Saturday, December 19, 2009

Liina Speaks

Liina Vikerkaar

At the request of Postimees readers, my wife Liina penned this column. Proceed at your own risk. -VV

Vello says I’m not funny though I sometimes say funny things. When we recently drove past an outdoor advertisement which claimed Estonia was number two in eurodrinking, I remarked to Vello that I was glad my countrymen were the top of the heap in something. Vello didn’t laugh, but I saw him write it down. I’ll bet you he’ll later use it in a story and take credit for it. But I love him, so I don’t mind.

I often tell him that he’s not funny though he does funny things. Just the other day he spent fifteen minutes in the kitchen pretending like he had his own cooking television show. He addressed make-believe cameras on the other side of the stove, gave recipe hints to his “home viewers,” and suggested techniques to improve use of the spatula. And all he was doing was heating up some fish fingers. Only he could take something so mundane and turn it into, well, something equally mundane that we all somehow pay attention to. For the record, though, I don’t think his cooking show has a future.

I honestly don’t know if other women’s husbands exhibit the same odd behavior, but so far Vello doesn’t appear to be a danger to himself or others. There’s a Canadian expression that says talking to yourself is normal, but when you start answering yourself then it’s a problem. I asked Vello if he didn’t think talking to imaginary TV viewers was borderline behavior, and he looked at me like I was the crazy one and replied, “but you should read the letters they send.” He then turned away with a terribly sad look on his face.

Despite his rather odd behavior, Vello and I agree on many things. There are other issues where we’ve agreed to disagree. Like my vegetarianism. Whenever he eats at home, which is often, it’s always vegetarian food. I’d like to think this is out of respect for my beliefs, but it’s really because he’s too lazy to cook anything for himself. If I suddenly started facing east five times each day and chanting passages from the Koran, it wouldn’t startle him. He’d probably join right in if it meant getting to eat sooner.

When we go out to dinner parties, he has this habit of falling asleep around ten p.m. He’ll wander off with a full belly, find a comfortable chair, and close his eyes. It’s not that he finds the conversation boring, he just likes to get up early and “milk the cows,” as he says. He’s never lived on a farm, though. And he really doesn’t get up that early. Friends find it charming that he falls asleep. He’s able to get away with a lot.

Vello also likes to talk about his days in the Canadian Army. I admit I enjoy the stories about how he personally liberated France, won the croix de guerre but melted it down to make cavity fillings for French kids made orphans by the war. He is careful when choosing his audiences, and often tells the story to young Americans, who are, somewhat comically, not quite sure when World War II took place.Sometimes I object to one of his columns, especially when he paints Estonian men as primitive. This image of the hairy, knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing primate who loves nothing more than to drive fast is unfair. My father is Estonian. So is my brother. And neither is like that. Well, okay, maybe my brother is a little bit like that.

Like all men, Vello has his faults, but one quality I admire in him is that he will always stand up for me. Once, shopping for a washing machine in the southern part of the United States, the salesman answered all of my questions by addressing Vello—as if the salesman was too good to talk to a woman. Talk about a primate! Fortunately, Vello, having no interest whatsoever in what kind of washing machine we bought, turned and walked away, forcing the salesman to deal with me. I gave him the full wrath of a confident Estonian woman.

One of his behaviors I dislike is how he hides what he’s thinking. He’s so worried about being polite that it takes some real prompting to get him to express himself. Last time we visited Toronto, Vello went to buy a new pair of boots. The salesman was the pushy type who wanted to sell the most expensive pair in the store. Vello gravitated toward the cheapest pair, and the salesman said, “You know, young man, once I bought cheap boots, too, and that’s been the reason for a lifetime of back pain.” Vello continued to examine the cheaper boots, and the salesman continued to push. “There’s no substitute for quality boots.” The guy wouldn’t let up. Finally, Vello turned to face the man and said very evenly that he respected his desire to get a sales commission but honestly thought the extra 150 kilos the man was carrying around were the cause of his back pain. I never laughed so hard in my life.

My Estonian friends often notice that western men have a higher tolerance for the concept of women’s liberation, and certainly Vello shares this belief. But what Estonian women often don’t understand is that that is a double-edged sword. It comes with the baggage of being expected to pay your own way. Vello once suggested I pay him back for a plane ticket. “We’re married!” I shouted. “There isn’t my money and your money; there’s only our money.” In the west, men want to have their cake and eat it, too. Men want you to be both the housewife and the breadwinner. It’s a land of contradictions illustrated by men who open the airport door for you but then expect you to carry your own luggage. Things are simpler in Estonia.

Living in the Estonian culture is hard for Vello, I know. His perception is that we Estonians feel the need to constantly remind ourselves we’re Estonian—“navel gazing” he calls it. What you see in his columns is of course politely cleaned up, but whenever I tune the television to a local program I can provoke a rant of his about “celebrating mediocrity.” As you can guess, he is no fan of Eurovision or Eesti Otsib Superstaari. But he just needs to get over his big-culture arrogance. And that’s part of what a good wife does. She can slap some sense into her husband when it’s needed.

To compensate for living outside his own culture, Vello takes refuge in the internet—even sometimes reading the comments which readers put on his stories, though its obvious that many of them are sociopaths or somehow otherwise demented souls. He loves his readers, though. Occasionally, one of their comments will make him howl with laughter.

Vello recently showed me an article about a website called which is devoted to cataloging nude scenes in films. It has a “content” department of eight guys whose workweek consists of capturing screenshots of flesh. Vello’s interest was not the nudity, however. His dream is to work with a team of eight guys on a website of equal pointlessness. He says he’d like to take his cooking show to the web. He’s already introduced me to the cameraman and the producer, pretend people named Ron and Don. I nod politely at them when the show begins, and that seems to satisfy Vello.

He isn’t ill, but I know he’d be healthier if he’d get out of the house more. Despite the fact that he speaks Estonian, he just doesn’t have the ability to merge into our culture. The Estonian culture is not the North American culture, and Estonians truly don’t believe “the more the merrier.” We like it small. We like it like it is. Vello is fond of quoting someone who said, “You can live in France for fifty years and if you weren’t born there you’ll never be French. Live in America five minutes and you’re already an American.” He wants Estonia as a culture to be more like America and make more room for foreigners. Actually, he doesn’t give a damn about the foreigners. They’re just a proxy for himself, and I’d say Estonia has been pretty kind to him, already. But he’s right that we Estonians are not ready to make room for foreigners. We’ve accommodated them for so many centuries that we’d just like to have the place to ourselves for a while. And he understands this, too. Sometimes on his cooking show he stares deep into the camera and explains to his international viewers the virtues of Estonian food. “Headcheese isn’t as bad as they say. You should really try it.” Then he smiles broadly, because everyone knows he’s lying.

Read the Estonian version in Postimees.

Santa recommends: Vello's English-language book. Click here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

2 0 1 3

According to the Mayas, who some regard as the greatest ancient civilization to have arisen in the New World, the earth is due for a major transition, which some interpret as a geological catastrophe, on December 23, 2012. Hollywood has even made a movie about it, aptly titled 2012, though I’ve refused to see it since the trailers seem to indicate it will be one more cliché of a Hollywood disaster movie with the plot given away in the first thirty seconds and then the remaining two-and-a-half hours spent on explosions and car chases, actors locked permanently in bug-eyed poses of terror.

The doomsday idea intrigues me, though, and so I took it upon myself to contact 2012’s star, John Cusack, to see if he might be interested in starring in a sequel I’m producing called 2013. My film is about Estonia, a country favorably geographically located to be earthquake- and monsoon free. According to my screenplay, Estonia miraculously survives 2012, only to be beset upon by 2013: The Year EU Funding Runs Out.

Mr. Cusack hasn’t answered my letter yet, but I’m sure my proposal will interest him, as it grapples with all the important issues of survival in a no-more-EU-money apocalyptic scenario. I don’t want to give away the ending, but in the interest of possibly piquing the interest of potential financiers, as well as the PÖFF, Cannes, and Sundance people, I have agreed to disclose a few of the gripping scenes in the virtual pages of this blog.

The film begins with a horrifying scene: With EU money gone, the mayor of Tallinn (played by Cusack) must give up the black Mercedes Benz in which he rides to work. Will he, as New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg did as early as 2008, ride public transportation? Or will he go the route of London’s Mayor Boris Johnson and ride his bicycle to work? In this nail-biting scene, the Greens offer Marek Strandberg’s bicycle to the mayor in exchange for several more seats on the city council, and ministers of parliament abandon their Audi A8s streetside in favor of trolleys and trams, since there are no funds to maintain the infrastructure which had been over-built in better times. Without the luxury automobile, utter terror descends on Tallinn.

