Saturday, December 19, 2009
At the request of Postimees readers, my wife Liina penned this column. Proceed at your own risk. -VV
Vello says I’m not funny though I sometimes say funny things. When we recently drove past an outdoor advertisement which claimed Estonia was number two in eurodrinking, I remarked to Vello that I was glad my countrymen were the top of the heap in something. Vello didn’t laugh, but I saw him write it down. I’ll bet you he’ll later use it in a story and take credit for it. But I love him, so I don’t mind.
I often tell him that he’s not funny though he does funny things. Just the other day he spent fifteen minutes in the kitchen pretending like he had his own cooking television show. He addressed make-believe cameras on the other side of the stove, gave recipe hints to his “home viewers,” and suggested techniques to improve use of the spatula. And all he was doing was heating up some fish fingers. Only he could take something so mundane and turn it into, well, something equally mundane that we all somehow pay attention to. For the record, though, I don’t think his cooking show has a future.
I honestly don’t know if other women’s husbands exhibit the same odd behavior, but so far Vello doesn’t appear to be a danger to himself or others. There’s a Canadian expression that says talking to yourself is normal, but when you start answering yourself then it’s a problem. I asked Vello if he didn’t think talking to imaginary TV viewers was borderline behavior, and he looked at me like I was the crazy one and replied, “but you should read the letters they send.” He then turned away with a terribly sad look on his face.
Despite his rather odd behavior, Vello and I agree on many things. There are other issues where we’ve agreed to disagree. Like my vegetarianism. Whenever he eats at home, which is often, it’s always vegetarian food. I’d like to think this is out of respect for my beliefs, but it’s really because he’s too lazy to cook anything for himself. If I suddenly started facing east five times each day and chanting passages from the Koran, it wouldn’t startle him. He’d probably join right in if it meant getting to eat sooner.
When we go out to dinner parties, he has this habit of falling asleep around ten p.m. He’ll wander off with a full belly, find a comfortable chair, and close his eyes. It’s not that he finds the conversation boring, he just likes to get up early and “milk the cows,” as he says. He’s never lived on a farm, though. And he really doesn’t get up that early. Friends find it charming that he falls asleep. He’s able to get away with a lot.
Vello also likes to talk about his days in the Canadian Army. I admit I enjoy the stories about how he personally liberated France, won the croix de guerre but melted it down to make cavity fillings for French kids made orphans by the war. He is careful when choosing his audiences, and often tells the story to young Americans, who are, somewhat comically, not quite sure when World War II took place.Sometimes I object to one of his columns, especially when he paints Estonian men as primitive. This image of the hairy, knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing primate who loves nothing more than to drive fast is unfair. My father is Estonian. So is my brother. And neither is like that. Well, okay, maybe my brother is a little bit like that.
Like all men, Vello has his faults, but one quality I admire in him is that he will always stand up for me. Once, shopping for a washing machine in the southern part of the United States, the salesman answered all of my questions by addressing Vello—as if the salesman was too good to talk to a woman. Talk about a primate! Fortunately, Vello, having no interest whatsoever in what kind of washing machine we bought, turned and walked away, forcing the salesman to deal with me. I gave him the full wrath of a confident Estonian woman.
One of his behaviors I dislike is how he hides what he’s thinking. He’s so worried about being polite that it takes some real prompting to get him to express himself. Last time we visited Toronto, Vello went to buy a new pair of boots. The salesman was the pushy type who wanted to sell the most expensive pair in the store. Vello gravitated toward the cheapest pair, and the salesman said, “You know, young man, once I bought cheap boots, too, and that’s been the reason for a lifetime of back pain.” Vello continued to examine the cheaper boots, and the salesman continued to push. “There’s no substitute for quality boots.” The guy wouldn’t let up. Finally, Vello turned to face the man and said very evenly that he respected his desire to get a sales commission but honestly thought the extra 150 kilos the man was carrying around were the cause of his back pain. I never laughed so hard in my life.
