Monday, March 11, 2013
It happens often.
“What’s your number?” I ask a corporate thirty-something PR chick, for whom I am producing a brochure on how corporate social responsibility will save the planet, or at least ease the consciences of some smug, carbon-footprint-producing white people in one tiny corner of it. “I’ll call you, and then we’ll have each others’ numbers.” I remove my phone and input +372.
“What’s that?” She is visibly baffled.
“That’s the country code.”
“No, your phone.”
“It’s, uh, a phone.”
“You don’t have a smart phone? Really?”
But by the third time it happened I’d learned how to avoid a long explanation: “It’s verboten. I’m Amish.”
She gives me a strange look, so I follow up. “You know, the Ordnung. Gelassenheit. Gottes wille.”
Although half of the mobile-phone-using population is still using dumbphones, disbelief is still a common occurrence when I whip out my mobile. Which explains why I know a hell of lot more about being Amish than I know about smartphones.
There are a quarter million of us scattered across the globe, most of us in North America. We speak a Swiss German dialect, though some of you gentiles insist on calling it Dutch. Our Ordnung, or rules, prescribe limitations on use of power-line electricity, automobiles, and of course, smartphones. Those who cannot conform are excommunicated, or at least shunned. Our formal education is discontinued at age 13. We value rural life, manual labor, and humility. Men wear hats when outside, black in winter, straw in summer. We wear suspenders, not belts, and all our clothing is home sewn. We grow beards but shave our upper lips, since mustaches have historically been associated with military officers. If you haven’t met an Amish person, then you’ve at least seen us in the movies.
“You mean, like, ‘Witness’?” the PR chick will gasp.
Indeed. Thanks to the 1985 Hollywood film, being Amish is cooler than ever. The film’s actors included real-life Amish sex bombs such as Viggo Mortensen and Kelly McGillis (though, admittedly, she is no longer hot, having aged about as well as a Russian peasant).
As one of the few Amish persons in the Nordic region, I am often sought out by journalists to give comment on technology and its encroachment on my people’s way of life.
How does a paper calendar work? Can one safely sharpen a pencil with a penknife? Is that a real alarm clock?! Show me your straight razor! Gentile television crews often come around to film Liina drawing water from the well by hand, or me carving a nativity set for little Robert from the tree in our yard that was struck by lightning. Often they want to see me composing columns – like this one you are reading – on a manual typewriter. And they always ask for my thoughts on the evils of the modern world.
One well-known Estonian tech guru recently posted a photograph on Facebook of an iPad advertisement in Time magazine. The back cover advertisement was a shrunken down version of the front cover, showing that the magazine is available on the iPad mini. The guru noted also that Newsweek breathed its last print words in the language of its conqueror, Twitter: #LASTPRINTISSUE.
When I, as an Amish man with a primitive mobile phone, am asked about this, I explain that despite my love for the writing of Fareed Zakaria, printed Newsweek is dead not because of the internet, but because its editorial content sucks. If Time dies, too, it will not be because print as a medium is dead (to the contrary: witness success of The Economist or the Financial Times), but because its content is boring, and its mostly second-rate writing was long ago eclipsed by more progressive, interesting publications. Newsweek was the magazine of my youth, just as the Saturday Evening Post was the magazine of my father’s. Both publications are dead and no one’s the poorer. Ironic but true, “Time” and “Newsweek,” much like “Reagan” and “Thatcher,” are names more cherished in Estonia than they are in the west. Shed a tear if you must, but to declare an entire industry dead may be premature.
I of course also remind the gentile TV people that with the advent of both radio and television, the death of print was foreseen and, like the end of the world (which was also bought into by another prominent Estonian tech guru) did not come to pass. But follow your gurus if you must.
Admittedly, we Amish are traditionalists. You will find no full-length mirrors in my home since they promote vanity and self-admiration. Liina and I wear no jewelry, not even wedding bands. What you might consider a monastic existence enables we Amish to see the world more clearly. And I have to admit it gives me a sober perspective when working for gentile clients who wish to foist their products – and their system of beliefs – on the rest of the world.
“But you have a telephone!“ a PR chick will inevitably remark. “Is that not worldly?”
We Amish do not shun all of your worldly, gentile developments. Word processors are allowed in our schools, though not in homes. Batteries are allowed. Mobile vehicles are fine, as long as they do not have rubber tires, though the Ordnung allows me to hire a taxi when traveling on business. Gasoline generators may provide energy for washing machines, water pumps, and agricultural equipment. And, yes, cellular phones and voice mail, may be used by a business to compete, though these are permitted on a case by case basis.
It may amuse you that my jacket fastens with hooks (not buttons), but our clothing is considered to be an expression of humility, simplicity, and non-conformity. Visit New York City’s Diamond District any workday morning to watch the yellow school buses disgorge workers, and you will see yet another fine example of a traditional culture operating both outside and inside of yours.
I am sure that one day I will also own a smartphone, the day when it becomes a necessary tool to exist in your world. But the rules of my people prescribe that a our telephone must be kept in a booth or an unlocked barn, and this has not yet handicapped Liina and I in a way we cannot compete in the modern world. The lack of a smartphone constantly in my pocket helps me draw the boundaries between work and home. The Ordnung keeps our social fabric intact: no laborious work is ever done on Sunday.
