Thursday, October 23, 2008

Missed Opportunity

The Russian child recently abandoned in Estonia is by far the greatest missed opportunity for Estonian propaganda writers.

But I’m willing to help.

The abandoned Russian girl’s name is Svetlana. Little Svetlana. Poor, little Svetlana, symbolic of all the greater problems Russia is suffering. As their stock market collapses and the formerly nascent middle class withers, their lower class grows, and young mothers line up at the Ivangorod-Narva border with babies in their arms begging for an Estonian family to take them, feed them, give them a life they can’t have in Russia, where the average male will not live longer than 59 years and the average female will do little more than watch him drink himself to death.

Some of the Russian mothers, the truly desperate cases, many of whose dacha gardens were ruined by the wet summer weather, prostitute themselves to truck drivers, who then strap the infants to greasy truck axles and carry them as far as Estonia’s first Statoil, where they remove the child under the cover of night and prop her against diesel pumps to await the arrival of a cheerful morning worker. The smiling, uniformed employee arrives, changes the infant’s diapers and feeds the baby, all with goods from the store’s own inventory which she pays for out of her own abundant salary. On a recent Tuesday, Statoil turned over two dozen infants to Estonian social services. (No babies have yet been left in front of Lukoil.)

Ethnic Estonians, unselfish and kind-hearted, form a line at social services (twice as long as the Ivangorod line of mothers, by the way) in hopes of adopting one of the children. “I’ll raise her bilingually,” pledges 28-year-old Liina (not my wife, by the way), who also promises to teach the child a fair and balanced view of history, including the Russian textbook version of The Great Patriotic War.

Secretly, the Estonian government contacts Russia, but the Kremlin remains silent. While there is money to buy Putin’s dog a satellite-tracking collar, there is not enough to feed little Svetlana and the thousands like her. Better for Russia, better for the children, that they make their way to Estonia.

“We will do what is right,” says President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “regardless of the cost.” Ilves appeals for calm on the rainy Russian side of the border. A bullhorn in hand, he stands atop a Red Cross truck on the Narva River bridge and tells Russian mothers that Estonia will feed their children. Canned goods are dispensed to Russian soldiers who promise it will be delivered to the queue of mothers. “You may keep one of those for yourself,” President Ilves tells a hollow-eyed soldier. But the recruit does not speak German, and so Ilves can only pray the lima beans find the right hands. “Sigareta?” the soldier begs Mr. Ilves. But the president doesn't even carry speechki.

President Ilves speaks to his European colleagues and tells them how these fortunate infants will successfully integrate into a New Europe yet retain their own culture and identity. They will love French wine and Italian cars, use Finnish tech, (and perhaps carve Kalevipoeg figurines from juniper branches), but they’ll be the best balalaika players in their schools. They will grow up to be software engineers and professors of philosophy and have little need to emigrate to Brooklyn and Brighton Beach. They’ll make their home in Estonia. And they’ll be grateful for it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


“Hey, I’m out mushrooming!” an American friend phoned to tell me. There was joy in his voice. He was a city boy who rarely experienced nature.


“No. With some Estonians.”

“So they tell you which ones to pick?”

“No. I just pick the ones that look nice.”

“How do you know which ones are poison?”

“Oh, I don’t eat them.”

“So you let the Estonians eat the poisonous ones?”

“Oh, come on,” he sighed. “I think the people who eat them will know the difference!”

And so it goes with most foreigners picking mushrooms in Estonia. We wander through the forest wondering whether that liivaseen might be a männiriisikas. In the end, not wanting to suffer the shame of returning empty handed, we give up and put both in our sack. You could say we adopt the wartime cry of the infantryman: Shoot ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out.

I’ve mushroomed for over ten years now with Estonians from Valga to Tallinn, and I’m still as confused as the day I started. The only mushroom I can identify for sure is the kukeseen, the chanterelle. I like it not only because it’s tasty and easy to identify, but because when I bring a basketful to an Estonian family I don’t have to hear “Oh, thanks, but these are ussitanud.” As I’ve been led to believe, the chanterelle is the only mushroom worms won’t eat.

I’ve guest-mushroomed with dozens of Estonian families, and no two experiences have been alike.

“We only pick puravikud,” a Võru grandmother told me. “We leave the others to rot.”

“But what about this one?” I asked, proudly displaying one I thought looked edible.

Põdramokk,” she replied. “Slightly poisonous. Leave it for the Russians.”

On another trip with a Hiiumaa family, the father explained we’d be picking only kitse- and kännumamplid. I had a tough time finding them and would occasionally run to him with one I’d picked with a previous family. He’d shrug his shoulders as if to say, Well, if you insist.

After my third or fourth mushrooming trip, I concluded that every Estonian is a mushroom snob of a different kind. And there’s no predicting which kind. If there is any pattern to the snobbery, it’s that Estonians will often leave the tatikad. I’m still not sure which ones they are, except that they’re slimy, and I generally try to avoid slimy things.

My basic mushrooming education was given me by a woman with the last name of Kuus--Estonian for both "fir" and "six." She was a tough, charismatic woman from Southern Estonia, who her friends called “Pool Seitse” (Six-and-a-Half) because she was just a little bit more than kuus. She loaned me a pair of old rubber boots, put a basket and knife in my hands, and set out to teach me the tricks of the trade. “You’re walking right past them!” was her refrain of the day. Pool Seitse was well into her sixties, wore thick coke-bottle glasses when she read, but she could spot a kevadkorgits at fifty meters without any optical aid. Despite my ignorance, she saw something in my soul and refused to give up on me. She made a hell of an effort to educate me, and I’m sorry to report I let her down. I never became a mushroom meister.

Many of my expatriate friends have asked if I could bring them hallucinogenic mushrooms. I’m not quite sure which ones they are, though a friend once pointed them out to me: bright red with white spots. I believe they’re called kärbseseened. But there are both big ones and small ones which match the description, and the friend who pointed them out was an ornithologist, so I wasn’t convinced of his knowledge of mushrooms. Also, I’d hate to be the one who killed a friend with bad drugs.

Even Estonians can sometimes get it wrong. My wife Liina’s friend Tiina called several weeks ago, asking us if we wanted to go mushrooming. We were busy painting the house that day and had to say no.

The next day Tiina called from the hospital. She’s made a fresh mushroom sauce to go on her pasta, and it turned out she’d picked the wrong sort. “The doctor says I’m lucky my three-year-old son didn’t eat them,” she reported to Liina. I continued painting the house, this time with new vigor, grateful to the sticky white paint which had spared me a miserable fate.

Liina disappeared into the house with the phone, consoling her friend, but surely quite happy that she hadn’t gone mushrooming. Later, I saw Liina walking to the car dressed entirely in white. On her head she wore a giant red beret which she’d covered with small white spots of paper. “Wanna come?” she asked.


“To visit Tiina in the hospital.” Liina roamed around our garden, gathering any kind of mushroom she saw, even plucking them off trees until she had filled a small sandwich bag.

I tried to imagine myself in Tiina’s place in the hospital. I wondered if I’d find it funny if a friend showed up dressed as a giant kärbseseen with a sack full of fungus as a gift. I thought I probably wouldn’t.

I told Liina I’d continue painting the house. And then I thought of Pool Seitse. Pool Seitse would find it funny. She would have howled at the sight of an arrogant and ignorant city girl filling her sack with suspect mushrooms and preparing a gourmet poison pasta sauce in a thousand-kroon pan.

“Hey,” I said to Liina, as she was about to get in the car. “I will come with you. But only if you’ve got another one of those berets.” Liina smiled. She said she could come up with something.