My Estonian friends often notice that western men have a higher tolerance for the concept of women’s liberation, and certainly Vello shares this belief. But what Estonian women often don’t understand is that that is a double-edged sword. It comes with the baggage of being expected to pay your own way. Vello once suggested I pay him back for a plane ticket. “We’re married!” I shouted. “There isn’t my money and your money; there’s only our money.” In the west, men want to have their cake and eat it, too. Men want you to be both the housewife and the breadwinner. It’s a land of contradictions illustrated by men who open the airport door for you but then expect you to carry your own luggage. Things are simpler in Estonia.
Living in the Estonian culture is hard for Vello, I know. His perception is that we Estonians feel the need to constantly remind ourselves we’re Estonian—“navel gazing” he calls it. What you see in his columns is of course politely cleaned up, but whenever I tune the television to a local program I can provoke a rant of his about “celebrating mediocrity.” As you can guess, he is no fan of Eurovision or Eesti Otsib Superstaari. But he just needs to get over his big-culture arrogance. And that’s part of what a good wife does. She can slap some sense into her husband when it’s needed.
To compensate for living outside his own culture, Vello takes refuge in the internet—even sometimes reading the comments which readers put on his stories, though its obvious that many of them are sociopaths or somehow otherwise demented souls. He loves his readers, though. Occasionally, one of their comments will make him howl with laughter.
Vello recently showed me an article about a website called McBride.com which is devoted to cataloging nude scenes in films. It has a “content” department of eight guys whose workweek consists of capturing screenshots of flesh. Vello’s interest was not the nudity, however. His dream is to work with a team of eight guys on a website of equal pointlessness. He says he’d like to take his cooking show to the web. He’s already introduced me to the cameraman and the producer, pretend people named Ron and Don. I nod politely at them when the show begins, and that seems to satisfy Vello.
He isn’t ill, but I know he’d be healthier if he’d get out of the house more. Despite the fact that he speaks Estonian, he just doesn’t have the ability to merge into our culture. The Estonian culture is not the North American culture, and Estonians truly don’t believe “the more the merrier.” We like it small. We like it like it is. Vello is fond of quoting someone who said, “You can live in France for fifty years and if you weren’t born there you’ll never be French. Live in America five minutes and you’re already an American.” He wants Estonia as a culture to be more like America and make more room for foreigners. Actually, he doesn’t give a damn about the foreigners. They’re just a proxy for himself, and I’d say Estonia has been pretty kind to him, already. But he’s right that we Estonians are not ready to make room for foreigners. We’ve accommodated them for so many centuries that we’d just like to have the place to ourselves for a while. And he understands this, too. Sometimes on his cooking show he stares deep into the camera and explains to his international viewers the virtues of Estonian food. “Headcheese isn’t as bad as they say. You should really try it.” Then he smiles broadly, because everyone knows he’s lying.
Read the Estonian version in Postimees.
Santa recommends: Vello's English-language book. Click here.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
According to the Mayas, who some regard as the greatest ancient civilization to have arisen in the New World, the earth is due for a major transition, which some interpret as a geological catastrophe, on December 23, 2012. Hollywood has even made a movie about it, aptly titled 2012, though I’ve refused to see it since the trailers seem to indicate it will be one more cliché of a Hollywood disaster movie with the plot given away in the first thirty seconds and then the remaining two-and-a-half hours spent on explosions and car chases, actors locked permanently in bug-eyed poses of terror.
The doomsday idea intrigues me, though, and so I took it upon myself to contact 2012’s star, John Cusack, to see if he might be interested in starring in a sequel I’m producing called 2013. My film is about Estonia, a country favorably geographically located to be earthquake- and monsoon free. According to my screenplay, Estonia miraculously survives 2012, only to be beset upon by 2013: The Year EU Funding Runs Out.
Mr. Cusack hasn’t answered my letter yet, but I’m sure my proposal will interest him, as it grapples with all the important issues of survival in a no-more-EU-money apocalyptic scenario. I don’t want to give away the ending, but in the interest of possibly piquing the interest of potential financiers, as well as the PÖFF, Cannes, and Sundance people, I have agreed to disclose a few of the gripping scenes in the virtual pages of this blog.
