Sunday, June 20, 2010

Registered Bastard

“This has no apostille!” So said the lady at the registry of births who examined my marriage certificate. I was trying to register my newborn son with the state, but it seemed the officials weren’t going to have it.

“Sure it does,” I said. “Look right there.” I pointed to the embossed gold stick-on seal in the corner of the document in all its splendor. I drew her attention to the attractive gold tones used elsewhere and the four different signatures on both sides of the page! This document was a bureaucrat’s wet dream. If this wasn’t an apostille, then I didn’t know what was.

The official raised the document to eye level and turned it in the light. “No, that’s just a gold sticker. You need an apostille.”

In 1992, Estonia freshly out of Soviet clenches, a gold seal on a document would have gotten me just about anything. An American friend who taught English in Rakvere once presented his university diploma to a traffic cop and told him he was head of the United Nations and had diplomatic immunity. The cop let him go. The same friend liked to show the police his City of Chicago library card when he was stopped for inspection. He claimed the cops believed it was a driver’s license, but I think an equal argument could be made that they wanted to avoid the extra hassle that arresting a foreigner would bring. Especially one who was also head of the United Nations.

Those were the days when the reverence for shiny stickers was such that any document with stamps and signatures could pass for whatever you said it was. While I remember those days fondly, I’ve stopped living them. I honestly believed that my marriage certificate had an apostille. After all, the marriage certificate had long been accepted by the tax board to justify filing a joint income statement, and it was approved years ago by the immigration authority as the basis for my current residence permit. If it was good enough for them, why wasn’t it good enough for the registry? I put that question directly to the nice lady.

“That’s impossible,” she said. “The immigration authority will only take a document with an apostille. Maybe you had one and lost it.”

“No, I never had one,” I insisted. “Because I remember well when they took away my three-year residency permit. When I reapplied under the basis of marriage, I was only eligible for a one-year permit.”

“The migratsiooniamet will only take an apostillitud document,” she repeated, as if saying it out loud somehow made it true. Or made me a liar.

“Well,” I said, trying a different tactic. “I have lots of foreign friends in common law marriages with Estonian women whose children have been registered. What’s different about my son?”

“Because you and your wife are married.”

But were we? Hadn’t she just told me that in the eyes of the state we were not? She had me thoroughly confused. I pinched myself to make sure I was actually there.

“Well, I can tell you right now that I’m not going to be able to get you the document you want before your 30-day deadline,” and I noted that there were only seven days left. “So go ahead and register my son as a bastard.”

“No!” she gasped. Which quite frankly surprised me.


Although Estonians like to brag about their IT accomplishments, I have always been more impressed by something else: their tolerance for alternative ways of living. In the west, where a child born out of wedlock is often viewed as a potential bank robber or murderer, in Estonia nobody bats an eye. But what impresses me even more about Estonia, is that single mothers never indulge in self-pity. They do not take on poor-me-against-the-world attitudes; they do not see their lives as “over”; they do not stand in line twice at the government trough; they do not use the lack of a father as an excuse for everything that goes wrong in their lives. Quite the opposite: they meet reality head on and go through life without any visible chip on their shoulder.

In the west, I’ve often thought many children might do better without a father in the home. I am overstepping my mandate here and speaking as a psychologist, but it seems to me that no father is better than a crappy father. In Estonian society, a woman is free to mate with a deadbeat and drop him, while in the west he is often kept on for appearance’s sake, because a child born out of wedlock is “disadvantaged” and teachers will whisper behind his back in the school corridors: “There goes that poor bastard. With no father around to teach him to use deodorant, it’s no wonder he smells.”

But I don’t care if my kid is a registered bastard, and that’s what I told the woman at the registry. “He’s going to be a Canadian citizen. He’s going to be an Estonian citizen. Why should I care what mark you put next to his name in your book? Make him a bastard and give me my piece of paper so I can take him to the doctor.” I only wanted some mark next to his name. I didn’t care which. Any mark at all would get him, as Walker Percy famously wrote, “a neat styrene card with one's name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist.”

All this time, Robert sat there in his car seat on the bureaucrat’s desk looking ever so helpless. Twenty years ago a cute kid and a box of chocolates would have gotten the job done. No apostille would have been needed. But this official was completely unimpressed. How Germanic, I thought. I reflected that maybe the Estonians would run the EU well in 2018. (And then I wondered if we’d get the roads fixed by then.)

Despite my appeals and the cuteness of my child, the bureaucrat was chained to her system. She believed that Liina and I were married, and she desperately wanted to record in her book what was correct. I admired this, honestly, but it wasn’t all that expedient. My pressing issue was that after 22 hours in labor, Robert’s emergence into the world wasn’t the easiest, and his family doctor thought it might be a good idea to see a specialist. “But don’t take him to a big hospital,” the doctor said. “The doctors will refuse to see him if he’s not registered.” Our options, she explained, were to pay at a private clinic or petition the state health insurance fund to give Robert short-term coverage. “So what am I paying 33 percent social taxes for?” I asked the doctor. She didn’t have much of an answer. “Bureaucrats,” she shrugged.


I’ve determined the west is wrong in attributing the troubles of the world to the birth of children out of wedlock. It’s not bastard sons responsible for the ills of the world, but rather frustrated fathers of bastard sons. What bureaucrats fail to understand is that when it comes to my son I am completely indifferent to their tiny pieces of paper and the different positions they arrange them on their desks during the day. If my kid needs a doctor, I’m going to do whatever is necessary to get him one, including stepping over, around, or directly on top of a bureaucrat. Don’t bureaucrats have children of their own? Or are theirs are born with apostilles on their foreheads, completely equipped to navigate life’s labyrinth of ciphers? And, most to the point, why can’t Estonia’s bureaucrats simply be as practical as Estonia’s single mothers?


Read it in Estonian in Postimees.