Friday, August 29, 2008

Heroes

An American friend of mine recently got shot. Paul was having a beer on his front porch and two thugs showed up to rob his neighbor as she was parking her car. He began shouting and so they shot him in the neck. After Paul was released from the hospital he had to hide out at hotels and friends’ homes for two weeks, which is how long it took the media to quit staking out his house.

Now the media says he’s a hero. I called to tell my dad, who also knows Paul, and he remarked, “Geez, what an unfortunate son of a bitch.” Hero or unfortunate son of a bitch? In America, it’s a fine line that separates them.

Americans have a lot of heroes. In addition to Paul, they’ve got Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Catwoman, the Incredible Hulk, and the Green Lantern. Heroes in America—or superheroes, as the case may be—are more than just guys in silly costumes; they’re manifestations of the belief that Team America can right the wrongs of the world and that there is still hope for the world’s huddled masses and wretched refuse. Not a bad sentiment, actually.

I have to admit I miss superheroes, and I wish Estonia had a few. Even one would do, and he doesn’t need to fly. I’d send him out on missions to foster simple kindness. He’d inspire men to hold doors for ladies (and the ladies to say thank you). He’d champion all that stuff President Ilves says about wanting Estonians to be more supportive of one another. And if I’m allowed to give my hero super-strength, I’d have him overturn the cars of arrogant drivers who park wherever they please, starting with that blue Ferrari which I often see on the Radisson’s sidewalk.

I’d send him over to Estonian Air to have a conversation with the claims rep who told me my flight was cancelled due to a “flight safety problem in the Moscow airport,” instead of admitting it was a malfunction of the plane’s air pressure receiver gauge.

My Estonian superhero would shake up the builder who took my money, disappeared for sixty days, and then reappeared claiming his chronic alcoholism was a “virus.”

And I’d send him downstairs to counsel my wife’s nutty aunt, who chases social workers away by screaming at them because they bought the wrong potatoes, the wrong mulgikapsas, or the cherries which she believed were too sour.

Later on, once he’s tackled the simple things, I’d give him the power of flight and send him down to Georgia to do and say the things which are too frightening a job for the superheroes from the superpower. Then, having wrapped that up, he could fly back home and have a word or two with Edgar Savisaar.

Perhaps a superhero is too much for Estonia. However, the ideas represented by heroes aren’t out of reach. Estonian journalists seek them, scouring the earth for heroes with the tiniest percentage of Estonian blood. An editor once asked me to profile a Canadian businessman with an Estonian grandmother. “But why him?” I asked. He didn’t seem special to me—just another garden-variety rich dude. “Because,” the editor replied, “we have so few good role models in our own country.”

It may be un-Estonian to seek the spotlight and take credit for good deeds, but any nation capable of Hea Teenindus Kuu (Good Service Month) can surely create a modest superhero, or at least promote the common man who does uncommon things. There’s no need to get carried away like the Americans who find heroes under every rock. “They’re all heroes,” Bush once said about the victims of 9-11. But the American president has never owned a dictionary. Most were simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like my friend Paul, the unfortunate son of a bitch.

I’ve argued about this topic with my wife, Liina, and she says Estonians don’t have the same worries as Americans and therefore don’t need heroes. Liina says only nations with superproblems require superheroes. She may have a point. While Estonia may not have superheroes, you’re also not likely to get shot in the neck while sitting on your own front porch.

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.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Love Thy Neighbor

My wife and I used to rent a house next door to a brothel where, weather permitting, the prostitutes would come out and sing on the porch. They could carry a tune pretty well. It was a tough neighborhood to leave, all that excitement just twenty meters outside my door. But the rent was high and the place poorly insulated, so we moved out. Luckily, our new neighborhood isn’t a total bore.

