Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Hard to believe, but in this economy a hamburger at the Radisson still costs 160 kroons. That’s far too much to pay, but it’s the only decent burger in town. The price includes French fries and an extra large serving of guilt.

This recession has hit me hard—freelance writers are the only ones who go bankrupt faster than bad restaurants. Ordering the Radisson burger brought all kinds of guilt, financial and otherwise. Most of all, I felt guilty because I knew my wife Liina was home eating boiled potatoes. And there I was, sitting in the restaurant next to a street-level floor-to-ceiling window. I felt part of a billboard advertisement for some luxury good, the headline shouting: I’m not sorry that I’m a rich asshole.

Except for that I’m not rich. If the plague came to Tallinn, I’d die in the city with the masses, not having the means to afford a castle in the countryside.

I tried another mental tack to deal with my guilt. I thought of Liina at home and reasoned: She’s Estonian; she actually likes boiled potatoes.

But that only partially worked. While I didn’t feel like a rich asshole, I still felt like an asshole.

But, I thought, I’m not as bad as some.

A real estate developer I know forces his wife to borrow money from her girlfriends in order to pay the family’s utility bills, while he himself somehow finds enough money for international travel. “Business trips,” he tells her. Perhaps. But when he comes back he’s always tanned.

My neighbor, a mid-level attorney at a large law firm, advertised his wife’s fur coat on osta.ee. He snuck it out of the house and delivered it to the buyer, and his wife suspected nothing until she wanted to wear it to a dinner party. All evening long the wife talked about nothing but her “stolen” fur. The next day, the husband admitted he’d sold it but had said nothing because he didn’t want it to spoil dinner.

And I’m feeling guilty over a burger? Strangely, I am.

Before my food even arrives I notice how filthy the table is. It’s not sticky, but there are breadcrumbs all over it. For a 160 kroons… Yes, one would think.

Another lawyer I know, in order to cut down on family expenses, forced his wife to sell her car but then traded his own Toyota for a Mercedes Benz. When she questioned this logic he shouted at her, “Now’s the time to get the best deals!” All I’ve done is buy a hamburger and I somehow feel like I’m in his league.

And then it arrives. It’s a beautiful patty of beef complete with melted Roquefort cheese and four thick strips of bacon on top. The guilt momentarily subsides, but then I see the fries. Is that all? There are at least thirty percent fewer than in pre-crisis days. And they’re not even fresh: they’re clearly frozen; from a plastic bag. 160 kroons. And that doesn’t include a beverage.

But the burger’s so good. The beef is exquisite, and there’s more bacon than I’d hoped for. It’s cooked perfectly: pink in the center and hot off the grill.

I think about Liina at home. I’ve asked her to help share the burden. I still pay the mortgage, but she covers the utilities, the car insurance, and the groceries. I imagine her stabbing a potato with a fork and biting into it. I see her put it back on the plate and sprinkle it with salt.

I signal the waiter and ask for the check. The guy at the next table flags him down and barks “I’ll have another.” I want another, too. But I couldn’t bear another. I’d deserve the heart attack I’d die of.

Liina, if you’re reading this, forgive me. I’ve asked you to sacrifice and you have. Without a single complaint. I feel as if I’ve cheated on you. And worst of all, I can’t promise it won’t happen again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Men I’ve Killed

“Do you know how many men I’ve killed?” It was our electrician. He often called around midnight and posed his standard question.

“No. How many?” It was my standard answer.

“You’re not man enough to know.”

“Okay. Don’t tell me then.” And then I hung up.

Most of the builders who’ve worked remodeling our house aren’t as strange as the electrician, though they all have their quirks. I called up the door manufacturer to ask why he was late delivering and he responded, “We’re building the locks right now.”

Locks? Estonians didn’t build the locks for those doors. I’d been to his showroom and seen the doors we ordered and knew the locks were made outside Estonia. And it wasn’t like a special lock was built for each door. But I was stunned into silence by his answer. Had he been drinking? Did he really expect me to believe that story? Did he think I was some sort of idiot housewife? Please, don’t answer that.

