Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Ketchup Curtain

“You vant ketchup?” Sergei asks, positively glowing in the light of Old Town’s newly-remodeled hipster McDonald’s. Actually, I do want ketchup but not enough to pay for it, so I take my fries without. It’s just too humiliating to pay for ketchup. Because there is nothing which says We don’t trust you, you dirty Eastern European more than McDonald’s selling ketchup. It’s like letting them spit in our faces every time we eat there. Nowhere in the developed world that I’m aware of does McDonald’s sell ketchup. In Helsinki, you can take as much as you want. And they don’t even hide it behind the counter.

I’ve often wondered what McDonald’s thinks I would do with free ketchup. Would I take two thousand packages, open each individually over a sheet-metal funnel in below-zero temperatures, and bleed them for their alcohol to make samogan? Or do they think I’d steal enough to fill a bowl, dilute it with water, and make ketchup soup, the dietary mainstay of American heroin addicts and poor college students too proud to donate blood plasma? What exactly does McDonald’s think? (I wrote them with that very question, but they didn’t reply.)

In 1992, I was invited by a visiting foreign Estonian to dine in Tartu’s Püssirohokelder restaurant. At the time, it still had its Soviet doorman who looked you over to decide whether he would deign to let you in and pay for the food that paid for his salary. We were allowed in, ate a meal that was probably the best you could get in Tartu in those days, suffered through the obligatory varietee show, and finally were presented the bill by the tuxedoed waiter. Jüri, the foreign Estonian, glanced over the check as one would do anywhere in the world, just to make sure it bears resemblance to what you ordered. Eyes halfway down the check, Jüri smiled broadly, laughed, and summoned the waiter. “Butter?” Jüri asked. “You’ve put butter on the check.”

“Yes,” harrumphed the waiter. “Butter.”

“You are charging me for butter?”

The waiter said he was and by the look on his face he saw nothing strange about it.

“Just to be clear,” Jüri confirmed, “you’re charging me for butter?”

“You had butter on your bread.”

“I also put salt and pepper on my food and had sugar with my coffee, but I don’t see those on the check.”

The waiter stared at his shoes. He’d indeed been bested by logic but had no answer for it other than that’s the way things had always been.

Jüri paid the bill, and we walked into the night air discussing how long it might take for things to change enough where restaurants wouldn’t be charging patrons for butter. As far as I know, nobody charges for butter anymore, but I don’t think either Jüri or I could have imagined that almost twenty years after independence, McDonald’s would still be charging for ketchup.

My wife Liina and I often have the discussion about when Estonia will stop being thought of as an Eastern European nation. It won’t likely happen in our lifetimes, but it someday surely will. Norway was once considered a festering backwater, and I can remember having Norwegian friends in the 1970s who had emigrated to Canada to seek better lives. Around the same time period, Finland had such a low standard of living that its citizens were pleased to live elsewhere in Europe. And now it’s Estonia’s turn to rise from the ashes and build a genuine economy which isn’t based on buying and selling real estate to each other. It may be harder to do without Norway’s oil, natural gas, and coal, or Finland’s timber-related industries, but I believe Estonia will do it. If I didn’t, I’d get the heck out of Dodge. There may be no shame in poverty, but it’s definitely not much fun.

I’m not so sure there’s much more Estonia can do as a nation to accelerate growth, which is, once the incentives and structure are put in place by government, largely an organic process. While we have the groundwork laid, what many Estonians lack is a worldview similar to that of their wealthy neighbors. Finland, Sweden, and Norway, arguably having been spared some of Estonia’s ugly history, simply see the world through a different prism. While I don’t know if Estonia will be among Europe’s five richest anytime soon, I don’t believe it will linger long among Europe’s poorest. Estonia’s fix will be a generational fix, and the fruits of a truly free society are already noticeable on public transportation. While the older generation often sits silent, heads locked forward and frowning, the younger generations leap about and talk as excitedly as a busload of Canadians on their way to a hockey match. They seem to be energetic little optimists, and it’s a joy to know they’ll one day occupy the seats of government.

Part of Estonia’s problem, of course, is Russia, and by this I don’t mean Russia’s schoolboyish need to torment Estonia. The problem is Russia’s reputation as a feudal society. “CIA Believes Russian Scientists Have Discovered the Technology of Fire,” read a satirical newspaper headline in the early 1990s. Funny, yes, but it’s also a fairly accurate portrayal of how the world views Russia: a bassackwards place full of peasants who shit where they eat, and corruption so endemic that even native Russians themselves can lose their way trying to figure out who to bribe.

Recently, Russian banker Vladimir Antonov—who wants to own Saab (and probably will own it one way or another)—lamented about that reputation in the New York Times: “It is obvious that European business has strong prejudices against investors from Russia. There is a fear of Russia itself, of the increase of the influence of Russian businesses in the international market place.” Antonov then called on Europe and the world to “trust Russian business.” Trust is probably too much to ask, but Antonov does have a point about how the world sees Russia.

President Medvedev has publicly recognized Russia’s image problem, and so maybe Russia will do something about it. What exactly is hard to say. It’s not like even a well-financed Welcome to Russia advertising campaign would do much good. But if Russia is able to improve its image a bit, then Estonia will surely benefit. Despite Estonia’s EU- and NATO membership, much of the world doesn’t differentiate between Estonia and Russia (does McDonald’s?), and Estonia will benefit from any improvement in Russia. Maybe Medvedev can make the world stop seeing Russians as only either oligarchs or serfs. Probably not, but even a small improvement would be good for all of us.

In the meantime, though, while we’re waiting for Russia to solve her problems, and while we’re trying to leave the future generations a decent structure they can use to build the Estonian Nokia, I think the folks at McDonald’s could end the humiliating practice of charging for ketchup in Estonia.

Tartu’s Püssirohokelder long ago stopped charging for butter. The cafeteria Amps gives away free bread (and butter) with its soup, and I haven’t noticed pensioners sneaking out the door with burlap bags full of dinner rolls.

I have often wanted to mount a dais at the Viru Gate with McDonald’s as a backdrop and utter a challenge to Jim Skinner, the Vice Chairman and CEO of McDonald’s: “Vice Chairman Skinner, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity . . . come here to this gate. Mr. Skinner, open this gate. Mr. Skinner, tear down this wall!” The Wall was dismantled years ago, and the Iron Curtain along with it. Let’s gather our virtual pitchforks, join together, and march on McDonald’s. Isn’t it about time someone tore down the Ketchup Curtain?

P.S. Why not write McDonald’s Jim Skinner and ask him to end this humiliating practice? Contact (cc: Walt Riker, VP of Corporate Communications).


Illustration by Hilde Kokk De Keizer.
Read it in Postimees, too.