Saturday, September 26, 2009

Camping with Koržets

ey, you got any vodka?” As soon as the man shouted at us he regretted it, because his wife elbowed him hard in the ribcage. “But I was just asking,” he muttered, massaging the pain under his arm.

We had just entered Estonia’s weekend party headquarters, the Lake Peipsi RMK-sponsored campground. It was only five p.m., but the party already raged.

“You can pitch your tent in any of the marked sites,” the friendly gate attendant had said, but there’d been so much music—techno, rap, a little heavy metal—coming from the forested area the other side of the makeshift barrier, that we told him we thought we’d have a look around first. “Sure,” he said. “Park your car. Look around.” And so we did.

In the parking area, as well as at other strategic places around the camping area, guests were greeted and cautioned by a photo of Vladislav Koržets in a half-bug-eyed pose of excitement, finger in the air to make his point. A speech bubble was supplied by RMK, something to the effect of “Only dipshits burn down forests. Use the fireplace provided.” There was no text about what kind of music best complements birdsong, and it was clear that we weren’t going to hear any wrens or sparrows or blackbirds or nightingales. What we were going to hear was DJ Dima and His Posse of Righteous Russian Dudes. Except that for all the partiers were Estonian.

“Weird,” said my buddy Juss, having opened a beer to get into the party spirit. “These idiots are all Estonian.” And so they were. Every campsite was filled to the brim with Estonians, some of them young rullnokkad, Estonian vernacular for primitives fond of cars, but others—like the middle-aged, vodka-begging husband—were older, professional partiers. But where were the Russians? Was the music so bad that even they’d been driven away? “Tiblad are too smart to pay fifty kroons each to camp with these tshuhna,” Juss said. “They’re probably at home where it’s safe.”

And it was looking like home was where we were headed. We left the RMK party center and scoured the shore of Peipsi for a quiet place to pitch a tent, but we were constantly confronted with signs reading PRIVATE PROPERTY or demands by landowners to pay 100 kroons per person to sleep next to a caravan full of Germans. My Estonian companions had nothing against Germans; rather, since they considered themselves true Estonians, they were categorically opposed to being remotely near any other human being. “Camping here would be like putting up a tent at the song festival grounds,” said Juss, shaking his head out of disgust that his Canadian friend could never grasp the Estonian need for solitude. To me, our party of four (including our occasionally chattering wives) had already ruined any opportunities for solitude, so what were a few Germans in a caravan? Anytime we found a possible camping place, if there was even a single sign of other life, Juss would dismiss it as “another damned song festival.” Although it was a warm, late-summer weekend, and though we were near one of the most heavily trafficked parts of Estonia, Juss was still convinced we would find a solitary and absolutely free campsite with no neighbors inside a 500-meter radius.

As we searched for this paradise, we became hungry. We stopped at a fish stand to buy smoked bream. A friendly local Russian—a Russian, at last!—sold smoked bream, flounder, and salmon.

“Salmon!” Juss erupted, “there aren’t salmon in Peipsi.” Juss took me aside to point out that this kiosk’s SMOKED FISH sign was suspiciously similar to all the others we had seen on the road. Juss believed we were about to be the victims of a McDonald’s-like scam to sell us fish caught elsewhere. “You know that the bream they sell in Selver comes from America?” Juss tried to whisper but was so wound up he shouted. “Lake Michigan! They catch the damned things in Lake Michigan and ship them over here!” Juss paced back and forth like Hercule Poirot solving a case, and then he stopped and struck a pose resembling Koržets, his finger held declaratively in the air. “This is American bream and Norwegian salmon!” he declared. “How dumb do they think we are?”

“I’m hungry,” cried Juss’s wife, Ivi, from the car. “Are you two going to buy anything or not?”

“These aren’t Peipsi fish,” Juss shouted to her. “They’re selling salmon!”

“Well,” Ivi said, “buy some onions then. But get something.” And so Juss returned to the kiosk and ordered a bream.

“My father caught this fish,” the girl said in very good Estonian. “And he’s never been to Lake Michigan.”

“What about this salmon?” Juss demanded.

“Well, salmon do swim up the Narva River, but this one came from Selver. What can I say?” she shrugged. “Some people want to buy them.”

