Thursday, July 31, 2008

When English Trumps Estonian

Once in line at Selver, a Russian speaker in front of me succeeded in both disarming and charming a hostile Estonian checker. Within seconds she was under his spell, her grumpiness gone. She was smiling, laughing, pleased at the prospects of life.

I’m told Russians have a saying that for every language you speak, you live another life. If that’s true, then I was witness to the Russian man drawing the Estonian into his world, seeing her born again outside the prison of her Nordic silence.

When I moved to Estonia sixteen years ago, my bad Estonian got a very positive reaction. Salesgirls were happy to suffer patiently along as I inquired about sprats in oil versus sprats in mustard sauce. Estonian families were thrilled to serve me the kolkhoz’s finest carp and listen intently as I butchered the case endings of their impossible language. (Only the telephone office people were mean to me, but I’m convinced they were born that way.) In most cases, the simple fact that I attempted Estonian was treated as the ultimate compliment to the new republic and its citizens.

Since my mother rarely spoke Estonian to me growing up, I did not arrive in Estonia fluent in the language. I spoke it so badly that, except for my Estonian name, no one ever mistook me for a väliseestlane. My accent was so strange no one confused me for a Russian, either. Once, after struggling to order a cut of sausage from behind my local meat counter, as I walked away I heard one worker whisper to another: “That German boy is always so polite.”

I worked hard to escape my German phase. I found excellent Estonian teachers and learned a good deal more sitting on a bar stool. But as my Estonian improved, I discovered the quality of service decreased in direct proportion. The better I spoke Estonian, the worse Estonians treated me.

When my “tere” no longer reeked of foreign origins, the “tere” was no longer appreciated. While in longer conversations my odd grammatical choices and slight accent would give me away, short, quotidian transactions did not betray me and I was no longer special. I had to push and shove like everyone else.

I missed being different. I missed hearing the common refrain: “Te räägite eesti keelt nii hästi. Venelased on siin elanud viiskümmend aastat ja nemad ei oska ühtegi sõna.” Neither of those was actually true—my Estonian wasn’t “hästi” and I knew plenty of Russians who could speak Estonian—but it was still always nice to hear.

Perhaps Estonian from the mouths of foreigners is no longer novel. I recently saw a television show where it seemed every Dutchman living in Tallinn spoke the Estonian language better than I. I even know some Americans who’ve learned it; a few of them actually speak it well.

As I watched the Russian man charm the Selver checker, I was jealous of his gift to change the world with language. Standing in the queue, I thought I should perhaps study a foreign language. But then I realized, I speak one! English! To me, it hardly seems foreign, but it could indeed be a weapon with which to subdue a hostile service industry employee.

“Good afternoon!” I exclaimed to the checker, giving her my best American-style smile. She had just come off the high of the Russian experience, and now was getting a jolt of the optimism inherent in English-language small talk. “I brought my Partner Card!” I sang, thrusting it over the countertop before she could ask.

She was pleased to receive me and was all smiles. She replied “good afternoon” in serviceable English and was not angry at all when I wanted to add a plastic bag after she’d already rung up my other items. She was still smiling when she told me how much I owed: “Five hundred and sixty-two kroons.” I’d never been so pleased to pay so much for groceries. “But may I have my free Postimees?” I asked. She shot me a strange look. Having spent over five hundred kroons I was indeed entitled to a free newspaper, but what would a foreigner want with Postimees? Her expression begged to know if I’d been putting her on. Could I have been making fun of her? Could I have taken her to such new emotional heights, only to drop her without a parachute?

“The newspaper,” I recovered. “It’s for my Estonian wife.”

The checker exhaled, relieved. She smiled and handed me the paper. “Have a nice day,” she said. And she meant it.

Since then, I’ve made English my service language. I speak English at the post office, in restaurants, with FedEx, and with Estonian airport security. Most are more than pleased to practice their English, and I get far better service than the Estonians before and after me in the queue.

It’s a sad fact of life at the moment that English trumps Estonian. But I haven’t given up on my Estonian. I still use it at home. I speak it with my wife, who is always happy to help me polish it and make it better than the day before. Someday, I know, an Estonian speaker will get equal or better service than an English speaker. And when that day comes, I’ll be ready.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Spies Like Us

My friend’s father is convinced I’m CIA. I’ve been here close to fifteen years and, despite Tallinn’s wonderful weather, he can’t see why any married man would stick around here that long. Maybe I am CIA. Maybe you are, too. But whether I’m a spook or not, I’ve certainly heard a lot of good spy stories about Estonia.

