Monday, October 3, 2011

There from Here

“You can’t get there from here,” I used to hear so much it became a mantra when I would attempt to travel by public transport deep in Estonia’s countryside.

I’d be without a car in some remote southern Estonian village with the desire to get to another remote village. To get there I always had to travel through Tartu, or at least Võru. But that was the charm of the countryside, and it was why I often shunned the bus for hitchhiking.

Today, in the larger context of Europe, remoteness is the charm of Tallinn. Wherever “there” is, with the exception of Helsinki, it’s hard to get there from here without engaging in some minor odyssey.

My recent mission: fly to London, discuss a project over lunch, return home the same day.

I soon found out it was impossible from Tallinn. There was the Helsinki option, but the ticket cost 800 euros, and the departure was so early and return so late that I’d end up spending at least one night in Helsinki. Add taxis to and from Vantaa, and the trip hardly justified the price.

So I flew from Tallinn via Riga on an airBaltic deal which gave me one night in a hotel near Hyde Park. All for a little over 300 euros.

The tradeoff for the price is, of course, the Riga airport, still a booming outpost of Eastern European culture. Despite the fact it’s been physically remodeled, one would not be surprised to find its corridors lined with babushkas in housedresses shouting about the virtues of dried fish.

Many of the airport staff speak English with thick, Boratish accents. Passport control looks you over as if you might be traveling with your anus stuffed full of heroin, and then: “Where’s your boarding pass?”

“I don’t have one,” I answered. “Transit check-in is on the other side of you.” The young man eyed me suspiciously. I honestly wasn’t trying to be a smartass.

“You need get boarding pass at transit check,” he declared, as if it were his original idea.

Then he gave me one more suspicious stare and buzzed me through. On the other side, the terminal’s air was filled with the constant din of wannabe disc jockeys making pre-flight announcements which ensure you can’t hear yourself think, much less your telephone ring. In a search for earplugs I found only Rigas Balsams.

A few hours later at Gatwick I was sent packing from the EU passport line when I showed my Estonian ID card. “But I have permanent residence in the EU,” I protested. “Shouldn’t that be worth a shorter queue? And I’m Canadian. Your Queen is my Queen.”

The lady looked at the card as if I were handing her one of my son’s dirty diapers and banished me to the line with Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Americans. There I got a healthy grilling, though the accent was pleasant and the tone polite.

The guard was clearly not interested in the answers to his questions, only that I, in fact, had answers. “And who would you be visiting here, sir?” “Is that a business partner, sir?” “Where are you staying, sir?” I often wonder that if you told them in a confident tone that you were sleeping on a bench in Hyde Park would they carry on in their cheery fashion. “And which particular bench would that be, sir?”

But what struck me most about London is that in the 24 hours I spent there I did not meet a single native Brit outside of passport control and in taxicabs.

The Gatwick Express conductor was Spanish. The entire hotel staff, even the concierge purported to possess supernatural local knowledge, were Eastern European. It was as if I’d never left the Riga airport.

The girl running the pub was Polish. The restaurant I ate in was Lebanese (its waitress Italian). At the entrance to Kensington Palace I was greeted by a familiar accent. “You American?” I asked the ticket taker. “Canadian,” she replied.

It occurred to me that I would have had more interaction with British people if I’d stayed home and driven around Tallinn with my GPS turned on. (The voice I’ve selected sounds like Miss Moneypenny.)

The point of all this is that more and more I find that when I leave Tallinn Airport I start to immediately miss it. I like its Scandinavian silence, its short lines, and free wireless internet, all which somehow serve to mitigate the strangeness of the pat-down man, who just a little too lovingly runs his fingers around the inside the waistband of your trousers.

All this would seem to add up to opportunity for Estonia, Tallinn Airport, and Estonian Air.

A friend has pointed out that the peace and quiet I so enjoy in Ülemiste bears a remarkable resemblance to a graveyard. Because you can’t get there from here, no one does, and the airport’s charm is based on the fact that so few passengers are served.

That may be, but whatever great success Latvia may boast of in air travel should probably be taken in context: all media accounts point to a Day of Reckoning for the Latvian state and airBaltic, which is said will soon lay off hundreds of workers.

And although it’s a popular pastime to make fun of Estonian Air, I’m optimistic now that issue of ownership has been sorted out. Bringing in the pragmatic, bottom-line-loving Joakim Helenius and his hired gun Tera Taskila seems a clear step on the road to profit. Of course it’s impossible to know just how bent on instant gratification and immediate returns the state will be. Will they leave the new team alone long enough to do the job? Or will they meddle from behind the curtain and force sült on the inflight menu, put yellow-vested reisisaatjad in the cabin, or quadruple daily flights to European armpits like Minsk?

May I suggest a daily London route? It’s not just for me: I read somewhere that Skype buys some 2,500 tickets per year to London. (They must surely tire of flying through Riga.)

Tallinn is a wonderful city to come home to. An affordable taxi awaits you, as does the lovely euro. The border guard is efficient and is familiar with ID cards. There are authentic Estonians in the shops and behind counters.

Why not build on that? What if airport walls were covered with soothing Estonian art? What if orchestras rehearsed there? Or choirs? Or what if Tallinn city government members (in yellow vests) roamed the terminal giving free massages to waiting passengers? What if you could get a free sauna while you wait?

There’s plenty of potential to make Tallinn Airport the most pleasant departure and arrival point in Europe. If only you could get there from here. Some day, though, you will.

And while you're waiting in that airport...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cock Ring Ken: the Movie

One deep bow to artist Toon Vugts who has produced a film based on the column "Cock Ring Ken."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Second Hand

Did the writer David Sedaris really get pubic lice from a pair of jeans he bought in a second hand store? Liina and I have debated it ad nauseum, and she says he’s lying. I say pubic lice are inevitable if you try on enough pairs of jeans.

