neljapäev, detsember 27, 2012

that black man

Ebony and ivory.
"Daddy, who's that black man?" "Shh. Be quiet!" "But the black man?" ""That's Dave Benton." "Is he from America? He looks like Obama." "No, he's from Aruba, I think." "Aruba?" "It's an island."

This dialogue took place at a Christmas concert at the Vanemuine theater in Tartu. And, I have to say, I quieted my child, not only because the rest of the audience at the Dave Benton and Annely Peebo concert seemed stiff and conservative and not welcoming of small children interrupting Härra Benton's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," but because she noted that Härra Benton is of a different race.

It was a reflex, of course and everything here is contextual. I am a product of place and time and have grown up thinking of people of African descent as being sensitive about their identity. But I am in my own way a time capsule, and little girls today don't know much about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and, of course, the Reverend Al Sharpton, nor have they seen a Spike Lee movie. Even in the US, it seems like the passions of the postmodern, post-Civil Rights political correctness identity crisis have long cooled. And the fact is that Dave Benton is a black man, especially when he's standing on stage next to Annely Peebo, who looks like the heroine of a Wagner opera.

It was a good concert by the way, a fun tribute to every stereotype about Christmas concerts -- blaring saxophone solo, anyone? -- and there was also the pleasant mismatch of Benton's smooth operator finger-snapping crooning and Peebo's scintillating soprano, which billowed up into the higher octaves like plumes of hot steam off an extinguished Christmas fire. My daughters' favorite song was "Feliz Navidad," and even the old ladies with the wooden faces were clapping along by that point, but my handling of the topic of racial identity also was turning in the back of my mind.

According to a book I have been reading called Nurture Shock, so-called white parents rarely talk about race with their children, and if they do it's usually packaged in some gunky "skin color doesn't matter, it's what's inside" gobbeldygook. I say "so-called white" because I think "white" is a bullshit term used by Americans to separate themselves from Europeans because of our/their massive hybrid inferiority-superiority complex ("I'm not a filthy cheese-eating European, I'm white"), but that's neither here nor there.

The truth is that the "we're all the same/skin color doesn't matter" argument would never pass my kids' sniff test. My eldest daughter is asking me questions all the time like, "Why are most rappers black?" And here I am, driving the road between Viljandi and Tartu, passing farmhouses and forests, wondering if I should start with slave work songs or Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" or just skip ahead to Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang. Or I could have said, "That's not true, Eminem is a fine rapper and he's not black. See, what are you talking about? Skin color doesn't matter!" Too bad Mr. Benton himself wasn't in the backseat so he could have leaned forward in his trademark white suit and answered simply, "because black people are awesome."

Usually my response to "Why is that man black?" is "Because some of his/her ancestors came from Africa." Seems like a pretty legitimate take on the question. The roots of many popular American music forms also trace back to Africa. Don't ask me. Ask James Brown. Okay, he's dead. But listen to his music. The answer is Africa. It's a way of thinking I have picked up from the Estonians, for whom nationality is a deep and meaningful construct. The very words "German," "Russian," or "Finn" are loaded with shared ideas about those nationalities related to genetics and history.

In a way, I am teaching my children to think similarly. Connect the man's blackness with Africa. Why is Obama black? Because his father was from Kenya. See, it's no lie, and it's not mixing up the message with complex concepts that little kids have a hard time grasping because they didn't grow up listening to Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. And, to compare, why is my family white? Could it be that most of our ancestors come from Europe? Sometimes the answers to the most difficult questions are as deceptive in their simplicity as the melody of a good Christmas standard.

teisipäev, detsember 18, 2012

in his own write

Market research.
I'm half way through João Lopes Marques' Estonia: Paradise Without Palm Trees. Or maybe I am a third of the way through. Or 55 percent. The Portuguese-born writer has assembled for me a collection of his work, a collection that does not proceed chronologically in terms of when the pieces were written, so I have taken the liberty of starting the book at the end and working backward to the beginning, with some guilty pleasure reading about wife carrying contests and provincial girls along the way.

João is one of Estonia's resident expatriate writers. There are many of us -- how many I do not know. Vello Vikerkaar certainly counts as an expat writer. And Abdul Turay's got a new book out this week called Väike Valge Riik ("The Little White Country") about Estonian political culture. I'll get that one for Christmas maybe and read it too. I jest that it's market research for the next Minu Eesti book. But based on what I have read from Vello, João, and Abdul, I can see that we are all very different writers, and that our similarlity begins and ends with the fact that we are foreigners living in and writing about Estonia.

Vello is the recluse. Nobody knows who he really is or if that's even his real name. Plus he's got a bit of a mean streak."Life isn't fair," seems to be a recurring theme. Yet he's affable too, he can turn the charm on and off. If he were one of the actors who have played James Bond, he'd easily be Sean Connery.

João is Portuguese, but beyond that, he is a European. I can sense it in his well thought out dissections of everyday life in the capital city. There is a measured cadence to his manner of writing, and yet there is also coolness to it too, a euro reservation that frustrates me at times. I want João to get angry, maybe rob a bank. But he doesn't. He's just too cool. If he were a Bond actor, he'd probably be Timothy Dalton, sliding down a hill in a cello case.

Abdul is British, which means he can say pretty much anything and, as long as he's got his spectacles on, people will revere it as the words of an Oxford professor. Plus he's got gravitas. It's like he got off the plane at Tallinn one day, and the next he's on primetime TV talking about economic policy. Some balls. So he has a way of carrying himself, but he's no empty suit. If he was, he would have been devoured by tabloid wolves long ago. Because of this bold brashness, I'd have to call him Daniel Craig, whether he likes it or not.

And me? I am unintentionally funny. My wife calls me "Mr. Bean" because I can't walk across a room without knocking a lamp over. I worked hard on a novel last year called Montreal Demons. It has its humorous parts too, but it is also has some darker themes of sex and religion. It's gotten positive reviews, and some who have read the English version say it's better than the Estonian one. one reader even said it was like Gonzo with some Raymond Chandler and a hint of Hemingway, which made me feel really good.

Yet people in Estonia don't want Hemingway from Giustino. They want comedy. They want oozing floods of meat jelly and exploding blood sausages. It's like I'm Peter Sellers in Casino Royale. Even if I tried to play the role straight, people would still think I was joking.

Sometimes I wonder if every European country has its local purveyors of English-language literature. I would think it fine and good if they do. And I think it is fine and good that Estonia has Vello, João, Abdul, and even that clown who wrote My Estonia to kick around. Why, it's like having Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, Daniel Craig, and Peter Sellers in the same movie.

esmaspäev, detsember 10, 2012

little saint nick

Al, Brian, Dennis, Mike, Carl ... but no Nick
Nikolaus came to my daughter's preschool the other day and handed out gifts. It was a major event. It was also the first time I had heard this name, or one like it, uttered among the Estonians. You see, there are no Nicks in Estonia. I know Markus, and Martin, and Märtin and Marko. Kaarel and Mihkel and Luukas and Vello. But as far as I can recall ... there is not one Nick in Eesti at all.

I could never understand this. There are Nicks in every other country. Nicola in Italy. Niko in Finland. Nikolao in Esperanto. Sure, I have known some derivatives here in Estonia. There is Klaus, the workman who works on our house in Viljandi. Then there was Nils, the nihilistic musician with the ponytail who wore black all the time and lived next door to us in Tartu. Yet there seems to be an aversion to Nicks. When a friend gave birth to a boy, I suggested the name Nikolai, which I thought could have a certain tsarist flair (because anything old is fresh and new in Eesti-land). The tot was christened Sander instead.

I took up the subject with Sven the baker here in Viljandi (because there are plenty of Svens in Estonia) and he sort of laughed at me and told me it was the simplest thing in the world. "That's because Nick," he said, "is the Estonian equivalent of 'dick.'" And not only. The verb nikkuma has the same meaning as the English verbs "to fuck" and "to screw." For Estonians, the phonetic "Nick" is a thing or a thing that one does with one's thing, but not the actual person who has the thing or who does the doing with said thing.

The dialogue with Sven occurred at the local Christmas fair, where I butchered several unrehearsed Christmas songs on stage. I was going to learn "Little Saint Nick," a rocking Beach Boys tune, but gave up when I realized that my crooner's voice could not do justice to Brian Wilson's California surfer cool. "Good thing I didn't sing that song," I told Sven. "They would have thrown gingerbread at me."

Roll Call

I realize that it's been a while since I last updated my "Gateways to the Northern Dimension" list and that many sterling web logs may have escaped my notice. If you know of anything worthy of inclusion that concerns the northern lands of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and assorted duchies, provinces, and former imperial masters, please share.

neljapäev, detsember 06, 2012


The singer, not the song.
It's been a while since I read Purge, and it was not an easy book for me to read. Sometimes books are like that, they come to you and then you flip through a few pages and put them on your shelf, beside all those other books you would like to read. Then one morning you pick it up when you are on the way to the WC, and finish it later that afternoon. Purge was one of these kinds of books.