All of the builders we’ve employed have been at least moderate drinkers. Depending on the season, I either find their empty bottles under a tree or in the corner of their tool shed where they sometimes go to eat lunch—the putka they call it. Usually they’re not too drunk to do their jobs, but on occasion they’ll get blitzed and install a window with the lock facing the garden or drop a sledge hammer on a freshly tiled floor. Then I have to call their boss. Usually, he just quietly sees to it that things are fixed, but once in a while he has to resort to fisticuffs. I’ve watched through the window as he invites the drunken worker into the putka. First, there are muffled shouts, and then the putka starts to rock like a ride at a cheap amusement park. After ten minutes, the boss comes out, dusts off his pants, gets into his truck and drives away. Later, the worker stumbles out with a towel pressed to his bloody face, and then we have no problems for quite some time. It’s a special kind of system they’ve got. But it seems to work.

I’ve also noticed a tendency among builders to scoff at any work another builder has done. One builder describes everything as “porno.” Porno means poorly built, and, as I’ve come to understand, is a gentler way of saying that something is “perses” ("FUBAR" would be the English equivalent). If I ask about the foundation poured by a previous contractor, the builder will tell me it’s “porno.” The boiler the plumber installed? Porno. The weather? It’s porno, too. Complete porno.

The English author Peter Mayle wrote a bestseller about the nutty French builders who remodeled his home. A Year in Provence made him millions describing the foibles and follies of French peasant craftsmen. I’ve thought about writing about our experience, too, but when I try write something longer than a column on the subject, I become terribly depressed. I end up obsessing about all the money I’m spending to do jobs twice. I start to see conspiracy theories, imagining builders calling each other up in the middle of the night taking bets about who can get me to believe the most ridiculous lie: “Your doors are late because a UFO abducted the factory assembly line workers and they’re recovering from anal penetration wounds.”

Estonian builders employ the same tactics that Kremlin propaganda warriors use. They repeat and repeat the most far-fetched rhetoric until you eventually start to wonder whether it might be true. How many men, for instance, had my electrician killed?

The electrician calls about once a week, and every time I hang up on him he calls back in ten minutes. I try not to be mean, because there’s the chance he really did see combat with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. But I’ve still not figured out why he calls me.

“So ask me how many men I’ve killed!” he goads me.

“But I don’t want to know.”

“What do you mean you don’t want to know?”

“Because I don’t care. Why don’t you ask me how many men I’ve killed?”

“You’ve never killed anybody. You weren’t in the army.”

“How would you know? Go on,” I say, “ask me how many men I’ve killed.”

“Okay,” he finally gives in. “How many men have you killed?”

“You’re not man enough to know.”

And then I hang up. But give him ten minutes and he always calls back. And this time I just let it ring.


Whorish commercial message: Vello's new book pictured below. Coming April 15th to finer (Estonian) bookstores near you.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Best Man for the Job

In Estonia, the best man for the job is a woman.

If you want to hire someone who’ll show up on time, take pride in his work, solve problems before they arise, then don’t hire him. Hire her.

The average young Estonian man has the grooming habits of a zombie. He appears mornings in the office having slept in his clothes. What was once a Caesar haircut has hardened to a protective crust. Dandruff carpets the shoulders of the dark suit he’s never bothered to dry clean. His once-black shoes are gray and caked with debris from last night’s party to celebrate the invention of the Zippo lighter.

Fashion-wise, he eschews a tie. Perhaps he sees himself as more the bank robber than the bank employee. Or perhaps he plans to join a British pop band. More likely, since he won’t change clothes for the next 72 hours, he must be suitably attired for all activity. Milk the cow in the morning; go to work; go clubbing. He’s a bit overdressed for the cow and a bit underdressed for the office, but neither party voices concern.

The average young man doesn’t rate high in the savoir faire department, either. In job interviews he has the gall to ask about money before talking about the job itself. He begins with questions about what kind of laptop or ergonomic chair he’ll get. “And my company car won’t be Korean-made, will it? What’s the mobile phone allowance? And can I have the chrome-plated model with the built-in laser pointer?”

