Saturday, January 31, 2009

Portrait of an Immigration Office


“What’s this ‘McCormick?’” asked the Estonian immigration official to whom I presented my application for a residence permit.

“It’s my middle name,” I replied.

“Why’s it have a lower case ‘C?’”

“I don’t know. It’s Irish. That’s how it’s written.”

“But it’s not that way on your passport. Your passport has an upper case ‘C.’”

“I didn’t realize that.”


“You’re right. On my passport it’s written with an upper case ‘C.’”


“All of the letters on my passport are written in upper case.”


“I don’t know. Do you want me to call the Canadian Embassy and ask? Is it that important to you?”

The official frowned.


“Where’d you get that chair?” the official asked.

“From the desk next to you,” I answered. There had been no chairs at her desk, and I wanted to sit.

“What if someone needs it?”

“No one needed it. I asked.”

“Oh, you asked, did you?”

“I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

“You should not take chairs from there. Someone might need them.”

“Okay, from where would you like me to take a chair?”

“I said he could take the chair,” interrupted the official’s colleague at the next desk. “No one was using it.”

“You take chairs from the big table,” my official shouted. “Not from smaller tables!”

I returned the chair to my official’s colleague’s table and selected one from the large table behind me.

“There,” I said. “I now have the correct chair. Shall we proceed?”

The official frowned.


“Do you have the additional documents required?” the official asked.

“I do.” I presented him an envelope.

“I see here that you’re HIV negative.”

“Yes, I went to the state clinic and they administered the test.”

“But how do I know you don’t have AIDS?”

“I don’t understand.”

“The Estonian state needs to be certain you do not have AIDS. How do we know you don’t have AIDS?”

“Because I’m HIV negative,” I offered, still not sure what the man wanted.

“Yes, but how do I know you don’t have AIDS?”

“If I’m HIV negative, then I don’t have AIDS. Scientists tell us that to contract AIDS you must first have the HIV virus.”

“Well, I’m not a scientist.”

Until recently, residence permit applicants were required to provide the following: an original university diploma, certification by a state psychologist that they were not insane, and a certificate from a state clinic proving they were HIV negative.

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Monday, January 26, 2009


“Ignore the girl upstairs in the bed. There’s a friend who’s staying with me and she’s his girlfriend.” My French writer friend, Guillaume, was sitting in my car and talking on the phone to his Estonian landlord. He’d finally had enough of our dark northern days, and I was driving him and his boxes to the post office. His landlord was, at the same time, en route to show the soon-to-be-vacant apartment.

“You don’t have a friend staying with you,” I pointed out to him.

“Yeah, but I can’t tell the landlord I’ve got a stripper in my bed.”

“A stripper?”

“I met her at a club and we kind of hit it off.”

“OK.” I didn’t ask what kind of club. I mean, strippers have private lives, too. Maybe he’d met her sipping vintage Bordeaux in Gloria’s wine cellar.

As we pulled away from his apartment, Guillaume started having second thoughts. “Estonian strippers don’t steal, do they? Maybe I should have taken my laptop with me?”

“Why don’t you just kick her out?”

“Oh, I don’t want to be rude. She’s a really nice girl.”

I told him I wasn’t an expert, but from what I’d read in the papers, strippers frequently steal.

“Prostitutes steal. This girl is a stripper.”

“She doesn’t take money for sex?”

“God, no.” He thought a bit and then added, “Well, not from me.”

To make him feel better, I suggested that since she hadn’t drugged him and left in the middle of the night, the odds were good she might not rob him. Guillaume decided we should drive back, and he ran in to get his computer.

“She’s still asleep,” he said, relieved.

“Did you take your cash, too?”

“I don’t have any cash. There are only books to steal, and she doesn’t read French.”

After we finished at the post office, I returned with Guillaume to his apartment. I wanted to get a look for myself. We passed the landlord on the staircase, and he mentioned nothing about a naked pole dancer asleep spread-eagle in the master bedroom.

She hadn’t stolen anything from Guillaume. In fact, she was seated at his kitchen table, sipping coffee, typing away on her very own—and very expensive—laptop.

“This is my friend, Julia,” Guillaume introduced her. She was tall and attractive. She was sluttier than a post office worker but less so than most of the high-booted girls you’ll find prowling the streets of Tallinn.

I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve been to a few strip clubs in Tallinn and am always disappointed. The “dancing” is generally of a quality lower than a grade school ballet class, and often there’s a shirtless male with a python who effectively douses any desire whipped up by the girls. And if the snake dance doesn’t do it for you, the girls will often ruin the experience by rubbing their bodies against you and saying in a thick Russian accent, “You give me money now, da?”