Of course, my expectations were too high. I saw Oksanen's face in so many places, I began to wonder if was my own face, or just another one of my many faces. She has an image though. At the Helsinki Book Fair last month, it towered over the many sellers and booths, the poster of Oksanen. I walked into a vast exhibition and convention center, face to face with Angry Birds and whatever else, but all I could see was a giant Oksanen looming in the distance. Did she have another book coming out? I wasn't sure. What was most important was that she existed and was perhaps writing something new.

So I had my expectations. I cannot say that I loved the book, or understand its success. Still, 99 percent of the books available at the local shop aren't worthy of one's time, so something like this, a historical drama with pregnant themes shines through the shit. And I also cannot deny that Purge touched me in some way, or at least it has stayed with me. I can remember most of the characters, my images of them, their relationships to one another, the scenery. It's certainly like a film, and when I was informed that it was originally written as a play, it made perfect sense.

Yet something about the characters deeply annoyed me. One of the main story lines in the book was Aliide's deep affection for her brother-in-law Hans. And by the end of the book, I still couldn't see what she saw in the guy. Sure, it takes place many years ago, so perhaps this elementary school tale of unrequited love and jealousy could have played out between grown adults, but so many times I just wanted to reach through the pages and shake the young Aliide and maybe throw a glass of cold water in her face and say, "Stop being so naive!" My own cynicism prevented me from relating to such a story.

The character Zara seemed equally as naive. I think we all smelled sexual slavery the minute her friend in Vladivostock started to chat her up about promising opportunities in the West. I have known plenty of such naive young people in my life, perhaps once was one, and can believe in such turns of events. But as a reader, as someone in the story, I could not invest my emotions in such circumstances. Was it more tragic that she was a prostitute or that she was duped into becoming one?

Something about this book reminded me of DH Lawrence, or the half of Lady Chatterley's Lover I read before I put that down (and still haven't retrieved it on the way to the WC). Perhaps it was the relative powerlessness of the female characters, and how the external world, represented by male characters, fenced in their decisions, their lives. Constance Chatterley goes from Clifford Chatterley to Mellors, the gamekeeper. Her life is defined by her relationships to two very different men. Aliide's world is, again, defined by her relationships to two different men -- her brother-in-law Hans Pekk and her husband Martin Truu. And Zara is actually a slave to men -- to her pimp and his clients. Was James Brown right when he sang, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"? And here I am, living in Estonian matriarchy, thinking it's always been the other way around.

Anyway, let's contrast that with Oksanen, a woman whose life is now fenced in not by men, but by the overwhelming success of this novel, and who will spend the rest of her writing career trying to live up to those great expectations, or trying to distance herself from it. It's a phenomenon I have known at a much smaller scale. I would love to read a book about a character like Oksanen. Maybe she could write one. Or maybe that would be a little bit too much like Reality TV.

teisipäev, detsember 04, 2012

the heiress

This time with no mustache.
When I first set foot on Estonian soil 10 years ago, the prime minister of this land was a man by the name of Siim Kallas. I didn't know that then, and the March 2003 elections brought to Stenbock House another man with a different disposition who I would come to recognize on sight. That man was named Juhan Parts. But this is not a post about Juhan Parts, though I know you all wish it was.

Anyway, Siim Kallas, a peculiarly likable fellow. He is one of the chosen few who never age. Go back to those photos of Kallas from the IME project in 1987 and he looks exactly the same. He's even got the same dapper mustache, which would look odd on any other fellow, but seems to suit him, in fact, I am afraid to know what he looks like without his trademark vüntsid.

I caught him once at a Lennart Meri Conference where the moderator butchered his name, referring to the gentleman with the two 'i's as "Sim." "Sim this," and "Sim that." I cringed everytime he said it, but Siim (rhymes with scheme) didn't wince once. Instead he went on and on about something that I cannot remember but sounding very intelligent and using hand gestures that signaled his self confidence to the audience.

Siim did his part during the EU accession referendum in 2003 by urging Estonians into voting yes by summoning the ghost of Kekkoslovakia, a derogatory term for Finland in the post-war, pre-EU years, where the president had to phone Moscow before deciding anything, even if he wanted to take a piss. In following years, Härra Kallas flew away to Brussels to become a commissioner of something (vice president for mobility and transport, thank you very much) and Tartu Mayor Andrus Ansip became the new face of the Reform Party and has been for the past seven years, leading Kallas' political baby through two successful elections.

But Kallas has another a baby, a biological one. And these days in Estonia her face is everywhere. Kallas' baby is not really a baby anymore. Her name is Kaja and she is 35 years old and she is very pretty. Of course, she has a sterling CV with accomplishments as a lawyer and businesswoman, ambition, intelligence, but she also happens to look really good, which is why magazines just can't help but make Kaja Kallas their cover girl. For weeks (months?) it seems that she has appeared on the cover of all printed material in the nation. The stories about her feed an intense public interest.

"Could she be Estonia's first female prime minister?" one tabloid even ventured to ask. Hmm. Could she? Even people who despise the current leader have confessed to me. "If she would run, I would vote for her."

Given the public's dissatisfaction with Mr. Ansip and his party's sinking approval ratings (just a point or two over the opposition Social Democrats and Centre partisans in the most recent poll), this regular Estonian magazine browser here has begun to smell a PR offensive. With the stench of Silvergate, and whistleblower Silver Meikar's expulsion from the party (an event that Kallas publicly distanced herself from), the ship of the current government is taking on water. Party investors stand to lose state capture opportunities. And an aging statesman (and there could be no finer a term for Siim Kallas) could see his political legacy as architect of Estonia's perpetual number one party tarnished. We are left to wonder, can his daughter and true political heir bail them all out?

teisipäev, november 20, 2012

letters from beijing and shanghai

The world belongs to you. Estonia belongs to you.
I'm a dinosaur. I imagined Beijing, I conjured Shanghai. I could see the men and women in their gray and blue uniforms with their gray and blue hats and their little red books, the walls but tapestries of propaganda red with little golden stars. Nothing but bicycles, nothing but cigarettes, nothing but military police and rice. But the "bicycle era is over," they told me from the driver's seats of their BMWs and Mercedes, and Big Brother is no longer Mao, but a retired American military man by the name of Colonel Sanders.

The satanically smug Colonel Sanders grinned down on me from a hundred locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou. In the Beijing metro, one can watch a commercial on the small digital televisions that are mounted in each train, a young pretty woman, a young handsome man, fashionable, sporty, business-like, the future, walking in peace, hand in hand, through a local business district, until the pretty young Chinese woman spies the Colonel and then they sort of leap through the air toward the gates of KFC where mushrooms collide with sauce midair and shrimps parachute into steaming plates of rice and the caramel-colored secret sauce bubbles and oozes forth from the buns of fried chicken sandwiches. So happy! 

In the back alleys of Shanghai, I was escorted into what could be called a townhouse where a young Estonian socialite now dwells. Like many promising youth, she has turned her back on her native country and vowed never to return. Refugees like her feel suffocated by the village gossip, the incestuous romances, the lack of opportunity as the gluttonous Winners Generation continues to gorge itself ever forward. They have grown sour on the atrophying political scene, where even the most damning of political scandals can't bring down the Teflon Dons. And did you hear that Estonian Air is cancelling its route to London? Tragic. At home, the media sounds and pounds the alarms as Estonia's youth pack their bags and move away. But the youth don't care. They are already gone.

Anyway, it was an enchanting evening of pizza and hää eesti seltskond. One Estonian man, a hulking Viking of an individual who runs a Belgian window factory outside Shanghai, informed me of the pleasures of slaughtering pigs and making one's own verikäkk. He keeps boa constrictors and feeds them rats. In winter visits to Pärnu, he takes his truck out on the frozen bay for rally racing. He complains how the Chinese men spend all their time lazing about and eating and whoring and not renovating their homes, even if a window gets jammed or a tile falls off the ceiling, "Can you believe it?"

The Estonian sea pirate warned me about the chemicals in all Chinese food, how one producer of lamb meat was actually taking beef and soaking it in lamb piss and passing it off as the real thing. Mmm, lamb piss, delicious. It's so common though. Expats in Estonia bitch about the Estonians, expats in China bitch about the Chinese. What is an expat but a bitch who only bitches? "Bitch, bitch, bitch," as a friend's wife mock-says when her expat man goes off on the shoddiness of Estonian  journalism, "bitch, bitch, bitch."

China is a land where people drink only hot water, and foot massages are extremely painful. And yet there is a majestic quality to it all, even to the bundles of toilet paper that litter the restaurant floors, as if it was just charming tumbleweed in some Old West saloon. It's a raw, intuitive place, China. There is no need for safety belts, or for even following traffic rules, and pigs and dragons are lucky. In China, sometimes it is best not to know things. Like, what was in that food I just ate? I don't know, but it tasted good and that's all that matters. Or, did the chef wash his hands? I don't know, but I didn't get sick this time and that's all that matters. Who cares if it was soaked in lamb piss or not if we wake up well the next morning and our toes are still tapping? Why do we demand on knowing so much in the West, huh? Ignorance is bliss indeed.

