teisipäev, juuli 26, 2011


Down, down, down into the belly of the whale, through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, out the keyhole, out into the sunlight of a Pärnu street scene where a young woman is playing an accordion, another is selling ceramic mugs, and a third is drinking beer before noon, calling out to her friends in Finnish, that archaic northern tongue that sounds so ridiculous to Estonian ears.

I don't know why it surprises me to see signage in Finnish in Estonia. They are Estonia's second largest foreign investor, one of its greatest sources of tourists, and, let's not forget, its fourth largest minority, weighing in at just under 1 percent of the total population. But to actually see their language in windows and on menus and basically everywhere, that's a different story, especially when the Estonia I read about is supposedly so bent on eradicating Russian and every other foreign language from public eye.

It's just not true. Horseshit, is what it is. In reality, the Estonian public space is a free-for-all of languages. Just the other day I walked into Rademar in Viljandi and was astonished to see a sign in Swedish, with the Estonian printed in smaller lettering below. How was this possible? Okay, I have two Swedish friends in Viljandi, make that three, but do they really deserve their own signs at Rademar? It doesn't add up. I have deduced after many cappuccinos that the sign was acquired from Sweden, and the Estonian text was added later. That's the only plausible explanation, right?

Russian goes without saying. Every train station I enter in Estonia, every water park, every menu I pick up has some of those eye-tickling Cyrillic letters below the Estonian language. English is often there too. But there are others. Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, and German. Italian, French, and Spanish. Danish and Norwegian. You can even find Icelandic on the plaque on Iceland Square. In fact, I'm trying to think of languages I haven't seen in Estonia on signs or menus or products. I'm sure there are a few. Irish is one, sure. Haven't seen any Thai recently. Or maybe they are out there lurking somewhere. Maybe there is a shop window somewhere in Otepää that displays the store's contents in the Estonian, Irish, and Thai languages. You never know.

And so it happened that I went to a handicrafts seller in the basement of the De la Gardie shopping center near the Viru Gate in Tallinn looking for some ceramic plates with bees painted on them. A birthday gift for my dear wife. The seller was an upper middle-aged woman, creases at the eye, gray hair pulled back into a pony tail. I conversed with her in Estonian, and everything was done in the national language, effortlessly, politely. Then when she went to get a cardboard box from a neighboring merchant, the neighboring merchant made a remark about her accent.

"These Estonians are always making fun of my accent," the seller said to me in Estonian, returning with the box.

"What accent?" I asked.

"You don't know? I'm not Estonian, I'm Finnish."

"You are?" I squinted at the woman, at her high cheekbones, pouting lips, studying her. Yes, aha, mmhmm, definitely Finnish, like Kekkonen, now I see it, now I see it. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I'm American," I said.

"You are?" she stepped back. "Well, then, why the hell aren't we speaking English?" she asked in English.

"I don't know," I said in English.

Her English was pretty good, but she said that she spoke Italian even better. "It's my home language," she said.

"So you are a Finn living in Estonia who speaks Italian at home."

"My husband is Italian. Was Italian. He's dead," she said. "But I speak to my children in Italian. We used to live in Rome before we moved here."

"Come va?" I asked her.

The woman's eyes narrowed again. "Bene, bene. You speak Italian too?"

"Just a little," I said. After she finished packing the ceramic dishes with the bees on them, she handed it to me. "Kiitos," I thanked her in Finnish.

"And Finnish!" she was surprised. "You speak Finnish too! Amazing!"

"I only know two words," I told her. "Kiitos and perkele."

"But those are very important words," she said, nodding. "Maybe the most important words."

On the way out of the center I got into an elevator with two Brazilians wearing identical Ronaldinho t-shirts, mumbling away in Portuguese about feijoada or João Goulart or whomever or whatever. They were still beside me when we stepped back into the sunlight of Tallinn street scene in July, girls playing accordions, processions of German tourists floating by, Finns sipping beers and calling out to each other from cowboy bars. What a crazy country.

kolmapäev, juuli 13, 2011


Another media-inflamed controversy, in the town where I live. According to news reports "several dozen" attended a ceremony in the German cemetery in Viljandi to commemorate the July 8, 1941 "liberation" of Estonia from Soviet rule by Nazi German forces.

It was condemned.

Ala Jacobsen, chairwoman of the Estonian Jewish community, said, "The usual attempt to portray people who collaborated with the Nazi occupational regime as 'warriors against Bolshevism,' and furthermore on the day when the mass murder of the citizens of Viljandi and Estonia who belonged to the 'wrong' ethnicity began [...] appears completely idiotic."

The news of the small gathering of several dozen in Viljandi also reached the Holy Land. From his offices in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal Center's Israel director Efraim Zuroff was moved to speak, "No one is disputing that the Estonian population suffered under the Soviet Union. But to celebrate the Nazi invasion, in which 99.3 percent of Estonia's Jews ended up being murdered, is unacceptable."

A small gathering of several dozen draws a reaction from two individuals, and then ensnares the rest of us. Bolshevism. Nazism. What a joy it is to be a denizen of the post-war world. We talk and argue and talk, and never really get anywhere. My particular favorite is the tenuous link between these several dozen and the rest of the Estonian population. From this several dozen, a whole larger mass of individuals can be smeared.

Per one comment on ERR, "I think one should say straightforward what Estonian people are doing here: They are trivializing the holocaust crimes and other human rights violations committed under the Nazi-regime."

Shame on you, Estonians. Shame on me. I live here and did nothing to stop the ceremony. I didn't even know it took place. It seems that none of my friends or acquaintances did either. It hasn't been mentioned in any conversation. It would have just slipped by if it wasn't for all the media coverage.