“There must be something you miss?” the PR chick will ultimately exclaim, perhaps expecting me to mention Dolce & Gabbana, Cheezits, or televised football.
This is the point where I explain my fascination with the hairless body of a gentile woman, the Amish male’s secret longing for a woman with shaved armpits.
Goosebumps will form visibly on her bare arm. Momentarily, she will avert her eyes. She will suffer shortness of breath, perhaps stutter. And then her smartphone will ring, saving her from an awkward moment.
Vello holds forth on other topics here.
Friday, November 9, 2012
Despite what you might gather from my photograph, I wasn’t always a great ladies man.
I’ve never possessed that raw sexual energy once described in an advertisement for a Tom Cruise film: Every girl wants to be with him; every guy wants to be like him. But I’ve known guys like that, and most were not nearly as good looking as Cruise. I never understood what it was they had going for them – there was just something about them that nobody could explain. Now, in the 47th year of my life, I have discovered their secret. Whether they knew it or not, they were tantra men.
It will be helpful for those who have not yet completed the tantra rites to think of the male and female bodies as batteries. (Bear with me; this is how it was explained to me.) Women have the positive channel up top (breasts) where they, if you could see it, shoot out energy. Below their waists is their negative terminal where they receive energy. Men’s positive pole is below our waists. So join our positive pole with the female’s negative pole, move the energy in that circle, and a tantra orgasm can be obtained simply by breathing, without any exchange of fluids or removal of clothing.
How do I know all this? I recently became a tantra man.
In my university days, I tried everything to get the girls. I lifted weights, wore name-brand clothing, even attempted fashionable haircuts. It was all in vain. But since even a blind dog sometimes finds a bone, I had the occasional girlfriend. But it was not until I met Liina that the secret of those who had just something about them was revealed to me.
My journey to tantra began in the usual fashion. I was the typical husband who did spent weekends doing weird shit to please his wife: yoga, walking across hot coals, drinking ayahuasca, meditation, riding an elephant, and wearing an electric-blue Egyptian gallibaya around the house on weekends.
I found none of these activities to be a waste of time, though I would admit on certain occasions I would have preferred to be fishing. But doing things of interest to your wife is the role of a husband, even though most husbands find themselves subjected to more mundane tortures, such as attending the Nutcracker ballet or a classical organ concert.
But it was not until Liina insisted I attend a weekend tantra class that I understood the ramifications of my problem: My seven main chakras had been blocked for the past 47 years! Proper maintenance of these chakras is essential, but little different than keeping your Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine in shape. While the lawnmower may require merely an oil change, your chakras demand regular yoga, chanting, or an ice-cold enema to keep them in proper working order.
The benefits of clean chakras are known to many. The most famous tantra man, Sting, is said to have the ability to pleasure his wife with five-hour bouts of sex. Richard Gere, who is known to have levitated on American national television (the government removed the footage from the internet!), is popularly thought to be the secret owner of the world’s largest online tantra yoga academy.
In our weekend course in Estonia, Liina and I did not learn five-hour sex or levitation techniques on the very first day, and I would caution everyone not to enter the course with this expectation. I can say that it took a full three days after the course before I mastered the five-hour duration, though you may master it in only a couple of hours.
Of course tantra is more than just sex. It is a way to master one’s energy and live life to the fullest. A banker who clears his chakras will find he is capable of foreclosing on twice as many homes as before. An advertising man will discover that perfect headline to double the sales of hemorrhoid cream. Clean your chakras and your primal energy will emerge allowing you to transfer orgasmic levels of energy in a variety of settings without the need for sexual intercourse.
And though tantra is not just sex, the novice newly in touch with channels of energy may find the need for new sexual partners irresistible. “If your body demands that exchange of energy, then by denying yourself you are not being true to your own truth,” our yogi told us. And what reasonable wife would deny her husband the pursuit of his own truth?
One cautionary note: I have found that the open-minded tantra life is not one always best lived publicly. Driving to Tartu last week, I picked up a hitchhiker, having absentmindedly left my tantra diagrams on the floor in front of the passenger-side seat. After no more than ten kilometers the young female hitchhiker began to look around and noticed the diagram of a penis, with arrows denoting the seminal vesicle, prostate, and penis’ third eye. I could see the gears turning in her head, and so I was quick to offer: “It’s okay. I’m a doctor.”
She squinted at me skeptically, and while I was not wearing a khaki raincoat, she surely saw me, at the very least, as a pervert, and more likely even an axe murderer. After a few seconds she asked me calmly: “Why would a doctor need such simple diagrams?”
Which was a very good question, I thought. And before I could think of a good answer she had insisted I stop the car.
The car was still moving when she opened the door, and before I knew it she was bolting back toward Tallinn. “Okay, I’m a tantra man!” I shouted after her, but it was too little too late.
If there is one useful thing that every attendee of a tantra course learns, it is how to give his partner a deep orgasm with only a two-minute foot massage. A bit of a parlor trick, perhaps, but who among us is above wanting to amaze his friends at parties?
Thanks to that little trick I’ve started to earn a bit of a reputation around the neighborhood. So much so that a little hippie settlement has sprung up in my garden. Someone erects a new teepee just about every other day, and I have increasing reason to move about wearing my gallibaya.
