Thursday, December 30, 2010

Animal Planet

Playing in the snow-covered yard were a bear, a fox, and a hedgehog. Drinking vodka on the porch was a tropical bird. An owl answered the door to the house.

“Uhhuu,” the owl cooed, both eyes blackened like she’d been beaten by a husband. If not for the familiarity of the hoot I would not have recognized Liina’s mother in the dark of that Estonia winter.
“The rest of the animals are in the forest,” she said, pointing into the trees. “Look for the bonfire.”
It was New Year’s Eve 2000, and I’d arrived late from Tallinn to Liina’s family’s country house. I hadn’t known Liina long, and she’d invited me to join friends and family to celebrate the New Year. She’d said it was animal party and that I should dress the part.
Twenty animals, Liina somewhere among them, danced at around the bonfire, stopping occasionally to literally howl at the moon. It was something out of Indiana Jones, with me, the western anthropologist, peering over a rock at jungle natives about to engage in a ritual blood sacrifice.

Liina has always been a bit different. In some cases, I have chided her for not being more normal and the trouble it has gotten her into.

Her driver’s license was revoked for several years for reasons, in part, of drawing extra attention to herself by defacing her license with a indelible marker, adding horns and a beard to her otherwise attractive face to give it a Satan-crossed-with-a-female-werewolf look. In most parts of the world policemen are not known for their senses of humor, least of all in former Soviet republics.

Traveling in Iran, she was jailed for a night for being seen in the company of a local man, an unauthorized tour guide. She narrowly escaped getting caught with a bottle of wine in her bag, which, in Iran, still carries a minimum penalty of being buried to your neck in sand and stoned to death.

In a nature reserve in India, she ignored signs telling her to stay on the trail and not touch things. When she exited the park, two armed guards awaited her. “What’s in the bag?” one asked. “Oh, just a few books,” she replied. “And a Bengal tiger skin.” Lucky for her, they actually thought she was funny.

It is as if Liina is on a mission to test the limits of patience and sense of humor of everyone she meets, taking copious notes so that she may one day, like an audit office, release a report to the world, providing us all with more accurate portraits of ourselves.
Several years ago in the tax office, unable to figure out how to manage an ID card reader, Liina and I sat before the unfortunate, humorless woman assigned to assist us manually file our documents. “Do you have any family or dependents to list?” the ametnik asked. “How recently do they need to have been alive?” Liina queried, adding some vague remark about an avalanches and bad luck in general.

For me, situations like tax filing are ones I want to enter and exit as quickly and smoothly as possible. But in Liina’s world all events have equal standing and are part of life’s rich tapestry. “Really,” she rebutted my scolding once we were safely outside the tax office, “why would you want to cheat a bureaucrat out of an interesting day?”

When I suggested that bureaucrats were in fact bureaucrats for the reason that they wanted all their days to be more or less the same, she shot me a disapproving look. “You’re wrong,” she declared. “There’s nobody alive like that.”

I will say this for her: she is never guilty of conscious Bohemian affectations or, as is common with some, trying to be different in the same way. She would never tattoo her body or adopt the Goth look. To her, these people are not at all genuine, and are, in themselves, walking contradictions.

To get on Liina’s good side, it is helpful to one-up her. Had the Estonian policeman checking her license understood this he would have offered her the chance to change into a werewolf, run into the forest, and slay a deer with her teeth and fingernails right before his very eyes. If the tax bureaucrat had been more aware, she might have topped Liina’s avalanche story with a better tragedy, such as an accident with tropical quicksand.

That New Year’s night I observed the animals dancing around the fire for some time. At other parties I’d gone to, it seemed people would sit around a table staring at their feet until the first was drunk enough to engage another. But these dancing animals. . . I didn’t think there was enough alcohol in all of northern Europe to do this to people. (And I would later learn they were mostly sober.)

Finally, I had to play my part, and I stepped into the light to present myself. Eventually they noticed my presence. I wore knee-high boots but was otherwise dressed head to toe in camouflage. Slung behind my back was a BB gun.

“What are you?” came Liina’s voice from a floppy-eared, purple creature. I could have asked her the same, though she appeared to be Barney the dinosaur.

“Take a guess.”

“You’re a praying mantis,” offered someone who was clearly a squirrel. “A chameleon on a branch,” suggested a rabbit.

I unslung the BB gun and raised it high over my head. “I’m a hunter,” I shouted, “and I’m here to take hides.” And with that the animals fled into the forest, correctly playing their parts. I would have my hides soon enough when they got too cold and returned to the fire.

Ever since the birth of our son Robert, we don’t dress up as animals for parties anymore. Partly, this is because we’re too tired, but I think it’s mostly because Liina can dress Robert up. He has already attended one very formal Christmas party dressed as a miniature Santa Claus. He owns a coat where the hood morphs into an elephant trunk. And he has webbed duck feet, shoes which slip on over his regular shoes.

We haven’t happened on any ametniks or policemen yet when Robert is in tow, but I can only imagine it when we do. “We found him in the countryside being raised by a family of wolves,” Liina will say. “Does that mean we can keep him?” And we’ll just have to hope the ametnik has a sense of humor equal to ours. Well, equal to Liina’s, that is.

Visit the Vikerkaar family duty free shop on our mezzanine level.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Virtues of Blizzards

A community’s traffic culture is often mentioned as an indicator of the health of its society. Within the larger traffic culture is a public transport culture, and Tallinn’s public transport doesn’t have the best image. A former Tallinn mayor once remarked that public transport was for children, the handicapped, and people too drunk to drive. But each year more and more Tallinners seem to abandon their cars for public transport, and the atmosphere aboard the bus grows a bit more similar to that of western cities. And there’s nothing like a blizzard to bring riders into closer quarters and the system under a loop.

Read the entire article here (on ERR).


Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Dinner Guest

“Daddy, why don’t white people eat carp?”

It was 1977 and my father and I were reclined on a riverbank, our lines in the water and hooks baited with corn.

“Dunno,” he said, taking up a bit of line slack with his reel. “The Chinese eat them. Maybe it’s an ethnic or a religious thing.”

Dad had been a carp fisherman for twenty years. He liked to catch them on a fly rod for sport, or lounge in the bankside shade, watching his young sons fight fish strong enough to pull them in the water.

“Why don’t we take one home and eat it?” I asked. We’d always just let the fish go, or occasionally we’d put several on a stringer and give them to black fishermen, who were always glad to get them.

“All right. But you have to clean it.” Dad was an avid hunter and fisherman who believed his children should understand where supermarket beef came from, and so whatever you killed, you had to clean it and eat it.

Cleaning such a tough-skinned and bony fish was no easy chore, but I managed and handed it off to mom, who added salt and baked it. We sat down to dinner. We chewed quietly.

“Dad,” I broke the silence. “I think I understand why we don’t eat carp.”

Mom made polite excuses and said that she might not know how to season it. Dad said it could be spiced to the hilt and you couldn’t escape the nasty bones. Mom wondered if black people didn’t deep fat fry it. My brother said maybe Asians liked the taste of mud. No, I argued, it was just a bottom-dweller completely unsuitable for consumption. Dad suggested we throw the fish away and go to a restaurant. We fought each other to be the first out the door.


