Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My One Hope

This article was authored by the American journalist Scott Diel and published in Eesti Päevaleht's Möte insert last week. I liked it and asked permission to reproduce it in English on my blog. The author agreed as long as I promised to take it down before he sends it to the Huffington Post.

I’ve often thought what would make Estonia better is another women’s magazine. Last time I was in the bookstore, I counted more than 25 titles targeted to women, everything from Cosmo and Lilit to Käsitöö to Diivan. Think about that: a magazine named sofa.

These magazines offer so much helpful counsel that I occasionally wish I were a woman. Not only would I no longer have to decide what to wear and what to do with my hair, but I’d know that it’s okay to incessantly decorate my home (Stiil), that bad sex happens (Joy), and that jealousy can actually make me a better person (Cosmo). Oh, the stress I’d be free of.

Chick mags are a relatively new phenomenon in Estonia. Just fifteen years ago if you wanted to learn about Estonian women, you actually had to ask one. A female journalist friend of mine explained Estonian women to me this way: “When you come home drunk, a Russian girl will take off your shoes and put you gently under the covers. The Estonian girl will lock you out of the bedroom.”

Why have I never seen an article about that?

Instead of bringing useful information for drunkards like me, too many Estonian women’s magazines are busy creating the type of female stereotype we absolutely don’t need—the high-heeled, gum-smacking, deaf-and-dumb babe. A friend of mine argues that if you mention any Eastern European state and “babe” in the same sentence, a westerner thinks of either “slut” or “gold-digger.” All at once, Estonians get lumped in with the girls you find on the website And what kind of girl is that? Hot, of course. But also desperate. Trapped in Tobolsk, with only one way to escape from behind the Urals.

Personally, I’m not opposed to chick mags. The magazines provide a public service by raising sensitive subjects with young readers that parents may be unable to talk about—birth control, menstruation, and masturbation, to name a few. The mags are clearly useful, but must we have so many? The longer I stand in front of a magazine rack, the more I start to believe that every Estonian woman is or aspires to be a 28-year-old pop star.

If “sexy” and “hot” are necessary to sell magazines, why can’t we have articles like “Estonia’s Ten Most Fashionable Librarians” and “Hot Prosecutors You Shouldn’t Cross”? Or perhaps a profile—titled “Can’t Sing, Can’t Dance”—of the one female parliamentarian who’s never starred in a reality show.

What I’d like is a behind-the-scenes look at real Estonian women. Do they believe Estonia lacks suitable male role models? Do they regret having children at such a young age? Do they believe Estonia has a glass ceiling? If they could remake the country, how would it look?

My journalist friends say the Estonian media world has recently turned particularly nasty. There are too many publications chasing too few readers, which causes editors (especially in the yellow press) to become mongers of hate and anger, emotions easy to impart. They give the reader someone to blame for his problems. Like I’ve given you, dear reader. You may now blame women’s magazines.

Yes, I know my country wrote the book on “sexy” and “hot” and mindless stories in stupid magazines. But Estonians are always telling me how they’re not superficial and how smart they are. But if all that’s true, why don’t you make your women’s magazines reflect it?

Of course, there’s little danger in sexy and hot unless it becomes the national pastime. Many Estonian women who I respect—and not all of them angry lesbians with an ax to grind—are convinced that the Estonian hot babe image has become the country’s calling card. These women believe that if you mention “Estonian woman” abroad, people immediately conjure the “sponsored” woman stereotype, the club crowd who spend their days in tanning salons and nights tripping on Ecstasy under a disco ball.

I’m not so sure it’s gone that far. My personal theory is that those who believe that the “babe calling card” is the national image are those who read too many women’s magazines. Still, what if they’re right? What if we’re all participants in some great Estonian Babe Conspiracy? I know I’m not immune.

I was once invited on the television show Kahvel (“Fork” in English, though hopefully brainier than its name suggests), where Kiur Aarma interviewed me along with another American journalist. We were given a list of possible topics ahead of time to help us prepare. But when the cameras rolled (a live episode) we were asked about hot Estonian babes. I suppose I should have politely directed the line of questioning elsewhere—I watch enough political TV to know answers don’t have to correspond to questions. I could have drawn him away from babes and on to any other topic. But to my everlasting shame, I answered the question: “Yes, Estonian women are beautiful.” I’ve tried to block the memory, but I believe I followed up by adding, “very beautiful.”