In the early 1990s, it was said Chinese spies were operating out of Tallinn’s only Chinese restaurant, because the Estonian government wouldn’t allow them an embassy. The story went that some Estonian guy had visited China as part of a government delegation and been given a Chinese spy to shadow him while he was here. When this Estonian guy went to eat in Tallinn’s Chinese restaurant three years later, guess who his waiter was?

About the same time, another story circulated that the US government sent spies to Estonia with suitcases of cash in order to buy big Estonian businesses, from which they’d have an inside track on Estonian goings-on and good reason to meet with government. Nice work if you can get it. I’d have bought Saku.

There was also the story about an American embassy worker who used to get drunk and accost expatriates in bars, paralyzing them with fear by reciting their names and the names and ages of their children. It maybe isn’t true but still makes a good story.

And of course they used to say that everyone at the Russian embassy was a spy. Maybe they were. Maybe they still are. I’ve heard the same about the Americans.

If you want to have fun with American embassy workers (at social functions away from their bullet-proof glass), extend your hand and when they introduce themselves you say: “Ah, of course. I remember you from Langley.” Or you can strike up a conversation about the firing range in the embassy cellar or the AV-8B Harrier parked on the roof. These are always interesting topics.

I once made friends with an American embassy worker and then raised the issue at a noisy party where I was sure the Russkies couldn’t eavesdrop. “So who are the spooks in the embassy?” She was taken aback—I guess that’s not a common question she received at formal receptions. “Oh, come on,” I said, “there must be at least one.” She paused a minute to compose herself—calling on her Langley training, no doubt—and answered that if there were any she wouldn’t know them. “Even the ambassador wouldn’t know,” she said. I found that hard to believe and said so. But she told me that if there were any spies, they’d most likely be top men in the business community. “Or journalists,” she added. “Like you.”

A Russian military friend once told me a story about an American spy. The US government was in need of a super spy and it searched all over America, finally finding the perfect candidate at Harvard University. They took him to Langley, taught him hand-to-hand combat, weaponry, driving skills, languages—all what spies need. Then they gave him a parachute and dropped him out of the sky over Siberia, where he made his way to a small village and infiltrated the community. After he’d been there about six months, there was a great party, where everyone was far drunker than usual. “Say,” a villager said to the spy, “there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.” The spy said to fire away. “You’re a great guy,” said the villager. “And your Russian is perfect. You make the best pelmeni I’ve ever had, and you’re by far the best balalaika player in the village. But tell me one thing: What’s a black guy doing in the middle of Siberia?”

Not exactly flattering. But after the great CIA work in Iraq, it’s entirely believable.

I find it funny that my friend’s father thinks I’m CIA. Why wouldn’t he think I’m CSIS. (I’m Canadian, after all.) The reason he doesn’t think I’m CSIS, because he’s never heard of it. That’s just how super secret it is. We keep a low, low profile. We’re so deep undercover you’ve never heard of us.

I’ve also met with the Estonian intelligence service. KaPo. They’ve got a cool sounding name, which belies their tiny operational budget. They don’t have many cool James Bond toys, either. Skype employees have better. But the KaPo agents I’ve met were very professional, and I have a lot of respect for them. Personally, I think to make up for their budget, and in the name of NATO friendship, the USA should allow them to use the embassy’s firing range or their Harrier jet. But that’s just the opinion of a friendly, sharing Canadian.

From the vast knowledge about espionage demonstrated in this article, you’ve probably concluded that I’m CSIS. I can’t tell you, of course. Or, as they saying goes: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. But if you do think I’m a spy, do me one favor. Don’t mention CSIS. It’s an awful name, one so clunky no one would be proud to work there. Instead, use the organization’s French name: Service canadien du renseignement de sécurité. That’s a name I can be proud of. And it’s a name any Estonian Bond girl would fall for.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

An "Estonian" Salary

“You need to be prepared to work for an Estonian salary,” the owner of an English-language magazine said to me, after he offered me the job as editor in chief.

“An Estonian salary?” I had to ask. “What’s that mean?”

“A small salary,” he qualified.

“Oh,” I said. “You should have said Lilliputian.”

“I said Estonian.” He frowned.

The offer was for ten thousand Estonian kroons per month net, about one thousand US dollars.

“Could you live on that much?” I asked him.

“Well, you’ll be the peatoimetaja.” The editor in chief.

Indeed. If I could only eat the title.

Every time I think about quitting my freelance work and getting a serious job, this same conversation occurs. I always try to be polite. I delicately mention that a home in Estonia costs more than in Canada. Groceries in Estonia cost more. Gasoline costs more. Clothing. Cars. Building materials. Even Chinese food. In fact, other than beer and cigarettes, what doesn’t cost more in Estonia? I usually end the conversation by drawing an employer’s attention to a Postimees article which reported that a prison guard earns 18,000 EEK per month. And he gets to carry a sidearm.

