Saturday, August 29, 2009


When I was a child what I wanted most in life was a pet monkey. My mother said no, not because it was probably illegal or because we already had three dogs and two cats, but because “monkeys swing on the drapes,” she said, “and I’m not about to have one destroy my house.” At the time, I really didn’t understand, but mom did most of the housework and was hostess and homeowner, so I respected her wishes and so did not independently purchase a pet monkey. Not that I would have known where to buy one.

Just last week my American friend Patricia showed up for a visit with her two children, and before I knew it the eldest had used a ballpoint pen to add to Liina’s favorite Paul Allik painting. The second child, a bit younger and therefore lighter, had actually climbed the drapes halfway up the wall. I spotted him just before the curtain rod gave way and he tumbled a meter to the floor bawling. In that split second before he hit ground, I thought back to my childhood desire for a monkey and empathized with my mother.

“Oh, geez,” said Patricia, grabbing her screeching child and pulling him to her breast. “You should really childproof your house.”

Why? I wanted to ask but didn’t, since I was engaged trying to imagine what items I could leave in the house that could not be destroyed by her simian primates. I couldn’t think of a single one. Childproofing would literally require the house to be gutted, removing drapes, paintings, books, hiding our toothbrushes. I tried to imagine what Patricia’s home looked like. Perhaps it was nothing more than a padded-wall cell. Maybe the adults had surrendered and moved out.

Seeing her drapes destroyed, Liina clearly wanted to take my 12-gauge off the wall and blast Patricia’s kids in the ass with a load of rock salt. Liina was aghast at the implication that we should childproof our home, as if Patricia had no obligation whatsoever to restrain her children. “This is what you get with kids” was what Patricia’s resigned face communicated. Liina’s face resembled that of a passenger on a jet airliner just before it crashes into the ocean at over a six hundred miles an hour.

As I’ve been led to believe, many parents today don’t punish their children by physically striking them. This may be a good idea, even though my parents certainly trotted out the hickory switch in instances of Major Child Crimes. Today, American parents punish their children with something called a “time out,” which means the kids are supposed to sit still in a corner until they’ve calmed down. But why can’t the kids be calm all the time? Or at least when they’re at my house?

Sure, within reason, my mom allowed us to run wild in the Vikerkaar household, but we were strictly forbidden from doing it in someone else’s home. And when there were adult guests present at our house, my brother Villu and I were required to follow simple rules about interacting with them: Don’t interrupt a conversation; Say “yes sir” and “no sir,” or “ma’am” as the case may be; All intelligent questions are welcome, even encouraged, but no gaga babytalk was allowed under any circumstances. Villu and I ate at the same table with the adults, used knives and forks with our elbows held in, and we chewed with our mouths firmly closed. And we, never, ever, climbed on the drapes. Destruction of the home was beyond consideration.

I’d like to think Patricia’s case is an isolated example of child mismanagement, but it hasn’t proved to be.

Not so long ago, I loaned a friend a signed copy of Raise High the Roof Beam by J.D. Salinger. (The reclusive writer had visited Tallinn, had drinks at our house, and so I asked him to sign his book.) It was the only copy I had, and my friend wanted to read it. It was a first edition, and I suppose that fact, combined with the signature makes it worth good money on eBay, though I’ve never cared too much about that when it comes to books. Until, that is, my friend emailed to ask: “Do you want it back in good condition?” I replied to ask if she was using it for archery practice. “No, but it’s hard to keep it away from my toddler.” Just how is that? I wondered. The toddler is exactly how tall? And a signed first-edition cannot be put out of a child’s reach? Particularly a borrowed, signed first-edition?

Yes, I rant to Liina, the world has indeed gone to hell. The modern “vaba kasvatus” has backfired, and the peasants are in full revolt. There’s only one way to quash it, and that’s with blood on the square. Liina agrees with me, though she says she’d stop short of guillotining children.