“Maybe they’d buy shark, too.” Juss wouldn’t leave it alone.

“Maybe,” the girl shot back. “Do you know where I can get some?”

“I can’t even find a camping place on hundreds of kilometers of Peipsi shoreline,” he confessed. “Do you think I could find a shark?”

The girl laughed and directed us five kilometers north where she said there was an RMK campsite.

“Oh, we’ve seen that one,” Juss dismissed her.

“No you haven’t,” she insisted. “This one is where normal people go.”

And so we decided to give it a chance. It was only five kilometers to find out what this girl’s definition of normal was. Would there be campers swinging from the trees and smashing empty vodka bottles against each other’s heads? Or would the campers be a young tribe, out to break a Guinness record for loudest outdoor disco?

There, greeting us at the gateway to the park was Vladislav Koržets. “Haven’t we been here before?” Ivi asked.

“This is where normal people come,” Juss said. “But it does seem like déjà vu.” He killed the car’s engine and we sat for several minutes, listening suspiciously.

“Sounds okay,” said Ivi.

“Maybe they just went to get more alcohol,” my wife Liina suggested.

There were three other cars in the parking lot, but there was no gate attendant, not even a barrier. Only a grinning Koržets cautioning us not to burn the place down.

We unloaded our gear slowly, sure that any minute we’d be driven back to our car by gang of Lasnamäe youth wearing leather and gold and throwing lit sticks of dynamite in their wake. But things remained quiet. We passed a campsite occupied by a young family who was listening to soft classical music, a small Russian flag flew from a guy-line on their tent. They smiled and nodded. Another young couple with an infant waved and said zdrastvuitye.

We found a spot nearest the lake and pitched our tents. We made dinner (Norwegian salmon we’d brought from Tallinn) and settled in for the night, bracing for the inevitable party.

Around eleven p.m., when I was half asleep, Liina was met at our tent door by a young Russian. “Do you have any firewood?” he asked in Estonian slightly better than mine. “We forgot firewood. I’d be happy to pay for it.” Liina told him we’d burned what little we had and that she was sorry she couldn’t help. “Are you all alone?” he asked. “Because you could join us around the campfire if you want.”

Liina thanked him and told him she was with her boring husband, who grunted inside the tent in protest to the characterization. The young man laughed and said I was welcome, too.

This was all too civilized, and I wondered how Juss was feeling about it. This was relatively private camping, free of caravans and Germans. And it was almost completely silent: our Russian campers were making less noise than even Koržets.

“Hey, Juss!” I shouted. “Got any vodka?”

Juss told me to shut up. Normal people were trying to sleep.

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Vello in English from, and Purchase it here:

Inherit the Family: Marrying into Eastern Europe
by Vello Vikerkaar

Sunday, September 20, 2009


It's easy to spot an American in the crowd (white shoes and bluejeans). French and Spanish, too (fine fabrics in muted tones, those Burberry quilted jackets). Estonia has something close to a national look, if you count haircuts. I captured these two on a Tallinn-bound ferry.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fresh Promises

The Centre Party is promising a new stoplight in Pirita. The Reform Party is offering “fresh energy” and they say they’ll make Haapsalu the Venice of the North. All those things are nice, but what I’d really like is for the national library to be open more than seven hours a day. After all, if it is, as its website claims, the “custodian of our national memory and heritage, the centre of Estonian literature...” and “the most valuable information provider for our legislative body and other constitutional institutions,” then can all that really be accomplished in a mere seven hours? If there are other research libraries in the world open so few hours a day, I’m not aware of them. Washington DC’s Library of Congress is open thirteen hours a day. The British Library is open at least ten. Even la Bibliothèque nationale de France is open nine to five. But the Estonian National Library opens later and closes earlier than even a Paris clothing boutique.

The national library may not be as popular as a stoplight in Pirita, but it’s at least as useful. If you arrive for the library’s opening at eleven, the music is inspiring. I’m no expert on music, but I can testify that the Rahvusraamatukogu Theme Song fills the building with hope and promise, as if every day might be witness to some young researcher emerging from deep in the stacks screaming “Eureka!”