But now it's on my mind and it's a good thing too because I had nearly forgotten about it. Oh, Holocaust, it's been too long. How I have missed you. In sixth grade, it was The Diary of Anne Frank. In eight grade, it was Night by Elie Wiesel, and the mandatory viewing of Schindler's List. In tenth grade, we were summoned to the auditorium to view old film reels of emaciated bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. We were each given a yellow sticker. On it, the Star of David, the number 6,000,000, and the slogan, "Never forget." I took it home and placed it somberly above my desk.

Holocaust. We used to have such an intimate relationship, and yet I have become desensitized to you, detached from you over the years. We've grown apart. All the other death, all the other suffering. The massacre at Mai Lai. The carnage of Chechnya. It's all just a blur, really, a long, red river of nightmares. Forgive me Holocaust for forgetting about you. It's nothing personal. You understand me, don't you?

A warm night in the Old Town. A conversation with a middle-aged German and a middle-aged Estonian. I'm the third corner of the triangle, the clumsy not-so-young youth. Summer in Tallinn. Three glasses of Chardonnay and torment.

"My father's generation was tormented," said the German. "That generation was taught to give orders and follow out orders, give orders and follow out orders. They were all tormented, so tormented."

"All the Germans, they carry around with them this huge guilt," said the Estonian. "But we Estonians, we are proud of it." The Estonian tapped her shoulder. She was being ironic.

"Why do some people still admire Hitler?" I asked the German. "Not only did he murder millions of people and destroy his country, but he lost. He was a loser. Why do people admire a loser?"

The German seemed perplexed. "I hate that man with every bone in my body," he said.

I wondered if I hated Hitler. Really hated him. It all seemed so distant. Far, far away. Nearly all my relatives who were adults at that time are dead. This German was born a decade after the war. He only knew his parents' inner torment second hand. His guilt is acquired.

"I've become desensitized to it," I confessed to the German. "I've heard about it so many times."

"Ever been to Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen?" He countered with a raised eyebrow. The German leaned in especially close to me, so I could hear him utter the ugly names, smell the torment on his breath.

"No," I answered.

"You should go," he nodded, knowingly. "Everyone should go."

Should we? To be honest, it's not high on my list. "Hey, honey, let's take the kids to Auschwitz this summer! They'll love it." I'm sure that would go over well. Why would I purposefully go to a place of such profound suffering? To feel more guilty? To feel more tormented?

Once we drove from Paldiski to Tallinn and stopped at the Klooga camp memorial. It was a peaceful place, and I allowed myself a modicum of quiet reflection at the suffering of others. My children were there, and I had no idea how to even explain the significance of the Holocaust to them. They're too young anyway. Why torment them with history?

I can begin to see how the post-war generation is haunted by it though. For my generation of Americans, it is Vietnam that was the tormenting conflict. It still feels close to me after all these years, breathing down my neck. Vietnam. I am always thinking about it in some corner of my mind. We are all scarred by it. It is a deep scar, a blot on our souls. The German has his Auschwitz and Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have my Mai Lai and Agent Orange and Punji Sticks. A nightmare, a recurring nightmare. The ghosts of Southeast Asia never rest.

I admit that I really fell in love with Anne Frank when I read her diary. Ah, those Jewish girls, with their dark eyes and their unleavened cakes. And I felt as if I knew that girl. I felt as if I lived in the Annex, that I knew Peter and Margot and Lies Goosens. It seemed so incomprehensible to me at the time how such a young person could die. It didn't make any sense. None of it does. All of the death, all of the suffering, all of the torment and blurry nightmares, and in the end, the only thing that can still reach me, that can breach my insensitivity, that I can remember, is the voice of someone who was once very much alive.

teisipäev, juuli 12, 2011

in the belly of the whale

Today I saw something that disturbed me. It was a drunk. I don't know why it bothered me to see him. There are so many drunks in this country. It's a sizable demographic. They could have their own flag.

I think why this drunk was different from the others was because he was in such close proximity to me. I stood right behind him in line at the automatic bottle deposit, the Taaraautomaat, at the Maxima supermarket in Viljandi.

He had long, skinny, sinewy legs, the color of urine. Dirty clothes from who knows where. A baseball cap and shaggy brown and gray greasy hair suspended just above the shoulders. I watched as he fished through his bag of empties and found one half-full beer. Then he tipped the brown glass bottle back and like some kind of neanderthal man guzzled it down, grunting in between gulps.

The Taaraautomaat works this way: you place the bottle into the opening, and it is spun around until its barcode is read and is taken into the machine. The Taaraautomaat keeps note of your deposit and in the end you are issued a receipt that you can take to the nearest cashier. Drunks live off this system of collecting empty bottles, depositing them at the Taaraautomaat and obtaining enough money to buy more beer. I am unique in this regard. Most of my empty bottles are for Värska mineral water or Kali. Occasionally, there will be a beer bottle in the mix, but not often.

When the drunk finished his last beer and popped it into the machine, he pushed the green kviitung button and was rewarded with a receipt to take to the cashier. He had a satisfied look on his face, a bit of a grin, as if to say, "Ah, that last beer hit the spot." Then he sauntered into the supermarket, in search of his next fix.

I can't figure out why that drunk distressed me so. I've lived in New York City, Washington, DC; I've been harassed by drunks from Vancouver to Bangkok. So why did this one drunk ruin my mood so much? Perhaps a bit of my childlike humanity resurfaced this morning for whatever reason. The part of a person that still feels things. But then, after I saw the drunk, whatever innocence I had in my heart was gone. It wasn't yet noon.

Sometimes I feel as if I am being swallowed by the ocean itself. An immense wave is taking me down with it. Down into the depths of the deep. Down into the aquatic mysteries, among the seaweed and nautiluses. Deep into the belly of the whale.