Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taxi Trauma

When I first came to Estonia in 1991, I tried to be a chameleon. I practiced drinking vodka before noon, kept neatly torn strips of Postimees in my bathroom, and forced myself to eat carp, even though it’s a bottom-dweller that tastes like mud. As the nation developed, these habits quickly disappeared. Yet others remained. Estonians still remove their shoes before entering a home, song festivals still make me cry, and stopping for a red traffic light is still optional. With all the changes, I’ve tried to stay current and behave as a modern Estonian, with the exception of one item: I still don’t like riding in the front seat of a taxi.

In New York, where I lived in the late eighties, nobody would think to sit in the front of a cab. The driver wouldn’t unlock the front door unless you were a sultry Vogue model who looked particularly available. With few exceptions, passengers happily sat in the back behind bulletproof glass. Drivers were rarely models of good hygiene. If from the east, they often reeked of a spice bazaar. If they were white, they generally had the mien of a psycho killer and more body hair than a yeti. There were plenty of good reasons to ride in back.

But when I arrived in Estonia, I noticed passengers routinely leaping into the front seat of cabs without the slightest fear. In the early days, the cabs were mostly beige Zhigulis and the occasional black Volga. To enter the front seat of the cab was to enter the driver’s private world. The factory stick-shift knob would be removed and replaced with something reflecting the driver’s personality, like an animal skull or an enemy’s finger set inside a glass ball. On the dashboard were stickers from foreign lands, or small banners with coats of arms from Estonian valds. In rare cases, the driver had a bobble-headed toy dashboard dog from the DDR.

I tried to be Estonian and ride up front, but I couldn’t help feel I was violating the cabby’s personal domain. It also seemed to compromise cabby-customer relations. When I rode in the back, I was being served. When I sat up front, I felt I might be asked to change a tire.

My place was in the back. Cabbies pushed the Zhiguli’s spare carburetor aside to make room for me. If they thought there was something wrong with me, they were polite enough not to show it. Their silence caused no end to my inner conflict. If I sit in back, I wondered, will he think that I think I’m better than he is? If I sit in front, will he respect me more and cheat me less? If a Zhiguli collides with a freight train, in which seat am I more likely to survive?

I asked all my friends about this front-seat behavior. Was it a Soviet man-of-the-people thing that inspired Estonians to ride up front? Since we are both of equal value in a proper socialist society, would Marx want driver and passenger to sit side by side? This seemed plausible, since the Soviets took great pains to promote the common man. Kids wanted to grow up to be tractor drivers. Songs were written about tram drivers.

I spent years theorizing. Finally, my wife Liina got tired of it and explained that in a Soviet-made car, the front seat was the warmest place, so naturally the customer would sit there.

“Really?” I asked. I thought her reasoning sounded specious.

“Absolutely,” she replied. “It’s a well known fact.”

“But Zhigulis are such tiny cars. The temperature can’t differ that much from front to back.”

“I have no idea,” she confessed. “But you seem desperate for an explanation, so I gave you one.”

I tried out my theory on her about it being something Soviet, about the passenger being the equal of the driver.

“What bullshit!” she choked. “I’ve never heard such nonsense.” She said that Soviet equality propaganda might have been believable in Bear’s Ass, Russia, but Estonians weren’t having any of it.

For a while I put my theorizing to rest. I investigated other matters, like why Estonians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. Like why every Russian I ever passed on the street asked me for matches. You know, weighty matters.

But I’ve always returned to the cabbies. Just last week I stepped into a taxi in Helsinki. The back seat, of course. The driver was one of those avuncular Scandinavian types in a lint-free sweater.

“Hey, does anybody ever ride up front?” I asked.

He thought for a while, then: “My wife does.”

“But what about passengers?”

“Oh, I get the occasional Estonian.”

“Ah hah!” I had struck gold. “So why do you suppose that is?”

It was an eternity before he answered: “I’ve never really thought about that.”

“Well, I have—“ and I launched into my Marxist theory.