It will eventually become a bother, I know. But if all they want is a foot massage can I really throw them out? Liina doesn’t seem to mind as long as I’m following my own truth (and as long as they stay out of the kitchen). Some of my business-minded friends think I should monetize the thing and start an ashram, but I’ve never been much for commerce. So I’ve decided it’s just part and parcel of being a tantra man. Keep your chakras clean; be in touch with your energy; take life as it comes. Namaste.
Give Vello for Christmas.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
I was clearly in the minority. Four purebred Estonians seated around my kitchen table, blue-eyed blondes with names like Sepp, Kivi, and Kuur. One wore a linen shirt like he’d come direct from a song festival. They were right out of central casting, except that, because of my presence, they were speaking English.
My Estonian doesn’t completely suck, though my accent is at least as amusing as an Estonian’s accent when he speaks English. I comprehend nearly everything in the Estonian language, though I can be thrown by submerged metaphors about angry roosters or rusty plows.
My four friends were bantering about Kant or bad journalism or nudity on Pirita Beach or I don’t know what, and all I could wonder was why they had consciously handicapped themselves by speaking English in a discussion I was largely not participating in. They spoke English well, I have to say, but hardly at the level they could carry on a conversation in their native language. Why, I wondered, had they chosen to rob themselves of the eloquence they possess in their native tongue?
Of course it’s not just my Sepp and Kuur who do it. It’s almost every Sepp and Kuur. Almost anywhere I go in Tallinn (except the central market) I am addressed in English. Asking a question to a waitress or stewardess in Estonian, she will often respond: “So do you want to speak English?”
What I want, really, is a simple answer to my simple question. Often I suppress the urge to point out that we are, in fact, in Estonia, a small country just south of Finland and west of Russia, and the language spoken here is Estonian. If we were in Sweden and I asked a question to a waitress in serviceable Swedish, would she respond in English?
But I never answer with that speech. Because if I were after a discussion about sociolinguistic theory I would have asked Basil Bernstein, not some waitress, and her injection has already hijacked what should be merely a transaction and turned it into an exercise to feed her self-esteem.
In most places in the world the locals are flattered when you want to speak their language, and they take some pleasure in playing along, sticking with the local language until the moment the foreigner gives up in utter frustration. Why is Estonia different?
One popular theory is that since so few foreigners even attempt Estonian, every accent is seen as ridiculous. (Conversely, since everyone attempts English, no accent is seen as strange.)
Another easy theory to reach for is insecurity. Some need to demonstrate that “I, too, speak English” and are not inferior beings.
“We want to practice our English” is another reason I’ve heard, and this is perhaps plausible for longer conversations, though I find it hard to believe that saying things like “Do you want cream with that?” add much to the speaker’s repertoire.
“We want you to be comfortable” is the explanation I’ve received most often if I ask why they switched to English. But if that’s the motive why don’t they just as quickly switch to Russian when an accent is detected? A slightly different matter, you may say. But if it is, then the explanation should be changed to “We want certain people to be comfortable.”
My French friend Guillaume theorizes that Estonians don’t want foreigners to learn their language. They don’t want you in their inner circle, he says, and the only way in is to learn their language. To be sure, Guillaume is a lazy bastard and he has not learned Estonian despite the countless euros he’s spent taking lessons. I would discount his theory on that basis alone, except that it actually makes sense. For thousands of years, language may be the only thing that occupying powers haven’t managed to take away from Estonians, so why should they be eager to share it now with people who will only pollute it?
If it ended there we armchair linguists would have it easy, but on a recent trip to Norway (where I did not attempt Norwegian), I met an Estonian mother who complicated things even more: she spoke only Norwegian with her children.
I saw no evidence that she was ashamed to be Estonian, but I didn’t see any major effort to instill the culture or language in her children. I do not presume to present her as representative, but she is surely not a bizarre aberration, either. With tens- if not hundreds of thousands of Estonians having emigrated in the last twenty years, perhaps we ought to worry about the Estonian language.
“Nonsense,” says a friend of mine. “We were down to 30,000 Estonian speakers in year 1200-something-or-other after the plague and we rebounded from that!” Speaking about it as if it were only yesterday, he is certain there is no risk of the language dying.
But with population experts saying the number of Estonians will shrink to something like 700,000 by 2050, it might not be a bad idea to take every opportunity to encourage use of the language. Especially with foreigners who demonstrate an inclination to learn it.
Speaking for many of them, let me say that we do not need or want praise. (We know we’re tubli.) We will not be encouraged by free folk costumes. (Nor amber or matroshka dolls.) And we do not seek Estonian citizenship. (We are not fleeing the tyranny of Canada.) What we desire is to be corrected.
My friend Katrin in Tartu is the epitome of what foreigners need in an Estonian. If I say õieti when I should have said õigesti, Katrin is quick with a reprimand. If I use street language, she will frown and refuse to answer. If I say something capitally silly or with an unbearable accent (I cannot properly pronounce loll or kalli kalli to this day) she will laugh out loud and later relate the story to her friends. She offers no quarter. But she does correct me.