But still, I was tricked. The little boy in me expected one kind of cultural revolution, I got another in the form of two Louis Vuitton stores in one city, Shanghai, the "Paris of the East." Never have I witnessed such shameless materialism, and this in a people's republic, where the the Starbucks mermaid swims alongside the golden hammer and sickle of the CPC in the public's stream of consciousness.

Security was tight in Tiananmen Square, where the 18th party congress met to annoint the next generation of leaders. Nobody was sure of the outcome, yet the outcome was assured. Of course, statistician Nate Silver told us that Obama's victory over Mitt "47 Percent" Romney was certain as well. According to Prime Minister Ansip, Reform continues to be the most popular party in Estonia by a percentage point. So there. But still, the clawing anxiety, the anticipation, the foreplay, the debates, the build up, the waiting, the incessant website refreshing -- in China, it just wasn't there.

It reminded me in ways of the selection of the new pope. And in the Vatican of the East that rainy windblown week, all eyes were trained on the center of Beijing for that telling puff of white smoke.

pühapäev, oktoober 28, 2012

letter from helsinki

Perfection comes at a price.
I'm getting fleeced, maybe by my own idiocy, maybe by the metric system, maybe by the Finns, and, just maybe, by all of these things. Macadamia nuts and dried strawberries at 2.99 for 100 grams at the Kamppi shopping center in downtown Helsinki. It sounds reasonable, though I have a hard time conceptualizing 100 grams of anything. And yet when it's time to pay up, the cheeky Vietnamese Finn at the booth charges me 24.99 ($32) like it's no big deal. And, after a brief "you must be joking" look, I pay it anyway, handing her a €50 bill, only to be handed back half of the amount in currency, and the other half in two, half-filled bags of nuts and strawberries.

The higher price tag must have been linked to the products' innate superiority. It was one of the few reasonable explanations. But how were they superior? I am not going to speculate that each nut was fashioned with laser-like precision by some local titan of design, named Timo perhaps, to exude the correct art nouveau properties, though in Finland, I might believe it. Or could it be that these nuts and strawberries were superior because they were in Finland, and in Finland, things are superior and cost more, by nature?

It's no wonder that so many Estonian workers flock to this northern land of perfection. The salaries are many times higher. A babysitter in Viljandi will work for €2 an hour. In Helsinki, our Estonian friend pays her babysitter €14 an hour, to do pretty much the same job. The Finn earns seven times more than the Estonian! Little did I know, but all of my neighbors and acquaintances who do the weekly trek to Helsinki are rolling in it. Maybe that's why they all drive such nice cars.

And I would wager that it is easier for an Estonian to integrate into Finnish society than most other nationalities. Even I felt disarmingly at home there, despite the parallel universe prices. The faces were familiar, the names were familiar, as was the language. After getting lost, I was able to get directions from some grocery store sellers and understand what they were telling me. I realize that just hearing all of this Estonian all the time has opened my mind to Finnish, Karelian, Vepsian, a whole new linguistic world.

And yet the Finnish-Estonian relationship is complex. Consider the English text on the Viking Line ferry screens. These are large monitors found in the corridors of the ship that provide information about various destinations. Tallinn's includes the lines, "Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991" and "hotels are up to Western European standards." Either they haven't changed those informative blurbs since 1996, or somebody is living in a timewarp. My experience is actually that hotels in old Western Europe are not up to Estonian standards. At my hotel in Hamburg, I was given a large, old-fashioned key, to be left at the reception desk. In Rome, wifi was free, but only in the lobby, and it didn't work half the time. And in Helsinki, I had to actually pay for parking across the street from our hotel with coins from the "lippuautomaatti." Can you imagine? Estonian radio stations may be stuck in the 1980s, but when it comes to "Western European standards," the world's only post-communist nordic country has left them all behind.,

A bit more on the dreaded "N" word is warranted. I sometimes get the feeling that "Nordic" is a code word for Finnish, as if one means the other and vice versa. Few nationalities are so keen on the term, other than the marketing savvy Estonians, who see it as a self-promoting "in." But what exactly is "Finnish" and what exactly is "Nordic?" Where is the line between the two? It seems as if "Finnish" is some kind of premodern concept, of saunas and national folk costumes and accordions, 19th century prints of flaxen maidens working in the fields.

But "Nordic?" "Nordic" is ocularly appealing coffee mugs and aerodynamic chairs, Marimekko prints, a pair of smart, dark-framed glasses on every face. "Nordic" is some kind of 1968-minted version of "the future" that has been tweaked by time and technology. Because of this, a person in Finland can feel as if he is both simultaneously stuck in the past and living in a science fiction film.

The Estonians, for all of their tech agility, still seem to have a complex in regards to the Finns. I won't call it an inferiority complex, but as a friend informed me, anytime she confesses that she is Estonian, she is looked upon with disapproving glances, as if a plumber had barged into a meeting of bankers, his ass crack hanging loose for all to see. When my wife had trouble returning a sweater at Kamppi, thanks to a particularly difficult seller, she was heard to ponder aloud, "I wonder if she treated me like that because I am Estonian." And when I asked her why she didn't try to speak Finnish with the locals, she answered, "Why should every Estonian speak Finnish to the Finns? They should try speaking Estonian to me." I was pleased to see how Finland got under her skin, after being mocked during our visit to Russia for my "illogical" fear of being trailed by the FSB, "as if I was so important."

In the midst of this, I started to better understand the Estonians' desire to take the Finns down a notch. Sure they may be wealthier, and more "Nordic," but the Finns and Estonians spring from the same rough country roots, as do most Europeans. Let's go back a few generations before the Finns got their Marimekko sweaters and Urho Kekkonen glasses and progressive politics and take a look at all the peasants sawing timber and sullying their hands in the fields. So when Estonians begroan Finnish haughtiness in the media, they are actually just trying to keep their old friend's ego in check. And that is a mark of true friendship.

I have to end here by saying that in spite of its high prices and obsession with perfection, and occassional haughtiness, I really do love Helsinki. It is the place where I fell in love. And there was a moment when I was looking out the apartment window before the snow fell, and the golden and brown leaves were swirling around an adjacent playground, that I felt that the place actually might be perfect, in its own rugged, rocky, Finnish way. So I recommend a visit to all. But first practice by standing in front of a toilet and flushing €50 bills down, one after the other. And when at last it doesn't hurt anymore, then you are ready to experience Finland.

teisipäev, oktoober 16, 2012


Food, glorious food.

You are what you eat, so they say, and what you eat defines you. On the road north from Tartu, I would often pass a sign spraypainted on the side of a bus stop with a curious bespeckled cartoon face and a bubble above in which was written, "Fuck milk. Go Vegan!"

The sign always made me angry because it was in English, and so was aimed at tourists or truck drivers from foreign lands. They didn't have the common decency to figure out how to spread their message in the national language! Or perhaps it was intelligent for the animal rights activists to go after them rather than the Estonians, because the day the Estonians forsake verivorst in favor of tofu blood sausages en masse is the day I win the Eurovision Song Contest.

The gulf in perceptions toward food between the well-meaning cosmopolitan who has eschewed factory farming and all of its ills and the average Estonian is vast. I know many people in Estonia who are largely responsible for their own food supply, hell, they give it away to us, in the form of smoked meats and fish, gallons of sauerkraut and apple juice, cartons of potatoes, carrots, and beets. If meat is murder, then our neighbors and family members in Estonia are guilty as charged -- they raise the animals and slaughter them as they wish, they pull the fish from the lakes, smoke them and gobble them up.

Could I really pull one of them aside and say, "Hey, buddy. Fuck milk. Go Vegan?" No I couldn't. The larger ideas that have led Global Citizen X to abstain from animal products on principle would be lost on the rural Estonian who maintains his own food supply, animal and vegetable alike, much as his fathers before him. And that's what makes "food totalitarianism" objectionable to me. In my heart, I am a traditionalist. No verivorst for the Estonians, no chorizo for the Spaniards, no pepperoni for the Italians? Again, food defines us, and to abandon millennia-old recipes for tofu cutlets is to cast off one's heritage for the culinary equivalent of Star Trek, to boldly go where no man has gone before, a diet without animal products, the final frontier.

I wrestled with these ideas while reading Jonathan Saffran Foer's landmark Eating Animals, contemplating an Estonian translation. Would it sell? Would the audience be receptive? Is it my civic duty as a global citizen to present alternative viewpoints to the northern European blood-eating masses? The author resides in Brooklyn, where the only farmland left has been turned into an open air museum, and one has access to animal-free food products at the snap of his fingers.

But Brooklyn is far and away from Viljandi. One fellow I know here in town is"Jutukas Kalev," so called because he is jutukas, talkative, meaning that he never shuts up. He lives on the edge of the city in a ramshackle dwelling beside a condemned barn where he makes apple juice for his patrons, you bring him the fruit, he gives you the raw by-product, that's his business. During one of his many soliloquys, which generally focus on local police department corruption, he explained how he only uses searasv, lard, to grease his frying pan, because the dairy products are too expensive. "Who can afford butter in this economy?" he said, thrusting an apple-grimed finger in the air. I just nodded and paid him. It's the best thing to do.