He is manly to a fault. Like an American teenager, he likes to smoke and drink and “invest” in a car stereo worth more than his car. He loves to drive and can prove he’s an excellent driver: “I can make it from Tallinn to Tartu in under an hour.” He can also open a beer bottle with any object at hand. “Wanna see?”

Women are lesser creatures, and he would not be dissatisfied if Estonian women adopted the ways of the east and walked ten paces behind their men. Being lucky enough to live in a time of shrinking population, society allows him two or more families. And if family cramps his style, simply spreading his seed is accepted, too. Birth control is a woman’s issue. He’s just doing his job.

All the above considered, if you’re in the hiring mode, who will you take? The woman, of course. She shows up on time for her interview, makes intelligent observations about your business, and doesn’t put her feet on your desk even once. Her suit is appropriate and clean, and she rides the bus to work. Says she’s never considered a car stereo. She’d rather spend the money on her kids.

Of course not all Estonian men are such Neanderthals. My friend Jaanus has the manners of a Florentine Cardinal and dresses like an old world count. Most importantly, his behavior goes beyond mere studied manners: he shows deep, genuine consideration for others. This doesn’t mean only stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks and holding the door for ladies—it manifests itself in small gestures too numerous to count. But Jaanus isn’t the norm. He’s a true gentleman, of which there are too few in any society.

It’s the raggedy-assed multitudes we must improve. They’re the ones we employ. The cogs in the let's-hope-soon-to-be-hungry-again European Machine. But as a society, we can’t count on having women around forever to do our work for us. Women have babies, and many move out of the workforce to take on more important roles in the world. It’s unfair to ask them to do the work of men, too.

For now, in Estonia, the best man for the job is a woman. Men take note. This is your wakeup call.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Food for Thought

Does anyone dine out anymore? I don't do it enough to write a restaurant review, but obviously someone does: the following was sent to me as a press release this morning. I'm pleased that people in Estonia are dining out and that they haven't lost their sense of humor. Given what the Social Minister said to the BBC yesterday (15% unemployment on the way--it's currently around seven), I hope we're all lucky enough to find something to laugh about.

The 2008 George Bernard Shaw Food for Thought Gastronomy Awards

“He was never more serious than when he was joking.”
–said of Mr. Shaw

After much deliberation, the George Bernard Shaw Society of Estonia proudly announces its Food for Thought Gastronomy Award winners for 2008.

Hermann Simm Best Kept Secret Award
There’s no such thing as a secret, though some information does take longer to become public. In the spirit of secrets that shouldn’t remain so, we’re proud to celebrate Riis, the secretive cellar restaurant run by three charming young women who refuse to use anything but fresh vegetables. Pärnu mnt. 62A.

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” Best Gourmet Restaurant Award
In the oblivious spirit of “Let them eat cake,” this award honors the places we’d all like to dine in more often, if only our pocket books would allow. This year’s honor goes to Horisont at Swissotel. Not only a spectacular view but, considering the economy, an altogether fine place for a last meal.

Luciano Pavarotti Six Chickens for Dinner Best Soul Food Award
When you want to stuff yourself in a comfortable restaurant surrounded by staff who seem to actually want you to be there, Contravento is the place to go. Contravento has held its own for years now as the Tallinn institution of Italian food. Vene 12.

Passepartout Best Ethnic Restaurant Award
Named for Phileas Fogg’s manservant, this award honors courageous purveyors of the spicy and exotic. Given the quick expiration of restaurants in the republic, Estonian food now classifies as exotic and ethnic, and so the award goes to Eesti Maja with its good food and service at a fair price. Lauteri 1.

Tree Huggers’ Haven Award
Where to go after a long day of spiking trees? Exhausted from ramming that whaling vessel? There’s no place better than Nop to relax with an organic pastry, big dill pickle, or beetroot and sauerkraut. Carnivores welcome, too. Nop is one of the jury’s absolute favorites. Köleri tn 1 in Kadriorg.

Sweaty Edgar Best Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurant Award
This is the place you creep off to when the wife is out of town. Its hygienic standards are questionable, but you don’t really care—the food is good, and it doesn’t matter how you dress, because you won’t see anybody you know. Torn between two fine grungy spaces, the jury chose to give the award to both. Ironically, both feature names of jury members’ ex-wives. Try Karmen at Paldiski mnt 72A and Diana at Tammsaare 87. Can’t go wrong.