Estonians who do not know me are surely too polite to correct me, but I would invite you to get over it. What could better improve a foreigner’s Estonian than an entire nation who takes it upon itself to help him learn the language? I’m not talking about free language lessons given in church basements by pensioners with nothing better to do (though that’s not a bad idea). I’m talking about a dining companion who gently tells me what I really want is gaasiga vett, not gaasiga vesi.
And Sepp and Kuur could have their arguments around my kitchen table in Estonian. My theory is that the extra time consumed by me interrupting to clarify a meaning would be roughly equal to the time lost by them using English. Nothing would change in the grand scheme of things except that one foreigner would speak Estonian at a slightly higher level.
The danger of all this, of course, is that Estonians might start to learn from foreigners. My wife Liina is so used to hearing me speak incorrectly that she’s begun to parrot me. I know several Estonian women who have learned English from their spouses, complete with ghetto expressions and plumber-style swearing, but Liina has added a new twist and allowed my Estonian to replace her own. Daily I fear that Urmas Sutrop may show up on the doorstep and take her away from me.
Perhaps a compromise might be reached where Mr. Sutrop simply moves in with us and takes me on as his Eliza Doolittle. He could rid me of my accent, repair Liina’s laziness, and make sure little Robert grows up speaking one language properly. And the rest of you might do your part, also. After you’ve finished laughing at my sentences, just gently correct me. Otherwise, we all may be doomed.
Saturday, September 15, 2012
How did Anne Alamets get my name? And how could she have known I was jonesing for a Renault?
On May 22nd Anne’s email arrived which informed me that Lenna Kuurmaa traded her two-door coupe for a four-door Fluence (starting from €15,450), and Koit Toome swapped his Twingo for a Grandtour (starting €14,650). According to Anne, Lenna sold her old car on Facebook in an auction last March and needed a new one, and Koit needed a bigger vehicle to cram in all his band’s stuff! How could Anne have known I’d identify so much with Lenna and Koit? It was Kismet or something. Some stuff you just can’t explain.
After reading Anne’s email, the first thing I thought of was how Koit and Lenna must really love Renault if they were willing to tell me about their cars. Since the Estonians I know pride themselves on being well above mere commercialism, I knew that Koit and Lenna’s messages were from the heart. If they said it, it had to be true: Renault really does have a car that satisfies every need!
But just as I was about to race down to the dealership and buy the most expensive, biggest Renault on the lot under the most unfriendly financing terms I could organize, a tinge of jealousy entered my head. Why hadn’t Anne asked me to plug Renault?
Since I was not born in Estonia, I am no stranger to consumerism and its attendant savage western habits. In the early 1990s when I tried to get a coffee in a paper cup to go, restaurants treated me like a stinky beggar. “Coffee to go?” a waiter scoffed. “We Estonians are cultured people who drink sitting down. You will never see coffee to go here.”
Around the same time a real estate agent asked me how she might sell more homes (not that she really wanted or needed to sell – I am sure it was just curiosity), and I remarked that in the west the agents try to heighten their profiles by putting their photos on their business cards and for-sale signs. “That will never happen in Estonia,” she laughed.
So from early on I knew Estonians were a superior race impervious to the powers of advertising. And I also knew that for that reason I could never really become one. I would always remain a simple Canadian, one born with no special powers for resisting consumerism. As kryptonite brings Superman to his knees, as the color yellow makes Green Lantern powerless, a well-crafted commercial message can induce me to open my wallet and let you take all that’s there.
So for a little bit of baksheesh, or even by being asked nicely, I would have gladly lent my name to Anne Alamets’ ad campaign. Just as Lenna and Koit did, I could have made a video.
Imagine me advancing toward the camera as I explain why I traded my Skoda for Renault’s Megane Grandtour. The camera pulls in close as I remove the Grandtour’s door panels to reveal thousands of cigarettes with no tax stickers. The consumer is struck by the car’s amazing hidden cargo capacity as I deliver the line: Whenever I cross the Narva-Ivangorod border, I do it in a Megane Grandtour.
Or imagine me trading down in cars for something smaller. The viewer sees me in the driver’s seat, my two-year-old Robert jumping up and down in the passenger seat trying to break off the rear-view mirror. The camera then pulls back to reveal Liina, barefoot in the back seat smoking a cigarette and reading a gossip magazine. I turn to the camera and say: In a few short years Estonia’s population will be only 900,000. Twingo was made expressly for the Estonian family.
So what’s wrong with me, Anne Alamets? All the years I’ve written this column why have you not tried once to exploit my celebrity?
And what about my readers? Proprietary Postimees research repeatedly confirms that Vello readers are Estonia’s opinion leaders, the nation’s most intelligent, the most beautiful and virtuous. The nation’s übermenschen.
You should also consider, Anne, that those who listen to the music of Koit and Lenna don’t have the money to buy cars, yours or anyone else’s. The Vello demographic is far superior: my readers are actually old enough to drive.
Or, Anne, if you don’t like me for some reason, why not choose another cultural figure? Imagine a billboard of Tiit Aleksejev accepting the keys to a Grandtour stuffed with a fresh printing of Valge kuningriik! Or Annely Peebo paying for a Megane Cabriolet with her American Express card! Or Jelena Skulskaja or Mihkel Mutt, two writers whose faces are more ubiquitous than any politician, arriving on the HeadRead festival’s red carpet in a Laguna Coupe! Or Epp Petrone – whose readers are more like groupies – packing away her 17 children into a Kangoo Express Maxi.
