Saturday, January 23, 2010

Folk Dancing

“How can you write that shit?” The man was seated next to me on an Estonian Air flight to Copenhagen. He thought we’d been double seated, asked to see my boarding pass, and identified me as Vikerkaar. “I’m a Canadian Estonian, too, you know,” he said, “and I’ve never heard of anyone with a name as silly as yours.” The foreign Estonian’s name was Taivo, and he had the aisle seat. I was completely blocked in.

The issue of my silly name aside, what “shit” was he talking about? I’ll admit some of my columns are better than others. But shit?

“You know,” Taivo shoveled half a bag of peanuts into his mouth, “how you write about poisonous mushrooms, your neighbor’s house on fire, and singing prostitutes.”

Oh. That shit.

I put my seat in its most reclined position and gave him the answer I give all foreign Estonians with that complaint: “You mean how do I ignore the fact that in reality Estonia is a perfect nation where the sun shines every day, children sing, and lovers picnic in the grass?”

“What I’m saying, smartass” — he shoveled the other half of the bag in his mouth and two peanuts tumbled back onto his lap — “is that you shouldn’t write what you write. You should only write about the good things in Estonia.”

He could have stopped there and let me finish for him. It’s the speech about the duty we all have to promote Estonia and help the poor little country on her way. As if the nation is populated by 1.3 million children, and we foreign Estonians with our superior education and sensible world view have a duty to help them grow up right. Then comes a tirade about I shouldn’t be allowed to publish what I write, that someone ought to censor me. Foreign Estonians are a sensitive lot. Far more so than Estonians who were born and raised here.

A journalist I know who writes for an international news magazine has said privately that foreign Estonians are only interested in reading about folk dancing. Judging by the number of times I’ve been cornered on airplanes or in public bathrooms to discuss my columns, I kind of think the journalist might be right. I mean, really. How can I write that shit?

Of course many foreign Estonians actually aren’t that bad. Many actually do have well-developed senses of humor. Many of them — except for a few living out some sort of eurofantasy by smoking stinky Gauloises held in foot-long amber cigarette holders — are much like you and me. But there are still too many who act as corporals of society and administer a full-time self-improvement course to the rest of us.

These include those who have accused me of being a shill for Moscow. Part of the evidence cited for this is how the Finnish Stalinist columnist, Leena Hietanen, has interpreted my words (“Vikerkaar says that the worst crimes of the Soviet Union were that it was cold in Siberia and that bananas did not grow there…”). Sentient beings who have read Ms. Hietanen’s full essay will reach the conclusion that she doesn’t understand enough English (or Estonian) to have any clue what I’ve written.

But to address Ms. Hietanen’s accusation, I can place my hand on a Bible and testify that Moscow has not yet approached me. But should I have any secret admirers in the Kremlin, then I have nothing against them paying to reprint my columns in Russian or even sending me a suitcase full of money. There’s nothing like a visit from the muse in the form of cash.

Recently, I was sent a letter circulating in the Estonian-American community, in which I was identified as a “controversial figure.” Personally, I fail to see the controversy. I write. Some read. Some like it. Some don’t. End of story.

A professional psychiatrist – or my mother – might offer a clearer diagnosis, but it seems to be that the foreign Estonian community is beset upon by the disease of having too little to do. I was once told a joke about how foreign Estonians were screwed twice by the Soviet Union: first when Estonia was occupied and they were given their “foreign Estonian” identity, and again when Estonia got its independence and the identity was taken away.

Foreign Estonians in the community of Scarborough where I grew up were always an interesting sight. I was the only one of my friends who had an interest in singing and dancing (real Canadians played hockey), and for some reason I had no qualms about wearing our rather ridiculous native costumes to school. It’s a wonder I didn’t get beat up.

When I got a little older, a friend and I started the ELO, which we had to remind people was not the Electric Light Orchestra but the Estonian Liberation Organization. We had t-shirts printed up that read Vaba Eesti Eest ("For Free Estonia"--we weren’t sure if this was grammatically correct) and met regularly with our schoolmates to plot a D-day like invasion of Estonia’s west coast.

We practiced the Estonian language as a group, reciting lines to use when we landed:

Tere. Oleme kanadast. (Hello. We're from Canada.)
Oleme teie sõbrad. (We're your friends.)
Kus on venelasi? (Where are the Russians?)

We drilled in hand-to-hand combat before turning back to the language:

Me toome vabadust. (We bring freedom.)
Liituge meiega! (Join us!)
Oleme sõjaväelased. (We are soldiers.)

Then we broke to eat some sausage boiled in beer, which we were convinced was how real Estonians prepared it. I can’t say all the language we learned was useful, but at least, we hoped, real Estonians would understand us when we landed near Pärnu:

Me armastame eestimaad. (We love Estonia.)
Mis on teie koordinaadid? (What are your coordinates?)
Teised tulevad meile järgi. (Others will follow.)

So with all I gave to Estonia in my youth, I wonder if I really deserve to be cornered on airplanes? Where was Taivo when I was making plans to liberate the country? Judging by his demeanor and the faded tattoo on his forearm, he was busy getting a spike through his tongue and smoking cigarettes behind the school with other waste cases. But none of his lazy past mattered now. Now that he’d arrived to save the country. Unfortunately, I was in his path. And he wanted me to give him folk dancing.

British writer Mike Collier has described stories of that ilk this way: “…those godawful ‘aren’t-they-amusing-and-rather-Ruritanian’ travelogues written by people from the Sunday supplements who think patronising sarcasm extended for long enough eventually forms a kind of insight.” Yes, folk dancing.

What I have the most trouble with is Taivo’s idea that we’re all somehow acting as little ambassadors for Estonia. Personally, I’d be rather uncomfortable speaking on behalf of Estonia, especially when I would be at a complete loss trying to explain many actions by parliament and the Tallinn city government alike. But even scarier than me speaking for Estonia would be giving my new friend Taivo the job. As Taivo sees it, if we dropped a few hundred colorful postcards out of an airplane window, then all our problems would be solved. Taivo would give us feature films, novels, magazines, and newspapers—all about folk dancing.

I think it would all be simpler if we all just spoke for ourselves. I don’t speak for Estonia. I speak only for me. And sometimes not even that.


Read it in Postimees.