Saturday, August 28, 2010

Watching Clifford Levy

Whose day was it to watch Clifford Levy?

It was June, 2010, and the New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief was visiting Tallinn’s Pae Gymnasium.

Levy reported that Estonia, “...a small former Soviet republic on the Baltic Sea, has been mounting a determined campaign to elevate the status of its native language and to marginalize Russian, the tongue of its former colonizer.”

Fair enough, I thought, until I read this gem of a sentence, “In Estonia, 30 percent of the 1.3 million people speak Russian as a first language, and the government seems bent on employing the schools to lower that figure.”

I wondered if that might have been a lazy sentence. “First language,” after all, is defined as the language someone learns from birth, and a first language serves as the basis for sociolinguistic identity. Perhaps Levy meant the state was out to lower the number who speak Russian as “first language in the workplace”? But papers like the Times have copy editors to weed out lazy sentences.

I wondered if Levy truly thought the Estonian government was plotting to use the schools to reduce the number of people who speak Russian as a first language. Does he believe (and do Russians in Russia and Russian-speakers in Estonia believe) that speaking Estonian in the workplace (and marketplace and post office) endangers the Russian language?

I’ve read some about the Soviets’ efforts to relegate the Estonian language to kitchen status. I’ve been told that once a language becomes a kitchen language, then soon all it’s good for is “Pass the butter.” But while that might have been a worry for Estonians, it doesn’t really stand to reason that it could be a worry for Russians. After all, what about the 142 million Russians right next door, the 285 million Russian-speakers worldwide, and the enormous cultural machine which feeds them all? But what I believe matters far less than what Russians believe. And it also matters less than what the New York Times believes.

What I can agree with in Mr. Levy’s article is that yes, for a variety of reasons on a variety of levels, Estonians don’t always make it easy for foreigners to learn or speak Estonian. The Times could have confined its article to that issue, but they chose, for whatever reason, to add a hint of intrigue and conspiracy. Certainly no malice was involved. Mr. Levy may simply be victim to the inherent disadvantages of reporting on Estonia from Moscow. Still, it was a lazy sentence.

Generally, with great newspapers like the Times, what slips past the copy editors and fact checkers doesn’t make it past the readers. My guess is that Levy’s errant sentence would have earned Estonia some op-ed space in the Times, though perhaps I was the only one to make much of the sentence. The country, as far as I could tell, chose to let Levy’s remark pass.

Perhaps an unfair analogy, but I wondered whether Estonia’s football fans would be so passive if their national team let an attacker run all over the field unmatched by any defender. The national team may not be a serious contender for the World Cup, but at least they show up for the games. At least they try to cover their man. So who’s covering Levy? Which PR flack or government official is supposed to be helping him understand the Estonian position?

Expressing my dismay to an Estonian political scientist, she postulated that Estonians somehow believe that “in the end the truth will come out.” An interesting theory, certainly, if only for the reason that it casts Estonians as optimists in the face of a history ripe with instances where the truth did not come out, came out too late, or the historical narrative was simply authored by another party. Or the worst: instances when the truth came out, but nobody in the world really gave a damn.

The Times visited Tallinn again in August, this time covering gray passport holders. Levy quoted a heartsick Russian film producer who had “…done a whole lot for my country” (Estonia) but whose country “has not done a whole lot for me.” I’m sure Mr. Levy presented the story as he saw it, but my overactive imagination couldn’t help but wonder if a western reader would see the film producer as a proxy for the ethnic Russian community in Estonian, a community, as the narrative would go, which makes a substantial and visible contribution yet is still rebuked? I wanted to know what had the film producer done for his country? Had he served in the army? Joined the ranks of TeachFirst? Had he taken part in Let’sDoIt Estonia’s nationwide trash cleanup? Was he actively involved in civic organizations or government? Or did he only go to work and pay taxes, like most of the rest of us?