Public lice, the tiny, six-legged critter — “crabs” as they're popularly known — are generally transmitted through the intermingling of pubic jungles during sexual intercourse. And though it’s more rare, they can indeed spread through contact with toilet seats, sheets, blankets, bathing suits, or even jeans.

Thanks to Sedaris, for years I shied away from second hand shops. But thanks to Estonia, recently I returned.

For reasons I should not disclose, I have the occasional need to wear a uniform. Whether one needs to appear to be an Army General, customs worker, medical doctor, airport runway technician, or American TV news cameraman, the second-hand shop USA Today near the Tallinn Väike rail station has an outfit for the occasion. It didn’t take me long to find the toxic waste disposal worker uniform I desired. It was even in my size.

But I discovered other treasures, too. There was a Mossimo corduroy jacket and L.L. Bean lined trousers for winter. Joseph A. Banks dress shirts were abundant in my size. Some were new, some were close to new, and each was something around five euros.

I took some comfort in the fact that David Sedaris never got crabs from a shirt. But just in case, I tried them on with a tshirt underneath, removed them as quickly as possible, and washed them in hot water at home before wearing.

USA Today piqued my curiosity. If the Americans were sending perfectly good Joseph A. Banks dress shirts, what might the Europeans be sending? This led me to Humana where I found trousers in my size, as well as several sport coats which were of higher quality than most of what you find at Stockmann. One of them fit me. And only ten euros. No kidding.

Two weeks later, wearing my new-to-me jacket, I saw my friend Alan at a party. I admired him greatly, not only because he was an intellectual who had tackled Estonian literature’s most massive translation project, but because, sartorially speaking, he had the disheveled professor look down pat.

Perhaps I am only trying to justify my own less-than-neat appearance, but if a man’s clothes have just the right amount of wrinkles, if his hair is such that he won’t get a job modeling for Supercuts, and if he isn’t completely drunk, then you know he is likely a man to be reckoned with, a man who cannot be bought and sold. “That’s a beautiful jacket, Vello,” Alan clapped me on the back. “You think the shop has one in my size?”

I told him I was pretty sure Humana didn’t, but said if the jacket would fit him then I’d give it to him right then and there. (I meant what I said, but I was safe; Alan was at least one-and-a-half of me.) Alan’s approval set me on an even deeper second hand course.

I admit that I first viewed second hand as a chance to reduce the burden of my annual provisioning trip to the west: fly out with no suitcases and return with your maximum allowance. (Why shop Estonia? Buy your stuff in the west, and the savings easily pay for the plane ticket.)

But while the seeds of my second-hand habit may lie in the fact that I’m a cheap bastard, they quickly grew into something Zen. Buying second hand offered instant relief from the burden of things.

If I decide I don’t like the pattern of my shirt, or if it’s slightly too long in the sleeves, then I give it to the Salvation Army. If my son throws up on my Nautica pants, so what? If someone praises my jacket or tie, I may take it off and give it to him in a grand, Gandhiesque gesture.

But despite my Zen level, there is the occasional trauma.

I recently bought a pair of jeans from Humana. I tried them on briefly in the store, but with Sedaris’ words in the back of my mind I removed them as quickly as possible.

When I got home, I washed them at the highest temperature and then proudly showed them to Liina. “Calvin Klein!” I told her, sashaying around the living room as if I were Carmen Kass on a Paris catwalk.

She hardly looked up from her book.

I preened in front of the mirror, tugging at the jeans. Something wasn’t quite right. The zipper seemed a bit high to allow freedom for urination, but wasn’t this how designer jeans were supposed to be? I recalled the credo of Fernando Álvaro Lamas: It is better to look good than to feel good.

The jeans hung in my closet for a week. For some reason, I could not bring myself to wear them. They did not look bad on me, certainly, but they didn’t look good, either.

One day, two gay friends were visiting, and I showed them the jeans and explained my reservations.

“These are women’s jeans,” Martin declared instantly.

“That’s right,” agreed Mattias, “You’re wearing girl’s jeans.” He snickered in an overly theatrical manner.

I was slightly offended. “Just because you guys are gay doesn’t mean you know shit about clothing.”

“Oh, yeah?” Martin countered. “Then why did you show them to us.”

“Look!” Mattias snatched the jeans from my hands and flung them open on the kitchen table. “You think you can get your tool out with that tiny zipper? No way, mister.”

“And look at the hips!” cried Martin. “They’re wide. For women. Are your hips wide, Vello?”

Mattias began prying around inside the jeans. “See? Size 14! Women’s.”

“I’ve tried on the jeans,” I said, “and they aren’t wide in the hips. And the sizing could be because they’re designer jeans. Also, they were in the men’s department.”

At this both Mattias and Martin howled. “Well,” shrieked Martin, “those clothing experts at the second hand store surely know!”

“Wear women’s jeans if you want then,” said Mattias, folding his hands across his chest in a case-closed gesture.

“No one will notice,” added Martin. “Probably.”

I took the jeans from them and told them they knew so little about clothing that they were going to lose their homosexual licenses. Later that night I scoured the internet for information on Calvin Klein size 14 jeans. Everything I found was for women.

I wondered if I might not give them away to some unsuspecting friend. But how Gandhiesque would the gesture appear if I didn’t take them off my own body to give them away? And wouldn’t someone have to first express interest in them? I might be waiting a very long time.

The next day, I quietly took them to the Salvation Army. “These are women’s jeans,” I told the girl working there, so she wouldn’t make the mistake of putting them in the men’s section.

She gave me a strange look. “Of course they are,” she said.