“This is a product from our very own kolkhoz!” the hostess declared proudly, entering the room with a silver tray held high above our heads.

It was Christmas 1992 in Estonia. She placed the tray directly in front of me, the guest of honor. It was a five-kilo carp.

“You like carp, of course,” she said.

“Who doesn’t?” I managed. If there was one ironclad rule in my family it was that you never refused something offered when you’re a guest at the dinner table.

The Estonians’ mouths visibly watered. The host forked a huge serving on to my plate and then the family fought over who got the eyes.

I hadn’t expected Estonians to be carp eaters. The worst thing I’d encountered on an Estonian table was headcheese, which had an appearance and texture which could completely extinguish my appetite. Next to that on the fright index was tongue. I’d eaten it once in France, didn’t like it much there, but an Estonian had spoiled it permanently for me by removing the entire organ - including the long, more-disgusting part that runs down the cow’s throat - from a boiling pot and dropping it on my plate. I seem to recall that it writhed. Sea Devils were also frightening, but fortunately the fish was expensive enough that no one had ever served it to me. And then there were those alcohol-filled chocolates, which exploded in your mouth and liqueur ran down your chin and on to your shirt if you weren’t capable of swallowing the vile little treat in one go.

But I’m sure Estonians found some of my Canadian eating habits odd. Before I married Liina, I was able to enjoy an entire bag of Doritos-brand nacho-cheese-flavored tortilla chips at one sitting. I also liked to eat standing over the sink just to avoid getting a plate dirty. To save the work of cleaning a pan, I cooked hotdogs by letting hot water run over them in the bottom of the sink. And I was not unaccustomed to eating food directly from micro-waved bags. Cosmonaut food, as Liina calls it.

With the carp, my strategy was to eat slowly, ostensibly to savor every bite, but relying on the greed of my fellow diners to speedily consume the fish. I also dulled the taste of each bite with a mouthful of vodka, which my hosts interpreted as a positive sign. The carp on the platter quickly became only a skeleton, the others having taken seconds and thirds.

“How’s that fish? Good?” asked the hostess.

“Mmmmm,” I grunted, a thumb thrust in the air to express my approval. But these people knew no more about cooking carp than my mother, and the fish was just as muddy tasting as the one I’d tried to eat as a child.

“Well, you eat as slowly as you want,” she said, “because I’ve got another in the oven.”

Sometimes you just have to take the bullet.


Growing up in Scarborough — or Scarberia as we called it — it would be many years before I moved to the city and discovered that my mother was not in fact the best cook on earth and that the culinary traditions of my youth were not five-star.

And it would be many more years before I moved to Estonia, and even then I would never come to terms with refusing something I was offered. While it might be true that an Estonian will not take offense if you don’t eat carp, I could not have brought myself to say so at Christmas dinner in 1992. My hosts had surely gone to considerable inconvenience, if not expense, to offer me that fish, and I could not have insulted them by pushing away a plate.

It’s been years since I’ve been offered carp or bream (a rose by any another name…) in an Estonian home. The nation seems to have turned to salmon, tilapia, and even sashimi. Perhaps the carp are being exported to Russia, or perhaps they’re just finning quietly in the bottom of some muddy waterway, waiting to make a fashionable comeback.

Either way, I’m prepared for them. I’ll declare a unique devotion to another dish on the hostess' table (pasteet, for example). Or I’ll claim fish allergies. Or I’ll say it’s an ethnic, religious, or cultural thing. In fact, I’ll say, my culture requires me to go to the kitchen and eat standing over the sink.

This story recently appeared in the holiday magazine Jõulud.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Book Tour

I’d never done a reading before. The appeal that writing holds for me is that you do it sequestered, and you meet your public on the page, or in correspondence. But I was visiting my French writer friend Guillaume in Portland, Oregon, and he was doing a reading and asked me to take part. I wouldn’t have said yes if I hadn’t been drunk. He wouldn’t have asked if he hadn’t been drunk. But that’s how these things happen.

And so I found myself the opening act for Guillaume at the legendary independent bookstore, Powell’s City of Books. I hadn’t brought any books to sell, but Guillaume said that would be a plus: it would make me appear aloof and indifferent. “But my book isn’t even on the shelves here,” I’d protested the night before. “Think of them as sold out,” Guillaume slurred over the top of his umpteenth MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale. “Besides, I invited a bunch of Estonian friends.”

The next evening, I sat on a stool staring down a packed room of serious readers who had come to see Guillaume. A Powell’s worker, an not-quite-goth twenty-something with a pierced lip, dreadlocks, and a strand of concertina-wire tattooed around her wrist, droned through the introduction of me that Guillaume had given her to read. …Vello Vikerkaar is one of the most talented homosexual men writing on the topic of modern Estonia... There were a few chuckles, and I then understood why Guillaume had refused to let me proof what he’d written. He had mentioned only that he’d take care of me and that Powell’s customers had well-developed senses of humor.

Guillaume had insisted I read my essay, “Cock Ring Ken,” and to put all modesty aside I have to say the crowd approved. There was laughter in the right places, and the applause seemed sincere rather than perfunctory. Then the Powell’s worker announced I’d have time for a few questions.

“Where can we get your book?”

I held one dog-eared copy in my hands, the one I’d borrowed from Guillaume’s bathroom. “Amazon,” I replied, thrilled that things had gone exactly as Guillaume had predicted. I started to silently count heads, thinking what if every one of them bought my book. Oh, the whiskey I’d buy.

There was a second hand in the crowd.

“Do you know Justin Petrone?” She was a plain but still attractive blonde who added an extra syllable to Justin’s family name. Pe-tron-eh.

I said that I knew him.

“I really like his book. He’s a very funny writer.”

I said that I agreed.

“He was in Los Angeles on a book tour. I heard him read there.”

“Great.” I had no idea Justin was touring. A vision came to me of the smiling Italian-American at a table in front of his books stacked to the ceiling, a Sharpie marker in hand, and a line of fans running out the door. Estonians love Justin. If a foreigner is ever put on the cover of Kroonika for reasons other than drug smuggling or murder, Justin will be the one.

“Are you also on a book tour?”

“Well,” and I paused. I wondered if I should tell the truth, or if I had some sort of tacit obligation to keep up an image. Would Powell’s really want me to confess my book has the word “shit” in the title and is published in an obscure foreign language in a country with only two bookstores? And should I admit that my English-language book sells far, far fewer copies than Justin’s, producing revenues that could never hope to cover the cost of a book tour?

“Vello is touring with me,” Guillaume shouted from the crowd, saving me, but making it clear I was just an opening act.

“Well you should try to get Justin Petrone to come here,” replied the blonde, knowing the main act was listening.

Alone on the stool, I quietly reminded myself that not all opening acts suck. After all, Lou Reed opened for U2.

Then Guillaume took the stage and really saved me.

Later on the blonde cornered me. Her name was Tiiu, and she said she used to read my stuff online. “Used to?” She’d all but insisted I ask.

“You’re not always kind, Vikerkaar. You sometimes make fun of Estonians. I don’t think you should do that.”

“But I make fun of myself, too, sometimes, right?” I would hope that she’d at least grant me that.

“I like Justin Petrone and Abdul Turay,” she shrugged.

