teisipäev, detsember 17, 2013


For a long time now, I have written here in this place. You've seen me come and go and develop and devolve. Now, at last, I know where I need to go. North! It's my newer blog and I will be writing there.

neljapäev, detsember 12, 2013

peppermint tea

In a recent business-related discussion, I happened upon an interesting question. It had to do with food production, and to brand something made in Estonia for the regional market with an N or a B. That's right: Nordic or Baltic. Just thinking about it was absorbing, because all of those prejudices floated right up to the top. Let's take something harmless like peppermint tea. I love peppermint tea. Now, would you rather drink Nordic Peppermint Tea, or Baltic Peppermint Tea? Hmm. Nordic brings to mind cleanliness. It smacks of Ikea and so there is a flavor of overproduction in the term, as in these tea leaves were handpicked and produced in line with 700 pages worth of government regulations. Still, they are Nordic, which means they come with a Sami folk pattern on the box and are of high quality. Baltic Peppermint Tea didn't sound as savory to my ears, though, nor to the ears of my Estonian colleagues. And nobody could say why. Or maybe we all really knew why we didn't want to drink Baltic Peppermint Tea, and lacked the courage to admit it.

kolmapäev, detsember 04, 2013


Estonia has a new minister of culture, and her name is Urve Tiidus. That's right, her name. The former mayor of Kuressaare is a woman. Estonia's cabinet now has its second female minister. While this is certainly cause for celebration, let's not forget that women are the majority in Estonia. There are 689,000 women. There are 598,000 men. That's a 54 percent to 46 percent split. Which, I guess, would mean that there should be seven female ministers and six male ministers, if you do the math, in an ideal world, in an ideal world...

why no western ukraine

In third grade, I was very proud, because I was one of the few students who could pronounce "Czechoslovakia." Other kids would prod me -- "Say it! Say it!" "Say what?" "You know what, just say it!" "Oh, {an eyebrow raised}, do you mean, CZECHOSLOVAKIA?" "See! I told you that he could say it! Pay up, boys!"

It was a talent that perhaps could have earned me a future slot as a diplomat in Prague {"The Secretary of State informed me that you are capable of saying it..."}, but, alas, there was that pesky Velvet Divorce. It happened {snap!} like that. Czechoslovakia dissected, cut into more easily pronounced halves. Nobody blinked, nobody twiddled nervous thumbs, the anxiety level was nonexistent, it was all calm and fine, at least from the vantage point of a New York junior high school student. Now that I read more about it, I can see that many people even opposed it! Still, it was bloodless, soft as velvet, and who doesn't like velvet?

What I don't understand, is why there is opposition to a Ukrainian "Velvet Divorce"? It's apparent that Western Ukraine, those parts of current Ukraine that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is/are not happy with Kiev. They aren't happy with Donetsk. Western Ukraine! Doesn't it sound grand? {"Don't worry, mother, she's from Western Ukraine."} And yet, when somebody brings up a partitioning of Western Ukraine from the rest of it, all you hear is no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. To which, I must respond, Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?...


esmaspäev, detsember 02, 2013


Very pleased to hear of the demonstrations in Kiev. One thing that always impressed me about former Communist/Eastern/New Europe {as opposed to glazed over, apathetic ABBA- and Boney M-listening Western/Old} is the belief in "people power" -- that change from the bottom up is still possible. Count me among those Western Europeans {or Westerners in general} who remain convinced that there is no such thing, and that our systems will remain mired in lethargy for eternity. We {or some of those among us} were not surprised by what has happened in Ukraine over the past month at all. But what is surprising is the tenacity of these EU-friendly parts of Ukraine, these demonstrators who simply do not give up. I do not know what their great ambition is -- the common currency, Schengen? -- but they are banging at the gates, crying to be let out of post-Soviet limbo land. They want a future. Don't we all?

neljapäev, november 21, 2013


The meeting took place in an abandoned barn on the western most tip of Hiiumaa. Outside it was raining, and the sea was stewing up with caps of white, and the pines were shimmying, and even the savage gulls were huddling under the eaves of the deserted summertime lodgings and wishing they had gone south like everybody else

The Candidate entered the barn and made his way past the fishing nets and dinghies to the very back. Then he pulled on the rusty sickle, just as he was instructed. The secret door creaked open, and he followed the steps down, kicking up the sand and hay that had accumulated in the corners of the steps. At the bottom, the Candidate crouched under a heavy beam and came into the light. It was a bare room, with walls cut from  salt-air-dried logs and sandy ground for a floor. In the center of the room, he saw a small wooden table. There was a man seated at it.

"Good afternoon, Minister," said the Candidate to the man.

The Minister said nothing. He was reading through some paperwork. When he was done, he looked up at the Candidate through his glasses and gestured for him to sit. The Candidate took his chair opposite the Minister. Then the Minister folded the papers up in a folder and tossed the folder across the table.

The Candidate took it in his hands. He felt its weight. Then he scanned the text on its cover. It read, in Estonian, "Government's Top Secret Plan to Remove Anti-Ruling Party Elements Who Write for State-Sponsored Publications."

The Candidate glanced up at the Minister. The Minister nodded but said nothing. Then the Candidate opened the folder. On the first page, he saw there was a list of names. It was written in black. Some of the names were very well known. When he read the names, he winced, because they belonged to famous people. In fact, the Candidate suspected that some of the persons named on the list might have even been to the secret Hiiumaa barn cellar before.

Then the Candidate turned the page over and saw an image of a white stone building overlooking a beach. There were palm trees around it, and there was a young brown-haired woman in a polka dot bikini sitting on its veranda. The Candidate studied the lady. She held an umbrella drink in one hand and was smiling. The Candidate smiled too, because the woman in the photo had very nicely tanned legs. Beneath the image was a single line of text. It said, in Estonian, "Your Future Timeshare in Maspalomas."

The Minister chuckled a bit when he noticed that the Candidate was smiling. Then he snorted and pretended that he was clearing his throat and resumed his stone-like pose. The Candidate shut the folder, but the images of the white house and the tan legs were still hot in his mind.

There was a pause.

The Minister looked up at the Candidate again through his glasses, as if he was awaiting a response. The Candidate bit his lip. He looked around the room, at the sandy floor, the wooden boards, the gray-haired man seated at the table. He thought of the names on the list, the white house, the smiling dish with the umbrella drink. Then he shrugged his shoulders and dipped his head as a sign of assent.

esmaspäev, oktoober 21, 2013

the cyclops

One can look at Tallinn in different ways. Some see a city that has been multicultural and market-oriented since at least the 13th century. Others see it as the capital of Estonia. The incumbent ran his campaign with this first perspective. The challenger ran his with the second. And I don't think the opposition's campaign was ever about winning. It was about doing what the conservative party enjoys doing -- sticking it to Savisaar. Maybe a few of them were disappointed that Eerik-Niiles Kross lost, but most knew that bringing down the Cyclops of Lindanisse was a political impossibility, yet delighted in watching Aeneas storm his beaches and fling rocks at him anyway. It's a shame, because Tallinn needs new management. Any person who has scaled the ruins of the Linnahall at the foot of Old Town, stepped over its rubble and weeds and graffiti to greet a friend coming off the boat from tidy Helsinki on the other side, has felt those familiar pangs of shame. Too much of the city looks like that. Neglect, poor planning, asshole capitalist architecture. The city suffers from its leader's myopia. The Cyclops wins an election and he thinks that it's because he is doing such a swell job. But it doesn't feel that way. Savisaar's city feels slower and lethargic. Its free transportation leads nowhere. And yet a challenger who can match his rhetoric of inclusiveness and optimism is nowhere in sight.

teisipäev, oktoober 15, 2013

solidaarsus puudub

Solidarność was the message of the red letters scrawled across the pin pinned against my chest in college by a Polish girl with a Bible-thick collection of indie rock band compact discs. I had never given much thought to Gdańsk trade unionists, but I had already been marked as one of them. These days you never hear the term, either in Polish or English, and if you do hear it in Estonian, solidaarsus, it sounds hollow, because anything tangentially connected to altruistic impulses was thoroughly discredited by the Fall of the Soviet Union. But the hyper-individualistic "investors' state" of tech-savvy marketing and start-up worship that was grafted onto the bones of the ESSR is still heavy on the skin and light on the meat. We are told that it is natural and Estonian to derive sinister pleasure from the failures of one's neighbor, and if he should succeed, we are told that it is natural and Estonian to envy him, and to surpass him, if only to delight in his come down.

It eats away from the inside, turns the warmhearted cold. While no narcissistic writer could be expected to produce white papers of concise, pithy, logical thought and policy suggestions, we might expect a sort of temperature-reading of the national mood. The thatcherite-reaganite posturings of the middle aged have acquired a musty, dangerous smell. They sit lit up under fresh slogans like week-old tuna fish sandwiches beneath electric lights on ferry cafeteria shelves. The cheesy populism of the Edgar-led side moves clumsily, like an unfrozen woolly mammoth feeling its way across the ice for the first time in ages, accompanied by an orchestra of younger people's derision and snark. Political life sleepwalks through elections and, "Did you hear what he said? Did you see what she did?" Every somnolent step is one closer to no holds barred parody.

In the freshly assembled honeycomb bee-colony towers of the northern cities, the young man is tossing screens back and forth with his thumbs and deciding on the cultural origins of the night's savory meal. Japanese, Hungarian, Azerbaijani? Fling! He flings a screen aside and Skype chats with his friends and then his phone buzzes and his doorbell buzzes, too. He must now decide on a vacation destination for the coming dreary doldrums. Lanzarote? Limassol? 

