Tuesday, December 30, 2008


On a flight to New York, my wife Liina and I killed time reading the Skymall catalog. The Skymall is most wonderfully American: Even in a time of crisis, it sells what absolutely no one needs at prices almost everyone can afford. Such as:

Gravity Defyer Shoes which “propel you forward” ($129.95).
The Indoor Dog Restroom ($64.95).
The Marshmallow Shooter ($24.95, but $49.95 gets you one which shoots twice as far—40 feet).
The Digital Camera Swim Mask ($99.95).
The Ultrasonic Eyeglasses Cleaner ($69.95).
The Germ-eliminating Knife Block ($89.95).
The Instant Doorway Puppet Theatre ($69.95).
The Animatronic Singing & Talking Elvis ($199.95).

Americans are so used to products like these that they don’t find them unusual. It’s said the average North American is bombarded by over five thousand advertising brand messages each day, so you might think we’d grow immune to Skymallesque stupidity.

Not my family.

A few years ago my mother gave me a Big Mouth Billy Bass, which is a battery-powered, rubber trophy fish mounted on a wooden plaque. It has a motion sensor, and when someone walks by, the fish thrashes about and sings a Bobby McFerrin tune ($19.99). The first time you see it you find it cute and clever. After the third time, you want to smash it to pieces with a baseball bat.

Liina likes to laugh at North America’s out-of-control consumer culture, and she used to frequently remark about how gullible we are. She argued that Estonians were immune to such appeals. But later she had to eat her words.

When we lived in the United States, the first thing she fell for was the “12 CDs for a penny” mail-order offer: Get 12 for one cent in exchange for buying ten more over the next two years at “regular club prices.” Liina pored over the catalog, selected the work of twelve artists, and taped her penny inside the envelope. Six weeks later the CDs arrived—along with a bill for 25 dollars for “shipping and handling.” When she canceled her membership she was obligated to return the CDs, and the return postage amounted to around three dollars. That’s a hell of a lot of handling.

Lately, I’ve noticed that America’s aggressive sales culture has gained ground in Estonia. The movement began quietly on the language front: before I knew it, Estonia had the verb shoppama. Soon after came Amway and a salesforce trained in the invasion of private homes.

A company called Lux has been making the rounds selling vacuum cleaners, and their fast-talking sales rep left Liina no room to refuse what would turn out to be a one-and-a-half-hour long in-home sales pitch. But Liina, hardened in the USA, had a secret agenda to get our filthy couch cleaned for free.

I found a convenient excuse to be absent during the demonstration so that my credit card and bank information would be safe. Given how skeptical Estonians claim to be, I feared Estonian door-to-door salesmen would possess powers far beyond their western counterparts. I imagined the Lux rep as a middle-aged, thick-boned woman, a Guantanamo-trained, jackboot-wearing, Olivier-as-evil-dentist type who smiled but was at all times ready to deliver an electrical charge to your gonads in the name of clean floors. (She was probably an attractive twenty-something, but you can’t be too careful.)

“Well, did you buy it?” I asked Liina when I returned home that evening.

“I don’t have any money,” she said. “But someday I’m going to buy it.” After conning the sales rep into cleaning our sofa and two rugs, Liina was wowed by the product and its magical vibrasuck technology.

I tried to argue that it was cheaper to rent such a vacuum, or even hire a professional cleaner, than it was to pay 25,000 kroons, but Liina wasn’t having any of it. She had concluded it was a superior product which could clean faster better. And maybe it could. I had to admit she does most of our vacuuming.

Friends tell me the Lux company is doing quite well in Estonia, especially selling to pensioners who don’t have experience chasing away hard-driving salesmen. I’m told some buy two vacuums (one as a gift for the kids) and pay for them with leasing contracts. I don’t know what business Estonian pensioners have buying a vacuum that expensive, but who am I to tell them what to do? I’ve still got Big Mouth Billy Bass on my wall.

In recent years, the same company who makes Billy Bass has developed a deer—named Buck, of course—a life-sized wiggling deer head which sings “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Low Rider,” and then farts loudly at the end of its performance ($150). Every time I visit my mother, I pray that she hasn’t seen it in stores.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Soul Food

Texas’ best barbecue, according to Texas Monthly magazine, is located in the town of Lexington and open only Saturdays from eight a.m. until the meat runs out (generally around noon). Weekdays, the restaurant’s owner works in a coal mine, and the chef, known as Miss Tootsie, is a 73-year-old former middle school janitor.

Of course, the restaurant has more than a story—it’s got great food. But the story is a large part of its appeal. Which is what I often find myself missing in Estonian restaurants: a story.

A friend of mine likens the Estonian dining experience to eating from vending machines in a hospital cafeteria. Assembly-line dining serving not what’s market fresh but what the wholesaler delivered. Who’ll even care, seems too often the logic of the chef, when everyone is only here to impress each other?

Luckily, that’s changing. Family-run or passionately-run restaurants are slowly sprouting all over Estonia. There’s the Creperie in Kadriorg, Anni Aro’s café in Haapsalu, and and the Chocolaterie in the Old Town. And of course there’s everybody’s old standby, Contravento. I can’t name all Estonia’s soul food joints here—readers will do that in the comments section—but suffice it to say there’s a trend toward restaurants whose interiors do not resemble Nevada brothels and where food itself is the actual draw.

The newest one on that list is the Šoti Klubi (Scottish Club) at the end of Uus Street in the Old Town. What has always been a pretty good bar and average restaurant has become an excellent restaurant with a pretty good bar. Chef Agu Alert supervised the removal of the monster bar which dominated the place and has turned it into a restaurant which is downright, well, European. From your first step in the door, you know it’s a family affair—in this case a family of one. Agu is the restaurant’s proprietor, chef, waiter, barman, and sometimes dishwasher. He’s a one-man show trying to make a go of a place in a market where the pundits say thirty percent of all restaurants will go belly up before spring.

And I’m rooting for him. I want his roe appetizer (given up by the fish under his personal supervision), slow-cooked lamb (the only oven like it in the country), and crème brûlée (not intolerably sweet like most make it) to be around come springtime, when my business picks up a bit and I'm able to dine out more.

I asked Agu how much he was sleeping in order to do every job in the place, and he answered three hours. “You need to get some of those little Knorr’s packages…” my wife Liina suggested. He’d slept so little he found her joke only half funny but resisted bludgeoning her with a rolling pin long enough to seriously respond that nobody would come to eat astronaut or backpacker food.

It it’s true that thirty percent of restaurants will go bankrupt before springtime, then I consider it my job to see that it’s the right thirty percent. Like many others, my business has suffered in this crisis and I live on a lot less than I did a year ago. So I’m even choosier about where I spend my hard-earned shekels. I’ve shunned experimentation and pretense and have gone straight for the soul food—places which Miss Tootsie of Texas might approve of. I want to put good things in my stomach and put my money behind people who give a damn and love the work they do. And if we all do the same, we can count on a beautiful spring.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Code Breakers

“Sometimes I feel like I’m writing the same column over and over again,” I said to my wife, Liina. “Like I made the movie 101 Dalmatians, got good reviews, and so decided to remake the film using Labrador Retrievers.”

Liina just stared at me.

“You know, when I write about Estonian consumers allowing themselves to be screwed. Do you think that people notice the similarities or get tired of reading my pieces?”

“Well,” she said. “For one thing, you don’t have many competitors for your column. And secondly, the columns come out two weeks apart.”

That was not the answer I was after.

Estonians often brag about how straightforward and honest they are, how they’ll speak the truth even if it hurts. And how this is somehow a positive attribute.

When I was a kid, my mother had a cardinal rule for dealing with others: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. I still think that most of the time this isn’t a bad rule. Ask yourself: In most instances, is there anything to be gained by saying exactly what you’re thinking? Fools almost always know—or at least strongly suspect—they’re fools. You telling them so isn’t going to make them less foolish; it’s only going to put you on their shitlist.

Liina believes that if you tell someone directly he’s a shithead that he’ll benefit and might even be grateful. “Hey, yes, you’re right. I am a shithead. Thanks for pointing that out. I wouldn’t have known it had you not said it. And since you’ve brought it to my attention, I’ll now rethink my shitheadedness and take constructive steps to be a better human being.”

Would other cultures be better off if they adopted the Estonian model and spoke the raw truth? I’m not convinced.

If you happen to disagree with someone, it’s more fruitful to get him talking, make him think you’re listening, make him think you care. Then, after you’ve softened the beachheads with some nodding, a few “ah hahs”, and a little pretend listening, you very gently suggest there might perhaps be another way of seeing the issue.

Liina claims it’s a simply difference in languages. A direct answer to a direct question is not rude in Estonian, she says, but it can be in English. She calls English a coded language. For example, if an American is asked how he liked the food and he answers “It was interesting,” this probably means he disliked it. (It at least suggests the host should not probe further.) If the same question is posed to an Estonian and he answers in his language that “Toit oli huvitav,” then you know the food challenged his palate. Liina admits an Estonian wouldn’t describe food with the word “interesting,” but it’s the best she could come up with on short notice.

“Raw honesty gives you a new point of view,” she says. “How could you not be happy about it? Isn’t that the whole point?” Well, Liina, thanks. That’s very, uh, interesting.

But what’s wrong with my coded language?

Estonians tend to attach gravity to the question, “Kuidas läheb?” I respect that, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a major achievement. For centuries, people in other cultures have asked “How’s it going?” (Comment ça va? Qué tal? Wie gehts? Kak dyela?) as a form of “hello,” and their civilizations haven’t yet collapsed. When I answer “fine”, I communicate that I’m grateful you asked but that I also understand you don’t want to hear the answer. Because Estonians eschew that perfunctory exchange doesn’t make them special. It makes them contrarian.

“Stop shitting on the Estonian soul,” Liina shouted when I read her that last paragraph. (The reader may decide himself whether Liina benefitted from my directness.)

But if the “how’s it going?” question is the mark of a coded language, then are not most languages coded? What then is Estonian’s code? Is it really not coded? And if yes, is the fact it’s not coded the very code itself? Maybe some sort of code might lend to more self-expression in Estonian society and therefore healthier living?

