Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Pocket Guide to Expats

“Why are you here?” is the question every local wants to put to foreigners. We have our stock answers, and often they’re true. Sometimes, though, the foreigner leaves out part of the story. He doesn’t want to admit he was fired from his job in Canada, or that he was caught on videotape robbing a Buenos Aires bank.

In American cowboy movies, if you weren’t smart enough to know cattle rustlers were bad, the moviemakers put them in black hats. It happens to be the simplest way to categorize foreigners in Estonia:

The White Hats

1. Smart but lazy. He would have been a success story anywhere but likes the fact he can earn good money in the region working comparatively little. He puts in a half day of real work and still outdoes many locals.

2. Regional Corporate Babysitter. He’s a businessman dispatched to represent an international company. He is well educated, often smart, and will move on in three years. If he’s single, he hangs out at Nimeta in the old city. If he’s married, he spends his time trying to find activities for his wife.

3. The idle wife. Her husband is the regional corporate babysitter. He has a work permit, but she can’t get one. Hers is not an easy life, especially if she’s childless. She often does charity work or joins a book club to pass the time.

4. The female professional. These women are descendants of Sisyphus. (There used to be a good-news/bad-news joke about women’s liberation in Eastern Europe: The bad news is that women’s lib is coming; the good news is it won’t be here for 100 years.) There are few foreign female professionals here, and the reason is their lives are hard. In the workplace, the glass ceiling isn’t glass; and in terms of a social life, most foreign women aren’t interested in dating local men.

5. The Adventurer. He hates the 9-to-5 grind of his previous western existence. He thrives here on the difficulties of daily life and the fact that there is still a surprise around every corner. He enjoys the fact that his friends at home view him as something of an oddball.

6. Married a local. These fall into two subcategories : (a) He who came here with the express purpose to find a woman—often a pensioner-divorcee from the USA, and (b) He who accidentally fell in love. Members of both groups generally feel like they’ve won the lottery.

7. Our Man in Havana. Nice work if you can get it. Who among us never wanted to be James Bond?

8. Foreign Estonians.

i. Young exiles. Usually the 20-something son of a genuine exile. He owns seven black turtlenecks and smokes cigarillos. He hasn’t yet realized he’s not on the set of Casablanca. Some say this type of foreign exile was "screwed twice by the former USSR: once after WWII, when he was given an exile identity, and again in 1991, when that identity was taken away.”

ii. True believers. He’s a foreign Estonian who is truly committed to a better country. He’s worked for the government since independence. And loved every minute of it.

iii. Finally home. He’s an older foreign Estonian who never quite fit in in his adopted country. He spoke with an accent and was made fun of. He never fully accepted life as a Canadian, American, or Australian. Now, he’s finally returned home, where he again speaks with an accent and is made fun of.

The Black Hats

1. The criminal. He’s here doing what he’s not allowed in his home country. Perhaps he was banned from serving on boards of directors or banned from trading stock. He often moves in the highest circles of society or government.

2. Talented Mr. Ripley. So you always wanted to be a brain surgeon? Don’t let a little lack of education stop you. Fancy being the Duke of Edinburgh? Who’s to say you’re not? Estonia is the perfect place to live dreams the home country wouldn’t allow. Me, for example. Have you checked me out?

3. Unemployable back home. He is such an obvious idiot that no company back home will employ him longer than three months. In this region, he’ll last a year.

4. Mr. Dysfunctional. He is mostly harmless, usually likable, but has trouble getting out of bed in the morning. He tells people he’s a writer but hasn’t yet picked up the pen. He never pays for his own drinks, because he’s always broke. He’s held down jobs in the region, but never for very long.

5. The Mystery Man. No one is quite sure why he’s here. And he himself isn’t talking. At parties, he sits quietly in the background, sipping whisky and listening to others. You suspect Interpol might be interested in him, but he hasn’t been anything but nice to you.