You can’t fault her honesty, that’s for sure. But I then understood why I haven’t done readings. Take Guillaume, for instance. His books aren’t bestsellers, but he’s a well-respected literary writer for whom the intellectual community will turn out to see. A documentary was recently made about him. He is asked to write for the big name glossies. But even he has horror stories from readings. He was once invited by an American university to read on campus, and nobody showed up to see him. Not one single person. He blamed the shitty weather, shrugged it off, and proposed to the hosting professor that the two of them go drink beer. “No,” said the professor. “We brought you all this way, and so you’ll read.” And so Guillaume had to sit on a stool in front of the professor and read to him in an empty room for a full hour, all the while constructing painful death scenarios for the asshole professor.

If Tiiu is any indication of an average book buyer, then I’m thinking what might be good would be for me, Justin Petrone, and Abdul Turay to go on a book tour together. Justin and Abdul could pay me a percentage of their book sales to appear with them, to play the role of darkness which makes lights around it appear brighter. And if things get too bad for me, if the suffering in the role of the group cynic grows too painful, Sami Lotila could be added as a fourth.

The lesson of all this is probably to stop drinking so I won’t agree to do stupid shit anymore. Or perhaps it’s to be kinder in print. I’m not sure which would be easier.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dispatch: America

Down in these parts they call it ‘merica. Not the United States. Not the US or the USA. Not even America. Merica.

Merica is the part of America that didn’t vote for Obama. It’s the heart of the Tea Party. Here dwell confederate battle flag-flying, Second Amendment-loving, concealed weapon-toting, God-loving, abortion-hating, WalMart-shopping, monster truck-driving, ballcap-wearing, fast food-eating XXXL behemoths.

In search of size-M clothing suitable for a barbecue, a Canadian-Estonian visits WalMart and encounters Mericans so overweight that they perambulate through the aisles in electric carts supplied by the store. Under the handlebars often rests a hydration station with a three-liter Big Gulp, standard serving size for all beverages except coffee, which is still legal to consume in one-liter servings.

At the suburban barbecue the guest excuses himself from a pile of ribs to go to the bathroom. Quietly, he opens his Merican host’s medicine cabinet. The labels read like Martian poetry:

Lipitor. Hydrocodone. Vicodin.

It’s all the explanation one needs for the power of the pharmaceutical lobby.

Prinivil. Synthroid. Levorthroid.

Adderall (the kids must share this bathroom). Hydroccet. Hycodan. Norco. Amoxicillin.

Is the Viagra in the nightstand drawer?

Zocor. Zithromax. Glucophage.

Chances are a member of the house suffers from high blood pressure, low blood sugar, diabetes, arthritis, high cholesterol, heart failure, or the inability to produce thyroid hormones. Or all of the above.

Xanax. Ambien. Alprazolam.

And depression. Pick-me-ups were prescribed 169 million times in Merica last year; twice more than anti-anxiety drugs. No wonder the host was smiling when he served the ribs. And so talkative.

Where you live? Sure, I’ve heard of it. It’s in Russia. You got football? Only soccer, huh? Well, that’s too bad.

For Mericans, as Professor Alfonse Stampanato has pointed out, there are only two places: Where they live and their TV set.

Like my big screen, do you? It’s HD. Thousands of channels. I got the porn blocked on this one though—heh, heh—since the kids can watch it. Bedroom set gets all the channels. You like Glenn Beck? You don’t get Fox News in Russia?

Programming fills airtime between the advertisements. Advertisements are poetry about pain relief, penile dysfunction, and dependency treatment facilities. And lines like “…Lipitor may cause suicidal tendencies…” are read slowly in grave tones.

He’s a warm host. And not ignorant about the part of the world which touches his business (he’s in sales). China and Brazil are the ones to watch. India, too. All coming on strong. Trade restrictions. Currency manipulations. Merica can’t compete if the towel-heads and slant-eyes won’t play fair.

Culture comes via Bluray, and lines from favorite movies are recited in turn by men surrounding the grill with Coronas in their hands.

I’ve got one word for you, son: Plastics.
Have a beer; don’t cost nothin’.
What we got here is a failure to communicate.
Badges? We ain't got no stinking badges!
Houston, we’ve got a problem.
Toga, Toga!

Howling laughter for Toga.

Liina sees that the party has split along gender lines, and so she takes her place among the womenfolk with their perfect dental work, frosted hair, and sweaters adorned with knitted strawberries or holiday themes.

The talk turns to how difficult it is to be white anymore. How a man can’t say the N-word without getting into trouble. Of course he shouldn’t, anyway. We’re better than that now. Nothing against blacks, of course. We’ve got one as president. Probably a Muslim, too. Light chuckling, as if it’s a joke everyone is in on. The host says he’s got a black neighbor. Nods all around to say I know whatcha mean.

The visitor offers that Tocqueville said slavery recedes but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immoveable.

Well, the host toes at the composite decking, we don’t watch a lot of European films.

The Baptists run this suburb says the host. Church of Christ runs the next one. They want to make the county dry which will mean a 50-mile drive to get Coronas. WWJD? someone asks. What Would Jesus Do? He’d shut up and drive the 50 miles, of course. I’ll drink to that, says the host. And they do.

Where’s that you’re from again? Oh, but you’re really from Canada? Why can’t you live in Merica?

Merica is under attack they inform. The uppity hippies two subdivisions away have banned leafblowers. Gas or electric, no matter. Banned. Just like that. First they took our healthcare. Now our leafblowers. Stay vigilant, fellas. Freedom is something you gotta fight for.

Everyone plans to vote. To do his part as a citizen. If you don’t vote you can’t bitch. It’s time to take back the country. They’ll take both the House and the Senate. And if they don’t they’ll filibuster.

What’s it like in a communist country? the host asks. For the first time, the guest has their full attention.

“God bless America,” says the guest. Amen to that! and the guest is clapped on the back by all.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Dying Breed

Estonia’s surliest coat-check woman works at the Tallinn children’s hospital where Liina takes little Robert to swim.

Every time I see the woman, she wears an expression as if she’d been waterboarded and sleep deprived by a team of CIA interrogators. If Liina tries to offer her coat from the right side of the desk, the old woman barks at her “Tulge teisele poole.” In this case, the “other side” is a distance of one-and-a-half meters down the very same counter. Because of my accent, I suppose, I am given a modicum of respect, which means that she will take my coat from whichever “side” but, as with Liina, she will not acknowledge anything I say to her. “Good afternoon” or “thank you” or “I once had a lover who looked exactly like you” are all met with her showing me her back.

Another place I know has a coat check manned by multiple women who, when in foul moods, routinely punish coat-seekers with lasers fired from their eyes. If you approach the woman responsible for check numbers 200 through 400 with check number 150 in hand, you risk having a trap door sprung beneath you, which will carry you away, your family never to hear from you again.

According to the scientific research I have personally conducted, Estonian museums, on average, have the grumpiest coat check women. Museums are a veritable repository for Soviet-era battle axes. The Kadriorg Art Museum is especially rich with them. I have been shouted at for putting my coat on an unauthorized rack, and I have witnessed the glee with which these women roam the floor near closing time, shooing you out the door.