Tallinn policeman, lacking gasoline for their more modest automobiles, are forced to once again patrol their beats the old fashioned way: on foot. This leads to many emotional scenes where policemen learn the names of people in the neighborhoods and even—dramatically shot with a steadycam—rescue a kitten from the jaws of a Tallinn Prison German Shepherd, recently loosed on the city because prison officials could no longer afford to buy dry dog food at the usurious prices set by Estonian merchants.

Estonians, like always, make the best of tough times by learning new skills, and this gives rise to an entirely fresh generation of twenty-something trainers. Armed with their diplomas but lacking any real-world experience, the trainers advance on Tallinn with the plan to teach business management skills to the unemployed. But they find no funding is available for such ventures and instead they make themselves remarkably useful by turning the flowerbed where the Bronze Soldier once rested into a vegetable garden to supply the parliament’s cafeteria. With natural ingredients in their diet and no electricity to allow e-voting, parliamentarians report weight loss and increased bowel regularity. It’s a “win-win situation” declare the trainers to cheers from crowds which had gathered across the street to visit the national library (reading being a cheap leisure-time activity) only to learn of the institution’s permanent closure. With nothing to read, but fired up by the trainers, the crowd of former library-goers closes ranks on Alexander Kofkin’s hot dog stands, demanding sausage at the same low price available in Western Europe. Stepping into the fray is Mayor John Cusack, who diffuses the volatile crowd by offering free potatoes in Freedom Square. But the potatoes are a bluff. As it turns out, all Cusack has on hand is a single truckload. Shouting “Die, Potemkin traitor,” the crowd chases Cusack through the Old Town streets.

Meanwhile, Estonia’s major publishing houses merge to form one company, and the management council chooses to eliminate some of the more self-indulgent titles such as Navigaator, Saladused, Muscle & Fitness Hers, and Minu Naba. The society magazine, Kroonika, however, thrives due to an increased popularity of prominent Estonians and their remarkable stories of how in difficult times they still manage to fund breast implants for their teenage daughters.

Mayor John Cusack, having barely escaped the mob by swimming through Old Town sewers, yet still having learned absolutely nothing in the process, issues an edict that all businesses must have Estonian-language names. Cusack targets Restaurant Bonaparte as an offending party and insists on a name change to that of an Estonian general. Expecting Restaurant Laidoner, Cusack gets Restaurant Einseln, and a scandal erupts. But Cusack by this point is without the people’s mandate and must back down to conserve power for other fights.

Early in the second act, the suffering is at its greatest as Estonia’s wealthy are no longer able to afford authentic D&G sunglasses, and a batch of reality shows springs forth about the hardships of wearing Chinese knockoffs. Slightly smarter at this point, Mayor Cusack finally sees the writing on the wall, and he makes the unpopular decision to force the bankruptcy of Hugo Boss, Versace, Armani, and the Fashion Palace, in order to replace them with Humana second-hand stores, which are experiencing new life in the crisis economy.

In a decisive finale, Jaak Aaviksoo sneaks into the Iru power station and, calling on his university rector’s training, personally rewires the electrical switches for the freedom monument, so that while there may not be enough money to light the streets of Kopli at night, the freedom monument burns bright, even if its flame of freedom is sometimes only a reflection of the Centre Party-sponsored bonfires built to cook the potatoes which have been forcibly seized from small farmers, now officially designated as kulaks.

The mayor’s position does not look good, and there will be no white ship from the EU. But Mayor Cusack is a master politician who’s been in tight spots before. Will he practice fiscal restraint in order to bring Tallinn’s budget under control? Will he borrow more to keep up appearances? And borrow from whom? The IMF? Moscow? There’s only one way to find out. 2013: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

Lugege sama Postimehes. Kickass 2013 graphics by Katri Kikkas.

Get Vello's oeuvre here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Go Figure

Estonians have a curious relationship with rules. There are rules most respect (private property) and rules too few respect (traffic laws). Stop signs, yield signs, and traffic lights are all still optional, and entering any intersection you better check twice for the three maniacs who will risk their lives and yours for a chance to squeak through on red. Not yellow or pink. Red.

But there is one law all seem to follow: rail crossing regulations. There may be no train in sight, but Estonians will wait until that flashing red signal turns back to white before they'll cross those tracks. Often, they'll kill their engines, get out and lean against their car doors to enjoy a cigarette. I've sat fifteen minutes with no train in sight, and I've sat even longer when a locomotive was simply idling two hundred meters from the intersection. Since I've got better things to do, but mostly since locomotives can't manage zero to 100 kph in under five seconds, I pull my car out of the line, drive around the barrier, and go merrily on my way. You should see the looks I get.

In my country, at a crossing with visibility of two kilometers in either direction, almost no one would wait on a train which can't be seen. I think we Canadians understand that in a contest between train and car, the train always wins. So is that what's behind Estonians' god-like reverence for the railway crossing? While too few have respect for another car in an intersection, are all in awe of the overwhelming power of a locomotive? Theories, anyone?


Feed Vello at

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chefs We Dig: Imre Kose

Given the all-consuming quiet caused by the recession, I thought I'd stumbled into a speakeasy in prohibition-era America. Vertigo is not a small restaurant, and conversation and laughter emanated from both of its large dining rooms.

And the chef was in the house. Imre Kose was dashing back and forth from kitchen to dining room, speaking with guests, holding hurried court as chefs do. And his English. Oh, his English. It's hard to pin down an Estonian accent. To me, it seems less an accent and more a brief pause on the way to having no accent whatsoever. But Kose's accent isn't even that. He's somehow made English his own. Perhaps due to a blend of natural charisma and having to be heard over chattering diners, something unique has emerged. Were I Estonia's dictator, I'd send language teachers and academics to study it.

Over a Jack on the rocks I watched a parade of violin-case-packing middle-aged women enter the restaurant. They were either visiting orchestra members with instruments too expensive to check, or they were about to shoot up the place. Later, halfway into a rack of lamb and Imre approached our table: "There's a Filipino woman, part of some orchestra, and I half-jokingly asked her if she wouldn't want to play a song..." And then there she was, violin unsheathed and under her chin, playing for our table. Playing for the restaurant. Playing for Imre.

Recommended (for those like me who seem to dine out once an eternity): Vertigo.

In the Lõõtsa Cathedral

I once read a magazine article instructing what to do if you were dining out wearing khaki pants and inadvertently dripped on your trousers while urinating. Those few drops, the author was convinced, would be spotted by everyone in the restaurant, and as you returned to your table all eyes would turn to you and your crotch. The solution? Turn on the bathroom faucet and throw water all over the front of your pants. Return confidently to your table and lay the blame on water pressure due to faulty plumbing.

This story came to mind recently when I was doing some freelance writing for a client in an office on Lõõtsa street. This is one of those Ülemiste Technopark buildings, beautifully renovated to impart both modern and warm feelings. There’s a wonderful cafeteria in the building, too, which looks a lot like some expensive Old Town restaurants. It’s an ideal place to grab a bowl of soup and do a little work on the laptop.

The cafeteria bathroom is behind transparent glass, a unisex wonder salon right out of the TV series, Ally McBeal. I always feel a bit uneasy entering these type bathrooms, mostly because I’m unsure of the etiquette. In the men’s bathroom things are clear: When possible, put one empty urinal between you and the next guy, and always look straight ahead, as if there were something terribly fascinating on the wall-tiles in front of you. But in an Ally McBeal bathroom in a building clearly representing the best of e-stonia, did that rule hold true? What if I entered and saw a woman washing her hands at the sink? Should I nod hello? Or should I brush brusquely by her and attend to my business? And were the toilet stalls on one side of the room for men and those on the other for women? And if all the toilets were occupied, where should I stand to wait for someone to exit? Would the person exiting expect that subtle nod of recognition or and ‘excuse me’ muttered under the breath—like on a transatlantic flight—the tacit regulations for two people moving past each other in a crowded space? Or should I wait on the other side of the glass—it was indeed transparent—and wait until a stall became free?

The bathroom, however, was empty. I could hear my footsteps echo off the marble walls. One of the stall doors was open, and I moved quickly to occupy it and finish my business. Exiting the stall, a row of sinks stood in front of me. The place was as empty and peaceful as a church on a weekday, would have been ideal for quiet contemplation, and I paused a moment to appreciate the majesty of this Estonian bathroom. It was nicer even than those which I’d seen in the restaurant Pegasus. This was the cathedral of Estonian toilets.

I placed my hands underneath the faucet. Nothing. I moved them back and forth. Nothing. I moved them in a wider arc. Still nothing. Was the motion sensor broken? Or were the architects of the Lõõtsa toilets having a bit of fun with me? Had they built the most modern and beautiful bathroom in Europe with manual faucets? I reached up and tweaked a knob. No, that was the soap dispenser. But good, I needed soap. There was another strangely shaped object on the wall behind the faucet. Perhaps that was the sensor and I had not passed my hands close enough to it. I moved my hands in every conceivable motion around this silver object. Nothing.