Not to take anything away from Lenna and Koit. I know they are really hard workers. And I sympathize with anyone who earns his living as a performer in Estonia. Since no one can be on the Eurovision stage 365 days a year, half the time you’re performing at some redneck’s wedding or a businessman’s 50th birthday party, or some Reform Party event where a cabal politely applauds and then returns to plotting how to make Edgar Savisaar experience so much pain he will lie down on the ground and plead, “Mommy, mommy, take me back inside you.”
In the videos attached to Anne’s email, Lenna and Koit talked about the Renaults they love. Despite my personal preference for Lenna, I found Koit to be the better car spokesman. Lenna seemed perturbed that she had to make the video and her performance was tinged with an undertone of “Just finish the fucking video, will you, so I can get out of here with my free car?” If Lenna weren’t Estonian, I might have suspected she was lying.
But since Estonians are the world’s most savvy and skeptical people, a race of man who lives above commerce, possibly the only people left on the planet who have not given themselves over as slaves to consumerism, because of this I know that Lenna and Koit’s messages were sincere. They would not drive a Renault if it weren’t the perfect vehicle for them. That’s just how it is.
But I myself can no longer resist. The day after this column is published I’m going down to City Motors to find Anne Alamets and purchase a Renault. Maybe even Koit’s old Twingo.
Dept. of Shameless Commerce: Get the complete Vello here.
Friday, July 20, 2012
“What’s it like to be 25 and still eating out of your mother’s fridge?” I asked Tiit, the son of some close friends I was visiting. I was prodding him in good fun but quickly realized it was a touchy subject. The kid had been out of work since the day he got his MBA in marketing from the Estonian Business School.
Taking up my insensitive remark as the topic of conversation, my middle-aged friends explained to me that more often than not their twenty-something children - and their friends’ twenty-something children - are still living at home.
“Why not kick their asses out?” I suggested, having just popped open my fifth beer. Tiit’s parents then painted a picture of Estonia as a little version of Spain, where there is little or no opportunity for young people.
According to Tiit’s parents, the kids who had studied finance or IT were working and earning enough money to have small apartments and independent lives, but the rest, if they were working at all, were earning chicken scratch while chained to an oar on the lower decks of Estonian companies.
“Do the math,” said Tiit’s father. “Can you rent a flat, pay your utilities, and cover all your expenses on four hundred euros a month?”
The obvious answer was yes, if you had at least one roommate. But some practices common abroad just don't happen in Estonia. While in London or New York you might find an apartment shared by three guys fresh out of university, I’ve never heard of it happening in Tallinn. Tiit’s parents were clearly convinced that Estonian kids have it tough, so I shut up and popped open another beer.
Later on Tiit joined us in the sauna and I was able to hear it from the horse’s mouth. He’d been offered a couple of jobs, but they weren’t in marketing, and they all paid less than he thought he was worth. Feeling a bit bad about the crack I’d made earlier, I listened carefully and sought to empathize with the young man. But then I recalled my first few years out of university, when the best I could afford was a tiny room in a cocaine addict’s downtown Toronto flat.
“Of course you’re without a job,” I told Tiit. “Studying marketing in Estonia is like going to the botanical garden to learn about grizzly bears.”
Tiit gave me one of those looks that made clear he’d been told at school that he held a coveted skill set and had been pumped full of that you’re-the-future-of-the-nation bullshit that young graduates get everywhere.
“What’s a Soviet-era professor know about marketing?” I continued. “And if he’s worked in the business then his experience comes from a tiny country with a homogenous population of look-alike whiteys. Why didn’t you study math or physics?”
I know I shouldn’t have said it, but I was drunk and it happened. But sober now, thinking back over those words, they are more or less true. And it turned out okay, really, because my honesty got us talking about Tiit’s feelings, and according to my wife Liina, talking about your feelings is a good thing.
Tiit then told me about the Winners’ Generation, “the generation who had balls but not necessarily smarts, the incompetents who occupy Estonia’s seats of power but who won’t get their fat asses out of their chairs so the new generation can have their jobs.”
“Yeah, man,” I cheered, actually taking out a notebook to copy this stuff down. “More spleen!”
And Tiit obliged: “These sad fucks for whom everything is ‘service,’ including art, and success is measured by tickboxing through a list of Soviet-era dreams they established by watching some western series from Finnish TV. And that is the ceiling of their imagination, this sad generation of one-dimensional men in beige sandals that they wear with like-colored socks. No soul, no fantasy, just emptiness.” I half expected him to start singing Bruce Springsteen songs, but he instead muttered something about Blur’s “Charmless Man,” a group I wasn’t hip enough to know and had to google later on.
I’d worked with some of Estonia’s Winners’ Generation, those born in the mid 1960s, those who were in the right place at the right time, “who bridged the past and the future,” as Linnar Viik once characterized them in an interview.