I’ve discussed the situation with an American writer friend of mine (also married to an Estonian) who spends his summers in Estonia. His wife works here, and though he speaks Estonian, he doesn't consider taking a job here. “Estonians work hard,” he says. “And they get paid shit. I just don’t understand the economics.”

Some say the pay depends on the industry. Jobs in Estonia’s financial sector, arguably the country’s fastest-developing industry, pay living wages. The rest of the country has yet to catch up, and Estonian employers benefit greatly from the transitional status of the nation’s young professionals: many are still living with mom and dad, or have only recently moved out on their own. The population-at-large doesn’t carry first-world financial burdens which will drive up salaries and, versus their western counterparts, they’re able to live on a lot less money.

Of course greed is a factor, too. You don’t need to have read Marx to know that the job of the capitalist is to exploit the workers. Estonian companies are taking record profits, paying fat dividends and, depending on whom you talk to, not reinvesting much. They won’t be able to do it forever, but they’re making hay while the sun shines. I accept this is the way it is, but out of principle, I turn away from it when I can. The astute reader may catch me bitching here, but I’d ask you not read it as foreign arrogance. I do realize many people don’t have the option to earn money outside the country. I admit I have the luxury of choice.

My selfish greed aside, what ought to bother Estonians about the pathetic salaries is how they’re connected to the national identity. Using the words “Eesti palk” (Estonian salary) is a bit like striking a peasant with your cane. “Eesti palk. Know your place, boy.” I desperately wish people would stop pairing those words. The more it occurs the more the two words fuse and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the more “Estonia” becomes a synonym for “small.” Were I King of Estonia, referring to the republic as small would be tantamount to treason. Swift gave us one Lilliput. We hardly need another.

I turned down the job as editor in chief. I put on my smiling North-American face and thanked them profusely for the opportunity. I shook the man’s hand and wished him well. But what I really wanted to do was tell him the New York expression for companies like his: “Yours is a great place to work, if my parents could afford to send me.”

But I didn’t say it. But as I walked out the door, I couldn’t resist saying something to strike a blow for the workers of the world. So I mentioned that as soon as they could find a bank willing to give me an “Estonian mortgage” that I’d come back and take his “Estonian salary.” Then I nodded politely and closed the door.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I’ve heard it said countless times: Foreigners who live in Estonia are here because we can’t get jobs in our own countries. We are, in a word, losers.

That’s sometimes true.

I knew one guy who faked his entire background—fabricated a university education, work experience, even gave interviews on Estonian TV talk shows claiming to be a war correspondent. He talked about how he’d taken a sniper’s bullet in North Africa, which he carved from his own leg with a rusty pocketknife on the battlefield before crawling through twenty kilometers of enemy minefields to safety. Later it was discovered he was a barber from Minnesota.

Another guy I know claimed to be an English Count. He wore the same tweed outfit every day like he was on a driven hunt and liked to claim he’d taught Prince Harry to ride. He loved to play a pair of bagpipes for the Estonian press. Eventually, his ex-wife located him in Estonia and dispatched a brigade of lawyers. He owned a small bowling alley in Bristol and had neglected to pay his taxes.

Usually though, foreigners are not guilty of major fraud. Very few out-of-work British carpet layers claim to be heart surgeons. Few Ohio carpenters say they’re the Buddha and start their own ashrams. Generally, foreigners don’t even exaggerate their own abilities: rather they remain silent while Estonians do it for them.

In the 1990s, I worked for an Estonian advertising agency. I was often presented as a “great expert.” True, I’d worked seven years in top agencies in Toronto and New York City, and I knew more about the subject than anybody in Estonia at the time, but I was far from a great expert. To be considered a great expert in North America requires a career of at least twenty years plus public accolade.

But can you blame me for remaining silent while being toasted as a great expert? What would have Estonians thought if I’d interrupted with, “Actually, I really don’t know as much as you think…”? To say that would be out of character for a westerner. (That kind of modesty would be downright Estonian.)

Today, there are far fewer great experts around. In part, it’s because many Estonians can claim fifteen years experience in business. Their confidence has risen and they’re quicker to call bullshit when some foreigner starts spouting off about the proper way to do things. Nowadays, it’s quite difficult for a foreigner to pull a rabbit out of hat. It’s even harder for him to point to a cow and say it’s a giraffe.

My educated guess is that only one in four foreigners in Estonia today is here because he’s unemployable at home. Generally, his incompetence is so obvious that he can’t get a job anywhere in the world. Those in that group do what they would have done at home: they get married, let the wife work, and sit on the couch and drink beer.

