neljapäev, märts 15, 2012


"And the best part is that my wife actually thinks I'm working!"
Soome. It is the Estonian word for Finland and it is one of my favorite Estonian words. Actually, most of the Estonian words for neighboring countries are fun, because by stressing the second half of the word, you can put the word into the illative case. Usually this is not the case. For most places, you add '-sse' to the ending of the word to indicate going in or into it. Mina lähen Tallinnasse, "I am going to Tallinn."

Then there are those very fun places where you just add emphasis to the second sound in the word, like Soome, Taani (Denmark), Rootsi (Sweden). Or maybe I've got this all wrong. I'm not a linguist. But I usually know what I am doing when I am speaking, and if you just say Soome, it means Finland, but if you stress that second 'o' in Soome, it means "to/into Finland." Minu tütre lasteaia kasvataja kolib Soome, "My daughter's kindergarten teacher is moving to Finland."

This was the main message of the most recent parent-teacher meeting at her preschool, her lasteaed. Her husband has been working in Finland for a while it seems. Now they are ready to rent an apartment and the teacher, the kasvataja (literally, "grower," because it is a garden and she is tending to the children) and her two children will move there next month.

Finland is a long way from Viljandi. It's a two hour drive to Tallinn. Then you have to take the ferry to Helsinki which, depending on the season, is another hour to two hours. And a lot of Estonians who make the journey don't stay there at the docks in Helsinki. They leave for work in other parts of the country. Two hours to Tampere. Two hours to Turku. Three hours to Jyvaskylä. This is the distance the Estonians must travel for decent paying jobs.

A lot of people "commute," meaning that they work in Finland during the week and return home for holidays and weekends with their local families. But others just stay. Our babysitter's daughter lives in Finland with her husband and children. When I asked if her daughter had married a Finn, not an uncommon occurrence, I was told, "No, she simply lives there."

Recently a young African immigrant who somehow found himself married to a hairdresser from Mustla, a tiny picturesque village close to Võrtsjärv, the big lake in the middle of south Estonia, complained to local authorities that he had no job. He was shamed in the local newspaper. "People go from the village to the town for work," the local authorities said, "the town doesn't come to the village." And, he followed, "half the village works in Finland anyway!"

It's normal, you see. Working in Finland is normal. Half of the village does it. The young African should follow the crowd, get a job at a saw mill. Head north, young African, head north. That's how everybody else copes. Bring your wife and offspring later. There are plenty of heads in Porvoo that need dressing.

I've seen quite a few charts comparing Finnish prices and salaries and Estonian prices and salaries. The idea is that the Finns are earning quite a bit more than their Estonian counterparts, but the Estonians are often paying more for the same goods (many of which are produced in Finland or owned by a Finnish parent company). I am not sure of the veracity of these charts or the reason for this phenomenon. All I know is that my brother-in-law has been working in the UK for the past nine years because his local salary would be jama, "bullshit."

This puts all kinds of pressure on the Estonian families that stay together. I say, "stay together" because a plurality if not majority of the kids I know around here do not live with their fathers, though I think that most of them know the identity of their sirer and spend weekends with him, wherever he may be. I rarely see these fathers, but I am told that they exist.

Often the mothers remarry, but then that new guy's gone too, off to Oulu or Espoo to do something that pays more than whatever he can find to do in Viljandi. The backbone of this country is strong, independent women. They are raising the children of its absentee fathers, minding its stores. This is not a critique of those fathers like my neighbor who must work abroad. They do what they must do to support their families. It just is how it is. It is normal, and few now manage to see it as abnormal, nor think it will change.

Since I am naive, I still wonder about things. I question the Soome status quo. Why can't those same Estonians do those same jobs in Viljandi? Sure, Viljandi is rather out of the way, but Tampere isn't exactly the center of the universe either. Sure there are only 1.3 million Estonians, but there are only 5.2 million Finns. They all need jobs too. So why do they need to vacuum up good Estonian workers to do jobs in Finland that could be done a few kilometers where those good Estonian workers actually live, at least some of the time?

What is it that the Finns are doing right that the Estonians are doing wrong? Is it a question of management, capital, knowhow? Is it a question of infrastructure? For 20 years Estonians have been sold on the idea that the invisible hand of a free market economy will make all right in this land, and that a Nordic welfare state would only cripple the development of the country. And yet this invisible hand has been picking up Estonian guys and chucking them at other countries with big Nordic welfare states, starting with Finland.

This is not to go off on some ideology-poisoned tangent. I have already admitted my ignorance. The purpose of this post is to learn more, not to lecture. And not everybody's father works in Finland, by the way. My daughter's classmate's father is different. He works in Sweden.

teisipäev, märts 06, 2012

in the balance

What will become of us if the future of Europe is not certain or if we are bombarded by news of uncertainty from all directions?
Monkees singer Davy Jones is dead, Mart Laar is in a hospital recovering from a stroke and pneumonia, and Vladimir Putin just won this month's presidential election and plans to rule his country for a dozen more years. There has been a clear disturbance in the force. Now more than ever I feel the urge to stand up and do something to alter the trajectory of this cursed planet ... and so I write a blogpost.