Of course Kiur didn’t care what I said. Nor did the viewers. I was the foreign monkey brought on TV to scratch his armpits and show that the Estonian language can indeed be learned—even by Americans. I was a talking doll. Stand me up. Pull my cord. I speak Estonian.

Since then, I’ve stayed away from television. I stick to print, where I know in advance what a fool I am. When I’m not writing, I’m reading. Sometimes I read women’s magazines—and not only as an amateur anthropologist taking society’s temperature. I read them out of a sense of hope. Hoping that Estonian women really are less superficial than their western counterparts. Hoping they really are smarter. Of course, I know the Estonian proverb about hope—“Hope is the comfort of the stupid.” But I don’t believe that any more than what I read in women’s magazines.


Publishing someone else's article above gives me an excuse to selfish below. Pikk jutt, sitt jutt, Kogutud lühijuttud Vello Vikerkaarelt will be in bookstores this week (Estonian language only, sorry). Some of it has been published in the Estonian press, some of it is brand new. 189 EEK (I believe) at a fine bookstore near you. Selver, too.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Veggie Quest

“Do you have anything for vegetarians?” We were in a café near Viitna and my wife Liina was hungry.

“No!” shouted the woman behind the counter. Shouted, I kid you not.

But Liina could see carrots and beets under the sneeze-guard and just had to point it out. “Couldn’t you just put those on a plate for me?”

“Those are for komplektid,” she sneered, meaning that in order to get a vegetable you had to order a full meal. She turned to the next person in the line, which just happened to be me.

“Don’t you have anything for vegetarians?” I couldn’t let her off without a fight.

By the look on her face you would have thought she’d been asked to gouge out the eyes of her favorite child. What had vegetables ever done to her? Had she been forced to eat beets as a child? Had her stepfather beat her with a sack of potatoes? I can’t say she hated vegetables, but she clearly had something against people who ate them.

“Just replace the meat dish with another vegetable,” Liina surrendered. “You can even charge me the same price.”

I thought that was a pretty good deal for the cafe, but the worker obviously disagreed. She crossed her arms and turned her back. The international signal for Get out of my restaurant.

I should have flashed the toy plastic police badge I keep in my wallet and told her I was closing her restaurant for violation of EU vegetable discrimination laws. I should have reached across the counter, touched her softly on the back, and whispered, “Vegetarians forgive you.” I should have done a lot of things. But those ideas, l’esprit d’escalier, as zee French say, came later. At that moment I was nothing but stunned. What had Liina done but ask for some carrots?

It wasn’t the first time she had been refused service for ordering only vegetables. Being an open vegetarian in the former Soviet Union is tantamount to being a convicted pedophile. At best, you’ll be scorned but served. At worst, you’re at risk for a beating. But usually, without too much of a fuss, you can strike some sort of deal with the restaurant.

The negotiation process can be intense. It often involves a long exchange with the waitress where Liina explains that being a vegetarian means eating vegetables. “Well, we’ve got chicken” inevitably follows, to which Liina replies that that’s meat, too. “What about fish?” Liina then explains that some vegetarians eat fish, but she does not. She eats only vegetables. At this point, the waitress’ memory will fail her and she’ll offer chicken again. After a several minute process, the waitress finally exclaims: “You mean you only eat vegetables?”

Sometimes, the waitress will have read about this phenomenon in a society magazine. She may be aware that Alanis Morrisette or Anne Hathaway are vegetarians. (Rarely will anyone know that Albert Einstein and Rainer Maria Rilke were vegetarians.) If you have a male server, there’s a small chance he’ll know Jenna Jameson, the porn star, is a vegetarian. But usually, even if the rural waiter has heard of vegetarians, he actually hasn’t met one.

If the server happens to be open-minded, Liina often gets a chance to make her vegetarian case. She’ll debunk the myth that you have to eat meat to get protein. She’ll tell how she once got anemic and when doctors blamed her vegetarianism, she proved them wrong and got her iron through beans, lentils, grains, and dairy products. “But you wear leather shoes!” someone always points out. This invites Liina to talk about how we unavoidably kill lower organisms with every step we take, but that she only wants to minimize pain caused to animals. It’s like listening to Gandhi (who, Liina will point out, was also a vegetarian).