“I washed them, too,” I added. “Just so nobody will get crabs.” Then I turned on my heel and marched out the door.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dispatch: Malawi

After a column suggesting suitable debate topics for the upcoming elections, some have suggested I might best serve Estonia as the republic’s envoy in Malawi, with which Estonia established diplomatic relations on July 19. The following is my first report. It is published here with permission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


The sini-must-valge now flies above Malawi's rolling plains. Or near them, anyway, as I have duct taped it to the outside of my apartment window in Lilongwe’s Old Town – yes, they have an Old Town – one of many things our two proud nations have in common!

(Note to Minister Paet: Please send more duct tape via the diplomatic pouch – I must replace it daily, as it is popular here for upholstery repair.)

Presentation of credentials

President Bingu wa Mutharika is truly everything our ministry’s reports say, and the two of us have already enjoyed several chess games in the palace courtyard with live Malawian servants as pieces. Our games may go on for hours, and the discipline of the Malawian people is truly incredible. How do they stand still for so long?

Dispatching captured pieces with a high-powered rifle from the palace roof is rather unorthodox, but Bingo (as he insists I call him) has assured me the country’s unemployment rate—listed as “NA” in the CIA Factbook—is high enough to enable this kind of chess. Bingo has asked repeatedly whether there is sufficient room on Mr. Ilves’ lawn to set up a chessboard when he visits. Bingo says he wishes to play several matches in the memory of Paul Keres, and has characterized Estonia’s unemployment rate as “sufficiently high to allow proper chess in your country, too.”

These chess games have provided an irreplaceable forum for our two nations to get to know each other and for Bingo to point out similarities in our countries and cultures. Did you know, for example, that both our nations have an abundance of limestone? And that we are both bordered by a large lake to the east? We both have democracies, too, and Bingo has remarked many times during our conversations that a “multiparty democracy” is only several letters away from a “military democracy.” He has noted, too, that our nations share life expectancies exceeding 50 years, and that our respective infant mortality rates differ only by one single decimal place.

And as with all leaders, Mr. Minister, Bingo is sometimes tormented by the press. Just recently, this July 25, he was forced to deal harshly with the press when he shut down the nation’s radio stations, surrounded churches where journalists were seeking shelter, and delivered severe beatings to them in the national interest. I have enclosed Bingo’s gift of a dozen sjamboks in the most recent diplomatic pouch. If they work on African reporters, he believes they may also find application with Estonians, too.

Let me assure you, Mr. Minister, that I now more fully appreciate the significance of having established diplomatic relations here and the considerable expenses associated with my presence. It is my hope that I will be able to concentrate fully on Malawi and not be distracted by being asked to cover South Sudan, as I hear rumored in the halls on Islandi Väljak. Although if a black Chrysler 300C is part of the package, I could of course be enticed.

The Estoniafication of Malawi

A wise move, Mr. Minister, in dispatching the team of consultants from EAS. In no time at all they have managed to put the headline “Welcome to Malawi!” in red text on the country’s tourism website (see for yourself here!). The Malawians are starting to appreciate it, especially when it is paired with the equally compelling “Come and visit Malawi.”

The consultants are currently working to reduce enthusiasm for the current overly-specific slogan, “The warm heart of Africa.” The EAS men also raised the issue that the tourism business might improve if potential tourists were not informed that Malawi was in Africa. They have also suggested, in light of last week’s 18 dead protestors, that Malawi give consideration to whether they continue to advertise their country as “safe.” (NB! Though there’s perhaps something for us in this? “Estonia. It’s safe.”)

Under coaching from Bingo himself, I have begun “talks” with Estonian Air and instructed them to add daily flights from Tallinn to Lilongwe and Blantyre. I have suggested—and the EAS consultants agree—that these routes may be thematically linked with the airline’s Tallinn-Minsk routes, given similarities in management style of the leaders (both having been known to employ the phrase “I will smoke you out”). Should Messrs. Taskila and Helenius offer resistance, I count on you and Mr. Parts to remind them that profit is, at best, a secondary concern in a state-owned business.

Healthcare initiatives

In the city of Lilongwe, it is estimated that 20 percent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS, which Bingo touts as an “effective initiative which has significantly reduced sex tourism” in the country. He eagerly awaits the chance to discuss his program as a prescription for reducing the number of British stag partiers in Tallinn’s Old Town when he visits Estonia in the autumn.

Another secret of Malawian healthcare, says Bingo, is the presence of zebra meat in the Malawian diet. Zebra is a deep red meat with a medium grain tasting delightfully sweeter than beef. It may surprise you to know, Mr. Minister, that the zebra can reach speeds of up to 65 kilometers per hour, and has a strong jaw and teeth sharp enough to cleanly bite off a grown man’s arm. I have come to see possibilities here for Estonia, as 100 hectares can easily support one stallion and four to five mares. I believe that we may have found our solution as to what to do with the increasingly de-populated areas in the countryside. I have sent a separate report on the zebra, but please know for now that a zebra can live 25 years, each has its own unique stripe pattern, and its skin is ideally suited for upholstery in Chrysler 300C sedans.

Commercial opportunities

Lilongwe’s Old Town supports a thriving bicycle parts business, and I believe many of Estonia’s out of work cobblers and watch repairmen may be gainfully employed here. Bingo has alluded to the fact that he might be willing to nationalize the bicycle parts business, and I have cabled the owners of Hawaii Express to check their interest in having a part in such a concession.

I also understand that there is growing support within the Tallinn city government to begin to use western-made buses, and Lilongwe is home to a sprawling mini-bus station which may be a source to distribute many of Tallinn’s Soviet-era public transportation. I have been in touch directly with Mr. Savisaar concerning this matter, and his office has also shown interest in a personnel exchange program so that both governments might be enriched by the other’s best practices.

Next Steps

As per our nation’s The More The Merrier policy, I have assured Bingo that he has Estonia’s unconditional backing for membership in both NATO and the EU, and I have duly presented the president with the gifts you sent. Bingo especially seemed to like the Georgia, Ukraine, Malawi tshirt you sent him. (And I note here that our former President Rüütel had spoken publicly in favor of also backing Ishmaelia for membership.)