In the towns along the less traveled highways of the south, the red paint is peeling, the window glass broken, the ancient curtains dance within the cracks. An old man sits on a crumbling cement stoop, helping himself to his morning juice. Bear Beer, black label, 7 percent alcohol, 2 liter bottle. He undoes the cap, places the plastic to his dry-skinned lips. The wind picks up some more and the curtains dance, just like the ghosts do, all across the parish.

neljapäev, september 05, 2013


Some new vocabulary words

Vastandumine -- Antagonism. Ex:... pole ka maailmapoliitikas juba pikka aega olnud sellist vastandumist nagu me näeme täna näiteks Venemaa ja Ameerika Ühendriikide suhete puhul. {For some time in world politics, we haven't seen such antagonism as we see today in Russian and American relations}

Vaibumine -- Abatement. Ex: Enam kui kaks aastat ning kümneid tuhandeid inimelusid nõudnud kodusõda ei näita vähimatki vaibumismärki. {A more than two year and tens of thousands of lives-taking civil war shows not even half a chance of abatement}

Taandumine -- Receding. Ex: Eeldada, et diktaatorite taandumine looks kiire võimaluse demokraatlikeks protsessideks, oleks väga naiivne. {To presuppose that the receding of dictatorships would create a quick opportunity for democratic processes would be very naive}

Ohjeldada -- To curb. Ex: Kindlasti peegeldub siin Külma sõja aegne liitlassuhe, aga samuti soov ohjeldada USA ja lääneriikide mõjuvõimu Lähis-Idas. {Certainly this reflects a Cold War era relationship, but also a desire to curb the US and Western countries' influence in the Middle East}

Forgive the crude translations.

teisipäev, september 03, 2013

belgian waffle communique

Vladimir Putin recently had a friendly meeting with the prime ministers of Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Nothing particularly important was decided but it was an opportunity to talk a lot about "shared values" "shared interests" and other pleasant sounding phrases that everyone finds unobjectionable. After all, who could possibly be against cooperation in "trade and investment" or "global development?"

Courtesy of my friend Gore Vidal, a researcher at the International Center for Defense Studies, I stumbled upon a fascinating Fact Sheet on Russian-Belgian relations that was released as part of the summit. It was intended to highlight the mutually beneficial nature of the relationship and dispel any notions that tiny Belgium is somehow a free-rider. When you look at the details, though, you see how little Belgium contributes and how much it receives in return.

Here, for example, is how the Belgian contribution to the Caucasus was described:

Belgium currently has more than 16 troops, Special Operations Forces, and trainers deployed in the Caucasus, primarily in South Ossetia.  In addition to providing $1.3 million in development assistance to South Ossetia in 2013, Belgium has pledged $500,000 annually from 2015 to 2017 to support the South Ossetian National Security Forces.

Now proportionally these are substantial investments. Belgium is a nation of only a few people, and if you adjust its troop contribution for the size of its population it demonstrates a commitment that is much more serious than those of other, larger, more traditional Russian allies. From what I've gathered Belgian troops have fought with bravery and tenacity and operated with  rules of engagement that were much less restrictive than those adopted by Eastern Europeans.

But here's the thing: there are only 16 Belgian troops. Wars aren't graded on curves, and The Terrorists don't really care about population-adjusted troop commitments. As a Belgian soldier doesn't have 46 times the combat effectiveness of a Kazakh soldier nor can he patrol an area 63 times larger than a Tajik's. What matters in the Caucasus, like in any other war, is the actual number of troops. Whether they have a Kazakh flag, a Russian flag, or the Yellow, Red, and Black of Belgium on their uniform, a soldier is a soldier. Even in the rosiest Kremlin-generated press summary the Low Countries have made numerically tiny commitments to the Caucasus that cannot possibly have played an important role. Belgium's commitment to Caucasus might have been politically significant, but militarily it was a drop in the bucket.

The rest of the fact sheet is similarly unimpressive. One of the big talking points was Belgium's participation in multilateral military exercises including the ludicrously named Belgian Bolshoi. Belgian Bolshoi is, of course, a Russian Federation-led military exercise meant to simulate…the territorial defense of Belgium. Doesn't sound quite as impressive when you put it in those terms, does it? Isn't participation in the defense of your own country a pretty basic and non-negotiable expectation of a partner and military ally?

The plain truth is that Belgium gets vastly more out of its relationship with Russian Federation than the Russian Federation gets out of its relationship with Belgium. Belgium gets membership in the world's most powerful military alliance and the protection of the Russian nuclear umbrella. In return, the Russian Federation gets partnerships like the "Global Learning and Observation to Make Benefit the Glorious Environment," a program in which "81 Belgian schools collect data on soil, biometrics, and hydrology that they upload to a KFA website for use by Russian researchers." That, to put it mildly, is not an equal trade.

And you know what, that's fine. The Russian Federation is a giant continent-spanning superpower and Belgium is a tiny and Eurovision-Song-Contest-losing country right next door to the UK. The Russian Federation doesn't need to get a huge return on every single diplomatic relationship, and it's perfectly understandable, perhaps even laudable, that it would subsidize Belgian security. But, for honesty's sake if nothing else, we should accurately describe the real dynamics of the relationship and its one in which the costs to the Russian Federation substantially exceed the benefits.

Everyone seems to be tiptoeing through the tulips, so I'll just come right out and say what the Kremlin should have said: "Belgium has a long and tragic history of victimization at the hands of larger powers, and without diplomatic and military support from Russia it would have trouble maintaining its sovereignty. For a variety of historical, ethical, and moral reasons Russia has decided not to let that happen and is proud to guarantee Belgium's full and equal participation in the international system. Belgians have a non-negotiable right to make their own diplomatic, economic, and military choices." It might be a bit impolitic but it at least has the virtue of being true.

pühapäev, september 01, 2013

naplinski goes into exile

Actually, every idiot and small child knows that to obtain a new license you just have to go to a summer driver's education course, learn some theory and do some practice driving and after a little more of this and that, and, at least after two months, you can go to ARK and take the state exam and voila, the Estonian license is in your pocket like a real, super Estonian man!
Each morning more mail arrived to Naplinski's mailbox. Some letters were sympathetic, others less so, but what surprised Naplinski was that people had even bothered to write to him at all. When his latest book came out, which was named after its ISBN code, he hadn't received any letters. But now his desk was covered in paper. How many times had he seen drivers far more troublesome than he pulled over by Estonia's Finest? How many horrendous car crashes had he driven past on the country's deadly roads? Did those drivers all get letters, too?

He considered how bad the situation in his home country was. When his friend, the recovering alcoholic travel writer Kalev Temsu, was awaiting another liver transplant, he had confided in Naplinski, "The doctors said it will probably happen in November." "Why November?" Naplinski had asked. Temsu had told him with a straight face, "Because once the Estonian boys get loose on the slick autumn roads..."

And he didn't need to finish his sentence, because both he and Naplinski knew what the doctor meant.

What set Naplinski apart from those Estonian boys was that he had published volumes of existential and absurd poetry and prose based on his personal life. This gave his readers the sense that they knew him, intimately, and that they had the right to perform amateur psycho-analyses based on his works. All of those other terrible drivers were just terrible drivers. But Naplinski was different. He was a world famous Estonian existentialist writer.

And now we arrive to the main point, Härra Naplinski, this learned helplessness, which in your existentialist works can always been seen and is ever apparent. Have you lived your entire life thinking that the state or your mother or your wife should do everything for you, and you only have to show up to some poetry reading somewhere with your Beatles LPs, and that's the whole story? 

This letter was actually signed with a human being's name, but what difference did it make whose name it was? These were just thoughts plucked from the ether, sharpened into spears and tossed in the would-be Nobel Prize winner's direction. Naplinski sighed and drank his morning espresso. He hadn't read to vinyl for years, but the LP Generation image was hard to shake. But the letter did remind him that it had been months since he had last paid mother a visit. This seemed like a good day to do that, considering what Naplinksi had been thinking of doing.

Since Naplinski couldn't drive on the Estonian roads anymore for fear of being tested by police officers or imaged by wannabe paparazzi with their camera phones, he decided he would have to take a taxi to Jantevere, the small village where she lived.

The road to Jantevere went through rolling fields of sheep and root vegetables, glistening, murmuring streams, forests full of big round trees. It reminded Naplinski of the place where he had grown up. Life seemed so much simpler back then. But even in a car to Jantevere, Naplinski couldn't escape his scandal. The taxi driver had the radio tuned to the nation's most popular talk show, and the esteemed guests on it were talking about him. He particularly disliked the tone of the older host, that tightly-clenched, slow-and-steady-as-she-goes, final word, know-it-all manner that he so detested.

"Keep on writing your wonderful existentialist works, Jaak Naplinski," said the host, "but if you want to drive in the Republic of Estonia, then your old Soviet-era license cannot be used. And if you do not want to take the slippery road test to get your Estonian license, then perhaps it's best to remain a pedestrian ..."

The other host was less forgiving. "Breaking the law is breaking the law. And this Naplinski claims he didn't know he couldn't drive with an old Soviet license? Like that's any excuse! 'Oh, I'm sorry officer, I didn't know murdering someone was against the law.'"

From time to time he caught the taxi driver staring at him via the rear view mirror. The driver said nothing to him, but seemed to be studying his features, as if he had seen them somewhere before. Naplinski pinched the skin between his eyes. What had happened? What had he done? He was driving a bit recklessly yes, with an expired license yes. He had even written a public apology, where he referred to himself in most disparaging terms. But he had also managed to get his passengers home safely even after his massive existential crisis in the Kükita parking lot.

The taxi at last passed the stone wall of Jantevere Manor and pulled up to the old wooden gate outside his mother's home. He paid the driver the fee, and stepped out into the late August sunshine. Beautiful days, beautiful everything. The yellowing leaves. The fresh air. He loved his homeland so. And out of the dark corridor to the house and the cloud of flies that swarmed about the entrance to its shared "dry" toilets, Naplinski watched a small shape limp in his direction.