At this point, I began to look around. Partly, it was a subtle cry for help—me hoping to find another human being at a faucet several paces away cheerfully washing her hands. Partly, I was looking around to see if anyone was watching. This was becoming embarrassing. I have a university education and am a member of one of the world’s most technologically advanced cultures. How was it that I could not get water from a tap? Perhaps someone had turned off the building’s water? But, then, the toilet had flushed.

This was not a completely new experience. Once, while traveling, I stayed in a hotel which had installed the most modern shower facility, and I could not figure out how to operate it. A phone call to the front desk had only complicated things, me having to run from the phone to the bathroom, each time trying to tug the little ring under the tub faucet that the clerk had described. Finally, the hotel dispatched its “engineer” to solve the problem via personal demonstration.
Standing in the Lõõtsa cathedral, there was no one to call. Ekspress Hotline did not deal with these affairs. I was too young to get away with dialing 911, not that they would help. I wondered if I wasn’t going to have to leave, soap on my hands, and ask the soup server to show me how to extract water from the tap.

I began to explore the strange button on the wall. It was shaped like an oblong bar of soap, quite beautiful actually. It might have been a control aboard the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, though there was no Mr. Sulu around to drive it. I pushed it left and right. Nothing. Frustrated, feeling as if I’d spent half the day in this bathroom with only soap on my hands to show for it, I slapped the device hard and water exploded from the tap. The high-pressure stream bounced off the shallow designer-sinks, and the front of my khaki pants were completely soaked with water.

My mind did not immediately revert to the previously mentioned magazine article concerning how to deal with wet pants. Had it, I would have seen that I had bypassed the problem and proceeded directly to the solution of being in the position to blame the faulty plumbing. Rather, I recalled a tasteless joke told after the tragic explosion of the American space shuttle: What were the last words heard aboard the Challenger? “Hey, what’s this button for?”

But I’d been as careful as possible. I’d approached the problem from all angles, as methodically as one of the software engineers I was due to meet and write about that day. I felt cheated, the object of a joke. Had there been someone around to laugh at me, I might have even felt better. Instead, I suffered humiliation silently. I cursed the Ally McBeal bathrooms and e-stonia, a nation I deemed so eager to prove its modernity that it would buy any new fangled apparatus from a plumbing salesman in a sharkskin suit.

I removed my coat and folded it over my arm. Carried in front of me, it concealed all. I walked through the cafeteria and back to the office where I was to have my meeting. The software engineer was waiting. “I’ll take your coat for you,” he said, nodding to a closet.

It was then I thought of the magazine article. I confidently handed the man my coat. As he put it on a hanger I saw him look down. He politely looked away, but it was too late. “You probably need to have someone call the building management,” I said with stentorian voice. “The bathroom plumbing downstairs exploded all over me.”

“I guess so,” he noted, my remark having given him permission to publicly acknowledge the spot covering my fly and half the rest of my trousers. “That happened to me once, too,” he said. “Except my girlfriend spilled a drink on me.”

“Well, uh, sure,” I stammered, stunned by the engineer’s perfect manners in putting me at ease, but more so by his explanation for wet trousers, which was far more plausible than what the magazine article offered. Without thinking too much, I lifted my briefcase from the floor, held it directly in front of me, and followed closely behind the man down the hall toward the conference room.

In the News:
Read Baltic news in English daily in The Livonian Chronicle.
Baltic Features reviews Inherit the Family: "Book Him, Vello."
And the end-all-be-all of Christmas gifts here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


There are periods in a summer’s day when entire Old Town cafes are taken over by Americans. As if Baghdad isn’t enough, they have to have Tallinn, too. I was there—there being the second floor of the Viru Street Apollo bookstore—one rainy afternoon, when a group of seven American cruiseboat tourists held us all briefly hostage. It might have ended peacefully, but then one of them couldn’t find a letter on Apollo’s internet keyboard:

“There’s no ‘W’!” he proclaimed. “How can you have a keyboard with no ‘W’?”

The girl working behind the counter kept her cool. She’d clearly been in this situation before.

“Don’t you have a ‘W’ in your language?”

“We have a ‘W.’ It’s there on the keyboard where the ‘W’ is usually kept.”

“Where? I don’t see it. And there’s no ‘at’ sign, either!”

“We have both symbols, sir.”

From a woman at table nearby: “Hey, I’ve got 36 pictures on my camera so far!”

A man in a cowboy hat: “Does it rain all the time here?”

“Oh, hell, I give up.” The old man at the computer sounded near tears. “This just isn’t worth it.”

“Let me try, dad.” A man in his fifties wearing bright white tennis shoes, crowded in at the keyboard. “Watch me work, pop. It’ll be like watching a painter paint.”

“Do you take American credit cards?” asked 36 Photos.

An obese man in a baseball cap and Bermuda shorts roamed the café photographing plants. “Hotitye smotrit?” he asked an Estonian, thrusting the camera’s display in the man’s face. The man worked hard to not look up from his book.

“I like books, too,” the photographer said in English. “I’ve learned a lot from books, believe it or not. And not just technical things.” He moved on to another plant and the shutter clicked away.

“Hey, I’ve got a hundred emails!” announced the white-shoed son. “And they’re not all for penis enlargements.”

“Have you seen my lens cap?” 36 Photos asked the room. “I was just holding it.”

“I’ve got the exact same telephone you have,” said the roaming photographer to a pretty Estonian girl, her mouth full of cake. She nodded in acknowledgement. He moved in to photograph another plant. How many plants were there in this café? I wondered. “Hotitye smotrit?” He held the camera in front of the girl. “No thank you,” she replied in English, choking down her cake.

“There it is!” shouted 36 Photos. “It’s under that chair.”

By this time, every Estonian customer in the café had found a book and all were concentrating deeply on their reading. One elegant elderly man—he could have been Endel Lippmaa’s doppelganger—studied Women with unusual intensity. Another pretended to be asleep when the photographer turned toward him. Another pulled his legs to his chest, assuming the fetal position. I wrinkled my brow and squinted deep into my computer screen. The photographer circled, feigned a move into the bookstore, and then pounced.

“Hotitye smotrit?”

He was upon me, and so I gave him my best Borat: “Me little English.”

“That wasn’t English, little buddy. I was speaking Russian.”

“I no understand.” This ruse had worked in the past.

“Where you from, pal?”

“Ontario,” I fumbled.

“Well, I like your country” he answered. “Seems to rain a lot here, though. See the quality of this camera? That’s eight megapixels.”

I nodded politely at the camera’s resolution. I could see photography was his social icebreaker, much like a Russian might ask for spichki. All around me Estonian eyes peered over the tops of books, not attempting to conceal delight that they hadn’t been selected.

“Whaddya do here?” He spoke in a Midwestern vernacular.

“I read.”

“Yes, I can see that. What do you do professionally speaking?”

“Me little English,” I repeated.

“Look, little buddy, I can see you’re reading English on your computer screen. So you must understand something.”

I was tempted to break cover and ask him in perfect English if he considered me his little buddy because he weighed three times what I did, or if it was some genetic, hegemonic tendency. But that would have led to me explaining to him where Ontario was, and making a speech about how speaking Russian to Estonians wasn’t the most culturally sensitive gesture. Instead, I looked to the Estonians as a model: speak little, be polite. “Yes, me read much good.” I put about four ‘Rs’ in the word read. “Very nice camera. You are rich man.”

“Well, photography is just one of my hobbies.” There was clear pride in his voice.

“Hey, Dave, now here’s a photograph!” called Whiteshoes from the computer. The photographer must have been Dave, because he raced to the terminal.

“Now I’ve got it!” came the voice of 36 Photos.

To be fair, most Americans who visit Tallinn do not terrorize the local population. The cruisers, in fact, are the top of the tourist food chain, generally highly-educated, wealthy individuals who have often done their reading on the countries they’re visiting. They’re the kind of tourists Estonia should want to return and spend real time, in a five-star hotel instead of on a cruise boat. But this group who had wandered into Apollo to get out of the rain behaved like certified morons—even if one did know some Russian—and I wondered if they weren’t stowaways on the cruise boat, living unobserved on the lower decks where they played dice games and danced on tables with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Fortunately, before I had a chance to ask, they became silent and rose as one, as if pulled by some lunar force, and began to exit the café. Perhaps the stowaways were performing a large-scale Dine and Dash, the time-honored American teenage prank of ordering a big meal and slipping out of the restaurant without paying. But I looked at my watch and it was close to five, so they were more likely slipping out so as not to miss their boat. Despite Dave’s obvious knack for plant photography, he probably had a real job waiting for him somewhere in America.