As per your recent cable, I have begun to form a cozy alliance with Minister of Education Arthur Peter Mutharika, believed to be in line to succeed his brother in 2014. I urge the inclusion of Arthur Peter among the autumn delegation. Under his leadership, tuition at the University of Malawi increased 220 percent, and he will certainly have knowledge and experience to inform our country’s debate on free education.

I am,

Your humble servant,

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Point of Pride

Much has been made of how formidable the Estonian language is.

In the 1990s, the American Peace Corps volunteer Douglas Wells wrote both a short story and a song celebrating its difficulty. Flattered by his harmonic salute to their impossible language, Estonian radio listeners rallied and put Wells’ song at the top of the charts for a period of several weeks.

Estonians generally resist flattery, but one surefire method to please them is to talk about how difficult their language is. Its difficulty, in fact, is a point of national pride.

Although most Estonians are unaware of it, historical records show that Jakob Hurt proposed Ardua lingua as the Estonian national motto in a companion piece to his 1886 dissertation on pure -ne stem nouns, Die estnischen Nomina auf -ne purum. “Foreigners may conquer our soil,” Hurt wrote, “but they will never master our language.”

But it now appears Hurt was wrong. Just the other day I set out to prove his thesis to a visiting group of tourists by counting the Americans (the laziest people on earth when it comes to languages) who have learned the Estonian language. I was confident I could count them on one hand, but I quickly found myself needing the other. And a few toes, as well.

There is Greg in Tallinn, who speaks it so fluently his very slight accent gets him mistaken for a drunken native. There is Robert in southern Estonia who can dazzle natives with his knowledge of every growing plant and scurrying critter. There are Jerry, Justin, Stewart, James, Edward, Bill, John, Scott, David and Rufus, whose accents may keep them from deep undercover spy work or limit local acting careers, but who manage quite nicely and are even able to read legal contracts in the Estonian language.

Of course I can name dozens from the European continent who have mastered the language. There are at least a half-dozen from China, Japan, and India who speak the tongue. And I know several fellow väliseestlased who have learned the language, as well.

If so many foreigners are successfully learning Estonian is not a key source of national pride in danger? Is the risk not present of the Estonian language losing its small, elite, club-like status? And so shouldn’t something be done to make the language more difficult?

If any presidential candidate is looking for campaign material, perhaps making the Estonian language more impenetrable might be a worthy platform, a cause around which every loyal Estonian speaker would surely rally.

President Ilves’ word competition Sõnaus is already making headway to drive the offending foreign words from the vocabulary. I have recently noticed the appearance of terms such as taristu, vabasektor, kestlik, and idufirma.

But we can do more. If we dedicated the Language Inspectorate (to which we should seriously consider giving an even more imposing name) full time to the task, we might be able to eliminate other offensive foreign terms such as “telefon” (suggestion: “elektrooniliseisiklikukõneaparaat”), “check-in’ima” (“sisseastumisregistreerimine”), “hotell” (“lühiajutiseööbimisepaik”), “hängima” (“lühiajutiseööbimisepaik”), and “tšau” (no suggestions).

There is of course another camp in this discussion. Some advocate making Estonian more user friendly, basic changes which would form a Pidgin version of the language. This new language would be highly flexible in its written form and pronunciation, something equivalent to the kind of English that my young Estonian friend Mart speaks.

Me to Mart: “Mart, stop capitalizing the ‘Y’ in ‘you,’ unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence.” Or: “Mart, quit pronouncing the ‘L’ in ‘salmon.’”

Mart to me: “I speak British English.”

In honor of Mart, I suggest naming the new language “British Estonian.”

We might go further. Roughly half the case endings could be dropped and few would know the difference. And do we really need two infinitive forms of every verb when much wealthier countries make do with only one? And why not drop the formal “teie” and its attendant verb conjugations?

Despite the obvious virtues of British Estonian, I suspect the simplification approach will find little traction among the Estonian people. To simplify anything runs counter to the culture at large. While e-advances may have theoretically made the workings of the state more efficient, has it resulted in sweeping reductions in the size of the public sector? “Show me the beef!” an American friend often demands of me when I start to praise Estonia’s e-state. Then he goes on to argue that to overcomplicate things is the very essence of being European, that a continent and culture in decline has little else left to do than make rules.

Also lending itself to further complication of the language is the dogged stubbornness of Estonians. Their desire to protect all things Estonian is evident in state-financed programs to keep the culture and language alive, but it is even more visible at the grass-roots level. Purchasing bus tickets at my local R-kiosk, no matter how fluent my Estonian-language request for a pack of ten tickets is, all further matters are handled in English (“Will you pay with a card?”).

Of course it could be insecurity, a need on the R-kiosk worker’s part to demonstrate that she, too, speaks a foreign language. Or perhaps she simply wants to practice. But I prefer the conspiracy theory, and I do sometimes suspect Estonians consider their language a very private matter, and that they would rather make fools out of themselves in English than to use Estonian in the presence of foreigners.

There is the unconfirmed story circulating of an Estonian EU representative who opted to address the general assembly in English. Reportedly, the representative stressed her conviction on a certain matter, noting that she would “give head” if she were wrong.

Having heard the story third- or fourth hand, I am sure my version is likely inaccurate on many levels. But, still, what a difference the omission of a possessive determiner can make. Perhaps she intended to convey that she would bet her life that she was right?

A French interpreter I know who works in Brussels tells me she has noticed that while representatives of big nations will generally don headphones to hear a speech in their native languages, Estonians will often shun the use of interpreters and listen to the speech in English. We may consider here the same theories in the R-kiosk case, but as an armchair scientist I must embrace the conspiracy. Don’t let Estonian out of the bag. Even Americans might learn it.