Liina argues that if I want honey from her lips that I shouldn’t ask her opinion. In one respect she’s right: I get good columns from arguing with her.

But maybe there’s a happy medium between the two extremes, Estonian and western. Maybe Liina does happen to have a point about my coded language. When an American friend tells me something is “just terrific,” I’m of course skeptical. Though when an Estonian friend tells me something is “pask,” I am also filled with doubt—it’s surely not that bad.

An old friend of mine used to wear a t-shirt that read: If you don’t have something nice to say, then come over here and sit by me. A wonderful sentiment, I think, beckoning those with nothing nice to say to vote with their feet, yet still protecting the optimists from a verbal haranguing. I ought to look into printing up several million of those for distribution in Estonia and the USA.

Liina can have the very first one.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taxi Trauma

When I first came to Estonia in 1991, I tried to be a chameleon. I practiced drinking vodka before noon, kept neatly torn strips of Postimees in my bathroom, and forced myself to eat carp, even though it’s a bottom-dweller that tastes like mud. As the nation developed, these habits quickly disappeared. Yet others remained. Estonians still remove their shoes before entering a home, song festivals still make me cry, and stopping for a red traffic light is still optional. With all the changes, I’ve tried to stay current and behave as a modern Estonian, with the exception of one item: I still don’t like riding in the front seat of a taxi.

In New York, where I lived in the late eighties, nobody would think to sit in the front of a cab. The driver wouldn’t unlock the front door unless you were a sultry Vogue model who looked particularly available. With few exceptions, passengers happily sat in the back behind bulletproof glass. Drivers were rarely models of good hygiene. If from the east, they often reeked of a spice bazaar. If they were white, they generally had the mien of a psycho killer and more body hair than a yeti. There were plenty of good reasons to ride in back.

But when I arrived in Estonia, I noticed passengers routinely leaping into the front seat of cabs without the slightest fear. In the early days, the cabs were mostly beige Zhigulis and the occasional black Volga. To enter the front seat of the cab was to enter the driver’s private world. The factory stick-shift knob would be removed and replaced with something reflecting the driver’s personality, like an animal skull or an enemy’s finger set inside a glass ball. On the dashboard were stickers from foreign lands, or small banners with coats of arms from Estonian valds. In rare cases, the driver had a bobble-headed toy dashboard dog from the DDR.

I tried to be Estonian and ride up front, but I couldn’t help feel I was violating the cabby’s personal domain. It also seemed to compromise cabby-customer relations. When I rode in the back, I was being served. When I sat up front, I felt I might be asked to change a tire.

My place was in the back. Cabbies pushed the Zhiguli’s spare carburetor aside to make room for me. If they thought there was something wrong with me, they were polite enough not to show it. Their silence caused no end to my inner conflict. If I sit in back, I wondered, will he think that I think I’m better than he is? If I sit in front, will he respect me more and cheat me less? If a Zhiguli collides with a freight train, in which seat am I more likely to survive?

I asked all my friends about this front-seat behavior. Was it a Soviet man-of-the-people thing that inspired Estonians to ride up front? Since we are both of equal value in a proper socialist society, would Marx want driver and passenger to sit side by side? This seemed plausible, since the Soviets took great pains to promote the common man. Kids wanted to grow up to be tractor drivers. Songs were written about tram drivers.

I spent years theorizing. Finally, my wife Liina got tired of it and explained that in a Soviet-made car, the front seat was the warmest place, so naturally the customer would sit there.

“Really?” I asked. I thought her reasoning sounded specious.

“Absolutely,” she replied. “It’s a well known fact.”

“But Zhigulis are such tiny cars. The temperature can’t differ that much from front to back.”

“I have no idea,” she confessed. “But you seem desperate for an explanation, so I gave you one.”

I tried out my theory on her about it being something Soviet, about the passenger being the equal of the driver.

“What bullshit!” she choked. “I’ve never heard such nonsense.” She said that Soviet equality propaganda might have been believable in Bear’s Ass, Russia, but Estonians weren’t having any of it.

For a while I put my theorizing to rest. I investigated other matters, like why Estonians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. Like why every Russian I ever passed on the street asked me for matches. You know, weighty matters.

But I’ve always returned to the cabbies. Just last week I stepped into a taxi in Helsinki. The back seat, of course. The driver was one of those avuncular Scandinavian types in a lint-free sweater.

“Hey, does anybody ever ride up front?” I asked.

He thought for a while, then: “My wife does.”

“But what about passengers?”

“Oh, I get the occasional Estonian.”

“Ah hah!” I had struck gold. “So why do you suppose that is?”

It was an eternity before he answered: “I’ve never really thought about that.”

“Well, I have—“ and I launched into my Marxist theory.

He kept two hands on the wheel and looked straight ahead. But I could tell he was interested.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why I Eat Hamburgers

A survey of Tallinn's city center and Old Town has revealed that the only business anywhere in the city to clean the snow from its walk is--you guessed it--McDonald's. All others, as of 11 a.m., had chosen to allow potential consumers to fall on their backs right outside the door. A few minor points for a half-hearted effort go to the Tallinn City Government which cleaned directly in front of their doors but absolutely nowhere else. I guess those are the places where Edgar's car would pull up.

An American Embassy official, speaking on the condition of anonymity*, told me that they've had to hire several firms to clean their walks each time it snows. He said it takes two companies to get the snow removed properly, and a third to knock away the ice. "Somehow in their culture there is no concept of ice removal. So we keep paying to have the job done over and over until they get it right." Someone could get a grant to study that.

Update, 25 Nov.: Glass House Snowball Fight
The City of Tallinn's Municipal Police announced yesterday morning that after lunch police would begin fining property owners for not having cleaned their walks. City Council member and Reform Party chair Remo Holsmeri suggested the cops could "...instead of threatening people pick up a shovel and help out."

(*Not really, but I've always wanted to write that.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Triple Cage Match

Triple Cage Match:

Ladies of Pirita vs. Martti Preem

This week I witnessed a public hearing where a group of ladies from Tallinn’s Pirita neighborhood made their case before city planning officials about why certain zoning language was problematic and should be changed during the general planning process. “But you aren’t allowed to contest that until the detailed planning stage,” argued the city officials.

But the ladies weren’t having any of it. They brought forth examples of past instances where “developers” (the ladies would want that in quotes) were given an inch with vague language and then proceeded to steal a mile. The city officials denied the abuse, and then the ladies calmly recited a list of addresses.

The land under question is a hectare or so of seaside land which is owned, through subsidiary- or sister companies, by the friendly folks from Tallink. There’s no question the land will be developed, but the ladies of Pirita simply want it to be restaurants and kindergartens, rather than a modern version of Lasnamäe, Tallinn’s Soviet housing eyesore. The land’s official designation, “mixed use,” in historical practice, has meant developers build anything they want, despite the fact that the greater land may be zoned as sotsiaalmaa, or land intended to serve the community as a whole.

This feud has been going on years in Pirita, and I’ve been following it only the last couple. And through it all what I’m most impressed by are the ladies of Pirita. And I do mean ladies. These are a group of middle-aged Estonian women, some housewives, some professionals, who have angered quite a few Estonian businessmen and city officials by simply having the courage to stand up and fight for what they believe. The men’s attitude, in most polite, unimaginative terms, is that of “Won’t you silly women just get out of our way.” On several occasions I’ve seen developers and city officials be genuinely rude to the ladies, but the ladies never falter. They maintain their composure throughout it all.

At the last meeting, Ürmas Lind, from the developer’s camp, fidgeted in his chair, made paper airplanes, washboarded his fingernails together, made wisecracks when others were speaking—everything he could think of to disrupt the meeting without being asked to leave. Martti Preem, a city official, became so upset that he shouted red-faced at the ladies, saliva spewing from his mouth. At one point he let a “kuradi” or two slip, which isn’t that bad if you’re sitting around in the pub watching football, but entirely inappropriate for a public hearing.

While I support the ladies in their cause, as I sat in the room my mind was not drawn to concoct ways I might help them. Rather, I began to imagine the world they inhabit. Much has been written about Estonian men and many theories floated about the superiority of their women. (For example: In ancient times, Estonian men went to sea and women ran the home. In Soviet times, Estonian men went to drink and women ran the home.) There may not be agreement on why Estonian women are better than their men, but there’s no disputing that they are.

As I sat and watched the ladies of Pirita keep their composure in the face of such abuse, I couldn’t help but admire them. I had to wonder if anyone outside their own ranks was aware of their plight, their burden. But then I remembered Robert Graves:

"Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls / Married impossible men? / Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out, / And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten. / … / Impossible men: idle, illiterate, / Self-pitying, dirty, sly, / For whose appearance even in City parks / Excuses must be made to casual passers-by…"

(And truly worth it: Listen to Graves read the entire poem here.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


: A stereotypical rullnokk is a poorly educated young man (generally between 16 and 25) with limited interests, who chooses "sport dress" and highly values automobiles... Nokk literally means "beak." (Estonian Wikipedia)

The rullnokk, the national bird of Estonia, was once thought to inhabit only rural areas. Recently, however, during the period surrounding the American presidential election, large numbers of the creature were spotted in Estonia’s metropolitan areas.

The bird is often tall, as birds go, gangly as a stork with a shaven, ostrich-like head, and scientists believe it to possess a brain approximately the size of a bar of hotel soap. Despite the bird’s brain size relative to a human being’s, the species has demonstrated the ability, both in and outside the laboratory, to send and receive SMS text messages. Here are two I personally received immediately following Mr. Obama’s presidential victory:

Pass the fried chicken! And: 50 Cent gonna play the inauguration party!

Generally speaking, with any species, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of arrested intellectual development, and, in this case, scientists are particularly worried about its use by the rullnokk, given the birds’ tendency toward violent outbursts when present in flocks.

Eesti Ekspress, a leading Estonian ornithological chronicle, published a photograph of two male rullnokkad in its post-election pealtnägija feature. The first bird, who bore a striking resemblance to Margus Tsahkna, sang: “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…” The second rullnokk, closely resembling Mart Laar, replied: “Oleks aeg juba see rassism lõpetada, et neeger justkui ei suudaks ise enda eest seista. Küll ta suudab, kui vaadata kuulsaid neegersportlasi ja neegritest muusikuid…”* Indeed, rullnokks may surface in places one would never expect.