He kept two hands on the wheel and looked straight ahead. But I could tell he was interested.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why I Eat Hamburgers

A survey of Tallinn's city center and Old Town has revealed that the only business anywhere in the city to clean the snow from its walk is--you guessed it--McDonald's. All others, as of 11 a.m., had chosen to allow potential consumers to fall on their backs right outside the door. A few minor points for a half-hearted effort go to the Tallinn City Government which cleaned directly in front of their doors but absolutely nowhere else. I guess those are the places where Edgar's car would pull up.

An American Embassy official, speaking on the condition of anonymity*, told me that they've had to hire several firms to clean their walks each time it snows. He said it takes two companies to get the snow removed properly, and a third to knock away the ice. "Somehow in their culture there is no concept of ice removal. So we keep paying to have the job done over and over until they get it right." Someone could get a grant to study that.

Update, 25 Nov.: Glass House Snowball Fight
The City of Tallinn's Municipal Police announced yesterday morning that after lunch police would begin fining property owners for not having cleaned their walks. City Council member and Reform Party chair Remo Holsmeri suggested the cops could "...instead of threatening people pick up a shovel and help out."

(*Not really, but I've always wanted to write that.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Triple Cage Match

Triple Cage Match:

Ladies of Pirita vs. Martti Preem

This week I witnessed a public hearing where a group of ladies from Tallinn’s Pirita neighborhood made their case before city planning officials about why certain zoning language was problematic and should be changed during the general planning process. “But you aren’t allowed to contest that until the detailed planning stage,” argued the city officials.

But the ladies weren’t having any of it. They brought forth examples of past instances where “developers” (the ladies would want that in quotes) were given an inch with vague language and then proceeded to steal a mile. The city officials denied the abuse, and then the ladies calmly recited a list of addresses.

The land under question is a hectare or so of seaside land which is owned, through subsidiary- or sister companies, by the friendly folks from Tallink. There’s no question the land will be developed, but the ladies of Pirita simply want it to be restaurants and kindergartens, rather than a modern version of Lasnamäe, Tallinn’s Soviet housing eyesore. The land’s official designation, “mixed use,” in historical practice, has meant developers build anything they want, despite the fact that the greater land may be zoned as sotsiaalmaa, or land intended to serve the community as a whole.

This feud has been going on years in Pirita, and I’ve been following it only the last couple. And through it all what I’m most impressed by are the ladies of Pirita. And I do mean ladies. These are a group of middle-aged Estonian women, some housewives, some professionals, who have angered quite a few Estonian businessmen and city officials by simply having the courage to stand up and fight for what they believe. The men’s attitude, in most polite, unimaginative terms, is that of “Won’t you silly women just get out of our way.” On several occasions I’ve seen developers and city officials be genuinely rude to the ladies, but the ladies never falter. They maintain their composure throughout it all.

At the last meeting, Ürmas Lind, from the developer’s camp, fidgeted in his chair, made paper airplanes, washboarded his fingernails together, made wisecracks when others were speaking—everything he could think of to disrupt the meeting without being asked to leave. Martti Preem, a city official, became so upset that he shouted red-faced at the ladies, saliva spewing from his mouth. At one point he let a “kuradi” or two slip, which isn’t that bad if you’re sitting around in the pub watching football, but entirely inappropriate for a public hearing.

While I support the ladies in their cause, as I sat in the room my mind was not drawn to concoct ways I might help them. Rather, I began to imagine the world they inhabit. Much has been written about Estonian men and many theories floated about the superiority of their women. (For example: In ancient times, Estonian men went to sea and women ran the home. In Soviet times, Estonian men went to drink and women ran the home.) There may not be agreement on why Estonian women are better than their men, but there’s no disputing that they are.

As I sat and watched the ladies of Pirita keep their composure in the face of such abuse, I couldn’t help but admire them. I had to wonder if anyone outside their own ranks was aware of their plight, their burden. But then I remembered Robert Graves:

"Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls / Married impossible men? / Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out, / And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten. / … / Impossible men: idle, illiterate, / Self-pitying, dirty, sly, / For whose appearance even in City parks / Excuses must be made to casual passers-by…"

(And truly worth it: Listen to Graves read the entire poem here.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


: A stereotypical rullnokk is a poorly educated young man (generally between 16 and 25) with limited interests, who chooses "sport dress" and highly values automobiles... Nokk literally means "beak." (Estonian Wikipedia)

The rullnokk, the national bird of Estonia, was once thought to inhabit only rural areas. Recently, however, during the period surrounding the American presidential election, large numbers of the creature were spotted in Estonia’s metropolitan areas.