"Jaak," the old woman in the headscarf croaked as she emerged into the light, squinting. "Is it really you?"

"It is, Mama," Naplinski answered. "I'm home."

"Jaak!" she quickened her pace. "Did you hear the news? The police stopped a neeger over in Kükita at 3 am."

"A what?" Jaak stepped toward her. "Did you say that the police arrested a black man in Kükita?"

"Yes, it happened early Wednesday morning in Kükita. The whole village is talking about it!"

That's strange, Jaak thought. I don't remember seeing any black men in the Kükita parking lot at 3 am.

Then he came to a very unpleasant thought. Naplinski's father Wladek had been a classically trained Polish Jewish pianist from Warsaw. Though he had inherited his light-colored hair from his mother, his skin was darker than most, and his facial features were recognized by all fellow Estonians as being not of this land. Which could mean only one thing. The Kükita neeger in question was Naplinski himself. Naplinski had never thought of himself as a neeger, but he could see how, in the game of retold village gossip, "foreigner" had become "neeger" along the way.

"What's wrong?" asked Mama Naplinski.

"Nothing," Jaak said and swallowed his angst. He looked around. "Where's Nigol?"

"Your brother's gone to pick mushrooms again."

"'Picking mushrooms,' huh. Is that what they're calling it these days?"

"What do you mean?"

"Ah, nothing, Mama. Everybody knows that Nigol is an excellent, uh, mushroom picker." Naplinski looked around the yard once more to make sure that he didn't see his ne'er-do-well younger brother come stumbling out from behind a bush to wheedle some more liquor money out of him. The last time Naplinski had visited, he had given Nigol a five euro bill, which he had used to buy a bottle of cheap vodka, which in turn landed him in the hospital for a week.

"Mama, there is something I came here to tell you."

"What?" Mama Naplinski looked up at him with her ocean-colored blue eyes. She turned her head a bit so that her good ear was well positioned to hear the words.

"Something's come up and I've decided to go away for a while."

"Go away where?"

"Somewhere far."


"Even farther than that, Mama."

"Oh, I see." Mama Naplinski looked up at her son and blinked at him. It was a look of concern and a look of puzzlement. She had never really understood Naplinski and his writing career and his strange books and his stories about somebody named Sartre and somebody named Beckett and somebody named Temsu, but had tried to love her mysterious, existentialist black-beret-wearing son all the same.

"But would you come and help me pick some of the apples in the yard? I wanted to start making some jams," Mama Naplinski asked.

And so a disheartened Naplinski followed his ancient mother into the orchard behind the old dwelling in Jantevere. As he walked, he memorized every step so that he could revisit it for comfort and writing inspiration later, when he was already in exile. Different faces passed through his stream of consciousness. There was Napoleon, stranded on the island of Saint Helena. Then he saw those oddball Americans Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, publishers of that hilarious-yet-bizarre Muscovite online tabloid.

Finally, as he crouched down to search the ground for half-rotten apples that could be salvaged for Mama's jam, Naplinski thought of the face of another one of his heroes, James Joyce. Joyce had lived in exile, too, Naplinski recalled, if only to hold a mirror up to his countrymen so that they could at last see themselves. The Ulysses author had also worn a milkman's uniform when he wrote, because he believed that it reflected light better on the page.

Naplinski decided that he should do the same.

teisipäev, august 27, 2013

naplinski receives a letter

It was another fine late August day. Unseasonably warm for a land known for being so cold. Naplinski heard the clang of the metal on the mailbox outside, caught a glimpse of the young, fair-haired postiljon filling it up. Her head turned slightly in his direction when he opened the front door, as if she was aware of his presence, but her eyes did not focus in on him. Rather they seemed to look beyond him, as if he was some inanimate object. Or, Naplinski shrugged, maybe she was just blind.

Either way, rather than hand Naplinski the mail directly, she put it through the correct slot. After she left, Naplinski unlocked the box and retrieved the day's delivery. Most of the mail was junk -- bilingual advertisements for grills and patio swings, the conservative party's magazine with the bearded, cock-headed prime minister Märt Pärt standing beneath an emblazoned Cross of Liberty, the symbol of his party, Fatherland. Pärt had cross country skis in one hand, and a copy of Forbes magazine in the other. Beside his iconic squint was the caption, "Let's Make Estonia One of the Two Richest Countries in Europe."

Beneath the political magazine was a plain white envelope addressed the Härra Naplinski. He opened it and tugged the letter forth. It read in black ink:

"With your Kükita, you, Jaak Naplinski, got your appropriate treatment. Yes, yes, your fellow Estonians are cold, inhuman, wrote a novel about it. All, 100 per cent are cold and inhumane, wrote even five novels about it."

Naplinski blinked a bit, trying to recall if he had written even one novel like that. But, whatever, he pushed his spectacles up his nose and read on:

"There are some nice, cordial and warm Estonians, too. My parents taught me goodness, warmness -- they traits they themselves have. They are more warmer than your French Existentialists! But you never ever write such Estonians because it is not interesting. Because you have a stereotype Estonian must be non human and weird. You write all your existentialist works from that stereotype point of view. Unfortunately, there are many of our countrymen who enjoy such masochism and agree with you."

He had no idea why another Estonian would write to him in English. He did recall how he heard teenagers in Tallinn speaking English to each other on the beach earlier that summer because they thought it was cooler to speak English. Perhaps this was a continuation of that pitiful trend.

"You write only about your churlish Viljandi types and want to prove all Estonians are like those. Yes, yes, right you are, all are inhumane, angry, negative enjoy now that."

The letter was unsigned. He turned it over. An address in Viimsi Vald. And it was that word "churlish" that got him. In all the poems and plays he had written, Naplinski had never used that word. Yet it seemed to capture the very essence of what he was suffering through these days. Churlish. Churlishness. Naplinski fetched his dictionary to look it up and there it was, "Rude and mean-spirited in a surly way."

Naplinski recalled how he had walked to the playground with his granddaughters, watched them play innocently on the swings. It was a sweet stunning scene, backed by the lake and the tufts of white clouds and pretty dark trees that rimmed it. For the first time in a good while Naplinski had felt content. Until a band of teenage ruffians descended, two of them leaping into the big, black tire swing, chugging beers and conversing loudly. He remembered how his younger granddaughter had walked toward the big violently swinging swing, how he had run and scooped her out of harm's way while the youths drank and played on, oblivious to everything else.

"Churlish," Naplinski underlined the word three times. "A fine word, indeed. I must use it more often."

pühapäev, august 25, 2013

naplinski in paris

It was Naplinski's relationship with Sartre that had secured him an invitation to read his absurdist prose at a conference in Paris.

It was the autumn of 1969, a flowery and vivid and inspiring time, so different from the cold and indifferent spiritual vacuum he now inhabited in what seemed to be his new home and final destination, the Kükita parking lot.

Through the moisture on the glass of the cafe, he watched the policemen eating their potatoes while they were entertained by the establishment's pretty keeper. His eyes trained in on their colors -- blue and yellow. He noticed the fearsome three lions embroidered on their costumes. "Typical," he snorted to himself. Then he glanced back at his car, where his young innocent passengers were fortunately still sleeping beneath their blankets of Estonian flags.

Naplinski may have been deprived of his right to drive by an expired document, but he felt as if he had stepped into the jaws of those three Estonian lions. He had been around the world, you see, and knew how states always chose carnivorous predators to represent them. While Estonia had three ferocious lions, Finland had one, except Finland's lion also had a sword. This amused Naplinski, as he had never encountered a wild lion in Estonia or Finland, and the ones at the zoos seemed rather unimpressed and glazed over. He seriously doubted that one could be trained to handle weaponry!

The US meantime had a very aggressive-looking one-headed eagle, while the Russian Federation's pissed-off eagle had two heads! It was like the Cold War all over again, except the coats of arms had existed before the Cold War.

Naplinski kicked an empty plastic Gin Long Drink container out of his way in the cold and wet parking lot. Stranded in Kükita after the Robbie Williams concert. Who could make something like this up? It had to be a dream!

But Paris had also seemed like a dream. He recalled the regal hotel meeting room that had served as the setting for his reading, the famous faces in the audience. How he had placed Magical Mystery Tour on the turntable and read the crowd into the stratosphere. Naplinski was so excited by it, he almost forgot about his Soviet handlers. And, most of all, he thought of how he would have to tell his friends Fred Jüssi, the naturalist, and Lennart Meri, the dramatist, back home all about the Paris reading.

Naplinski's goattee had been strawberry blonde back then, not the gray and white it was today. His intellectual's spectacles had merely been decorative in 1969. These days he really needed them. He still wore the same black beret though, tilted to one side, as Sartre had instructed him during their meeting in 1964. "There you go, mon ami Jaak," he had said. "Like a real existentialist!"

And after the reading, he felt a finger tap him on the shoulder. Looking up into a long, angular face, with a tuft of graying hair, Naplinski recognized the man at once as steely-sad-eyed Samuel Beckett.

The author of Waiting for Godot was crying.

"What's the matter?" Naplinski had asked Beckett.

"They've given me the Nobel Prize in Literature," answered the playwright.

"That's terrific!" said Naplinski. "You of all people deserve it!"

"It's absurd is what it is," said Beckett, his lips shriveling. "All of it. Just absurd. A catastrophe!"

"A catastrophe?"

"Absolutely, it is," said Beckett. "Quick, please, tell me something about Estonia, anything to take my mind off of this terrible luck, like ... what is the coat of arms of Estonia? Just tell me," Beckett stepped forward, and Naplinski stepped back.

"Y-you mean the S-soviet coat of arms or p-prewar coat of arms?" Naplinski had stuttered.