Which must lead us to conclude that further complicating the language is a natural next step in the defense of the culture. Consideration should be given, as well, to the illegalization of its use by foreigners. What might it do for state coffers if foreigners were fined for every “tere” or “tänan” that they tried out on a shopkeeper? Or if the uttering a complete sentence in Estonian by a foreigner could be considered an act of espionage? I think you’ll agree that I’m on to something.

Consider this fair warning: Allow foreigners to learn the Estonian language and they will soon sink in much deeper roots. They’ll soon start to marry the local women. And by then it will be far, far too late.

Visit our lovely gift shop.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

White Unicorns

It’s a dreadful scene and no one is permitted unescorted. Wash your hands and disinfect before entering. There’s a sign by the sink offering cheap parking, but that’s going to be little compensation.

There supine on the bed is your nine-kilo, 77-centimeter, one-year-old son: unconscious and stretched out before you with tubes in his nose, hands, and one between two of his tiny toes. His little limbs are lashed to the bed as if he were a suicide case.

You stand on the wrong side of his bed and it only gets worse. There is a roomful of them: a first-birthday balloon floats above the bedpost of one; a box of toys stands quiet on the windowsill of another. Some of them have been here for a while.


In the 1990s, there was a saying among foreigners: Get sick in Estonia and the only cure is a plane ticket out. Given the state of the healthcare system, it often seemed justified.

It was said that to get proper treatment a payment was necessary—and it didn’t have to be cash. I imagined Estonia’s top surgeons sipping tea from bone china in immaculately groomed gardens, surrounded by chickens, pigs, and cows which patients had given them in payment.

In case of illness, American Peace Corps volunteers I knew kept their own supply of syringes, so much did they fear rusty, harpoon-like Soviet needles.

A physician friend once told me that it was easier for a doctor to amputate than to set a broken leg. (He laughed when I took him seriously for a moment.)

But personal experience only served to validate the stereotype. In 1993, having taken a fall on the ice and suspecting a broken leg, I visited Mustamäe Hospital. Limping through its unmarked labyrinth, knocking on closed doors until I finally located a doctor. She stared at me for a long while, and I suspect the only reason she did not simply turn away was my accent. She agreed to do an xray, and in excruciating pain I dragged myself up two flights of stairs by the handrail while she led impatiently in front.

Once with Liina in Haapsalu, an emergency room physician, his face beet-red and breath like rocket fuel, was perturbed at being taken from his soap opera which blared in the background. He grabbed Liina’s wrist and twisted it. She screamed in equal parts agony and surprise.

“It’s not broken,” he said, and did an about-face to return to his television. (It wasn’t broken. An xray the next day at a private clinic proved him right.)

Soviet medical care is free, went the joke. And then the rejoinder: But care of this quality is free everywhere in the world. Truly, the plane ticket out was not a bad idea.

Although things have changed, memories like these still flood your mind when you visit a hospital today.

The Mustamäe Hospital, despite improvements to its facade, from many angles still appears from the outside as a horrific Soviet monster which feeds on the ill. Inside, though, and especially the children’s hospital, it’s a case study in how to resurrect an old commie building.

The equipment is modern and the hallways are spotless. The pastries in the children’s hospital café are as good or better than most in the city. The main hospital’s atrium café (in some freak accident of a public tender?) is actually run by Reval Café, a place regular human beings would otherwise delight in eating.

Estonia’s doctors today, in my experience, are superb. Though they may not know me, I have come to know many of them by name, and I am most every time impressed by their professionalism, commitment, and compassion.

And the nurses? As my mother was a nurse, I am probably predisposed to like all nurses. “You will only be allowed to stay home from school if you are bleeding to death,” was a familiar refrain of my mother’s, which perhaps epitomizes the spirit present in all good nurses, their instinctive ability to strike the right balance of taking no guff yet imparting some sympathy.

And beyond the medical staff, in the children’s hospital there are even occasional visiting magician clowns in lab coats, who I have seen make a sick little boy shriek with joy.

“Why is everyone so nice here?” I finally asked an allergist who showed herself to be the talkative sort. I noted that the myths of Soviet medicine sometimes still hang heavily over Estonia.

“It’s great to work with kids,” she said simply, and I wondered how were the state of things across the street at the big hospital. Was everyone there so nice, too? Or was the positive environment at the children’s hospital partly due to external factors, like community interest led by the Children’s Hospital Fund and the republic’s First Lady?

Of course it’s not all roses. Spend enough time anywhere and you start to notice stains on the carpet.

On some days you may begin to wonder if there are any ethnic Estonians left in the hospital at all. It can sometimes seem that Estonian may not be the best language to use when seeking medical care. But you soon realize that nearly everyone speaks enough. You meet a few native speakers, too, and it becomes apparent that, despite what we read in the papers, not everyone has yet gone to Finland.

You meet the wacky resident who delivers a lecture ad nauseum about how to weigh urine in diapers. He explains to you the meaning of the numbers to the left and right of the decimal point on the digital monitor. Kilos. Grams. (Ah, the thrill of science!)

I want to ask him how to know the difference between a “6” and a “9” on the digital thermometer, but Liina stops me. “Don’t make enemies here,” she says. Besides, one veteran doctor has already told the resident to shut up and stop spewing nonsense.

Then there’s the jailhouse food. While it may be good in the cafes, the food brought to your room causes you to wonder whether one of Stalin’s actuaries has conducted a calorie count, and you are being fed the bare minimum in order to keep you alive. This is somewhat mitigated by the very pleasant servers, who seem always in good spirits when they enter your room.