Holly Golightly Best Café Award
Stylish and flighty, it’s the best place to get the food Tiffany’s never served. You may have avoided Museum, since its appearance from outside makes you think it might be filled with Russian thugs and plenty of blonde bimbos. But that’s its charm, my friend, and if you don’t see Holly there, you can be reasonably certain she’s arriving soon. Vana-Viru 14.

Rick Blaine Best Bar Award
No bar has ever measured up to Rick’s Café Americain, but there’s always hope. A sophisticated place where rogues, spies, les femmes fatales, and bon vivants gather to swap lies. If you’re after shady, then Lady Shadow on Suur-Karja won’t disappoint. With any luck you’ll find yourself seated next to Mata Hari while being eyed by George Smiley through the swaying belly dancer.

Bob Dylan Fat Black Pussycat Dive Bar Award
You might find Dylan seated in a dark corner composing “Blowing in the Wind,” but you sure as hell won’t meet any Eurovision candidates here. We’re happy to give the nod to Valli baar, which sadly seems to be losing a bit of its charm with all the hen parties paying it a visit. But we have faith that Valli baar will always have a seat for a drunk, as long as he’s able to maintain an upright posture. Müürivahe 16.

Oliver Twist Best Gruel (Worst Restaurant) Award
For the second year in a row this award goes to the restaurant Paat in Viimsi. It’s a Mecca for diners who love frozen vegetables. True, the view is hard to beat, but plenty a customer has gone in as a teenager and come out as a pensioner. It’s, in a word, slow. Address withheld as a merciful public service to diners.

Kalev Meedia Most Ridiculous Business Concept Award
Something like a 150 semi-formal seats in a beach restaurant in a location trafficked only three months a year isn’t the mostly likely formula for success. We wish Pärl all the luck, but don’t see it lasting without a lot of serious cash to prop it up. In the Pirita rannahoone.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Boring and the Beautiful

Brand Estonia strikes again. This time, Estonia’s marketing arm gives us: “Estonia. Positively Surprising.” It’s a slogan that’s, well--and forgive me here--surprisingly unsurprising.

I’m willing to pardon the bureaucrats for not knowing much about international marketing, but they could at least take a lesson from the movies. In Crazy People, Dudley Moore stars as an advertising executive who’s reached his breaking point and, when committed to an insane asylum, starts to produce the best ads of his career by telling simple and compelling truths. Ads like these:

“Jaguar. For men who want hand-jobs from beautiful women they hardly know.”

“Metamucil helps you go to the toilet. If you don’t use it, you’ll get cancer and die.”

Moore also dabbles in tourism: “Forget France. The French can be annoying. Come to Greece. We’re nicer.”

But we can’t blame Brand Estonia entirely. Give most of us tens of millions of euros and the responsibility to promote Estonia, and we too might buckle under pressure and choose the most cautious route. Positively Surprising.

But there is still hope for Estonia. Brand Estonia may not get it, but others do.

Janek Mäggi recently wrote in the daily Postimees that Estonians want to be “the beautiful and the boring” and so offered some better slogans himself: “Europe’s most beautiful women.” For Finland he suggested “Northern Europe’s Cheapest Beer.”

Sadly, Mäggi doesn’t happen to run Brand Estonia. Nor do I. But since my income is connected to the success of this small nation, I’m not above telling them how to do their job. So in the spirit of Dudley Moore and Janek Mäggi, I offer a handful of highly targeted slogans to carry Estonia abroad.

For Russia: “Estonia. The continent’s closest flush toilet.”
To the Italians: “Estonian women are too reserved to slap you.”
For India: “Feel right at home—our taxi drivers will cheat you, too.”
To the Swedes: “Europe’s cheapest breast implants.”
For Africa: “Come be stared at. But not necessarily in a bad way.”
To Americans: “Estonia is Europe’s low-calorie Russia: All the excitement with only half the danger.”
To the Dutch: “Come touch a real live tree.”
For Finland: “Vodka 9 euros per liter.”
For men under 25: “A place where it’s permitted to drive like in Hollywood action films.”
For the French: “After you leave, you’ll appreciate your own food more.”
And to zee Germans: “Welcome home to the land you used to rule.” Or for after the freedom monument is unveiled: “Europe’s Biggest Balkenkreuz.”

