Tuesday, December 30, 2008


On a flight to New York, my wife Liina and I killed time reading the Skymall catalog. The Skymall is most wonderfully American: Even in a time of crisis, it sells what absolutely no one needs at prices almost everyone can afford. Such as:

Gravity Defyer Shoes which “propel you forward” ($129.95).
The Indoor Dog Restroom ($64.95).
The Marshmallow Shooter ($24.95, but $49.95 gets you one which shoots twice as far—40 feet).
The Digital Camera Swim Mask ($99.95).
The Ultrasonic Eyeglasses Cleaner ($69.95).
The Germ-eliminating Knife Block ($89.95).
The Instant Doorway Puppet Theatre ($69.95).
The Animatronic Singing & Talking Elvis ($199.95).

Americans are so used to products like these that they don’t find them unusual. It’s said the average North American is bombarded by over five thousand advertising brand messages each day, so you might think we’d grow immune to Skymallesque stupidity.

Not my family.

A few years ago my mother gave me a Big Mouth Billy Bass, which is a battery-powered, rubber trophy fish mounted on a wooden plaque. It has a motion sensor, and when someone walks by, the fish thrashes about and sings a Bobby McFerrin tune ($19.99). The first time you see it you find it cute and clever. After the third time, you want to smash it to pieces with a baseball bat.

Liina likes to laugh at North America’s out-of-control consumer culture, and she used to frequently remark about how gullible we are. She argued that Estonians were immune to such appeals. But later she had to eat her words.

When we lived in the United States, the first thing she fell for was the “12 CDs for a penny” mail-order offer: Get 12 for one cent in exchange for buying ten more over the next two years at “regular club prices.” Liina pored over the catalog, selected the work of twelve artists, and taped her penny inside the envelope. Six weeks later the CDs arrived—along with a bill for 25 dollars for “shipping and handling.” When she canceled her membership she was obligated to return the CDs, and the return postage amounted to around three dollars. That’s a hell of a lot of handling.

Lately, I’ve noticed that America’s aggressive sales culture has gained ground in Estonia. The movement began quietly on the language front: before I knew it, Estonia had the verb shoppama. Soon after came Amway and a salesforce trained in the invasion of private homes.

A company called Lux has been making the rounds selling vacuum cleaners, and their fast-talking sales rep left Liina no room to refuse what would turn out to be a one-and-a-half-hour long in-home sales pitch. But Liina, hardened in the USA, had a secret agenda to get our filthy couch cleaned for free.

I found a convenient excuse to be absent during the demonstration so that my credit card and bank information would be safe. Given how skeptical Estonians claim to be, I feared Estonian door-to-door salesmen would possess powers far beyond their western counterparts. I imagined the Lux rep as a middle-aged, thick-boned woman, a Guantanamo-trained, jackboot-wearing, Olivier-as-evil-dentist type who smiled but was at all times ready to deliver an electrical charge to your gonads in the name of clean floors. (She was probably an attractive twenty-something, but you can’t be too careful.)

“Well, did you buy it?” I asked Liina when I returned home that evening.

“I don’t have any money,” she said. “But someday I’m going to buy it.” After conning the sales rep into cleaning our sofa and two rugs, Liina was wowed by the product and its magical vibrasuck technology.

I tried to argue that it was cheaper to rent such a vacuum, or even hire a professional cleaner, than it was to pay 25,000 kroons, but Liina wasn’t having any of it. She had concluded it was a superior product which could clean faster better. And maybe it could. I had to admit she does most of our vacuuming.

Friends tell me the Lux company is doing quite well in Estonia, especially selling to pensioners who don’t have experience chasing away hard-driving salesmen. I’m told some buy two vacuums (one as a gift for the kids) and pay for them with leasing contracts. I don’t know what business Estonian pensioners have buying a vacuum that expensive, but who am I to tell them what to do? I’ve still got Big Mouth Billy Bass on my wall.

In recent years, the same company who makes Billy Bass has developed a deer—named Buck, of course—a life-sized wiggling deer head which sings “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Low Rider,” and then farts loudly at the end of its performance ($150). Every time I visit my mother, I pray that she hasn’t seen it in stores.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Soul Food

Texas’ best barbecue, according to Texas Monthly magazine, is located in the town of Lexington and open only Saturdays from eight a.m. until the meat runs out (generally around noon). Weekdays, the restaurant’s owner works in a coal mine, and the chef, known as Miss Tootsie, is a 73-year-old former middle school janitor.

Of course, the restaurant has more than a story—it’s got great food. But the story is a large part of its appeal. Which is what I often find myself missing in Estonian restaurants: a story.

A friend of mine likens the Estonian dining experience to eating from vending machines in a hospital cafeteria. Assembly-line dining serving not what’s market fresh but what the wholesaler delivered. Who’ll even care, seems too often the logic of the chef, when everyone is only here to impress each other?

Luckily, that’s changing. Family-run or passionately-run restaurants are slowly sprouting all over Estonia. There’s the Creperie in Kadriorg, Anni Aro’s café in Haapsalu, and and the Chocolaterie in the Old Town. And of course there’s everybody’s old standby, Contravento. I can’t name all Estonia’s soul food joints here—readers will do that in the comments section—but suffice it to say there’s a trend toward restaurants whose interiors do not resemble Nevada brothels and where food itself is the actual draw.

