Friday, May 22, 2009

The Antidote to Public Transportation

The American writer John Gierach used to work as a bicycle messenger in New York City. He carried a kryptonite lock, because, in addition to locking the bike, it was the best for smashing out the lights of taxi cabs who crowded him out of his lane. And that's about the state of bicycling in Estonia. There may be bike lanes, but motorists haven't yet learned that they're for bicycles.

I'm a bicyclist, and I support Eesti Rattarikkaks, Estonia's non-profit organization with the goal to make bike transportation in Estonia as normal as in any other European nation. Dig this video made by one of my friends on the occasion of Estonia's "ride your bike to work day" or something along those lines. And, by the way, Scott, are you sure you've got the rights to that Beatles song?

If you're a bicyclist and want to throw in with this gang, visit here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Too Much Magic Bus

If one day you feel the earth jolt beneath you and a toxic black cloud rises over Pärnu Road, then you’ll know I struck a match on the No. 18 bus. For this reason, I often ride without a ticket. I can tolerate the smell of public transport, but I just can’t agree to pay for it.

On almost every bus there is at least one individual whose breath, if lit, could power the city of Tallinn for the next five hundred years. These passengers do not exhale carbon dioxide, but rather a hydroxyl group bound to a carbon atom of an alkyl: grain alcohol. Also, too frequently one will encounter a passenger who has expelled the contents of his digestive tract into his own pants.

My wife Liina argues that I’m buying a simple service. The bus carries me from point A to point B, and I should shut up, pay, and be thankful. I respect her socialist sentiments, but I just can’t agree. There isn’t one legitimate airline—even in Europe’s welfare states—who would try to make that argument. Overweight passengers are required to buy two tickets so that they’re not sitting on your lap. And drunken passengers are not allowed to board, not to mention those who have soiled their own trousers.

I realize it isn’t politically correct to criticize public transport. Tallinn has some brand new busses—even a few bus lanes—and public transport can move you around the city faster and cheaper than your own automobile. But the truth is that Tallinn public transportation is still a malodorous, depressing, and downright surreal experience.

Just last week, while waiting for one of Tallinn’s whining green dragons to whisk me to the city, a belching, farting drunk wandered into the midst of waiting passengers. He placed two bags of clanking bottles under the bus stop’s shelter, stumbled toward the street, and produced a tennis ball from his right pocket which he flung into traffic where it bounced off a dirty Ford wagon. Waiting passengers silently looked on.

Making a new series of retching noises, the drunk removed a second tennis ball from his left pocket and chucked it into traffic. The ball bounced over and between cars, coming to rest on the grass median. In the far traffic lane a speeding silver Mercedes broke the legs of a white kitten and neither slowed nor stopped to check its condition. A few seconds later a small Toyota braked, its passenger door opened, and a pair of hands scooped the animal into the car. Passengers silently trudged to the curb as the green dragon arrived at our stop and putted to a halt. Her ancient rusty doors snapped open and shut like steel leghold traps designed to pierce the flesh and restrain a mink until the trapper comes to drown it.

If a bus may be dated by the age of the poster greeting boarding passengers—a swimsuit-clad teenage Eda-Ines Etti—then this bus was at least ten years old. A child’s plastic toy badge—its dinner-plate size making it almost a true shield—mounted above the windscreen read Policeman Sea Arrest Team. The driver’s station was trimmed with red-mirrored disco flash mosaic tiles, punctuated by a techno soundtrack loud enough to be shared with passengers throughout the bus.

A Tallinn mayor once declared that public transport was meant for pensioners, alcoholics, and children. It’s improved noticeably since those days, but not so much that it’s often a service worth paying for.

Liina says that a transit experience as rich as Tallinn’s can hardly be measured by money. Where else in the world can you see such a parade of life for the price of a bus ticket? Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa, and former Soviet republics. An elite club, for sure, but must we be proud members?

Since we may hardly rely on the drivers—a generally sheepish breed—to enforce any code of passenger conduct, and any government solution would surely be no more creative than a new tax, we must take matters into our own hands. Vote with your feet, as the saying goes.

Surely the day will arrive when it’s safe to breathe on Tallinn public transport. But until that day I’ll continue to pay exactly what it’s worth.

P.S. And yet again: May 9th, 16:27 hours, Bus No. 8 (license no. 158 TAK) broke down at the Poska stop. No information was conveyed to passengers, but all eventually figured out there would be no refunds. And they would have to walk.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Europe Imitates Bollywood

Eurovision is usually a trashy spectacle and perhaps this year is no exception. But since the Russians do trashy spectacles like no one else can, maybe that explains why I like it so much this year. A couple of questions and a few observations:

What I don’t get about Eurovision:

1. How does Israel get invited? Since when were they in Europe? And why isn’t Palestine included?

2. Why did France send Patricia Kaas when everyone else sent amateurs? Is this like the Russians attempting to beat the Americans in the Olympics by pitting their pro hockey players against the Americans’ collegiates? (And note that UK brings out the big gun, Andrew Lloyd Webber.) Shouldn't there be a rule against this?

3. Why did Germany not have to compete in the semifinals? Does this have to do with their special relationship with Russia and the pipeline?

My favorites, by the way:

Moldova. Great dancing, singing, catchy tune. I wouldn’t buy the album, but almost. They’re my pick to win, and I’m publishing this story before the winner is announced just in case (23:53, Estonia time).