The bird is often tall, as birds go, gangly as a stork with a shaven, ostrich-like head, and scientists believe it to possess a brain approximately the size of a bar of hotel soap. Despite the bird’s brain size relative to a human being’s, the species has demonstrated the ability, both in and outside the laboratory, to send and receive SMS text messages. Here are two I personally received immediately following Mr. Obama’s presidential victory:

Pass the fried chicken! And: 50 Cent gonna play the inauguration party!

Generally speaking, with any species, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of arrested intellectual development, and, in this case, scientists are particularly worried about its use by the rullnokk, given the birds’ tendency toward violent outbursts when present in flocks.

Eesti Ekspress, a leading Estonian ornithological chronicle, published a photograph of two male rullnokkad in its post-election pealtnägija feature. The first bird, who bore a striking resemblance to Margus Tsahkna, sang: “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…” The second rullnokk, closely resembling Mart Laar, replied: “Oleks aeg juba see rassism lõpetada, et neeger justkui ei suudaks ise enda eest seista. Küll ta suudab, kui vaadata kuulsaid neegersportlasi ja neegritest muusikuid…”* Indeed, rullnokks may surface in places one would never expect.

The rullnokk, generally a scavenger species which feeds on carcasses discarded by those higher in the food chain, can exhibit predatory behavior when present in large numbers. Clinical trials have thus far proven ineffective in altering the bird’s behavior, and its quick death via drowning or neck-wringing is the most accepted method of ensuring a stable, balanced environment.

How can Estonia eradicate its rullnokks, which currently pose a danger to far more than the forgotten villages and fallow fields of Estonia’s agrarian past? Though the subject has never received serious attention in republics of the former Soviet Union, both western politicians and scientists have worked to fund and develop techniques to deal with the bird.

Both private- and EU support is currently available for rullnokk trapping and extermination. The most effective program, as one might expect, is also one of the most controversial. A Soros Foundation-sponsored program grants funding for the visit of 200 professional American football players to Central and Eastern European cities. The program covers the players’ hotel rooms and provides them beer money, but otherwise the Americans make themselves at home on the streets and in the bars of their host cities, engaging and eradicating the rullnokk in a quick, efficient fashion with a single blow to the trachea or ventriculus.

United Nations-sponsored seminars are also available and have achieved mixed results. Two fine examples are the seminars, “The Rullnokk Walks Upright” (limited success in Latvia) and “Teaching Rullnokks to Breathe Through the Nose” (employed on a trial basis in Lithuania).
Other foundations have funded the production of documentary films, though these often rely on a rullnokk’s ability to comprehend language of richer complexity than found in SMS text messages, and it is therefore impossible to guarantee desired results.

The Soros-funded program utilizing American NFL players has not only delivered results, but it has generated enthusiasm from the players themselves, many of whom are avid hunters as well as beer drinkers. “I’ve hunted birds all over the world, and I’ve drunk beer all over the world, but this is the first time I’ve been praised by society for doing both,” remarked a player in a recent interview with CNN. “For all of us,” noted the player, “the approach is truly a win-win situation.”

*Rough translation of Laar's speech bubble: It's about time this racism ended. Like a negro can't stand on his own two feet--he sure as hell can; just look at all those famous negro athletes and musicians...

Friday, November 7, 2008

A View from the Cheap Seats: Open Estonia XIII

Bear Baiting
or “Russians Have Feelings, Too”

You gotta love Kadri Liik for putting the gristle in the conference’s rubber chicken. At the 13th Open Society Forum, she seemed unable to resist a quick jab at Russia whenever the microphone passed her way. To a question about the Kremlin, she garbled something about being persona non grata but then did make clear she was “usually present in more pleasant company like this.” As the staff from the Russian embassy looked on.

