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.