Then the article drew comparisons to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. Another opportunity, I thought, to make the case for op-ed space for Estonia. But, alas, no. As far as I could determine, Estonians chose to remain silent yet again.

From what I can find in the Times archive, Mr. Levy has written only two stories on Estonia, but they both come from the same mold. The simple protagonists are oppressed by an indifferent state. They are sentimental, kind-hearted souls who want to make better lives for themselves and those around them. They want only to be understood. Were Hollywood to get hold of them, there would be many teary departure scenes with locomotives in steamy stations, and full orchestras would be employed for sound tracks.

It worries me that Mr. Levy doesn’t seem to know anyone in Estonia. In his August 15th story, he quoted President Ilves, though it was a recycled quote from an interview Ilves gave to a Russian newspaper. I don’t know how it is with President Ilves but, in general, Estonia has prided itself on having accessible politicians, and the president of the republic has been no exception. I wondered whether Messrs. Ilves and Levy had dined together.

The real problem, however, is not that Mr. Levy doesn’t know Estonia. The problem is that Estonia doesn’t know Mr. Levy. If Estonia wants empathy, or even more fair and balanced stories, the first step is getting acquainted: Our Mr. Levy must become our Cliff. And though the nation might flatter itself by thinking Mr. Levy might make the effort himself, as a small nation, it is incumbent upon Estonia to take the first step and extend an invitation.

But if no one else wants to dine with Clifford J. Levy, then I’m happy to do so. I have already checked his Facebook page and can see that with a degree or two of separation we have common acquaintances. In the digital age, we are practically brothers.

Personally, were I King of Estonia I’d settle things with Mr. Levy and the Kremlin the easy way. (Now that was a lazy sentence.) I’d give all the gray passport holders citizenship. It’s only seven percent. Astute readers will point out that that’s not my right, yours is not my history, and as a foreigner I should just shut the hell up. And the reader would be partly right. The problem is there are plenty of foreigners who won’t shut the hell up, and Mr. Clifford J. Levy is among them. He’s just doing his job, of course. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Estonia tried to help him out by making an effort to set the record straight.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tourist Bashing

Opening season for tourist bashing begins each year in May. Snow recedes, the sun appears and warms our bones, and in our heads dance visions of an Old Town packed tightly with white-shoed American retirees closely trailing guides with their numbered signs thrust high in the air. Well, maybe it doesn’t dance in your head. But it does in mine, since almost every year I celebrate the cruisers’ arrival by penning a tribute, chronicling, for example, a senile band of Americans trying too hard to make friends in an Estonian cafĂ©.

Soon after my column, the Estonian journalists join in, and the first article appears in a local newspaper bemoaning the arrival of the cruiser tide, lamenting how 4,600 tourists can roam the city at any given time without a single one of them actually opening his wallet. The American-dominated tribe wanders the Old Town streets for half a day before returning to their great white ships to sail for sunny St. Petersburg where, presumably, they leave the money that was by all rights ours to take in Tallinn.

“You'd think,” wrote Postimees’ Uwe Gnadenteich in June of this year, “that their arrival would give the economy a shot in the arm, but the majority of the thousands of predominantly retired cruise tourists don't even spend a cent during their day in town." Restaurant keepers bellyached that the cruiser, at best, bought only a cup of coffee, and then only because he wanted a place to rest his legs. Then followed a long, long list of what the cruiser will not buy.

But then this year, livening things up in the comments box was a poster calling himself Heh, who summed things up this way: “What could they buy here? They can get matryoshka dolls for half the price at their next stop." And, I might add: wool socks or sauna hats or juniper butter knives or sweaters or paintings of three-masted schooners made from tiny pieces of amber. Heh’s succinct summation reminded me of Navin R. Johnson, Steve Martin’s character in the movie The Jerk who sells souvenirs at a traveling circus. Johnson stands next to his wares and shouts at passersby: “Step right up and buy some crap!”

How dare these cruisers exit our city with anything left in their wallets? How dare they not purchase the many distinctive Estonian souvenirs such as matryoshka dolls and amber cigarette holders? The gall!

