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.