The retreat of the Americans, however, did not bring silence. English was immediately replaced by German. The group of four krauts at a neighboring table easily matched the Americans for volume, but their conversation was limited to their own party, and they made no humanitarian forays to other tables. Since I speak no German, I could only imagine what they were saying:

“I’ve always thought Euclid was more math journalist than mathematician.”

“Ah, yes, but Archimedes, he was the real thing!”

“You both read too much Stephen Hawking. Let me tell you about math…”

Then they all laughed their sophisticated European laughs.

I know it’s discriminatory to place Europeans on a higher intellectual plane than Americans. There are dumbasses on every continent and making generalizations will inevitably bite you in the ass. One time, dining with French friends in Paris, an entire restaurant became silent to eavesdrop on one family’s conversation. “What’s so interesting?” I whispered to my friend. “Does the father work for Sarkozy?” My friend shushed me. Later she explained that the father had chosen the restaurant to announce that he’d been sleeping with his secretary and his wife didn’t quite react the way he’d expected, treating the entire dining room to dinner theatre.

I know plenty of bright Americans, genuine intellectuals who can name the countries that border their own, who know that Mexicans don’t speak Mexican, and even a few who can credibly hold forth on the Lisbon Treaty. Sadly, this group of cruisers was not the country’s greatest ambassadors. It would take years of PR to make up for their damage.

As the Americans neared the exit, the photographer turned to the room once more. “Hey, little buddy!” he shouted. There was no doubt he was talking to me. “You’re okay with me, pal. Your country is A-okay.”

What do you say to that, a reader may wonder? But I knew exactly what to say. “George Bush!” And I thrust a thumbs-up high into the air. “Hooray, America.”

Several of their party returned the thumbs up. The photographer locked his bare, tree-trunk legs, snapped to attention, and threw me a crisp, almost military salute.

As the Americans disappeared down the staircase, the Estonians slowly put down their books. Each looked around and rare eye contact was made. No words were spoken, but it was clear we were now all connected in a special way by the experience. Like those who walk away from a plane crash or successfully flee a burning building, we were bound together for life. We had lived through the Americans. We were survivors.


Read "Ellujääjed" in Postimees. Feed Vello here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Live Trapping

I don't know if it's because she's a vegetarian, but Liina loves all God's critters. Mice included. Having recently rid ourselves of the cat, we have a mouse who audibly chews paper behind the kitchen garbage can. Liina sent me out to get traps.

It turns out that hiirepüüdmisemasin is not Estonian for mousetrap, but I still got what I needed--and in the process learned that the Russian is мышеловка, a cute little word which sounds very much like what the Russkies would name their nastiest bomb.

But Selver didn't stock the live traps available in Canada (for those who either want to release the mouse elsewhere or not damage his fur for better coat quality), and I brought home the standard wooden traps. Liina refused to allow me to bait them. "But these are 'universe-friendly' traps," I argued, and retreated to my desk to doll them up with a new brand name and slogan, Meet your ancestors.

But Liina still wasn't buying it, and we can still hear the little guy behind the trashcan, making as much noise as a teenager with a bag of Doritos.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


The doctor’s face was beet red and not just because he was pissed off at my wife. We could hear the soap opera “Crying Maria” blaring in the room behind him, and he wasn’t at all pleased he’d been called out to examine Liina’s hand.

“What?” the doctor barked. This was Haapsalu, 2001, and Liina had been manhandled by some Russian thugs who jumped a queue to get aboard the Haapsalu ferry. Liina had boldly attempted to do the job of the ferry operators, who were too scared to even voice protest, and in exchange for her trouble the thugs held her arm and bent her fingers back over her hand. While Liina cried in pain in protective custody on the ferry’s bridge, the cops were called to arrest the queue-jumpers as they disembarked the ferry. Then we hopped in the car and raced to the hospital.

“What?” the doctor snapped again. Liina’s slow response time was getting in the way of his soap. “What do you want?”

Liina held up her swollen hand and explained.

“Move your hand like this!” the doctor demonstrated.

Liina moved it.

“It’s not broken.”

“Couldn’t we x-ray it?” Her fingers were as big as sausages. “I’d like to know for sure?”

The doctor reached out with surprising speed and seized her hand. He twisted it. Liina writhed in pain. “It’s not broken,” he repeated. “No x-ray is needed. Head aega.”

And that was that. The doctor returned to his television, and we drove on to a Tallinn emergency room where both a sober doctor and an x-ray machine were more easily available.

Say what you will about the Estonian healthcare system—and everyone has a horror story—I believe one thing is undeniable: it gets better every year. The days of drunken doctors (as well as Russian queue-jumping thugs) are mostly behind us thanks to EU standards, a more consumer-focused society, and the growing self-confidence of a citizenry who increasingly realize they’re not lower than grass on the great lawn of bureaucracy. Of course, there are some stubborn holdouts, who still think the business of society is transacted using brute force, favors from friends, and the occasional bottle of brandy, box of chocolates, or live chicken given as a bribe. These people are the Soviet residue, and they’re found mostly in the segments of government and business least touched by market forces. Which, sadly, is sometimes healthcare.

Last week, Liina accompanied her best friend Piret to the obstetrician at her family doctor’s practice. Piret is freshly pregnant and was quite excited to see her baby on the ultrasound machine in all its alien-like splendor. It’s her first child, and so she admits some of her questions may have appeared naïve to the doctor. Still, she didn’t feel she deserved the doctor’s repeated answer of: “That's of no interest to anyone in the developed world.”

When Piret could not spot her child on the ultrasound picture and asked if there was a chance she wasn’t pregnant, the doctor snapped, “Are you blind, woman? It’s right there in front of you.” To spare herself more humiliation, Piret falsely confessed that she could see her child.

“And how much do we owe you?” Liina asked, stepping in for Piret and ending the visit to the Soviet Doctor from Hell. The doctor demanded 995 kroons. When Piret took out her bankcard, the doctor demanded cash and told her to run to an ATM across the street. To spare them from seeing the doctor’s face twice, Liina produced the cash and the doctor snatched it from her hand as she shooed them out of the office. No respect. Not even a receipt.

When Liina recounted the story to me later that night I couldn’t help but recall our doctor from Haapsalu. “You think that doctor could have a sister in Tallinn?” I asked. Liina said she was afraid that doctor might have sisters in a lot of places.

Before returning to Estonia in 2000, Liina and I lived in the United States where I worked several years as an adjunct faculty member at a university. Adjunct faculty in America are the bottom feeders on the university food chain, and so the health insurance policy I was able to afford was little more than a guard against catastrophe—a 250-dollar monthly premium got me a five-thousand-dollar deductible policy to cover against major illness. Liina, who traveled frequently to Estonia, anyway, was able to use traveler’s insurance. This was quite cheap, but its downside was that it forced her to visit the American emergency room for any matter, large or small. The one time she did need a doctor—a shard of glass in her palm—we waited six hours to see the physician. The doctor was professional, though if he’d have allowed me access to the anesthetic, I could have done the job myself, and Liina would have been out the door in a mere fifteen minutes. And I might have been grateful enough to treat some of the other patients in the waiting room, many of them poverty cases, nutty hypochondriacs, or people suffering side effects of America’s greatest epidemic: obesity. With calisthenics I would have cured half and killed half, but the job would have been done, and the doctors would have been freed to treat people whose jelly-donut-eating lifestyles didn’t invite illness. But rules are rules, and while I might have been able to pass myself off as a doctor in Haapsalu, I wasn’t welcome to practice medicine in America.

Fortunately, Liina and I were both healthy and so were able to view the American healthcare disaster with detached amusement. We met plenty of the middle class who so staunchly defend their rotting system due to a hyped-up fear of socialism, a people so petrified of government at any level that not only were they unwilling to consider the single-payer system functioning so well a few miles north in Canada, but they were happy to entrust their system to insurance- and pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists who clearly weren’t motivated to act in the patients’ best interest. At 100 billion USD per year, it's arguably the world's most expensive and least efficient system.

We also met the underclass, those who rely on the emergency room as their primary caregiver and to whom preventative care is at best a dream and at worst a foreign concept. Mostly, our American experience taught us this: America is not for the meek, and it’s no place to be poor.

For most medical treatments, give me Estonia. Yes, the Soviet-era hospitals in their constant state of decay are rather depressing, and the constant buzz of the fluorescent lighting is probably the cause of more depression than winter darkness. And true, I wouldn’t want to have an organ transplant here, and I wouldn’t want to trust an Estonian doctor to diagnose trypanosomiasis, buruli ulcers, or Cushing’s disease, and it’s a fact the American system is tops in the world when it comes to beating cancer. But if I’m able to keep myself fundamentally healthy and only garden-variety illnesses visit me, I’ll take Estonia any day.