The Winners were the self-anointed Princes of Estonia, and although my words wouldn’t have been as condemning as Tiit’s, I had found some of them to be spoiled and lazy. “After I rest for several weeks I may be able to make a decision,” one Winner told me just last week when I approached him about his interest in a project. This Winner was the sort often profiled in Estonian business magazines, the narratives so full of flattering drivel that reading one start to finish is the equivalent of a warm enema.
Tiit was angry, but I understood his point: In a true meritocracy many Winners would probably have to give up their chairs. The skills they brought to the table in the early 1990s are often not the skills that industry is currently in need of. But despite Tiit’s outpouring, I wasn’t convinced that his generation - shiny diplomas, no experience - were necessarily the best replacements.
So while I didn’t fully buy into what Tiit preached, I did wonder how a guy with so much passion wasn’t employed somewhere. I mean, channel that energy into any job and there’d be no stopping him. Perhaps Tiit was too proud for his own good?
The next day I sent Tiit an email with a link to an article quoting Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "The pyramid tip is always narrow. In the years after the Winners it's nearly impossible to replicate such quick and successful careers. A 45-year-old manager or top specialists intends to remain in his job for at least another 25 years."
I suggested to him that 25 years is like a prison sentence. Twenty-five years of sitting around waiting for a Winner to give up his chair. And so I suggested to Tiit that he move to the UK, share a flat in a seedy neighborhood with Polish and Lithuanian construction workers, and get the first job that’s offered him. Even a job in a London McDonald’s would teach him much about ethnic relationships, conflict, working efficiently, and how not to put his hand into a 2,000-degree vat of boiling grease: stuff they don’t teach you in Estonian marketing courses.
Tiit didn’t reply to my email, and so I can only conclude he wasn’t too keen on that advice. Maybe he decided instead to go back to school and study mathematics.
Liina says my problem is that I’m too insensitive. But I say the problem is that the real world is even more insensitive. Regardless of what the career placement officer may tell you at your local university, absolutely nobody is waiting for you once you get out. There is only the job you want and the job you can get. And sometimes you just have to take the job you can get.
Mom and dad are there, though. They really do care, because they know how special you are. And they’ll always keep plenty of beer in the fridge.
More speeches to give your kids here. And, no, I have no idea why some text appears with a white background.
Monday, May 7, 2012
Pissed off consumers on one side of the counter. Bitter 50-something Soviet-era shopkeepers on the other.
“This is just unacceptable,” an architect I knew stood with the customers, his face growing increasingly red. “I want you to understand why I cannot use your work.” The smirk on the face of the copy shop’s battleaxe widened in direct proportion to how angry the architect became. “My drawing is green, and look at your copy. What color is it?”
Standing a meter away even I could see that it wasn’t green. “What color is this?” the architect asked me when the shopkeeper put her hands in her pockets and stared away into space.
“It’s piss yellow,” I answered loudly enough she couldn’t ignore it.
“Piss yellow,” repeated the architect who turned again to the shopkeeper. “Are you now going to tell me it’s green?”
The shopkeeper stared at her feet for a good long moment. “No, it isn’t green,” she finally conceded. And then I just about hugged the architect for his small victory over some of the nastiest human beings in Estonia. I had used that copy shop dozens of times, each time secretly hoping its employees would be visited by the plague.
I’m not proud of wishing ill on unfriendly shopkeepers, but I have to admit that I am not above it. Almost every week, during some customer interaction in Tallinn, I think to myself while staring the shopkeeper: Would it be too much to ask for you to just go away and die?
“But it’s not our fault,” the shopkeeper added as soon as she’d conceded that green and yellow were not the same. “It’s the machines!”
As the architect puzzled his way out of that one, an Estonian pianist known for his dramatic flair flew through the door.
“This is a disaster!” he shouted, brushing past all of us in line to the counter where he threw copies of a musical composition in front of another shop worker. “The black is not black, the white is not white! Do you know how much money I have spent in this shop? Twenty thousand euros I would bet you. My entire career I have come here. And now look what you give me!”
As I stood on my toes to peek over the pianist’s shoulder to see if they’d made his music piss yellow, the employee folded her arms to form a shield, jerked her chin skyward, and entered her thousand-yard stare. “It’s not my fault,” she said. “It’s the machines!”
The pianist paused. He looked at the shopkeeper. He looked at the architect. Then he looked at me, his expression saying, Does she really think I’m stupid enough to accept that as an answer?
He was asking for my help, I could see, and I wasn’t going to abandon a man in the right.
“It’s the machines!” I shouted at my highest volume. “The machines have taken over, and it’s up to us to stop them!”
“Oh, my god!” exclaimed the architect. “They’re probably unstoppable now. They’ve taken over the entire city, at the very least the city government.”
“He’s right,” cried the pianist. “Maybe Bruce Willis is available to fight these machines?”
Other customers also got into the spirit of things.
“I’ve warned my son about computers,” said a middle-aged woman, though I was not sure she’d completely understood. “Computers can be dangerous!”
“Perhaps we should set fire to the machines!” offered a very old man with a cane. “That sometimes works in the movies.”
“A great idea!” howled the pianist. “A huge fucking fire! It may be the only thing that will work!”
“I’m with you,” the architect declared. “Perhaps you have a canister of gasoline we can pour all over the copy machines?” he asked the shopkeeper, striking the flint on a ruby red cigarette lighter produced from his pocket.
