Saturday, February 20, 2010


Ivan Ivanovich was everywhere. In the parking lot of Pae High School he had parked four deep amongst a sea of taxis, drivers abandoning their cars in the middle of the parking lot, perhaps assuming that everyone else was here for the same reason. A few of the drivers, boxed in and going nowhere, shouted in Russian at the rest. There wasn’t a word of Estonian to be heard, so I knew I was in the right place to take the state’s Estonian-language exam.

Inside it was chaos as well. Hundreds of Ivan Ivanoviches were pressed together tighter than a rugby scrum, all jostling for position to find their names and room assignments on thirty A4 pages taped to one wall in the entry way. A woman with an administrative mien stood quietly by, observing the shoving match.

“Is there anywhere else I can find my room assignment?” I asked her, not really in the mood to behave like a football hooligan so early in the morning.

“No,” she replied, and gestured to the scrum. Men were elbowing women, women elbowing men, everyone pushing forward like they were trying to get to the front row of a rock concert.

“What a bardakk,” I said calmly in Estonian, making note of the mass of people crawling atop one another.

Ei olje bardakk,” she disagreed loudly with a thick Russian accent, clearly offended that I’d criticized her work. Surely, in her mind, our e-state was functioning at its finest, firing smoothly on all pistons.

This may sound arrogant, but so be it: There is normally nothing in Estonia I want badly enough to join in a shoving match with one hundred ethnic Russians. On any other day I would have turned away and sought more civilized ground. But I had been refused the right to vote in the past local elections due to the status of my living permit (temporary), and I was determined to rectify that by passing the B1 language exam. To my way of thinking, if you don’t vote, you have no right to bitch. And sometimes I really do enjoy bitching.

So I threw myself into the scrum. Instinctively, I covered my pockets with my hands to guard my wallet. This left me unable to elbow anyone, but I bounced back and forth from body to body as if in a mosh pit. Occasionally, someone gave me a dirty look, which I met with a sheepish smile, the international sign for “Don’t blame me for your culture.” Five minutes later I was standing in front of the papers, but I still couldn't find my name. One Russian woman had taken it upon herself to call the room numbers and then read the twenty or so names out loud. I heard lots of Nataljas, Natashas, Viktorias, Veronikas, Tatjanas, and Tamaras, as well as a few Sergeis and Ivans. But I heard no Vello. I heard not a single name not Russian. I could see only six sheets from where I stood, so there was nothing else to do but change position. I pounded forward and bounced off the wall much like a hockey player checked against the glass. I bounced left and could see several more sheets, and among the Russian names, I saw a Paul with an English surname. Rejoice, a fellow foreigner! But still no Vello. Knowing the military maxim that to advance is to conquer, I did not give ground. I fought forward again and then to the left. If my name were not on this side of the board, I would interpret it as a sign from God, that He, in connivance with the Republic of Estonia, did not want me to vote. But there I was. A proud student assigned to Room 209.

When I struggled from the line, Ms. Ei Olje Bardakk was present to assist me, and she pointed me up the staircase to the second floor, where proctors Mihael and Piia welcomed us to a sunlit room. Piia greeted us in snail-speed Estonian and explained the ground rules for the exam. I was told to put away the notes I was making about the bardakk downstairs. As I looked around the room it was clear that the only thing Estonian in this school was the language exam: even the exam proctor spoke with a slight accent. All the signs on the walls—inside the classrooms and in the corridors—were all in Russian. I hoped I would understand enough Russian to complete the exam.

The essay portion required us to fill out a survey about a moving company we had employed, which I gladly did, noting my dissatisfaction with the company since they’d broken a large portion of the items they were paid to move. Immediately, the young man in front of me removed a crib-sheet from his pocket and began to copy something from it. But it wasn’t enough, for after another minute he turned in his seat to me and asked in English, “What means ‘firma’?” Thinking that Mihael and Piia would only miss this if they were blind, I suggested he ask one of them. In principle, it was his business if he wanted to cheat, but I had not fought through the rugby scrum in the lobby to get thrown out of the testing facility for helping the biggest fool in the room.