The kid next door regularly disassembles his entire car, strewing the parts all over his yard, and puts it back together within a couple of hours. I’ve often wondered if he’s training to work in a Formula One pit crew. Or perhaps he wants to be a deejay. During his automotive work, he shares his music with the entire neighborhood: Imagine the sound of an aquarium’s oxygen pump set to a heavy drum beat with the voice of a tortured dog. All this at a concert-level 120 decibels. Looped. But he’s not a bad kid. He borrowed my ladder one day and brought it back. He loaned me his dad’s garden hose.

Another neighbor hosts Tallinn’s taxi drivers. Every few minutes one departs from his house and another arrives. So many taxi drivers in one place make me nervous. I’ve convinced myself the house is either a drug den or the local headquarters for Nashi. There might even be some WMDs inside.

There’s also an elderly woman who likes to garden in the vacant lot next to our house. The builders plowed it under months ago, readying it for construction, but she’s still out there trying to save the poppies that grew before the demolition. I once saw her waiting for a bus, took her aboard my car, and she remarked: “Oh, so chivalrous. You treat me like a German lady.” She sometimes leaves nasty notes for us on the fence, telling us to replace her flowers or fix her clothes line, the former which we haven’t touched, the latter which hasn’t existed since the lot was plowed under.

But I’m sure our neighbors aren’t in love with us, either. My wife’s aunt, who lives below us and is not fully sane, dries her laundry on the fence, making our garden look like a gypsy camp in a yuppie neighborhood. She also exercises her rabbit in the yard, and squeals for hours in a high pitch when it escapes under the fence. But she won’t allow me to build a hutch for it. “He wants to be free,” she screamed at me. “Can’t you see he wants the whole garden?”

The outside of our house is awaiting its final coat of paint. Due to a major mistake by the builder, the house looks like its suffering from a skin disease, and the banker next door keeps asking when we’re going to finish it. “We’re all out of money,” I say. “But I do hope to complete it before I die.” Actually, the builder has sworn he’ll fix it within the month. But no point me telling the banker that.

It’s never easy being a good neighbor. It’s even harder when you’re in a culture not your own, surrounded by people you think are complete crackpots. But I know that’s what they think of me, too. And so while we may not be the best of friends, at least there’s comfort in knowing we’re even.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Across the Spanish Tomatoes

People stare at me in supermarkets. I don’t know how many people read Eesti Ekspress, but many readers must shop where I do. They peer over fresh cabbage until their eyes meet mine. Then they glance downward, as if there were something on the floor they might buy.

I look like my photo in real life, though I’ve had my teeth fixed since then. Otherwise, I’m a readily identifiable average guy who’s never had to deal with fame. I had one close call in Vancouver when my Esto-Canadian band, Reckless Dentistry, had a video on Much Music called “Tuusik Vanaemale.” We weren’t as clever as we thought, and I wasn’t much of a bass player. Rightly so, my fame was short-lived.

People have said I’m a better writer than musician, which I certainly hope is true. But as these columns become more popular, I’m not so sure I’m prepared for fame. And Estonian fame is of the strangest sort.

Andy Warhol said that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, but he never lived in a country that has fewer residents than his Manhattan neighborhood.

Curious about Warhol’s prediction in an Estonian context, I turned to science. I pored over TV schedules to calculate that Estonia’s three channels offer 1,450,800 broadcast minutes per year. Assuming the average Estonian lives 65 years, there will be over 94 million minutes of TV time to fill in a single lifetime. Divide by the Estonian-speaking population (a bit over 920,000), and every man, woman, and child will need to personally appear 102 minutes on local television stations. Imagine: a never-ending episode of Meie.

Scientifically-minded readers will find fault. Granted, broadcast minutes are sometimes filled with foreign programming. But in my favor, I did not include other mediums like radio, magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I also did not factor out infants, the elderly, and the indigent. If we adjust for those, the scenario is of a magnitude that would have frightened Mr. Warhol. Indeed, Estonians have a grim responsibility to feed the fires of fame.

Luckily, there are Estonians ready to unselfishly serve both your time and mine. Anu Saagim is one. When Anu runs out of something to say, she gets a tattoo or a breast implant or botox treatment, and then talks about that. When she’s finally run the gamut of plastic surgeries and beauty treatments, it won’t surprise me if she experiments with prosthesis. Who among us has not wondered which artificial leg boasts the sexiest curves?

