Saturday, July 31, 2010

Going Local

I finally had enough of the heat and shaved my head. The mop of hair you see in my columnist’s photograph is quite comfortable in December, but in 30-degree temperatures I resemble a perpetually-sweaty rockband roadie, which makes both Liina and visitors to the house nervous.

For years, Liina has tried to convince me the shaved look is in style, though I’m not sure where except Eastern Europe (and prisons and army boot camps the world over). But I have to admit it’s comfortable to feel the wind and sun on your scalp. And there’s the added benefit of knowing you’ve, at least temporarily, given up the fight to cover your bald spot, something most western males spend half their lives in pursuit of.

Last week, I had to put on a necktie for a meeting, and I ended up in the Tornimäe district around five o’clock. Other similarly-clad bald professionals were filing out of their offices and for a few hundred meters I felt part of some sort of grotesque parade, all of us on the way to tram stops or parking lots.

“Hey, Vello,” someone shouted, and I turned around to find my French-author friend Guillaume who returns summers to Estonia to write prose and chase prostitutes.

“How’d you recognize me?”

“Because your head is shaped like a banana.”

Which is actually true, and it’s a comment people have made even when I had a full head of hair.

“I kind of thought I blended in this way,” I said, scratching my dome.

Guillaume said I blended in more than before, but still not much. “I can see you’re trying to go local,” he noted. “But it will never work. I will always look like a Frenchman, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And you, my friend, will always look like an American.”

“I’m Canadian.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

Guillaume had once told me a story about how he tried to go local when he lived in New York. He got the Wall Street haircut, the Brooks Brothers suit, the Church’s English shoes, and he learned to vertically fold the New York Times in the way of New Yorkers so it could be read while riding the subway. “Though there were two things I would not do,” he said, “the warning signs of when someone has stepped over the line.” These were owning a pair of black cowboy boots and to the desire to begin sentences with My shrink says… “I swore to myself that if I ever was tempted toward one of those two, I would get the hell out of New York."

Guillaume believes there are danger signs for foreigners in Estonia, too, like getting a Caesar haircut or spending huge sums on a sports car in a country where there’s no place to drive it.

“I’ve never had a Caesar,” I defended.

He looked at my bald head. “Whatever.”

As far as I can tell, no one has mistaken me for an Estonian. It isn’t just about the bald head or the clothing you put with it. Foreigners could be outfitted to look Estonian by an anthropologist and an expert from the Estonia Theatre’s wardrobe department, and they still wouldn’t look Estonian. We even walk differently. Americans, in my opinion, walk like gunslingers. Arms at their sides, they tend to walk down the middle of the sidewalk, as if they were on their way to meet their adversary at High Noon. Russians, when they’re not squatting somewhere with a cigarette or leaning against a Benz showing off their bling, have a similar way of walking. But while an American will duck out of your way and mutter an excuse-me, a Russian is more typically oblivious to your presence: as far as he knows, he is the only one on the sidewalk. Italians are a moving carnival, from their colorful shoes to their printed tshirts and the multiple conversations which orbit them as they move down the street, every one of them chattering away simultaneously. And Estonians are often the quiet bald guys who have a characteristic way of melting into the wallpaper to be strategically inconspicuous. Although he’s there listening, recording things like a court reporter, you don’t notice him unless he speaks up. An exception is the supermarket, of course: an Estonian with a shopping cart is all over the place. With shopping carts or automobiles, he’s a demolition derby driver.

So if people don’t think I’m Estonian, then what am I? “Well, there’s the obvious cancer patient thing,” said Guillaume, before adding that I appeared to be more a foreigner who was experiencing his midlife crisis in Estonia. “I see a lot of that sort in strip clubs,” he said. “Fifty years old, married with kids, and thinking that stuffing kroons in a girl’s G-string is the high point of living.”

“And you’re different?”

“I’m there to meet the girls and bone them,” he replied, with zero hint of irony. “For most of the others, the whooping and dollar throwing is the climax. I have a higher purpose.”