"Would Kalev buy an Estonian translation of Eating Animals?" I pondered while leaving his property, three large containers of raw juice in the back of my car. "Would he 'fuck milk'? Would he 'go vegan?'" In a word, no. Kalev didn't seem like a reader I could count on. Too bad, because there are a lot of good points in that book and many others that recount the horrors of factory farming because they are, well, rather horrific. And some of it hits close to home. There is a pig factory across the lake. On certain days you can smell the death and shit wafting through the air.

Yet some things are changing in E-land. Local activism has recently pushed food producers into selling sausages that are "e-vaba," minus dreaded "e" chemical additives, emulsifiers and food colorings and "flavor enhancers," stuff your great grandmother's great grandmother wouldn't eat. Don't forget, just as an animal product-free life is one futuristic pipe dream, the yellow #5 reality we inhabit isn't too far from being another form of science fiction.

As for me, I live in limbo, the shadowy borderlands between the totalitarian food regimes, scorned by the vegans and the hot dog contest judges. It has become apparent to me that a diet comprised of too many animal products is unhealthy. One need not completely "fuck milk" to appreciate that soy and rice-derived products are easier on the constitution. Moreover, the more I read about traditional lifestyles, the more I see how much our ancestors valued precious animal products. Shepherds in the Italian countryside ate their pasta with eggs because they were starved for protein. The bulk of their diet consisted of fruits and vegetables. Whether or not their protein source was the product of a chicken's menstrual cycle, or disrespectful toward these sacred birds, didn't enter into it.

So here I am at the checkout line at Selver on a Tuesday afternoon, a schizophrenic shopper, buying soy milk and regular milk together, buying packages of tofu cutlets and salmon steaks, and real butter too, because I am lucky enough to be able to afford it. That graffiti on the road out of Tartu still annoys me, because it was in English, and also because it seemed so far removed from the lives of men like Jutukas Kalev. At the same time, I like the vanilla-flavored soy milk because it goes down easy and, most importantly, because it tastes good. I'm glad that I am able to buy it whenever I want. My satisfaction trumps all.

neljapäev, oktoober 04, 2012

hot cakes

In a small town, even pastries are political.

Sven knows I buy bread at Selver. How Sven found out, I do not know, but he's given me hell for it a few times now. "You keep eating that shit," he says, "and you'll be dead in, like, three weeks!"

Sven takes an interest in where I buy my bread in Viljandi because he is a baker, and would prefer that I buy only bread from him. I often do, but sometimes I can't help but bring home a doughy loaf of rosinasai from the archenemy of all independent food stores across Estonia.

Sven the baker keeps an eye on the market. He knows where each man gets his daily bread. When a cafe opened up nearby he wasted no time in tearing apart the competitor's wares. "And did you see those cakes? So puny and dry. Let me tell you, anyone who eats that stuff will be dead in, like ..."

I did go into the rival's bakery once just to see what was on offer. I made sure to look over my shoulder when I stepped through the doorway, scanned the windows on the opposite building, hoping that no one in the town would report back to Sven that I was seen entering the "other" cafe.  And, sure enough, the cakes inside were small and dry. As many Estonian bakers suffer from severe myopia, they only see dry and small cakes and pastries on the shelves of other bakeries, and assume that these are the only kinds of cakes that exist the world over.

That keeps me going back to Sven's cafe for baked goods, with the occasional guilty trek to Selver, but now I hear a high-end cafe is opening up just around the corner, a place where a stale roll graced with a dead fish isn't the resident baker's idea of fine cuisine. Sven and I haven't discussed the new cafe, but we both know "it" exists. Needless to say, if I do go there, it will be early in the morning, or just before closing time. I'll have to wear a trench coat and a false mustache. Such is life in a small town.

kolmapäev, september 12, 2012

letter from sweden

It's lonely at the top.
These poor Swedes. They are so self deprecating. The king? An idiot. Their beer? Nothing special. But Mariestads is a fine brew, it does the trick, and the king hasn't started any wars, so ... why are they so down on themselves?

"I don't understand these Swedes," an older British man confided in me years ago. "They seem so pleasant, even happy, they are industrious, cooperative, good team players, never complain, and then one day they wake up and decide to kill themselves."

"It's because they finally figure out that everything is controlled," said my friend Erland, a Swedish chef who happens to live in Viljandi. "They ask themselves, 'If the state controls everything, what's the sense in living anymore?'"

Entertainment, I might answer. The big scandal in Stockholm these days revolves around a the appearance of a few mysterious one-crown coins that feature the profile of King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Yet these were not your average coins. Instead of the usual "Carl XVI Gustaf Sveriges Konung" ('Carl XVI Gustaf Sweden's King'), the text written around the image of the King's head on the coins read "Vår horkarl till Kung," which translates roughly into English as "Our whorer of a King."

After much public discussion and high-tech analyses at the Swedish state bank, the defacer of the coins came forward to acknowledge his work as art, and to claim that he has committed no crime. As the coins were never in circulation, and they were real coins, the coin artist argues that he is not guilty of forgery. The Swedish authorities know not what to do. They feel he has done something wrong, but they are not sure yet what it is. "The king can charge me if he likes," says the defiant coin artist.

I heard this and other lamentations during my savage and tragic sojourn into the capital of Scandinavia. Savage you say? Tragic, how so? Well, for example, I did not notice that my hotel in Uppsala had a shared shower when I booked it. Early in the morning I tiptoed down the hall to use it, while it was still relatively clean, in nothing but my bathrobe. I had grabbed my room key before I left, of course, and inserted into my pocket. But things were not as they seemed. To my horror, I discovered it was not my hotel key but my train ticket from the night before. And so my fellow lodgers might have heard a dripping wet half nude American man standing in the corridor at 6.20 am mutter something to himself along the lines of, "Oh my God, I am so fucked!"

I hid in the janitor's closet until I came to my senses, and then called the front desk from the hall phone but got no answer. I stepped out into the staircase while another door shut behind me, locking me out of my own floor, then descended the cold stairs barefoot. Luckily, there was someone on the first floor vacuuming in the lobby. A trio of Indian businessmen sat around sipping coffees but didn't seem to notice me, as such attire is common in their country. The Swedish woman understood at once the problem, and we returned to my room, where I was let in, and thanked her many times with all the takk skal du have and takk  så mycket I could muster. Then I opened up the room window, let the cool air pour in, and stared out at the sun rising over the Uppsala skyline, wondering how an idiot like me had managed to score a career, a wife, and three children.

Skyline? Well, actually, in Uppsala there is no such thing. Only the spire of the Domkyrka could be seen from afar, the same church that guided me to my hotel room the previous night. I had bounced around with my luggage from the train station up the hill, no urge to use a cab, as I wanted to see the city. It did not disappoint. The glistening waters of the canal. The spectral Swedish ladies ghosting by on bikes, silent, golden heads forward. The faces of the young and beautiful students laughing behind the cafe windows. The darkness of night, the perfection of the ivy hanging on the fences, the moonlight on the red-tiled roofs, the yellow glow of life through the ancient windows. The silence of a university town, punctured by the lone cries of inebriated happy students. This was Sweden as I imagined it, first encountered it, never forgot it.

In some ways, it reminded me of Estonia, yes, but it was better kept, cut and trimmed, more controlled, less hostage to the architectural whims of well-connected businessmen. To stare at the so-called skylines of Uppsala and Tartu is to see it all, lovely buildings, but few taller than three floors, surrounded by lush forests and the lull of distant streams. But there was no Tigutorn in Uppsala, thank God.

Amidst these ponderings, I made it back down to Stockholm, a city that claims to be the "capital of Scandinavia," but that's not saying much. I mean, what's the competition? Oslo? Copenhagen? Reykjavik? A certain Estonian word comes to mind here, provintslik, provincial. Reykjavik isn't really a city, it's a town, and so is Tartu for that matter, or Turku, or Bergen. These are big towns, not cities. But they must be called cities, because even if Sweden is as long as India, there are few people there, and those who do live there fulltime don't make a lot of noise. So houses become villages, villages become towns, towns become cities, cities become regions. You've read Astrid Lindgren's books, so you know how good the Swedes are at make believe.

Yet at least they get the joke, the joke of themselves. For all of their self loathing and introspectiveness, their dumb king and unexplained suicides, the Swedes of all northerners seem to have noticed long ago that people abroad confused them with the Swiss or, once in a while, the Swazis. When it dawned upon them, I do not know, but they decided that something must be organized, so some time in recent history, a new construction was born, a "Nordic Council."

What a splendid name it was. One could see them, sitting around at some ice hotel, warmed by their sled dogs, talking in vowel-laden sentences about, well, important stuff, like the latest coin scandal, or, "Did you see what the Estonian president wrote on Twitter?" The Estonians were off limits in the 1950s, but the Swedes did manage to pull in the Danes and the Norwegians, the Icelanders and the Faroese and the Greenlanders. After Stalin died, they even pulled in the Finns. It was their antidote to irrelevance. Their main university city may have lacked a skyline, but they weren't about to be outdone in any category by the West Germans or any other fictional continental nationality.

Nej! They were Swedes, the top of the world, the pinnacle of mankind! Not only did they live long and prosper, but they were all magnificently blonde. And under the auspices of the Nordic Council, the Swedes could siphon talent from adjacent countries and former territories and claim it was in their own collective self interest to send their biggest brains to Uppsala! Genius.