It may be difficult to be a vegetarian, but what’s more difficult is being a carnivore husband of a vegetarian. I actually like the cholesterol bombs served in rural Estonian cafes. Every once in a while, I love the classic country fare: a fat-laden kotlet, seapraad, or snitsel. So every time we’re turned away from some greasy stolovaya, sent packing toward a healthier restaurant (or worse, the local grocery store where we’ll have to fix our own), I suffer a little bit, too. More and more, we end up taking our own food to the countryside, which means that, since I’m lazy, I eat whatever Liina prepares, making me a de facto vegetarian.

So as a vegetarian, I’d like to ask all rural café owners reading this to please allow your staff to replace the meat with a vegetable. Even if you don’t give a damn about animals, your profit margins will be higher. And you’ll sell one more karbonaad than you would have otherwise, since Liina’s husband always follows when she gets thrown out on the street.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Finnish Mother's Warning

In Finland there are few castles to fall on you, but you can, especially the farther north you go, get yourself in trouble with drink. While the western world may read on the john, Finns evidently party there. This sign was spotted on the bathroom door at a hotel near Rovaniemi.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Mother's Warning

There comes a point when you've been in a foreign country too long. Some say it's when you start to forget your mother tongue (this hasn't happened to me; I can't imagine it happening) or speak it with an accent (perhaps legitimate, but this one seems ridiculous). What has happened to me, though, is the inability to immediately distinguish between proper English and Baltish. Sometimes I have to look twice. Even three times. Which is the case below.

Certainly, this is the long way around to communicate Danger (or how should the sign read?). It's rather unconventional--even motherly in tone--but I suppose it's correct. When I encountered the sign (at Põltsamaa castle) I stood in front of it for several minutes, recalling all the warnings my mother gave me as a child. You're liable to lose an eye. You're liable to kill your brother. But she never said I was liable to have a castle fall on me.

So I sent the photo to my mother, who replied that her warnings had indeed managed to keep me alive this long. If your mother told you the same silly things, feel free to send her this image. And let me know what she says.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hug Edgar!

It's political season in Estonia. Today, the Centre Party began its campaign to trash the Reform Party. In the usual pattern, Reform will return fire, and soon we'll all be in a foul mood.

But a group of progressive-minded Estonians would like things to be different. "I truly believe that Edgar Savisaar just needs love," said a spokesman for the campaign, Kallista Edgarit! [translation: Hug Edgar!]. "What if we all just gave the man a hug? Would he somehow come to understand that the world is not a hostile place?"

The group is offering the artwork free of charge (right click and steal it here, for example). But if you'd like it on a t-shirt or coffee mug, you can buy it from VelloMart.

Your Estonia

It's called Minu Eesti--My Estonia, as in your Estonia--and it's happening on May first all across Estonia. One hundred thousand people, both Estonians and foreigners, will come together for countrywide brainstorming sessions on how to make Estonia a better country. The mõttetalgud (mõtte means "thought" and talgud are like a Mennonite house-raising) are organized by the same people who organized the cleanup of 10,000 tons of trash by 50,000 volunteers this time last year.

If you'd like to take part, write Ms. Liina Parve and tell her you'd like to join an English-language group ( Some Estonians are of course needed in the English groups.

Here's American (and Elva, Estonia, resident) Robert Oetjen's bit to promote the event:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tädi Virve - in Memoriam

Liina’s aunt Virve—immortalized in the pages of Eesti Ekspress for playing tug-of-war with a rabbit cage—died last week marking the end of an era. With Virve passed far more than a woman: to me she was symbolic of both a lifestyle and worldview.

I often recall her response when I engaged her in a discussion about politicians and bribes: “I wish somebody had offered me a bribe in my day.” I found her response surprising. She was known as a maverick in the Estonian Soviet Ministry of Health, and her reform-minded bullheadedness won her a почетная грамота and почетныи диплом, both presented in Commie-red leather folders with gold embossed print. Was it possible she had worked her entire career in the Soviet bureaucracy without being offered a single bribe? And would she really have gladly taken it?

In spite of her contradictions, or perhaps because of them, Aunt Virve was a living monument that all things in the Soviet Union weren’t necessarily bad.

For Aunt Virve, time was a limitless commodity. She always had time for a discussion, even though you knew she was going to hold down both ends of it. I would sit and listen, and then, after a little while, I would sit and pretend to listen. While she held forth on the best type of seakoot and which open market to buy it, I would often study her old black and white photographs printed on the thin East German paper. She was young and vibrant with a smile like a flood, which, it seemed from holiday photographs, served to light the tables where she dined in Black Sea resorts.