I admit it’s been several years since I’ve been to the clubs, and it’s possible EU regulations have improved the dancing. But I doubt it. The strippers I’ve seen in Estonia were even lazier than construction workers. Since their clients were mostly catatonic Finns and undersexed Danes, they hardly had to do more than show up and get naked. The Finns we get in Tallinn don’t expect much, don’t speak much English, and so “give me money now” may really arouse them.

But Julia seemed different. She spoke British-accented English, was conservatively dressed, and had a contagious smile. We discussed politics and Europe, and she said she was getting ready to go to Barcelona “on business.” She finished her coffee, closed her laptop, and kissed Guillaume on the cheek. She offered me her hand and wished me good day.

“See,” Guillaume said when the door closed. “See what a judgmental ass you are?”

He was right, of course, but I wasn’t going to admit it. “I’m not the one who ran back for his laptop,” I said.

Guillaume and I drank coffee and talked about the sun-filled cafes of Paris. I told him I’d miss him and all his crazy adventures with people like Julia.

“But we can go see her dance before I leave,” he said.

I told him I thought that was a fine idea.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Life on the Small Screen

In a routine dusting accident, my wife Liina knocked our television off its stand and it hasn’t worked since. Lacking the funds to buy the de rigueur flatscreen, we replaced our TV with a ten-year-old seventeen-inch model with rabbit-ears antennae.

After two weeks of Reporter and Singing with Stars, I’ve concluded that programs on channels 2 and 3 are not suitable for viewing on a small screen. Digital surround sound and a four-hectare screen are in fact necessary: if the sound is loud enough and image big enough, it is possible to induce hypnosis and blind yourself to the programming. Our small screen just can’t hack it: it somehow calls attention to the content.

Reporter is my favorite. It’s a real art to produce a seven-minute segment on a broken sauna window. We learn that a jealous suitor shot it out (an otherwise nice guy, according to a neighbor), there was no one was inside (no kids or animals, thank God), and that the sauna owner was a woman (desired by the shooter of course). Or at least that’s what I thought the story was about. My Estonian isn’t perfect and sometimes I question whether Reporter is broadcasting the nonsense I think it is.

Crime dramas are popular on both channels 2 and 3, and many of them star one of the lesser Baldwin brothers, which means the murderer can be identified by an attentive viewer within the program’s first two minutes.

And then there are the movies. Channel 2 runs things like Bad News Bears 5 and Police Academy 17. Most of these films are banned in Western countries by the Geneva Convention, and American investigators recently discovered that the CIA was using them to break prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Most of channel 2’s other shows are of the quality of what Americans call “community access cable,” which means that airtime is reserved for anybody with a pulse who wants twenty minutes to talk about the future of competitive knife throwing or do an abbreviated production of King Lear starring members of the local insane asylum. Channel 3 is slightly better, and shows like Meie Annid actually do help it halfway redeem itself. I say “halfway,” because the host, Anni, will sometimes put a pork leg in the oven and then step out for a televised Thai massage. I’m not sure what massage has to do with cooking, so the fact that a spa gets airtime has always reeked to me of that particular Eastern European brand of journalistic sleaze—the “ordered” article or program.

Liina tells me the Estonian networks can’t help it. She says they probably have limited budgets and are bad negotiators. I imagine the Hollywood rep to the Estonian buyer: “Sure, we’ve got that Anthony Hopkins picture you want, but you’ll have to buy eleven Goldie Hawn films to get it.”

Liina’s other theory is that Estonian channels are secretly run by an old communist who can’t understand English, and so he lets Janno Buschmann choose the films. Buschmann, in addition to being Estonia’s most ubiquitous film translator, is also the man who gives us Stephen King in Estonian, and so I don’t for one moment doubt the man’s dark sense of humor.

Liina tells me that if I don’t like the channels I don’t have to watch them and says the reason I make fun of shows like Dances with Stars is because I’m jealous. “If they invited you on as a guest,” she blew her top one day, “you’d think they were great shows.”

“Yeah, right,” I replied. “My dream in life is to dance with Ester Tuiksoo and be known as Tantsu Vello.”

“You dumbass!” Liina retorted. “Ester sings! She doesn’t dance.”

“That’s just this season,” I fired back. “They all dance eventually.”

But Liina might have a point. I honestly wouldn’t mind being invited on Riigi Kodanik where I’d sit in an uncomfortable chair with my back straight and dispense brilliant advice on economic policy in my broken but charming Estonian. President Ilves might be watching, and he’d call up his friends in Brussels and get me a think tank job where I’d be paid 200,000 euros a year to drink Scotch and pontificate.

All my problems will soon be solved when the Estonian channels go digital: then I’ll get none of them. And I’m waiting for that day. I’ll miss ETV, of course, but Liina and I will both be better off without the rest. She won’t have The Bold and the Beautiful and The Storm of the Soul. I’ll miss Lost and Galakontsert James Bond. We’ll be relegated to our books. And of course YouTube. Now there’s a small screen we haven’t begun to explore.