The rullnokk, generally a scavenger species which feeds on carcasses discarded by those higher in the food chain, can exhibit predatory behavior when present in large numbers. Clinical trials have thus far proven ineffective in altering the bird’s behavior, and its quick death via drowning or neck-wringing is the most accepted method of ensuring a stable, balanced environment.

How can Estonia eradicate its rullnokks, which currently pose a danger to far more than the forgotten villages and fallow fields of Estonia’s agrarian past? Though the subject has never received serious attention in republics of the former Soviet Union, both western politicians and scientists have worked to fund and develop techniques to deal with the bird.

Both private- and EU support is currently available for rullnokk trapping and extermination. The most effective program, as one might expect, is also one of the most controversial. A Soros Foundation-sponsored program grants funding for the visit of 200 professional American football players to Central and Eastern European cities. The program covers the players’ hotel rooms and provides them beer money, but otherwise the Americans make themselves at home on the streets and in the bars of their host cities, engaging and eradicating the rullnokk in a quick, efficient fashion with a single blow to the trachea or ventriculus.

United Nations-sponsored seminars are also available and have achieved mixed results. Two fine examples are the seminars, “The Rullnokk Walks Upright” (limited success in Latvia) and “Teaching Rullnokks to Breathe Through the Nose” (employed on a trial basis in Lithuania).
Other foundations have funded the production of documentary films, though these often rely on a rullnokk’s ability to comprehend language of richer complexity than found in SMS text messages, and it is therefore impossible to guarantee desired results.

The Soros-funded program utilizing American NFL players has not only delivered results, but it has generated enthusiasm from the players themselves, many of whom are avid hunters as well as beer drinkers. “I’ve hunted birds all over the world, and I’ve drunk beer all over the world, but this is the first time I’ve been praised by society for doing both,” remarked a player in a recent interview with CNN. “For all of us,” noted the player, “the approach is truly a win-win situation.”

*Rough translation of Laar's speech bubble: It's about time this racism ended. Like a negro can't stand on his own two feet--he sure as hell can; just look at all those famous negro athletes and musicians...

Friday, November 7, 2008

A View from the Cheap Seats: Open Estonia XIII

Bear Baiting
or “Russians Have Feelings, Too”

You gotta love Kadri Liik for putting the gristle in the conference’s rubber chicken. At the 13th Open Society Forum, she seemed unable to resist a quick jab at Russia whenever the microphone passed her way. To a question about the Kremlin, she garbled something about being persona non grata but then did make clear she was “usually present in more pleasant company like this.” As the staff from the Russian embassy looked on.

Liik noted that Russia feels entitled to its allies in Europe and believes it has the right to “take them back by force” if necessary. Later, she urged to “stop pretending we have any common values with Russia.” Finally, she suggested Medvedev and Putin were criminals who should be tried for war crimes. I looked over at my Russian acquaintances and wondered if pictures of Kissinger weren’t dancing in their heads. Or perhaps Bush.

Russia was discussed as if it were a lab rat in a maze or an anesthetized patient on an operating table. A better analogy: an unloved child at the dinner table, whose behavior his parents bemoan in the third person. (What happens to those kids? In my country, most end up either suicidal or in jail.)

I almost felt sorry for the embassy staff—some of whom I know—but then I recalled episodes I’d seen broadcast from the Kremlin where Mr. Putin laid into visitors, giving them little or no chance to respond. This is how the game is played, I guess, and I had to, in the name of lively discussion, shout a quiet hurrah for Kadri Liik bringing gasoline for the conference fire.

Court Intrigue

Kadri’s attempts at fun were soon enough extinguished by no other panelist eager to play along, and the journalist beside me began killing time by explaining who was (or had been) sleeping with whom in Estonian government. There were plenty of parliamentarians and statesmen around for cannon fodder. Mostly, I just listened, punctuating the journalist’s narrative with the occasional “Really!” to which he responded “Yes,” to which I responded “No!” to which he responded “Yes.”

We foreigners miss so much. Estonia is as incestuous a soap opera as The Bold and the Beautiful. Think again if you were under the impression there’s been no fun in government since Kennedy and Clinton.

Of course, he could have been lying.

I spent my time wondering about my fellow Canadian, Dr. Andres Kasekamp. Certainly a capable moderator and probably good man to have a beer with, but where does he get the brand of English he speaks? Is it a consciously-acquired Euro souvenir to show off when visiting friends back home in Toronto? Or genuinely acquired during his PhD days in London and further churned through a tour of duty in Berlin? And Mr. Ilves? He’s American educated and pronounces “negotiation” like a Brit. Americans say nee-go-she-ay-shun (even though they don’t negotiate). Does Ilves also say shhedule? Jolly good and Bob’s your uncle? To settle the matter, I wanted to take the microphone and ask to borrow a rubber. Whether he tossed me a condom or an eraser would settle the matter once and for all.

Twelve Monkeys

David Foster Wallace’s Twelve Monkeys were there, too. The dry-cleaned cynics of the traveling press. Having undoubtedly seen the same show at a previous stop, they sat with smug grins, checked email, examined clothing for lint, and crossed and uncrossed their legs seeking that position of comfort one can never quite find in a folding chair.

Though generally quite nice people when you talk to them, if allowed to remain silent they project the air of elitist pricks from another planet, with whom you’d expect to have this sort of discussion:

Question: “What do you do?”

Answer: “I’m an intellectual.”

But most really aren’t that sort. These Twelve Monkeys, in fact, were not carrying Mr. Wallace’s identical steno notebooks, though a few wore identical gold-buttoned navy blue cast-off-the-bow-line jackets, the all-purpose, goes-with-anything sport coat. Mostly, the foreign press served as a backdrop before which to closely examine the Estonian press, who appeared to have slept in their clothing and not bathed for several days. That’s the men of course. They don’t own suits and they’ve declared a fatwa on irons. The female reporters favored tight blouses and low-slung jeans which occasionally offered a glimpse of their naughty knickers. The ladies have potential, but if they’re after sassy, I’d direct them to Tina Brown or Arianna Huffington.

Used to, to note that professional dress has not visited the Estonian press would be cheap. But it’s no longer 1992, and the observation on my part is simply unprofessional.

The EU & Russia

That was the topic, and near the end of the panel discussion, things finally got interesting enough for Mr. Ilves to take his hands away from his face and uncross his legs.

George Soros had suggested that the solution for a relationship between Ukraine and Russia was not to be found in NATO membership and Mr. Ilves wanted to take issue. But just when it looked like we were set for a steel cage match, we were out of time. And we’re out of time now. Tune in next year to see George Soros perform a pile driver on Toomas Hendrik Ilves while containing the Ukraine with a left-handed sleeper hold.

Unless the organizers read this and disinvite me.

Montague H. Crakenthorp in Ohio and Alistair Digby Vane Trumpington in London also contributed to this report.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Crisis?

Every day I read about Estonia’s economic crisis. The newspaper says loans are hard to get and thirty percent of restaurants may close by spring. And there’s a story circulating about Estonians smashing their luxury cars into trees, collecting the insurance, and buying more modest vehicles. I’ve read about falling apartment prices and the greater need for owners to get rental income from empty flats. But I’ve only read about the crisis. I’m still waiting for the anecdotal evidence to catch up with the newspaper.

A friend of mine, a well-known French writer named Guillaume, recently moved to Tallinn. He wanted a quiet place to spend a year finishing his next book, and Tallinn fit the bill: a fairytale city mostly undiscovered by the rest of the world. He searched the web, found a beautiful place in the Old Town, and called up the listed agent.

“You want to see it today?” the agent asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m ready to rent.”

“What about next week?” the agent offered. “Why don’t you call me back then.”

A bit puzzled, Guillaume conveyed the information to my wife. Liina took the phone from him. “I don’t understand,” she said in Estonian. “This guy’s ready to rent today. The apartment is available. You’re even advertising it. This is the easiest money you’ll make this year, and you want to wait until next week?

There was a pause on the agent’s end of the line. Then: “Are you making fun of me?”

Liina turned to us. “He wants to know if we’re making fun of him.” We burst into laughter so loud the agent couldn’t have helped but hear. We honestly weren’t making fun of him. At least not before he made The Most Asinine Remark of 2008.

“We’re not making fun of you,” Liina told him, trying to choke back laughter. “But this guy is ready to move in immediately. He’s motivated.” Actually, it was Liina who was motivated. Guillaume had been sleeping on our couch for several days. He’s a good friend, but even friends wear out their welcome when they’re making camp in the middle of your living room. The agent’s end of the line remained silent. Perhaps he was thinking about how he might kill us and stash the bodies under the apartment floorboards. Or maybe, we hoped, he was entertaining rational thoughts and might deign to do his job and show an apartment. Liina pushed him a little more. “How many people do you have ready to pay the prices you’re asking for Old Town flats?”

“Let me think about it,” came the reply.

Liina hung up the phone. The agent could think as much as he wanted, but Liina had already thought about it. “You’re not going to get that apartment, Guillaume. Go back to the computer and find another.”

Guillaume didn’t understand. “It’s an Estonian thing,” she finally told him. “One of our strange customs of commerce.”

The next agent we reached was taking a week’s holiday and wasn’t willing to show apartments until she returned. Liina asked if someone else from her firm might show the apartment. The agent said she didn’t know.

“Look,” Liina said. “Isn’t better to get part of a commission than no commission at all?” The agent said she’d have to call us back. Of course, she never did.

Guillaume began to worry. He talked about moving to Riga. Or Minsk if he had to. Liina calmed him down. She explained that plenty of foreigners had found places to live in Tallinn. “Maybe Estonians hate me because I’m French?” Guillaume said.

“No, no,” she corrected. “Estonians hate you because you’re the customer.”

Luckily, our third call turned up a broker who was willing to show apartments that very next day. Guillaume took the second place he saw and moved in the same afternoon.