The next assignment required me to write a letter to my good friend Kaido to tell him how I spent New Year’s Eve. “Do you remember, Kaido?” I wrote, “How you got so drunk last year that you puked on the mayor of Tallinn's car?” I often pity those who must grade standardized exams, so why not entertain them? I continued to explain to Kaido that I had gone to Moscow for this year’s celebration and that “Mr. Putin sent his limousine to meet me at the train station.” I described my wonderful holiday to Kaido, adding “As a souvenir, Mr. Putin gave me a grocery sack stuffed with American currency.” I finished the exam before the others—how could I not if they didn’t know what “firma” meant?—and handed it in. I noticed Mihael reading it over front and back, but he didn’t crack a smile. I wondered if smartasses were penalized. At the very least, my mention of vomit and the mayor’s car would surely elicit closer scrutiny, which might result in points deducted for incorrect grammar which might have otherwise passed unnoticed.

Exercises followed where we learned about the beauty of Estonia’s winter capital of Otepää, how Otto Kubo, Kalev’s Grand Old Man of Chocolate, studied chemistry in university and speaks ten languages, and how much a young Estonian named Raili loves and respects her aging grandmother. In general, I felt Estonia’s standardized test was less silly than those I’ve taken in Canada and the United States, and I had to give positive marks to Mihael and Piia for their diligent administration. Everything was clear. Everything moved smoothly. And, so far, the test had focused solely on the Estonian language. The morning’s rugby scrum appeared to be the only cultural assimilation test I would be required to take. I felt palpable relief. Perhaps I would not be asked to spit sunflower seeds great distances or fire a Kalashnikov from a speeding vehicle.

For the speaking portion of the exam I was partnered with Katarina who in her self-introduction said she was an unemployed mother of one. Katarina’s toughest verbal challenge came when Piia asked her to remove the chewing gum from her mouth so that I might better understand her. Katarina struggled, yes, but in my opinion she managed her part of the simple tasks presented us quite well. She had only to pretend she was a consumer, while my job was to sell her an overpriced book with 600 color photographs from TEA Kirjastus. But Piia was not satisified, and she told Katarina she would score only four out of ten. Me, I would get eight, which I shrugged off with the refrain that “Estonian is grammatically impossible,” which generally is guaranteed to make an Estonian smile with pleasure. Piia laughed and said that I’d done fine, which I wasn’t sure I had. I hadn’t really had a conversation with Katarina. I’d just made brief telephone talk. But if the state was happy, then I was happy. There was no scrum near the door on the way out—the papers had been removed—and I stepped into the light of the first warm day of the year, hoping that when it comes to voting in Estonia I won't have to push and shove to cast my ballot.

Bardakk = бардак = (literally) whorehouse = SNAFU = big mess

Inherit the Family: Marrying into Eastern Europe now in English from

Read Bardakk in Postimees.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

British English

“We speak British English,” proclaimed Vesta, an Estonian woman, aged sixty, with whom I was trying to have a discussion about an essay I’d written for her firm’s corporate magazine. She refused to speak Estonian and insisted on English, though the whole process would have gone faster had she deigned to suffer through my halting Estonian. Instead, Vesta attributed our difficulties in communication to my Canadian English.

I often receive comments from Estonians about the superiority of British English over Canadian and American English. On a certain level I agree: When spoken properly, British English is indeed more beautiful than American or Canadian English. And although Vesta might not agree, I find Irish- and Scottish English even more pleasing to the ear. Canadian English, however, falls somewhere in between British and American—more American, but with the preservation of British spellings in a nod to Her Majesty The Queen, who is, indeed, still our Sovereign.

When a “British English” speaker likes Vesta gives me the speech about the inferiority of my brand of English, I often want to ask her why she pronounces the “L” in "salmon" and why, in written communication, she capitalizes the “Y” in “You” when it isn’t at the beginning of a sentence. I once pointed this out to a class of English students at a Tallinn high school who claimed that’s just how they’d been taught. I told them to go find their teachers and demand their money back. Whatever kind of English they’d been taught, it certainly wasn’t British.

Vesta will want to strangle me for saying this, but I think Siim Kallas is a great example of how Estonians can communicate well in English. Kallas’ English is what is termed “halting” in the true definition of the word (hesitating, faulty), as well as in the fact that it stops you in your tracks. His English is bad, but he’s loud. Add the shit-eating grin he constantly uses, even if he’s just repeating some tired old bromide, and he somehow really reaches people. It’s not self-confidence his technique emanates, but it’s a very believable proxy, ideal for non-native speakers who simply need to communicate in order to get what they want. Mr. Kallas is not a bad one to model, especially for “British English” speakers like Vesta. Loud is often good. We may not like to admit it, but the world loves loud.