“Oh, but you’ll both feel differently when you have kids,” people tell us. But, no, we won’t. I can guarantee you that my child will never swing from your curtains like a rhesus macaque. He will not add his signature to artwork in your home. He will not mine boogers from his little nose and deposit them in your salad. And should he, by some wild chance, say, drag a dead, bloody deer across your new white carpet, then I will return to clean it spotless, dear host, after I take him outside and spank the living daylights out of him. Our kids will behave because it’s the right thing to do. And because we don’t believe behaving well is too much to ask of a human being, regardless of his age.

After we cleaned up the collapsed curtains and the potted plants the child destroyed on the way down, Liina took Patricia’s child in her arms. She told him that accidents happen to everyone and that she wasn’t angry. “Would you like me to read you a story?” Liina asked the child. “Oh, yes,” cooed the little one. “A story!”

Liina reached behind her and took a book off the shelf. She opened the cover and read Jonathan Swift’s first sentence: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country...” And onward she read to what turned out to be a very attentive little person.


Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Me and My M

Back in the 1990s, I did a favor that enabled an Estonian businessman to earn some money. The man had heard me muse about crossing America by motorcycle, and as a gesture of thanks, he offered to ship my bike—a Russian M—to any place I named. I chose Kansas, because that’s where my Uncle Feliks lived, and because I knew how big America was: half of it was plenty for me. I would ride West to California and, as Hunter S. Thompson had done, “smoke weed in biker bars,” “feel burning oil on my legs” and ride with the “rain in my eyes and my jaw clamped together in fear.”

But anyone who has ridden an M knows that you don’t ride it: you wrestle it. And so I spent much of the time behind the handlebars speculating about what the “M” in the bike’s name might stand for. It certainly didn’t mean Mõnus, though there was a decent chance it was Mure. If the “M” had been English, it would have stood for Mess or Mistake. But since it was a Russian bike, in all its foul-smelling, cloud-farting splendor, I searched my primitive Russian vocabulary. I assigned the “M” to Mучитель, or, since it was almost always broken, Mертвый.

What I had imagined as a romantic ride, cresting flowered hilltops, breathing purer oxygen, a busty blonde hitchhiker next to me in the mother-in-law killer, bore no relation to reality. Most days, I stood around in service stations in one-horse towns while American mechanics and their greasemonkey friends circled the M and peered into its workings. “How could we have been afraid of a nation that built this motorcycle?” scoffed a twenty-something mechanic near Russell, Kansas. “You ought to junk this thing and get a Jap bike.”

“Actually,” said a know-it-all sitting on a stack of old tires tipping back a frosty Coca-Cola, “that’s a German bike. The russkies got ‘em from the krauts as war reparations. Disassembled the factories, put ‘em on railcars, and took ‘em to Russia.”

“Maybe so,” replied the mechanic, “but it’s still a piece of shit.”

But it was my piece of shit, and I liked it. And the advantage of it was that it was primitively simple. Even though I couldn’t fix it, most any farm boy could, and when a part fell off you could always find some local MacGyver who could fashion a new one out of something he found in his yard with grass growing up around it. I replaced so much of it that by two weeks into my journey, you could have said the bike wasn’t Russian anymore. Sure, I still had to wrestle it, but it ran.

I crossed the plains of Kansas, stopping to visit all the state's superlatives: the world's tallest prairie dog, the world's largest hand-dug well, the world's biggest ball of twine, the world's biggest easel, and the world's biggest pallasite meteorite. All these places hoped to snare a passing motorist with a car full of bored kids. But my M trumped them all. I was a superstar. “Look, it’s the Red Baron!” little kids would cry, even though the bike was black and didn’t fly. Since I wasn’t hairy, had no beard or visible prison tats, tourists did not fear me. They offered me cold beers to allow them to sit in the sidecar and have their pictures made.

More than two-thousand miles later, when I finally gazed at the ocean, I didn’t feel the elation Thompson had described. I was dog tired. My body was caked with dirt. The ocean of northern California was far too cold to swim in. I forgot Thompson and thought of Kerouac whose goal was to piss into the Seine at dawn. The Pacific wasn’t the Seine but the sentiment felt right. After zipping up my trousers I turned and walked away, leaving my M on the side of the road. Thieves and buzzards would be too smart to touch it, but a rider with a soul like mine might happen by. And it would surely call his name.