Guillaume is quite happy in the new place, one hundred square meters on Pikk Street. But he’s still shaking his head over the quality of service he’s found in Estonia. When he offered to pay to have a Xerox copy made in a hotel they chased him away because he wasn’t a guest. “It’s easier to get things done in Vietnam,” he’s said several times. He is very suspect of material he sees describing E-stonia and its forward-thinking people.

“You’re a writer,” Liina told him. “Don’t you ever make things up?”

Guillaume is starting to get the picture. He now says that Estonia’s real estate ads are better fiction than anything produced in 19th-century Russia. And he’s looking skeptically at much of the other glowing things written about Estonia. “Summer,” he recently exclaimed, “is another great lie of Estonia. They should be forced to call it something else.”

Guillaume has been feeling down lately, and Liina and I are hoping things will get better for him. But if not, he can spend time with us. And if all else fails, there will always be Minsk.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Missed Opportunity

The Russian child recently abandoned in Estonia is by far the greatest missed opportunity for Estonian propaganda writers.

But I’m willing to help.

The abandoned Russian girl’s name is Svetlana. Little Svetlana. Poor, little Svetlana, symbolic of all the greater problems Russia is suffering. As their stock market collapses and the formerly nascent middle class withers, their lower class grows, and young mothers line up at the Ivangorod-Narva border with babies in their arms begging for an Estonian family to take them, feed them, give them a life they can’t have in Russia, where the average male will not live longer than 59 years and the average female will do little more than watch him drink himself to death.

Some of the Russian mothers, the truly desperate cases, many of whose dacha gardens were ruined by the wet summer weather, prostitute themselves to truck drivers, who then strap the infants to greasy truck axles and carry them as far as Estonia’s first Statoil, where they remove the child under the cover of night and prop her against diesel pumps to await the arrival of a cheerful morning worker. The smiling, uniformed employee arrives, changes the infant’s diapers and feeds the baby, all with goods from the store’s own inventory which she pays for out of her own abundant salary. On a recent Tuesday, Statoil turned over two dozen infants to Estonian social services. (No babies have yet been left in front of Lukoil.)

Ethnic Estonians, unselfish and kind-hearted, form a line at social services (twice as long as the Ivangorod line of mothers, by the way) in hopes of adopting one of the children. “I’ll raise her bilingually,” pledges 28-year-old Liina (not my wife, by the way), who also promises to teach the child a fair and balanced view of history, including the Russian textbook version of The Great Patriotic War.

Secretly, the Estonian government contacts Russia, but the Kremlin remains silent. While there is money to buy Putin’s dog a satellite-tracking collar, there is not enough to feed little Svetlana and the thousands like her. Better for Russia, better for the children, that they make their way to Estonia.

“We will do what is right,” says President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “regardless of the cost.” Ilves appeals for calm on the rainy Russian side of the border. A bullhorn in hand, he stands atop a Red Cross truck on the Narva River bridge and tells Russian mothers that Estonia will feed their children. Canned goods are dispensed to Russian soldiers who promise it will be delivered to the queue of mothers. “You may keep one of those for yourself,” President Ilves tells a hollow-eyed soldier. But the recruit does not speak German, and so Ilves can only pray the lima beans find the right hands. “Sigareta?” the soldier begs Mr. Ilves. But the president doesn't even carry speechki.

President Ilves speaks to his European colleagues and tells them how these fortunate infants will successfully integrate into a New Europe yet retain their own culture and identity. They will love French wine and Italian cars, use Finnish tech, (and perhaps carve Kalevipoeg figurines from juniper branches), but they’ll be the best balalaika players in their schools. They will grow up to be software engineers and professors of philosophy and have little need to emigrate to Brooklyn and Brighton Beach. They’ll make their home in Estonia. And they’ll be grateful for it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


“Hey, I’m out mushrooming!” an American friend phoned to tell me. There was joy in his voice. He was a city boy who rarely experienced nature.


“No. With some Estonians.”

“So they tell you which ones to pick?”

“No. I just pick the ones that look nice.”

“How do you know which ones are poison?”

“Oh, I don’t eat them.”

“So you let the Estonians eat the poisonous ones?”

“Oh, come on,” he sighed. “I think the people who eat them will know the difference!”

And so it goes with most foreigners picking mushrooms in Estonia. We wander through the forest wondering whether that liivaseen might be a männiriisikas. In the end, not wanting to suffer the shame of returning empty handed, we give up and put both in our sack. You could say we adopt the wartime cry of the infantryman: Shoot ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out.

I’ve mushroomed for over ten years now with Estonians from Valga to Tallinn, and I’m still as confused as the day I started. The only mushroom I can identify for sure is the kukeseen, the chanterelle. I like it not only because it’s tasty and easy to identify, but because when I bring a basketful to an Estonian family I don’t have to hear “Oh, thanks, but these are ussitanud.” As I’ve been led to believe, the chanterelle is the only mushroom worms won’t eat.

I’ve guest-mushroomed with dozens of Estonian families, and no two experiences have been alike.

“We only pick puravikud,” a Võru grandmother told me. “We leave the others to rot.”

“But what about this one?” I asked, proudly displaying one I thought looked edible.

Põdramokk,” she replied. “Slightly poisonous. Leave it for the Russians.”

On another trip with a Hiiumaa family, the father explained we’d be picking only kitse- and kännumamplid. I had a tough time finding them and would occasionally run to him with one I’d picked with a previous family. He’d shrug his shoulders as if to say, Well, if you insist.

After my third or fourth mushrooming trip, I concluded that every Estonian is a mushroom snob of a different kind. And there’s no predicting which kind. If there is any pattern to the snobbery, it’s that Estonians will often leave the tatikad. I’m still not sure which ones they are, except that they’re slimy, and I generally try to avoid slimy things.

My basic mushrooming education was given me by a woman with the last name of Kuus--Estonian for both "fir" and "six." She was a tough, charismatic woman from Southern Estonia, who her friends called “Pool Seitse” (Six-and-a-Half) because she was just a little bit more than kuus. She loaned me a pair of old rubber boots, put a basket and knife in my hands, and set out to teach me the tricks of the trade. “You’re walking right past them!” was her refrain of the day. Pool Seitse was well into her sixties, wore thick coke-bottle glasses when she read, but she could spot a kevadkorgits at fifty meters without any optical aid. Despite my ignorance, she saw something in my soul and refused to give up on me. She made a hell of an effort to educate me, and I’m sorry to report I let her down. I never became a mushroom meister.

Many of my expatriate friends have asked if I could bring them hallucinogenic mushrooms. I’m not quite sure which ones they are, though a friend once pointed them out to me: bright red with white spots. I believe they’re called kärbseseened. But there are both big ones and small ones which match the description, and the friend who pointed them out was an ornithologist, so I wasn’t convinced of his knowledge of mushrooms. Also, I’d hate to be the one who killed a friend with bad drugs.

Even Estonians can sometimes get it wrong. My wife Liina’s friend Tiina called several weeks ago, asking us if we wanted to go mushrooming. We were busy painting the house that day and had to say no.

The next day Tiina called from the hospital. She’s made a fresh mushroom sauce to go on her pasta, and it turned out she’d picked the wrong sort. “The doctor says I’m lucky my three-year-old son didn’t eat them,” she reported to Liina. I continued painting the house, this time with new vigor, grateful to the sticky white paint which had spared me a miserable fate.

Liina disappeared into the house with the phone, consoling her friend, but surely quite happy that she hadn’t gone mushrooming. Later, I saw Liina walking to the car dressed entirely in white. On her head she wore a giant red beret which she’d covered with small white spots of paper. “Wanna come?” she asked.


“To visit Tiina in the hospital.” Liina roamed around our garden, gathering any kind of mushroom she saw, even plucking them off trees until she had filled a small sandwich bag.

I tried to imagine myself in Tiina’s place in the hospital. I wondered if I’d find it funny if a friend showed up dressed as a giant kärbseseen with a sack full of fungus as a gift. I thought I probably wouldn’t.

I told Liina I’d continue painting the house. And then I thought of Pool Seitse. Pool Seitse would find it funny. She would have howled at the sight of an arrogant and ignorant city girl filling her sack with suspect mushrooms and preparing a gourmet poison pasta sauce in a thousand-kroon pan.

“Hey,” I said to Liina, as she was about to get in the car. “I will come with you. But only if you’ve got another one of those berets.” Liina smiled. She said she could come up with something.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Toilet Tour

This past summer, one of the tour companies in Tallinn allowed me the pleasure of guiding American cruise passengers. The company knew I hadn’t passed any of the guide exams, but they still gave me the job. On my first day of work I realized why.

“Where’s the bathroom?” two Americans cried in unison. The bus had just cleared the cruise pier and we weren’t two minutes into our tour. The women were close to seventy and had undoubtedly raised kids who’d pestered them with the same question. So I gave them the parental answer: “Didn’t you go before you left the boat?” They had. But they needed to go again.

“Is everything here uphill?” another asked when we parked near Pikk Hermann and slogged up Toompea. “I don’t like uphill.” Some were grossly overweight and it was hard to believe they’d read the brochure which makes it abundantly clear they’d have to walk several kilometers over uneven surfaces and climb a number of steps.

On Toompea, a bunch of them disappeared into a bathroom and suddenly my group had shrunk. The tour company doesn’t have a lot of rules, but a couple of them are cardinal: Keep the group happy, and return to the boat with the same number of tourists you started with.

“Why are we standing around?” a man demanded. I told him I wasn’t allowed to leave anyone behind. We would have to wait for them to return from the toilet.

“But that’s not fair to the rest of us!”

I admitted he was right.

“Hey,” a woman squared up to me in front of the group. “You have to tell us what to do. Order us around.”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Sixty-eight,” she replied.

“I’m forty-three,” I said. “I’m not old enough to be your mother.” She dropped her hands from her hips. It was a direct hit. I turned from her and informed the group that I was here to talk about Estonia’s fascinating history, and if they wanted to listen they were welcome. But if they wanted to spend their time touring Tallinn’s toilets, I wasn’t going to wrestle them to prevent it. “If you want to leave, you can easily find your boat. Walk to the sea and look for the biggest object in the water.”

During the lunch break, I talked to a veteran Estonian guide who told me many guides won’t work with Americans because they behave like children. “I know it’s not easy,” he said. “But you really do have to boss them around. It’s what they want.”

