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.