Saturday, November 28, 2009

Go Figure

Estonians have a curious relationship with rules. There are rules most respect (private property) and rules too few respect (traffic laws). Stop signs, yield signs, and traffic lights are all still optional, and entering any intersection you better check twice for the three maniacs who will risk their lives and yours for a chance to squeak through on red. Not yellow or pink. Red.

But there is one law all seem to follow: rail crossing regulations. There may be no train in sight, but Estonians will wait until that flashing red signal turns back to white before they'll cross those tracks. Often, they'll kill their engines, get out and lean against their car doors to enjoy a cigarette. I've sat fifteen minutes with no train in sight, and I've sat even longer when a locomotive was simply idling two hundred meters from the intersection. Since I've got better things to do, but mostly since locomotives can't manage zero to 100 kph in under five seconds, I pull my car out of the line, drive around the barrier, and go merrily on my way. You should see the looks I get.

In my country, at a crossing with visibility of two kilometers in either direction, almost no one would wait on a train which can't be seen. I think we Canadians understand that in a contest between train and car, the train always wins. So is that what's behind Estonians' god-like reverence for the railway crossing? While too few have respect for another car in an intersection, are all in awe of the overwhelming power of a locomotive? Theories, anyone?


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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chefs We Dig: Imre Kose

Given the all-consuming quiet caused by the recession, I thought I'd stumbled into a speakeasy in prohibition-era America. Vertigo is not a small restaurant, and conversation and laughter emanated from both of its large dining rooms.

And the chef was in the house. Imre Kose was dashing back and forth from kitchen to dining room, speaking with guests, holding hurried court as chefs do. And his English. Oh, his English. It's hard to pin down an Estonian accent. To me, it seems less an accent and more a brief pause on the way to having no accent whatsoever. But Kose's accent isn't even that. He's somehow made English his own. Perhaps due to a blend of natural charisma and having to be heard over chattering diners, something unique has emerged. Were I Estonia's dictator, I'd send language teachers and academics to study it.

Over a Jack on the rocks I watched a parade of violin-case-packing middle-aged women enter the restaurant. They were either visiting orchestra members with instruments too expensive to check, or they were about to shoot up the place. Later, halfway into a rack of lamb and Imre approached our table: "There's a Filipino woman, part of some orchestra, and I half-jokingly asked her if she wouldn't want to play a song..." And then there she was, violin unsheathed and under her chin, playing for our table. Playing for the restaurant. Playing for Imre.

Recommended (for those like me who seem to dine out once an eternity): Vertigo.

In the Lõõtsa Cathedral

I once read a magazine article instructing what to do if you were dining out wearing khaki pants and inadvertently dripped on your trousers while urinating. Those few drops, the author was convinced, would be spotted by everyone in the restaurant, and as you returned to your table all eyes would turn to you and your crotch. The solution? Turn on the bathroom faucet and throw water all over the front of your pants. Return confidently to your table and lay the blame on water pressure due to faulty plumbing.

This story came to mind recently when I was doing some freelance writing for a client in an office on Lõõtsa street. This is one of those Ülemiste Technopark buildings, beautifully renovated to impart both modern and warm feelings. There’s a wonderful cafeteria in the building, too, which looks a lot like some expensive Old Town restaurants. It’s an ideal place to grab a bowl of soup and do a little work on the laptop.

The cafeteria bathroom is behind transparent glass, a unisex wonder salon right out of the TV series, Ally McBeal. I always feel a bit uneasy entering these type bathrooms, mostly because I’m unsure of the etiquette. In the men’s bathroom things are clear: When possible, put one empty urinal between you and the next guy, and always look straight ahead, as if there were something terribly fascinating on the wall-tiles in front of you. But in an Ally McBeal bathroom in a building clearly representing the best of e-stonia, did that rule hold true? What if I entered and saw a woman washing her hands at the sink? Should I nod hello? Or should I brush brusquely by her and attend to my business? And were the toilet stalls on one side of the room for men and those on the other for women? And if all the toilets were occupied, where should I stand to wait for someone to exit? Would the person exiting expect that subtle nod of recognition or and ‘excuse me’ muttered under the breath—like on a transatlantic flight—the tacit regulations for two people moving past each other in a crowded space? Or should I wait on the other side of the glass—it was indeed transparent—and wait until a stall became free?

