Saturday, January 23, 2010

Folk Dancing

“How can you write that shit?” The man was seated next to me on an Estonian Air flight to Copenhagen. He thought we’d been double seated, asked to see my boarding pass, and identified me as Vikerkaar. “I’m a Canadian Estonian, too, you know,” he said, “and I’ve never heard of anyone with a name as silly as yours.” The foreign Estonian’s name was Taivo, and he had the aisle seat. I was completely blocked in.

The issue of my silly name aside, what “shit” was he talking about? I’ll admit some of my columns are better than others. But shit?

“You know,” Taivo shoveled half a bag of peanuts into his mouth, “how you write about poisonous mushrooms, your neighbor’s house on fire, and singing prostitutes.”

Oh. That shit.

I put my seat in its most reclined position and gave him the answer I give all foreign Estonians with that complaint: “You mean how do I ignore the fact that in reality Estonia is a perfect nation where the sun shines every day, children sing, and lovers picnic in the grass?”

“What I’m saying, smartass” — he shoveled the other half of the bag in his mouth and two peanuts tumbled back onto his lap — “is that you shouldn’t write what you write. You should only write about the good things in Estonia.”

He could have stopped there and let me finish for him. It’s the speech about the duty we all have to promote Estonia and help the poor little country on her way. As if the nation is populated by 1.3 million children, and we foreign Estonians with our superior education and sensible world view have a duty to help them grow up right. Then comes a tirade about I shouldn’t be allowed to publish what I write, that someone ought to censor me. Foreign Estonians are a sensitive lot. Far more so than Estonians who were born and raised here.

A journalist I know who writes for an international news magazine has said privately that foreign Estonians are only interested in reading about folk dancing. Judging by the number of times I’ve been cornered on airplanes or in public bathrooms to discuss my columns, I kind of think the journalist might be right. I mean, really. How can I write that shit?

Of course many foreign Estonians actually aren’t that bad. Many actually do have well-developed senses of humor. Many of them — except for a few living out some sort of eurofantasy by smoking stinky Gauloises held in foot-long amber cigarette holders — are much like you and me. But there are still too many who act as corporals of society and administer a full-time self-improvement course to the rest of us.

These include those who have accused me of being a shill for Moscow. Part of the evidence cited for this is how the Finnish Stalinist columnist, Leena Hietanen, has interpreted my words (“Vikerkaar says that the worst crimes of the Soviet Union were that it was cold in Siberia and that bananas did not grow there…”). Sentient beings who have read Ms. Hietanen’s full essay will reach the conclusion that she doesn’t understand enough English (or Estonian) to have any clue what I’ve written.

But to address Ms. Hietanen’s accusation, I can place my hand on a Bible and testify that Moscow has not yet approached me. But should I have any secret admirers in the Kremlin, then I have nothing against them paying to reprint my columns in Russian or even sending me a suitcase full of money. There’s nothing like a visit from the muse in the form of cash.

Recently, I was sent a letter circulating in the Estonian-American community, in which I was identified as a “controversial figure.” Personally, I fail to see the controversy. I write. Some read. Some like it. Some don’t. End of story.

A professional psychiatrist – or my mother – might offer a clearer diagnosis, but it seems to be that the foreign Estonian community is beset upon by the disease of having too little to do. I was once told a joke about how foreign Estonians were screwed twice by the Soviet Union: first when Estonia was occupied and they were given their “foreign Estonian” identity, and again when Estonia got its independence and the identity was taken away.

Foreign Estonians in the community of Scarborough where I grew up were always an interesting sight. I was the only one of my friends who had an interest in singing and dancing (real Canadians played hockey), and for some reason I had no qualms about wearing our rather ridiculous native costumes to school. It’s a wonder I didn’t get beat up.

When I got a little older, a friend and I started the ELO, which we had to remind people was not the Electric Light Orchestra but the Estonian Liberation Organization. We had t-shirts printed up that read Vaba Eesti Eest ("For Free Estonia"--we weren’t sure if this was grammatically correct) and met regularly with our schoolmates to plot a D-day like invasion of Estonia’s west coast.