The newest one on that list is the Šoti Klubi (Scottish Club) at the end of Uus Street in the Old Town. What has always been a pretty good bar and average restaurant has become an excellent restaurant with a pretty good bar. Chef Agu Alert supervised the removal of the monster bar which dominated the place and has turned it into a restaurant which is downright, well, European. From your first step in the door, you know it’s a family affair—in this case a family of one. Agu is the restaurant’s proprietor, chef, waiter, barman, and sometimes dishwasher. He’s a one-man show trying to make a go of a place in a market where the pundits say thirty percent of all restaurants will go belly up before spring.

And I’m rooting for him. I want his roe appetizer (given up by the fish under his personal supervision), slow-cooked lamb (the only oven like it in the country), and crème brûlée (not intolerably sweet like most make it) to be around come springtime, when my business picks up a bit and I'm able to dine out more.

I asked Agu how much he was sleeping in order to do every job in the place, and he answered three hours. “You need to get some of those little Knorr’s packages…” my wife Liina suggested. He’d slept so little he found her joke only half funny but resisted bludgeoning her with a rolling pin long enough to seriously respond that nobody would come to eat astronaut or backpacker food.

It it’s true that thirty percent of restaurants will go bankrupt before springtime, then I consider it my job to see that it’s the right thirty percent. Like many others, my business has suffered in this crisis and I live on a lot less than I did a year ago. So I’m even choosier about where I spend my hard-earned shekels. I’ve shunned experimentation and pretense and have gone straight for the soul food—places which Miss Tootsie of Texas might approve of. I want to put good things in my stomach and put my money behind people who give a damn and love the work they do. And if we all do the same, we can count on a beautiful spring.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Code Breakers

“Sometimes I feel like I’m writing the same column over and over again,” I said to my wife, Liina. “Like I made the movie 101 Dalmatians, got good reviews, and so decided to remake the film using Labrador Retrievers.”

Liina just stared at me.

“You know, when I write about Estonian consumers allowing themselves to be screwed. Do you think that people notice the similarities or get tired of reading my pieces?”

“Well,” she said. “For one thing, you don’t have many competitors for your column. And secondly, the columns come out two weeks apart.”

That was not the answer I was after.

Estonians often brag about how straightforward and honest they are, how they’ll speak the truth even if it hurts. And how this is somehow a positive attribute.

When I was a kid, my mother had a cardinal rule for dealing with others: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. I still think that most of the time this isn’t a bad rule. Ask yourself: In most instances, is there anything to be gained by saying exactly what you’re thinking? Fools almost always know—or at least strongly suspect—they’re fools. You telling them so isn’t going to make them less foolish; it’s only going to put you on their shitlist.

Liina believes that if you tell someone directly he’s a shithead that he’ll benefit and might even be grateful. “Hey, yes, you’re right. I am a shithead. Thanks for pointing that out. I wouldn’t have known it had you not said it. And since you’ve brought it to my attention, I’ll now rethink my shitheadedness and take constructive steps to be a better human being.”

Would other cultures be better off if they adopted the Estonian model and spoke the raw truth? I’m not convinced.

If you happen to disagree with someone, it’s more fruitful to get him talking, make him think you’re listening, make him think you care. Then, after you’ve softened the beachheads with some nodding, a few “ah hahs”, and a little pretend listening, you very gently suggest there might perhaps be another way of seeing the issue.

Liina claims it’s a simply difference in languages. A direct answer to a direct question is not rude in Estonian, she says, but it can be in English. She calls English a coded language. For example, if an American is asked how he liked the food and he answers “It was interesting,” this probably means he disliked it. (It at least suggests the host should not probe further.) If the same question is posed to an Estonian and he answers in his language that “Toit oli huvitav,” then you know the food challenged his palate. Liina admits an Estonian wouldn’t describe food with the word “interesting,” but it’s the best she could come up with on short notice.

“Raw honesty gives you a new point of view,” she says. “How could you not be happy about it? Isn’t that the whole point?” Well, Liina, thanks. That’s very, uh, interesting.

But what’s wrong with my coded language?

Estonians tend to attach gravity to the question, “Kuidas läheb?” I respect that, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a major achievement. For centuries, people in other cultures have asked “How’s it going?” (Comment ça va? Qué tal? Wie gehts? Kak dyela?) as a form of “hello,” and their civilizations haven’t yet collapsed. When I answer “fine”, I communicate that I’m grateful you asked but that I also understand you don’t want to hear the answer. Because Estonians eschew that perfunctory exchange doesn’t make them special. It makes them contrarian.

“Stop shitting on the Estonian soul,” Liina shouted when I read her that last paragraph. (The reader may decide himself whether Liina benefitted from my directness.)

But if the “how’s it going?” question is the mark of a coded language, then are not most languages coded? What then is Estonian’s code? Is it really not coded? And if yes, is the fact it’s not coded the very code itself? Maybe some sort of code might lend to more self-expression in Estonian society and therefore healthier living?

Liina argues that if I want honey from her lips that I shouldn’t ask her opinion. In one respect she’s right: I get good columns from arguing with her.

But maybe there’s a happy medium between the two extremes, Estonian and western. Maybe Liina does happen to have a point about my coded language. When an American friend tells me something is “just terrific,” I’m of course skeptical. Though when an Estonian friend tells me something is “pask,” I am also filled with doubt—it’s surely not that bad.

An old friend of mine used to wear a t-shirt that read: If you don’t have something nice to say, then come over here and sit by me. A wonderful sentiment, I think, beckoning those with nothing nice to say to vote with their feet, yet still protecting the optimists from a verbal haranguing. I ought to look into printing up several million of those for distribution in Estonia and the USA.

Liina can have the very first one.