And that goes double for emergency treatment. Last spring, during a routine do-it-yourself project, Liina dropped a shelf on my face and I had to visit the emergency room. Since I wasn’t dying (just bleeding from my forehead), I had the presence of mind to put a stopwatch on the visit. Forty-three minutes in and out. And very pleasant doctors and nurses.

I’ve since been once more to the emergency room (Keskhaigla) for my back, and I can’t praise enough the doctors and nurses there. They’ve got their problems, too—the emergency room is full of people who refuse to see their family doctors for one reason or another—but you don’t wait six hours to see a doctor and you’re spared the humiliating financial triage performed by a curt American administrator.

My Estonian family doctors have always been excellent, too, though I admit I have the advantage of some professor friends at Tartu University’s medical school who have recommended physicians to ensure I don’t end up in the hands of doctors like Piret’s. And so far, I’ve used only state doctors, stubbornly believing that I truly ought to get something in return for a thirty-something percent social tax.

I’m pleased to report that Piret found a new physician and she started over. Thanks to an obstetrician and a team of medical pros who seem to love their jobs, it was a wonderful experience for her, and she’s more excited than ever about having a baby. She had to pay six-hundred kroons to a private clinic for another initial visit, but she didn’t get yelled at, and the doctor helped her see her baby on the ultrasound screen. She even got a receipt.

In a country which so desperately needs babies, this isn’t only a victory for Piret. It’s a victory for us all.

Read it in Postimees ("Tervishoid- ja õud") here.

Dept. of Shameless Commerce: Give Vello's book for Christmas (in English) this year. (A refreshing alternative to the usual gifts of Kihnu Island sweaters or bottles of Vana Tallinn.) Available in English from here.

Inherit the Family: Marrying into Eastern Europe

Saturday, October 10, 2009


How far can a dog run into the woods? was a favorite question of the American marketing professor and beer industry consultant, Robert Weinberg. “Halfway!” Weinberg liked to shout when his students couldn’t come up with the answer fast enough to please him. “Because then the dog is running out of the woods.”

To Weinberg, the dog represented a brand and the running was to illustrate that overexposure to the public isn’t in the brand’s best interest. If the brand becomes too ubiquitous, argued Weinberg, the result is public resentment.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that way about the singer, Ines. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m her fan. I think she’s beautiful, sexy, talented, and she’s probably a great ambassador for Estonia. But lately I’ve tired of seeing her. I open any magazine, turn on any TV channel, and there’s Ines, telling me why she helps deaf kids, why she doesn’t ride a bicycle in the city, why she works out at My Fitness or uses Sensodyne toothpaste (though the last could have been another omnipresent Estonian celebrity). No offense intended, Ines. I love you. But you’re running out of the woods.

Which is one reason I stick to writing. So far, I’ve avoided broadcast media, even though some of the appearance invitations are tempting and come from legitimate Estonian Public Broadcasting programs. A few television appearances probably wouldn’t put me in danger of being asked to talk on camera to a yeti doctor about the importance of dental hygiene, but I’m not taking any chances. (Although in case they pay handsomely, I’ve memorized the lines: I consider regular dental checkups and brushing twice a day to be of critical importance…)

Another reason I’ve tried to steer clear of broadcast media is that being witty on the page doesn’t necessarily mean you can be witty on TV. “Oh, it’s not at all a problem,” said one show host in an attempt to reassure me, “you’re great on the phone. You’ll be great on the air.” But I wouldn’t be great. I’d sweat enough under my armpits and between my toes that at best the studio would flood, and at worst I’d get an offer to do advertising for an antiperspirant (I consider the use of antiperspirant to be of critical importance...).

What I’ve come to understand is that in a small country the need for celebrities is no less than in a big country. The difference is that in a small country, to feed the media machine it’s necessary to operate under the assumption that if you do one media you can do them all. To me, this is like the Estonian Olympic Committee asking tennis-wonder Kaia Kanepi to fill a slot on the Olympic Greco Roman wrestling team, just because she’s an athlete and happens to be in Beijing. For better or worse, I simply don’t have the talent to be a television personality. I talk through my nose, and my thoughts tend to wander and return home after long periods of time—not exactly a skill TV producers are lining up to get.

The issue of my questionable talent aside, I’ve never been comfortable with broadcast media, especially television. The makeup you have to wear gives me a rash, and there is also the inevitable presence of other guests. Should the other guests include Barney the Dinosaur and not Toomas Hendrik Ilves, this has obvious consequences for one’s self-esteem. I once watched an episode of Terevisioon where a guest was interviewed about Estonian national security while an actor in a purple animal suit danced and played in the background. “If I were that guest,” I told my wife Liina, “I’d run over there and beat the shit out of that animal.” Liina replied that that wasn’t the Estonian way. “Okay,” I said, “walk over there and beat the shit out of that animal.” Liina just sneered and said I had a lot of learning to do.

I’m also not the most photogenic guy around. I’m not ugly, but I’ve never suffered from too much beauty, either, and I don’t want to be one of those pain-in-the-ass prima donnas who goes on TV and demands to be lit from the left side or, like I’ve heard Michael Jackson used to demand, requires a bathtub filled with Evian water in his dressing room.

And my Estonian language, which isn’t great to begin with, gets noticeably worse on television. My already strange accent gets even stranger. The few times I’ve tried television and later watched myself, I thought I came off sounding like an idiot. Liina has suggested it has nothing to do with the language.

Finally, in a land of so few television channels, I admit I live in fear that accepting one offer would pave the way to becoming a cheap media whore, the kind of guy who’ll do anything to see his own face on television. “Oh, get Vello,” producers might come to say. “He’ll do anything.” No disrespect intended, but deep inside my DNA I don’t have that gene which pulls me to fame like a moth to the light or a Tarand family member to a gameshow.

Part of what I have against the media in general (print included) is that all of us who participate in it are, to some degree, guilty of feeding the bullshit machine. Even the biggest media with the biggest budgets are not exempt from this trap, and despite CNN’s efforts, they’ve been only somewhat more successful at filling time than even Estonia’s worst television station. Regardless of what anyone says, there is simply not enough real news to fill a 24-hour broadcast, and the CNN “professionals” end up filling the air with so much nonsense, idiots with uninformed opinions, and blatant self-promotion, that I refuse to have it in the home. When I travel, I challenge myself by turning it on in the hotel room to see how long I can endure. Seven minutes is my current record, except for September 11th, 2001, one of the few times in modern history when there simply was no substitute for television.

Writers have other advantages which television personalities don’t. Working on the page gives us time to think about what we want to say and how we say it. If I want to play with a sentence and restructure it a dozen times, I’m only wasting my own time, and no guests sit around quietly suffering. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler once tried a “watch me write” live internet broadcast, though most people I know who tuned in soon tuned out in complete disgust, and Butler was promptly awarded the nickname, Robert Olen Butthole.)

You may think I’m taking myself too seriously and perhaps you’d be right. Going on television would give me something new to write about and it would “extend the Vikerkaar brand” (as a friend in marketing tells me I should do), and it might bring opportunities to earn money beyond writing. I myself don’t use Sensodyne (I’m a Blend-a-med man), but I do use Gillette products, and I like Snickers candy bars, A. le Coq beer, and Lay’s potato chips. Might there be a hairy man in a white jacket out there to interview me about my grooming- or junk food habits?

But I doubt I’m in danger of running out of the woods anytime soon. According to Liina, I’ve had my nose up against the first tree I saw for quite some time, examining the bark in great detail and writing essays which speculate about why the ants I see move the way they do.

Read this in Estonian in Postimees.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Camping with Koržets

ey, you got any vodka?” As soon as the man shouted at us he regretted it, because his wife elbowed him hard in the ribcage. “But I was just asking,” he muttered, massaging the pain under his arm.

We had just entered Estonia’s weekend party headquarters, the Lake Peipsi RMK-sponsored campground. It was only five p.m., but the party already raged.

“You can pitch your tent in any of the marked sites,” the friendly gate attendant had said, but there’d been so much music—techno, rap, a little heavy metal—coming from the forested area the other side of the makeshift barrier, that we told him we thought we’d have a look around first. “Sure,” he said. “Park your car. Look around.” And so we did.

In the parking area, as well as at other strategic places around the camping area, guests were greeted and cautioned by a photo of Vladislav Koržets in a half-bug-eyed pose of excitement, finger in the air to make his point. A speech bubble was supplied by RMK, something to the effect of “Only dipshits burn down forests. Use the fireplace provided.” There was no text about what kind of music best complements birdsong, and it was clear that we weren’t going to hear any wrens or sparrows or blackbirds or nightingales. What we were going to hear was DJ Dima and His Posse of Righteous Russian Dudes. Except that for all the partiers were Estonian.