There is still much competition and finger pointing though.

"The Finns are really macho, they think that all Swedes are gay," a Swedish friend informed me during a boat trip in the archipelago. "My friend actually is gay but he works at Nokia, and he is too afraid to tell anybody. He says it's really awful, they are always trying to set him up with girls."

Our Finnish friend smiled when he heard this but said nothing. Then they turned on me. "How is the homosexual situation in Estonia, Giustino?"

I was now in a position to influence people's opinions about my wife's country. Of course, I just wanted to say that it was wonderful, and Estonian gays are the most content of all Estonians. And, from my perspective, it is rather tolerant. At the same time, Estonia still seems to be stuck in "don't ask, don't tell" land. It's your own business, so don't discuss any of that gay stuff with me! What people don't realize is that all of Estonian sexuality is like this. Nobody talks about sex, but people seem to do it quite often. Every month brings news of new babies. And yet if you actually came upon the mothers and fathers, few would openly express their desire for anything. I don't think an Estonian man has ever pulled me aside and said something like, "Hey now, that Kadri Simson is really sexy." If nude photos of the presidental pair were to surface, people would yawn and turn the page.

"But which is the country where they introduced a bill to make homosexuality an offense?" the Swede asked on the boat. When I answered "Lithuania," he pulled his jacket tighter and shuddered.

"You know, we in Sweden consider Estonia a Nordic country," he said. "But Lithuania ..." he furrowed his brow and didn't finish his sentence.

Only then it occurred to me that I had been writing a blog about Estonia, "the world's only post-communist Nordic country," for more than seven years.

Still, I did not raise the issue. It was just a statement that was handed to me, and I did not know what I should answer. Should I thank them, or agree? Should I protest? Could I honestly try to pass Riga off as the "Capital of the Baltics" without making them laugh, not to mention embarrassing myself? No. In the end, I just smiled and nodded, that's what they thought, and since they actually were from the Nordic countries, who was I to argue with them? I wouldn't dare mention it front of the Lithuanians though. The very coupling of the "N" word and Estonia produces sad, sorrowful faces down south.

Yet, as different as Sweden and Estonia are, I have to say that I could see where the Swede was coming from, for, after spending much time among the Swedes, I felt like I was talking to the Estonians. Other than their beer and their king, the Swedes complained about their marginalization, their isolation. Their best and brightest left to the UK or the US, they said, where they were paid much higher salaries, compensation they could never get in their home countries.

But at the same time, the Swedes exuded that inner steely confidence, that resolve. They had an innate belief that they could do better, that they must do better, and because of this faith, they would do better. They were relentless in their pursuit of making things better, all things, infrastructure, healthcare, sandwiches. And many of the Estonians I know are the same way. They are never content.

As our boat stole away into the night, I did wonder that if these northerners thought of Estonia as a fellow country, then how come it didn't have a place on the vaunted Nordic Council? Surely that schemer Carl Bildt has known that it is to Sweden's advantage to steal away Estonia's best talent under the guise of Nordic cooperation. So where is Estonia's invite to the ice hotel?

kolmapäev, september 05, 2012

bundle up

So that you won't catch cold!
It's still summer. I keep reminding people around me but they don't seem to believe me. Honestly, this year has been so cold that I am thinking of writing a depressing novel in Estonian called Külm Aasta, if it hasn't been done before, because so many Estonian years would qualify. The novel would be set in Viljandi and involve disappearing cats, local oligarchs, grimy drunks, and folk musicians.

But that's not what this post is about. As I was saying, it is still summer, but the Estonians think otherwise. So when it is warm and sunny out, they seem puzzled. "Kui imelik, päris suvine ilm," somebody remarked to me yesterday, "how strange, what nice summery weather." I answered "Jah," but what I was really thinking was, "Of course it feels like summer, it is still summer, damnit!"

I should get a t-shirt made up that says  "Sept. 22" on the front and "Autumn Equinox" on the back. I don't think anybody would believe me though. For Estonians, fall begins on Sept. 1, the first day of school. End of story.

Clothing at this time of the year never suffices. It is either too cold or too warm. A cool breeze hits you as you walk outside so you put on a light jacket. By the time you are walking back from the store in the warm sun you notice that you are sweating. You take off the jacket and another breeze hits you and all of a sudden you are cold again. It makes me wonder if I should get one of those full-body track suits that middle-aged Italian guys wear. No matter the season, you are always comfortable!

A glance out the window provides no useful information. At the first instant of a cool breeze, Estonian mothers begin swaddling their children, a practice that will continue until May or so of next year, when they just might let their child leave the house his or her head uncovered. This morning I spied the neighbor boy collecting firewood wearing a thermal hat, an insulated jacket, and boots. It looked as if it was about to snow! But when I stepped outside, except for  a cool breeze blowing off the lake, it felt like t-shirt weather. It's still summer, damnit!

The official explanation for all the swaddling and bundling that goes on in Estonia is that it's done, "so that you won't catch cold." I am not so sure I believe in this. Is it really true that even slight exposure to cool weather will make one ill? I feel just as bad sweating feverishly in a heavy jacket on a warm late summer day as I do getting a few goosebumps in a t-shirt. It seems that there is no good option: both approaches could make one sick.

But these are questions, and the Estonians don't like to be interrogated about their customs. Things just are as they are, and that means that even if it is 18 degrees Celsius outside (64 degrees Fahrenheit), you better put on your woolen cap and winter jacket, "so that you won't catch cold."

Still, I feel bad for those little Estonian boys and girls who are forced to wear winter clothing deep into spring. Even on hot late April days, when the sewers groan with melted ice and snow, days on which most people would feel fine just putting on a light, long-sleeved shirt, you can catch sight of some poor youth trudging down the street in hat, scarf, jacket, gloves, thermal pants and boots, and holding the hand of an overprotective female relative.

This may not be the Arctic, but sometimes it sure feels like it.

neljapäev, august 23, 2012


I would like to entertain you, to complete you, to take your mind off of the things that eat away at your being each day. This is the world we have drawn for ourselves, a world that orbits around the pursuit of happiness. We keep after it though it slips from our hands like soap. And here is the camera now, look up ...

When I was a boy at the ocean I would get taken down by waves, and some of them were big, and then some of them were monstrous, walls of moving salty water that sucked me up and pounded the meat of my body into the shells and sand. That's how my most recent bout of jetlag has overwhelmed me. I am exhausted. But I don't think it is this one travel that has exhausted me. It's 33 years of forward motion.

Scott Fitzgerald called it "the crack-up," a blow that doesn't hit you all at once, but takes you down over time, so that you can only pinpoint the moment the rushing water collided with your being in retrospect. In a lot of ways, he was describing jetlag, that sinister hangover that just won't go away, no matter how much sleep, no matter how much coffee. You long to get back to you, but you left you somewhere else, in a hotel room in Chicago maybe, or perhaps tucked under the seat on that Finnair flight. But this is a different kind of jetlag, a jetlag of the soul.

Estonia is cool these days, the end of August. Summer peaked with Viljandi Folk, when my home was turned into a temporary hostel. Viljandi is a hard town, a wild town. The streets here where we live are unpaved, so they are hard on the feet, hard on the shoes, hard on the legs. The homes are heated by wood, so the smoky air is hard on the lungs, the temperature is hard on the body. A person needs to be hard to live in Viljandi. I am still soft, and I am not sure if I can adapt. My neighbor watches me, smoking. His constant expression is one of quiet amusement. He's wondering when I will crack. He thinks it's only a matter of time.

The neighbor across the street smokes too, except he's 10 years old. I watched his mulleted father beating a carpet the other morning. There are class issues here in Viljandi, in Estonia. And class is not just how much money you make, but how you speak, what you eat, what you talk about. Class defines whether or not you will feel comfortable parading around town with a half empty beer can in your hands on a Wednesday afternoon, or playing bossa nova music at a dinner party. Class creates jealousy and friction, malice and misunderstandings. Most of all, class leads to ignorance. You don't see me, I don't see you. We live right next to each other, but very far apart. Even children grasp this, without being lectured.

Will I crack? I think not. I hope not. These are just complications, I tell myself. I'm not going to go the way of the drink like F. Scott, or burn up in a madhouse like Zelda. And I am definitely not going to do myself in ala Hemingway. I'm like the stubborn moss on the ruins in the Old Town of Viljandi. Smoke all you want neighbors, let me be the mellifluous entertainment in your morning charades. But as hard as these Viljandi streets are, some days the sun does shine. It reflects in the puddles among the cobblestones along with the close blue ceiling of the northern sky. And on these days, I feel that I'm this side of paradise.

pühapäev, juuli 22, 2012

aegna notes

Aegna is an island in the Bay of Tallinn, one of Estonia's many islands (1,520 is the official count), but one of a handful that caters to travelers. It's a fairly recent tradition of mine to visit a new Estonian island every year. Last year, we ventured to Kihnu for my wife and daughter's double birthday. This year we picked something a little less touristy to visit together.