We practiced the Estonian language as a group, reciting lines to use when we landed:

Tere. Oleme kanadast. (Hello. We're from Canada.)
Oleme teie sõbrad. (We're your friends.)
Kus on venelasi? (Where are the Russians?)

We drilled in hand-to-hand combat before turning back to the language:

Me toome vabadust. (We bring freedom.)
Liituge meiega! (Join us!)
Oleme sõjaväelased. (We are soldiers.)

Then we broke to eat some sausage boiled in beer, which we were convinced was how real Estonians prepared it. I can’t say all the language we learned was useful, but at least, we hoped, real Estonians would understand us when we landed near Pärnu:

Me armastame eestimaad. (We love Estonia.)
Mis on teie koordinaadid? (What are your coordinates?)
Teised tulevad meile järgi. (Others will follow.)

So with all I gave to Estonia in my youth, I wonder if I really deserve to be cornered on airplanes? Where was Taivo when I was making plans to liberate the country? Judging by his demeanor and the faded tattoo on his forearm, he was busy getting a spike through his tongue and smoking cigarettes behind the school with other waste cases. But none of his lazy past mattered now. Now that he’d arrived to save the country. Unfortunately, I was in his path. And he wanted me to give him folk dancing.

British writer Mike Collier has described stories of that ilk this way: “…those godawful ‘aren’t-they-amusing-and-rather-Ruritanian’ travelogues written by people from the Sunday supplements who think patronising sarcasm extended for long enough eventually forms a kind of insight.” Yes, folk dancing.

What I have the most trouble with is Taivo’s idea that we’re all somehow acting as little ambassadors for Estonia. Personally, I’d be rather uncomfortable speaking on behalf of Estonia, especially when I would be at a complete loss trying to explain many actions by parliament and the Tallinn city government alike. But even scarier than me speaking for Estonia would be giving my new friend Taivo the job. As Taivo sees it, if we dropped a few hundred colorful postcards out of an airplane window, then all our problems would be solved. Taivo would give us feature films, novels, magazines, and newspapers—all about folk dancing.

I think it would all be simpler if we all just spoke for ourselves. I don’t speak for Estonia. I speak only for me. And sometimes not even that.


Read it in Postimees.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Food for Thought Awards

The 2009/10 George Bernard Shaw Food for Thought Gastronomy Awards

“He was never more serious than when he was joking.”
–said of Mr. Shaw

After much deliberation, the George Bernard Shaw Society of Estonia proudly announces its Food for Thought Gastronomy Award winners for 2009/2010.

Hermann Simm Best Kept Secret Award
There’s no such thing as a secret, though some information does take longer to become public. In the spirit of secrets that shouldn’t remain so, we’re proud to celebrate Rucola in Mustamäe.

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” Best Gourmet Restaurant Award
In the oblivious spirit of “Let them eat cake,” this award honors the places we’d all like to dine in more often, if only our pocket books would allow. This year’s honor goes to Horisont at Swissotel. Not only a spectacular view but, considering the economy, an altogether fine place for a last meal.

Luciano Pavarotti Six Chickens for Dinner Best Soul Food Award
When you want to stuff yourself in a comfortable restaurant surrounded by staff who seem to actually want you to be there, try Kohvik Moon, a great new brasserie-like joint with good ambience, great food, and good prices.

Passepartout Best Ethnic Restaurant Award
One big hurrah for Chakra. Finally, fans of Indian food have been rescued from the bland. Chakra’s chef and part-owner is Indian, and the other partners also lay legitimate claim to authentic Indian food. Enthusiastic, pleasant waitstaff, too.

Sweaty Edgar Best Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurant Award
Argo is a great Georgian hole in the wall on the corner of Vilmsi and Faehlmanni in the neighborhood fast becoming Tallinn’s gastronomic district, Kadriorg. Like any real hole in the wall, Argo has no website, though Mingus (see comments section) kindly directed us to its Facebook page.

