Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I’ve heard it said countless times: Foreigners who live in Estonia are here because we can’t get jobs in our own countries. We are, in a word, losers.

That’s sometimes true.

I knew one guy who faked his entire background—fabricated a university education, work experience, even gave interviews on Estonian TV talk shows claiming to be a war correspondent. He talked about how he’d taken a sniper’s bullet in North Africa, which he carved from his own leg with a rusty pocketknife on the battlefield before crawling through twenty kilometers of enemy minefields to safety. Later it was discovered he was a barber from Minnesota.

Another guy I know claimed to be an English Count. He wore the same tweed outfit every day like he was on a driven hunt and liked to claim he’d taught Prince Harry to ride. He loved to play a pair of bagpipes for the Estonian press. Eventually, his ex-wife located him in Estonia and dispatched a brigade of lawyers. He owned a small bowling alley in Bristol and had neglected to pay his taxes.

Usually though, foreigners are not guilty of major fraud. Very few out-of-work British carpet layers claim to be heart surgeons. Few Ohio carpenters say they’re the Buddha and start their own ashrams. Generally, foreigners don’t even exaggerate their own abilities: rather they remain silent while Estonians do it for them.

In the 1990s, I worked for an Estonian advertising agency. I was often presented as a “great expert.” True, I’d worked seven years in top agencies in Toronto and New York City, and I knew more about the subject than anybody in Estonia at the time, but I was far from a great expert. To be considered a great expert in North America requires a career of at least twenty years plus public accolade.

But can you blame me for remaining silent while being toasted as a great expert? What would have Estonians thought if I’d interrupted with, “Actually, I really don’t know as much as you think…”? To say that would be out of character for a westerner. (That kind of modesty would be downright Estonian.)

Today, there are far fewer great experts around. In part, it’s because many Estonians can claim fifteen years experience in business. Their confidence has risen and they’re quicker to call bullshit when some foreigner starts spouting off about the proper way to do things. Nowadays, it’s quite difficult for a foreigner to pull a rabbit out of hat. It’s even harder for him to point to a cow and say it’s a giraffe.

My educated guess is that only one in four foreigners in Estonia today is here because he’s unemployable at home. Generally, his incompetence is so obvious that he can’t get a job anywhere in the world. Those in that group do what they would have done at home: they get married, let the wife work, and sit on the couch and drink beer.

The rest of the foreigners here are adventurers, a little bit bored with all-too-predictable lives in their own countries.

The bad news is that the longer competent foreigners remain in Estonia, the less employable they are at home. After having worked in Estonian advertising a few years, I visited a headhunter in New York City. Strangely, she did not hail me a great expert and did not throw rose petals or job offers at my feet. Rather, she looked me in the eye and said, “My god, Vello. Estonian advertising experience is the same as no experience at all.”

Of course she was being an arrogant bitch—New Yorkers think their city is the center of the universe. But her larger point was that my Estonian experience was not of particular use in a market hundreds of times its size. “What are you going to teach Americans?” she asked. I wanted to answer “humility,” but I resisted the temptation.

Instead, I argued I was a great expert on cultures great and small. A nice, middle-class Canadian boy who understood complex consumer minds in cities as big as New York and countries as small as Estonia.

“Vello,” she said. “Go back to Estonia.”

And so I did. I know the longer I remain here the less qualified I am to work in my own country. Which is why I’m working hard to become the caliber of con man who can bullshit his way into a job anywhere in the world. I’ve tried to learn what I can from the American war correspondent and the English count. And my CV is looking pretty good. It reflects my years of experience as a best-selling writer, astronaut, judo champion, Formula One driver, CIA agent, astrophysicist, and Michelin-star chef. In fact, it’s so good I’m having to trim it back: The Americans are starting to tell me I’m overqualified.