Even the otherwise progressive KUMU is not immune. Once, before even reaching the coat check (whose attendants will win no prizes), I showed my press pass to see an exhibit. The desk attendant gave me a look as if I’d insisted she carry me around the museum all day on her back. “You’re supposed to call ahead!” she snapped. Since then, I’ve simply shut up and paid my money, since who visits a museum to have his mood spoiled? Perhaps in retribution, I have abstained writing magazine stories about museums. Of course this isn’t fair, and it only proves that I, too, can be capitally petty and therefore might make a fine coat check woman myself.

It has been explained to me that a coat attendant is perhaps the last bastion of the Soviet Union. She is a schveitser, or doorman, of sorts, a person in a rather insignificant role who is vested for a small time with disproportionate power. She may choose to take my coat or not take my coat. Once taken, she may choose to return my coat or not return my coat. And while in her possession, my coat may accidentally fall on to the filthy floor, the contents of the pockets may disappear, or a pack of wild dogs may shred the garment to rags. And none of this would be her problem.

An American friend of mine has a more healthy attitude toward these women. He treats each one as a puzzle to be solved or a code to be cracked. He will say or do anything until he gets the woman to smile. It may take two or three attempts, but my friend will always inspire one of these furies to at least roll her eyes. His toughest challenge and greatest triumph, a feat which I was privileged to personally witness, was a ticket seller at Tallinn's train station. Over a period of months, he had bought dozens of tickets and tried dozens of witty lines in the pursuit of making her smile. But to no avail. Finally, on a summer’s day, he ventured onto an overgrown vacant lot in the neighborhood and picked a bouquet of wildflowers. He returned to the station, approached her window, and fed two-dozen flowers, one at a time, through the tiny opening at the bottom of her window. This brought not only a smile, but shrieks of pleasure, and every other ticket seller stopped business for a moment to come stand behind her as she received the flowers.

My problem is that I have not progressed enough along the path to enlightenment to see these women as my friend does. I tend to personalize their behavior, not realizing that it is not directed at me, and perhaps not even directed at the world in general, but perhaps a simple function of the fact that they are doing a miserable, low-paying job, and on a given day perhaps their husbands have not been sufficiently kind to them in the morning.

Most of us are not zen masters, and we instinctively return the negative emotions we are presented with. Another friend, a writer based in Latvia, once published a story entitled “Selling Pisses at the Riga Station,” a supposed first-person account of the life of a bathroom attendant at the Riga bus station. It was stunningly well written and entertaining, but it did nothing to advance the cause of peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

Liina’s grandmother worked for a time as a coat check woman. She was an underfunded pensioner, and this was at least some income, as well as a place to go during the day. I never witnessed her at work, but I would like to think she took up the job with the same zest with which she went about the rest of her life, and that she was an exception to the rule in the coat check trade.

In her memory I’ve tried to make at least a first attempt to make coat check women smile. I am usually unsuccessful. Perhaps they sense insincerity? Perhaps they are too far gone for one pleasant remark to help? More often, the best I can do is keep my mouth shut and try not to return the emotions. Because there but for the grace of God go I. And because you never can know what I might be doing as a pensioner.

I suppose the future will put an end to these positions. Over the long-term, it will be far cheaper to have people put away their own coats.

“The coat-check woman with her singular nastiness is a dying breed,” one of my more cynical friends likes to exclaim. “And thank god for it,” he is quick to add.

But I think we’re going to miss them. With the same sort of nostalgia people express when they see that Soviet-era TV advertisement for chicken (“kana, kana, kana, kana, kana…”), or when a Zaporozhetz passes by on a city street, the coat check women are a unique part of the culture. And they are a daily reminder of the fleetingness of power and position. We may all be the worse when they are finally gone.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Onion Fair (без лука)

In the early 1990s, I heard a guy remark at a conference that Estonia offered a more sanitized, civilized way to experience Eastern Europe. “Like a drive-through zoo,” he said, “where you see the tigers from behind the safety of your car’s windshield. But in Russia,” he noted, “you have to actually climb into the cage with the animals.”

I thought he made a pretty good point that where tourism was concerned, Estonia offered a safe and secure way to taste the bizarreness of Russia. I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

This weekend, Liina, Robert, and I visited the Lasnamäe Onion Fair. I like Lasnamäe for its modern shopping centers, as well as for its tiny shops which aren’t much different than they were 20 years ago – you know, the kind which sell 80 varieties of vodka plus every kind of little seed or nut you can chew and spit on the ground. And so I thought the Onion Fair would be a little slice of Russia, picked up and re-planted behind the safety of my window glass.

The day began with promise, me practicing my language by shouting out the car window to some Russians. “Skazhitye pazhalyusta, gdye lukovaya yarmarka?” A man carrying a small child with a balloon pointed east and told us to follow the noise. Liina and I waved our thanks like goofy tourists, and I imagined a day with a dozen balalaika players singing songs with the words “maya tzerdse” or “a kakaya zhenshina” in every other chorus.

As we neared the noise’s source, I could make out the Estonian language over a loudspeaker. A song’s refrain rang “Du-du-dut-dumm.” Were we in the right place? But children were leaving the area carrying balloons, and how many festivals could there be on a single day in Lasnamäe?

Consumed by the spirit of things, we parked the car in a decidedly Russian fashion - paying no attention to street markings and hoping the parking police had been told to stand down for the day - and headed into the fair.

There were vendors selling sheepskins, bream, sausage, and goat cheese. A young woman in a booth dispensed literature about the health benefits of sea buckthorn in winter. Clean-cut young men at a booth marked UusMaa appeared to be counseling passersby on the benefits of life insurance. A very few onion vanikut hung from tent eaves, but there was no mad scramble to buy them.

“Izvinitye,” I hailed a woman behind a table stacked high with colorful plastic hair barrettes and other beauty accessories. “Gdye lukovaya yarmarka?”

“Siin samas!” she answered in fairly decent Estonian. Estonian? I craned my neck to look for language cops.

As I tuned my ear to the surroundings, I noticed no one was speaking Russian. The sea buckthorn sales pitch was in Estonian. Even the signs were in Estonian. There were no luka here at all. Only sibulad.

“I’m ready to go,” I announced to Liina. “There’s nothing of Russia here. It’s just some gariyachi estonski parni’s idea of Russia.”

Once, when shopping at a market in Kyiv, a middle-aged, heavyset woman stood behind her tomatoes and shouted, “I’m the ugliest woman in this entire marketplace, but I’ve got the best-looking tomatoes of all!” That was what I’d come to Lasnamäe to find: zhisn as lived by Russians. And the Russian dusha. All the Slavic emotions which cannot be had from a hospital-clean eurostate.

I wanted to see dark-eyed young men repairing wristwatches and calculators on top of overturned cardboard boxes. I wanted a line of women selling flower-print housedresses, sausage, and dried fish. I wanted pirated DVDs and CDs, like the rare copy of Eric Clapton’s Superbest I once discovered in a Moscow kiosk. But I got none of that in Lasnamäe. Someone had stolen my Little Russia and replaced it with ersatz.

“And now,” announced an Estonian voice from the stage. I looked up to find Erich Krieger. “Katyusha!”