After lunch, I took the guide’s advice and things improved. My new take-no-shit attitude worked wonders. The Americans filed right in, listened carefully, and a few even won my genuine respect by posing intelligent questions. I think they appreciated me for moving things along, but also for not trying to pretend that the Olympic Sailing Center is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Instead, I pointed to the TOP Hotel and quoted P.J. O’Rourke on Soviet construction (“Commies love concrete, they just don’t know the recipe”). I told the story of how the clever Estonians used the Olympics to get Moscow’s money to fix up the Old Town. I explained the situation with Estonian pensions as we stood before Nevsky Cathedral’s begging babushkas (the tourists gave them coins), and I didn’t try to deny that most souvenirs are crap (“You’re right, Mrs. Finkelstein. Your granddaughter could make a better painting of Niguliste”). In Raekoja Plats, where you couldn’t beat the juxtaposition, I described Lasnamäe and why someone would have preferred to give up a regal home in the Old Town in exchange for a two-room flat with hot water and a flush toilet.

But despite my perceived success (the Americans tipped me well), I didn’t have the job long. Perhaps word got back to headquarters that I wasn’t telling the right stories. Perhaps I wasn’t subservient enough. But I thought the group appreciated it when I handed a woman an empty Coke bottle after she demanded the entire group return to the ship just so she could pee in a friendly toilet.

In the end, I didn’t mind losing the job. I’m not cut out for guiding. A good guide combines the patience of a kindergarten teacher with the discipline of a drill sergeant. He can stick to the program but deftly deflect questions about Estonia’s AIDS- or suicide-rate from an astonishingly well-read tourist. For better or worse, I don’t fit that description. Even my mother once told me I wasn’t cut out for diplomacy: One day, buster, your mouth is going to get you in a lot of trouble.

But I’m glad I tried the job. I acquired new skills. I’m now able to force-march forty American octogenarians up a hill they don’t want to climb. I mastered a tone of voice that makes a battalion snap to attention. And I learned Tallinn geography as only the elite few know it: I can tell you the precise longitude and latitude of every public and private toilet in the Old Town. And who wouldn’t find that useful?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Under a Bridge with Mr. Ansip

There’s a tasteless tax joke circulating among expat businessmen: How do you recognize Estonian businessmen abroad? They’re the ones who’ve brought their own sandwiches.

I’ve been traveling lately and doing my best to live within the bounds set by the Estonian government: 500 kroons per day and an average hotel cost of 2,000 kroons per night. If you travel to major cities that’s not an easy task. To live on that amount often requires a night or two in youth hostels or sleeping under a bridge and looking for your food in dumpsters. I’ve often wondered how Estonian politicians do it. I’ve never seen a parliamentarian under my bridge.

Despite Estonia’s flat tax and zero levy on corporate earnings (minu müts maha), the rest of the program isn’t so hot. I sometimes feel as if government is trying to confine Estonian business to the minor leagues. World-class companies understand two things: they need to keep their employees both healthy and smart. Sick employees raise your expenses, and stupid ones reduce your revenue. All first-rate companies provide programs to keep their employees exercising, eating right, and constantly learning something new. But try that in Estonia and the company is stuck with a 75 percent fringe benefits tax.

Mr. Ansip, as I understand, defends the program by saying the rules are clear and they work, and therefore no change is called for. I’ll grant him the clear part, but I take issue with how well the system works.

I have a young Estonian friend (he’s 25) who is terribly frustrated because he sees few prospects of getting rich. As a teen, he witnessed the boom years of the Estonian economy where a lot of people made piles of dough. My friend complains about the small size of the market, the fact that people think small—a litany of things most of which I find tedious. But I find something hopeful in the fact that he is an impatient, greedy, over-confident young man of the sort you encounter in every capitalist country. He isn’t looking for a government handout and what little he remembers of the Soviet past comes through listening his parents. You can say you don’t like his priorities, but you have to admit he’s normal, as far as ambitious, greedy, business-school types go.

The kid often asks me for advice (why I’m not sure; I’m not rich and unlikely to ever be) and I always tell him the same thing: The rich westerners I know didn’t get that way by pursuing money; they were interested in something more, and they usually were passionate about something. I tell the kid he should decide what most lights his fire and throw himself at the feet of the best teacher he can find. “But then I’ll have to leave Estonia,” he says. He probably will. But if he really wants it, he shouldn’t complain. That’s how life is.

Sadly, though, I don’t see the Estonian government doing a hell of a lot to keep smart kids hanging around. At the most basic level, the government makes doing business in major markets inconvenient and expensive. And they don’t seem willing to lift a finger when private enterprise wants to do its part to keep the population both healthy and educated.

I’m sure there are ways around these rules, but I’m good at only a certain number of things and slikerdamine isn’t one of them. If Mr. Ansip truly worships the simplicity of the tax system, then he can surely empathize with someone who can’t be bothered to look for loopholes just so he can find a way to eat three square meals a day and stay in a decent hotel in Moscow.

Things will eventually change. They simply have to. Estonia’s frequent role model, Finland, has a system which seems perfectly normal. According to the Finnish tax office, expenses for an employee’s job-related graduate education are a deductible business expense for Finnish companies. And with regard to travel, the per diem allowance for a Finn in Moscow is, for example, 1,127 kroons. (A Finn in Estonia, by the way, is allowed 767 kroons per diem.) Hotel compensation for a Finn abroad is, not surprisingly, limited to the “amount shown on a receipt.”

The good news is that in every country most silly legislation is eventually amended or repealed. But until then, until the day inevitable reason and good sense set in, I’m waiting for you, Mr. Ansip. I’ve saved you a warm, dry spot underneath my favorite bridge.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Aboard the Vomit Comet

When I was a kid, a friend of mine had a tshirt which read, Beer: Breakfast of Champions. Now, thirty years later, I took a Tallink cruise and realized the words on the tshirt weren’t a joke. In fact, my wife Liina suggested they could even be Tallink’s slogan.

We were aboard the Romantika, sailing for Sweden, home of what are known in Canada to be clean, pristine, well-mannered Scandinavians. I expected a boat full of smiling blondes in cable-knit sweaters, churning butter by hand and yodeling tunes from The Sound of Music against a sunny, mountainous backdrop. But instead, I got vomit.

If a reader believes I may be inclined toward poetic license and manufacture such details, he may verify my story by checking the Tallink terminal cleaning log. March 24th, 17:10 hours: One large vomit pie directly inside the terminal’s main entrance. If Tallink doesn’t keep such logs, I may be persuaded to share my high-resolution photograph.

My party advanced to the Romantika, and we sailed without further incident. I soon convinced myself that if I’d had my Miami CSI junior crime lab kit with me, I’d have been able to conclude that the vomit inside the terminal was not from a passenger aboard my ship. Chemical analysis would prove it to be vomit of Finnish origin.

The Swedish passengers, however, failed to meet my expectations. I saw no cable knit and very few smiling blondes. Youngsters wore jeans slung low like wannabe gangsters from an American MTV video, and their shaggy-dog haircuts reminded that Sweden is a country where the 1970s never died.

But children and adults alike were painstakingly courteous, and the usual elbowing for a place in the buffet line was replaced by “after yous” and offers to cut an extra piece of bread for the next passenger. We all simply lined up and ate. It was all too civilized.

Fortunately, I was seated at a table with a former officer of the cargo vessel Sigulda, who regaled us with tales of sailing under the Soviet flag to Beirut in 1979. The city burned, half-sunken ships smoked in the harbor, and yet the good ship Sigulda sailed on through dangerous waters to deliver her cargo to the citizens of Beirut.

“What were you carrying?” asked Liina.

“Laundry detergent,” replied the officer.

“Then you’re a hero.”

“Indeed,” laughed the officer. “Nothing like detergent to clean up after a war.”

The officer told more stories. He told us how the Estonian ship Georg Ots carried Gorbachev to the Iceland Summit. How Gorbachev traveled with his personal chef, wine collection, and seven kinds of imported cheese for breakfast. He talked about the good old days when working on a cruise vessel was a rare privilege and the crew stood shipshape in starched shirts and creased pants.

But aside from the excitement the officer provided, there wasn’t much action to be found on the boat. In the absence of cruising Finns to wrestle with—or Tallink management to fist fight—we had to manufacture our own fun.

Liina and a friend went to the ship’s makeup store where they amused themselves by applying too much rouge and coloring their eyelids bright blue. Resembling circus clowns, they approached Estonian shopgirls and asked in Russian, “Krassivõije, da?” The shopgirls, not too convincingly, agreed.

A Swedish passenger, seeing the girls in an early stage of makeup application, took Liina for the ship’s makeup consultant, and asked her for advice. “Bright and shiny always beautiful,” replied Liina in heavy Russian-accented English. “Pretty woman reflect light like mirror.”

The officer and I remained in the restaurant, autographing the wine bottles they leave on tables with our best rendition of Toomas Hendrik Ilves. We tried out the only Swedish we knew on the waiter: Hüür monga elefanten här dü homma? If I understood correctly, the waiter responded that he had no elephants at home and that Ilves’ signature on a wine bottle did not, in fact, make it more valuable.

Stockholm itself was uneventful. Everything was clean, the people polite, and city completely devoid of gunfights and car chases. There was good shopping, though. Except for public transport, everything was cheaper than in Tallinn. Flowers, clothing, even lunch in a tourist trap was cheaper. There were lots of savings, but not much excitement. We were glad to return to the ship.

The voyage home was in closer keeping with what I’ve come to expect from a Tallink cruise. A posse of Swedes celebrated their youth with mild rioting, tearing up and down through the ship’s passageways all night long. No one slept, but then you’re not supposed to on what is known in English as a booze cruise.

The next morning, the ship resembled Beirut as the officer had described it. Vomit and spilled drinks covered the floors of the passageways, food littered the carpet, and one area was flooded, thanks to a passenger who decided the ceiling fire extinguisher was optimally suited to hang clothing.

By the time we arrived in Tallinn, the crew had miraculously disinfected the hallways, repaired the flood damage, and made the ship vomit-free. The Romantika was about as romantic as it could ever get.

