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.