Simply entering the library is a pleasure. The security guards are truly polite gentlemen. They have a memory for faces and offer a friendly welcome that makes me feel as if the national library were my very own office building, which, as a taxpayer, I suppose it is. These men are a reassuring presence in a building with hundreds of thousands of books, knowledge and tradition. From their shined shoes to their neatly combed hair, it’s clear that they, like everyone else in the building, value what they protect.

Architecturally speaking, the national library is one of the few Soviet-era buildings I’ve seen that the rain hasn’t almost completely washed away. It’s like the Linnahall, except for that the builders were sober the day they mixed the concrete.

I am not alone in my appreciation. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t spot an Estonian intellectual somewhere in the library complex. I’ve seen Andrus Kivirähk at least a half dozen times, and Andrei Hvostov is a regular in the library cafeteria (he orders porridge). I’ve also spotted Hardi Volmer, and I have one unconfirmed sighting of Jaan Kaplinski.

Perhaps these people, like me, come for the hope and optimism. Even on the darkest winter day, light can be found in the building. The view from the eighth floor (and the natural light on the reading tables) rivals anything you’ll find in the city’s expensive glass office towers with their Stockholm-level rents.

It’s said one benefit of modern Estonian office life is stylish coworkers, and if that’s why you like the office then the library won’t disappoint: there are babes aplenty in the sixth-floor law reading room. I’m not sure what this says about Estonia. In my country, female lawyers are to be strictly avoided. But the law reading room has advantages which attract everyone: It’s the one place in the library you can get up to take a phone call and still keep an eye on your laptop through the glass wall.

Not all is wonderful at the library, of course.

The café is a bit overpriced: Almost twenty kroons for what is possibly Northern Europe’s worst espresso in a venue that hasn’t been remodeled since Lenin’s day. And the café’s oldest employee (born in 1870, as was Lenin) has a habit of glaring at you if she thinks you haven’t returned with sufficient speed the newspapers you borrowed from the café’s counter. “That’s my private copy,” I’ve learned to tell her, which is sometimes true, but always sends her packing with a suspicious sniff.

The café is wonderful, however, as a place to watch conference participants decamp to the cafeteria. They’re often formally dressed and walk with a spring in their step, fresh energy (the real kind) from having learned something new, or at least from having cheated the bossman out of a day’s labor. And the coffee-klatching pensioners are priceless, tables full of chattering septuagenarians dressed to the nines.

What I most like about the national library is that it’s the haunt of normal people, and island of humanity in a city that sometimes seems inhuman. Tallinn, to me, suffers from an identity crisis, and the national library is one place you can count on for “normaalne.” It is one of the few places in the city you will never encounter a black luxury sedan parked on the sidewalk blocking the door.

But while it’s normaalne, it’s perhaps too normaalne for politicians, and therefore unlikely to become an object of anyone’s campaign. Although I’ve seen writers and composers and other cultural figures there, I have only once seen a politician: Jaak Aaviksoo (in the lobby) inspecting the poster for an exhibition of war photographs from the Middle East.

It might be unfair to conclude we don’t see politicians there because a library is the seat of learning and politicians are a breed who believe they already possess the answers. Perhaps there’s simply free coffee on Toompea? Or could it be politicians find nothing sexy about the library? But just because the librarians haven’t yet posed in Playboy (with reading glasses on the tip of the nose à la Rein Lang), it doesn’t mean that the library isn’t sexy. You’ve just got to spend some time in it to understand.

The coming elections are the first I’m allowed to vote in—I’ve finally fulfilled my five-year residency requirement—and to win my vote it’s going to take more than a new stoplight in Pirita or a cleaned-up Ninja on a poster with Tiit Terik. But “fresh energy” isn’t going to do it either, whatever that slogan is supposed to mean. How about a fresh new hour or two at the national library?

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Baltish is Back... popular demand.

Save the Whale. Save the Nature.
What's frustrating to me as a native English speaker (who's perhaps lived abroad too long) is that I know this is wrong, but I start to try to convince myself it might be right. It's said the one truly international language is Bad English. If that's the case, I more and more feel I'm approaching fluency.

Of course given the context, most of us can figure out why we should push the button (the sign's above a toilet), but there's still something that irks me about this. Say you're from a country where both violence rules and flush toilets are illegal (like Iran or Belarus), would you then think this is a nuclear button? In all cases, we could do with a better sign.