"Prewar," commanded Beckett, leaning in.

"Th-three lions," Naplinski whispered. "I-it had three lions."

"Mmm, three lions, I like it," Beckett leaned back, put his hand to his mouth and mused. "Jealous, actually. You know, in France, we just have a bundle of rods and an axe."

"N-no, there's certainly some animals on the French emblem, too," said Naplinski, gesturing to the coat of arms on the wall. "Look."

Naplinski and Beckett strode over to the mounted emblem, stood before it, studied it.

"So there are, so there are," said Beckett. "But what animals are they?"

"I th-think the one on the l-left is a l-lion, the one on the r-right is an e-eagle."

"Lion?" Beckett arched an eyebrow. "No, no. The head on the left is clearly a monkey."

"A monkey?"

"Yes, precisely."

"And the one on the right?"

"Why, that's a baby monkey, of course."

"A baby monkey," Naplinski repeated in puzzlement, staring at the emblem. But when he turned to look back at Beckett, there was nobody there.

Later, Naplinski searched the hotel stairway and lobby for his distraught Irish playwright friend. He asked the hotel concierge about it too, but he disputed the story, claiming that Beckett had never been there. "The very best writers, Monsieur Naplinski" commented the concierge, waxing his handlebar moustache, "are wise enough to never leave their homes."

How true! Naplinski now thought in the Kükita parking lot. How catastrophically true.

reede, august 23, 2013

confessions of a semi-depressed jobu

Kirjutan nüüd tõdest ja oma tundest. Tõde oli, et ma jõin sel ööl, 20. augustil 2013 kohvi enne kui ma alustasin sõitu Tallinnast tagasi Viljandisse. Tõde on, et kui ma läksin mööda Ardust ja Annast, ma hakkasin tundma end väsinud. Eesti liiklus oli nagu see tavaliselt oli, hästi palju rekkad, kiired autod, ebaseaduslik kiirus. Ei saanud hästi näha, oli udune, ja oli ebamugav mulle nii ruttu sõita. Mina ei ole esimene inimene, kes on seda enne märganud. Mul on olnud sajad hirmsad kogemused eesti teedel. Ma tean väga hästi, kui ohtlikud nad on.

Tõde on, et ma hakkasin aru saama seal ja sel ajal, et ma ei saa niimoodi jõuda normaalselt Viljandisse. Otsustasin, et peaks Mäo Statoilisse või Kükita kohvikusse jõudna, uue kohvi ostma ja puhkama natukene. Ei tahtnud seista seal tee ääres ja puhata seal, sest et liiklus oligi nii ohtlik. Kartsin, et kui seisaksin seal, et rekka sõidaks kohe meie peale. Avariid on juhtunud niimoodi enne. Täpselt sel ajal jõudis politseinikud meie juurde ja vilgutasid tuld. Ausalt, ei teadnud, et ma tegin midagi valesti. Ausalt mõtlesin, et nad otsisid mingi muu auto, mis sõitis liiga kiiresti. Väga paljud sõitsid väga kiiresti.

Juhiloast, ausalt ei teadnud täpselt, mis see seadus on. Mul on erinevad sõbrad välismaalt, kes elavad Eestis ja on rääkinud igasugusedest variantidest. Kas ma pidin võtma eesti juhiluba, või kas see rahvusvaheline luba oli sobilik nagu mõned on öelnud? Miks ja miks? Tegelikult, ei teadnud mis see rahvusvaheline luba oligi, sest et ma seda pole nainud minu elus. Ja miks mu sõber rootsist võib sõita tema rootsi loaga näiteks? Kuidas Rootsi ja USA on erinevad selles kontkestis? Ja kui ma pidin midagi tegelema, kuhu ma peaks pöörama? Kas ARK-sse või autokooli? Kas on mingi teine koht kus nad teevad need asjad? Nii see oli minuga. Olin loll nagu saabas ja kogu aeg oli liiga kiire, ei saanud targemaks saada. Ma lihtsalt ei teadnud mida täpselt ma pidin tegema. Ja kuulsin, et on teised ka samamoodi USA lubadega. Praegu tunnen, et igaüks teist ütleks, et, "Jah, aga see on sinu süü, Justin, et sa ei teadnud!" Vist küll. Aga jagan minu lugu igatähes. Olen kirjanik, hea või halb, ja kirjutan mis on mu meeles ja südames. Õppige minu vigadest. Mina ei ole perfektne.

Mu abikaasa sel ajal oli täitsa hädas. Minu telefoni aku oli tühi, ja tema ei saanud helistada ka tema õe tütrele, kes oli meiega. Ma helistasin talle, ütlesin, et meil on probleem, et ei saa koju sõita. Minu naine tahtis rääkida politseinikuga, rääkis mõnda aega, aga siis ei saanud temaga suhelda. Tehnoloogia ei töötanud Kükitas. Abikaasa muretses hästi palju. Pani mõtted Facebookisse, et äkki mõni sõber võiks teda või meid aidata.

Mitte midagi siin on tema süü. Kõik on minu süü.

Jah, kõik need asjad olid ja on minu õlgadel. Ma tahtsin olla Super Eesti Mees, kes suudab sõita tagasi pärast kesköö Viljandisse ainult paari kohvidega. Super Eesti Mees ei ole mitte iialgi väsinud, saab kõike teha igal ajal, ja, kõige tähtsam, ei vingu üldse. Need aastad, millal olen elanud Eestis, olen õppinud mõtlema niimoodi. Aga see oli vale mõtlemine, mina arvan nüüd. Lisan, et olen tundnud päris üksikut tunnet siin mõnikord, eriti hiljuti, viimasel ajal, ja kui ma olin seal pimedas külmas parklas, tundsin, et ma olen üks jabur jobu maailma lõpus. Võite ette kujutada, et ei olnud väga hea tunne.

Aga olen õppinud midagi. Parim mõte on: ära ole Super Eesti Mees. Kui sa oled väsinud, ära sõita. Kui tee on legendaarselt hirmus ja alati täis ohtlikute sõitjatega, siis ära sõida sel teel. Mõned sõbrade põhimõte on, et nemad ei kasuta üldse Tallinn-Tartu maantee, sest et see on nii ohtlik tee! Nad lähevad koju läbi Jõgeva või Rapla. Nüüd arvan, neil on õigus. Veel: kui sina ei tea, siis küsi abi. Kui sina ei saa aru, mis see seadus täpselt on, siis pead küsima ja küsima ja küsima, kuni sa leiad õige vastuse.

Nii, lõpetan selle mõttega, et ma ütlen lihtsalt PALUN VABANDUST kõikidele kes on olnud seotud minu suure jamaga, eriti mu abikaasa. Palun unustage see suur jama, ja las hää päike tõuseb jälle meie ellu.

naplinski and estonian driving culture

Naplinski had actually met Sartre once. It was in Moscow in the Sixties. A dinner was shared among the gathered intellectuals. Naplinski was there as a representative of his country's rising "LP Generation," so called because they wrote poetry that was intended to be read aloud to the musical backing of contraband Beatles albums. Sartre had taken an interest in the young Naplinski's ideas. While puffing on his pipe in the corner, he had asked the youthful Naplinski, "What can you tell me of Estonian driving culture?"

The question came to Naplinski as a shock. He was prepared to discuss realism and surrealism and Dadaism and existentialism. But Estonian driving culture? Sartre wriggled his French philosopher's eyebrows and waited for the response. Naplinski said he wasn't sure if his country even had a driving culture. The coveted Ladas and Žigulis were spread thin. Those who drove them did so with half the apartment bloc stuffed inside, children on the laps of front-seat passengers, neighbor boys hanging from the windows, old ladies sitting in a row from the open trunk.

"So your people have a taste for danger," said Sartre. "What do you mean?" Naplinski raised an eyebrow. "They just want to maximize their resources," he said. "These people have places to be, on time. Normaalne." "Ask yourself this, Jaak," Sartre had said. "Where are they going that is so important, that they need to risk their lives to get there?" Then, after a brief and enigmatic chuckle, he commented, "You know, you can tell a lot about a country by the way its people drive."

That night in the parking lot in Kükita, Naplinski thought about those words once uttered over brandy nearly 50 years prior. "You can tell a lot about a country by the way its people drive." He had seen in his lifetime, especially in the past 20 years, a complete change in the automotive culture of the Estonians. The availability of "cheap money" had enabled the masses to acquire the vehicles of their choice. Cars were status symbols, and the way they were driven said much about the masculinity of the driver. The rule of the roads was to drive as fast as possible, passing as many other vehicles as possible, without getting caught.

Naplinski himself had learned how to speed, usually doing 10 or 20 km over the speed limit. But that was still too slow for the other Estonian drivers, who sped by him doing easily 40 or 50 km over the speed limit, sometimes more. They drove like Porsche owners on the Autobahn, except the Estonian Autobahn had two lanes and wound through bogs and forests and pastures for grazing cows. But that didn't matter to the Estonian driver. He was impulsive, a big risk taker who had seen too many Hollywood action movies. He had to be there, wherever there was, right now, and if not right now, then very, very soon.

While traveling around the world to attend various meetings of formerly left wing intellectuals, Naplinski had only witnessed a similar disregard for mortality in China, where it seemed that life was very cheap, almost as cheap as the money was in his home country. The one thing that had separated the Chinese from the Estonians, was that the Estonians still used safety belts, whereas the Chinese saw no need for them to minimize any kinds of risks. Yet the Chinese were also lacking the spite he felt from other Estonian drivers when he dared to actually drive the speed limit.

One time, while three cars raced each other to pass him on a dangerous curve at night, he had felt their wrath. The first flashed its brights at him, the second honked its horns. And it was the third driver who tossed a mayonnaise-covered hot dog at his windshield. He recalled how the white slop streamed across the glass, and how his windshield wipers struggled to cut through it.