It’s true what some Estonian politicians have said that Estonia is becoming just another boring northern European country. The Tallink cruises just ain’t what they used to be. Of course it could be, too, that I’m just getting older.

Friday, August 29, 2008


An American friend of mine recently got shot. Paul was having a beer on his front porch and two thugs showed up to rob his neighbor as she was parking her car. He began shouting and so they shot him in the neck. After Paul was released from the hospital he had to hide out at hotels and friends’ homes for two weeks, which is how long it took the media to quit staking out his house.

Now the media says he’s a hero. I called to tell my dad, who also knows Paul, and he remarked, “Geez, what an unfortunate son of a bitch.” Hero or unfortunate son of a bitch? In America, it’s a fine line that separates them.

Americans have a lot of heroes. In addition to Paul, they’ve got Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Catwoman, the Incredible Hulk, and the Green Lantern. Heroes in America—or superheroes, as the case may be—are more than just guys in silly costumes; they’re manifestations of the belief that Team America can right the wrongs of the world and that there is still hope for the world’s huddled masses and wretched refuse. Not a bad sentiment, actually.

I have to admit I miss superheroes, and I wish Estonia had a few. Even one would do, and he doesn’t need to fly. I’d send him out on missions to foster simple kindness. He’d inspire men to hold doors for ladies (and the ladies to say thank you). He’d champion all that stuff President Ilves says about wanting Estonians to be more supportive of one another. And if I’m allowed to give my hero super-strength, I’d have him overturn the cars of arrogant drivers who park wherever they please, starting with that blue Ferrari which I often see on the Radisson’s sidewalk.

I’d send him over to Estonian Air to have a conversation with the claims rep who told me my flight was cancelled due to a “flight safety problem in the Moscow airport,” instead of admitting it was a malfunction of the plane’s air pressure receiver gauge.

My Estonian superhero would shake up the builder who took my money, disappeared for sixty days, and then reappeared claiming his chronic alcoholism was a “virus.”

And I’d send him downstairs to counsel my wife’s nutty aunt, who chases social workers away by screaming at them because they bought the wrong potatoes, the wrong mulgikapsas, or the cherries which she believed were too sour.

Later on, once he’s tackled the simple things, I’d give him the power of flight and send him down to Georgia to do and say the things which are too frightening a job for the superheroes from the superpower. Then, having wrapped that up, he could fly back home and have a word or two with Edgar Savisaar.

Perhaps a superhero is too much for Estonia. However, the ideas represented by heroes aren’t out of reach. Estonian journalists seek them, scouring the earth for heroes with the tiniest percentage of Estonian blood. An editor once asked me to profile a Canadian businessman with an Estonian grandmother. “But why him?” I asked. He didn’t seem special to me—just another garden-variety rich dude. “Because,” the editor replied, “we have so few good role models in our own country.”

It may be un-Estonian to seek the spotlight and take credit for good deeds, but any nation capable of Hea Teenindus Kuu (Good Service Month) can surely create a modest superhero, or at least promote the common man who does uncommon things. There’s no need to get carried away like the Americans who find heroes under every rock. “They’re all heroes,” Bush once said about the victims of 9-11. But the American president has never owned a dictionary. Most were simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like my friend Paul, the unfortunate son of a bitch.

I’ve argued about this topic with my wife, Liina, and she says Estonians don’t have the same worries as Americans and therefore don’t need heroes. Liina says only nations with superproblems require superheroes. She may have a point. While Estonia may not have superheroes, you’re also not likely to get shot in the neck while sitting on your own front porch.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Your Friendly Neighborhood UFOnaut

Lately, I’ve been haunted by silence.

Shopping at my local Selver, I was troubled by the silent treatment from checkers. I offered a hello, which was met by nothing at all. She continued to drag items across the scanner, very much like the store’s recycling machine that takes my empty beer cans. Except the recycling machine speaks, a soft gurgling sound as the cans are sucked through the chute.
In the presence of others, too much silence bothers me. I’m from a culture of idle conversation. I’m used to hearing about the checker’s grandkids, the deer her husband shot this season, or her thoughts on local politics. Small talk which over time amounts to something more. But the Selver checker made no sound.

A visiting friend once asked me what the Estonian words for “please” and “thank you” were. I quipped that it didn’t matter, since no Estonian used them, anyway. My wife didn’t find it funny and tried to argue that Estonians are friendly people. If that’s true, then they’re the only people who show it by not talking to you.

To prove my point (to myself; no point arguing with my wife), I decided to go a full week without speaking to any Estonian I didn’t know, except for bare minimum phrases like “bus ticket” or “large beer.” For the first few days, I fancied myself a Marie Curie. I was advancing the frontiers of science through daring personal experiments.

But by the fifth day, I was utterly depressed. I couldn’t cope with how smoothly things had gone. Checkers were not remotely bothered by the fact that I didn’t talk. Most perfunctorily asked if I had a Partner Card and accepted my silence as a no. A few did say hello, but these were obviously trained by someone like Peep Vain too many years ago, and their greeting had long lost its shine. I could even sense their relief when I failed to answer. “Thank god,” meant their exhaled breath, “I may now return to my own private world.”

But while the checkers were happy, I was despondent. I realized I could go my entire life in Estonia without talking, and it would not upset the delicate balance of things. I also began to feel a bit self-conscious. In Canada, someone who walks around in complete silence would be thought a child molester. My quiet self made me nervous.

After a week of silence, I needed a change. As a man of science, I decided to reverse my experiment: I would be conspicuously friendly to checkers. I would learn where their grandkids went to school. I’d ask how venison tasted. I’d ask if they thought Reiljan was guilty.

I arrived in line with enthusiastic “good mornings” and departed with sincere “good days.” I didn’t leap to the grandkids right away, but started gently, calling attention to dreadful weather, to the rise in price of potato chips. A very few warmed to me, but most ignored me or twisted their faces, wondering what sort of ufonaut had landed in front of their cash registers.

For a while, my enthusiasm overflowed into other areas of my life. Not only was I greeting checkers, I was nodding and smiling to people I didn’t know as I passed them on the street. Occasionally, a pretty girl would smile back, but most screwed their faces groundward and walked on, probably wondering if I wasn’t some sort of child molester.

I’ve since ended my experiments and tried to revert to the real me. I’m sometimes silent, sometimes outgoing, but usually I’m somewhere in between. While standing in line at Selver, I often find myself thinking back to my Toronto childhood. There was a mentally retarded kid who lived in my neighborhood, and he spent his days roaming the streets, doing nothing else but flashing a toothy grin and waving to everyone he encountered. People thought he was an ufonaut. But thinking back, he was, without a doubt, the happiest person in the neighborhood.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Love Thy Neighbor

My wife and I used to rent a house next door to a brothel where, weather permitting, the prostitutes would come out and sing on the porch. They could carry a tune pretty well. It was a tough neighborhood to leave, all that excitement just twenty meters outside my door. But the rent was high and the place poorly insulated, so we moved out. Luckily, our new neighborhood isn’t a total bore.

The kid next door regularly disassembles his entire car, strewing the parts all over his yard, and puts it back together within a couple of hours. I’ve often wondered if he’s training to work in a Formula One pit crew. Or perhaps he wants to be a deejay. During his automotive work, he shares his music with the entire neighborhood: Imagine the sound of an aquarium’s oxygen pump set to a heavy drum beat with the voice of a tortured dog. All this at a concert-level 120 decibels. Looped. But he’s not a bad kid. He borrowed my ladder one day and brought it back. He loaned me his dad’s garden hose.

Another neighbor hosts Tallinn’s taxi drivers. Every few minutes one departs from his house and another arrives. So many taxi drivers in one place make me nervous. I’ve convinced myself the house is either a drug den or the local headquarters for Nashi. There might even be some WMDs inside.

There’s also an elderly woman who likes to garden in the vacant lot next to our house. The builders plowed it under months ago, readying it for construction, but she’s still out there trying to save the poppies that grew before the demolition. I once saw her waiting for a bus, took her aboard my car, and she remarked: “Oh, so chivalrous. You treat me like a German lady.” She sometimes leaves nasty notes for us on the fence, telling us to replace her flowers or fix her clothes line, the former which we haven’t touched, the latter which hasn’t existed since the lot was plowed under.

But I’m sure our neighbors aren’t in love with us, either. My wife’s aunt, who lives below us and is not fully sane, dries her laundry on the fence, making our garden look like a gypsy camp in a yuppie neighborhood. She also exercises her rabbit in the yard, and squeals for hours in a high pitch when it escapes under the fence. But she won’t allow me to build a hutch for it. “He wants to be free,” she screamed at me. “Can’t you see he wants the whole garden?”

The outside of our house is awaiting its final coat of paint. Due to a major mistake by the builder, the house looks like its suffering from a skin disease, and the banker next door keeps asking when we’re going to finish it. “We’re all out of money,” I say. “But I do hope to complete it before I die.” Actually, the builder has sworn he’ll fix it within the month. But no point me telling the banker that.

It’s never easy being a good neighbor. It’s even harder when you’re in a culture not your own, surrounded by people you think are complete crackpots. But I know that’s what they think of me, too. And so while we may not be the best of friends, at least there’s comfort in knowing we’re even.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Across the Spanish Tomatoes

People stare at me in supermarkets. I don’t know how many people read Eesti Ekspress, but many readers must shop where I do. They peer over fresh cabbage until their eyes meet mine. Then they glance downward, as if there were something on the floor they might buy.

I look like my photo in real life, though I’ve had my teeth fixed since then. Otherwise, I’m a readily identifiable average guy who’s never had to deal with fame. I had one close call in Vancouver when my Esto-Canadian band, Reckless Dentistry, had a video on Much Music called “Tuusik Vanaemale.” We weren’t as clever as we thought, and I wasn’t much of a bass player. Rightly so, my fame was short-lived.

People have said I’m a better writer than musician, which I certainly hope is true. But as these columns become more popular, I’m not so sure I’m prepared for fame. And Estonian fame is of the strangest sort.

Andy Warhol said that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, but he never lived in a country that has fewer residents than his Manhattan neighborhood.