The rest of the foreigners here are adventurers, a little bit bored with all-too-predictable lives in their own countries.

The bad news is that the longer competent foreigners remain in Estonia, the less employable they are at home. After having worked in Estonian advertising a few years, I visited a headhunter in New York City. Strangely, she did not hail me a great expert and did not throw rose petals or job offers at my feet. Rather, she looked me in the eye and said, “My god, Vello. Estonian advertising experience is the same as no experience at all.”

Of course she was being an arrogant bitch—New Yorkers think their city is the center of the universe. But her larger point was that my Estonian experience was not of particular use in a market hundreds of times its size. “What are you going to teach Americans?” she asked. I wanted to answer “humility,” but I resisted the temptation.

Instead, I argued I was a great expert on cultures great and small. A nice, middle-class Canadian boy who understood complex consumer minds in cities as big as New York and countries as small as Estonia.

“Vello,” she said. “Go back to Estonia.”

And so I did. I know the longer I remain here the less qualified I am to work in my own country. Which is why I’m working hard to become the caliber of con man who can bullshit his way into a job anywhere in the world. I’ve tried to learn what I can from the American war correspondent and the English count. And my CV is looking pretty good. It reflects my years of experience as a best-selling writer, astronaut, judo champion, Formula One driver, CIA agent, astrophysicist, and Michelin-star chef. In fact, it’s so good I’m having to trim it back: The Americans are starting to tell me I’m overqualified.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

And Nice to Meet You, Too

My first instinct was to be angry with my wife for not introducing me. Second, I thought I might introduce myself, but they already somehow knew me, my name, my connection to the few I knew in their group. They even made me feel like I should know their names. They asked me polite questions: “So, you’re back for good in Estonia?” “How’s the job working out?” There were eight of them at the table, only three of whom I knew. And one of the three was my wife.

Perhaps atypical of Estonian dinner parties, the conversation—on their part—flowed. But I couldn’t take part. I could only sit and wonder: Who are you people?

I had more questions, too. What do you do? What is your connection to everyone else at this table? And how in hell do you know me?

But I didn’t ask. I didn’t want them to think I was an American. The type who’ll pry with invasive questions. The American style of questioning can go out of control, the asker soon demanding to know what kind of car they drive, how much money they earn, and which celebrities they’ve slept with.

I know it’s not the Estonian custom to be known. Some say this is a Finno-Ugric trait. Some say it’s Soviet. My theory is that breaking bread in Estonia is not a grave enough act to warrant introductions. Despite the trappings of modern dining, food is fuel, and even if we were eating seven courses, somewhere deep in the Estonian soul a peasant voice is urging them to hurry back into the fields.

I often think Estonians want to introduce themselves but are too shy. So they employ subtle tactics. “My name is Eed,” said one at the table. “People think it’s a man’s name. I get lots of mail addressed to Mr. Eed…” I like to think that Eed sensed my discomfort and found a clever way to introduce herself, without derailing a thousand years of Estonian dining tradition.

As an outsider in this country, I try to accept the folkways without question. I will nip from the community bottle. I will tie the string and nail around my belt at a wedding. Were I to worry over introductions too much, the question would cease to be Who are you? and become What’s wrong with you?

Still, I sit frustrated. In my head, I have prepared the full text of a speech on the importance of dining. I imagine rising from my chair, throwing down my napkin, and citing examples from the world’s dining history. Jesus knew the names of his twelve guests. Ovid’s Olympian gods were acquainted. Bartenders at the Folies-Bergère knew dozens.

At the end of the evening, after much discomfort, I resorted to my first instinct and got angry with my wife. In the car, I told her if she wanted me to come to any more dinner parties, she’d better introduce me to the people I didn’t know.

“But I didn’t know them either,” she said.

I sat in silence, brooding.

“Oh, there was that one,” she said. “I think her name was Eed.”

Inherit the Family

“If this rabbit goes, I go, too.” My wife’s aunt had her hands locked to the cage, fingers twisted through the wires for a solid grip.

“Pack your bags then,” I said. My hands were wrapped around the other side of the cage and I was pulling hard. “Give me the fucking rabbit!” I often switch to English when angry. While pulling for my half of the rabbit, I wondered why it was my job to fight with this 75-year-old woman who wouldn’t permit me to give away the rabbit that had chewed through the electrical cords in the house? She wasn’t even related to me.

There are all sorts of stories about Eastern Europe which circulated in Canada in the early 90s. One was that for a pair of Levi’s blue jeans you could buy a car. It was said that for a pack of Marlboros you could have anything smaller. The women were purportedly both gorgeous and dangerous, capable of weaving especially wicked webs.