"Welcome to Estonia," Naplinski thought. He recalled how he had once signed the Letter of 41 in 1980 in protest of Soviet Russification efforts. Naplinski had served in the first parliament, helped to draft the new constitution. Naplinski thought of himself as a true patriot if there ever was one. But these days more than ever, Sartre's foreboding, haunting question trailed him, causing him to reexamine that national pride. If Estonia's driving culture spoke to the core of the national character, then what did he actually think about the people of his nation? The question caused him shudder and lose sleep at night.

neljapäev, august 22, 2013

the naplinski paradox

It took the famous Estonian writer Jaak Naplinski an hour and a half to leave Tallinn after the Robbie Williams concert. The concert had pleased him, especially the moment when the British song and dance man had appeared on stage, draped in the blue, black, and white national flag. It was strong evidence for him that Estonia indeed did exist, and that he was not dreaming. Or perhaps the spectacle was even greater proof that this was all a dream. Such thoughts clouded his mind as his drove his vehicle into the wilds of Kükita, Estonia. He was also exhausted from a day of translating Sartre's No Exit into the Võru language, but he dared not to mention the French existentialist's name to the Estonian police.

When the police apprehended Naplinski for driving at an unusual speed -- he was actually doing under the speed limit while the video game-like flow of traffic dictated a speed of 10 to 20 km above the lawful limit -- he was asked to blow into a device that measured the amount of alcohol in his system. He was afraid that some drop of alcohol might have been in the šašlokk he had consumed at the Robbie Williams concert, and was grateful that his grandchildren were oblivious to the situation, sleeping beneath the tiny Estonian flags they had waved in fervent patriotism while Robbie, ever the historian, likened a woman's comings and goings to the War of the Roses. He puzzled over that line, "thinks she's made of candy." What was Robbie trying to say there?

For some reason, it took the police a long time to return with Naplinski's license and registration. He sat and sat, and thought about Robbie, and about the long-haul trucks zooming by him in the mist. Any one of them could plow right into his standing vehicle. He asked the police if they could remove to the Kükita Cafe. They said no, and that he should have a seat in the back of their vehicle. Naplinski's license was expired, they showed him, and said that he would not be allowed to proceed. What was he to do? "Don't you have a friend who can come and drive your car home for you?"

Now, Naplinski was a recluse. He spent most of his days writing at his farm in Võrumaa, and most of the people he still considered his friends were not only other writers, but functional alcoholics who could not be counted upon to pick him up in Kükita at 3 am. Also, while Robbie's showmanship had lifted his spirits, after the police had had their way with him, his clinical depression set on in one of the darkest broods he had ever experienced. He questioned the very meaning of his stupid life. Expired license! Why not just expire altogether? It had all been a dream. He was sure of it. Robbie Williams draped in the Estonian flag! Never happened. Those police eating potatoes in the cafe. Mirage, shadows of early morning central Estonian mist. In a word, Naplinski was fucked. Utterly fucked. Not fucked by himself or the police or by the law or his own willful ignorance. He was just fucked, period.

The weather in Kükita was cold for anywhere in August, but normal for Estonia. The oil-slicked puddles, soggy cigarette butts, indifferent and large pilots of other vehicles who had stopped into the cafe for a mayonnaise and pork sandwich, the frosty temperaments of the police officers -- it reminded him of that rhyming poem he had been writing about Estonia, Sügis Juulis, "Autumn in July."

The next morning, after he had somehow made his way home to the farm in Võrumaa, wrestling with that feeling of utter-fuckedness that wrapped around his appendages and choked him like smoke, he did the only thing he knew how to do. He sat down to his laptop and wrote about his feelings on his sometimes-read blog, Itching for Inanity. He even was so bold as to make a suggestion -- that there could be a stronger effort made to alert aloof, existentialist writers to the peculiarities of the law.

Later that day, when the media had gotten wind that Jaak Naplinski had been relieved of his driving abilities on account of an expired document, and stuck in a parking lot with a car full of Estonian flags and Estonian children in a place called Kükita, all hell -- as they once said and continue to say -- broke loose. It was top news for the bottom-feeding fish of the nation's media businesses. Forget bigger than Jesus. This was bigger than Robbie Williams!

The stone-throwing knaves of one particular online site, some known far and wide for their failure to pass the Nazism IQ Test {If you're still defending it in any way, you've failed}, particularly tore into Naplinski for even daring to write down his story, as if he, as a writer who had been considered for a Nobel Prize in Literature, expected special treatment from the Estonian police. Shut your mouth, Naplinski. Don't say a word. Others questioned the actions of the Kükita police, who had left a man stranded in a parking lot in the middle of Estonia after a Robbie Williams concert {if it had indeed occurred} without any real legal means to get out of it. There were two camps, and you had to choose one: Fuck the Police or Fuck Naplinski.

Naplinski, privately, remained in the passive use of the word. He was still fucked, and his fuckedness ticked up with every bitter online comment. When he went to the store to buy some Kalev chocolates, he noticed the eyes on his back. They were looking at him. Thinking. Judging. Dismissing. Rebuking. Naplinski was someone who had done something about which some opinion was merited. But what were these somethings? That was left up to The Others to fill in the blanks, a sort of real-life Mad Libs.

At home, he returned to his translation of No Exit. How to translate that often misinterpreted line, "Hell is other people"? He thought back to when his mother used to speak to him in Võru language in the countryside when he was a child after the war. Her resigned look often seemed to contain that very sentiment. At the same time, he had never heard her say such a thing.

kolmapäev, august 21, 2013

kükita, alabama

The road that winds between Ardu and Mäo in central Estonia must be among the country's most treacherous. It is snake-like in its ominousness, curving and wriggling off and out in unexpected directions, lined by dark, conspiring trees.

The official speed limit is 90 kilometers per hour, but Estonian traffic tends to dictate a speed of at least 100 km per hour, unless you want to get passed by every other vehicle, even trucks hauling lumber. Sometimes drivers will pass you two or three at a time, even on a curve. At night, when all one can make out it is the white cascading lights from these vehicles and the forest shadows, the road can become quite disorienting.

I was tired last night, and felt comfortable driving BELOW the speed limit at about 80 km per hour on those turns. Occasionally, the car moved a bit too much toward the middle, or toward the edge of the road. When I saw the flashing police car lights, I thought they were after somebody else, maybe one of those other cars that went zooming by at 140 km per hour. Instead, they told me I had an ebaühtlane sõit, which I interpreted as "unusual" or "inconsistent," though it was the first time I had heard the word ebaühtlane.

What I can tell you next involved the back of a police car, lots of paper work, questions of which I understood maybe 75 percent of the content. "How long have you lived in Estonia?" Good question. I don't know. I told them I had first come to Estonia 11 years ago but had lived in other places in between. In the end, I was informed that I would not be able to proceed on my way, as my license, from New York State, is not recognized by the Estonian State.

It wasn't an entire shock. I'd heard recent tale of foreigners being stopped for driving with foreign documentation, and made a mental note to look into it. At the same time, I had no idea of where to begin, or what the laws even were. To what agency should I address my queries? The police in Kükita told me I should go to ARK, the traffic registrar. I did go to ARK, the first thing this morning, but was not provided with a definitive answer of what my fate would be. I could obtain an international driver's permit, or there may be a driving test in my future. They said that they don't even know. They need to look into it and get back to me.

It is this ambiguity that had perhaps kept me from looking into the matter further. I had been pulled over before and shown my document with no comment from the officers. I had even gone to ARK with my New York State driver's license to register a vehicle, and was not informed of any urgent need to acquire new, Estonian documentation.

I have heard some stories about adults with decades of driving experience being obligated to retake driver's education in Estonia, but again, I wasn't sure in which circumstances that led to those examinations. Was it just for certain nationalities? According to some information online, licenses issued by EU countries are recognized in Estonia. Which means that the document issued by my state (New York) which has about 18 times as many people as Estonia is not recognized by the Estonian State, but the driving document of, say, Albania, is. Or maybe it isn't.

Anyway, according to the law, as interpreted by the officers in Kükita at 3.30 am, I did not have the right to drive my automobile any farther than the Kükita Cafe. "Don't you have any friends who can come and pick you up or drive you home?" I was asked. No, Mr. Officer. I have no friends in Kükita, Estonia. I have no friends in Paide, no friends in Järvamaa, and least none I felt comfortable enough with to call up at 3.30 am and ask for a lift to Viljandi.

Sitting in the parking lot in Kükita, I tried to think of how to get myself, my nine-year-old daughter, and her 15-year-old cousin back to Viljandi. Were there any buses at 4 am? The woman working at the cafe didn't mention any when I discussed the option. Paide was seven km away, but how was I supposed to get to Paide? Walk? And even if I did hike through the mist to Paide, how did I get my passengers there? I called to a hotel in Paide, but was informed that nobody could come to pick us up as there is no taxi service in Paide. So our only option was to sleep in the car. And then what? It could be hours before anybody would come to pick us up.

The police had meantime convalesced at the Kükita Cafe where they sat in a back room eating an early morning breakfast of potatoes and sauce. I was willing to accept responsibility for my ignorance and stupidity, but the idea that I would be allowed to drive straight home, or even that they suggest some solution to my very big problem, was met with cold stares. My wife tried pleading with them on the phone, but their decision was final. I was not authorized to drive myself and family members home, even though I have been driving since 1995 and have held a full license since 1996, valid in a country that has been a pretty staunch ally of the Republic of Estonia. I had provided that document to a German rental car agency, driven with it on and off the ferry into Finland, and, yes, Estonia, too. But as of that night, or morning, it was entirely useless to me.

