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.