Then there are those Ninjas. It’s not my kind of music—though their English-language titles rival my band’s “Tuusik Vanaemale”—but those girls have done their national service by suffering through their fame. They flew to Iraq and sweated in body armor only to return home to the headline: "Kavatseme ├╝hel ajal lapsed saada." ("We all plan to have kids at the same time.")

Politicians have it worse, though. When a politician’s image appears on the TV screen, half of Estonia winces or spits. It’s almost a national pastime to trash politicians. But since many of them deserve it, and because they’re well paid, it’s hard to pity them.

Fame even carries over into the foreign community. It is a fact that every foreigner who learns the Estonian language has gone on television to give an interview. They’re never asked intelligent questions; rather they are invited before the klieg lights to scratch themselves like monkeys. Their role is to smile, butcher a few sentences, and show the Russian population that “See, it’s not impossible to learn the language!” (Never mind that the Russian population doesn’t watch Estonian television.)

I have a couple of friends who are famous Estonians. While the public generally respects their privacy—they’re rarely hounded for autographs—I don’t see the benefit of fame. The police won’t fawn over you and tear up your speeding ticket: they’re as likely to double-check the breathalyzer. Fame doesn’t get you a better parking place or a better table in a restaurant, and it certainly doesn’t get you money. I get stares in Selver but what I earn for my column remains a constant. There are plenty of famous Estonians who lead middle-class or even below-middle class existences. What’s the point in that?

It’s too late to turn back now, but had I been smarter I would have used someone else’s picture for this column. Someone who’s already famous or would really like to be. However, if a certain amount of fame is the price for expressing one’s views in the newspaper, I guess that’s not an unfair bargain. But please do me one favor: Don’t steal glances at me across the Spanish tomatoes. Come over and introduce yourself. We’ll both have made a new acquaintance, and I won’t feel half as awkward with my newfound fame.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Letter from a Luddite

One of my colleagues, Matis, uses a Nokia Communicator E90. He tells it’s a 3G phone with MS Office compatibility, GPRS, WAP, wireless LAN, infrared Bluetooth, and “all communications protocols.”

I have a blue telephone. It has an on-off switch on the top, and when I dial a number and push the green button, it will make a telephone call. I like this phone well enough, but I wish the battery would last longer than four calls. With Matis’ help, I’m starting to check out new telephones.

We’ve visited several stores and gazed upon phones behind polished glass, displayed like diamond engagement rings in a Toronto jewelry store. Some of them cost as much as diamonds, too. I do my best to listen patiently while a salesman explains why a telephone is really worth 9,000 EEK. “But it’s more than a telephone,” the salesman senses my doubt. “It’s a personal communications center!”

“A ‘personal communications center?’” I ask. “Can it take a message?”

“Of course,” sneers the little smartass.

“But can it send a fax?”

“Why would anyone want to send a fax?”

“I like faxes. I like to both send and receive them.” The young guy isn’t certain if I’m serious. “Can it send a fax?” I repeat.

“No,” he admits, scratching his head. “It cannot send a fax.”

Matis shrugs apologetically to the salesman, as if to say “he’s a crusty old fart.” Which is true enough, I suppose. Matis is doing his best with me. But we’re just two different breeds when it comes to tech.

Anytime Matis sees an ad for a new technology, he’ll investigate it. Say they’ve added a ICBM function to his NORAD-rated GPS for his Subaru. Well, he’s got to at least try it. All an advertiser needs to do is throw a new acronym in an ad, and within a week Matis will have such a well-informed opinion about it that he could write an article for Consumer Reports. And if he finds value in it—if it’s “a powerful work tool,” his favorite phrase—he’ll soon have one on his desk.

Of course, it’s not only Matis. It seems all Estonians love tech. I recently read a study which said Italians use mobile phones more than anyone else (to call their mothers) and then come Finns. Estonians have to be pretty close behind the Finns, because I see some of them making calls as early as seven a.m. (thank God, not to me).