There is the pay parking lot patrolled so efficiently that its proceeds must fund half the hospital. Perhaps Liina and I are not the smartest parkers, but we have been fined three times, and we console ourselves by hoping the 35-euro fines might go to fund a new kidney machine or to fill the canyon-sized pothole at the turnoff to the hospital, and not go to put gasoline in some politician’s luxury automobile.

Once you’ve been there a while you disappear into the woodwork and start to hear private conversations in the elevator. Workers’ complaints about ridiculous bureaucracy. A nurse telling a doctor to stop treating them like dogs. There’s an ear doctor from Soviet era who still thinks it’s the Soviet era. And there are of course still a number of angry babushka types, who, in the words of a friend, are accumulating major karmic debt.

Some floors are run like prisons where the nurses are the guards. “We have rules here,” said Nurse Ratched, after she caught me sitting in the bed. “The bed is for mothers!”

“I thought the bed was for the parental guardian?” I replied. “And that would be me.”

She bared her teeth as a warning and moved on.

But other floors are little Utopias. Convalescing children do cartwheels in the hallways and socialize in the playroom. The staff is happy and smiling. For example, it would not be out of place on the third floor, I think, for a fairy princess to appear riding bareback atop a white unicorn.


When your infant son wakes in the ICU it’s the most unsettling part. He wants to cry out but can’t because of the tube in his nose. He thrashes about, pulling at his tethers. You can see the terror in his eyes. You place a hand flat on his chest and another on his forehead. But that doesn’t help at all; it only makes him want to be held.

After a while he steadies, he turns his head and stares you in the eyes. He melts you.

And you are as helpless as he. There is nothing for you to do but trust. Trust in fate, in your god, but mostly trust in the physicians and nurses.

And you do.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

One Voice

“One voice can change a room. If it can change a room, then it can change a city…can change a state…can change a nation…can change the world.” Call me an idealist, but I believe it.

True, humanity may be doomed, but since you can’t sleep 24 hours a day, you might as well do something useful with your time. And trying to change the world is far more challenging than, say, real-estate development.

I’ve always wanted to be a speechwriter, and so I’ve drafted this one for President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. I invite other writers to do the same and publish the results in newspapers and websites around the country. Because once voice…

Commencement address of Toomas Hendrik Ilves to the graduating class of Tartu University, June 2011.

As I look out at your young, somewhat bored faces, I see you are expecting the usual pablum from a commencement speaker. It would be tempting to trot out the platitudes about how you are different than those who have gone before you and the great successes you will enjoy. But since that would no doubt bore us both, probably me more than you, and since your rector and I just shared a case of beer in the shade of a large oak, I have decided to spell out for you exactly how things are. [Note to self: Loosen bowtie; gaze thoughtfully over crowd.]

The usual commencement speech would entail me telling you that you are the future of Estonia, and that I am comfortable handing over the country to you. You would recognize the former to be a fact, and you would suspect the latter to be idle flattery. You would be right.

Quite frankly, some of you, despite your very good educations, scare me. If we cannot stop people of your age from driving cars into trees, if we cannot stop the spread of AIDS in our country, if we cannot find a solution for people of different ethnicities to live in productive harmony on this one small patch of earth, then there is not much hope for our future. I wonder whether you are up to this task.

Without boasting I will tell you my generation has accomplished a great deal. In a few short years, the names of my peers will be given to streets and public buildings. In this way, history will celebrate the problems we have solved more than the ones we will leave to you.

But since you are, like it or not, our future, I would like to remark briefly about the past and then offer a few words about your future, which is indeed the future of Estonia.

Most of you are around 20 years old. You have only heard stories of the period of history which ended with Estonia’s re-independence in 1991. And you may not be intimately familiar with the history of the last 20 years, as you have been busy — and rightly so — being young. But you have now reached the age where it is time I spoil your fun.

This first period I speak of, 20 years prior to your birth, was spent by many working for an independent state. The second 20 years after your birth were spent, so to speak, arranging a seat for you at the Big Table.

Since the year of your birth, Estonia has made the necessary sacrifices and changes to ensure our security through memberships in elite western clubs.

The list is long and impressive: The UN, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, the EU, the Schengen zone, the OECD, and the Euro.

Estonia has been admired by and praised by the west for our significant achievements. We have been, in a way, the absolute best Boy Scout, earning every merit badge there is to have.

But I would remind you that many of these achievements were within an externally-prescribed context. We were given no guidebook, but the goals were clear.

The meaning of this is that Estonia is now an equal: no more and no less than our western allies. We worked 20 years, one might frame it, to arrive at the starting line. We “got to Denmark,” to tamper slightly with Fukuyama.

Some may hint that my generation of leaders, having achieved all there is to achieve under this merit-badge like structure, is now confused and adrift. Joakim Helenius has pointed out that to be among Europe’s five richest is not a vision. The Economist has noted our Prime Minister is "a manager, not a visionary." I would argue, however, that what Estonia has most needed was a highly disciplined manager. And that is what we got.

My generation’s work has laid the groundwork for you. We have brought you a stable, independent state, a state with a seat at the world’s table. But what will you do with it? Have you any idea?

I will suggest to you that the hardest work (and perhaps the most interesting) is still ahead: We are entering the era of original thinking.

This new era will require an entirely different type of change, a type which no external body can prescribe.

In 2010, Chris Patten outlined in the New York Review of Books what he thought Europe’s role in the world ought to be. As far as I am aware, such a thoughtful look at Estonia’s future role in Europe (and the world), has not been so cogently articulated by our statesmen. But maybe you ought to consider it.

So what can you do? [Note: Untie bowtie now — let it hang around neck.]

Start by ending the practice of constantly reminding ourselves that Estonia is small. This too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I cannot imagine that citizens of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, or Liechtenstein so often begin their sentences with the words “Our country is so small…” One is as big as one imagines. Let us right here and now agree to repair our imaginations.