I rushed forward to the improvised dance floor hoping to see veterans with medals pinned to their chests, who would sing of the grey steppe eagle and greetings from Katyusha. And babushkas, hair tied down with platki, who would sing of the bright sun and reach for the soldier on the far-away border. Instead, I found a small boy in black trackpants who kicked and gyrated as if he were having a seizure. Finally, two babushkas showed mercy and took the young man’s hands to form a circle of dance. An authentic khorovod perhaps, but it was too little too late.

I found Liina at the wig tent. She was trying on one with ears protruding from it which resembled exactly the mouse cap our four-month-old Robert wore. “You don’t wear wigs,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”

“They’re not wigs, you fool. They’re hats.”

“Ersatz!” I charged. “A real Russian market would sell wigs.” But either way my fun was ruined. If babushkas had poured from the concrete block apartment buildings, locked arms, and performed a prisyadki, it would not have been enough.

“Let’s go to the Baltijaam,” I pleaded. Liina knew that what ailed me could only be cured with a cheborek served from a kiosk with questionable hygienic standards. Or a few ounces of kvass dispensed from a trailer, served in a community glass, carelessly washed by an indifferent salesgirl. I needed the real Russia. Or at least more convincing ersatz.

“Okay, let’s go,” she agreed, but not before turning to the wig salesman. “Skolka stoit?”

“Nelisada,” he replied with a look in his eye like he sold them all day at that price.

Liina put the hat back on the table. “Come on,” she said loudly enough to be sure the salesman could hear. “I know a great wig shop at the Baltijaam.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Something Big

I’ve been jonesing for some travel lately. Even if it’s just an overnight trip to Helsinki or a couple nights in Rakvere, a change of scenery is nice – and necessary – especially as the dark and rainy season comes on.

But I haven’t traveled anywhere for almost a year. Compounding my frustration is Liina, whose sister just went to Toscana with a bunch of her girlfriends. “Why don’t we go to Toscana?” Liina asked. I haven’t answered, because I suspect it’s one of those rhetorical questions wives often pose, questions to which they don’t want answers but rather expect you to dream along with them. “What a great idea!” I’m meant to reply. “Why don’t we rent a cottage and spend the winter there!”

The real answer to The Toscana Question of course is that we can’t possibly afford it, that the mortgage won’t be paid off until I’m damned near 80 years old, and that any spare money we do have won’t be spent on trips to Italy, but rather to Canada so our son Robert won’t grow up thinking it’s a foreign country.

But when a man tries to answer such questions, it inevitably leads to ugliness, as he will not only disappoint the wife, he will conclude that his own income is unsatisfactory and, seeing limited future prospects, will suggest the wife get a second job. And none of that is what the wife had in mind when all she wanted was to dream out loud about a week spent in a warm climate.

So I’ve tried to learn to play along. To dream along without firm commitment. “Yes, dear,” I’ll say, “a week in Toscana would be grand. Think of the food, of life’s slow pace.” For a moment, I’ll even drift away myself, imagining a cigarillo with strong coffee and old men playing bocce ball in a sunny courtyard.

“You know,” she’ll say, edging the conversation toward reality, “the airline ticket to Toscana is only 3,000 kroons.” True enough, I’ll think. And then I’ll do my best to refrain from mentioning that two plane tickets would be 6,000 kroons, plus the airline- and fuel taxes they don’t include in the advertised price. And then there’s the rental car, the food, the hotel, and the shopping we’d do for things not available in Estonia. (And when you’re traveling, almost everything is not available in Estonia.) What my little voice is telling me is that we won’t get out of Italy for under 20,000 kroons. I’ll shut up and try not to remind Liina that our last “cheap” trip to India resulted in us returning with a carpet which cost more than both our plane tickets combined. And the carpet couldn’t even fly.

Sadly, when Liina dreams aloud, most of the time I spoil things for her by introducing harsh reality. Whether it’s a male trait or not, I don’t know, but I almost never learn. Liina each time will point this out, and then tell me to shut up and think more positively.

I’ve been working on that.

I recently read a New Yorker article about a group of men who live together in an eighteenth-century row house on C-Street in Washington D.C. What they all have in common is a love for Jesus. That, and they’re all American Congressmen. When one cheats on his wife, the others confront him with the teachings of Jesus, and everybody lives happily ever after. The residents of the house are a support group, and they’re connected both spiritually and financially to the weekly prayer breakfasts held in Washington. Some Estonian parliamentarians have attended these breakfasts, I know, and they’ve brought back positive reports.

One of the founders of the organization behind the C-Street house has encouraged those who have not yet found Jesus to “pray for something bigger than yourself,” so that when it happens you can’t take personal credit. He suggests praying for a continent, like Africa.

But having the rock star Bono on its side already, does Africa really needs Jesus? Assuming Africa can manage in the short-term, I’ve decided to pray for myself. And I am praying for “something big.”

I don’t yet know what this something big is, but I know that it will involve some travel (and not a budget trip to Toscana). I know that it will involve fulfillment, both spiritually and financially. And it will involve Liina, too. It might be that an American publisher discovers my book Pikk jutt, sitt jutt and it becomes a bestseller. As much a part of the book as anyone, Liina will also be flown first class to Chicago to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. We’ll then have enough money to import Polish workers to finish our house construction. Robert can have a part-time nanny which will give Liina more time for herself. We’ll get a second car, a little Toyota perhaps.

As I described this dream to Liina she made no effort to hide her disappointment. “That’s not big,” she fumed. “You get an audience with the Son of God and all you ask for is a Toyota Corolla?” She went on to remind me that if what we wanted was a middle-class existence, it would be as easy as picking up and moving back to Canada.

“Fine, I’ll ask Jesus to throw in a trip to Toscana,” I cracked. “Or two trips to Toscana.”

But of course Liina had a point. The boys on C-Street would not be impressed. Which is why I’ve decided not to pray only for my unambitious, boring self. Instead, I’m praying for Estonia.

I see a lot of potential Big Somethings for Estonia. And from what I’ve read about prayer, the more people who do it the better. So why don’t we all pray together, right here and now as you read this column? Given your probable lack of experience with prayer (if you're Estonian), I’ve taken the trouble to write a prayer you can simply read out loud:

Dear Jesus, this is [insert your name], and I’m contacting you from Vello’s prayer group in Estonia. I pray for my nation. I pray for a robust national economy based on original products and original ideas. I pray for a solution to the integration issue, for more ethnic Russians to knock the chip off their shoulders and start taking active part in making Estonian better; and for Estonians to show a bit more respect and to stop referring to them as “venka” and “tibla.” I pray for my politicians. I pray for Mr. Ansip to get over his public constipation, to lighten up, and be open to discussing new ideas. I pray for Mr. Savisaar to realize that everyone who’s not for him is not necessarily against him. I pray for Ms. Jänes to have the wisdom not to fix what isn’t broken. I pray for Mr. Lukas to understand that homosexuals are not freaks but people just like him only with better-fitting suits. I pray for my home. I pray for my family. I pray for my neighbors. I pray for something big. Something really big. In your name, Jesus, I pray. Amen.

You may be a bit skeptical. Perhaps you tried a motivational seminar, or maybe you read The Secret, and cash and happiness did not rain from the sky. But as the C-Street boys would ask, Have you tried Jesus? There’s absolutely nothing to lose. So if you didn’t read the prayer out loud, go back and do so. Go on. It doesn’t cost anything.

