformirakond, but the difference is more gradual. especially Sven Mikser is the perfect example of an elite politican. But do not understand me wrong, I do not like fatalism too much. I just do not think that people like Sven Mikser will solve the social problems Estonia is facing.

concerning fatalism: Ironically a certain movie came into my mind when reading your comment. It is an famous old movie, but still timeless called "Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World?" It was directed by the famous Bertold Brecht. And they made the film exactly in this district of Berlin where I was born raised and and where I now live again today. So I know all the places where the movie takes place including their history. I can strongly recommend it to you if you would like something else and other forms of thinking apart form the Estonian and American once.

this is what it is about:

"Kuhle Wampe (full title: Kuhle Wampe, oder: Wem gehört die Welt?, released in English as Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World?) is a 1932 German feature film about unemployment and left wing politics in the Weimar Republic. The script was conceived and written by Bertolt Brecht. He also directed the concluding scene: a political debate between strangers on a tram about the world coffee market. The rest of the film was directed by Slatan Dudow.

Kuhle Wampe itself was a tent camp on the Müggelsee in Berlin. Wampe is Berlin dialect for "belly", so the title could also be rendered "Empty (or 'cool') Belly".

The film was banned in 1932 under the accusation that it depicted the president, the legal system, and religion in a poor way, but due to protests the ban was lifted on a recut version. The film remained unseen for many years after the Second World War. However, a restored print is now available and a video was released by the British Film Institute in 1999, along with a documentary video essay on the original film by Andrew Hoellering, son of the film's producer Georg Hoellering.

Kuhle Wampe takes place in early-1930s Berlin. At the beginning of the film, an unemployed young man, brother of the protagonist Anni, throws himself from a window out of the despair that he had spent another day unsuccessfully seeking work. Shortly thereafter his family is evicted from their apartment. They move into a garden colony of sorts, with the name “Kuhle Wampe.”

Anni, the family’s daughter and the only family member who still has a job, becomes pregnant and engaged to her boyfriend, Fritz, who that very evening describes that their marriage was demanded of him because of her pregnancy. Anni leaves Fritz and moves to her friend Gerda’s apartment. She later takes place in a worker’s sporting event where she meets Fritz again, who has recently lost his work, and they reunite.

The climax of the film depicts their return home by train (a scene that Brecht wrote personally). Anni and Fritz as well as a handful of workers argue with middle-class and wealthy men and women over the Situation of the worldwide financial crisis. One of the workers notes that the well-off will not change the world in any case, to which one of the wealthy asks quizzically, “Who else, then, can change the world?” Gerda replies, “Those who don’t like it.”

old movie but same story today?

more information:


Ken Leek ütles ...

Yep, exactly the same.

We say, for instance, that the vibration of this string is the cause of this particular sound. But what do we mean by that affirmation? We either mean that this vibration is followed by this sound, and that all similar vibrations have been followed by similar sounds; or, that this vibration is followed by this sound, and that upon the appearance of one the mind anticipates the senses, and forms immediately an idea of the other. We may consider the relation of cause and effect in either of these two lights; but beyond these, we have no idea of it.

LPR ütles ...

I should try to copy paste a movie review from somewhere too. Maybe for once, I could pass for an intellectual or something. Anybody know a god site?

LPR ütles ...

see, I cannot even spell good very good. I need to resort to copy paste to save face.

Mardus ütles ...


The individualistic nature of Estonians has it that we are not ascribed to following any one leader or movement in hopes that this one person or movement will supposedly fix everything that is not right in Estonia.

For example, social welfare will not bring jobs and too generous social welfare programmes are likely to disincentivise the recipients from seeking employment.

On the other hand, the Estonian government has pursued mechanisms/incentives for people to create companies that can offer new jobs. Young people, instead of staying joblessly put, can go to foreign countries. They have also chosen to go to foreign countries because of better salaries (this should in theory be incentive for some Estonian employers to re-think their pay model).

From snippets of life from German talk shows ("Talk Talk Talk" on Pro7, when I've had some chance to see it, is like the best overview programme to show the highlights) I've understood, that in some places in Germany living on social welfare is more affordable than to work for minimum pay.

"Kuhle Wampe" is outdated in the sense that there were no welfare states in pre-WWII times, there were no pensions even, and unemployment was therefore a very serious predicament.

plasma-jack ütles ...

pictured: Estonian cows

self-explaining, really