End “semu kapitalism.” A country with such scarce human resources as ours has no room for anything but a meritocracy. To compete in the world only our very best will suffice. Our partners in every walk of life must be selected on the basis of merit and experience alone, and there is no place to wonder “Kas sul on oma jope seal?

Smash the glass ceiling. As Vello Vikerkaar has written, the best man for the job is a woman. Let key decisions be made around the conference table and not in the sauna or bordello. Our nation cannot afford a good ol’ boys club and must take talent where we find it.

Stop eating our own. It is entirely true that an Estonian’s favorite breakfast is another Estonian. You may laugh, but you should cry. Because this is not at all funny. It is rather a very telling statement about our self-esteem. The only solution is an Estonian-free diet.

Beware the communal ego. The Estonian media, though heavily criticized, devotes inordinate amounts of space to atta-boy articles celebrating how clever we Estonians are. Too much of this puts our culture at risk of indulging in the celebration of mediocrity. As the eminent professor Jack Gladney has noted: “We’re all brilliant…You call me brilliant, I call you brilliant. It’s a form of communal ego.”

Despite the advertising, our image abroad is not often “positively transforming” but rather one associated with crime, AIDS, or the grey pall of Eastern Europe. It is not always fair, but it is reality. Let us recognize it as such and begin to change it.

End the brain drain. Our talented doctors, scientists, and tech minds, as well as our qualified skilled laborers, are exiting the country faster than replacements enter. If this is not somehow reversed — perhaps by ending the bureaucratic water-boarding of our own Estonian companies who wish to employ foreigners – Estonia will continue on its path toward being nothing but the most distant suburb of Helsinki.

To make Estonia a viable employment market, our educational- and health care systems must rival any in Europe. Nobody, least of all Estonians, wants to be a citizen of a backwater nation.

Our “talendikoju” call has gone largely unheeded, perhaps because of young people’s proclivity for adventure, perhaps partly because an older generation’s call to a younger one is often naturally ignored. And while I recognize that an education abroad and a little bit of foreign work experience may not in themselves produce change in our country, these bring with them higher expectations for ourselves and others. These we desperately need.

After 50 years of forced separation from Europe, it is more contact with the world that we need, not less.

And last but not least, we must embrace the Russian-speaking population of Estonia as our own. I have been partly at fault here, I admit. I recognize that I am also the president of 400,000 Russian speakers. I recognize that they are not occupiers, nor are they representatives of occupiers. Perhaps what Russians know best, something we modern Estonians might remind ourselves of as we chase the Almighty Euro, [Note: Look directly into TV camera] is Не имей 100 рублей, а имей 100 друзей.

And as poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko remarked in 1993 at the University of Chicago: "We need to teach tolerance from childhood. The future for all of us is patriotism for all mankind."

Thank you.

[Note: In event of ovation, throw bowtie into crowd.]

Get more would-be speechwriting here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Three-Martini Breakfast

“Perhaps a tad bit of white tea?” offered the businessman, “before I tell you all about my philosophy of life?”

His sentence contained two clear reasons to run the other direction, and normally I would have, but I was being paid to interview him. But for money or not, if I was to endure what was surely to be his cliché-ridden, borrowed outlook on life, I was going to need something stronger than tea. “Got any whiskey?” I asked.

“No, but maybe you’d prefer Bai Hao Yinzhen?”

I had no idea what that meant, but I was very much afraid he might next suggest that we go get pedicures together. “As long as there’s plenty of alcohol in it,” I answered. But there wasn’t any alcohol in it. Bai hao Yinzhen, he explained, was also a tea.


The great thing about getting drunk in the morning, Sergei Dovlatov once wrote, is that you can take the rest of the day off. And Dovlatov had done enough journalism to know. While I never lived in Estonia in the Soviet time, the early 90s were close enough, with the bottle-in-the-desk-drawer office culture still largely intact.

It was usual to have a brandy with your morning coffee, a beer or two with lunch, and then a bottle of vodka or two at whoever’s place you ended up for dinner. All this alcohol consumption seemed to aid us in the office where I worked, though to an outside observer it might have appeared that our chief competence was the ability to take anything simple and make it excruciatingly complicated. But Estonia had no real international ambitions in those days: the focus was on a move to capitalism, and a bit of alcohol on the job was merely a transitional tool.

“You’ll be judged by what you eat and drink,” a kolkhoz director once announced when I visited for a tour of his farm. We got loaded and then drove around in his Volga to inspect the cows. Once a morning meeting with a brewery director turned into a two-hour drinking session culminating with a singalong to “The Brewer” where all present performed the last verse on top of the conference table. What the directors of those companies knew was, respectively, how to make a cow calve and how to brew beer. They had little use for parroting modern management books, utterances such as “two plus two equals five!” or “Business 2.0” or “win-win.” These men just rolled up their sleeves and, at least between the drinking, did their jobs. And they never asked if you needed a yixing pot or wanted yak butter with your beverage.

It sometimes seems the trouble with post-EU Estonia is that the previous work culture has been thrown out wholesale, the baby along with the bath water. The works of Vladimir Lenin have been replaced by Deepak Chopra, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, and Michael Porter, whose chief contributions, it seems to me, have been to make us all take ourselves very seriously. Was it one of them who, when I wasn’t looking, replaced the alcohol with green tea?

I never worked in North America during the three-martini lunch period, but in the 1980s it was perfectly acceptable to eat lots of red meat and have a drink or two with lunch. We even enjoyed coming back to the office a bit lit. It offered additional courage for negotiations or for flirting with the office hottie.

But in a nascent business culture the pendulum swings wider, and I fear we are saddled with living like Buddhist monks for a while. Hang some wind chimes in your office, attend yoga classes at lunchtime, quote Sun Tzu to a visiting journalist.


