Saturday, July 31, 2010

Going Local

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.”

“I’m Canadian.”

“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.