I’ve always respected Guillaume for his bald honesty. He believes what he believes and makes no apologies for it. Much like Priit Pullerits, who I saw in a recent Postimees is on his horse again about Estonian women and foreign men. Even though I may not always agree with him, I admire that Priit is bound so closely to his set of beliefs, and I’m pretty sure you’d not get Priit to shave his head (or wear a Caesar, for that matter). I don’t think Guillaume and Priit would agree on too many things, but I do think they’d respect each other at a certain level. And, luckily, Guillaume isn’t a threat to take Estonian girls out of the country, if only because most of the strippers nowadays tend to be from Ukraine or Belarus.

By the time this piece is published, my hair will have grown out a couple of centimeters and Guillaume will say I look like my chemo is over. Liina will tell me that the style is to keep it shaved. But it’s my hair, isn’t it? And if I want to parade around town looking like I just stuck my hand in an electrical socket then that’s nobody’s business but my own. At least I won’t be aping anyone. I’ll be firmly in a transitional phase, on my way to only-I-know-where.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


As infrequently as I fly I am relegated to the cattle section. On my last trip to North America, airline personnel shuffled me into the first class check-in line to speed things along. For a short while, society’s elite, middle class, and heroin smugglers all stood together in the queue, leaving a few of the first class passengers perturbed. A well-dressed man in his late fifties turned to me and sneered about a backpacker who was getting checked in before him: “He doesn’t look like first class material to me.”

A bit put off by his snobbery, I gave the man a conspicuous onceover. “Quite frankly,” I said, “I’m a bit worried about you.”

“What do you mean?” he said, examining his clothing, stunned that I might question his perfect suit and designer bag.

“Well, you could be undercover. What if you’re an Al Qaeda man who’s had plastic surgery? Or worse. What if you’re just some middle-class Joe in an expensive suit.”

He wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. “Look there,” I said. “I believe it’s your turn at the counter.”

I haven’t flown first class in years. Or Upper- or Business- , or Elite-, or Grey Poupon-, or Up Yours Class, or whatever more recent name they’ve dreamed up for it. In the day I flew first class, the airline TWA (The Worst Airline) was still around, and I got to sit in the wide seats only because I flew so often that I was automatically upgraded. But even when I basked in the comforts of first class, I always thought they were overrated.

The food wasn’t that much better, and eating with a metal fork wasn’t significantly more gratifying than eating with a plastic one. The movies were fine, but if you wanted a good one you still had to bring it yourself. Drinks in the first class cabin were free in North America, though every passenger knew they weren’t really free, and first class passengers generally aren’t much for getting drunk on airplanes. Sure, the reclining seat and extra legroom were nice on flights over the Atlantic, but for me those were few and far between. However, there was one benefit to first class that was certainly not overrated: Stewardesses were always nice to you.

Part of the general nastiness of American stewardesses has been attributed to the fact that these poor women joined the airline when they were starry-eyed twenty-year-olds. Flying was a good way to see the world and, back before women’s liberation, working as a stewardess was a pretty sexy job. The ladies joined the union, jetted in and out of Paris, and by the time their fun became work they weren’t twenty years old anymore. They were locked into careers, condemned to serve Coca-Cola at forty-thousand feet for the rest of their working lives.

As the mood of stewardesses began to turn nasty, the US skies saw deregulation, which meant competition and a precipitous drop in fares: the common man could now afford to fly. Soon after deregulation, life got harder for stewardesses when low-cost airlines entered the fray. Anyone who’s had a basic chemistry course knows that if you take a bitter middle-aged woman used to serving the wealthy, pour in a planeload of middle-class boors, all the fun will soon be gone from air travel.

Coach passengers are indeed sometimes the raggedy-assed multitudes who fly once a year and think that the flight attendants are their personal slaves. I’ve more than once seen a stewardess blow up at a coach passenger, informing him that she is first and foremost responsible for his safety. Which is true, but she’s also responsible for getting him a drink and a meal, and I’ve always thought we’d all be better off if a stewardess could just smile her way through a difficult situation.

Of course it isn’t just North America. Even in Scandinavia, under whose socialism we enjoy double extra equality, there’s a difference. First class stewardesses are a bit cooler, but since there isn’t usually a Finn puking in the forward lavatory, they are decidedly more at ease, which translates to a superior flying experience.

Now that the Estonian state will soon have the majority of Estonian Air and is starting to think about change, I’ve got an idea of my own: Make every Estonian Air seat a first class seat.