The boat to Aegna leaves from the Kalasadam ("The Fish Harbor"), which is situated beside the Linnahall, a Soviet monstrosity if there ever was one, that occupies prime real estate. Nine years ago when I was penning stories for the seminal regional newspaper, The Baltic Times, I wrote a piece about the possibility of a Tivoli-like theme park being erected on the site. Today, the vast hall, assembled for the 1980 Olympics, is in even more terrible condition, graffiti everywhere, small weeds writhing out of the cracks of the crumbling concrete. And for too many, this is their first impression of Estonia.

The trip to Aegna takes about an hour and 15 minutes. It was choppy both ways -- several passengers got sick. I saw one person yack in a garbage can, and a grown, fit woman lying in the floor with her hands over her eyes. But I managed to keep my breakfast down and was rewarded with a pretty island of thick forests, boggy patches, sandy soil, well-kept paths, uprooted pines, silence and serenity.

I think Aegna's greatest asset is its abandoned military installations, most of which date from the First World War. When Epp heard this she was truly impressed, because 1915 seems like a very long time ago (even though my grandmother was born a month after the Armistace and she's still alive). But, still, so much has happened since then, that walking among military ruins from 1915 is a bit like looking at those photos of Titanic lying at the bottom of the sea, that same, "Men really lived here? Who were they? What were they thinking?"

I've seen a few too many scary movies (and read too many Stephen King books) but these thoughts were racing through my head when I ventured into the forests to check out the beach battery installation alone. This may sound creepy, but the farther in I went, the more thoughts came to me, as if I could not see the shadows of the men who lived in those buildings, but instead feel their feelings, moods, sensations. I didn't see anything, but I felt lots of things, most of them somber, a few ominous.

Maybe it's because I recently read A Farewell to Arms, and something was similar, those men sitting on the Italian front so long ago, waiting for something to happen, those men sitting on this little island in the Baltic so long ago, waiting for something to happen.

There are several sandy beaches in Aegna, and this has to be the place's best-kept secret. While others drive down to Pärnu for the full effect or even tough it out at Pirita Beach in Tallinn, Aegna's beaches were, at least on that windy day, completely deserted, and we had one all to ourselves. We barely made it there, because wild strawberries abound, and my Estonian entourage went into foraging mode, as Epp (and Kaja and Anna) think that it is their duty to consume any and all wild strawberries they can find. I told them, "Look, you can't eat them all!" And Epp replied, "What do you mean, I can't eat them all?"

Like I was challenging her foraging skills or something.

esmaspäev, juuli 16, 2012

wild and crazy guy

They weren't from Estonia (or Scotland)
About a month ago I was offered the prospect of free drinks in Copenhagen, which I gladly took up, knocking down a few in the early evening and then en route to the airport until, like clockwork, I started mumbling half-remembered phrases from History of the World, Part I, stuff like, "It's good to be the king," and hanging out with the other inebriates at the back of the train, Danish travelers, who were also riding their own internal wave of, "Isn't life grand!" and scoping out the foxes. So, ühesõnaga, it was fun.

Then I marched up to the departure gate for the Estonian Air plane headed for Tallinn. Ah, Estonians! I figured I probably knew one or two of them, maybe one was my wife's cousin. We'd have a swell time, swapping funny stories about ridiculous dialect words and making jokes about Silver Meikar. So there I was, standing with my nth foamy Tuborg in hand, ready to embrace just about anybody with that aquatic-Finnish-meets-stern-German face, all wound up, like those swinging Czech brothers in Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd's Wild and Crazy Guys 1970s SNL routine, and what do these Estonians give me but the silent treatment and awkward body language.

Nobody said a word, neither to each other, nor to the idiot in the corner with the beer in his hand. They sat as rigid as washed-up, sun-dried driftwood, not a bony elbow touching another's. It was painful, dreadful; so severe and austere was the ambiance that I had to go hide myself away amongst the Danes for some more mirthful exchanges before boarding my flight back to that sparsely populated morgue of a republic on the other side of the Baltic Sea.  

I share this tale so that my dear friend Flasher T at Antyx will grasp the nature of the North American critique of Estonian interpersonal relations that has set off many a philosophical treatise. This depends on the nature of the observer. I always thought of Vikerkaar or Mingus as middle North American cads accustomed to "have a nice day" sweety talk at ye olde greasy spoon, but I am from New York, actually Long Island (which is worse), where people are notoriously rude to each other. Yet even those tortuous interactions with, say, your local Department of Motor Vehicles official, do not find equivalence in the 19th century schoolhouse demeanor of the Estonians, who sit in agony at Copenhagen departure gates, as if an unanticipated hiccup could earn them a switching in front of the class.

With a birch branch, of course.

So I was silenced at the departure gate, took the quiet flight back to Tallinn, and tried not to chat up the taxi driver out to Vikerkaar's house (though failed). When I got there, Vikerkaar's son came out and shot me with a toy rocket launcher and Vikerkaar launched into a soliloquy about the lackluster quality of Estonian journalism. The afterglow of my trip wore off, we downed tea (not beer) and I started to feel less like a "wild and crazy guy" and more like an exhausted father of three with a permanent resident's card, thanks be to stiff Estonian civil servants everywhere.

kolmapäev, juuli 11, 2012


Our daughter Maria (right) and our friend's son Remi: the few, the proud, the babies.

I owe it all to my sixth grade teacher, of all people. We were assigned to give a report on different countries and I had my fingers crossed for Scotland so that I could write about blood feuds and kilts, but I drew Iceland instead. Oh, Iceland, lovely Iceland, desolate lunar island in the middle of the North Atlantic, glaciers and the stink of sulphur. The project on Iceland sparked my interest in peculiar northern countries, a few twists in the road and I'm here. That was back in 1992, when the population of Iceland was about 260,000. Today, its population is nearly 320,000. That's right. In 20 years, Iceland has gained 60,000 new people. 

Why does this interest us? Because in slightly more than half that amount of time, Estonia has lost more than that number. The preliminary census figures released in May showed that there were 1.29 million people resident in the country as of Jan. 1. That's down from 1.34 million in 2000, and 1.56 million way back in 1989. These days people in Estonia keep their fingers crossed for a month when they break even or even register population growth, if only by a few dozen new babies. It's a national preoccupation.

What's going on here? You are not going to convince me that Iceland has better weather, or its more centrally located, or it has a more diverse economy or less tumultuous history. It may have not been ravaged in multiple continental wars, but its population was decimated time and again by famine, volcanic eruptions, and plague. And even during this current Great Recession, where Reykjavik was ground zero, Iceland's population has continued to go up, while the Estonians, who are congratulating themselves for averting the worst of the crisis, continue to see their population decline, albeit at a slower rate than in previous years. "Estonia has proven itself as a country," says Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, except in the bedroom, I would like to add.

How can this be?  Someone must be to blame. In Estonia, some blame the women who emigrate in greater numbers compared to the men, the women who settle in foreign lands and work in foreign economies and make foreign babies. Some blame the men who expect the women to make them food and do their laundry, forcing them to seek happiness elsewhere. Still others blame the Soviets for knocking Estonia off course, because Estonia and Finland were on equal footing in 1940, and now Estonia has fallen behind, and its population declines while Finland's continues to grow. Or maybe it is just the hyper-individualistic Estonian attitude, that one must serve his or her own interests before society's. It's every man for himself!

I honestly don't see the population decrease firsthand. I am surrounded by babies. I have a new baby, our neighbor has a new baby, my wife's cousin has a new baby and her stepsister has a new baby. My pal Sven's got five kids under 13. He deserves the Maarjamaa rist! If somebody's to blame for population decline, it's not us. But who is it then? Who is selling Estonia short? And why? There is this feeling in Estonia that we are leaking water, and someone must put a stop to it, before the tünnisaun runs dry.

reede, juuli 06, 2012

up from the skies

It didn't happen here.
One of the most perplexing things for a so-called "Western" person resident in Estonia is the absence of "The Sixties," these arguments that have been raging for forty-odd years about things that younger people have to study up on to understand, but still make older people reach for their daggers, as if the Hippies were the beginning of the downfall of Western civilization or the heralds of a new age, an "Age of Aquarius," where blacks could be president, popular newsmen could be openly gay, and management entirely female.

It didn't happen here. There was no Estonian Watts, no Estonian Woodstock, no Estonian Stonewall Rebellion, no Estonian women burning bras. Or were there? It's hard to tell, given the population's desire to glance beyond The Sixties to The Forties, a truly contentious time in Estonian history that few have truly digested (nor it seems ever will). From what I have been able to piece together, The Sixties in Estonia arrived in The Seventies, with prog rock groups like Ruja, the "Estonian Beatles." Maybe it was the heady year of 1968 that started to shake things lose, so by 1980 you had The Letter of 40, this vast national reawakening climaxing in the summer of 1988 with the Singing Revolution.

But then, to make Estonia's "Sixties" understandable to those of us familiar with the American counterpart, then we should look beyond our own details -- civil rights, Vietnam, feminism -- and see Estonia's period of reassessing its values and ideals as one of national survival. I find it interesting that in the 1970s, the heart of the Soviet era, my wife's mother gave her children the oldest Estonian names she could find. That wouldn't happen today. The film Nukitsamees (1981) to me embodies the values of this era - a spooky film about witches with a fluid plot that if looked at through Western lenses, seems quite psychedelic. To think it was made only 12 years after the highly structured "classics" Kevade and Viimne Reliikvia.