“Weird,” said my buddy Juss, having opened a beer to get into the party spirit. “These idiots are all Estonian.” And so they were. Every campsite was filled to the brim with Estonians, some of them young rullnokkad, Estonian vernacular for primitives fond of cars, but others—like the middle-aged, vodka-begging husband—were older, professional partiers. But where were the Russians? Was the music so bad that even they’d been driven away? “Tiblad are too smart to pay fifty kroons each to camp with these tshuhna,” Juss said. “They’re probably at home where it’s safe.”

And it was looking like home was where we were headed. We left the RMK party center and scoured the shore of Peipsi for a quiet place to pitch a tent, but we were constantly confronted with signs reading PRIVATE PROPERTY or demands by landowners to pay 100 kroons per person to sleep next to a caravan full of Germans. My Estonian companions had nothing against Germans; rather, since they considered themselves true Estonians, they were categorically opposed to being remotely near any other human being. “Camping here would be like putting up a tent at the song festival grounds,” said Juss, shaking his head out of disgust that his Canadian friend could never grasp the Estonian need for solitude. To me, our party of four (including our occasionally chattering wives) had already ruined any opportunities for solitude, so what were a few Germans in a caravan? Anytime we found a possible camping place, if there was even a single sign of other life, Juss would dismiss it as “another damned song festival.” Although it was a warm, late-summer weekend, and though we were near one of the most heavily trafficked parts of Estonia, Juss was still convinced we would find a solitary and absolutely free campsite with no neighbors inside a 500-meter radius.

As we searched for this paradise, we became hungry. We stopped at a fish stand to buy smoked bream. A friendly local Russian—a Russian, at last!—sold smoked bream, flounder, and salmon.

“Salmon!” Juss erupted, “there aren’t salmon in Peipsi.” Juss took me aside to point out that this kiosk’s SMOKED FISH sign was suspiciously similar to all the others we had seen on the road. Juss believed we were about to be the victims of a McDonald’s-like scam to sell us fish caught elsewhere. “You know that the bream they sell in Selver comes from America?” Juss tried to whisper but was so wound up he shouted. “Lake Michigan! They catch the damned things in Lake Michigan and ship them over here!” Juss paced back and forth like Hercule Poirot solving a case, and then he stopped and struck a pose resembling Koržets, his finger held declaratively in the air. “This is American bream and Norwegian salmon!” he declared. “How dumb do they think we are?”

“I’m hungry,” cried Juss’s wife, Ivi, from the car. “Are you two going to buy anything or not?”

“These aren’t Peipsi fish,” Juss shouted to her. “They’re selling salmon!”

“Well,” Ivi said, “buy some onions then. But get something.” And so Juss returned to the kiosk and ordered a bream.

“My father caught this fish,” the girl said in very good Estonian. “And he’s never been to Lake Michigan.”

“What about this salmon?” Juss demanded.

“Well, salmon do swim up the Narva River, but this one came from Selver. What can I say?” she shrugged. “Some people want to buy them.”

“Maybe they’d buy shark, too.” Juss wouldn’t leave it alone.

“Maybe,” the girl shot back. “Do you know where I can get some?”

“I can’t even find a camping place on hundreds of kilometers of Peipsi shoreline,” he confessed. “Do you think I could find a shark?”

The girl laughed and directed us five kilometers north where she said there was an RMK campsite.

“Oh, we’ve seen that one,” Juss dismissed her.

“No you haven’t,” she insisted. “This one is where normal people go.”

And so we decided to give it a chance. It was only five kilometers to find out what this girl’s definition of normal was. Would there be campers swinging from the trees and smashing empty vodka bottles against each other’s heads? Or would the campers be a young tribe, out to break a Guinness record for loudest outdoor disco?

There, greeting us at the gateway to the park was Vladislav Koržets. “Haven’t we been here before?” Ivi asked.

“This is where normal people come,” Juss said. “But it does seem like déjà vu.” He killed the car’s engine and we sat for several minutes, listening suspiciously.

“Sounds okay,” said Ivi.

“Maybe they just went to get more alcohol,” my wife Liina suggested.

There were three other cars in the parking lot, but there was no gate attendant, not even a barrier. Only a grinning Koržets cautioning us not to burn the place down.

We unloaded our gear slowly, sure that any minute we’d be driven back to our car by gang of Lasnamäe youth wearing leather and gold and throwing lit sticks of dynamite in their wake. But things remained quiet. We passed a campsite occupied by a young family who was listening to soft classical music, a small Russian flag flew from a guy-line on their tent. They smiled and nodded. Another young couple with an infant waved and said zdrastvuitye.

We found a spot nearest the lake and pitched our tents. We made dinner (Norwegian salmon we’d brought from Tallinn) and settled in for the night, bracing for the inevitable party.

Around eleven p.m., when I was half asleep, Liina was met at our tent door by a young Russian. “Do you have any firewood?” he asked in Estonian slightly better than mine. “We forgot firewood. I’d be happy to pay for it.” Liina told him we’d burned what little we had and that she was sorry she couldn’t help. “Are you all alone?” he asked. “Because you could join us around the campfire if you want.”

Liina thanked him and told him she was with her boring husband, who grunted inside the tent in protest to the characterization. The young man laughed and said I was welcome, too.

This was all too civilized, and I wondered how Juss was feeling about it. This was relatively private camping, free of caravans and Germans. And it was almost completely silent: our Russian campers were making less noise than even Koržets.

“Hey, Juss!” I shouted. “Got any vodka?”

Juss told me to shut up. Normal people were trying to sleep.

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Vello in English from, and Purchase it here:

Inherit the Family: Marrying into Eastern Europe
by Vello Vikerkaar

Sunday, September 20, 2009


It's easy to spot an American in the crowd (white shoes and bluejeans). French and Spanish, too (fine fabrics in muted tones, those Burberry quilted jackets). Estonia has something close to a national look, if you count haircuts. I captured these two on a Tallinn-bound ferry.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fresh Promises

The Centre Party is promising a new stoplight in Pirita. The Reform Party is offering “fresh energy” and they say they’ll make Haapsalu the Venice of the North. All those things are nice, but what I’d really like is for the national library to be open more than seven hours a day. After all, if it is, as its website claims, the “custodian of our national memory and heritage, the centre of Estonian literature...” and “the most valuable information provider for our legislative body and other constitutional institutions,” then can all that really be accomplished in a mere seven hours? If there are other research libraries in the world open so few hours a day, I’m not aware of them. Washington DC’s Library of Congress is open thirteen hours a day. The British Library is open at least ten. Even la Bibliothèque nationale de France is open nine to five. But the Estonian National Library opens later and closes earlier than even a Paris clothing boutique.

The national library may not be as popular as a stoplight in Pirita, but it’s at least as useful. If you arrive for the library’s opening at eleven, the music is inspiring. I’m no expert on music, but I can testify that the Rahvusraamatukogu Theme Song fills the building with hope and promise, as if every day might be witness to some young researcher emerging from deep in the stacks screaming “Eureka!”

Simply entering the library is a pleasure. The security guards are truly polite gentlemen. They have a memory for faces and offer a friendly welcome that makes me feel as if the national library were my very own office building, which, as a taxpayer, I suppose it is. These men are a reassuring presence in a building with hundreds of thousands of books, knowledge and tradition. From their shined shoes to their neatly combed hair, it’s clear that they, like everyone else in the building, value what they protect.

Architecturally speaking, the national library is one of the few Soviet-era buildings I’ve seen that the rain hasn’t almost completely washed away. It’s like the Linnahall, except for that the builders were sober the day they mixed the concrete.

I am not alone in my appreciation. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t spot an Estonian intellectual somewhere in the library complex. I’ve seen Andrus Kivirähk at least a half dozen times, and Andrei Hvostov is a regular in the library cafeteria (he orders porridge). I’ve also spotted Hardi Volmer, and I have one unconfirmed sighting of Jaan Kaplinski.

Perhaps these people, like me, come for the hope and optimism. Even on the darkest winter day, light can be found in the building. The view from the eighth floor (and the natural light on the reading tables) rivals anything you’ll find in the city’s expensive glass office towers with their Stockholm-level rents.

It’s said one benefit of modern Estonian office life is stylish coworkers, and if that’s why you like the office then the library won’t disappoint: there are babes aplenty in the sixth-floor law reading room. I’m not sure what this says about Estonia. In my country, female lawyers are to be strictly avoided. But the law reading room has advantages which attract everyone: It’s the one place in the library you can get up to take a phone call and still keep an eye on your laptop through the glass wall.

Not all is wonderful at the library, of course.

The café is a bit overpriced: Almost twenty kroons for what is possibly Northern Europe’s worst espresso in a venue that hasn’t been remodeled since Lenin’s day. And the café’s oldest employee (born in 1870, as was Lenin) has a habit of glaring at you if she thinks you haven’t returned with sufficient speed the newspapers you borrowed from the café’s counter. “That’s my private copy,” I’ve learned to tell her, which is sometimes true, but always sends her packing with a suspicious sniff.