The whole scene began to take on a surreal veneer. Here I was, almost 34 years old, stuck in a parking lot of a non-village called Kükita, which translates into English as "Squat." I was in a country far away from the one of my birth, trying to communicate with officers of the law in a language I have tried to learn for 11 years, but still am pained to understand. I thought of how an Estonian might feel somewhere in the US -- say, Alabama -- when informed in a thick, Southern drawl that he could not drive himself or his family away from a parking lot at 4 am, and instead was asked by the local police if he had a friend who could come and pick him up, maybe from Tuscaloosa or Bessemer. "Don't you know anybody around here who can help?"

I won't comment on how I did get home in the end, but will say that it was one of the worst nights of my life. The best thing that could be done for foreigners like me in Estonia is to make the local rules regarding driving licenses clear, simple, and easily accessible. Perhaps a public information campaign is warranted. Maybe such a booklet could be provided to any foreigner who obtains a residence permit. I am sure I am not the only foreigner who has found himself in a place like Kükita at the mercy of the local traffic police.  It would be good if I was one of the last ones to have to go through such an experience.

esmaspäev, august 19, 2013


I think the most interesting news I've heard in days is that Abdul Turay is going to be on SDE's list in the coming municipal elections. It might warrant international coverage, too, at least in the British press, as one of their own stands a chance of playing some kind of role in Estonian politics. In local media, Abdul's subhead is "the first black candidate" in Estonian politics, accompanied by his very-un-Estonian-looking head shot. He's certainly unique for that reason, but I think he's more unique because of his citizenship -- he's a Briton who has made some impact on domestic politics in Estonia. And he might serve as a model for others in Estonia's sizable community of foreign transplants to stick their necks out more, rather than complaining fatalistically about life from behind the computer screen or with friends at the pub, or pulling an, "Aw, shucks, what do I know about that?" routine when asked for their opinions. I personally don't feel like a career in politics is in the bag for me though. My earlier dabbling in well-catered international conferences and cutthroat online boxing matches, and then career shift toward stuttering Woody Allen-like neurotic self analyses have shut those doors for good. But if I did have to run on a list, it would probably be SDE's list. To be in Reform, I'd have to start wearing a suit and putting all my faith in the invisible hand. Centre, and I'd have to sleep with a pillow that has Savisaar's face printed on it. IRL, and I would need to part my hair on the side and study up on my war history, not to mention Estonianize my name. If you think about it, SDE is probably the only party that people like me and Turay could join. It's becoming the party for people who don't fit in to any of the other parties.

teisipäev, august 06, 2013


I enjoy reading media accounts of Russian leaders "outraged." And they're always outraged over something. But how do they express that outrage? When "Russia" is "outraged," does it mean that Lavrov is tossing expensive vases against the wall in the foreign ministry, or Putin is placing a pillow over his mouth and screaming into it?

The latest-oldest outrage is that annual gathering of Estonian SS vets and admirers up in Sinimäe, and that the defense minister, Urmas Reinsalu, of Isamaa Res Publica Liit (called the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica in English, because "Fatherland Union" sounds too scary), addressed them, praising their sacrifice in defending their fatherla-, I mean, their mother country.

Sidestepping the argument of, "Who is Russia to tell us what we can and cannot do in our own country?" I'd like to make a general statement: Not all Estonians see the members of the 20th Waffen SS who held off the Soviet advance in 1944 as heroic freedom fighters. They're not generally viewed as Hitler's evil henchmen, but more as young men in a complex and difficult situation (not unlike their counterparts across the River Narva in the Estonian Rifle Corps).

Urmas Reinsalu, as defense minister, represents all Estonians, not just members of his own party who interpret history a certain way. Maybe he sees it that way, and people who vote for his party see it that way, but the population of the country he represents, regardless of tongue, religion, or sexual orientation, doesn't necessarily see it that way. Getting up and pretending that to be the case is insincere.

esmaspäev, august 05, 2013


'Rock Ramp.' The words stir fear in the hearts of all. They mean something, but what? Loud heavy metal music? Yes. Public consumption of alcoholic beverages? Uh huh, yes. Parades of bad-looking, tattooed dudes draping protective inked arms around girlfriends with unusually colored hair? Yes. Skulls, motorcycles, sunglasses, sneers, cigarettes ... Look, I'll stop there and say that Estonia has a vibrant "rocker" culture. "Rocker" as in young men and women who would fit in fine at a Gene Vincent concert. Be-Bop-A-Lula, I don't mean maybe. My brother-in-law's one of them, too. I asked him over pancakes the other morning, "So, who's in Metallica these days?" And he just rattled them all off, "James Hatfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo." "Ah, Robert Trujillo, he's the one who replaced..." "Jason Newsted," and he was right there with the name, like a conscientious concierge. But I'd be fooling you to just say, "Rocker" is "Heavy Metal." It's not. It's more like Hells Angels, The Wild Ones. These guys aren't head bangers ... they're greasy. There was even a parade of bikers roaming around Viljandi with their "ESTONIA" leather jackets on. Like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, as Hunter S. Thompson put it. And I did catch myself wondering, what year is it? Twenty Thirteen? Nineteen Sixty Six?

neljapäev, august 01, 2013

ghetto lapsed

They came to jump on my children's trampoline, then gave me the finger when I told them to stop. After I had gotten them off the property (and been shown the middle finger a few times), they ran around to the property next door and shouted out "fahk yew, asshoh!" at me, because they know I'm an American {Got that curious look from the shits, that 'Could this person be a Russian?' chin-scratching look}

"I feel bad for them," says the wife. "Did you see them at Folk? They were collecting bottles."

One of their mothers is a drunk. I've seen her out on the veranda smoking her cigarette. Asking for parental assistance in keeping her potty-mouthed preteen in line is out of the question. I can only pray to the Gods of gentrification. That's what's going on in Viljandi's Old Town right now. There are the Folk people -- a sort of back-to-earth, sing around the campfire, sewing and wood-carving appreciating lot of formerly young urban professionals -- who have taken to the charmingly crooked old buildings. And then there is the ghetto element, the "slugs" as my friend Sven calls them.

"That's the thing about the Old Town," Sven says. "It's filled with white trash."

"White trash is kind of a racist term, don't you think?" says the wife. She still feels bad. And maybe it is racist, or classist. Anyway, I keep on  hearing that Elvis song in my head, "People, don't you understand this child needs a helping hand or he'll grow to be an angry young man ..." I was going to call the ghetto lapsed on their "fahk yew, asshoh," too, tell 'em that their English was good, that they'd all grow up to be diplomats and international bankers with mouths like those. But I didn't. Even I am not that mean.

kolmapäev, juuli 31, 2013

the town and the country

Is Estonia truly the land of zipping, ubiquitous wireless Internet connections, pay-by-phone parking, online banking, e-voting, young and savvy entrepreneurs, not to mention Skype? If you only read The Economist, you would think it so (and be very grateful to Mart Laar's angelic first government, who set everything in motion decades ago). And it is all of these things. But it is not only all of these things. I have seen life in the countryside that would make even the most open-minded undergraduate hold his nose.

Meh. The countryside. Land of "dry" toilets (or, as I call them, in-house outhouses), land of do-it-yourself fire hazard electric wiring jobs, land of unemployed, alcoholic uncles. When we celebrated a relative's 50th birthday last year, he took us on a tour of the graveyard to visit some old high school friends whose birth years were in the '60s and death years were in the '90s and '00s. I remember the September light on the stones, the moss on the trees, the wind in my hair. "But how did they all die?" I asked as a particularly cool breeze picked up. "Alcohol," came the deep-voiced and eerie response.

So, next time you read The Economist, remember that e-voting and pay-by-phone parking are wonderful, wondrous things. But so are professionally installed wiring, modern plumbing, and sober, employed relatives.

pühapäev, juuli 21, 2013

chart land

Forbes contributor Mark Adomanis has written some interesting pieces about the Baltics recently, from a perspective that is familiar in its insularity and origin. While bemoaning the use of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as ideal economies by conservative analysts in the US, Adomanis has decided to look at other numbers to prove them wrong.

So continues American analysts' adventures in chart land, where one finds hard data to back his or her assertions about austerity and enterprise, and the other refuting those points by discussing mass emigration and declining population figures in the region, as Adomanis has done most recently. These actual, physical countries rarely penetrate 'chart land' because in 'chart land,' real countries don't exist; only charts.

I cannot speak to Latvia or Lithuania, as I have been to Latvia three times, Lithuania once, and, unlike my American countrymen, I don't feel justified in using them in contests of political ideologies by digging out a graph here or tossing up a chart there.

As for the Estonian population, I've said it before and will say it again -- nobody really knows what the population of Estonia should be. In 1934, there were about 1.13 million people in the country, roughly 19,000 more than in 1922. During the Second World War, the population decreased by a fifth, due to Soviet mass deportations, refugees fleeing West, and war-related deaths. The rebound of the 1950s and '60s that led to impressive and sustained population "growth" was based largely on migration from outside Estonia but within the USSR, and on the development of industries and regions that had been, until that time, nonexistent and sparsely populated.

For example, the village of Sillamäe in northeastern Estonia had a population of about 2,600 in 1940. In 1989, there were 20,500 people enumerated. Today, there are 15,800 people living there. Based on data alone, people over there in 'chart land' might be able to draw some interesting conclusions about people 'voting with their feet.'

But if you had actually been to Sillamäe and were familiar with the place, you might realize that Sillamäe was a 100-percent planned Soviet city. As it was planned, its population growth was not organic, either. Since the Soviet-supported economy collapsed decades ago, many people have left, either to Tallinn, or farther west, to London, or even Los Angeles. Why have they left? Some ask. Here's another question, Why should they have stayed? You are dealing with a city of people who emigrated from other places -- Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan. They left those places behind, too. The view of the Gulf of Finland from Sillamäe at sunset can be gorgeous, but it's not stunning enough to keep people bent on a better deal from moving on to better opportunities when they arise.