Curious about Warhol’s prediction in an Estonian context, I turned to science. I pored over TV schedules to calculate that Estonia’s three channels offer 1,450,800 broadcast minutes per year. Assuming the average Estonian lives 65 years, there will be over 94 million minutes of TV time to fill in a single lifetime. Divide by the Estonian-speaking population (a bit over 920,000), and every man, woman, and child will need to personally appear 102 minutes on local television stations. Imagine: a never-ending episode of Meie.

Scientifically-minded readers will find fault. Granted, broadcast minutes are sometimes filled with foreign programming. But in my favor, I did not include other mediums like radio, magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I also did not factor out infants, the elderly, and the indigent. If we adjust for those, the scenario is of a magnitude that would have frightened Mr. Warhol. Indeed, Estonians have a grim responsibility to feed the fires of fame.

Luckily, there are Estonians ready to unselfishly serve both your time and mine. Anu Saagim is one. When Anu runs out of something to say, she gets a tattoo or a breast implant or botox treatment, and then talks about that. When she’s finally run the gamut of plastic surgeries and beauty treatments, it won’t surprise me if she experiments with prosthesis. Who among us has not wondered which artificial leg boasts the sexiest curves?

Then there are those Ninjas. It’s not my kind of music—though their English-language titles rival my band’s “Tuusik Vanaemale”—but those girls have done their national service by suffering through their fame. They flew to Iraq and sweated in body armor only to return home to the headline: "Kavatseme ühel ajal lapsed saada." ("We all plan to have kids at the same time.")

Politicians have it worse, though. When a politician’s image appears on the TV screen, half of Estonia winces or spits. It’s almost a national pastime to trash politicians. But since many of them deserve it, and because they’re well paid, it’s hard to pity them.

Fame even carries over into the foreign community. It is a fact that every foreigner who learns the Estonian language has gone on television to give an interview. They’re never asked intelligent questions; rather they are invited before the klieg lights to scratch themselves like monkeys. Their role is to smile, butcher a few sentences, and show the Russian population that “See, it’s not impossible to learn the language!” (Never mind that the Russian population doesn’t watch Estonian television.)

I have a couple of friends who are famous Estonians. While the public generally respects their privacy—they’re rarely hounded for autographs—I don’t see the benefit of fame. The police won’t fawn over you and tear up your speeding ticket: they’re as likely to double-check the breathalyzer. Fame doesn’t get you a better parking place or a better table in a restaurant, and it certainly doesn’t get you money. I get stares in Selver but what I earn for my column remains a constant. There are plenty of famous Estonians who lead middle-class or even below-middle class existences. What’s the point in that?

It’s too late to turn back now, but had I been smarter I would have used someone else’s picture for this column. Someone who’s already famous or would really like to be. However, if a certain amount of fame is the price for expressing one’s views in the newspaper, I guess that’s not an unfair bargain. But please do me one favor: Don’t steal glances at me across the Spanish tomatoes. Come over and introduce yourself. We’ll both have made a new acquaintance, and I won’t feel half as awkward with my newfound fame.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Letter from a Luddite

One of my colleagues, Matis, uses a Nokia Communicator E90. He tells it’s a 3G phone with MS Office compatibility, GPRS, WAP, wireless LAN, infrared Bluetooth, and “all communications protocols.”

I have a blue telephone. It has an on-off switch on the top, and when I dial a number and push the green button, it will make a telephone call. I like this phone well enough, but I wish the battery would last longer than four calls. With Matis’ help, I’m starting to check out new telephones.

We’ve visited several stores and gazed upon phones behind polished glass, displayed like diamond engagement rings in a Toronto jewelry store. Some of them cost as much as diamonds, too. I do my best to listen patiently while a salesman explains why a telephone is really worth 9,000 EEK. “But it’s more than a telephone,” the salesman senses my doubt. “It’s a personal communications center!”

“A ‘personal communications center?’” I ask. “Can it take a message?”

“Of course,” sneers the little smartass.

“But can it send a fax?”

“Why would anyone want to send a fax?”

“I like faxes. I like to both send and receive them.” The young guy isn’t certain if I’m serious. “Can it send a fax?” I repeat.

“No,” he admits, scratching his head. “It cannot send a fax.”

Matis shrugs apologetically to the salesman, as if to say “he’s a crusty old fart.” Which is true enough, I suppose. Matis is doing his best with me. But we’re just two different breeds when it comes to tech.

Anytime Matis sees an ad for a new technology, he’ll investigate it. Say they’ve added a ICBM function to his NORAD-rated GPS for his Subaru. Well, he’s got to at least try it. All an advertiser needs to do is throw a new acronym in an ad, and within a week Matis will have such a well-informed opinion about it that he could write an article for Consumer Reports. And if he finds value in it—if it’s “a powerful work tool,” his favorite phrase—he’ll soon have one on his desk.

Of course, it’s not only Matis. It seems all Estonians love tech. I recently read a study which said Italians use mobile phones more than anyone else (to call their mothers) and then come Finns. Estonians have to be pretty close behind the Finns, because I see some of them making calls as early as seven a.m. (thank God, not to me).

So far, Matis hasn’t been much help to me in finding a new phone—which in his world is called “hardware.” In my world, I’m after a kind of simplicity Matis and most young Estonians can’t begin to comprehend. I use a manual typewriter, fountain pen, and a Smythson Panama diary (the battery-free variety you write in with a pencil).

I’ve about given up on Matis’ ability to help me with a phone and am starting to fly solo, checking out ads for new phones on the market. I’m looking for that just-right phone which will fit into my Luddite world, one that is simple to use and won’t require a weeklong NATO training course.

I’ve noticed a Samsung ad urging me to “improve my business image.” Not for me, as I don’t have a business image. And the guy in the ad looks exactly like the Brylcream man from 1970s advertising in Canada. Brylcream was the gel which turned gray hair black and helped old guys get chicks. “A little dab’ll do ya’,” they used to say. It’s possible the 1970’s Brylcream man appeals to some, but he strikes me as the insecure type with a shriveled-up penis who hides behind ostentatious material things. So I can’t possibly buy that phone.

Nokia phones run the gamut of offers. One tells me to “live life to the fullest and fulfill my active lifestyle.” No thanks. That’s what Gatorade is for. Another offers “irreplaceable luxury.” Not for me: I drive a beat up Opel. One phone claims to be an “ideal training partner.” I don’t train; I drink beer. The last Nokia phone is billed as “practical meets merry.” The last thing I want is a merry telephone. A phone should sit there and be quiet until I need it.

Motorola models start with the letter “V,” which I think must stand for the English word Vain. One model claims to help me “strike a pose” and “turn heads.” Another says it will “blast my senses.” Great, a phone that’s going to blast me.

Sony Ericsson has a device they say is both a Walkman and a camera (and presumably a telephone, too). It looks like it can do most everything for you, so I’m going to call Matis and alert him to it. He might want to get one for himself.

As for me, I think I’m going to stick with my blue telephone. The battery is dead now most of the time, but if something’s important enough someone will surely come find me.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Watching the Neighbors' House Burn

I didn’t start to worry until the roof caught fire. When the asbestos shingles went, it sounded like a drive-by shooting.

Before that I thought the drunks were out in their yard burning leaves. So what if a burn ban had been in place for two weeks? Most Estonians pay no more attention to burn bans than they do traffic regulations.

But it wasn’t the drunks’ house. It was the mother and daughter’s house next to the drunks. I seriously considered calling the fire department, but I ran to check it out first. Maybe the mother and daughter were tossing aerosol cans on the fire for fun? I’m perhaps sometimes too uptight, and what I consider an out-of-control fire doesn’t at all coincide with the local definition. In the neighborhood I live, people generally shut up and mind their own business.

The brothel behind my house plays loud Russian rock and roll and the girls cackle like chickens throughout the summer, and no one complains. Children on mopeds run pedestrians off the streets, and no one complains. Dogs fill the park with excrement: no one cleans up, and no one complains. So I try to do the neighborly thing: I don’t complain.

By the time I got to the house fire, a good crowd had gathered to watch. And the fire department was on the job. (Another Estonian peculiarity: Estonians like quiet; police and fire vehicles rarely use sirens.) The firemen unrolled their hoses and drenched the woodshed next to the mother and daughter’s house. Of course, I don’t know if they’re mother and daughter; I just suspect. You see, I’ve never met them. In fact, after two years in the same house, I’ve only met one of my neighbors.

To gauge whether my time in Estonia has made me unfriendly, I asked my landlord if he knew any of the neighbors. He said he knows the same one I do. Estonians are true to the etymological meaning of neighbor: someone who lives nearby. But Estonian neighbors don’t necessarily know each other. And, despite the urgings of Matthew 19:19, they don’t necessarily love each other.

By never introducing myself to any of my neighbors, I was just trying to fit in. I was trying to do things the Estonian way.

So why do I feel so rotten about that house?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

When English Trumps Estonian

Once in line at Selver, a Russian speaker in front of me succeeded in both disarming and charming a hostile Estonian checker. Within seconds she was under his spell, her grumpiness gone. She was smiling, laughing, pleased at the prospects of life.

I’m told Russians have a saying that for every language you speak, you live another life. If that’s true, then I was witness to the Russian man drawing the Estonian into his world, seeing her born again outside the prison of her Nordic silence.

When I moved to Estonia sixteen years ago, my bad Estonian got a very positive reaction. Salesgirls were happy to suffer patiently along as I inquired about sprats in oil versus sprats in mustard sauce. Estonian families were thrilled to serve me the kolkhoz’s finest carp and listen intently as I butchered the case endings of their impossible language. (Only the telephone office people were mean to me, but I’m convinced they were born that way.) In most cases, the simple fact that I attempted Estonian was treated as the ultimate compliment to the new republic and its citizens.

Since my mother rarely spoke Estonian to me growing up, I did not arrive in Estonia fluent in the language. I spoke it so badly that, except for my Estonian name, no one ever mistook me for a väliseestlane. My accent was so strange no one confused me for a Russian, either. Once, after struggling to order a cut of sausage from behind my local meat counter, as I walked away I heard one worker whisper to another: “That German boy is always so polite.”