Recently, I was witness to a British book salesman attempting to sell books at one of Estonia’s largest bookstore chains. The meeting between the salesman and the bookstore’s buyer took place in the bookstore café, and I happened to be sitting nearby. The buyer expressed her distaste for American English and noted that she wanted to buy products in British English—she particularly disliked American calendars which begin the week with Sunday. The salesman, who also clearly represented some Yankee publishers, attempted to defend the Americans and noted that most English spoken in the world among the young tends to be American. The buyer was unimpressed and replied, as if channeling Vesta, “We want British English.”

I can understand that some Estonians don’t like American English since it is seen, at least in part, to be in the vanguard of American hegemony. Critics routinely hold Hollywood, MTV, and other culprits responsible for poisoning young minds with trash culture and trashy English. But I’ve lived in America, and I can say I never met a single person who spoke like he was a gangster in a Hollywood movie; I never met anyone who drew his nine-millimeter to blast away at Al Qaeda attackers; nor did I ever meet anyone who’d been in a car chase—all events which any amount of American TV watching might lead one to conclude are daily occurrences in the States. The majority of Americans speak an English which is actually quite attractive to my ear (perhaps because it isn’t so different from mine). Educated Americans speak a quite normaalne English which employs interesting syntax and diction and draws from a wide lexicon, and I even find the uneducated ones charming—from the South in particular—for their wonderful accents and colorful expressions they bring to the language.

Americans are certainly accustomed to taking abuse for their language and culture. Recently, Horace Engdahl, permanent member of the Nobel jury, took up the cause by accusing America of not participating “in the big dialogue of literature” and saying Americans’ “ignorance is restraining.” Mr. Engdahl, as even many British English speakers quickly pointed out, was talking out of his ass, but he still found many to cheer him on for his anti-American remarks.

But this is not to defend American English, nor is it to suggest Estonians take up the American brand of English. In defense of the brand of English Estonians speak (not to be confused with Vesta’s brand), I am favorably impressed with many students in Estonia’s English-biased schools. I have accepted invitations to visit both the 7th and 21st Secondary Schools, where I encountered remarkably good English spoken with a variety of accents, a few even British. The Estonian accent is strange to my ear in that it seems to be a transitional accent, which the speaker eventually loses as his language improves. While I will always have my accent when speaking Estonian, Estonians who speak English, if they practice enough, actually do move into a realm where their accent is slight and not easily placed. When non-natives speak English—Chinese, Russians, Germans, French, Italians, Mexicans, to name a handful—many have accents which allow them to be pigeonholed. Estonians are tougher to place, and not only because it’s a small country (Latvians, for example, have a very distinct, annoying, childlike, sing-song accent). Estonians just seem to have some natural facility for languages.

But despite what Vesta would like to believe, Estonians don’t speak British English. They speak Estonian English: a fact I wish they were no more ashamed of than I am ashamed of my Canadian English. Sure, there are some bad habits Estonians might break when they use English—stop trying to write Faulknerian sentences (Hemingway is plenty good); avoid the overuse of idioms when you want to make a serious point (better to be yourself); and exercise caution in the humor department (practice jokes before attempting to dazzle your foreign audience)—but in the end Estonians are pretty talented.

To Vesta’s credit, I wish I could speak British English. But I don’t. And it would be terribly pretentious of me to try. I cringe every time I hear Americans throw around British terms like “spot on” or “kitted out” or when they want to ride the “lift.” Even worse is when they pronounce “schedule” like the British or note that something is not their “cup of tea.” One cannot be what one is not. And it’s very unappealing when one tries.

Vesta and I never did find a common language. She heavily edited my text, inserting all sorts of passages she thought were both clarifying and British, which I argued were neither. In the end, it didn’t closely resemble what I’d given her, and I suggested Vesta replace my name with hers, which she gladly did, and then released the publication to a print-run of some five-hundred copies as well as to the ether where it now lives an eternal but ephemeral existence, a contradiction only made possible by the internet: present forever, forever ignored.

The reality is, however, that a freelance writer who works abroad happens upon many Vestas who insist on their own sort of British English, and so I have learnt, when writing, to add the gratuitous “u” to colour, to travel by aeroplane, and to greatly exaggerate my use of the impersonal pronoun, “one”. (Note that one must also place punctuation outside the inverted commas.) If a small, humbling gesture on my part is all that’s required to pay the mortgage and feed the kids, then I suppose I can manage to adopt some “British English.” It’s such a charming little language after all.

Read the Estonian version in Postimees.