To me, this shows that Estonia indeed was going through its own era of redefinition, its own "Sixties," just in its own, Estonian way.

esmaspäev, juuli 02, 2012

prangli dialogue

Prangli Island, where the blood is neither tip top nor superluks.
As the taxi bore us out to Mähe, my father asked about a strip of land in the distance that appeared to be disconnected from the mainland. "What is that, is that an island?" he asked.

"Maybe," I answered. Then I asked the taxi driver in Estonian if it was an island, perhaps the fabled Prangli Island, center of an excellent short story by the reclusive writer Vello Vikerkaar. That story, "The Inbred Bastards of Prangli Island," hinted at the lack of genetic diversity on Prangli, which prompted the following question.

"You're not from Prangli, right?"

"No," the driver answered, looking in the rearview mirror.

"Good. So, is it true that all the people who live there are relatives?"

"Well, yeah," he said. "You are stuck on an island, you want to keep the property in the family, so you wind up marrying your cousin. I mean, who else are you going to fuck?"

"You could go to Helsinki," I suggested. "Just row up to the port in the middle of the night, steal some women, and head back to Prangli. You know. Pirate style!"

The driver laughed. He thought I was kidding. "But, you know, we Estonians on the mainland are not inbred. We've been invaded so many times! Germans, Russians, Danes, Swedes,  Poles ..." he counted them out on his fingers so as not to forget, "... our blood is tip top!"

At this point I chuckled, not because Estonians are so proud that they carry the genes of a motley crew of rapists in their blood, but because they overuse the terms "tip top" and "superluks" in everyday speech. Both are English borrowings ("superluks"="super luxury"), and both are used to describe material things: a new car might be tip top, a swanky apartment could be superluks,  but this was the first time I have ever heard a person refer to his blood as being tip top.

Estonian genetic diversity was one of the selling points of the Estonian Genome Project, which billed the small country's genetic heritage as being as heterogeneous and representative of the larger European population, just as the older Icelandic project was sold on that small country's homogeneous population and tip top genealogical records, making it possible to trace rare diseases over many generations and, ultimately, identify the variants causing those diseases. But that's marketing. I honestly have no idea what real genetic impact Estonia's assorted invaders had on the local population.

Estonians were somewhat confused when it emerged in recent years that they were more closely related, in terms of genetics, to Latvians and Lithuanians, than to their linguistic brothers the Finns. "But Estonia has the euro!" they told themselves. I know, it makes no sense to me either. Still, it might explain why Finns just seem weird in any context, because, well, they are. At the same time, Finns are genetic outliers, meaning that Swedes are no more closely related to them than Estonians are. Or, rather, Estonians and Swedes are the Finns' closest relatives, but other northern Germanics (Danes, Norwegians) are the Swedes' closest relatives, and Latvians and Lithuanians are the Estonians' closest relatives. (Got that?)

I bring this up because an Estonian relative recently complimented my mother on my family's fecundity: I have aided in the production three new Estonians, and therefore deserve a medal, or something like that. Even though I am a foreigner, and have thus polluted the Estonian genetic well, it's okay because, hey, they speak Estonian, and two of them have blue eyes. This upset my mother, as you can imagine, who reminded the relative that they were American citizens too, and I had to wade in later, after the fact, and explain the Estonian psyche to her using American equivalents, such as, "This relative is very conservative, the Estonian version of a Tea Party activist, pay him no mind."

That got me thinking. Does every bit of Americana have a counterpart? If a relative can be the Estonian equivalent of a Tea Party activist, and Jaan Kaplinski can continously remind me of Peter Fonda, then surely there are other parallels as well. That's another post. But I have wondered from time to time what the poor Estonian geneticists will do if one of my offspring shows up in the biobank and they start picking up variants associated with Mediterranean populations, leading to some backward hypothesis -- "Maybe there was a Greek in the Teutonic Order?" -- when, all along, it was just little old me and my wanderlust.

Or maybe it will be cause for celebration, a vindication of the big theory that the Estonians are genetically diverse, that there is no risk in breeding with your neighbor, so long as he or she is not from Prangli Island. I can just see the beaming geneticist's face as she holds up a vial marked with my surname, the flash in her eyes as she yells out to her colleagues to share the good news. "Our blood really is tip top," she cries out in the lab, "superluks!"

laupäev, juuni 23, 2012


Who's the boss?
The historical amnesia is stunning. This morning, buying a sandwich on a sunny square in Nuremberg, I had a dialogue with a friendly baker who told me that everything I knew about Estland was wrong. This started when I announced that I lived in Estland, although I am a New Yorker, expecting some kind of European comradery, and instead was met with big eyes and "Strasvoitye" or however the hell this well-known Russian greeting is rendered in the Latin alphabet.

"No, no. That's Russland," I told the baker, "not Estland." "Yes, but they are all speaking Russian in Estland," she told me. "No, they speak Estonian in Estland. It's like Finnish." "Oh, yes, they spoke that long ago, but now everybody speaks Russian," she answered. "No, I live there, trust me, most people speak Estonian," I continued. "Well," the baker harrumphed and put her hands on her hips. "That's not what I learned in school. I learned that they all speak Russian." "But they don't. They actually have a lot of German words in Estonian, kviitung, kassa, treppe ..."  "That's not what my teacher told me," the baker fired back. "Kuulge, kui te tahate ma võiks rääkida teiega eesti keeles," I shouted over the counter. That really frightened her and she sort of waved me away back out into the square.

It's funny because the Rathausplatz in Nuremberg looks a lot like the Raekoja plats in Tallinn. Here, I am reminded of the anecdote about the German who booked his flight to Estonia in anticipation of visiting some kind of little Russia and was disappointed upon landing to find himself still in Germany. But the Germans don't seem to know these things, and this begs the question, who wrote the post-war history books in Germany? In an effort to expunge all imperial urges from the German national character, were all mentions of the German people's historical legacy in the east cleansed from local memory?

Modern Germans may not know a lot about Estland, but they seem to know a lot about football. Last night's football/soccer game -- Germany versus Greece -- had the aura of some ancient war. The national anthems were played and the cameras slowly panned across the faces of the brave warriors who had come to battle over national pride by kicking a ball around on a field. The squares of Nuremberg were thronged by people wearing patriotic garb watching screens positioned outside of every bar, including a large screen in one particular square where tents were set up to provide the masses with their choice of alcoholic beverage. Each time the ball came close to the Greeks' goal, the crowd gasped and some even began to cry, only to let out a disappointing sigh when the ball was kicked beyond the goal into the crowds.

This reminded me of the time I fell asleep watching Italy play Brazil in the summer of 1995 and woke up an hour later and the score was still 0-0. An exciting game that was. Yet, eventually Germany did score, and then Greece scored, and it was a game. "There's a political element to this game," a friend yelled in my ear. "The Germans are pissed at the Greeks because of the crisis, and the Greeks are pissed at the Germans because of the terms of the bailout," he said. "But the Greeks are a bunch of lazy pieces of shit," he went on. "They sit around and smoke and eat stuffed grape leaves and then expect to retire at fifty with a nice fat pension. Well, that's not going to happen anymore ..."

I'm not sure if the rest of the Germans on the square felt the same way, but there was no shortage of national pride each time they scored. My God. The close ups on the sweaty faces of the players, the hair in their eyes, like Henry V's bloodied men at Agincourt. And then there was that woman dancing around on the sidelines who I was convinced was an impersonator of Angela Merkel until my friend informed me that it was actually the Chancellor. She was in on it too, every dance another thousand votes locked up for the next election. Look at Angie go!

This is it how Germans do nationalism these days. They are too busy winning football matches to worry about who speaks what language in Estland. If their high school teacher told them that everyone in Estland speaks Russian in 1988, well, it must be so, actual person who lives in Estland telling them otherwise right in front of their face in 2012 be damned. And there is a sort of unquestioning rigidness in the German character that perplexes me, this odd tick that makes them believe their teacher over the man in the store, or follow rules simply because they are rules. But who is making these rules, eh? Is it the same chap who's been writing these history books? Tell me please, oh Nuremberg baker woman. Who is this faceless Saxon pied piper that so many so enthusiastically follow?

Bitte schön.

esmaspäev, juuni 18, 2012

satori in copenhagen

Ring! Ring! An Illumination!
I would have felt lonely if it hadn't been for the bikes, the fleets of bikes running me down scared in the streets of the Danish capital. Everything has changed here since I last called this land home, but the bikes are a constant, they never leave, rather, there are only more of them. This is a country, or at least a city, where this form of transportation is king, and that means it rules above all others, cars, pedestrians -- you hear the bell ring twice and that means get the hell out of the way because some albino Amazon woman who looks like Brigitte Nielsen (pre Flava Flav) in a business suit is about to mow your sorry foreign ass down faster than you can say "Tivoli" or "Pølsevogn."