I worked hard to escape my German phase. I found excellent Estonian teachers and learned a good deal more sitting on a bar stool. But as my Estonian improved, I discovered the quality of service decreased in direct proportion. The better I spoke Estonian, the worse Estonians treated me.

When my “tere” no longer reeked of foreign origins, the “tere” was no longer appreciated. While in longer conversations my odd grammatical choices and slight accent would give me away, short, quotidian transactions did not betray me and I was no longer special. I had to push and shove like everyone else.

I missed being different. I missed hearing the common refrain: “Te räägite eesti keelt nii hästi. Venelased on siin elanud viiskümmend aastat ja nemad ei oska ühtegi sõna.” Neither of those was actually true—my Estonian wasn’t “hästi” and I knew plenty of Russians who could speak Estonian—but it was still always nice to hear.

Perhaps Estonian from the mouths of foreigners is no longer novel. I recently saw a television show where it seemed every Dutchman living in Tallinn spoke the Estonian language better than I. I even know some Americans who’ve learned it; a few of them actually speak it well.

As I watched the Russian man charm the Selver checker, I was jealous of his gift to change the world with language. Standing in the queue, I thought I should perhaps study a foreign language. But then I realized, I speak one! English! To me, it hardly seems foreign, but it could indeed be a weapon with which to subdue a hostile service industry employee.

“Good afternoon!” I exclaimed to the checker, giving her my best American-style smile. She had just come off the high of the Russian experience, and now was getting a jolt of the optimism inherent in English-language small talk. “I brought my Partner Card!” I sang, thrusting it over the countertop before she could ask.

She was pleased to receive me and was all smiles. She replied “good afternoon” in serviceable English and was not angry at all when I wanted to add a plastic bag after she’d already rung up my other items. She was still smiling when she told me how much I owed: “Five hundred and sixty-two kroons.” I’d never been so pleased to pay so much for groceries. “But may I have my free Postimees?” I asked. She shot me a strange look. Having spent over five hundred kroons I was indeed entitled to a free newspaper, but what would a foreigner want with Postimees? Her expression begged to know if I’d been putting her on. Could I have been making fun of her? Could I have taken her to such new emotional heights, only to drop her without a parachute?

“The newspaper,” I recovered. “It’s for my Estonian wife.”

The checker exhaled, relieved. She smiled and handed me the paper. “Have a nice day,” she said. And she meant it.

Since then, I’ve made English my service language. I speak English at the post office, in restaurants, with FedEx, and with Estonian airport security. Most are more than pleased to practice their English, and I get far better service than the Estonians before and after me in the queue.

It’s a sad fact of life at the moment that English trumps Estonian. But I haven’t given up on my Estonian. I still use it at home. I speak it with my wife, who is always happy to help me polish it and make it better than the day before. Someday, I know, an Estonian speaker will get equal or better service than an English speaker. And when that day comes, I’ll be ready.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Spies Like Us

My friend’s father is convinced I’m CIA. I’ve been here close to fifteen years and, despite Tallinn’s wonderful weather, he can’t see why any married man would stick around here that long. Maybe I am CIA. Maybe you are, too. But whether I’m a spook or not, I’ve certainly heard a lot of good spy stories about Estonia.

In the early 1990s, it was said Chinese spies were operating out of Tallinn’s only Chinese restaurant, because the Estonian government wouldn’t allow them an embassy. The story went that some Estonian guy had visited China as part of a government delegation and been given a Chinese spy to shadow him while he was here. When this Estonian guy went to eat in Tallinn’s Chinese restaurant three years later, guess who his waiter was?

About the same time, another story circulated that the US government sent spies to Estonia with suitcases of cash in order to buy big Estonian businesses, from which they’d have an inside track on Estonian goings-on and good reason to meet with government. Nice work if you can get it. I’d have bought Saku.

There was also the story about an American embassy worker who used to get drunk and accost expatriates in bars, paralyzing them with fear by reciting their names and the names and ages of their children. It maybe isn’t true but still makes a good story.

And of course they used to say that everyone at the Russian embassy was a spy. Maybe they were. Maybe they still are. I’ve heard the same about the Americans.

If you want to have fun with American embassy workers (at social functions away from their bullet-proof glass), extend your hand and when they introduce themselves you say: “Ah, of course. I remember you from Langley.” Or you can strike up a conversation about the firing range in the embassy cellar or the AV-8B Harrier parked on the roof. These are always interesting topics.

I once made friends with an American embassy worker and then raised the issue at a noisy party where I was sure the Russkies couldn’t eavesdrop. “So who are the spooks in the embassy?” She was taken aback—I guess that’s not a common question she received at formal receptions. “Oh, come on,” I said, “there must be at least one.” She paused a minute to compose herself—calling on her Langley training, no doubt—and answered that if there were any she wouldn’t know them. “Even the ambassador wouldn’t know,” she said. I found that hard to believe and said so. But she told me that if there were any spies, they’d most likely be top men in the business community. “Or journalists,” she added. “Like you.”

A Russian military friend once told me a story about an American spy. The US government was in need of a super spy and it searched all over America, finally finding the perfect candidate at Harvard University. They took him to Langley, taught him hand-to-hand combat, weaponry, driving skills, languages—all what spies need. Then they gave him a parachute and dropped him out of the sky over Siberia, where he made his way to a small village and infiltrated the community. After he’d been there about six months, there was a great party, where everyone was far drunker than usual. “Say,” a villager said to the spy, “there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.” The spy said to fire away. “You’re a great guy,” said the villager. “And your Russian is perfect. You make the best pelmeni I’ve ever had, and you’re by far the best balalaika player in the village. But tell me one thing: What’s a black guy doing in the middle of Siberia?”

Not exactly flattering. But after the great CIA work in Iraq, it’s entirely believable.

I find it funny that my friend’s father thinks I’m CIA. Why wouldn’t he think I’m CSIS. (I’m Canadian, after all.) The reason he doesn’t think I’m CSIS, because he’s never heard of it. That’s just how super secret it is. We keep a low, low profile. We’re so deep undercover you’ve never heard of us.

I’ve also met with the Estonian intelligence service. KaPo. They’ve got a cool sounding name, which belies their tiny operational budget. They don’t have many cool James Bond toys, either. Skype employees have better. But the KaPo agents I’ve met were very professional, and I have a lot of respect for them. Personally, I think to make up for their budget, and in the name of NATO friendship, the USA should allow them to use the embassy’s firing range or their Harrier jet. But that’s just the opinion of a friendly, sharing Canadian.

From the vast knowledge about espionage demonstrated in this article, you’ve probably concluded that I’m CSIS. I can’t tell you, of course. Or, as they saying goes: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. But if you do think I’m a spy, do me one favor. Don’t mention CSIS. It’s an awful name, one so clunky no one would be proud to work there. Instead, use the organization’s French name: Service canadien du renseignement de sécurité. That’s a name I can be proud of. And it’s a name any Estonian Bond girl would fall for.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

An "Estonian" Salary

“You need to be prepared to work for an Estonian salary,” the owner of an English-language magazine said to me, after he offered me the job as editor in chief.

“An Estonian salary?” I had to ask. “What’s that mean?”

“A small salary,” he qualified.

“Oh,” I said. “You should have said Lilliputian.”

“I said Estonian.” He frowned.

The offer was for ten thousand Estonian kroons per month net, about one thousand US dollars.

“Could you live on that much?” I asked him.

“Well, you’ll be the peatoimetaja.” The editor in chief.

Indeed. If I could only eat the title.

Every time I think about quitting my freelance work and getting a serious job, this same conversation occurs. I always try to be polite. I delicately mention that a home in Estonia costs more than in Canada. Groceries in Estonia cost more. Gasoline costs more. Clothing. Cars. Building materials. Even Chinese food. In fact, other than beer and cigarettes, what doesn’t cost more in Estonia? I usually end the conversation by drawing an employer’s attention to a Postimees article which reported that a prison guard earns 18,000 EEK per month. And he gets to carry a sidearm.

I’ve discussed the situation with an American writer friend of mine (also married to an Estonian) who spends his summers in Estonia. His wife works here, and though he speaks Estonian, he doesn't consider taking a job here. “Estonians work hard,” he says. “And they get paid shit. I just don’t understand the economics.”

Some say the pay depends on the industry. Jobs in Estonia’s financial sector, arguably the country’s fastest-developing industry, pay living wages. The rest of the country has yet to catch up, and Estonian employers benefit greatly from the transitional status of the nation’s young professionals: many are still living with mom and dad, or have only recently moved out on their own. The population-at-large doesn’t carry first-world financial burdens which will drive up salaries and, versus their western counterparts, they’re able to live on a lot less money.

Of course greed is a factor, too. You don’t need to have read Marx to know that the job of the capitalist is to exploit the workers. Estonian companies are taking record profits, paying fat dividends and, depending on whom you talk to, not reinvesting much. They won’t be able to do it forever, but they’re making hay while the sun shines. I accept this is the way it is, but out of principle, I turn away from it when I can. The astute reader may catch me bitching here, but I’d ask you not read it as foreign arrogance. I do realize many people don’t have the option to earn money outside the country. I admit I have the luxury of choice.

My selfish greed aside, what ought to bother Estonians about the pathetic salaries is how they’re connected to the national identity. Using the words “Eesti palk” (Estonian salary) is a bit like striking a peasant with your cane. “Eesti palk. Know your place, boy.” I desperately wish people would stop pairing those words. The more it occurs the more the two words fuse and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the more “Estonia” becomes a synonym for “small.” Were I King of Estonia, referring to the republic as small would be tantamount to treason. Swift gave us one Lilliput. We hardly need another.

I turned down the job as editor in chief. I put on my smiling North-American face and thanked them profusely for the opportunity. I shook the man’s hand and wished him well. But what I really wanted to do was tell him the New York expression for companies like his: “Yours is a great place to work, if my parents could afford to send me.”

But I didn’t say it. But as I walked out the door, I couldn’t resist saying something to strike a blow for the workers of the world. So I mentioned that as soon as they could find a bank willing to give me an “Estonian mortgage” that I’d come back and take his “Estonian salary.” Then I nodded politely and closed the door.