Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Dying Breed

Estonia’s surliest coat-check woman works at the Tallinn children’s hospital where Liina takes little Robert to swim.

Every time I see the woman, she wears an expression as if she’d been waterboarded and sleep deprived by a team of CIA interrogators. If Liina tries to offer her coat from the right side of the desk, the old woman barks at her “Tulge teisele poole.” In this case, the “other side” is a distance of one-and-a-half meters down the very same counter. Because of my accent, I suppose, I am given a modicum of respect, which means that she will take my coat from whichever “side” but, as with Liina, she will not acknowledge anything I say to her. “Good afternoon” or “thank you” or “I once had a lover who looked exactly like you” are all met with her showing me her back.

Another place I know has a coat check manned by multiple women who, when in foul moods, routinely punish coat-seekers with lasers fired from their eyes. If you approach the woman responsible for check numbers 200 through 400 with check number 150 in hand, you risk having a trap door sprung beneath you, which will carry you away, your family never to hear from you again.

According to the scientific research I have personally conducted, Estonian museums, on average, have the grumpiest coat check women. Museums are a veritable repository for Soviet-era battle axes. The Kadriorg Art Museum is especially rich with them. I have been shouted at for putting my coat on an unauthorized rack, and I have witnessed the glee with which these women roam the floor near closing time, shooing you out the door.

Even the otherwise progressive KUMU is not immune. Once, before even reaching the coat check (whose attendants will win no prizes), I showed my press pass to see an exhibit. The desk attendant gave me a look as if I’d insisted she carry me around the museum all day on her back. “You’re supposed to call ahead!” she snapped. Since then, I’ve simply shut up and paid my money, since who visits a museum to have his mood spoiled? Perhaps in retribution, I have abstained writing magazine stories about museums. Of course this isn’t fair, and it only proves that I, too, can be capitally petty and therefore might make a fine coat check woman myself.

It has been explained to me that a coat attendant is perhaps the last bastion of the Soviet Union. She is a schveitser, or doorman, of sorts, a person in a rather insignificant role who is vested for a small time with disproportionate power. She may choose to take my coat or not take my coat. Once taken, she may choose to return my coat or not return my coat. And while in her possession, my coat may accidentally fall on to the filthy floor, the contents of the pockets may disappear, or a pack of wild dogs may shred the garment to rags. And none of this would be her problem.

An American friend of mine has a more healthy attitude toward these women. He treats each one as a puzzle to be solved or a code to be cracked. He will say or do anything until he gets the woman to smile. It may take two or three attempts, but my friend will always inspire one of these furies to at least roll her eyes. His toughest challenge and greatest triumph, a feat which I was privileged to personally witness, was a ticket seller at Tallinn's train station. Over a period of months, he had bought dozens of tickets and tried dozens of witty lines in the pursuit of making her smile. But to no avail. Finally, on a summer’s day, he ventured onto an overgrown vacant lot in the neighborhood and picked a bouquet of wildflowers. He returned to the station, approached her window, and fed two-dozen flowers, one at a time, through the tiny opening at the bottom of her window. This brought not only a smile, but shrieks of pleasure, and every other ticket seller stopped business for a moment to come stand behind her as she received the flowers.

My problem is that I have not progressed enough along the path to enlightenment to see these women as my friend does. I tend to personalize their behavior, not realizing that it is not directed at me, and perhaps not even directed at the world in general, but perhaps a simple function of the fact that they are doing a miserable, low-paying job, and on a given day perhaps their husbands have not been sufficiently kind to them in the morning.

Most of us are not zen masters, and we instinctively return the negative emotions we are presented with. Another friend, a writer based in Latvia, once published a story entitled “Selling Pisses at the Riga Station,” a supposed first-person account of the life of a bathroom attendant at the Riga bus station. It was stunningly well written and entertaining, but it did nothing to advance the cause of peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

Liina’s grandmother worked for a time as a coat check woman. She was an underfunded pensioner, and this was at least some income, as well as a place to go during the day. I never witnessed her at work, but I would like to think she took up the job with the same zest with which she went about the rest of her life, and that she was an exception to the rule in the coat check trade.

In her memory I’ve tried to make at least a first attempt to make coat check women smile. I am usually unsuccessful. Perhaps they sense insincerity? Perhaps they are too far gone for one pleasant remark to help? More often, the best I can do is keep my mouth shut and try not to return the emotions. Because there but for the grace of God go I. And because you never can know what I might be doing as a pensioner.

I suppose the future will put an end to these positions. Over the long-term, it will be far cheaper to have people put away their own coats.

“The coat-check woman with her singular nastiness is a dying breed,” one of my more cynical friends likes to exclaim. “And thank god for it,” he is quick to add.

But I think we’re going to miss them. With the same sort of nostalgia people express when they see that Soviet-era TV advertisement for chicken (“kana, kana, kana, kana, kana…”), or when a Zaporozhetz passes by on a city street, the coat check women are a unique part of the culture. And they are a daily reminder of the fleetingness of power and position. We may all be the worse when they are finally gone.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Onion Fair (без лука)

In the early 1990s, I heard a guy remark at a conference that Estonia offered a more sanitized, civilized way to experience Eastern Europe. “Like a drive-through zoo,” he said, “where you see the tigers from behind the safety of your car’s windshield. But in Russia,” he noted, “you have to actually climb into the cage with the animals.”