Yes, bring it on, bring me some more Tuborg Classic, reignite that youthful hunger for carousing and destruction. And then, when sobered up, back in Estonia, I yearn for those ladies and gentlemen on bikes, the bells but a sad nostalgic song, like one of those post-new wave anthems that were designed to make you cry: "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order, "How Soon is Now?" by The Smiths, "Enjoy the Silence" by Depeche Mode -- And there's a reason these songs are still being played in Copenhagen.

Oh Denmark! You gave Estonia your three lions, you gave Tallinn its name and Harjumaa its flag, but you came too many centuries too early, long before bicycles were the fashion. If there is an ancient tapestry depicting Valdemar II (The Conqueror)  riding his bicycle into battle in Lyndanisse, politely ringing that bell to any Finnic pagans who stand in his way, it has long since been lost or disappeared into the archives of some invading country.

Here in Viljandi I long to ride my bike everywhere, but there are too few occasions, it is something that must be selectively done, "Today, I will ride my bike!" You must don your helmet, proceed to fine designated recreational areas. Everything you need is in walking distance, and if not, it's within driving distance, But biking distance? Does such a concept even exist?

Even when I lived in Estonia the first time, in the dreaded and dark winter of 2003, there were young eestlased around trying to ignite a cycling revolution. It was hard and still is. In Tallinn, my cyclist friend informs me, things become more and more "human" every year, meaning there are more cyclists, him seeing driving around in some blinged-up "I've made it!"-mobile  as the post-Soviet form of neanderthal grunting, a sort of knuckle-dragging, hunched-over sashay before learning to walk upright and straddle a bike. Terrible. But I do see old grannies in Setomaa riding to the store with their long skirts fluttering in the wind. How I love those scenes. If only there were more of them!

In Viljandi, I am lucky to see people riding bikes around the town center, usually young ökoinimesed or poets or artists. Sofia Joons passed me on a bike a few times with a cheery hej hej, but that doesn't count because she's Swedish. The bikes do not dominate because the infrastructure isn't there to support a bike-dominated society, you see, one needs specific lanes for bicycles before one can lead a cavalry of cyclists into battle against pedestrians and automobiles. If only the infrastructure was there, I might use my bike every day, because most of the destinations that are within "walking distance" and "driving distance" are actually within "biking distance." Bumping over cobblestones and crumbling cement and asphalt is fun, you know, but it won't provide you with that thrilling "Valdemar II (the Conqueror)" feeling.

esmaspäev, juuni 11, 2012

tweety bird

I'm a sweet little bird in a gilded cage.
What is Twitter? What point does it serve? And, of utmost importance, who invented it? Has he been drawn and quartered already? Gibbeted and suspended above the carrefour of the online world? These questions rotate around my head like bassinet toys. Maybe Twitter has some ancient progenitors, perhaps Roman wall graffiti scrawled by the doors of bath houses and cat houses in vulgar Latin. And, if so, did senators of old engage in "flame wars" via bouts of noctural facade carving?

One can imagine Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a quasi-latinate name to be sure, toga, laurel leaf crown, creeping up beside some public Palatine latrine under light of moon, sharp implement in hand, to express his frustration with the pronouncements of some contemporary economist who has drawn his ire. The sun dawns on the scribbled words -- what was the Latin word for "wogs" again? -- but, alas, who cares, the media reacts, from any hill one can hear the diapason of the city state's echo chamber. Scandal! Twittergate! Panem et circenses!

Maybe such scenes really did occur, but if they did, they were just as meaningless then as they are today and forever will be, not to mention shameful. Paul Krugman's visiting and revisting of Estonia was just a play in the larger game of economic heads smashing themselves against each other. It has little to do with Estland or its people. GDP numbers and other metrics of scoring international gymnastics do not reflect the true health of this country, they cannot, for a man can be an excellent employee in fantastic shape and still blow his brains out at the end of the week.

At the eye of the swirling storm that is the Great Recession is a question of soul, that is, America's ailments are not caused by Wall Street but by sheer gluttony, that blight of the American soul, that metaphysical corrosion that manifests itself in malaise, lethargy, obesity. Estonia's crisis of the soul will not be navigated by men with charts and graphs, but will end when the common man or woman abandons his envy for his or her neighbor -- the large, moose-like neighbor, in particular -- and moves beyond the ideal of catching up to one of achieving simple excellence.

Consider this. Even in the darkest days of Tsarist rule, the Estonians bred like rabbits. But in today's online world, they can barely find time for sex, what with all the late-night Twittering and Skypeing. Yet Estonians in the mid-19th century were pumping them out, Jüri, Mari, Jüri, Mari. It was a demographic deluge. Today there's barely enough new citizens to break even. The Estonians of yesteryear wore rags, spent candlelit nights chewing leather to soften it for future shoes. And this was the context in which the country's people became awakened, not in spite of the poverty, but because of it, because the people knew their land and loved it for what it was because it had made them and it was theirs.

So, my fellow Romans, put aside your Twitter and your Huffington Post, extinguish your flame wars, discard your graphs. If Paul Krugman wants to write about Estonia, that's fine, but he must come here first, he must walk its fields, shoulder its timber, swim in its lakes, dance with its widows, and, above all, be barred from conversing with its political leaders and Ministry of Finance functionaries. Every nation has its problems, sure, but shadow boxing on the Internet is no way to solve them. There must be better ways.

neljapäev, mai 24, 2012

nothing's shocking

Ritual de lo habitual
The most shocking thing about the Reform Party's financing scandal, is that nobody is shocked by it. The Estonians around me believe that the giving of party contributions from unnamed or unknown sources to circumvent laws barring corporate donations to parties has long been an "open secret." So, I suspect another game is being played out behind the awesomely named* Silver Meikar's display of "honesty" -- an internal one among members of the Reform Party.

But nobody is shocked by it. My impression is that the majority of citizens living in Western democracies have an unwavering belief that their political institutions are corrupt, perhaps not as corrupt as in our "large neighbor to the east," but corrupt nonetheless. In the US, it is a variety of monied bogeymen, from the Koch brothers on the right, to George Soros on the left, who are seen as the puppet masters of policy. The UK scandal embroiling Rupert Murdoch's media empire has not shocked us either. In fact, I suspect a great many people believe that the phone hacking scandal is just cover for some deeper injustice committed in the name of wealth and infotainment. The only thing that shocks is how blatant the corruption has become.

What is interesting to watch in Estonia is the degree to which the popular media has covered the scandal, and it has received a lot of attention. My sense is that the popular media is to a large extent in at least covert support of the ruling establishment, which has been, for the past 13 years and in various guises, the liberals and the conservatives. As the first Laar government of 1992 to 1994 established the economic and social outlook of the state, this perspective has come to be seen overtime as the "Estonian" perspective, that is that Estonia by nature supports liberal economic policies and has a conservative national identity, and to question these policies and viewpoints is to, in some way, become opposed to the Estonian ideal.

A critical dilemma has developed in recent months for the status quo. The Estonian Social Democratic Party, led by Sven Mikser, has become the most popular party in the country. This was unthinkable years ago, when the very word "social" would induce Communism-scarred Estonians to nausea. SDE was historically the third or fourth party of Estonian politics, after whatever incarnations the conservatives and liberals found themselves in (Reform, Pro Patria, Res Publica, Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica) and Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party. But financing scandals in the "green monster," as Centre is called, plus internal divisions have torn apart the party, especially this year when many significant members resigned their membership. Centre has never gotten much love from the Estonian media, anyway, which is one of the reasons why Savisaar attempted to build his own media operation. The Centre Party "refugees" have not aligned themselves with any political party since, but SDE has become the only game for anyone who disagrees with the ruling coalition.

With SDE as the rising in Estonian politics, the Estonian media faces an interesting decision. Will it support -- between the lines, of course -- the emerging power, or will it continue to support the status quo, the coalition of the liberals and the conservatives? Will it make a financing scandal surrounding the elite a big deal? Could it use such information to drum up enough opposition to send the leadership into opposition?

As a journalist, I can tell you, it does not hurt to be in the good graces of the regime. You have articles to write, they have messages to send: it's a mutually dependant relationship. I have watched other journalists try to take down the authorities mano-a-mano, but they fail, because one semi-alcoholic reporter is no match for a mayor or minister with an army of salaried henchmen. Even the vaunted Woodward and Bernstein had their whistleblowing "Deep Throat," and so were part of an internal struggle taking place within the Nixon Administration. Yes, they were acting on a mission to "serve the people," but, as journalists, they still became soldiers for the faction that was disgusted with the nation's leadership.

That's why I find this scandal and the attention it has received interesting. Why Silver Meikar? Why now? What else is going on behind the scenes? That's what I want to know.

* Silver Meikar must have one of the best names in Estonian politics, right behind Andrus Ansip, also known as "Undress, Unzip." For those who don't know, it is pronounced "Sil-ver May-kar," which sounds like "Silver maker," as in, "Here is a man who will make you silver," a sort of Bond villain a la Goldfinger. But English speakers unfamiliar with Estonian pronunciation might read the name as "Silver My-kar," as in, "My car silver, you want go for ride?" Either way, a cool name.