A friend of mine, who worked as a guide until he was fired for encouraging an American tourist to urinate on a Toompea street, thinks of the cruisers in a different light: He’s of the opinion they leave something behind other than empty water bottles. Have the ships, he asks, not paid a handsome fee to dock? And do the cruisers not support a small industry of bus drivers, students and off-season English teachers who serve as tour guides? And what about the bicycle rental business? Or even our reptilian taxi drivers? But all this counts for nothing in the press. We cast the octogenarian cruisers as Viking hordes, torches in hand, advancing on the Old Town for a little scorched-earth fun. (And note the plural: I am guilty, too.)

My friend suggests EAS’s tourism division should think of cruisers as Estonia’s wet dream target market. The cruisers are extremely financially successful, well-educated white people, who have limitless time on their hands. They generally do not have drinking problems—or if they do, you can rest assured they’re not swilling the rotgut Finnish tourists choose. The cruiser will knock back a decent bottle of wine or cognac, and he’ll do it with his feet propped up in a hotel the caliber of the Telegraaf. While he has no interest in buying a two-meter, St. Nicholas wool hat which warms your head and still wraps five times around your neck, when presented the right environment, the cruiser is more than happy to spend.

So why haven’t we started to think of cruisers as the greatest opportunity yet for our tourism sector? They leave their ship to enter the Old Town and be dazzled by one of the world’s most impressive and charming medieval settings. They’re doing more than taking snapshots: they are willingly subjecting themselves to what is literally a six-hour interactive advertisement for Tallinn. The low-hanging fruit of the tourism industry is generally thought to be Finns. But maybe the cruisers warrant additional thought.

At least once every summer some friends of my parents arrive via the cruise boats. I wait beyond the schlagbaum for them to walk the length of the pier, where I escort them into town to drink a few cups of coffee and tell them tales of Tallinn. “You’re really lucky to live here,” they always exclaim. And they mean it, too. And I’d argue that my parents’ friends are fairly representative of the half-million cruisers who spend a day in Tallinn. I guided a few cruiser busloads one season, and with the exception of the one or two who thought they were too special to be seated with common cruisers, talking to cruisers was about like chatting with my parents. They’ve worked hard all their lives, and they’ve earned some money that they want to spend before they’re too old to do much anything else but wear Depends adult undergarments, drool on themselves, and stare blankly at a too-loud television.

So what do we offer to make them want to come back independently where they really will spend money? Here we may trot out the usual debate about quality of service and the pros and cons of following behind the raised umbrella of a 60-year-old guide with her monotone patter of historical dates and other sleep-inducing facts. (Though this problem has been solved. Take one of the Blue Drum company’s more unorthodox tours. Full disclosure: I’ve led these tours.) But the point is not what we show them, but rather how we receive them. They can see very little of Tallinn in a half-day tour, but they can see enough to make them want to come back.

If I were King of Estonia or Tallinn’s Czar or Mayor—or even just a journalist dispatched to chronicle the tightwad cruisers—I might put some thought into how best to mine the cruisers’ potential. We have no need to try to woo people in tourist fairs throughout Europe, and we don’t need campaigns touting how positively surprising we are. We only need to warmly shake the hands of those 5,000 tourists per day who disembark the cruise vessels for a pleasant stroll around our town.

They’re too sophisticated to fall for the fake medieval village trick with a cheesy market at the port. And they got over buying logoed shot glasses, baby spoons, and other shit-on-a-stick when they were teenagers. All that’s left to woo them with is a good story told by a remarkable storyteller.

For my own part, I’ve decided to stop making fun of them. I promise to not mention in my column that some of them are overweight, loud, and completely ignorant of even their own country’s history. If we want them to come back and leave all their money, then we’ve got to learn to love them. Though, as the Annie Lennox song goes, it’s a thin line between love and hate.

No, before anyone asks, I have no idea why all of my stories are in a different font.
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