Holly Golightly Best Café Award
Three cheers for Anni Arro and Komeet for a good gastronomic reason to visit the Solaris Center. Solaris is the Teenage Death Star, its aura driven by white-kid-in-da-hood clothing shops, but Arro’s venue is welcoming to adults. Her menu approaches soul food, but her real winner is the bakery. Also of note in the Solaris Center is Cha, the teashop. Authentic Indian tea and a lot more to help you get rid of the shakes induced by shopping in the Teenage Death Star.

Rick Blaine Best Bar Award
No bar has ever measured up to Rick’s Café Americain, but there’s always hope. A sophisticated place where rogues, spies, les femmes fatales, and bon vivants gather to swap lies. Kaheksa is where Jacques Clouseau meets John “Die Hard” McClane, dirty rotten scoundrels speak Italian, Megan Fox smokes a stogie, and Bond is back.

Oliver Twist Best Gruel (Worst Restaurant) Award
Since we can’t give this award to Paat every year (we hear it’s improved, but we’re afraid to verify it), this year the award goes to Senso in the Olümpia hotel, otherwise known by its Occidental name, Oliver Twist's Gruel Canteen. And while Kaerajaan isn’t the worst restaurant in town, we can’t help but mention what is surely Tallinn’s worst dish: Kaerajaan’s Baltic Herring Lasagne with Chive pesto, a train wreck of modern Estonian cuisine. (Website addresses withheld as a public service.)

Kalev Meedia Most Ridiculous Business Concept Award
Combine American-style steaks with below average Estonian service, put your restaurant far enough from the Old Town that nobody would possibly bother to walk there, and you get the Goodwin Steak House. We wish them well, but as betting men can only give them six months. Hopefully, there’s a steak-eating oligarch who’ll prop them up until the economy improves. On Tartu Road in the building which appears to have been splashed with mud by a passing carriage.

Full disclosure: I am one of eleven on the Shaw committee which elects the winners. As a rule, in order to vote in a category, a jury member must have eaten at least three times at every nominee-restaurant in the category (visits are unannounced and anonymous). If there are fewer than five judges able to vote in a category, the category is dropped. I therefore had to recuse myself from many votes--I just don't get out like I used to.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Straight white male, 43, gainfully employed, seeks woman for marriage. Suitable candidates love their mate at least as much as God, carry no more debt than can be paid off in one lifetime, and agree to practice monogamy.

Attention ladies of Estonia: My brother Villu is available.

Villu is smart, well-read, has an interesting career as a journalist in the American South, but seems to have little to do other than work, buy stuff, and hang out in restaurants with his friends. He’s 43 years old. The family is starting to worry.

It’s not that he doesn’t want a wife—or so he claims—but he’s either completely unlucky in that department or has been marked by God to receive His wrath, carried solely by female messengers. And carry it they do.

Bernice was three girlfriends ago. Villu was probably in love with her, though the relationship never reached that stage where he was forced to say it. According to American mating rituals, a commitment to not sleep around generally precedes use of the L-word. But Bernice wasn’t able to make that commitment. She had more or less moved in with him, spending several nights a week at Villu’s house. But when it came to the question of sleeping around, she, in my brother’s words, thought monogamy was an expensive material used to make cabinets. Bernice wanted to fly out to California several times a year to continue sleeping with a man in Los Angeles. Villu is a live-and-let-live Libertarian, but when it comes to women he’s an old fashioned guy. Bernice had to go.

Tabitha he dated close to a year—and they both had used the L-word—until she put the hard question to him: “Can you give me five thousand dollars?” Tabitha had taken a bank loan for 300,000 dollars to buy a McMansion, one of the American tract homes built of particleboard to resemble mini-castles. If you blow on one, it falls over, but they hold real appeal for a majority of the upwardly mobile American middle class. With an eye toward remodeling and flipping the house, Tabitha borrowed an additional 200,000 dollars, ran through that, and then put an additional 60,000 on her credit card. When Villu came into the picture, she owed well over a half-million dollars to a variety of creditors. According to Villu, there was no way her house was worth even half her debt, especially with nicer, newer homes down the block listed for as little as two-hundred grand. Tabitha, living in a state of denial that personal bankruptcy was still avoidable, asked Villu for a gift of five-thousand dollars. In an attempt to take the bullet with honor, Villu wrote her a check for five-hundred and told her it was a loan. The very next week she surprised him by buying him a plane ticket and taking him to Florida for the weekend. Tabitha not only couldn’t count money, she lacked all common sense. There was nothing to do but let her go.