Liik noted that Russia feels entitled to its allies in Europe and believes it has the right to “take them back by force” if necessary. Later, she urged to “stop pretending we have any common values with Russia.” Finally, she suggested Medvedev and Putin were criminals who should be tried for war crimes. I looked over at my Russian acquaintances and wondered if pictures of Kissinger weren’t dancing in their heads. Or perhaps Bush.

Russia was discussed as if it were a lab rat in a maze or an anesthetized patient on an operating table. A better analogy: an unloved child at the dinner table, whose behavior his parents bemoan in the third person. (What happens to those kids? In my country, most end up either suicidal or in jail.)

I almost felt sorry for the embassy staff—some of whom I know—but then I recalled episodes I’d seen broadcast from the Kremlin where Mr. Putin laid into visitors, giving them little or no chance to respond. This is how the game is played, I guess, and I had to, in the name of lively discussion, shout a quiet hurrah for Kadri Liik bringing gasoline for the conference fire.

Court Intrigue

Kadri’s attempts at fun were soon enough extinguished by no other panelist eager to play along, and the journalist beside me began killing time by explaining who was (or had been) sleeping with whom in Estonian government. There were plenty of parliamentarians and statesmen around for cannon fodder. Mostly, I just listened, punctuating the journalist’s narrative with the occasional “Really!” to which he responded “Yes,” to which I responded “No!” to which he responded “Yes.”

We foreigners miss so much. Estonia is as incestuous a soap opera as The Bold and the Beautiful. Think again if you were under the impression there’s been no fun in government since Kennedy and Clinton.

Of course, he could have been lying.

I spent my time wondering about my fellow Canadian, Dr. Andres Kasekamp. Certainly a capable moderator and probably good man to have a beer with, but where does he get the brand of English he speaks? Is it a consciously-acquired Euro souvenir to show off when visiting friends back home in Toronto? Or genuinely acquired during his PhD days in London and further churned through a tour of duty in Berlin? And Mr. Ilves? He’s American educated and pronounces “negotiation” like a Brit. Americans say nee-go-she-ay-shun (even though they don’t negotiate). Does Ilves also say shhedule? Jolly good and Bob’s your uncle? To settle the matter, I wanted to take the microphone and ask to borrow a rubber. Whether he tossed me a condom or an eraser would settle the matter once and for all.

Twelve Monkeys

David Foster Wallace’s Twelve Monkeys were there, too. The dry-cleaned cynics of the traveling press. Having undoubtedly seen the same show at a previous stop, they sat with smug grins, checked email, examined clothing for lint, and crossed and uncrossed their legs seeking that position of comfort one can never quite find in a folding chair.

Though generally quite nice people when you talk to them, if allowed to remain silent they project the air of elitist pricks from another planet, with whom you’d expect to have this sort of discussion:

Question: “What do you do?”

Answer: “I’m an intellectual.”

But most really aren’t that sort. These Twelve Monkeys, in fact, were not carrying Mr. Wallace’s identical steno notebooks, though a few wore identical gold-buttoned navy blue cast-off-the-bow-line jackets, the all-purpose, goes-with-anything sport coat. Mostly, the foreign press served as a backdrop before which to closely examine the Estonian press, who appeared to have slept in their clothing and not bathed for several days. That’s the men of course. They don’t own suits and they’ve declared a fatwa on irons. The female reporters favored tight blouses and low-slung jeans which occasionally offered a glimpse of their naughty knickers. The ladies have potential, but if they’re after sassy, I’d direct them to Tina Brown or Arianna Huffington.

Used to, to note that professional dress has not visited the Estonian press would be cheap. But it’s no longer 1992, and the observation on my part is simply unprofessional.

The EU & Russia

That was the topic, and near the end of the panel discussion, things finally got interesting enough for Mr. Ilves to take his hands away from his face and uncross his legs.

George Soros had suggested that the solution for a relationship between Ukraine and Russia was not to be found in NATO membership and Mr. Ilves wanted to take issue. But just when it looked like we were set for a steel cage match, we were out of time. And we’re out of time now. Tune in next year to see George Soros perform a pile driver on Toomas Hendrik Ilves while containing the Ukraine with a left-handed sleeper hold.