The bathroom, however, was empty. I could hear my footsteps echo off the marble walls. One of the stall doors was open, and I moved quickly to occupy it and finish my business. Exiting the stall, a row of sinks stood in front of me. The place was as empty and peaceful as a church on a weekday, would have been ideal for quiet contemplation, and I paused a moment to appreciate the majesty of this Estonian bathroom. It was nicer even than those which I’d seen in the restaurant Pegasus. This was the cathedral of Estonian toilets.

I placed my hands underneath the faucet. Nothing. I moved them back and forth. Nothing. I moved them in a wider arc. Still nothing. Was the motion sensor broken? Or were the architects of the Lõõtsa toilets having a bit of fun with me? Had they built the most modern and beautiful bathroom in Europe with manual faucets? I reached up and tweaked a knob. No, that was the soap dispenser. But good, I needed soap. There was another strangely shaped object on the wall behind the faucet. Perhaps that was the sensor and I had not passed my hands close enough to it. I moved my hands in every conceivable motion around this silver object. Nothing.

At this point, I began to look around. Partly, it was a subtle cry for help—me hoping to find another human being at a faucet several paces away cheerfully washing her hands. Partly, I was looking around to see if anyone was watching. This was becoming embarrassing. I have a university education and am a member of one of the world’s most technologically advanced cultures. How was it that I could not get water from a tap? Perhaps someone had turned off the building’s water? But, then, the toilet had flushed.

This was not a completely new experience. Once, while traveling, I stayed in a hotel which had installed the most modern shower facility, and I could not figure out how to operate it. A phone call to the front desk had only complicated things, me having to run from the phone to the bathroom, each time trying to tug the little ring under the tub faucet that the clerk had described. Finally, the hotel dispatched its “engineer” to solve the problem via personal demonstration.
Standing in the Lõõtsa cathedral, there was no one to call. Ekspress Hotline did not deal with these affairs. I was too young to get away with dialing 911, not that they would help. I wondered if I wasn’t going to have to leave, soap on my hands, and ask the soup server to show me how to extract water from the tap.

I began to explore the strange button on the wall. It was shaped like an oblong bar of soap, quite beautiful actually. It might have been a control aboard the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, though there was no Mr. Sulu around to drive it. I pushed it left and right. Nothing. Frustrated, feeling as if I’d spent half the day in this bathroom with only soap on my hands to show for it, I slapped the device hard and water exploded from the tap. The high-pressure stream bounced off the shallow designer-sinks, and the front of my khaki pants were completely soaked with water.

My mind did not immediately revert to the previously mentioned magazine article concerning how to deal with wet pants. Had it, I would have seen that I had bypassed the problem and proceeded directly to the solution of being in the position to blame the faulty plumbing. Rather, I recalled a tasteless joke told after the tragic explosion of the American space shuttle: What were the last words heard aboard the Challenger? “Hey, what’s this button for?”

But I’d been as careful as possible. I’d approached the problem from all angles, as methodically as one of the software engineers I was due to meet and write about that day. I felt cheated, the object of a joke. Had there been someone around to laugh at me, I might have even felt better. Instead, I suffered humiliation silently. I cursed the Ally McBeal bathrooms and e-stonia, a nation I deemed so eager to prove its modernity that it would buy any new fangled apparatus from a plumbing salesman in a sharkskin suit.

I removed my coat and folded it over my arm. Carried in front of me, it concealed all. I walked through the cafeteria and back to the office where I was to have my meeting. The software engineer was waiting. “I’ll take your coat for you,” he said, nodding to a closet.

It was then I thought of the magazine article. I confidently handed the man my coat. As he put it on a hanger I saw him look down. He politely looked away, but it was too late. “You probably need to have someone call the building management,” I said with stentorian voice. “The bathroom plumbing downstairs exploded all over me.”

“I guess so,” he noted, my remark having given him permission to publicly acknowledge the spot covering my fly and half the rest of my trousers. “That happened to me once, too,” he said. “Except my girlfriend spilled a drink on me.”

“Well, uh, sure,” I stammered, stunned by the engineer’s perfect manners in putting me at ease, but more so by his explanation for wet trousers, which was far more plausible than what the magazine article offered. Without thinking too much, I lifted my briefcase from the floor, held it directly in front of me, and followed closely behind the man down the hall toward the conference room.