Read it in Estonian in Eesti Ekspress.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Estonian Rovaniemi

Forget the Estonian Nokia. What we ought to be searching for is the Estonian Rovaniemi. I bow deeply to any town in the world which can convince tourists to visit by advertising cold and darkness.

I first heard about Rovaniemi in 1992. A Canadian family living in Tartu decided to spend their Christmas there, and so they drove northward to show their eight-year-old child, Charlie, the home of Santa Claus. Upon their return, they invited me over for dinner and for what has long been prohibited by the United Nations Convention Against Torture: the amateur vacation video.

For the two-hour duration of the footage, the screen remained pitch black except for the occasional trace of a street lamp or car lights. Sledding on Santa’s mountain? Pitch black. Walking through downtown Rovaniemi? Pitch black. Visiting Santa’s village and little Charlie taking a seat on the Big Man’s lap? Pitch black.

While I went for frequent refills from the wine bottle in the kitchen, they remained glued to the screen. “Remember that, honey?” the wife shrieked. “Oh, yes, dear,” the husband echoed. “That’s Charlie coming down the mountain now!”

I was baffled. Had this family been drugged by the Finns? There was nothing interesting at all about Rovaniemi—or their video—but they were as hooked as heroin addicts.

Even now, having finally visited Rovaniemi myself, I don’t understand the phenomenon. But I do understand that, if only for the sake of our economy, Estonia should have one, too. We’ve got dark. We’ve got cold and wet. What’s stopping us from having our very own Rovaniemi?

My first thought was that we should simply steal the town. Estonia could hire a public relations firm to circulate the rumor that Santa has decided to relocate to Valga or Otepää. After some thought I realized this would be too easily exposed as Eastern European treachery. Better to kidnap the man, blame it on the Latvians, and arrange it so Santa is liberated by Estonians somewhere near Otepää. Having seen both towns, I’m willing to bet that, all other things equal, Santa will by far prefer Otepää over Rovaniemi. If not, we could line Santa’s pockets with unspent EU developmental funds to ensure he sticks around. Then it’s only a matter of buying some reindeer and letting them roam the streets as thick as rats in an Old Town sewer. Our own little Santa Claus village would be complete.

But my conscience got to bothering me. What I like to think separates Estonia from Eastern Europe is its dignity. Estonians walk taller, talk straighter, and, in my estimation, live in a higher orbit than the rest of the region. Estonia doesn’t need a dirty trick. We don’t need to scare the crap out of the world’s children by kidnapping Santa. Forget the kids: let’s scare the crap out of the adults.

He may not recall it, but some years ago Mart Laar, while taking part in a panel discussion hosted by a now-defunct English-language magazine, came up with the idea that Estonia should have its very own Soviet Horror Park. Laar has always been a man ahead of his time in his vision for Estonia.

Personally, I see twenty hectares of horror.

Once my prototypical Canadian family has bought their tickets from the gate attendant, they’ll be stopped ten meters inside the park by an unshaven miilits wearing an untucked shirt and on his head a forashka as big as a serving tray. “Sure you bought tickets,” he’ll tell the still-smiling Canadians, “but you didn’t get them from me.” So Karl Kanada will dig in his pocket for a few bills to ensure his family gets to see the attractions. In some cases, the family’s car will be searched, the father’s porn magazines and children’s walkie-talkies confiscated. Alcohol will be removed (to be later resold in the gift shop or consumed by park employees) and a further fine levied on family members who neglected to purchase the park’s special health insurance which was recommended to them at the gate, the policy which guarantees foreigners the “same fine quality of medical care available to citizens of the Soviet Union.” (Incidentally, the park will house a small hospital where the only forms of accepted payment will be Levi’s jeans and live chickens.)

By this time, Karl Kanada and his family will be extremely thirsty and will descend on the park’s canteen, marked by a sign reading ресторан, at least half of the neon letters burned out. Karl will bribe the doorman, and once inside the family will spend hours deciphering the menu, finally realizing the restaurant has nothing on hand but pelmeni—and only fried pelmeni at that.

