Thursday, December 30, 2010
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Saturday, October 9, 2010
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
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Saturday, July 31, 2010
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.”
“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.