Sunday, June 28, 2009

One Hell of a Skateboard Park

Granted, my opinion as a foreigner matters not one damned bit. And, when it comes to Estonian monuments, that’s exactly how it ought to be.

But Estonia’s monument to her War of Independence is nearing complete completion (not yet ready, but ready enough for the dedication ceremony to already have taken place), and now its critics, including me, are free to wander in its shadow and ponder whether the nation got its 100 million kroons worth.

My verdict: Not half as ugly as I feared. The monument is too totalitarian for my taste and provokes in me a sense of irony that a people who have freed themselves from the grip of both Fascism and Communism would choose such a structure. It is, in a word, unEstonian. Standing under the glass Balkenkreuz looking over Freedom Square (or Victory Square, as some insist), one may wonder if the government has not constructed Northern Europe’s largest skateboard park. Concrete and glass may be the calling card of modern Tallinn, but for me they have little to do with Estonia. For me, Estonia will always be country lanes, stark coastlines, and forests so picturesque that frolicking hobbits would not be out of place.

But a monument is more than its physical structure (witness the Bronze Soldier), and this one will be whatever Estonians make of it. If, in winter, the city fathers elect to clean the concrete plaza of ice, then perhaps it might function as more than just another source of broken limbs. And there’s no arguing the monument has improved the neighborhood. The marijuana paraphernalia, porn-video, and “French hot dog” shops in the tunnel have now vanished.

The day I visited there were far more Estonians than foreigners present (one thing you can’t always say for Old Town), everyone milling about, taking photos, and sharing their thoughts. “I think it’s pask,” said one old man, though he wasn’t quite old enough to have fought in the War of Independence. But he was courteous, very quietly calling the monument “runny shit,” since a veteran of the War dressed in sportcoat and necktie, medals pinned to his coat, stood only a few paces away.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spoiled Little Soviet Girl

Liina and I don’t fight often, but when we do it sometimes ends with me calling her a spoiled little Soviet girl.

That’s how it goes at the beginning of summer, when the weather warms enough that it’s time for a new roof on the greenhouse, or the fence needs painting, firewood restacked, or a hundred other little jobs that the tough Estonian winter keeps us from doing earlier. “Why aren’t there any kids around?” I lament, bent over a can of latex paint, trying to get more color on the house than I get on myself. “This is a perfect summer job for a high school kid.” Then I’ll start my tirade about how Tallinn kids don’t seem to require summer jobs, how they spend their summers wind surfing or at grandma’s summer cottage or just hanging out in a parking lot somewhere with an endless supply of cigarettes and beer.

Liina will reply that not every place in the world is like America, where all anybody does is work, and when people aren’t working they’re thinking about work. Liina knows that summers after my sixteenth birthday my mother shipped me to America, where my Uncle Feliks in Kansas found me work which, in my father’s words, “built character.” According to my family, Canadian kids were “soft,” beneficiaries of a socialist system that encouraged reliance on the government cheese. If I went to America, the cruelest capitalist country of them all, then I’d be hardened and independent, never one to stand around and complain that the world is unfair. That was the logic, anyway.

My first American job was in the “building profession,” as Uncle Feliks put it. I imagined wearing a denim shirt and yellow hardhat, carrying around rolled-up architectural plans, and giving instructions to clean-cut men like those we see in deodorant commercials. Instead, I operated what is known to American builders as the Mexican backhoe: a shovel. And when I wasn’t operating the Mexican backhoe, I ran a jackhammer. Once I spent an entire month removing a parking lot which a client argued didn’t properly drain. Rather than sending out a machine that could destroy the parking lot in a single day, to punish the client the construction company sent me, a fifty-kilo kid with a twenty-five-kilo jackhammer. After thirty days of ceaseless noise and vibration I’d removed an entire parking lot in breadloaf-sized pieces. While I learned about character, the client learned what happens when you complain to a builder after you’ve already paid him.

The next summer Feliks got me a job as a plumber. Before I left Canada, my father explained what he called the cardinal rule of plumbing: Shit runs downhill. The job turned out to be more work with a Mexican backhoe, either digging holes or filling in those that others dug. As the smallest guy in the company, I was regularly called away from digging to descend into sewer lines with a plug to stop the flow of feces above a point where the real plumbers wanted to work.