Exhausted, his hard currency nearly gone, Karl Kanada will take his family to the Intourist Hotel, where he’ll be charged the foreigners’ rate for a spartan room with no hot water and sheets a half meter too short for the bed. His key will be attached to a boat anchor and tended to by a dezhurnaya, who he will also need to bribe if he wants the family’s sweaty clothes returned by the hotel’s laundry service.

Sometime during the middle of the night, a knock will come at the door, and the family will be given ten minutes to pack and whisked down a back staircase into a waiting UAZ truck, then off to the park’s train station where a cattle car awaits. “Wait, there must be some mistake!” Karl will wail. But the guard will turn a deaf ear until Karl removes his Rolex, his leather shoes, his wife’s western brassiere, and anything else of value the family is carrying. Early in the morning, the family will return to their hotel on foot, to find their car stolen. “You only bought health insurance,” the desk clerk will inform them. “You should have bought the auto insurance.”

The deportation, being in such obvious bad taste, might be replaced by guests being rousted from their beds to be lightly beaten, then forced to sign a confession and inform on a neighbor—or, in cases of leniency, simply forced to write a postcard to their neighbors about the wonderful time they’re having.

To me, it’s a natural idea. It may not be exactly what Mr. Laar had in mind (I never had a chance to ask him), but it would certainly be one hell of a park. Educational for sure. Real family entertainment. The natural successor to reality television.

Vello, some will cry, you’ve stooped to a new low! How dare you make light such a serious subject? I answer this way: Estonia can continue the frustrating search for its Nokia—or seksikat produkti, as Mr. Ansip was quoted calling them in Äripäev—which it possibly won’t find while anybody reading this is still alive. Or, it can take advantage of that which is right under its very nose. It isn’t pretty, but it would be authentic. And thanks to Hollywood, with the West thinking that the Soviet Union was all about Bond and “Goldeneye grotesque,” Estonia might be doing the world a service by setting things straight.

But there’s Solzhenitsyn, Edward Lucas, and Anne Applebaum! a reader will protest. People know the crimes of the Soviet Union! No, dear reader, they don’t. The masses don’t read books and never have. Bad television and theme parks are the communication tools of our time. If we want to change the popular conception of history, then we’ve got to do it with Disney. Or rather our own sick interpretation thereof.


Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Say What?

Several weeks ago I set out to buy the most simple mobile phone available. I carefully researched phones, identified the Nokia model number, and took a printout to my local Elisa dealer. "It'll take three weeks to get that phone," the young lady working the counter reported. "Absolutely nobody wants that kind of phone."

Rather than waiting three weeks, I buckled under pressure and bought the simplest phone in stock. Which happened to have a camera. Now I've found myself using it to record objects which pique my curiosity. Among the recent:

There are the Crips, the Bloods, and now the Ninja Cobras. Obviously one of Tallinn's more dangerous gangs. Can someone explain the Estonian fascination with things Ninja?

This toilet seat available at Bauhaus Estonia for around 400 EEK. I've seen these before, but only in American trailer parks. I have trouble imagining the Estonian home where this might go.

Pepe Enroth doesn't sound Finnish to me, but he's apparently a hit there. This promotional poster discovered about halfway between Rovaniemi and Helsinki. I've never understood the Finns. At all. Perhaps Giustino can explain?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Turn Your Head

Text printed on a tip jar aboard Tallink’s M/S Star: The more you tip, the nicer we are.

Perhaps there wasn’t enough space on the jar to fit what the bartender really wanted to write: I’ve had a bad day. All my days are bad. The esprit de corps around here rivals that of the Gulag crews who dug the Belamor Canal by hand with shovels made entirely of wood. Won’t you, please, thirsty consumer, go away and not trouble me with your business?

I used to think it was worse in the USA, where the old rules of tipping have been thrown out the window, and even Starbucks employees (with health benefits!) expect tips after you’ve stood in line twenty minutes to wait on a long-haired philosophy major change his order three times and finally decide on a caffeine-free double grandé latté sprinkled with protein fiber powder. In America, there are tip jars in places like bookstores and movie theatres—as if twenty-five bucks for a hardback and twelve dollars for a movie isn’t enough. Tipping is such a part of life that the Internal Revenue Service taxes waitresses on tips whether they actually receive them or not. After Broadway performances, where tickets can cost hundreds of dollars, actors appeal to the audience for additional contributions. Bloggers have “Feed Me” buttons with express connections to PayPal. Tipping in America long ago stopped meaning a little something added for good service. It’s become an institution in itself.