So now, in 2013, 22 years after 1991, 73 years after Sillamäe experienced its last organic growth, we are left to wonder -- what population can Sillamäe, the former planned Soviet city, naturally support?

As someone who has been to Sillamäe, and has been in Estonia on and off again for more than a decade, I can say that the quality of life in Sillamäe is undoubtedly better today that when it was at the end of Soviet rule. It's a prettier town, many parts of it cleaned up, hazardous environmental dumping waste sites capped and remediated. People working in Soviet factories like those in Sillamäe had low life expectancies, in part because of the rampant pollution both in the workplace and the city itself. Knowing that, seeing remnant traces of that skeletal Soviet life, if you were to walk into the slick, ultramodern offices of the rare metals producer Silmet today, you would certainly feel like clicking your heels together because life in Sillamäe has improved. And that's perhaps what gets people so hopeful about that Skype office in Tallinn, you keep hearing about. Because they are familiar, personally, with the starting point.

These are subtle nuances that are lost on the denizens of chart land. We are not talking about props in your theoretical contests, we are talking about real countries inhabited by people with complex histories that cannot be summed up in a line graph.

The New York Times, Forbes, and other media that continue to rely on Russia-based or focused analysts to cover Estonia are doing their readers a disservice. Regional branding aside, Estonia is part of the Nordic economy, and many of the policies enacted by the Estonian government are done with the implications of relations with the 'mother' economies of Sweden and Finland in mind. Euro adoption and austerity were both measures favored by Swedish banking interests, which dominate Estonia.

kolmapäev, juuli 17, 2013

how it works

"I feel so bad for Kalle. He told me yesterday that his wife left him."
"He did? When?"
"While he was working here in the kitchen."
"But don't they have children?"
A sullen nod. "He has a week to find a new place and move out."
"What do you mean move out? She left him! Shouldn't she be packing her bags, slamming the door?"
"That's not how it works."
"Oh, I get it. The woman stays in the house with the children and the man leaves."
 Another sullen nod.
"And the man finds himself some shitty, one-room apartment somewhere and gives her all of his money."

pühapäev, juuli 14, 2013

that smell

Ah, summer in Viljandi. Blue skies, clothing lines, everywhere charm & crumble. Awake at some reasonable hour, boil the water for the coffee, mix it up, take a sip, open up the door to the yard to enjoy the fresh breeze. But there was something different in the air this morning. A different smell.

"Something stinks outside," said the abikaasa/spouse. "I was going to drink my coffee in the yard but I changed my mind." What was the stink? Curious nostrils wanted to know. A familiar smell, they sniffed, the stench of manure. "They probably decided to clean the pig factory," I said. She agreed.

The pig factory. Also known as the new-wave-band-name-sounding Experimental Pork Manufacturing Plant. Also known as "Ekseko." A multistory building stands across the river in Viiratsi Parish. What goes on inside, I haven't seen, but it involves pigs en route to becoming beer snacks who apparently defecate enough to stink up all the air within a certain radius.

Or it could just be some other random environmental affect. Ekseko on its website claims to be one of the good guys, satisfying ISO standards and helping out local farmers by buying their grain to feed their pigs whose shit is shipped back to the farmers to fertilize more grain. That smell is probably just bog gas or sulfur from some nearby undiscovered geothermal spring. Yeah, that must be it ...

reede, juuli 12, 2013

about mission estonia

Here's something I wrote about my new book. An Estonian version of this text previously appeared here.

Estonia is blessed with expatriate writers. Abdul Turay, Vello Vikerkaar, João Lopes Marques... Sometimes it seems we landed our gigs as columnists on the basis of our foreignness alone. Our editors tell us to write about the foreign experience in Estonia because Estonians want to know what we think of them. At the same time, I believe we feel compelled as emissaries who have come from Western lands to make suggestions on how Estonia can transform even more positively than it has ever transformed before.

This is our position in this society: the missionary position. Like Jesuits of old, we have arrived by sea, and air and land to Estonia so that we can point out the locals' flaws, save their souls, and guide them all the way to the promised land.

We missionaries come not only as writers. In any facet of daily life, you will find travelers from Western lands spreading their lifestyles. A Californian friend now teaches transcendental meditation in Tartu. In recent years, American and Australian friends of mine in Comedy Estonia together with Estonian collaborators have introduced stand up comedy to this country. From these tiny foreign seeds, we all believe, many Estonian flowers will blossom.

For years, I trudged along in my capacity as a missionary, writing columns and books for the Estonian audience. But something changed in my heart, recently, and I can only attribute this about face to living in this land and living in Viljandi.

It's easy to play the role of the preacher in Tallinn and Tartu, where a foreigner can still feel as if he is at the center of life. It's easier to believe you can make a difference when the parliament or the country's most prestigious university is just a quick walk away. It's harder when you are standing behind the local alcoholics at the bottle return in Viljandi.

In these desperate moments I have come to embrace a new reality, that the best I can do to change Estonia is paint my house, plant my garden, mow my lawn, and make sure my children's teeth are brushed. From this new-found fatalism is born these columns in this new book. I write to you now not only as a foreigner, but as one of you, just an average guy from Viljandi.

A significant chunk of this material has appeared in abbreviated form in the magazines Anne ja Stiil and Eesti Naine. Other columns are based on posts I have written on my blog, Itching for Eestimaa. But a lot of the material is new. When I first held the book in my hands, I couldn't believe how much I had written, and it happened almost effortlessly, just for the fun of it.

My hope in all of these endeavors has been to write honestly, to the point of embarrassing myself and, let's face it, a lot of this material will make you blush. But you've got to embarrass yourself if you want anybody to listen to you, to really listen to you, to take you into their hearts.

In these moments, I think of those ancient missionaries with their silly robes and crucifixes, looking like a bunch of girly boys, fanning out into the wilderness in the name of faith. A missionary's life has never been easy. And the only way to manage with it, I believe, is to actually believe in what you do.

So consider this book, Mission Estonia, as a chronicle of all the embarrassments and hardships I've faced along my way. I still have faith that things will change for the better. I still believe in Estonia.

kolmapäev, juuli 10, 2013

cosmic things

On our second or third night in Viljandi, we went to visit two friends of ours, a musician and a poet, who live around the corner. The musician plays homemade instruments, including a large wooden phallus stuck with nails that he saws at with a violin bow in order to produce an industrial, maritime vibe, while crooning like a humpback whale in high and low pitches over the metallic droning. The poet's poems are thick with references to nature -- animals, plants, phenomena. She talks about flora and fauna for which I'm not even sure there are English words. Does she really know these plants and animals, or does she just have botany and zoology books on her desk, to select random terms from when she gets tired of expressing her feelings?

The funny aspect, is that by Viljandi standards, these two individuals are normal. That same night, we were visited by a man with a long billy goat's beard who is known locally as "Beard," and "Beard" (or its Estonian equivalent) just might be his real name. When he entered, he gave me a hug. Beard was talking to us about Yin and Yang energy, and he was serious. "You mean like on the flag of South Korea?" I asked, puzzled. "Yes, for example," Beard gestured in a mystical teacher kind of way. As I recall, the world is divided up into masculine and feminine energies. Lakes have one kind, rivers have another. "You'll notice that when you are standing beside a lake, it's quite a different feeling from when you are standing beside a river," Beard went on ... All eyes were on him.

I thought my Swedish friend Erland was exempt from Viljandi's far out worldview, but the other day while grilling in the yard, he began staring into the wisps of the clouds and talking about aliens. "And you know what they say, that the aliens are actually us, that we are coming back in time to study ourselves ..." I could see the white fluffy 11 pm clouds in his eyes. "Oh," he rubbed them. "I had a dream about this the other night. It was such a cool, cool dream. I told Lea all about it ...Goddamn flies, it's like the second you put some grilled fish out, they're all over it." "Where is Lea?" "Don't worry, she's coming, she's coming, Oh, go away stupid flies, go away ...{he waves them away} ... Now what was I saying about the aliens?"

neljapäev, juuli 04, 2013


Expats piss off homeland Americans. They rile the, defile them. An expat to a homeland American is a betrayer, a traitor. And why? Because the expat called their "Love it or leave it" bluff. "Love it or leave it!" That patriotic phrase. The sayer thinks he has you up against the wall, because who would have the guff to actually leave the homeland?! But the expat does. Watch him turn and go. That smug wannabe Hemingway bastard with his parental renumeration and his black turtleneck and knowledge of other tongues! That almost-as-bad-as-a-Frenchman Yankee with his softness for socialism and his friends with funny names and his ability to pronounce Tallinn the correct way (and it doesn't rhyme with baleen, Ishmael). But you know, from the bottom of my heart -- I haven't rejected America. I have embraced my own weird, meandering life. It led here. Doors opened, drawbridges materialized. And I see nothing wrong with drinking Saku and alternating between Estonian and English with a Swede in Viljandi on the Fourth of July. That's just how it went for me. My story. Love it or leave it. Lõpp.

-aale, -oome

"Täna lähme Hiiumaale, siis homme lähme Saaremaale, siis ülehomme lähme Pärnumaale" --

 This was the first comprehensible Estonian sentence I heard uttered when I stepped off the plane in Tallinn. It was a cheerful, spry youngish woman who said the words, a fine, upstanding, big-blue-eyed completely un-lecherous-thought-provoking flaxen-haired, blade-of-grass-like woman. And what the woman's words said to me, was that it is summer in Eesti-land. Summer is the time for -aale, whether it be Hiiumaale (to Hiiumaa) or Saaremaale (to Saaremaa). One other traveler threw in an -oome for added suvi summery spice, Aga meie lähme homme Soome ...