Meanwhile, back in Estonia, what was Liina doing? She was windsurfing in the Bay of Tallinn and eating caviar from Viimsi’s Kirov Fishing Kolkhoz (one bright exception to the rule of Soviet poverty) where she lived with her family. There are plenty of stories about how hard Soviet kids worked, how they toiled in the fields to bring in the harvest, because Soviet combines were of such quality they left forty percent of the harvest on the ground. Even smart kids sent to the malevs (a camp for elite kids, as I understand it) where I imagined them playing chess in the shade and talking about how they’d one day rule their country, had to do some symbolic work. A malev camper friend of mind once showed me a brick wall he built at a camp.

But Liina’s summers were different.

When she wasn’t “training,” which many Estonian kids not destined for professional sports seem to do even today, she was aboard her family’s Moskvich, traveling around the Soviet Union. She spent one summer on the White Sea, diving for starfish, which she and her family then killed, painted, and trucked south, where they were sold as souvenirs of the Black Sea. She argues that was a job, but I say diving for starfish hardly counts as work. Try diving for turds in a fifty-degree Kansas sewer.

Perhaps Liina is right about Tallinn kids not working. Maybe it isn’t a tragedy. Maybe it is better for a kid to enjoy his youth before he becomes an adult and spends the rest of his life with a car payment, mortgage, and kids who need fed, watered, and educated. Maybe my father and Uncle Feliks were wrong in their belief that you can’t understand the value of a dollar if you haven’t earned it yourself. Perhaps they were wrong about character. Liina certainly lacks none.

But I was brought up the way I was brought up, and I don’t think it will kill my kids to earn a little money to help pay for the surfing camps and general goofing around which I know their spoiled Soviet mother is going to encourage. Let my kids sell Eesti Ekspress on street corners or shovel snow off the neighbor’s walk. Or better yet, let them go to America. Uncle Feliks has already offered to take them as soon as they’re old enough to work. “America has Disneyland,” I’ll tell them. Little will they know it’s two thousand kilometers from Kansas.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Borat's Latvian Sister

A graduate of the Dracula Academy of English, Latvia's Mairita Solima sells spa services in this Latvian promotional video. Anytime you're tempted to complain about EAS, just have a look at this. Latvia’s Minister of Economics, Artis Kampars, has requested the state's tourism development agency provide an explanation for the video, for which the state was billed almost 30,000 euros. It's sure to be an interesting explanation.

NB! Readers report the video is still available on Latvia's Delfi. (Was still working on 19 June.)

And here's the interesting explanation (19.06.09):
Standby News reported the following, summarized from Latvia's business daily: Uldis Vitolins has announced his decision to resign from his post as director of the Latvian State Tourism Development Agency. “This is my final decision and I will not change my mind,” he said. [Who's begging him?] He referred to the agency’s reorganization and the growth of the burden of bureaucracy as the basic reasons for resigning. Vitolins announced his decision to resign after a meeting with Latvia’s economy minister in which he tried to explain away the creation of a low-quality promotional video. The film shows a millionaire [What's the relevance?], Mairita Solima, who in very bad English and a Borat-style manner presents spa services provided in Latvia. The minister wanted to know why LVL 20,000 [30,000 EUR] was necessary for making it with such inferior quality. Vitolins argued that it was simply a demo version.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Child Labor

If there’s one event that marks the arrival of Estonian summer it’s children selling Eesti Ekspress on street corners. One of my favorite things to do is buy from the kids (no, I don’t get a free copy).

“Sixteen kroons!” the children shout. “Four kroons cheaper than in the store.”

This year the city is crawling with salesmen. A few weeks ago Ekspress advertised for the sales positions with a line in the ad that no child would be turned away. So now Tallinn has about five on every street corner, some of them not too long out of their strollers. The youngsters seem to love friendly competition and, unlike Estonian shop clerks, these kids aren’t afraid of conversation.

“Four kroons cheaper?” I said to a salesman. “That’s a pretty good deal.” He couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and I gave him fifteen kroons to hold while I dug in my pocket for a one-kroon coin.

“How much of the sixteen kroons do you get?” I asked.

“Six!” He was proud of it, too.

“So six for you, and ten for Hans Luik?”

He just smiled. He probably had no idea Hans was the paper's publisher, but he wasn’t going to risk a sale by entering uncharted territory.

I didn’t have a kroon coin and so gave him a two-kroon note. “If I give you seventeen, do you get to keep seven?”