Of course you think I’m kidding. Actually, I’m exaggerating. But only slightly. My tasteless slogans may not be as suitable as Mäggi’s, but there’s a grain of truth in every one, a starting place from which a marketing message can be crafted.

In fairness to the marketing wizards at Brand Estonia, we shouldn’t be so naïve to think one sentence is going to cause tourists and investors to come flocking over the border to see what Estonia is all about. Even one sentence plus a lot of money. Seventeen years is a very short time for a country to have formed any sort of identity, to know who it is and what it wants. When I was seventeen I was beset with conflicting goals: I wanted to drink beer and chase girls and show the world what an adult I was. As I later realized, I was bad at drinking beer, worse at chasing girls, and no clever slogan could ever have improved things. It wasn’t that I was a bad guy. I just hadn’t yet understood why I was a good guy. So perhaps we can forgive the shortcomings of a seventeen-year-old Estonia.

Still, though, if we’re going to spend the money, why not get that one sentence right? There are plenty of good case studies. Recently, India greeted guests at the Davos World Economic Forum with a “Dream Team” (to quote Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria) of India’s most intelligent and articulate government officials. There were Hindi tunes, Indian dancers, and free iPod shuffles loaded with Bollywood music. Somehow they even talked the forum’s chairman, Klaus Schwab, into wearing a turban and shawl. Their slogan? India Everywhere. “And it was,” wrote Zakaria.

Good advertising presents a product much like a self-confident person presents himself: as he is, not as he wishes to be. Age seventeen is about the right time for Estonia to look in the mirror and see who we are. To get comfortable in our skin and learn to be ourselves. And then advertise that. A big country with a big budget can get away with forgettable ads—put enough money behind even an inane slogan and it will eventually register. But Estonia doesn’t have that luxury. When your budget is only a drop in the bucket of international media, you actually have to say something memorable.

Every time that Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s Investors Service drops its ratings on Estonia, some government official appears on camera to whine, “But they don’t even know where Estonia is!” Of course they don’t know where Estonia is. And at the rate we’re going—“Welcome to Estonia” and “Positively Surprising”—they’re not likely to know anytime soon. To them, Estonia is no different than Latvia. But hey, there’s an idea in that: “Estonia. The Baltic State that Isn’t Fucked Up.” (Knock on wood, of course. Loudly.)


As an exercise in Estonia's image via the web, try googling "Welcome to Estonia." In a normal text search, the fourth entry generated (above the fold, as they say) was a photograph from a porno shoot in a building across from Stockmann. What this says about Estonia's image I'm not quite sure. Maybe it says more about search engines. Thoughts?

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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Signs of the Times

An Estonian friend wrote recently from the states about all the "recession specials" advertised there. "But in Estonia," he noted, "we're too proud to use the word 'recession' in an ad."

The same day my friend wrote, I noticed the advertisement (at left) for the new Baltman collection. (For foreign readers, Baltman is Estonia's maker of conservative suits, something akin to Brooks Brothers in the West.)

To me, the ad sends signals of Sherman McCoy, Gordon Gekko, or, if you're really digging for the despicable, Patrick Bateman, the female-butchering protagonist from American Psycho. In other words, Baltman's antidote for the recession is to give us the 1980s.

The Estonian ad made me curious about what Brooks Brothers might be doing in the land where they boldly use the word "recession" and where, arguably, they've come more face to face with the ugly reality of this economy. And this is what I found:

Could it be a young Barack pulling out a chair for Michelle? In all cases, it's a kindler, gentler approach to selling a suit with some definite R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Tina Turner likes to put it. But then again, Baltman isn't trying to sell suits in the West. Its main market is the East, a place where it's sometimes said that beating your wife is proof that you love her. But for Estonia? Aren't we more evolved than that?

Theories, anyone?