Putin is like every Russian complex wrapped up in one little man, a geopolitical pig in a blanket. He's got that annoying knack for demanding respect. "Do you respect me? Do you respect me?" To which one can only answer, "Not really."

It's the pride thing that gets me. His latest tirade against Estonia was hilarious. "How can we accept that, due to their status as non-citizens, one in six Latvian residents and one in thirteen Estonian residents are denied their fundamental political, electoral and socioeconomic rights and the ability to freely use Russian?" asked Putin.

One in 13! It's probably more like one in 14 or one in 15 by now, because there are 94,000 stateless persons left. But still. This guy is the president of the world's largest piece of real estate, and he's got his knickers in a bunch over that poor 13th guy in Estonia who can't vote in parliamentary elections because he hasn't managed to apply for some country's citizenship in the past 20 years? Putin can't be serious, can he? Maybe all of those protests have made him delirious. He must know the writing's on the wall. Some people are saying he may only last a year into his new term before he retires to some tropical isle to cavort around with Berlusconi and underage girls and Napoleon's ghost.

But ... back to Estonia. At home in Estonia, we are worried, not because of Putin's psychotic reactions, but because the people are abandoning ship. As Ilves said in his Independence Day speech: "Our own attitude towards our fellow countrymen is not a smaller concern. We cannot get far by looking for and emphasising mistakes and by being jealous of and mean to others.

"The state is often not better either," he went on. "The return of the people is hampered by the rigid attitude towards the problems of those who arrive or return, be it the continuance of children's studies, finding a vacancy in a nursery school or granting a residence permit to a spouse who is a foreigner. The system must adapt to the changed behaviour of the people, not try to adapt the people to the system."

The process of finding a slot in a nursery school is complex. I've tried to figure out how it has happened that in a state where one in 10 persons are unemployed, and the government is providing parental renmeration to encourage baby making, it is a challenge to procure for one's offspring a convenient spot in an uncrowded nursery school.

Mean jealous people, living in a rigid system that does not adapt to their interests. Doesn't sound like a recipe for success, does it? To make things worse, droves of women are leaving the state to settle with foreign men, some of whom are quite swarthy. Women's magazines celebrate the phenomenon in every other issue. Nothing sours the gullet of a proud Estonian more than to see the flower of Marjamaa under the creeping arm of some guy who wouldn't know Vahur from Vahukoor.

Foreigners! Stealing all the good Estonian women! Eating all the good Estonian food! Breathing up all the good Estonian air! (Thank you, David Chappelle) And that's not all. There's also the trouble of municipal and regional government reform. We yearn for some Päts-like dictator to rise from the misty bogs and run all the backwater politicians out of their sinecures, cutting Estonia's regional governments to reasonable size. Out of many, four. None of this voluntary reform. No. Make it simple! Põhja, Ida, Lõuna, Lääne. North, East, South, West. Four regions. There you are. Tehtud. Jõgevamaa, it was swell knowing you ...

I went to the supermarket looking to get some books on nursery schools or regional government reform, but all I found were some Minu series books and a new thick treatise on the life and times of Harald Nugiseks. Nugiseks is 90 years old and his claim to fame is that the Nazis awarded him the Knight's Cross in 1944. I would like to meet Mr. Nugiseks. Seems like he has stories to tell. I even saw an image of him in a magazine flanked by two other aged Estonian women, the trio smiling, as if he was still getting play for earning that Knight's Cross all those years ago.

I always wonder who buys the Nazi merchandise for sale in Estonian supermarkets. It's not officially packaged as such, but let's just say if you laid it out in your nearest Duane Reade in New York City, you'd be in hot water with the Anti-Defamation League. But there it is. The compact disc of old fight songs. The SS recruitment poster calendars. The Nugiseks coffee table book. None of it showcases any overt allegiance to the Führer. The calendars invoke the fatherland, as in Estonia, not Germany. It does annoy me though. How much of my life have I wasted on the Internet defending this country from detractors, only to be greeted in the supermarket by some commemorative book about a Nazi war hero?

Nugiseks, like the other SS vets, claims to have been fighting for Eesti in enemy uniform. I won't question his explanation. Still, those were the Führer's uniforms. Those were the Führer's military decorations. But, whatever. It's Europe. If you can buy Mussolini aprons in Rome, you can buy a Harald Nugiseks coffee table book in Viljandi. In the meantime, how's that municipal reform going? Found a nursery school spot? How's that 13th guy in Estonia making out? Damn shame about Davy Jones, right?

The more time I spend in Europe, the more I feel like some hopeless partisan on the front in the Spanish Civil War. On my right are the Falange, the CEDA, the Alfonsists and the Carlists. On my left, the Basque and Catalan nationalists, the CNT/FAI and UGT unions, the Civil Guard and the international brigades. Everybody claims to be fighting for a better future. It's a tough fight. Looming over me is the ghost-like figure of Ilves in the clouds, the soul of New Europe. He has a laptop in one hand and a bundle of birch branches in the other. And he is asking everyone Mis meist saab? Mis meist saab?

What will become of us?