Such camaraderie and singleness of purpose I had never before had the privilege to be part of in Estonia.
I’d of course heard of the Baltic Chain and Hirvepark, but they were not a part of my youth. Until now, the Estonia I had known was one of passivity, of people shrugging and turning the other cheek. But finally, after 20 years of waiting, I was present for the moment when an Estonian finally put up his hand to say, “Enough.” And it was an object of beauty.
So what if it was only in a copy shop? So what if the adversaries were nothing but some middle-aged ciphers? It was still pure joy to see citizens confront the perverse stupidity of somebody’s system.
I sometimes imagine what it might be like if Estonians collectively got tired of the shenanigans of the city government. I imagine thousands of them converging on city hall some sunny day. When they arrive they knock on the door and are politely received by the mayor.
“Won’t you send these people right out?” asks the people’s representative, who hands the mayor a list. “And examine the list for your own name, too.”
Seeing there are a few thousand people outside, those called have little choice but to come out. And the people show themselves to be in no real hurry, having brought lawn chairs, thermoses of coffee, and pastries wrapped in newspapers, which they happily share between them.
The people on the list report one by one, whereby the people’s spokesman offers them his seat, and calmly delivers the message: You have violated our trust and proved an embarrassment to the republic. You are requested to leave your post immediately and report to a farm in Põlvamaa where you will be retrained with a useful skill. Thank you for your time. That is all.
While the Greeks and French may be talented at setting things on fire, they have a rough and clumsy way about them. There is really nothing more elegant than Estonians deciding they are going to get their way.
Classy protests are few and far between, but when one happens abroad, I often look to see if Estonians are not behind it.
When University of California at Davis students lined the path from Chancellor Linda Katehi’s office to her car to silently shame her for the pepper spraying of students, the composure they showed was an act so elegant in its execution that I scoured news reports and blogs to see if an Estonian name might not be behind it.
Although I wish Estonians luck with their IT, I am not convinced it’s going to be a famous export item. But why not singing revolutions? It isn’t everyone, you know, who possesses enough self-control to not throw a Molotov cocktail.
There is nothing I would have enjoyed more, quite honestly, than to see that copy shop set on fire, but we all knew that nothing of the sort was to happen. The Soviet battleaxes were as safe as they could be. They could only go home that night, like Linda Katehi, secretly ashamed for having let things reach the point they did.
I imagine that copy chop is as puzzling to the architect and the pianist as it is to me. Like me, each time they patronize the shop they speculate as to how it’s possible every single employee can be so bitter.
Perhaps the employees were genetically engineered in a secret laboratory deep inside the Urals? They were people bred to be emotionless, who were simply released on the world when the funding ran out in the 1990s.
Or perhaps all the copy shop staff are orphans, children who grew up without being held in the arms of a loving parent even a single time in their entire lives? They had come from a cold, cruel world, and were only giving back what they received.
Or is their story more quotidian? Perhaps all the workers are former executioners from the Patarei women’s prison?
Or perhaps they are former mistresses of the copy shop owner? They fell hard for him, were nurtured by his love, only to be thrown over for another woman. They were still needy, and they had nothing to do in life but to work in close physical proximity to him, spending their remaining years tearing themselves apart, wondering why they weren’t good enough to be The One.
This is no ordinary copy shop, after all. One could send a troupe of professional circus clowns into the shop, and each would leave in severe need of psychological counseling.
There is a second copy shop within walking distance of the city center, but I do not go there.
Its employees are not especially friendly, either, but they seem to present no great psychological puzzle. When you pay what it costs for copying, if you can’t get good customer service then it’s still nice to get a little something extra, even if it’s only a glimpse of life’s rich tapestry. Just don’t go there looking for quality copies.
Enjoy a battleaxe-free purchase.
Friday, April 13, 2012
“You’re ten minutes late!” the teacher barked at me as I entered her classroom. “I’ve already started the lesson!”
I’d left my home an hour before the appointment, since the school was in one of those Tallinn neighborhoods right out of the Russian film, "The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!" Upon arrival in the general vicinity, I parked the car and asked directions from a local who sent me to the wrong school.
Although most Tallinn buildings do have a number on them nowadays, the old Soviet axiom still often applies: “If you don’t know where you’re going, then you have no business being there.” With the possible exception of Ülemiste Airport, modern Tallinn was simply not built with anybody but the locals in mind.
Even though I had called the school to say I’d be late and explained what had happened the teacher was still rightly unimpressed. Perhaps she was one who harped on the virtues of being prompt, and so by allowing me to stay she was compromising some formerly unassailable standard? Or perhaps she was in a pissy mood because the teachers’ strike was due to begin in just a few days?
But I couldn’t hold it against her. I was, in fact, late, and in my experience it’s only the better teachers who invite strangers into the classroom.
“Hey, I don’t mind leaving,” I offered. But she decided I should stay.
As the father of a young son, the kind of education he’s going to get in Estonia is of keen interest to me. Critics say Estonian schools still stuff students full of useless facts instead of teaching them to think, and so I am always interested to visit a school and see for myself what the students and teachers are thinking.