The weekend this column is published, let’s all pray together. On Saturday and Sunday, no matter what you’re doing, just pause now and again to think positive thoughts and dream about what you’d like to happen. Pray for something big. Pray for Estonia. And pray for yourself while you’re at it.

I’ll be praying for Estonia. Liina will be praying for Toscana. You’ll be praying for whatever, and together there’ll be a huge vibe of positive energy emanating from Estonia. According to The Secret, a positive thought is multiple times more powerful than a negative one, so even with Latvia next door, Jesus will hear our prayers. And think of the fun we’ll have this weekend, giving a sly smile to our neighbor knowing that we’re both praying. Praying for something big.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Multitask Me

Headline from The Onion: “Are you checking your email often enough?”

My friend Katrin recently showed me her Twitter. “I’m very careful, though,” she said, “whose tweets I receive.” I asked her how many friends she has whose messages she receives. “Sixty,” she replied, but explained how a tweet can come from far, far away. “Most of the time they’re citing someone else’s tweet.”

Katrin got me counting. She runs a fairly large organization, and in addition to following sixty tweeters, I guestimated that on an hourly basis she also gets several text messages and at least several phone calls. She has a Facebook account, uses both Skype and MSN Messenger. Add to that three or four daily newspapers plus whatever news she follows online. Then there’s television and radio—she’s almost always listening to public radio. Whatever it all sums to, the amount of information she is receiving and sending on a daily basis is rather frightening. She’s a real multitasker, the type of person the modern world rewards. “Can you even walk and chew gum at the same time?” my mother used to chide me. Well, Katrin certainly can.

Now consider the novelist Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is so unimpressed with multitasking I doubt he’d even deign to use the word. In a recent interview with Time magazine, he remarked:

"We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we've created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world."

So that Franzen can engage productively in this scary and unmanageable world, he has created an environment which is the antithesis of Katrin’s. He not only has no internet, but he has removed temptation, as well. "What you have to do," Franzen told Time, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it."

At about the same time Katrin was trying to convince me of how cool Twitter is, my friend Mingus sent me an article somewhat vindicating Mr. Franzen’s world view. Scientists have discovered that the faster we shift between pieces of information, the less sense we can make of any of it.

They say there’s a region of the brain called the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex (pLPFC) which is a routing hub for inputs. If information comes in too quickly the pLPFC bottlenecks—queuing some of the info and ignoring the rest—and the routing hub slows down. This means multitasking is a case of diminishing marginal returns. The more information you pile on in short bursts, the less you get to keep.

I suppose Katrin would argue that’s why she only receives the tweets of 60 friends—you gotta draw the line somewhere. And the shape of Katrin’s head seems normal: I see no swelling of her pLPFC.

When Katrin mentioned sixty friends, my first thought was not their tweets, but the number sixty. I don’t know if I even have sixty friends. If I expand it to acquaintances, then perhaps. But one thing I’m damned sure of: I don’t have sixty friends or acquaintances all of whom have something intelligent to say on a daily basis. Even the world’s better columnists can only manage a few hundred good words per week. Out of curiosity, I did the math and determined that if I tweeted my column in a tweet’s outer bound of 140-character installments, then it would take me two weeks to get it done. So maybe Katrin’s tweeting friends aren’t so vacant after all. Perhaps they’re simply fond of the serial?

Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but too much information makes me want to stock up on Early Times bourbon and push the furniture against the wall. Even without Twitter, I have enough trouble receiving information. The biggest transmitter of information around me is my four-month-old son, Robert. All day long, even when sleeping, he sends and receives tweets. At first I suspected him of being an alien, making constant transmissions to the mother ship. Lately, I’m favoring the theory that he’s mimicking the sound the coffee pot makes.

What Robert has helped me realize is that I’m capable of receiving only a finite amount of information. The addition of Robert means the subtraction of other inputs in order to stave off the Early Times purchase. I still welcome print editions of Postimees, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books into my home, and I get a regular shipment of books from Amazon. All that is plenty. I’ve shut down the invasive Skype and Facebook, and I try to answer the phone only at reasonable hours, selecting a certain part of each day to devote to returning calls. We’ve killed our TV, too. Or, rather, we chose not to follow when the country went digital. Now it just sits there, taking on a kind of significance like the decaying Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.

My wife Liina is also anti-Twitter (“Reading about everyone else’s lives I don’t understand when you have time for your own”), but ironically she still wants a digibox. If she wants to pay for it and install it, then I’ll be pleased to watch a few of the TV programs I like.

But in the meantime I’m enjoying the silence. I’ve got a stack of books I’m working my way through, though Robert tends to interrupt often, forcing me to digest them in 140-character bursts. All this has made me realize that Jonathan Franzen is right. In the 21st century, taking someone to that “place of stillness,” or getting and holding a human being’s undivided attention will have the significance of America’s 1969 moonshot.

So if you’ve opened the newspaper, begun reading, and reached this point in my column, then, you’ve spent about seven minutes in a twitter-free place of stillness. I’m flattered, of course. But, more importantly, how do you feel?

Help Liina buy a digibox.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Watching Clifford Levy

Whose day was it to watch Clifford Levy?

It was June, 2010, and the New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief was visiting Tallinn’s Pae Gymnasium.

Levy reported that Estonia, “...a small former Soviet republic on the Baltic Sea, has been mounting a determined campaign to elevate the status of its native language and to marginalize Russian, the tongue of its former colonizer.”

Fair enough, I thought, until I read this gem of a sentence, “In Estonia, 30 percent of the 1.3 million people speak Russian as a first language, and the government seems bent on employing the schools to lower that figure.”

I wondered if that might have been a lazy sentence. “First language,” after all, is defined as the language someone learns from birth, and a first language serves as the basis for sociolinguistic identity. Perhaps Levy meant the state was out to lower the number who speak Russian as “first language in the workplace”? But papers like the Times have copy editors to weed out lazy sentences.

I wondered if Levy truly thought the Estonian government was plotting to use the schools to reduce the number of people who speak Russian as a first language. Does he believe (and do Russians in Russia and Russian-speakers in Estonia believe) that speaking Estonian in the workplace (and marketplace and post office) endangers the Russian language?

I’ve read some about the Soviets’ efforts to relegate the Estonian language to kitchen status. I’ve been told that once a language becomes a kitchen language, then soon all it’s good for is “Pass the butter.” But while that might have been a worry for Estonians, it doesn’t really stand to reason that it could be a worry for Russians. After all, what about the 142 million Russians right next door, the 285 million Russian-speakers worldwide, and the enormous cultural machine which feeds them all? But what I believe matters far less than what Russians believe. And it also matters less than what the New York Times believes.

What I can agree with in Mr. Levy’s article is that yes, for a variety of reasons on a variety of levels, Estonians don’t always make it easy for foreigners to learn or speak Estonian. The Times could have confined its article to that issue, but they chose, for whatever reason, to add a hint of intrigue and conspiracy. Certainly no malice was involved. Mr. Levy may simply be victim to the inherent disadvantages of reporting on Estonia from Moscow. Still, it was a lazy sentence.