Estonians are enamored with the idea of first class. During a recent ETV news segment about a manor home, the manager mentioned at least three times that they were targeting “elites.” I recently bought a used Skoda, which an Estonian man deemed a chick car—“Very simple,” he said. “Not enough buttons,” which, he felt, made it “inappropriate for business use.” And more than two Estonians have told me my telephone number is too long. “Prestige numbers come from EMT,” one said, “and your number says ‘cheap plan’.” Move too much beyond Maseratis and designer clothes, and I am useless at recognizing the symbols of Estonia’s upper class.

Coming out of the throes of Soviet poverty, Estonia is understandably caught up in a chase for status. It may take years for people to come back down to earth, so why not simply embrace this quest to be elite by making every Estonian Air seat first class?

But it’s not about giving everyone a wider seat, a metal fork, gourmet food, and unlimited amounts of alcohol, though of course we’ll need those, too. And I’m not talking about stewardesses helping each passenger off with his jacket and hanging it in a dust-free environment, though let’s do that, as well. My idea of first class is that no one will sneer at a backpacker in line. That even the most absurd behavior by the most vile economy-class passenger will be met with an approving smile. Like when dining at Buckingham Palace and the Queen of England blows her nose using the tablecloth because the Latvian president has done so first: Indeed, Her Majesty may be offended, but she knows it’s more important to make the guest feel welcome. I envision the same for Estonian Air.

What if every passenger were addressed as härra, preili, or proua? What if the check-in worker was still glad to see you at six a.m.? What if stewardesses were thoroughly versed in the English language? (They’re the only stewardesses I’ve seen who can make “safety” a three-syllable word.) And let’s teach them to be more assertive. Currently, they’re so quiet they might as well not even be there.

It won’t be easy, of course. We’d need to bring in Peep Vain, possibly the only man who can get an Estonian to smile without the use of artificial stimulants. Or maybe we just forget hiring Estonians and get all our stewardesses from Singapore Air. That would be expedient, but probably not doable, given state ownership.

But what if every passenger exited an Estonian Air plane remarking, “Geez, they were so damned nice to me…” and was somehow dazzled by a positive flying experience. Sure, Estonian passengers may not give a damn about being dazzled, but they’ll fly Estonian Air anyway, no matter how bad it gets. The fact is that if Estonian Air is going to be financially successful, then foreigners are going to have to like it, too. So perhaps this elite business is something Estonians and foreigners can agree on? I, for one, am always ready for someone to dazzle me.


Illustration courtesy of Hilde Kokk De Keizer

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Summer brings me out from under my suburban rock and into the city to witness life once again in my self-appointed role as an amateur anthropologist. I’ve followed the economic decline in the newspaper, but by the looks of Old Town on a sunny day, you’d never know a crisis had visited. Many of the fashionable restaurants are still around, interiors still sleek and modern enough to make a Finnish designer blush. The streets are still packed with Mercedeses, Audis, and the occasional Bentley or Maserati. True, there seem to be fewer locals in the cafes, but those present don’t seem to have lost the spirit of the boom—Hugo Boss all over the men, and women sport more D&G sunglasses per capita than in places on earth where the sun actually shines.

Each new season, much like the black storks who return to Estonia, I begin a search for a café nesting site among my own species, what I call the “normal” people. This means a search for people like me, whose clothing is worn around the edges, who don’t have trophy mistresses, and who can’t remember the last time they went to a nightclub. I search for a place where there is the absence of a thirst for more, where those who sit among the tables appear merely content, without an agenda to impress. I look for those, who, as Marcus Aurelius put it, are not “studious of the popular applause.”

I used to like the Noku klubi, though to get in I had to wait outside until someone leaving let the door swing open long enough for me to enter. (My wife Liina is a member, but she lost her card, and out of principle refuses to pay 100 kroons to replace it.) I’ve thought of applying for membership myself—I know two members who would recommend me, but rumor is they reject everyone who applies who isn’t pals with the owners. More importantly, if I happened to be accepted it would take the fun out of sneaking in. And if I were rejected, my enthusiasm would be soured, sneaking into a place where I am officially unwanted. Also, as Liina pointed out recently, the “No” of Noku stands for “young,” and by Estonian standards, I no longer fit that description.

