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.