Unless the organizers read this and disinvite me.

Montague H. Crakenthorp in Ohio and Alistair Digby Vane Trumpington in London also contributed to this report.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Crisis?

Every day I read about Estonia’s economic crisis. The newspaper says loans are hard to get and thirty percent of restaurants may close by spring. And there’s a story circulating about Estonians smashing their luxury cars into trees, collecting the insurance, and buying more modest vehicles. I’ve read about falling apartment prices and the greater need for owners to get rental income from empty flats. But I’ve only read about the crisis. I’m still waiting for the anecdotal evidence to catch up with the newspaper.

A friend of mine, a well-known French writer named Guillaume, recently moved to Tallinn. He wanted a quiet place to spend a year finishing his next book, and Tallinn fit the bill: a fairytale city mostly undiscovered by the rest of the world. He searched the web, found a beautiful place in the Old Town, and called up the listed agent.

“You want to see it today?” the agent asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m ready to rent.”

“What about next week?” the agent offered. “Why don’t you call me back then.”

A bit puzzled, Guillaume conveyed the information to my wife. Liina took the phone from him. “I don’t understand,” she said in Estonian. “This guy’s ready to rent today. The apartment is available. You’re even advertising it. This is the easiest money you’ll make this year, and you want to wait until next week?

There was a pause on the agent’s end of the line. Then: “Are you making fun of me?”

Liina turned to us. “He wants to know if we’re making fun of him.” We burst into laughter so loud the agent couldn’t have helped but hear. We honestly weren’t making fun of him. At least not before he made The Most Asinine Remark of 2008.

“We’re not making fun of you,” Liina told him, trying to choke back laughter. “But this guy is ready to move in immediately. He’s motivated.” Actually, it was Liina who was motivated. Guillaume had been sleeping on our couch for several days. He’s a good friend, but even friends wear out their welcome when they’re making camp in the middle of your living room. The agent’s end of the line remained silent. Perhaps he was thinking about how he might kill us and stash the bodies under the apartment floorboards. Or maybe, we hoped, he was entertaining rational thoughts and might deign to do his job and show an apartment. Liina pushed him a little more. “How many people do you have ready to pay the prices you’re asking for Old Town flats?”

“Let me think about it,” came the reply.

Liina hung up the phone. The agent could think as much as he wanted, but Liina had already thought about it. “You’re not going to get that apartment, Guillaume. Go back to the computer and find another.”

Guillaume didn’t understand. “It’s an Estonian thing,” she finally told him. “One of our strange customs of commerce.”

The next agent we reached was taking a week’s holiday and wasn’t willing to show apartments until she returned. Liina asked if someone else from her firm might show the apartment. The agent said she didn’t know.

“Look,” Liina said. “Isn’t better to get part of a commission than no commission at all?” The agent said she’d have to call us back. Of course, she never did.

Guillaume began to worry. He talked about moving to Riga. Or Minsk if he had to. Liina calmed him down. She explained that plenty of foreigners had found places to live in Tallinn. “Maybe Estonians hate me because I’m French?” Guillaume said.

“No, no,” she corrected. “Estonians hate you because you’re the customer.”

Luckily, our third call turned up a broker who was willing to show apartments that very next day. Guillaume took the second place he saw and moved in the same afternoon.

Guillaume is quite happy in the new place, one hundred square meters on Pikk Street. But he’s still shaking his head over the quality of service he’s found in Estonia. When he offered to pay to have a Xerox copy made in a hotel they chased him away because he wasn’t a guest. “It’s easier to get things done in Vietnam,” he’s said several times. He is very suspect of material he sees describing E-stonia and its forward-thinking people.

“You’re a writer,” Liina told him. “Don’t you ever make things up?”

Guillaume is starting to get the picture. He now says that Estonia’s real estate ads are better fiction than anything produced in 19th-century Russia. And he’s looking skeptically at much of the other glowing things written about Estonia. “Summer,” he recently exclaimed, “is another great lie of Estonia. They should be forced to call it something else.”

Guillaume has been feeling down lately, and Liina and I are hoping things will get better for him. But if not, he can spend time with us. And if all else fails, there will always be Minsk.