A few years after arriving in 1992, I married an Estonian woman. None of the warnings that circulated in Canada turned out to apply to Liina. What they should have warned me about were the standard marital issues which apply in every culture. Like the fact that when you marry the wife, you inherit the family.

In Estonia, when a relative gets old the young take care of her. In my North American culture, when a relative gets old we ship her off to the old folks’ home. She usually goes willingly, because independence is such an ingrained part of our culture that she doesn’t want to be a burden. We don’t consider it cruel, though in some respects it surely is. I think the Estonian tradition is much more humane, a poetic role reversal where the young care for the old. It’s beautiful. Or so I thought before I had first-hand experience.

I had met my wife’s aunt on several occasions before we married, and I knew how important she’d been in Liina’s life. The aunt had been the worldly role model. The old gal could be a real charmer, too, and liked to dress up and sashay through town, chatting up all the neighbors. I knew that when we built a house, we’d need to account for her. I imagined a sweet old woman who could help with the gardening, babysit the kids, and tell witty stories from a forgotten world. So we built a house in Nõmme with a small apartment for her where she could spend her retirement years quietly.

That’s when the trouble started. All of her possessions wouldn’t fit in the apartment, and she refused to give them up. She had a veritable warehouse of Soviet crap, including 53 brand new berets, more shoes than Imelda Marcos, and what was probably the world’s largest collection of metal serving trays with pictures of blood sausages on them. She had a mild nervous breakdown when the items went missing (stolen, she was convinced), and I tried to sooth her by replacing her black and white television whose Soviet-era antenna wouldn’t plug into a modern socket. “Get out of here with that!” she screamed at me. “I like my television.” But there were only two things important in her life: her Wednesday public sauna and any TV program starring Hannes Võrno. She finally agreed to take the new TV set only in the name of seeing Hannes.

Living in the new house, I soon learned that even her own family avoided her. She could be so hateful that her own two brothers refused to visit. So why was I so gullible?

After the TV episode, I tried to keep my distance from her, but she was unavoidable. She trapped me in her apartment—which reeked of grilled fatback and rabbit shit—and shouted me down if I tried to interrupt her discourses on the best Tallinn markets for buying pig tails. She would also demand I recharge her telephone card and then verify I’d done the job right by dialing the Estonian equivalent of 911. “Sorry, wrong number,” she giggled like a child making a prank call, as soon as the emergency operator picked up. She would call me down to fix her TV remote, and I would clean out the food stuck between the buttons with a wet cloth and readjust the antenna. It was on one of those days, bent down behind the TV set, that I noticed her rabbit had eaten through the electrical cords. I told her the rabbit would have to go and she brushed me off. “He only chews through the small cords,” she said. “That’s not dangerous.”

“What about this big fat cord I’m holding in my hand?”

“The builder did that! He’s always scraping things!” The week before, she had told the builder that I was plotting to kill her. I didn’t know what to do. I thought of asking Hannes Võrno to stop by and say something nice on my behalf.

I advertised in Soov and arranged for the rabbit to have a good home in the countryside, replete with green pastures and happy children. The day the rabbit’s new family arrived to get him, I asked them to wait behind the gate while I went to get the rabbit. The aunt first refused to believe the rabbit had to go. I mentioned the electrical cords. She denied it. I gave her a cross look, and she told me to turn off the electricity in her apartment. “I don’t need it. I’d rather have my rabbit than electricity!” There was nothing else to do but take the rabbit.

She pulled from her side, and I pulled from mine. She screamed. I swore. The cage separated into pieces and the rabbit scrambled for cover. As she cried, I quietly gathered the creature by the ears and took it out to its new family.

Why did I have to deal with a nutty old woman whose own family wouldn’t talk to her? Why was this my problem? Feeling guilty over the rabbit affair, I asked Liina that very question.
“Just why do you?” she replied.

I guess I felt sorry for the old gal. And because I was several thousand kilometers from my own family, and because I craved for a deeper connection to my new home than a stamp in a passport could provide. I was trying to be a part of the family I’d inherited. But I should have been smarter. Had a paid a little more attention I would have noticed there was good reason her own family had abandoned her. Had I planned a little it, I could have found a better defense. I could have pretended to be deaf or to not speak Estonian.

What happened to the aunt after the rabbit left her? Nothing, really. We got her a dog the next week, and she hasn’t mentioned the rabbit since. She still tells whoever will listen that I’m trying to kill her, but then she still begs me to come down and clean the food out of her remote control. I guess that means we’re back to where we started. Which perhaps isn’t a bad place to be.