Another haunt where I look for normal people is the little cigar shop tucked away on Dunkri Street—La Casa del Habano. Its name rings of a place where you might bump into revolutionaries and spies, two types I’m naturally drawn to, if only because I’ve fantasized since youth about being recruited by MI6 and issued a Walther PPK. La Casa, as its known to regulars, is Estonia’s spiritual heir to Rick’s Café Americain. Sans Nazis, as far as I know.

Among La Casa’s regulars you’ll find Belgian Jacques-Alain, a former circus performer. He now makes his living selling WMDs to Arab nations, but after a drink or two you can always persuade him to show you a few moves from his days as a contortionist. His specialty was enterology, which he’ll explain is the practice of squeezing one’s body into a small container that appears to be impossibly small for the human body. I once saw him get almost his entire body inside a cigar humidor no bigger than a footstool. After he did it, others tried it until the humidor broke into a dozen pieces and they had to chip in to pay for it.

There’s a Persian called Shah by his friends, because he could be the doppelgänger of the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. Shah always has a CD in his pocket in case a local establishment is playing techno music. It disappoints him when young Estonians think the throb of techno is a danceable beat, and so he flies from table to table recruiting Estonians to join impromptu Bollywood dances. I once saw him lead thirty Estonians as they flexed and gyrated to the Hindu classic “Nimbooda Hum Dil De Chuke.”

There’s another Persian, far more mysterious, who always seems to have a cigar in his mouth and be talking at the same time. This man’s story is never the same twice. One day he’ll claim to be a Zoroastrian descendant of Darius I, the greatest of the Achaemenid kings. The next he’ll regale you with stories of fighting alongside Sir Bart Fitzroy Maclean, though he’s roughly my age which would mean he, at best, fought battles with a toy sword. Darius, as they call him, was educated in English public schools and his favorite parlor trick is to recite poems in Brythonic, a predecessor language of Welsh, which he does without any prompting after his third Campari.

There’s a nubile twenty-three-year-old who is already on her fourth man this season, and she makes no bones about only wanting them for their money. “I’m not interested in Taivo anymore,” she told me while bouncing on the knee of the guy she dumped Taivo for. “Taivo’s credit card got me only as far as London, and by the third shop I visited it was maxed out. I had to buy my own plane ticket home.” I’d met Taivo a couple of times, and I have to believe he’d planned the whole thing, figuring she’d be stranded in London and have to learn humility by sleeping in the tunnels of the Underground. But everyone likes this woman, perhaps because she’s unabashed about her greed. I find her honesty refreshing but on the other hand don’t see how she’s much different than a prostitute. I haven’t yet got around to asking her that.

Another regular is Rein, who is some kind of high-level policeman, probably connected to KaPo or the CIA, or maybe even the KGB. You can always find him in a dark corner smoking strong Spanish cigarettes. He never moves from his seat and quietly surveys the room. I once asked him if he always sat with his back to the wall in case there was a gunfight. He only stared at me, his expression unchanged. After a while he told me he thought guns were overrated, that it was much more fun to kill with your bare hands. Not sure if he was joking, I said that that was also my experience, though I occasionally liked to use a garrote for a little variety. Since then, we haven’t talked much.

Oddly enough, none of these people I gravitate toward fit my definition of normal, and I’ve begun to consider revising it. I’m told by a friend from a village on Estonia’s north coast that they have one resident referred to by the villagers as the normaalne mees, the normal man. This normal guy happens to be the only sober working-age man in the village, and he’s the one called upon if a leaky roof needs repaired. I’ve begun to think the villagers have a point, and perhaps I’m asking too much of “normaalne.”

I’m not sure how I fit into my decidedly abnormal crowd, nor am I sure why the proprietors of the joints where I hang out don’t run me off for being too boring. One reason could be that I always pay cash for my drinks. Or perhaps they like the idea that I one day might write about them and make them legends in print. I suppose the next best thing to having a song written about you is to cut a romantic figure in someone’s newspaper column.

It’s also possible that after this is published the thrill will be gone and I’ll no longer be welcome. Shah will complain that I didn’t properly describe his strapping, youthful figure. Or Darius will be angry that I didn’t mention he also has an excellent singing voice. People are impossible to please.

The frustrating thing is that while I’ve never found the normal people I seek, I am not uncomfortable around this whiskey-swilling band of bullshitters. And if the birds of a feather thing is actually true, then I’m merely nesting with my own kind. And that is the scariest thing of all.