Saturday, May 22, 2010

Class Confusion

“Don’t be friendly with my builders,” cautioned a contractor we hired to work on our house several years ago. “If you get too close, they’ll take advantage of you.” Of course, I’d already gotten too close.

In Canada and the United States, where we’re all part of a conspiracy to pretend class differences are minor, we are inculcated from birth to make extra efforts to show that while some have more money than others, we’re all created equal (or if we’re not, then Colonel Colt made us so). Children are taught to say “yes sir” and “no sir” to even the plumber’s assistant who arrives to remove the giant hairball from the bowels of the bathroom sink. While father may get in his Mercedes to drive to the office, he is not above standing in the driveway for a morning smoke with a crew of workers arrived to put on a new roof. It’s important to make a show of it.

The classes of society may or may not have something in common, but all seem at least superficially engaged in a quest for a classless society. Like Henry V moving incognito among his soldiers’ campfires to take their temperature on the eve of battle, children of America’s middle- and upper classes are often sent to work summers in the company of the country’s lower class, the logic being to help them understand the real world, as well as to appreciate how good they’ve got it.

And so as a North American, it was not unnatural for me to sit in the garden with a crew of Estonian house framers, share a few beers, and discuss everything from a builder’s choice of mountain bike to the merits of steel-toed work boots. Little did I know that from the moment I popped the bottle cap off that first Saku, I had upset a thousand years of Estonian tradition.


Orjapidaja ei räägi orjakeelt,” I’d heard a dozen times—the slave keeper doesn’t speak the slave’s language—though I first saw it only as an explanation why Estonia’s rulers never deigned to learn the language. Only later would I realize that a language barrier is immensely practical: it further ensures a solid class barrier. Had I been unable to speak Estonian, I would have been forced to honor a thousand years of history and not gotten myself in so much trouble. Without a common language, I would have remained an unknown entity. Had they not gotten to know me, they perhaps would have feared me. And as it turned out, the very moment I was no longer mysterious is the moment they started taking advantage of me.

I knew they were drunk because of the questions. An Estonian may have burning questions inside him, but he will rarely ask them until he is drunk. “Tell me, Vello,” dared Sven the floor layer. “How long did it take you to learn Estonian?” It was a compliment, of course, but a devious and calculated one. By answering it I permitted him inside my perimeter. Flatter the manor lord a little bit. Take him off his guard.

While I should have politely answered “six months” and kept on walking, I had a five-minute conversation with him, which led him to conclude I was a pretty good fella. And pretty good fellas stick together. Sven informed me that it was his cat’s fifth birthday and that tomorrow was Walpurgis Night. Of course, this was code for: We’re drunk now and will remain so indefinitely. Over the next two days, Sven and his crew installed floorboards with gaps between them big enough to insert your finger and inexplicably created fist-size holes in sheetrock walls. One simple human gesture had given rise to a full-scale revolt.


As a solution to the problem of forming relationships with workers, I’d tried an overseer, the man whose job it is to monitor quality. In practical terms, this means he screams at the workers on a regular basis, as if they were motivated purely out of fear. But the overseer concept never worked for me, since I could not afford to have one on the job site full time, and I tend to want faulty work corrected long before too much of it has been done.

But I see the system’s merits. When the German nobility departed Estonia, they did not leave a vacuum. Estonians themselves (often military officers) stepped into the role of manor lords, and the overseer fit nicely into the new management structure, serving a similar purpose to the overseer on a slave plantation in America’s antebellum South. The language barrier that existed for 700 years in Estonia may no longer be present, but the overseer provides a time-tested buffer to ensure the work process goes smoothly. He is the manor lord’s hatchet man. He knows which swearwords will have effect. He even wields the whip, which I have seen effectively used: a overseer entering the workers’ hut and literally beating the shit out of a drunken plasterer.

Until I served as my own overseer, I believed Estonians overdramatized the country’s class system. How could a people who so readily admitted that they were all once slaves have need to develop such a nuanced system for creating boundaries between them? But it was this way, too, in America’s antebellum South. Lines within the slave class were drawn by both skin tone and the type of work they did: field slaves versus house slaves. Estonians have drawn their class lines via education. Pairing the word “haritud” with an Estonian means far more than he is educated. An educated Estonian is one who is sensitive to the ways of your foreign culture, who likely speaks your language, one with whom you will find something in common. It means that he is less likely to, in the vernacular of Estonian literature, Rehepapp you.

Of course, a builder can be educated. In the west there are plenty of PhDs who can be found toting hammers, and there are plenty of autodidacts (and the occasional published poet or novelist) to be found among tradesmen such as carpenters and cabinetmakers. I find it odd that Estonians, a people who took quick advantage of the German system of higher education offered them, did not replicate the German guild system, the very soul of pride in one’s trade. Indeed, try to find a bonded workman today engaged in residential construction. The best the homebuilder may hope for is a builder with a company which has withstood the test of time, but even he will be relegated to employing some workers who would be far happier lying stone drunk behind a haystack in a sunny field.

There are of course plenty of Estonians lacking formal educations who will not Rehepapp you, but these tend to gravitate toward other fields. To Estonians, there is little sexy about construction, despite that the fact that, when done right, it is honest, even honorable work. On the New York City subway, one may observe tradesmen on their way to work, dressed in stylish work clothing, carrying their tools in bags which can cost nearly as much as the tools inside. Such is the pride in their craft.


Although I think I’m closer to understanding the way things are in Estonia (though you may dispute my theory about the class system), it has proved to be of absolutely no practical value. I haven’t learned a damned thing about dealing with workers. Despite keeping my distance, as soon as they learn my name they ask to borrow money. “Doesn’t your boss pay you?” I asked the most recent worker at my doorstep.

“Yes, but not this week.” He scratched his head and then turned around to spit. “Because you weren’t happy with the work.”

“That’s true. You want me to show you the window you installed upside down?”

“I just need to borrow some money. Could you give me a thousand kroons?”

“Only if it’s against money I owe your boss,” I said, hoping to find a way out of it. “So your debt would be to him, and he would have to approve.”

“Oh,” and he looked at his feet, pausing to think about that one. “No,” he concluded. “The boss can’t know.”

“I don’t even think I’ve got any cash in the house,” I said, trying to think of another tack. He was just about to turn away when a voice came from above: “I’ve got five hundred kroons you can give him.”

It was Liina from the top of the stairs. Ruining things. And sending me back to square one with the builders.


Illustration courtesy of Hilde Kokk De Keizer.

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.