The film begins with a horrifying scene: With EU money gone, the mayor of Tallinn (played by Cusack) must give up the black Mercedes Benz in which he rides to work. Will he, as New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg did as early as 2008, ride public transportation? Or will he go the route of London’s Mayor Boris Johnson and ride his bicycle to work? In this nail-biting scene, the Greens offer Marek Strandberg’s bicycle to the mayor in exchange for several more seats on the city council, and ministers of parliament abandon their Audi A8s streetside in favor of trolleys and trams, since there are no funds to maintain the infrastructure which had been over-built in better times. Without the luxury automobile, utter terror descends on Tallinn.
Tallinn policeman, lacking gasoline for their more modest automobiles, are forced to once again patrol their beats the old fashioned way: on foot. This leads to many emotional scenes where policemen learn the names of people in the neighborhoods and even—dramatically shot with a steadycam—rescue a kitten from the jaws of a Tallinn Prison German Shepherd, recently loosed on the city because prison officials could no longer afford to buy dry dog food at the usurious prices set by Estonian merchants.
Estonians, like always, make the best of tough times by learning new skills, and this gives rise to an entirely fresh generation of twenty-something trainers. Armed with their diplomas but lacking any real-world experience, the trainers advance on Tallinn with the plan to teach business management skills to the unemployed. But they find no funding is available for such ventures and instead they make themselves remarkably useful by turning the flowerbed where the Bronze Soldier once rested into a vegetable garden to supply the parliament’s cafeteria. With natural ingredients in their diet and no electricity to allow e-voting, parliamentarians report weight loss and increased bowel regularity. It’s a “win-win situation” declare the trainers to cheers from crowds which had gathered across the street to visit the national library (reading being a cheap leisure-time activity) only to learn of the institution’s permanent closure. With nothing to read, but fired up by the trainers, the crowd of former library-goers closes ranks on Alexander Kofkin’s hot dog stands, demanding sausage at the same low price available in Western Europe. Stepping into the fray is Mayor John Cusack, who diffuses the volatile crowd by offering free potatoes in Freedom Square. But the potatoes are a bluff. As it turns out, all Cusack has on hand is a single truckload. Shouting “Die, Potemkin traitor,” the crowd chases Cusack through the Old Town streets.
Meanwhile, Estonia’s major publishing houses merge to form one company, and the management council chooses to eliminate some of the more self-indulgent titles such as Navigaator, Saladused, Muscle & Fitness Hers, and Minu Naba. The society magazine, Kroonika, however, thrives due to an increased popularity of prominent Estonians and their remarkable stories of how in difficult times they still manage to fund breast implants for their teenage daughters.
Mayor John Cusack, having barely escaped the mob by swimming through Old Town sewers, yet still having learned absolutely nothing in the process, issues an edict that all businesses must have Estonian-language names. Cusack targets Restaurant Bonaparte as an offending party and insists on a name change to that of an Estonian general. Expecting Restaurant Laidoner, Cusack gets Restaurant Einseln, and a scandal erupts. But Cusack by this point is without the people’s mandate and must back down to conserve power for other fights.
Early in the second act, the suffering is at its greatest as Estonia’s wealthy are no longer able to afford authentic D&G sunglasses, and a batch of reality shows springs forth about the hardships of wearing Chinese knockoffs. Slightly smarter at this point, Mayor Cusack finally sees the writing on the wall, and he makes the unpopular decision to force the bankruptcy of Hugo Boss, Versace, Armani, and the Fashion Palace, in order to replace them with Humana second-hand stores, which are experiencing new life in the crisis economy.
In a decisive finale, Jaak Aaviksoo sneaks into the Iru power station and, calling on his university rector’s training, personally rewires the electrical switches for the freedom monument, so that while there may not be enough money to light the streets of Kopli at night, the freedom monument burns bright, even if its flame of freedom is sometimes only a reflection of the Centre Party-sponsored bonfires built to cook the potatoes which have been forcibly seized from small farmers, now officially designated as kulaks.
The mayor’s position does not look good, and there will be no white ship from the EU. But Mayor Cusack is a master politician who’s been in tight spots before. Will he practice fiscal restraint in order to bring Tallinn’s budget under control? Will he borrow more to keep up appearances? And borrow from whom? The IMF? Moscow? There’s only one way to find out. 2013: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
Lugege sama Postimehes. Kickass 2013 graphics by Katri Kikkas.
Get Vello's oeuvre here.