I have followed the teachers’ strike, attending the rally on Freedom Square to talk to a few of them, as well as reading the coverage in the newspaper.
(A slight digression: At the rally, I noticed no grammatical errors in any strike sign. About how many protests can you say that?)
While I find it hard to take sides in the strike, it does seem that some politicians have used all available opportunities to belittle the strikers. To call the teachers naïve or suggest their activities evoke the red flag of Communism would seem to say more about the politicians’ understanding of democracy than about the teachers themselves.
As an outsider, to me it seems rather that the strike has fueled a healthy dialogue about education. And the “strike” – three days – can hardly be considered much of a strike by anyone who’s ever seen the real thing. Perhaps the politicians should rather express thanks that the teachers let us off so easily?
From what I’ve gleaned from the papers is that how much a teacher earns – whether above or below the average – depends largely on how you slice and dice the numbers. If I were a teacher, though, I think I’d have a problem with earning anything close to average.
One thing society is surely guilty of is constantly feeding teachers with the talk that they are some of society’s most valuable members, those in whose trust we place the delicate minds of our precious children. But then the 600-and-some-odd euros we pay them each month seems to send a different message: We value you less than a construction worker.
What if the ugly truth is that we as a society do not value teachers at all? That we see them as little more than babysitters with university degrees?
An American friend of mine – a professor of philosophy at an east coast university – has an interesting point of view. “Schools are just a place to get kids out of their parents’ hair during the day,” he argues. Beyond teaching mathematics and serving as a forum to socialize kids, my friend doesn’t think schools have much to offer. “What’s much more important is what happens in the home,” he says. “Are there books around? Is there art? What kind of things do the parents talk about with their kids?”
My friend may be right when the world is seen through the middle- and upper-class prism. But I think he’s wrong concerning the bottom layer of society. It may be my years working in America creeping in here, but I don’t think much education takes place in the homes of those trapped within the cycle of poverty. Just as a school lunch may be the only healthy meal a kid gets all day, a state school may be his only opportunity for an education of any sort.
But since many politicians are career politicians, and since these lawmakers tend to come from the middle and upper classes themselves, my professor friend’s point of view may be more representative than we know. Ilmar Raag probably got it right when he wrote in the pages of Postimees about empathy and government. Most of us in the middle and upper classes – career politicians included – don’t have the faintest clue what it’s like inside the huddled masses. We don’t even want to know.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on life in Lasnamäe, but from talking to the kids in schools and elsewhere, the vibe I get is that kids are getting mostly negative signals from their parents: The deck is stacked against you in Estonia. Even if you speak Estonian without an accent, you won’t get the job because of your Russian family name. Just bide your time until you can emigrate west. And then take us with you.
But the positive message for the children – that not even an angry, disenfranchised parent can take away – is this: EU citizens are welcome everywhere. Get a good education and the world is yours to conquer.
I don’t try to preach to kids, but I do try to point out that university educations in Estonia, even given the low salaries, are about as inexpensive as you’ll find. I also try to suggest that wanting to leave the place you were born is, at least in part, attributable to reasons other than ethnic. When I was their age, all I wanted was to get the hell out of Scarborough, Ontario.
I don’t have the answers to The Russian Problem in Estonia. I won’t even pretend to know the questions. Perhaps over time it will sort itself out. Dissatisfied youngsters will leave the country, and those who want to stay will learn the language despite the difficulties. (If it’s possible for Russians to acquire fluent Finnish to sell wigs and cheap Chinese crap to tourists, then I imagine most anything is possible.)
When it comes to my own kid, I have to confess I would not want him getting hit with the negative vibes present in some of the schools I’ve visited. Just how much art would we have to discuss at the dinner table to counteract the effect?
Nor would I want him having to endure the daily grind of school in some of the Tallinn’s dilapidated structures. One school I visited (in Mustamäe) was fit for little more than use as a shoothouse for urban warfare training. But that was a year ago, and so maybe they’ve torn it down by now. Or maybe it just fell down.
But I might also not be so eager for my son to study at one of Estonia’s so-called “elite” schools, where I am told a dessert cart is wheeled between the desks and each lucky child removes an iPad for the day’s lesson.
I have been told by students in these schools that they feel pressure via regular reminders that “You are the future leaders of the Republic.” And the stories my friends tell of gaining a place in the school for their children – how they've taken the school director to lunch or dinner, or how they registered their kid at a friend's address in the school's district – these turn my stomach as well.
The good news is that I have also visited Estonian schools much like my own in Scarborough – not elite, though not full of the bitterness of the disenfranchised. In these schools half the class is attentive and the other half stares out the window like zombies. And I feel right at home.
I am not uncomfortable knowing that my son will simply get into whichever school he gets into. While I refuse to wine and dine a school director, I do believe in doing my part to better the overall system. Taking part in it when asked, and supporting the teachers as they do their jobs.
Long term, I think it might behoove us to put some thought into what kind of hypocrites we are. If teachers truly are as important to society as doctors, attorneys, and members of Parliament, should the paychecks not reflect that?
And shorter-term, I think the very least that we as a society can do is to allow the striking teachers to keep their dignity. What we might discover is that in allowing teachers to keep their dignity, we’re able to maintain our own, as well.
Read the collected Vello.