So far, Matis hasn’t been much help to me in finding a new phone—which in his world is called “hardware.” In my world, I’m after a kind of simplicity Matis and most young Estonians can’t begin to comprehend. I use a manual typewriter, fountain pen, and a Smythson Panama diary (the battery-free variety you write in with a pencil).

I’ve about given up on Matis’ ability to help me with a phone and am starting to fly solo, checking out ads for new phones on the market. I’m looking for that just-right phone which will fit into my Luddite world, one that is simple to use and won’t require a weeklong NATO training course.

I’ve noticed a Samsung ad urging me to “improve my business image.” Not for me, as I don’t have a business image. And the guy in the ad looks exactly like the Brylcream man from 1970s advertising in Canada. Brylcream was the gel which turned gray hair black and helped old guys get chicks. “A little dab’ll do ya’,” they used to say. It’s possible the 1970’s Brylcream man appeals to some, but he strikes me as the insecure type with a shriveled-up penis who hides behind ostentatious material things. So I can’t possibly buy that phone.

Nokia phones run the gamut of offers. One tells me to “live life to the fullest and fulfill my active lifestyle.” No thanks. That’s what Gatorade is for. Another offers “irreplaceable luxury.” Not for me: I drive a beat up Opel. One phone claims to be an “ideal training partner.” I don’t train; I drink beer. The last Nokia phone is billed as “practical meets merry.” The last thing I want is a merry telephone. A phone should sit there and be quiet until I need it.

Motorola models start with the letter “V,” which I think must stand for the English word Vain. One model claims to help me “strike a pose” and “turn heads.” Another says it will “blast my senses.” Great, a phone that’s going to blast me.

Sony Ericsson has a device they say is both a Walkman and a camera (and presumably a telephone, too). It looks like it can do most everything for you, so I’m going to call Matis and alert him to it. He might want to get one for himself.

As for me, I think I’m going to stick with my blue telephone. The battery is dead now most of the time, but if something’s important enough someone will surely come find me.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Watching the Neighbors' House Burn

I didn’t start to worry until the roof caught fire. When the asbestos shingles went, it sounded like a drive-by shooting.

Before that I thought the drunks were out in their yard burning leaves. So what if a burn ban had been in place for two weeks? Most Estonians pay no more attention to burn bans than they do traffic regulations.

But it wasn’t the drunks’ house. It was the mother and daughter’s house next to the drunks. I seriously considered calling the fire department, but I ran to check it out first. Maybe the mother and daughter were tossing aerosol cans on the fire for fun? I’m perhaps sometimes too uptight, and what I consider an out-of-control fire doesn’t at all coincide with the local definition. In the neighborhood I live, people generally shut up and mind their own business.

The brothel behind my house plays loud Russian rock and roll and the girls cackle like chickens throughout the summer, and no one complains. Children on mopeds run pedestrians off the streets, and no one complains. Dogs fill the park with excrement: no one cleans up, and no one complains. So I try to do the neighborly thing: I don’t complain.

By the time I got to the house fire, a good crowd had gathered to watch. And the fire department was on the job. (Another Estonian peculiarity: Estonians like quiet; police and fire vehicles rarely use sirens.) The firemen unrolled their hoses and drenched the woodshed next to the mother and daughter’s house. Of course, I don’t know if they’re mother and daughter; I just suspect. You see, I’ve never met them. In fact, after two years in the same house, I’ve only met one of my neighbors.

To gauge whether my time in Estonia has made me unfriendly, I asked my landlord if he knew any of the neighbors. He said he knows the same one I do. Estonians are true to the etymological meaning of neighbor: someone who lives nearby. But Estonian neighbors don’t necessarily know each other. And, despite the urgings of Matthew 19:19, they don’t necessarily love each other.

By never introducing myself to any of my neighbors, I was just trying to fit in. I was trying to do things the Estonian way.

So why do I feel so rotten about that house?