The café is wonderful, however, as a place to watch conference participants decamp to the cafeteria. They’re often formally dressed and walk with a spring in their step, fresh energy (the real kind) from having learned something new, or at least from having cheated the bossman out of a day’s labor. And the coffee-klatching pensioners are priceless, tables full of chattering septuagenarians dressed to the nines.

What I most like about the national library is that it’s the haunt of normal people, and island of humanity in a city that sometimes seems inhuman. Tallinn, to me, suffers from an identity crisis, and the national library is one place you can count on for “normaalne.” It is one of the few places in the city you will never encounter a black luxury sedan parked on the sidewalk blocking the door.

But while it’s normaalne, it’s perhaps too normaalne for politicians, and therefore unlikely to become an object of anyone’s campaign. Although I’ve seen writers and composers and other cultural figures there, I have only once seen a politician: Jaak Aaviksoo (in the lobby) inspecting the poster for an exhibition of war photographs from the Middle East.

It might be unfair to conclude we don’t see politicians there because a library is the seat of learning and politicians are a breed who believe they already possess the answers. Perhaps there’s simply free coffee on Toompea? Or could it be politicians find nothing sexy about the library? But just because the librarians haven’t yet posed in Playboy (with reading glasses on the tip of the nose à la Rein Lang), it doesn’t mean that the library isn’t sexy. You’ve just got to spend some time in it to understand.

The coming elections are the first I’m allowed to vote in—I’ve finally fulfilled my five-year residency requirement—and to win my vote it’s going to take more than a new stoplight in Pirita or a cleaned-up Ninja on a poster with Tiit Terik. But “fresh energy” isn’t going to do it either, whatever that slogan is supposed to mean. How about a fresh new hour or two at the national library?

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Baltish is Back... popular demand.

Save the Whale. Save the Nature.
What's frustrating to me as a native English speaker (who's perhaps lived abroad too long) is that I know this is wrong, but I start to try to convince myself it might be right. It's said the one truly international language is Bad English. If that's the case, I more and more feel I'm approaching fluency.

Of course given the context, most of us can figure out why we should push the button (the sign's above a toilet), but there's still something that irks me about this. Say you're from a country where both violence rules and flush toilets are illegal (like Iran or Belarus), would you then think this is a nuclear button? In all cases, we could do with a better sign.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


When I was a child what I wanted most in life was a pet monkey. My mother said no, not because it was probably illegal or because we already had three dogs and two cats, but because “monkeys swing on the drapes,” she said, “and I’m not about to have one destroy my house.” At the time, I really didn’t understand, but mom did most of the housework and was hostess and homeowner, so I respected her wishes and so did not independently purchase a pet monkey. Not that I would have known where to buy one.

Just last week my American friend Patricia showed up for a visit with her two children, and before I knew it the eldest had used a ballpoint pen to add to Liina’s favorite Paul Allik painting. The second child, a bit younger and therefore lighter, had actually climbed the drapes halfway up the wall. I spotted him just before the curtain rod gave way and he tumbled a meter to the floor bawling. In that split second before he hit ground, I thought back to my childhood desire for a monkey and empathized with my mother.

“Oh, geez,” said Patricia, grabbing her screeching child and pulling him to her breast. “You should really childproof your house.”

Why? I wanted to ask but didn’t, since I was engaged trying to imagine what items I could leave in the house that could not be destroyed by her simian primates. I couldn’t think of a single one. Childproofing would literally require the house to be gutted, removing drapes, paintings, books, hiding our toothbrushes. I tried to imagine what Patricia’s home looked like. Perhaps it was nothing more than a padded-wall cell. Maybe the adults had surrendered and moved out.

Seeing her drapes destroyed, Liina clearly wanted to take my 12-gauge off the wall and blast Patricia’s kids in the ass with a load of rock salt. Liina was aghast at the implication that we should childproof our home, as if Patricia had no obligation whatsoever to restrain her children. “This is what you get with kids” was what Patricia’s resigned face communicated. Liina’s face resembled that of a passenger on a jet airliner just before it crashes into the ocean at over a six hundred miles an hour.

As I’ve been led to believe, many parents today don’t punish their children by physically striking them. This may be a good idea, even though my parents certainly trotted out the hickory switch in instances of Major Child Crimes. Today, American parents punish their children with something called a “time out,” which means the kids are supposed to sit still in a corner until they’ve calmed down. But why can’t the kids be calm all the time? Or at least when they’re at my house?

Sure, within reason, my mom allowed us to run wild in the Vikerkaar household, but we were strictly forbidden from doing it in someone else’s home. And when there were adult guests present at our house, my brother Villu and I were required to follow simple rules about interacting with them: Don’t interrupt a conversation; Say “yes sir” and “no sir,” or “ma’am” as the case may be; All intelligent questions are welcome, even encouraged, but no gaga babytalk was allowed under any circumstances. Villu and I ate at the same table with the adults, used knives and forks with our elbows held in, and we chewed with our mouths firmly closed. And we, never, ever, climbed on the drapes. Destruction of the home was beyond consideration.

I’d like to think Patricia’s case is an isolated example of child mismanagement, but it hasn’t proved to be.

Not so long ago, I loaned a friend a signed copy of Raise High the Roof Beam by J.D. Salinger. (The reclusive writer had visited Tallinn, had drinks at our house, and so I asked him to sign his book.) It was the only copy I had, and my friend wanted to read it. It was a first edition, and I suppose that fact, combined with the signature makes it worth good money on eBay, though I’ve never cared too much about that when it comes to books. Until, that is, my friend emailed to ask: “Do you want it back in good condition?” I replied to ask if she was using it for archery practice. “No, but it’s hard to keep it away from my toddler.” Just how is that? I wondered. The toddler is exactly how tall? And a signed first-edition cannot be put out of a child’s reach? Particularly a borrowed, signed first-edition?

Yes, I rant to Liina, the world has indeed gone to hell. The modern “vaba kasvatus” has backfired, and the peasants are in full revolt. There’s only one way to quash it, and that’s with blood on the square. Liina agrees with me, though she says she’d stop short of guillotining children.

“Oh, but you’ll both feel differently when you have kids,” people tell us. But, no, we won’t. I can guarantee you that my child will never swing from your curtains like a rhesus macaque. He will not add his signature to artwork in your home. He will not mine boogers from his little nose and deposit them in your salad. And should he, by some wild chance, say, drag a dead, bloody deer across your new white carpet, then I will return to clean it spotless, dear host, after I take him outside and spank the living daylights out of him. Our kids will behave because it’s the right thing to do. And because we don’t believe behaving well is too much to ask of a human being, regardless of his age.

After we cleaned up the collapsed curtains and the potted plants the child destroyed on the way down, Liina took Patricia’s child in her arms. She told him that accidents happen to everyone and that she wasn’t angry. “Would you like me to read you a story?” Liina asked the child. “Oh, yes,” cooed the little one. “A story!”

Liina reached behind her and took a book off the shelf. She opened the cover and read Jonathan Swift’s first sentence: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country...” And onward she read to what turned out to be a very attentive little person.


Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Me and My M

Back in the 1990s, I did a favor that enabled an Estonian businessman to earn some money. The man had heard me muse about crossing America by motorcycle, and as a gesture of thanks, he offered to ship my bike—a Russian M—to any place I named. I chose Kansas, because that’s where my Uncle Feliks lived, and because I knew how big America was: half of it was plenty for me. I would ride West to California and, as Hunter S. Thompson had done, “smoke weed in biker bars,” “feel burning oil on my legs” and ride with the “rain in my eyes and my jaw clamped together in fear.”

But anyone who has ridden an M knows that you don’t ride it: you wrestle it. And so I spent much of the time behind the handlebars speculating about what the “M” in the bike’s name might stand for. It certainly didn’t mean Mõnus, though there was a decent chance it was Mure. If the “M” had been English, it would have stood for Mess or Mistake. But since it was a Russian bike, in all its foul-smelling, cloud-farting splendor, I searched my primitive Russian vocabulary. I assigned the “M” to Mучитель, or, since it was almost always broken, Mертвый.

What I had imagined as a romantic ride, cresting flowered hilltops, breathing purer oxygen, a busty blonde hitchhiker next to me in the mother-in-law killer, bore no relation to reality. Most days, I stood around in service stations in one-horse towns while American mechanics and their greasemonkey friends circled the M and peered into its workings. “How could we have been afraid of a nation that built this motorcycle?” scoffed a twenty-something mechanic near Russell, Kansas. “You ought to junk this thing and get a Jap bike.”

“Actually,” said a know-it-all sitting on a stack of old tires tipping back a frosty Coca-Cola, “that’s a German bike. The russkies got ‘em from the krauts as war reparations. Disassembled the factories, put ‘em on railcars, and took ‘em to Russia.”