Generally, with great newspapers like the Times, what slips past the copy editors and fact checkers doesn’t make it past the readers. My guess is that Levy’s errant sentence would have earned Estonia some op-ed space in the Times, though perhaps I was the only one to make much of the sentence. The country, as far as I could tell, chose to let Levy’s remark pass.

Perhaps an unfair analogy, but I wondered whether Estonia’s football fans would be so passive if their national team let an attacker run all over the field unmatched by any defender. The national team may not be a serious contender for the World Cup, but at least they show up for the games. At least they try to cover their man. So who’s covering Levy? Which PR flack or government official is supposed to be helping him understand the Estonian position?

Expressing my dismay to an Estonian political scientist, she postulated that Estonians somehow believe that “in the end the truth will come out.” An interesting theory, certainly, if only for the reason that it casts Estonians as optimists in the face of a history ripe with instances where the truth did not come out, came out too late, or the historical narrative was simply authored by another party. Or the worst: instances when the truth came out, but nobody in the world really gave a damn.

The Times visited Tallinn again in August, this time covering gray passport holders. Levy quoted a heartsick Russian film producer who had “…done a whole lot for my country” (Estonia) but whose country “has not done a whole lot for me.” I’m sure Mr. Levy presented the story as he saw it, but my overactive imagination couldn’t help but wonder if a western reader would see the film producer as a proxy for the ethnic Russian community in Estonian, a community, as the narrative would go, which makes a substantial and visible contribution yet is still rebuked? I wanted to know what had the film producer done for his country? Had he served in the army? Joined the ranks of TeachFirst? Had he taken part in Let’sDoIt Estonia’s nationwide trash cleanup? Was he actively involved in civic organizations or government? Or did he only go to work and pay taxes, like most of the rest of us?

Then the article drew comparisons to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. Another opportunity, I thought, to make the case for op-ed space for Estonia. But, alas, no. As far as I could determine, Estonians chose to remain silent yet again.

From what I can find in the Times archive, Mr. Levy has written only two stories on Estonia, but they both come from the same mold. The simple protagonists are oppressed by an indifferent state. They are sentimental, kind-hearted souls who want to make better lives for themselves and those around them. They want only to be understood. Were Hollywood to get hold of them, there would be many teary departure scenes with locomotives in steamy stations, and full orchestras would be employed for sound tracks.

It worries me that Mr. Levy doesn’t seem to know anyone in Estonia. In his August 15th story, he quoted President Ilves, though it was a recycled quote from an interview Ilves gave to a Russian newspaper. I don’t know how it is with President Ilves but, in general, Estonia has prided itself on having accessible politicians, and the president of the republic has been no exception. I wondered whether Messrs. Ilves and Levy had dined together.

The real problem, however, is not that Mr. Levy doesn’t know Estonia. The problem is that Estonia doesn’t know Mr. Levy. If Estonia wants empathy, or even more fair and balanced stories, the first step is getting acquainted: Our Mr. Levy must become our Cliff. And though the nation might flatter itself by thinking Mr. Levy might make the effort himself, as a small nation, it is incumbent upon Estonia to take the first step and extend an invitation.

But if no one else wants to dine with Clifford J. Levy, then I’m happy to do so. I have already checked his Facebook page and can see that with a degree or two of separation we have common acquaintances. In the digital age, we are practically brothers.

Personally, were I King of Estonia I’d settle things with Mr. Levy and the Kremlin the easy way. (Now that was a lazy sentence.) I’d give all the gray passport holders citizenship. It’s only seven percent. Astute readers will point out that that’s not my right, yours is not my history, and as a foreigner I should just shut the hell up. And the reader would be partly right. The problem is there are plenty of foreigners who won’t shut the hell up, and Mr. Clifford J. Levy is among them. He’s just doing his job, of course. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Estonia tried to help him out by making an effort to set the record straight.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tourist Bashing

Opening season for tourist bashing begins each year in May. Snow recedes, the sun appears and warms our bones, and in our heads dance visions of an Old Town packed tightly with white-shoed American retirees closely trailing guides with their numbered signs thrust high in the air. Well, maybe it doesn’t dance in your head. But it does in mine, since almost every year I celebrate the cruisers’ arrival by penning a tribute, chronicling, for example, a senile band of Americans trying too hard to make friends in an Estonian café.

Soon after my column, the Estonian journalists join in, and the first article appears in a local newspaper bemoaning the arrival of the cruiser tide, lamenting how 4,600 tourists can roam the city at any given time without a single one of them actually opening his wallet. The American-dominated tribe wanders the Old Town streets for half a day before returning to their great white ships to sail for sunny St. Petersburg where, presumably, they leave the money that was by all rights ours to take in Tallinn.

“You'd think,” wrote Postimees’ Uwe Gnadenteich in June of this year, “that their arrival would give the economy a shot in the arm, but the majority of the thousands of predominantly retired cruise tourists don't even spend a cent during their day in town." Restaurant keepers bellyached that the cruiser, at best, bought only a cup of coffee, and then only because he wanted a place to rest his legs. Then followed a long, long list of what the cruiser will not buy.

But then this year, livening things up in the comments box was a poster calling himself Heh, who summed things up this way: “What could they buy here? They can get matryoshka dolls for half the price at their next stop." And, I might add: wool socks or sauna hats or juniper butter knives or sweaters or paintings of three-masted schooners made from tiny pieces of amber. Heh’s succinct summation reminded me of Navin R. Johnson, Steve Martin’s character in the movie The Jerk who sells souvenirs at a traveling circus. Johnson stands next to his wares and shouts at passersby: “Step right up and buy some crap!”

How dare these cruisers exit our city with anything left in their wallets? How dare they not purchase the many distinctive Estonian souvenirs such as matryoshka dolls and amber cigarette holders? The gall!

A friend of mine, who worked as a guide until he was fired for encouraging an American tourist to urinate on a Toompea street, thinks of the cruisers in a different light: He’s of the opinion they leave something behind other than empty water bottles. Have the ships, he asks, not paid a handsome fee to dock? And do the cruisers not support a small industry of bus drivers, students and off-season English teachers who serve as tour guides? And what about the bicycle rental business? Or even our reptilian taxi drivers? But all this counts for nothing in the press. We cast the octogenarian cruisers as Viking hordes, torches in hand, advancing on the Old Town for a little scorched-earth fun. (And note the plural: I am guilty, too.)

My friend suggests EAS’s tourism division should think of cruisers as Estonia’s wet dream target market. The cruisers are extremely financially successful, well-educated white people, who have limitless time on their hands. They generally do not have drinking problems—or if they do, you can rest assured they’re not swilling the rotgut Finnish tourists choose. The cruiser will knock back a decent bottle of wine or cognac, and he’ll do it with his feet propped up in a hotel the caliber of the Telegraaf. While he has no interest in buying a two-meter, St. Nicholas wool hat which warms your head and still wraps five times around your neck, when presented the right environment, the cruiser is more than happy to spend.

So why haven’t we started to think of cruisers as the greatest opportunity yet for our tourism sector? They leave their ship to enter the Old Town and be dazzled by one of the world’s most impressive and charming medieval settings. They’re doing more than taking snapshots: they are willingly subjecting themselves to what is literally a six-hour interactive advertisement for Tallinn. The low-hanging fruit of the tourism industry is generally thought to be Finns. But maybe the cruisers warrant additional thought.