Which is why I prefer Estonia. Like this country’s tax code, the rules for tipping are more simple and straightforward. If you are pleased with the service, you tip a little bit, often just rounding up the bill or not waiting on your change. Servers don’t yet feel entitled to tips, and I’ve even had instances where a waitress chased me out the door to return money I left on the table. “No, that’s for you,” I’ve had to explain, though this happens less frequently now that cruise boats full of Americans regularly dock in Tallinn. Damned Americans. They’ve gone and ruined this country, too.

But even in America I’ve never seen a tip jar as cheeky as Tallink’s: The more you tip, the nicer we are. Just how nice could the bartender be? What is the upper limit of his niceness? Would “nicer” mean a smile? Eye contact? Would he give me free salted nuts with my beverage? Would he carry my bag to shore and pay for my taxi home? Somehow, I suspect “nice” for him means not sharing the negative aspects of his job with the passengers. “Nice” means he’ll keep “nasty” in check.

I don’t expect their workers to be nice to me; I just expect them to do their jobs. Which most of them do, in fact. But the tip jar goes too far. It reads like a Christmastime message from UNICEF: Just a few cents a day can change the life of this starving African child.

I know the M/S in the vessel’s name means Motor Ship, but the bartender’s message makes me imagine shirtless, sweating Estonians shackled twelve to an oar beneath the auto deck, driven by a whip-wielding Soviet-era manager. He lashes at them to shut up about positive reinforcement in the workplace and row faster, those who slack off or die at the oars unceremoniously rolled overboard.

If I’m to believe what I read in the papers, then Tallink may not be the most employee-friendly place to work. The looks on their employees’ faces would seem to confirm that. I understand they work long hours for little money, but so do school teachers and shopkeepers and nurses. And, even in America, when’s the last time you saw a tip jar in a hospital?

But if a Tallink employee is dissatisfied, why can’t he reserve expressing his displeasure for when Enn Pant or Ain Hanschmidt are on board? Why hold it against me? I’m only guilty of buying a ticket.

And isn’t it, in principle, supposed to be the other way around? Isn’t—especially in this economy—the customer king? It might be equally tasteless (and might earn you a gob of bartender spit in your beer), but it would seem more appropriate for the customer to hold a sign reading The nicer you are, the more I tip.

But I understand. I once was chained to the oars in the service sector. I was a stock boy at Kmart, one of North America’s megastores. My job was to clean up the aisle when a mother emptied the contents of her baby’s diaper on to the floor (which, surprisingly, happened about as often as a Tallink passenger vomits in a deck passage). When I wasn’t on diaper detail I had to clean the grease off the store’s restaurant’s hamburger grill, all the while dressed like a Mormon missionary in a white shirt and necktie. When I was lucky enough to be allowed to sack groceries, company policy required me to look every single customer in the eye and say, “Thank you for shopping at Kmart!” My boss, Mr. Siegel (I was not permitted to address him by his first name) allowed no shorter version. A simple “thank you” did not suffice. I got out of there fast and went into the plumbing business. I still had to pick up turds, but I didn’t have to wear a necktie while doing it.

My advice to the Tallink bartender: You’ve got to get out of there fast. Like Huck Finn, you got to light out for the territories ahead of the rest. Before Aunt Polly in her sailor outfit gets ahold of you. But in the meantime, while you’re waiting to make your getaway, try to pretend you’re not unhappy.

When I lived in New York I knew a 24-year-old girl who married a 70-year-old gazillionaire. He was a shriveled up, bitter old guy who was downright mean. “How can you stand the sex?” she was once asked at a table with friends. She raised her left hand to show us the three-carat diamond on her finger. “When he climbs on top of me, I just turn my head and stare at this rock.”

That’s what you’ve got to do, Mr. Bartender. Turn your head. And if your rock isn’t motivating, then you might, perhaps, look at the door.

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.