“Yes!” He was still grinning.

“OK. Then it’s yours.”

He handed me his last paper.

“So you’re out?” I asked. “No more money then?”

“I’m going right now to get more papers!” he shouted over his shoulder, already running. He was so excited he could have peed his pants. And had I been a rich man, I would have hung around all day and bought papers.


P.S. If you read Estonian, Barbi Pilvre is traveling the US, touring its world of journalism, and blogging about it. Well worth your time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Election Watch, Part 1

Pirita, 9 a.m. When I passed by this morning the Estonian police were parked next to the sign, perhaps waiting for the criminal to return to the scene of the crime (does that really happen outside of bad TV?). It was unclear who knocked down the "K."

For foreign readers, the white "ABI" means "help" and promotes a city-sponsored (read: Centre Party-sponsored (someone correct me if I'm wrong)) program to create social jobs--visit the program's English-language site here, if you're curious. The green "K" is someone's guerrilla effort to promote Keskerakond (Centre Party) on election day. Or the complete opposite, I suppose, depending on your point of view.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

From Disney to Dickens

It used to annoy me that the venerated New York Times seemed capable of only one type of article about Estonia—painting Tallinn as a medieval Disneyland with cobblestone streets and attractive wench-waitresses. Now, seeing what they’ve done to Latvia, I’m far more grateful than annoyed.

The last several Times articles I’ve seen used photographs shot from inside Soviet housing developments—light peeking at the end of a dark corridor, silhouetted subjects resembling heroin junkies in a urine-stained hallway. It might as well have been Baghdad. In addition to the photograph, the journalist Carter Dougherty employed the word “Dickensian.” In a publication as respected as the Times, it’s hard to imagine worse than Dickensian.

True, Latvia brings most of the bad press on itself. Their government has historically been so corrupt that even your average foreign businessman can be impacted by it in some way. And Riga is a town well known for tourists being subject to both credit card fraud and what my Latvian friends call “face beatings.” Even Bloomberg News, when writing about economics, makes reference to the price of Latvian prostitutes. Latvia is, sadly, one big train wreck of a country.

Latvia’s problem runs far deeper than bad press. Many Latvians I know suffer from a profound lack of self-respect and a sense of resignation that their country will always be the bad apple of Eastern Europe. A Latvian friend used to be fond of telling me that “Latvians are the niggers of Europe.” I used to think that was simply one man’s problem, but the more work I did in Latvia, the more I came to see Latvians as a people determined to see themselves as victims. Too many of them had a “niggers of Europe” story to tell, where The Man just wouldn’t give them a fair shake. Latvia is a nation, in certain ways, bent on its own destruction. And the New York Times isn’t part of the cause: they’re only here to record it.

But Dickensian? Is that really fair? Is Latvia really a land of bombed-out buildings where “normal” people live in pestilent squalor? I know a few Latvians who are having hard times, but so far they haven’t resorted to stealing cars or snatching purses in the Old Town. I even know a Latvian who lost his home to the banks. Had the New York Times been there to record moving-out day, would the photographer have been tempted to provide a cart pulled by an ox to carry the man’s possessions down the road behind him?

Even being the butt of quotes like: “…nobody has turned out as bad as Latvia” (Lars Christensen, chief analyst at Danske Bank in Copenhagen), Latvia surely has bigger worries at the moment than how the western press portrays them. But as their northern neighbors—even though a popular Estonian video refers to Latvians as “six-toed”—we probably ought to lend them a helping hand. And I don’t mean money. Estonians could show them how to charm journalists, how to direct them into your Old Town where they’ll write Disney instead of Dickens.

Why should I give a shit about Latvia? If you spend much time there, you’ll likely agree that in many respects it really does live up to the worst Eastern-European stereotypes. And it’s true that somebody has to finish last. But Latvia happens to also be my neighbor. I have Latvian friends. And, most selfishly, I don’t like my western friends opening up the Times to read about “…a two-room shack heated by a crude metal stove down a dirt road outside Riga.” The Baltics are not the Balkans, dammit. And even the Balkans are no longer the Balkans.

Oh, my dear Latvia, why do you do this to yourself?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Centre Party: the Father of All Things?

Yet another video from my friend, Scott. I'd say his cinematic skills are improving, though all his work seems to be influenced by the Centre Party. Last time it was bicycling; this time it's fishing. Can Edgar's tentacles really reach so deep?