At least once every summer some friends of my parents arrive via the cruise boats. I wait beyond the schlagbaum for them to walk the length of the pier, where I escort them into town to drink a few cups of coffee and tell them tales of Tallinn. “You’re really lucky to live here,” they always exclaim. And they mean it, too. And I’d argue that my parents’ friends are fairly representative of the half-million cruisers who spend a day in Tallinn. I guided a few cruiser busloads one season, and with the exception of the one or two who thought they were too special to be seated with common cruisers, talking to cruisers was about like chatting with my parents. They’ve worked hard all their lives, and they’ve earned some money that they want to spend before they’re too old to do much anything else but wear Depends adult undergarments, drool on themselves, and stare blankly at a too-loud television.

So what do we offer to make them want to come back independently where they really will spend money? Here we may trot out the usual debate about quality of service and the pros and cons of following behind the raised umbrella of a 60-year-old guide with her monotone patter of historical dates and other sleep-inducing facts. (Though this problem has been solved. Take one of the Blue Drum company’s more unorthodox tours. Full disclosure: I’ve led these tours.) But the point is not what we show them, but rather how we receive them. They can see very little of Tallinn in a half-day tour, but they can see enough to make them want to come back.

If I were King of Estonia or Tallinn’s Czar or Mayor—or even just a journalist dispatched to chronicle the tightwad cruisers—I might put some thought into how best to mine the cruisers’ potential. We have no need to try to woo people in tourist fairs throughout Europe, and we don’t need campaigns touting how positively surprising we are. We only need to warmly shake the hands of those 5,000 tourists per day who disembark the cruise vessels for a pleasant stroll around our town.

They’re too sophisticated to fall for the fake medieval village trick with a cheesy market at the port. And they got over buying logoed shot glasses, baby spoons, and other shit-on-a-stick when they were teenagers. All that’s left to woo them with is a good story told by a remarkable storyteller.

For my own part, I’ve decided to stop making fun of them. I promise to not mention in my column that some of them are overweight, loud, and completely ignorant of even their own country’s history. If we want them to come back and leave all their money, then we’ve got to learn to love them. Though, as the Annie Lennox song goes, it’s a thin line between love and hate.

No, before anyone asks, I have no idea why all of my stories are in a different font.
Feed Vello here.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Going Local

I finally had enough of the heat and shaved my head. The mop of hair you see in my columnist’s photograph is quite comfortable in December, but in 30-degree temperatures I resemble a perpetually-sweaty rockband roadie, which makes both Liina and visitors to the house nervous.

For years, Liina has tried to convince me the shaved look is in style, though I’m not sure where except Eastern Europe (and prisons and army boot camps the world over). But I have to admit it’s comfortable to feel the wind and sun on your scalp. And there’s the added benefit of knowing you’ve, at least temporarily, given up the fight to cover your bald spot, something most western males spend half their lives in pursuit of.

Last week, I had to put on a necktie for a meeting, and I ended up in the Tornimäe district around five o’clock. Other similarly-clad bald professionals were filing out of their offices and for a few hundred meters I felt part of some sort of grotesque parade, all of us on the way to tram stops or parking lots.

“Hey, Vello,” someone shouted, and I turned around to find my French-author friend Guillaume who returns summers to Estonia to write prose and chase prostitutes.

“How’d you recognize me?”

“Because your head is shaped like a banana.”

Which is actually true, and it’s a comment people have made even when I had a full head of hair.

“I kind of thought I blended in this way,” I said, scratching my dome.

Guillaume said I blended in more than before, but still not much. “I can see you’re trying to go local,” he noted. “But it will never work. I will always look like a Frenchman, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And you, my friend, will always look like an American.”

“I’m Canadian.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

Guillaume had once told me a story about how he tried to go local when he lived in New York. He got the Wall Street haircut, the Brooks Brothers suit, the Church’s English shoes, and he learned to vertically fold the New York Times in the way of New Yorkers so it could be read while riding the subway. “Though there were two things I would not do,” he said, “the warning signs of when someone has stepped over the line.” These were owning a pair of black cowboy boots and to the desire to begin sentences with My shrink says… “I swore to myself that if I ever was tempted toward one of those two, I would get the hell out of New York."

Guillaume believes there are danger signs for foreigners in Estonia, too, like getting a Caesar haircut or spending huge sums on a sports car in a country where there’s no place to drive it.

“I’ve never had a Caesar,” I defended.

He looked at my bald head. “Whatever.”

As far as I can tell, no one has mistaken me for an Estonian. It isn’t just about the bald head or the clothing you put with it. Foreigners could be outfitted to look Estonian by an anthropologist and an expert from the Estonia Theatre’s wardrobe department, and they still wouldn’t look Estonian. We even walk differently. Americans, in my opinion, walk like gunslingers. Arms at their sides, they tend to walk down the middle of the sidewalk, as if they were on their way to meet their adversary at High Noon. Russians, when they’re not squatting somewhere with a cigarette or leaning against a Benz showing off their bling, have a similar way of walking. But while an American will duck out of your way and mutter an excuse-me, a Russian is more typically oblivious to your presence: as far as he knows, he is the only one on the sidewalk. Italians are a moving carnival, from their colorful shoes to their printed tshirts and the multiple conversations which orbit them as they move down the street, every one of them chattering away simultaneously. And Estonians are often the quiet bald guys who have a characteristic way of melting into the wallpaper to be strategically inconspicuous. Although he’s there listening, recording things like a court reporter, you don’t notice him unless he speaks up. An exception is the supermarket, of course: an Estonian with a shopping cart is all over the place. With shopping carts or automobiles, he’s a demolition derby driver.

So if people don’t think I’m Estonian, then what am I? “Well, there’s the obvious cancer patient thing,” said Guillaume, before adding that I appeared to be more a foreigner who was experiencing his midlife crisis in Estonia. “I see a lot of that sort in strip clubs,” he said. “Fifty years old, married with kids, and thinking that stuffing kroons in a girl’s G-string is the high point of living.”

“And you’re different?”

“I’m there to meet the girls and bone them,” he replied, with zero hint of irony. “For most of the others, the whooping and dollar throwing is the climax. I have a higher purpose.”

I’ve always respected Guillaume for his bald honesty. He believes what he believes and makes no apologies for it. Much like Priit Pullerits, who I saw in a recent Postimees is on his horse again about Estonian women and foreign men. Even though I may not always agree with him, I admire that Priit is bound so closely to his set of beliefs, and I’m pretty sure you’d not get Priit to shave his head (or wear a Caesar, for that matter). I don’t think Guillaume and Priit would agree on too many things, but I do think they’d respect each other at a certain level. And, luckily, Guillaume isn’t a threat to take Estonian girls out of the country, if only because most of the strippers nowadays tend to be from Ukraine or Belarus.

By the time this piece is published, my hair will have grown out a couple of centimeters and Guillaume will say I look like my chemo is over. Liina will tell me that the style is to keep it shaved. But it’s my hair, isn’t it? And if I want to parade around town looking like I just stuck my hand in an electrical socket then that’s nobody’s business but my own. At least I won’t be aping anyone. I’ll be firmly in a transitional phase, on my way to only-I-know-where.