I thought he made a pretty good point that where tourism was concerned, Estonia offered a safe and secure way to taste the bizarreness of Russia. I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

This weekend, Liina, Robert, and I visited the Lasnamäe Onion Fair. I like Lasnamäe for its modern shopping centers, as well as for its tiny shops which aren’t much different than they were 20 years ago – you know, the kind which sell 80 varieties of vodka plus every kind of little seed or nut you can chew and spit on the ground. And so I thought the Onion Fair would be a little slice of Russia, picked up and re-planted behind the safety of my window glass.

The day began with promise, me practicing my language by shouting out the car window to some Russians. “Skazhitye pazhalyusta, gdye lukovaya yarmarka?” A man carrying a small child with a balloon pointed east and told us to follow the noise. Liina and I waved our thanks like goofy tourists, and I imagined a day with a dozen balalaika players singing songs with the words “maya tzerdse” or “a kakaya zhenshina” in every other chorus.

As we neared the noise’s source, I could make out the Estonian language over a loudspeaker. A song’s refrain rang “Du-du-dut-dumm.” Were we in the right place? But children were leaving the area carrying balloons, and how many festivals could there be on a single day in Lasnamäe?

Consumed by the spirit of things, we parked the car in a decidedly Russian fashion - paying no attention to street markings and hoping the parking police had been told to stand down for the day - and headed into the fair.

There were vendors selling sheepskins, bream, sausage, and goat cheese. A young woman in a booth dispensed literature about the health benefits of sea buckthorn in winter. Clean-cut young men at a booth marked UusMaa appeared to be counseling passersby on the benefits of life insurance. A very few onion vanikut hung from tent eaves, but there was no mad scramble to buy them.

“Izvinitye,” I hailed a woman behind a table stacked high with colorful plastic hair barrettes and other beauty accessories. “Gdye lukovaya yarmarka?”

“Siin samas!” she answered in fairly decent Estonian. Estonian? I craned my neck to look for language cops.

As I tuned my ear to the surroundings, I noticed no one was speaking Russian. The sea buckthorn sales pitch was in Estonian. Even the signs were in Estonian. There were no luka here at all. Only sibulad.

“I’m ready to go,” I announced to Liina. “There’s nothing of Russia here. It’s just some gariyachi estonski parni’s idea of Russia.”

Once, when shopping at a market in Kyiv, a middle-aged, heavyset woman stood behind her tomatoes and shouted, “I’m the ugliest woman in this entire marketplace, but I’ve got the best-looking tomatoes of all!” That was what I’d come to Lasnamäe to find: zhisn as lived by Russians. And the Russian dusha. All the Slavic emotions which cannot be had from a hospital-clean eurostate.

I wanted to see dark-eyed young men repairing wristwatches and calculators on top of overturned cardboard boxes. I wanted a line of women selling flower-print housedresses, sausage, and dried fish. I wanted pirated DVDs and CDs, like the rare copy of Eric Clapton’s Superbest I once discovered in a Moscow kiosk. But I got none of that in Lasnamäe. Someone had stolen my Little Russia and replaced it with ersatz.

“And now,” announced an Estonian voice from the stage. I looked up to find Erich Krieger. “Katyusha!”

I rushed forward to the improvised dance floor hoping to see veterans with medals pinned to their chests, who would sing of the grey steppe eagle and greetings from Katyusha. And babushkas, hair tied down with platki, who would sing of the bright sun and reach for the soldier on the far-away border. Instead, I found a small boy in black trackpants who kicked and gyrated as if he were having a seizure. Finally, two babushkas showed mercy and took the young man’s hands to form a circle of dance. An authentic khorovod perhaps, but it was too little too late.

I found Liina at the wig tent. She was trying on one with ears protruding from it which resembled exactly the mouse cap our four-month-old Robert wore. “You don’t wear wigs,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”

“They’re not wigs, you fool. They’re hats.”

“Ersatz!” I charged. “A real Russian market would sell wigs.” But either way my fun was ruined. If babushkas had poured from the concrete block apartment buildings, locked arms, and performed a prisyadki, it would not have been enough.

“Let’s go to the Baltijaam,” I pleaded. Liina knew that what ailed me could only be cured with a cheborek served from a kiosk with questionable hygienic standards. Or a few ounces of kvass dispensed from a trailer, served in a community glass, carelessly washed by an indifferent salesgirl. I needed the real Russia. Or at least more convincing ersatz.

“Okay, let’s go,” she agreed, but not before turning to the wig salesman. “Skolka stoit?”

“Nelisada,” he replied with a look in his eye like he sold them all day at that price.

Liina put the hat back on the table. “Come on,” she said loudly enough to be sure the salesman could hear. “I know a great wig shop at the Baltijaam.”