Phyllis is the most recent disaster. Somehow convinced (possibly by a perfect body) that Phyllis was terribly interesting but holding back, Villu dated her for nearly a year. Over that time, she never expressed an opinion about anything and, according to Villu, constantly annoyed him by never paying for anything—not a single lunch, dinner, taxi fare, or movie rental. Finally, Phyllis’ never paying for anything overpowered Villu’s curiosity to know exactly how long she could continue without uttering an opinion, and Villu took her to lunch to break up with her. “Villu,” she breathed a visible sigh of relief, “God has told me you’re not the one.” While many Southern American women claim prayer as an important part of their lives, Phyllis, it turned out, claimed a direct channel to the Almighty. God spoke to her, she said, in an audible voice over morning coffee. As Villu was digesting this bit of information, Phyllis stunned him further by reaching for the check. “I’m allowed to get this now,” she declared. “But the Bible says that when in a relationship the man must pay.”

Southern girls are a long way from the sort Villu and I grew up with. In high school and university in Canada, Villu dated Protestants, often Lutherans with an occasional Anglican. None of the girls took God as seriously as the clothes they wore to church. These were independent, liberated girls, far closer to those you’ll find in Estonia. But in the South, girls grow up very close to Daddy, which means they can always turn to him for money. And he’s always “Daddy.” And even when he’s finally gone, they’re still Daddy’s Little Girl. These women strut and chew gum much like a sponsored blonde on the arm of a Russian oligarch, except in the South the custom is to marry them and make them your “trophy wife.” Villu has never adjusted well to this culture. He never will.

Which is why Liina and I have encouraged him to consider Estonian women. Tallinn is a literal wasteland of single women with few prospects for marriage. First, statistically speaking, there are too few men to go around. Second, Estonian men seem less patient with their women than types like Villu. And third, Estonian women, in one key respect, are identical to women the world over: at a certain age they convince themselves that all the good men are either already married or gay.

I’ve thought of running a personal ad on and then correspond with the women on Villu’s behalf until I’ve vetted twenty suitable candidates. Then I’d invite him over for a couple of weeks and bring the girls in to meet him one after another, just like planes stacked for take-off and landing at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

If money weren’t an issue, I’d select one-hundred top candidates and charter a flight. I’d bring them to Villu directly, and then we’d get a very good picture of who might survive a dinner party in the American South, where Yankees are expected to participate (and sometimes lead) that awkward prayer which takes place before the meal and where there’s a Daddy’s Little Girl issuing strafing fire from both right and left flanks. Not all Estonian girls would tolerate that. Villu himself has hardly managed.

The only hitch in my plan is that it’s based on the assumption that Estonian girls might be interested in Villu. His Estonian is far worse than mine and he’s really only comfortable in English. He’s lived in the US so long I think he’s actually become American. He even eats like one and will, for surprisingly long periods of time, hold down his end of a discussion about the virtues of a particular barbecue sauce. And what if the Estonian girls have no interest at all in foreigners?

I’m told by experts in these matters—the expatriates who hang out at Nimeta pub—that Estonian women are no longer dazzled by foreign men. Nimeta’s esteemed barstool philosophers inform me that, according to their most recent studies, Estonian women actually believe that foreign men want nothing more than to get down their pants.

But ladies, I implore you: Villu isn’t like that! Yes, I cannot deny that at some point he will indeed want down your pants. But he isn’t so shallow. His needs run deep. He’s been abused at the hands of plotting, scheming American princesses of the South. With Villu, ladies of Estonia, a little understanding will go a long way. Deep inside him, as with all we foreign men, he just wants to be held.


Read it in Postimees. Spend the money Santa brought you here.