Thursday, December 30, 2010

Animal Planet

Playing in the snow-covered yard were a bear, a fox, and a hedgehog. Drinking vodka on the porch was a tropical bird. An owl answered the door to the house.

“Uhhuu,” the owl cooed, both eyes blackened like she’d been beaten by a husband. If not for the familiarity of the hoot I would not have recognized Liina’s mother in the dark of that Estonia winter.
“The rest of the animals are in the forest,” she said, pointing into the trees. “Look for the bonfire.”
It was New Year’s Eve 2000, and I’d arrived late from Tallinn to Liina’s family’s country house. I hadn’t known Liina long, and she’d invited me to join friends and family to celebrate the New Year. She’d said it was animal party and that I should dress the part.
Twenty animals, Liina somewhere among them, danced at around the bonfire, stopping occasionally to literally howl at the moon. It was something out of Indiana Jones, with me, the western anthropologist, peering over a rock at jungle natives about to engage in a ritual blood sacrifice.

Liina has always been a bit different. In some cases, I have chided her for not being more normal and the trouble it has gotten her into.

Her driver’s license was revoked for several years for reasons, in part, of drawing extra attention to herself by defacing her license with a indelible marker, adding horns and a beard to her otherwise attractive face to give it a Satan-crossed-with-a-female-werewolf look. In most parts of the world policemen are not known for their senses of humor, least of all in former Soviet republics.

Traveling in Iran, she was jailed for a night for being seen in the company of a local man, an unauthorized tour guide. She narrowly escaped getting caught with a bottle of wine in her bag, which, in Iran, still carries a minimum penalty of being buried to your neck in sand and stoned to death.

In a nature reserve in India, she ignored signs telling her to stay on the trail and not touch things. When she exited the park, two armed guards awaited her. “What’s in the bag?” one asked. “Oh, just a few books,” she replied. “And a Bengal tiger skin.” Lucky for her, they actually thought she was funny.

It is as if Liina is on a mission to test the limits of patience and sense of humor of everyone she meets, taking copious notes so that she may one day, like an audit office, release a report to the world, providing us all with more accurate portraits of ourselves.
Several years ago in the tax office, unable to figure out how to manage an ID card reader, Liina and I sat before the unfortunate, humorless woman assigned to assist us manually file our documents. “Do you have any family or dependents to list?” the ametnik asked. “How recently do they need to have been alive?” Liina queried, adding some vague remark about an avalanches and bad luck in general.

For me, situations like tax filing are ones I want to enter and exit as quickly and smoothly as possible. But in Liina’s world all events have equal standing and are part of life’s rich tapestry. “Really,” she rebutted my scolding once we were safely outside the tax office, “why would you want to cheat a bureaucrat out of an interesting day?”

When I suggested that bureaucrats were in fact bureaucrats for the reason that they wanted all their days to be more or less the same, she shot me a disapproving look. “You’re wrong,” she declared. “There’s nobody alive like that.”

I will say this for her: she is never guilty of conscious Bohemian affectations or, as is common with some, trying to be different in the same way. She would never tattoo her body or adopt the Goth look. To her, these people are not at all genuine, and are, in themselves, walking contradictions.

To get on Liina’s good side, it is helpful to one-up her. Had the Estonian policeman checking her license understood this he would have offered her the chance to change into a werewolf, run into the forest, and slay a deer with her teeth and fingernails right before his very eyes. If the tax bureaucrat had been more aware, she might have topped Liina’s avalanche story with a better tragedy, such as an accident with tropical quicksand.

That New Year’s night I observed the animals dancing around the fire for some time. At other parties I’d gone to, it seemed people would sit around a table staring at their feet until the first was drunk enough to engage another. But these dancing animals. . . I didn’t think there was enough alcohol in all of northern Europe to do this to people. (And I would later learn they were mostly sober.)

Finally, I had to play my part, and I stepped into the light to present myself. Eventually they noticed my presence. I wore knee-high boots but was otherwise dressed head to toe in camouflage. Slung behind my back was a BB gun.

“What are you?” came Liina’s voice from a floppy-eared, purple creature. I could have asked her the same, though she appeared to be Barney the dinosaur.

“Take a guess.”

“You’re a praying mantis,” offered someone who was clearly a squirrel. “A chameleon on a branch,” suggested a rabbit.

I unslung the BB gun and raised it high over my head. “I’m a hunter,” I shouted, “and I’m here to take hides.” And with that the animals fled into the forest, correctly playing their parts. I would have my hides soon enough when they got too cold and returned to the fire.

Ever since the birth of our son Robert, we don’t dress up as animals for parties anymore. Partly, this is because we’re too tired, but I think it’s mostly because Liina can dress Robert up. He has already attended one very formal Christmas party dressed as a miniature Santa Claus. He owns a coat where the hood morphs into an elephant trunk. And he has webbed duck feet, shoes which slip on over his regular shoes.

We haven’t happened on any ametniks or policemen yet when Robert is in tow, but I can only imagine it when we do. “We found him in the countryside being raised by a family of wolves,” Liina will say. “Does that mean we can keep him?” And we’ll just have to hope the ametnik has a sense of humor equal to ours. Well, equal to Liina’s, that is.

