Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Hard to believe, but in this economy a hamburger at the Radisson still costs 160 kroons. That’s far too much to pay, but it’s the only decent burger in town. The price includes French fries and an extra large serving of guilt.

This recession has hit me hard—freelance writers are the only ones who go bankrupt faster than bad restaurants. Ordering the Radisson burger brought all kinds of guilt, financial and otherwise. Most of all, I felt guilty because I knew my wife Liina was home eating boiled potatoes. And there I was, sitting in the restaurant next to a street-level floor-to-ceiling window. I felt part of a billboard advertisement for some luxury good, the headline shouting: I’m not sorry that I’m a rich asshole.

Except for that I’m not rich. If the plague came to Tallinn, I’d die in the city with the masses, not having the means to afford a castle in the countryside.

I tried another mental tack to deal with my guilt. I thought of Liina at home and reasoned: She’s Estonian; she actually likes boiled potatoes.

But that only partially worked. While I didn’t feel like a rich asshole, I still felt like an asshole.

But, I thought, I’m not as bad as some.

A real estate developer I know forces his wife to borrow money from her girlfriends in order to pay the family’s utility bills, while he himself somehow finds enough money for international travel. “Business trips,” he tells her. Perhaps. But when he comes back he’s always tanned.

My neighbor, a mid-level attorney at a large law firm, advertised his wife’s fur coat on osta.ee. He snuck it out of the house and delivered it to the buyer, and his wife suspected nothing until she wanted to wear it to a dinner party. All evening long the wife talked about nothing but her “stolen” fur. The next day, the husband admitted he’d sold it but had said nothing because he didn’t want it to spoil dinner.

And I’m feeling guilty over a burger? Strangely, I am.

Before my food even arrives I notice how filthy the table is. It’s not sticky, but there are breadcrumbs all over it. For a 160 kroons… Yes, one would think.

Another lawyer I know, in order to cut down on family expenses, forced his wife to sell her car but then traded his own Toyota for a Mercedes Benz. When she questioned this logic he shouted at her, “Now’s the time to get the best deals!” All I’ve done is buy a hamburger and I somehow feel like I’m in his league.

And then it arrives. It’s a beautiful patty of beef complete with melted Roquefort cheese and four thick strips of bacon on top. The guilt momentarily subsides, but then I see the fries. Is that all? There are at least thirty percent fewer than in pre-crisis days. And they’re not even fresh: they’re clearly frozen; from a plastic bag. 160 kroons. And that doesn’t include a beverage.

But the burger’s so good. The beef is exquisite, and there’s more bacon than I’d hoped for. It’s cooked perfectly: pink in the center and hot off the grill.

I think about Liina at home. I’ve asked her to help share the burden. I still pay the mortgage, but she covers the utilities, the car insurance, and the groceries. I imagine her stabbing a potato with a fork and biting into it. I see her put it back on the plate and sprinkle it with salt.

I signal the waiter and ask for the check. The guy at the next table flags him down and barks “I’ll have another.” I want another, too. But I couldn’t bear another. I’d deserve the heart attack I’d die of.

Liina, if you’re reading this, forgive me. I’ve asked you to sacrifice and you have. Without a single complaint. I feel as if I’ve cheated on you. And worst of all, I can’t promise it won’t happen again.