In the News:
Read Baltic news in English daily in The Livonian Chronicle.
Baltic Features reviews Inherit the Family: "Book Him, Vello."
And the end-all-be-all of Christmas gifts here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


There are periods in a summer’s day when entire Old Town cafes are taken over by Americans. As if Baghdad isn’t enough, they have to have Tallinn, too. I was there—there being the second floor of the Viru Street Apollo bookstore—one rainy afternoon, when a group of seven American cruiseboat tourists held us all briefly hostage. It might have ended peacefully, but then one of them couldn’t find a letter on Apollo’s internet keyboard:

“There’s no ‘W’!” he proclaimed. “How can you have a keyboard with no ‘W’?”

The girl working behind the counter kept her cool. She’d clearly been in this situation before.

“Don’t you have a ‘W’ in your language?”

“We have a ‘W.’ It’s there on the keyboard where the ‘W’ is usually kept.”

“Where? I don’t see it. And there’s no ‘at’ sign, either!”

“We have both symbols, sir.”

From a woman at table nearby: “Hey, I’ve got 36 pictures on my camera so far!”

A man in a cowboy hat: “Does it rain all the time here?”

“Oh, hell, I give up.” The old man at the computer sounded near tears. “This just isn’t worth it.”

“Let me try, dad.” A man in his fifties wearing bright white tennis shoes, crowded in at the keyboard. “Watch me work, pop. It’ll be like watching a painter paint.”

“Do you take American credit cards?” asked 36 Photos.

An obese man in a baseball cap and Bermuda shorts roamed the café photographing plants. “Hotitye smotrit?” he asked an Estonian, thrusting the camera’s display in the man’s face. The man worked hard to not look up from his book.

“I like books, too,” the photographer said in English. “I’ve learned a lot from books, believe it or not. And not just technical things.” He moved on to another plant and the shutter clicked away.

“Hey, I’ve got a hundred emails!” announced the white-shoed son. “And they’re not all for penis enlargements.”

“Have you seen my lens cap?” 36 Photos asked the room. “I was just holding it.”

“I’ve got the exact same telephone you have,” said the roaming photographer to a pretty Estonian girl, her mouth full of cake. She nodded in acknowledgement. He moved in to photograph another plant. How many plants were there in this café? I wondered. “Hotitye smotrit?” He held the camera in front of the girl. “No thank you,” she replied in English, choking down her cake.

“There it is!” shouted 36 Photos. “It’s under that chair.”

By this time, every Estonian customer in the café had found a book and all were concentrating deeply on their reading. One elegant elderly man—he could have been Endel Lippmaa’s doppelganger—studied Women with unusual intensity. Another pretended to be asleep when the photographer turned toward him. Another pulled his legs to his chest, assuming the fetal position. I wrinkled my brow and squinted deep into my computer screen. The photographer circled, feigned a move into the bookstore, and then pounced.

“Hotitye smotrit?”

He was upon me, and so I gave him my best Borat: “Me little English.”

“That wasn’t English, little buddy. I was speaking Russian.”

“I no understand.” This ruse had worked in the past.

“Where you from, pal?”

“Ontario,” I fumbled.

“Well, I like your country” he answered. “Seems to rain a lot here, though. See the quality of this camera? That’s eight megapixels.”

I nodded politely at the camera’s resolution. I could see photography was his social icebreaker, much like a Russian might ask for spichki. All around me Estonian eyes peered over the tops of books, not attempting to conceal delight that they hadn’t been selected.

“Whaddya do here?” He spoke in a Midwestern vernacular.

“I read.”

“Yes, I can see that. What do you do professionally speaking?”

“Me little English,” I repeated.

“Look, little buddy, I can see you’re reading English on your computer screen. So you must understand something.”

I was tempted to break cover and ask him in perfect English if he considered me his little buddy because he weighed three times what I did, or if it was some genetic, hegemonic tendency. But that would have led to me explaining to him where Ontario was, and making a speech about how speaking Russian to Estonians wasn’t the most culturally sensitive gesture. Instead, I looked to the Estonians as a model: speak little, be polite. “Yes, me read much good.” I put about four ‘Rs’ in the word read. “Very nice camera. You are rich man.”

“Well, photography is just one of my hobbies.” There was clear pride in his voice.