Visit the Vikerkaar family duty free shop on our mezzanine level.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Virtues of Blizzards

A community’s traffic culture is often mentioned as an indicator of the health of its society. Within the larger traffic culture is a public transport culture, and Tallinn’s public transport doesn’t have the best image. A former Tallinn mayor once remarked that public transport was for children, the handicapped, and people too drunk to drive. But each year more and more Tallinners seem to abandon their cars for public transport, and the atmosphere aboard the bus grows a bit more similar to that of western cities. And there’s nothing like a blizzard to bring riders into closer quarters and the system under a loop.

Read the entire article here (on ERR).


Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Dinner Guest

“Daddy, why don’t white people eat carp?”

It was 1977 and my father and I were reclined on a riverbank, our lines in the water and hooks baited with corn.

“Dunno,” he said, taking up a bit of line slack with his reel. “The Chinese eat them. Maybe it’s an ethnic or a religious thing.”

Dad had been a carp fisherman for twenty years. He liked to catch them on a fly rod for sport, or lounge in the bankside shade, watching his young sons fight fish strong enough to pull them in the water.

“Why don’t we take one home and eat it?” I asked. We’d always just let the fish go, or occasionally we’d put several on a stringer and give them to black fishermen, who were always glad to get them.

“All right. But you have to clean it.” Dad was an avid hunter and fisherman who believed his children should understand where supermarket beef came from, and so whatever you killed, you had to clean it and eat it.

Cleaning such a tough-skinned and bony fish was no easy chore, but I managed and handed it off to mom, who added salt and baked it. We sat down to dinner. We chewed quietly.

“Dad,” I broke the silence. “I think I understand why we don’t eat carp.”

Mom made polite excuses and said that she might not know how to season it. Dad said it could be spiced to the hilt and you couldn’t escape the nasty bones. Mom wondered if black people didn’t deep fat fry it. My brother said maybe Asians liked the taste of mud. No, I argued, it was just a bottom-dweller completely unsuitable for consumption. Dad suggested we throw the fish away and go to a restaurant. We fought each other to be the first out the door.


“This is a product from our very own kolkhoz!” the hostess declared proudly, entering the room with a silver tray held high above our heads.

It was Christmas 1992 in Estonia. She placed the tray directly in front of me, the guest of honor. It was a five-kilo carp.

“You like carp, of course,” she said.

“Who doesn’t?” I managed. If there was one ironclad rule in my family it was that you never refused something offered when you’re a guest at the dinner table.

The Estonians’ mouths visibly watered. The host forked a huge serving on to my plate and then the family fought over who got the eyes.

I hadn’t expected Estonians to be carp eaters. The worst thing I’d encountered on an Estonian table was headcheese, which had an appearance and texture which could completely extinguish my appetite. Next to that on the fright index was tongue. I’d eaten it once in France, didn’t like it much there, but an Estonian had spoiled it permanently for me by removing the entire organ - including the long, more-disgusting part that runs down the cow’s throat - from a boiling pot and dropping it on my plate. I seem to recall that it writhed. Sea Devils were also frightening, but fortunately the fish was expensive enough that no one had ever served it to me. And then there were those alcohol-filled chocolates, which exploded in your mouth and liqueur ran down your chin and on to your shirt if you weren’t capable of swallowing the vile little treat in one go.

But I’m sure Estonians found some of my Canadian eating habits odd. Before I married Liina, I was able to enjoy an entire bag of Doritos-brand nacho-cheese-flavored tortilla chips at one sitting. I also liked to eat standing over the sink just to avoid getting a plate dirty. To save the work of cleaning a pan, I cooked hotdogs by letting hot water run over them in the bottom of the sink. And I was not unaccustomed to eating food directly from micro-waved bags. Cosmonaut food, as Liina calls it.

With the carp, my strategy was to eat slowly, ostensibly to savor every bite, but relying on the greed of my fellow diners to speedily consume the fish. I also dulled the taste of each bite with a mouthful of vodka, which my hosts interpreted as a positive sign. The carp on the platter quickly became only a skeleton, the others having taken seconds and thirds.

“How’s that fish? Good?” asked the hostess.

“Mmmmm,” I grunted, a thumb thrust in the air to express my approval. But these people knew no more about cooking carp than my mother, and the fish was just as muddy tasting as the one I’d tried to eat as a child.

“Well, you eat as slowly as you want,” she said, “because I’ve got another in the oven.”

Sometimes you just have to take the bullet.


Growing up in Scarborough — or Scarberia as we called it — it would be many years before I moved to the city and discovered that my mother was not in fact the best cook on earth and that the culinary traditions of my youth were not five-star.

And it would be many more years before I moved to Estonia, and even then I would never come to terms with refusing something I was offered. While it might be true that an Estonian will not take offense if you don’t eat carp, I could not have brought myself to say so at Christmas dinner in 1992. My hosts had surely gone to considerable inconvenience, if not expense, to offer me that fish, and I could not have insulted them by pushing away a plate.

It’s been years since I’ve been offered carp or bream (a rose by any another name…) in an Estonian home. The nation seems to have turned to salmon, tilapia, and even sashimi. Perhaps the carp are being exported to Russia, or perhaps they’re just finning quietly in the bottom of some muddy waterway, waiting to make a fashionable comeback.

Either way, I’m prepared for them. I’ll declare a unique devotion to another dish on the hostess' table (pasteet, for example). Or I’ll claim fish allergies. Or I’ll say it’s an ethnic, religious, or cultural thing. In fact, I’ll say, my culture requires me to go to the kitchen and eat standing over the sink.

This story recently appeared in the holiday magazine Jõulud.