“Maybe so,” replied the mechanic, “but it’s still a piece of shit.”

But it was my piece of shit, and I liked it. And the advantage of it was that it was primitively simple. Even though I couldn’t fix it, most any farm boy could, and when a part fell off you could always find some local MacGyver who could fashion a new one out of something he found in his yard with grass growing up around it. I replaced so much of it that by two weeks into my journey, you could have said the bike wasn’t Russian anymore. Sure, I still had to wrestle it, but it ran.

I crossed the plains of Kansas, stopping to visit all the state's superlatives: the world's tallest prairie dog, the world's largest hand-dug well, the world's biggest ball of twine, the world's biggest easel, and the world's biggest pallasite meteorite. All these places hoped to snare a passing motorist with a car full of bored kids. But my M trumped them all. I was a superstar. “Look, it’s the Red Baron!” little kids would cry, even though the bike was black and didn’t fly. Since I wasn’t hairy, had no beard or visible prison tats, tourists did not fear me. They offered me cold beers to allow them to sit in the sidecar and have their pictures made.

More than two-thousand miles later, when I finally gazed at the ocean, I didn’t feel the elation Thompson had described. I was dog tired. My body was caked with dirt. The ocean of northern California was far too cold to swim in. I forgot Thompson and thought of Kerouac whose goal was to piss into the Seine at dawn. The Pacific wasn’t the Seine but the sentiment felt right. After zipping up my trousers I turned and walked away, leaving my M on the side of the road. Thieves and buzzards would be too smart to touch it, but a rider with a soul like mine might happen by. And it would surely call his name.


Read it in Estonian in Eesti Ekspress.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Estonian Rovaniemi

Forget the Estonian Nokia. What we ought to be searching for is the Estonian Rovaniemi. I bow deeply to any town in the world which can convince tourists to visit by advertising cold and darkness.

I first heard about Rovaniemi in 1992. A Canadian family living in Tartu decided to spend their Christmas there, and so they drove northward to show their eight-year-old child, Charlie, the home of Santa Claus. Upon their return, they invited me over for dinner and for what has long been prohibited by the United Nations Convention Against Torture: the amateur vacation video.

For the two-hour duration of the footage, the screen remained pitch black except for the occasional trace of a street lamp or car lights. Sledding on Santa’s mountain? Pitch black. Walking through downtown Rovaniemi? Pitch black. Visiting Santa’s village and little Charlie taking a seat on the Big Man’s lap? Pitch black.

While I went for frequent refills from the wine bottle in the kitchen, they remained glued to the screen. “Remember that, honey?” the wife shrieked. “Oh, yes, dear,” the husband echoed. “That’s Charlie coming down the mountain now!”

I was baffled. Had this family been drugged by the Finns? There was nothing interesting at all about Rovaniemi—or their video—but they were as hooked as heroin addicts.

Even now, having finally visited Rovaniemi myself, I don’t understand the phenomenon. But I do understand that, if only for the sake of our economy, Estonia should have one, too. We’ve got dark. We’ve got cold and wet. What’s stopping us from having our very own Rovaniemi?

My first thought was that we should simply steal the town. Estonia could hire a public relations firm to circulate the rumor that Santa has decided to relocate to Valga or Otepää. After some thought I realized this would be too easily exposed as Eastern European treachery. Better to kidnap the man, blame it on the Latvians, and arrange it so Santa is liberated by Estonians somewhere near Otepää. Having seen both towns, I’m willing to bet that, all other things equal, Santa will by far prefer Otepää over Rovaniemi. If not, we could line Santa’s pockets with unspent EU developmental funds to ensure he sticks around. Then it’s only a matter of buying some reindeer and letting them roam the streets as thick as rats in an Old Town sewer. Our own little Santa Claus village would be complete.

But my conscience got to bothering me. What I like to think separates Estonia from Eastern Europe is its dignity. Estonians walk taller, talk straighter, and, in my estimation, live in a higher orbit than the rest of the region. Estonia doesn’t need a dirty trick. We don’t need to scare the crap out of the world’s children by kidnapping Santa. Forget the kids: let’s scare the crap out of the adults.

He may not recall it, but some years ago Mart Laar, while taking part in a panel discussion hosted by a now-defunct English-language magazine, came up with the idea that Estonia should have its very own Soviet Horror Park. Laar has always been a man ahead of his time in his vision for Estonia.

Personally, I see twenty hectares of horror.

Once my prototypical Canadian family has bought their tickets from the gate attendant, they’ll be stopped ten meters inside the park by an unshaven miilits wearing an untucked shirt and on his head a forashka as big as a serving tray. “Sure you bought tickets,” he’ll tell the still-smiling Canadians, “but you didn’t get them from me.” So Karl Kanada will dig in his pocket for a few bills to ensure his family gets to see the attractions. In some cases, the family’s car will be searched, the father’s porn magazines and children’s walkie-talkies confiscated. Alcohol will be removed (to be later resold in the gift shop or consumed by park employees) and a further fine levied on family members who neglected to purchase the park’s special health insurance which was recommended to them at the gate, the policy which guarantees foreigners the “same fine quality of medical care available to citizens of the Soviet Union.” (Incidentally, the park will house a small hospital where the only forms of accepted payment will be Levi’s jeans and live chickens.)

By this time, Karl Kanada and his family will be extremely thirsty and will descend on the park’s canteen, marked by a sign reading ресторан, at least half of the neon letters burned out. Karl will bribe the doorman, and once inside the family will spend hours deciphering the menu, finally realizing the restaurant has nothing on hand but pelmeni—and only fried pelmeni at that.

Exhausted, his hard currency nearly gone, Karl Kanada will take his family to the Intourist Hotel, where he’ll be charged the foreigners’ rate for a spartan room with no hot water and sheets a half meter too short for the bed. His key will be attached to a boat anchor and tended to by a dezhurnaya, who he will also need to bribe if he wants the family’s sweaty clothes returned by the hotel’s laundry service.

Sometime during the middle of the night, a knock will come at the door, and the family will be given ten minutes to pack and whisked down a back staircase into a waiting UAZ truck, then off to the park’s train station where a cattle car awaits. “Wait, there must be some mistake!” Karl will wail. But the guard will turn a deaf ear until Karl removes his Rolex, his leather shoes, his wife’s western brassiere, and anything else of value the family is carrying. Early in the morning, the family will return to their hotel on foot, to find their car stolen. “You only bought health insurance,” the desk clerk will inform them. “You should have bought the auto insurance.”

The deportation, being in such obvious bad taste, might be replaced by guests being rousted from their beds to be lightly beaten, then forced to sign a confession and inform on a neighbor—or, in cases of leniency, simply forced to write a postcard to their neighbors about the wonderful time they’re having.

To me, it’s a natural idea. It may not be exactly what Mr. Laar had in mind (I never had a chance to ask him), but it would certainly be one hell of a park. Educational for sure. Real family entertainment. The natural successor to reality television.

Vello, some will cry, you’ve stooped to a new low! How dare you make light such a serious subject? I answer this way: Estonia can continue the frustrating search for its Nokia—or seksikat produkti, as Mr. Ansip was quoted calling them in Äripäev—which it possibly won’t find while anybody reading this is still alive. Or, it can take advantage of that which is right under its very nose. It isn’t pretty, but it would be authentic. And thanks to Hollywood, with the West thinking that the Soviet Union was all about Bond and “Goldeneye grotesque,” Estonia might be doing the world a service by setting things straight.

But there’s Solzhenitsyn, Edward Lucas, and Anne Applebaum! a reader will protest. People know the crimes of the Soviet Union! No, dear reader, they don’t. The masses don’t read books and never have. Bad television and theme parks are the communication tools of our time. If we want to change the popular conception of history, then we’ve got to do it with Disney. Or rather our own sick interpretation thereof.


Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Say What?

Several weeks ago I set out to buy the most simple mobile phone available. I carefully researched phones, identified the Nokia model number, and took a printout to my local Elisa dealer. "It'll take three weeks to get that phone," the young lady working the counter reported. "Absolutely nobody wants that kind of phone."

Rather than waiting three weeks, I buckled under pressure and bought the simplest phone in stock. Which happened to have a camera. Now I've found myself using it to record objects which pique my curiosity. Among the recent:

There are the Crips, the Bloods, and now the Ninja Cobras. Obviously one of Tallinn's more dangerous gangs. Can someone explain the Estonian fascination with things Ninja?

This toilet seat available at Bauhaus Estonia for around 400 EEK. I've seen these before, but only in American trailer parks. I have trouble imagining the Estonian home where this might go.

Pepe Enroth doesn't sound Finnish to me, but he's apparently a hit there. This promotional poster discovered about halfway between Rovaniemi and Helsinki. I've never understood the Finns. At all. Perhaps Giustino can explain?