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.