Estonia. Thank you, Sven Lõhmus, for not giving us English-language drivel this year. You’ll probably get a riigiorden for this one. In the future, may your country be punished by me writing a song in Estonian for every one you write in English.

Denmark. This Eurocountry holds some appeal to me. They might open for Kenny Chesney or play a NASCAR event.

Russia. Bravo. Not afraid at all to be Russian. (This is my second choice for Eurovision winner.)

Norway. That kid is going to get a lot of votes for simply being the cute enough that every woman in Europe will want to take him home. And his song is okay, too.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Channeling Amy Vanderbilt

“I’m in a meeting and can’t talk. Call me back in an hour.” That’s what I got when I called a woman I'd never met who wanted me to edit her ten-thousand-word academic thesis for free. My response: “Up yours.” Of course I didn’t say it until after she’d hung up. And my answer had nothing to do with her wanting me to do it for free.

I’ve never thought of myself as a crusty old timer, but I am baffled by mobile phone etiquette. To my way of thinking, the woman answering the phone was doubly rude: first to those in her meeting, and secondly to me. If she didn’t want to talk, why’d she bother to answer at all?

“But people expect you to answer,” a friend explained after listening to my rant. “People know you’ve got the phone with you, so it’s rude not to answer.”

“What if I’m in the shower?” I countered. “What if I’m urinating? What if I’m on the table in the emergency room with a doctor carving out my appendix?”

“Well,” he said sheepishly, “I’ve answered the phone in the shower.”

And what’s with this “Call me back…”? Wouldn’t common courtesy dictate she call me back? After all, she was the one who wanted the favor. So now I was supposed to remember to call her back so I could be inconvenienced for her benefit? The whole situation smelled Soviet. Like in the Estonian government office I once worked where an unwanted phone call was silenced by raising the receiver a few centimeters from its cradle and letting it drop.

Up yours, indeed.

When I was a child—in the pre-mobile phone era—I was required to answer the telephone this way: Vikerkaar residence, this is Vello speaking. My brother and I hated it. As teenagers, it seemed completely over the top, like we were Canada farm kids pretending to be royalty. Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth speaking. We had to take detailed messages, too, writing down the caller’s name, number, and exact time of call. In the chaotic world we live in, it probably was reassuring when one of the Vikerkaar children answered the phone. But as with kids from any era, we were too focused on our own navels to care. But we did it anyway, because bad manners in our household just weren’t tolerated. And dad wasn’t afraid to enforce it with a belt.

In those days there were three doyens of manners. Emily Post, Miss Manners (Judith Martin’s pseudonym), and Amy Vanderbilt. Our family’s manners were guided by Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette. Published in 1952—and seriously out of date in our household 25 years later—there were chapters titled “Employer-Servant Relations,” “Ship Launchings and Visiting a Naval Vessel,” and “An Audience with the Pope.” But Mrs. Vanderbilt wasn’t too out of touch. She knew that some people who bought books weren’t rich enough to employ a butler and so included the chapter “Gracious Living without Servants.”

Even though there weren’t mobile phones for Mrs. Vanderbilt to write about, I think we’d concur on a few etiquette basics. I believe she’d agree that the man who answered his phone and carried on a five-minute conversation in the second row of the opera was not acting with consideration for others. She’d agree my neighbor who constantly talks on his phone while driving his Audi Q7 endangers fellow drivers. And she would note that if you indeed take calls while using the toilet, it is considerate to wait to flush.

With new technologies like the mobile phone where etiquette isn’t yet formed, it is indeed our duty to challenge the devices, to consider what they contribute versus what they disrupt. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently posed two questions to the inventors of Twitter: Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls? and Was there anything in your childhood that led you to want to destroy civilization as we know it?

Lucky for us all, Edward M. DelSole of Scranton, Pennsylvania, posted a solution in Dowd’s comments section: “Don’t ‘Tweet’ passively. Ensure what you’re saying has purpose.” I do believe he’s channeling Amy Vanderbilt. I haven’t been able to reach Mr. DelSole, but I think he’d say Mrs. Vanderbilt would have excoriated the woman who answered her mobile phone in the meeting. Mrs. Vanderbilt—an extremist to be sure—might have gone so far as to suggest the woman turn her phone off. What a concept! Off!

Several years ago, I was laughing with my brother over the way our parents forced manners upon their children. When he raised the subject of our long telephone greeting, we broke out Amy Vanderbilt to review what she had to say. “A maid employed in the home…answers the phone by saying ‘Mr. Greer’s residence’…A member of the family merely answers ‘Hello.’”

What fools we’d been! The long, excessive polite greeting was reserved for servants! Had we not been too lazy to read, we would have been well within our rights to answer the phone Hello like all of our friends. Of course, our jackbooted parents’ logic was that answering hello led to soon answering Yes?, which led to swearing, which led to sex, which led to teen pregnancy, which led to your entire life being ruined forever. So I guess my parents had a point.

Maybe after reading this, the woman who answered her phone in the meeting will change her behavior. Probably not. Appeals for good manners rarely work without a belt. Which, come to think of it, I’ll happen to have when I tell her I won’t edit her thesis. But then comes the small matter of telling her why. There I’ll just have to hope I can be as polite as Mrs. Vanderbilt.