She once talked about her suitor, Peep, who spent days lugging limestone slabs to build a sidewalk from the street to her house in Nõmme. Poor Peep, I thought, slaving with fifty-kilo stones while she sat idly by with a glass of Kindzmarauli, telling him how to arrange them, or discoursing on the history of the glass in her hand—perhaps held by Czar Nicholas II moments before signing the treaty of Bjorko. She was an irrepressible storyteller. She was irrepressible.

Digging through her possessions after her death, I found her Soviet-era paper, V.I. Lenin: dialektika, tunnestusteooria ja loogika ühtsusest. I wished I might have discovered it sooner so that I could have asked about it. Was its public debut met with a rousing ovation? Or was it both written and received with a wink of the eye? And just how much time was left for treating patients after the obligatory rhetoric about Lenin’s dialectic as it relates to medicine was finally out of the way?

Accurate or not, the West’s idea of the Soviet Union was a place where millions spent their nights in cramped apartments teeming with friends, drinking vodka from dirty glasses and laughing quietly about the absurdity of their lives. In part, the West saw it as an era of silly slogans—The Soviet Union is the Source of Peace; The Ideas of Lenin Live and Conquer—and grandiose toasts to Mir i druzhba. For those of my generation, the Soviet Union was a dysfunctional land run by overweight drunkards in fur hats, a place which would eventually collapse under the weight of its own silliness. But it was also a state with a hell of a lot of missiles, though there was no doubt Sting was right when he offended with his haughty verse, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”

Virve lived in a time and place characterized by some western writers as downright miserable. She had a Stalinist childhood with her sunset years spent in the abject poverty of a post-Soviet pension. A life lived in unconscious fear. Her lot to endure.

Though if her life was miserable, I never heard Virve complain. I never detected that she felt she suffered. She never sought pity or even understanding. She had nothing to prove or explain. In spite of her circumstances, she lived. And the evidence of this was her septuagenarian and nonagenarian friends—Urve, Evi-Mai, Nina—who rose at the wake and raised glass after glass in her memory. It served as a poignant reminder that regardless of what we do, where we work, what we accomplish, in the end we’re left with nothing more than our family and friends. That modern Western cries for growth and progress matter no more in the end than they did coming from the mouths of Marx and Lenin.

Virve took life on her own terms and at her own pace. I only ever saw her rushed when she was on her way to Selver to buy mulgikapsas or when a new issue of Linnaleht was published, she on a mission to obtain multiple copies to light her stove. On the street, Virve put her head down and plowed forward like Stalin advancing on Berlin, her umbrella in hand, stabbing the ground before her and oblivious to the world around her.

Six months ago, Liina asked me to go downstairs to Aunt Virve’s apartment and retrieve a pan she’d borrowed. Liina and I tried to time our meetings with her around the “Ajaloo Tund” radio broadscasts or game shows starring Hannes Võrno—the only two things Estonia could offer which could keep Virve quiet. Knowing that Virve’s health was fading and that walking in her door for anything was a twenty-minute exercise, I took along a tape recorder. Now, whenever I need to be reminded about what is important, I listen to her discourse from that day. The batteries died before she finished, but it’s a classic filibuster about a frying pan, furry objects, and a ceramic dog from the Kola Peninsula. It might have seemed nonsensical. But if you listened carefully and patiently, and if you made the time, then Aunt Virve always made sense in the end.


Special thanks to Giustino for hosting the recording of Virve on his site.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

DIY Estonia

Want to make a good country better? A little "remont" where you don't have to get your hands dirty? Now's your chance. The whizkids behind Estonia's legendary countryside cleanup (50,000 volunteers, 10,000 tons of crap, one single day) have put together what may be the world's largest brainstorming event. Over 100,000 Estonians will come together on May 1st to discuss how to make the country better--and they want to hear from everyone. This means you.

Here's one appeal to foreigners by my American friend Scott:

Won't you join the effort by taking part in an English-speaking group? (Estonians are also welcome in the English groups--how much fun would it be with only foreigners?) To sign up, write Ms. Liina Parve ( and tell her you want to take part in an English-language group. It's a can't-go-wrong email. At best, you'll help change the country. At worst, you'll make a few new friends.


Incidentally, groups must obtain their own meeting space, and the English group is no exception. If you have access to a space which could accommodate forty people or so (preferably somewhere where we can sit in a circle--but beggars can't be choosers) please write me at