Summer brings with it White Nights Etiquette ... So Epp explained to me ... With "White Nights Etiquette" one is free to call on friends at 11 pm, because it's still day out, technically, supposedly ... We have been all waiting a long time for warm weather. It came.

Meantime, Edward Snowden is still in the john at the airport and Moscow, and Putin is making himself look like Mr. Freedom Champion by allowing him to chat with his buddies Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange from the back stall, unmolested. Mohammed Morsi is no longer president of Egypt, or so it seems {and all Estonian sunworshippers who head to Shark el-Sheim in winter will have extra explaining to do to concerned relatives -- "Oh, no, everything's fine down there, no troubles at all, you'll see" ...

Makes one happy for a peaceful, bucolic, lazy, pastoral, straw-in-the-hair, mating-in-the-haystack kind of baltoscandinavian summer ... Like extras in a Ingmar Bergman film ... With lots of bonfires and site visits ... -aale today, -oome tomorrow.

teisipäev, juuni 25, 2013


Wouldn't it be an interesting plot twist if Edward Snowden wasn't in Moscow, but instead was already safely in Havana, or Reykjavik, or some other city that disregards the wishes of the US State Department? What I find interesting here in the US, where I am at the moment, is the deep ambivalence most average people seem to feel about Snowden's actions. It's not that they really see Snowden as a champion of transparency {I think most of us thought that the government was collecting such information}. It's that they can't find it within themselves to cheer on the same institutions that are spying on them. No way. At least today, you won't hear a mouth say, 'Go NSA!'

reede, juuni 21, 2013


We have eight passports in our kitchen drawer -- one for me, one for Epp, and two for Marta, two for Anna, and two for Mannu Leenu. Uncle Sam doesn't mind how many passports we have, but according to a 1995 Estonian law, M, A, and ML have to give up their Estonian or American passports upon turning 18. All of us with multinational children in Estonia hope that the government will at last come to its good senses and repeal this law, or at least amend it to allow children born with two nationalities to maintain them. Foreign Minister Paet is in favor of that. So are the Social Democrats and the Centrists. But the conservatives see things differently. When it comes to loving one's country, Interior Minister "Kõva Käe" (Heavy Handed) Ken-Martti Vaher is an ardent monogamist."A quality bond between a person and the state is only possible with one country," says Kõva Käe Ken. "Loyalty conflicts, especially concerning public service and military service, could arise."


I just happened across an ongoing online cartoon strip - Scandinavia and the World - that peddles in the same cheesy jokes about Scandinavians that one can hear on any night of the week in the student clubs in Denmark - "We're like this, they're like that," etc. - Sweden is prudish and Denmark is more laid back and Norway, he just loves nature - Finland is brooding and has a knife, and Iceland is very silly - Estonia has featured in four comic strips since SATW debuted in '09 - in each one, she is portrayed as wanting to get into the club, but being denied - "Oh, no, left out again!" - She has social aspirations, that one - The truth is that most of the Scandinavians are toffs, Dansk, Norsk, Svensk - they think the sun shines from their buttocks - the Light of Lego, the Illumination of Ikea, the Radiance of Rimi ...

teisipäev, juuni 18, 2013

party 'til you puke

When President Ilves called the heads of Estonia's four major parties to Kadriorg for a chat about how their vote rigging and assorted antics were having a deleterious affect on the health of the nation's democracy, one had a glimpse at a stagnant political system dominated by the same revolving cast of musical chairs personalities: Ansip, Savisaar, Reinsalu, Mikser ... The latter two are "newcomers," or at least fresher faces, but those are relative terms when Savikas has been playing the game since the game began, and Unzip's been prime minister since Juhan Parts' government bit the dust eight years ago (it seems like forever ago). Now Ojuland's been booted from Reform, and Reform has recruited Vilja Savisaar (the better looking, more sympathetic Savisaar) to run against her ex-husband for Tallinn mayor, and Laar is flirting with leaving the coalition (but not really, for what could the other government constellation be?) You have to ask, what do any of these people stand for (and did they ever stand for anything other than themselves?) Yes, Ilves is right to counsel the party leaders, but he cannot change the party leaders, or their other candidates, or the parties themselves.

pühapäev, juuni 09, 2013


Remember the woeful tale of the border treaty with Russia? FM Paet flew out to Moscow in '05, came back waving the magic paper to fix the line between the two lands, told newspapers it was a "done deal," but then pesky parliamentarians added a preamble that made reference to another law that referenced the 1920 treaty that established Estonian statehood. Then Putin got wind of it in the Kremlin and he had FM Lavrov bring him the treaty on a platter so that he could retract Russia's signature, using liquid paper I presume (that was before he crumpled it, stomped on it, blew his nose on it, judo chopped it, and threw it in the fireplace). Now the signing of the new treaty is set to occur again (this time, they say, in Tallinn in July), and it seems like there will be no troubling preambles, and Putin can keep his trusty bottle of liquid paper in his desk's top drawer. Lavrov, meantime, can fly in and ride past the inspiring supermarkets that line the road from the airport to the city center and look out on the glorious Hanseatic skyline from the precipice of the Foreign Ministry on Iceland Square and feel deep and bone-aching sorrow for not getting to be the FM of such an awesome country.

kolmapäev, juuni 05, 2013


Has it occurred to any of the hijackers or knifers or hackers or exploding backpackers that the number one killing entity of Muslims worldwide is probably other Muslims? Or do they think it's their exclusive job to kill themselves? How many car bombs have been set off in Iraq's sectarian civil war, hundreds of dead, the perpetrators -- OTHER MUSLIMS. And yet the fists are shaken at drones and stray bullets and Americans and Britons and French, because these legacy colonial administrators have obviously not taken their mandates seriously! There is this tendency among the Left to feel, deep down in the inner lining of their entrails, that while "terrorism" is abhorrent, it is somehow justified (or at least explainable) because of our neocolonial policies. Yet the unenlightened child minds of these exotic lands continue to murder one another, to even eat each other's hearts. Perhaps the schism is not religious or political, therefore, but merely human stupidity, the cancer of all existence, period.

I honestly don't know where I sit in all of this, other than being a bemused nihilistic rambler man. No, Mr. Cameron, your little task force isn't going to solve a thing. Task forces, roundtables. I've got an idea, boys, let's tie it all up in red tape. Stick the failure of multikulti in committee and kill it. As if it was a law! That's what you get when you let lawyers run countries. O, Britain, incubator of sectarian violence. Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons, Romans and Celts, Catholics and Protestants. Everyone's got his own justifying almighty. Here I recall an Estonian newspaperman lamenting EU accession many years ago. "If they let the Muslims in, we're done for," said sad-eyed he. But, Estonian newspaper man, don't you see ... we're already done for.

esmaspäev, mai 27, 2013

von trapp

"All the people from this country should be removed and replaced with Brazilians." This was my Latin American friend's response to the question, "So how are you getting along in Estonia?"

Sometimes it feels that way. As much as we care about Estonia and it's people, they can get annoying. We are equally as annoying for them, or at least amusing. Example. I am a father, and yet am not an Estonian father. I yell at my naughty children in shops, WHAT THE HECK DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING? They tend to ignore my spontaneous outbursts. An Estonian father though is austere and firm. All he has to do is mutter a few lines under his breath, and his children fall back in line. Good Estonian fathers are like The Sound of Music's Captain von Trapp before he started sleeping with Fraulein Maria.

That severity in character, respect for discipline, order, silence ... it can drive a non-Estonian to the edge. It builds up over time. My little daughter Maria, aged 20 months, greeted every passerby in Haapsalu over the weekend with, "Tere!" I would estimate that 20 percent of those greeted bothered to look at her or respond. The others winced and scurried by, as if they felt as if they had been found out by the friendly toddler. Why so reticent? I wondered. Did they think they were invisible?

teisipäev, mai 21, 2013

statistical condom

Interesting to see the Russian question pop up from time to time, along with statistics ... "X percent THIS, therefore THIS ..." Statistics are important because they are used in the transmission of halftruths, lies, propaganda, so always wear a statistical condom! One discussion that caught my ear revolved around the translation of Estonian law into the Russian language, a suggestion made by a Social Democrat named Ossinovski. Society comes unglued at the very mention of such ideas, with statistics tossed around like rice at a wedding, "X percent THIS, therefore THIS!" I scratch my own itchy head ... Yeah, why not translate the laws?

I have always been opposed to making Russian a second-state language, not just because I like Estonian so much because I think it's so cute with all of that ä ü õ ö, but also because I feel it is unnecessary. I am of the opinion that forced legal inclusiveness is, in two words, complete bullshit. "Oh, look, the official languages of Kosovo are Kosovar Albanian AND Serbian." That'll get them to stop hating each other, sure ... Or, "Just look at Finland, just look at Canada!" -- the linguistic minorities there are bitching round the clock. The Quebecois complain about not having their own state, the Anglophones in Quebec complain about living in the Francosphere. And so, as you already knew, NOBODY IS EVER HAPPY.

Then I start thinking about the multilingual origins of the Estonian state with its Danish and German merchants and border Russians and deposed Polish counts, and I recall that during the 1920s and '30s, Estonian politicians used to go to Narva or Petseri and give addresses ... in Russian. So what exactly are we restoring the state to, if that's how it was in the earlier period of independence? What is the default for which we yearn? Are we going back in time, or involved in a completely new state-building project? Stuff to consider.

But, back to the question: Estonian laws in Russian? ... Why not? Why not in English, too? Hell, let's add Swedish. The Swedes are still a tiny minority, but, unlike the Russian minority, they are actually growing. If you model it out over the next 500,000 years, at current growth rates, the Swedish minority will surpass the Russian minority in 253,000 years. So, that's my advice. Think ahead. Be the future.