“Hey, Dave, now here’s a photograph!” called Whiteshoes from the computer. The photographer must have been Dave, because he raced to the terminal.

“Now I’ve got it!” came the voice of 36 Photos.

To be fair, most Americans who visit Tallinn do not terrorize the local population. The cruisers, in fact, are the top of the tourist food chain, generally highly-educated, wealthy individuals who have often done their reading on the countries they’re visiting. They’re the kind of tourists Estonia should want to return and spend real time, in a five-star hotel instead of on a cruise boat. But this group who had wandered into Apollo to get out of the rain behaved like certified morons—even if one did know some Russian—and I wondered if they weren’t stowaways on the cruise boat, living unobserved on the lower decks where they played dice games and danced on tables with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Fortunately, before I had a chance to ask, they became silent and rose as one, as if pulled by some lunar force, and began to exit the café. Perhaps the stowaways were performing a large-scale Dine and Dash, the time-honored American teenage prank of ordering a big meal and slipping out of the restaurant without paying. But I looked at my watch and it was close to five, so they were more likely slipping out so as not to miss their boat. Despite Dave’s obvious knack for plant photography, he probably had a real job waiting for him somewhere in America.

The retreat of the Americans, however, did not bring silence. English was immediately replaced by German. The group of four krauts at a neighboring table easily matched the Americans for volume, but their conversation was limited to their own party, and they made no humanitarian forays to other tables. Since I speak no German, I could only imagine what they were saying:

“I’ve always thought Euclid was more math journalist than mathematician.”

“Ah, yes, but Archimedes, he was the real thing!”

“You both read too much Stephen Hawking. Let me tell you about math…”

Then they all laughed their sophisticated European laughs.

I know it’s discriminatory to place Europeans on a higher intellectual plane than Americans. There are dumbasses on every continent and making generalizations will inevitably bite you in the ass. One time, dining with French friends in Paris, an entire restaurant became silent to eavesdrop on one family’s conversation. “What’s so interesting?” I whispered to my friend. “Does the father work for Sarkozy?” My friend shushed me. Later she explained that the father had chosen the restaurant to announce that he’d been sleeping with his secretary and his wife didn’t quite react the way he’d expected, treating the entire dining room to dinner theatre.

I know plenty of bright Americans, genuine intellectuals who can name the countries that border their own, who know that Mexicans don’t speak Mexican, and even a few who can credibly hold forth on the Lisbon Treaty. Sadly, this group of cruisers was not the country’s greatest ambassadors. It would take years of PR to make up for their damage.

As the Americans neared the exit, the photographer turned to the room once more. “Hey, little buddy!” he shouted. There was no doubt he was talking to me. “You’re okay with me, pal. Your country is A-okay.”

What do you say to that, a reader may wonder? But I knew exactly what to say. “George Bush!” And I thrust a thumbs-up high into the air. “Hooray, America.”

Several of their party returned the thumbs up. The photographer locked his bare, tree-trunk legs, snapped to attention, and threw me a crisp, almost military salute.

As the Americans disappeared down the staircase, the Estonians slowly put down their books. Each looked around and rare eye contact was made. No words were spoken, but it was clear we were now all connected in a special way by the experience. Like those who walk away from a plane crash or successfully flee a burning building, we were bound together for life. We had lived through the Americans. We were survivors.


Read "Ellujääjed" in Postimees. Feed Vello here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Live Trapping

I don't know if it's because she's a vegetarian, but Liina loves all God's critters. Mice included. Having recently rid ourselves of the cat, we have a mouse who audibly chews paper behind the kitchen garbage can. Liina sent me out to get traps.

It turns out that hiirepüüdmisemasin is not Estonian for mousetrap, but I still got what I needed--and in the process learned that the Russian is мышеловка, a cute little word which sounds very much like what the Russkies would name their nastiest bomb.

But Selver didn't stock the live traps available in Canada (for those who either want to release the mouse elsewhere or not damage his fur for better coat quality), and I brought home the standard wooden traps. Liina refused to allow me to bait them. "But these are 'universe-friendly' traps," I argued, and retreated to my desk to doll them up with a new brand name and slogan, Meet your ancestors.

But Liina still wasn't buying it, and we can still hear the little guy behind the trashcan, making as much noise as a teenager with a bag of Doritos.