My particular businessman started in about “CSR,” and though I know what it means I gave him the satisfaction of explaining it to me.

“Corporate Social Responsibility…” he continued, as if he had personally invented the concept and would be soon beatified for donating a couple of Chinese-made bicycles to an orphanage. He went on with the altruist act, throwing in terms like “synergy” and “human capital” and half a dozen other terms which had nothing to do with calves calving or beer brewing, until he realized that my mind was elsewhere.

“Aren’t you going to write any of this down?” he asked. How could I have explained to him that a good writer respects his readers?

But since it was a corporate assignment, and since I was being paid in part to make him feel good about himself, I told him that I had been blessed with an audiographic memory and that, anyway, he’d get to approve whatever I wrote. And then I said I was feeling a bit ill (which wasn’t a lie) and asked to use his bathroom. There, squirreled away in a stall, I phoned Liina and begged her to call me in exactly three minutes and shout into the receiver: “Warren Buffett called again. He wants to talk right now.”

“Who?” she asked.

“Warr-en Buff-ett,” I enunciated. “Just make sure you’re loud enough to be heard.”

Back in his office I excused myself when my phone rang. “This call I have to take.”

“I completely understand,” he said, after he overheard my brief conversation with Liina. And of course he understood, because after all it was his god of gods who needed to talk to me.

“Do you think he might come to Estonia?” the businessman asked.

“He’s an old-fashioned guy,” I replied, standing in the doorway. “He likes steak or burgers washed down with Cherry Coke. Or a beverage even stronger.”

With that I brought my hands together in front of my chest. “Namaste,” I said, bowing slightly as I stepped out into the world.


Postscript: Nature Photography Update

My April 23 story, “How to Become a Nature Photographer,” inspired a significant amount of reader feedback, including requests for tips on nature photography, but also a surprising number of suggestions about the best techniques for cooking roadkill fox (baked seems to be the favorite in Harjumaa, while southern Estonians prefer it grilled).

Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc, a photographer for Estonian Public Broadcasting whose activities were chronicled in the story, was recently honored by the Estonian Nature Photographers Association for his work photographing rodents in the Elistvere Animal Park.

Tarmo, a.k.a. Gagarin, was deluged with reader requests as to where one could purchase the Merino wool underwear. (Answer: Gagarin also recently garnered fame by photographing the five rarest animals on earth within the space of one single week: the Pinta Island Tortoise, the Baiji (river dolphin), the Vancouver Island Marmot, the Seychelles Sheath-tailed Bat, and the Javan Rhino. His expedition was financed by a grant from British Petroleum.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Powerpoint People

There’s an old Native American tradition that was still practiced the year I lived on a Dakota reservation. Every full moon, all those who had passed the manhood ritual would gather around the fire, and a pipe would be passed. It was not a pipe for smoking – most braves smoked Marlboros or rolled their own — but one for speaking. Tribe members patiently waited their turn, and when the pipe reached a brave’s hands, he might say what was on his mind. Or he might not. There was just as often silence.

In my exploration of Northern Europe I have discovered a Finno-Ugric tribe which keeps a similar ritual for allowing braves to speak. No pipe is passed, though. The Finno-Ugric tribe has replaced it with the cord to a Powerpoint projector.

And unlike the pipe, the cord is not passed peacefully, and a meeting can sometimes turn as aggressive as a game of lacrosse: it is custom that tribesmen attempt to grab the cord as it dangles from a ceiling-mounted projector near the center of the conference table.

“Here’s the point I’m making,” said Pekka, snatching the swinging cord from the hands of Heikki and plugging it into his laptop. Pekka stated his case, managing three or four painfully-constructed slides, until Kalevi, a brave of higher standing, yanked the cord from the socket of the Pekka’s laptop and plugged it into his own.

After a two-hour meeting, with the cord passed to half a dozen corporate warriors, no decision had been made on the issue, but all left satisfied. Each had had his chance to express himself and show at least some of the slides he had spent hours constructing. The meeting adjourned with promises to email presentations to each other.

I encountered this tribe when I was brought in to consult on a form of communication unfamiliar to them: the corporate magazine. They had come to me through their tribe’s medicine man who had traveled over the great water and had heard my name in context of the mystical practice of the printed word. Soon, my name and likeness were carried to his tribe and spread among their ranks via Powerpoint, and eventually I was invited to visit the tribe at its pleasant camp in a grassy meadow by the sea.

Though the vast majority of Northern tribes lead isolated existences, this one had seen the need to stretch beyond its borders in the name of commerce. More prescient members of the tribal council recognized a Powerpoint presentation in their native tongue was no more decipherable to the West than the smoke signals their forefathers had used. Just as their predecessors had come to eventually accept Colonel Colt and his invention as part of their future, the tribe believed that I and my words on papyrus in a widely-spoken language might be the key to their future.

Northern tribes are known to have accepted few outsiders, and those who have been received have generally returned to document the tribes’ consumption of copious quantities of alcohol and co-ed bathing rituals involving nudity, sweat, and birch branches. So I was not completely unprepared for their colorful oddities.

But I was indeed struck by the tribe’s devotion to Powerpoint as a communications tool. For it, they shunned all talk, and their corridors were as silent as a funeral home. This was clearly strong medicine.

“Perhaps we might talk over a cup of coffee,” I suggested to Pekka, after what I interpreted to be his victory in the conference room with the projector cord.

Pekka was silent for a long moment, perhaps because he had no specific slide to address my question. “Coffee,” he at long last uttered, “is in the silver pitcher at the far end of the table. Tea is in the black one.” There were sandwiches on the table, too, though they went unmentioned.

Though I was not successful with Pekka, after several weeks in the presence of this Finno-Ugric tribe, I twice managed to make eye contact with one I believed to be a single female. One day, I managed to engineer it where we were both walking through the same corridor in the same direction. I walked faster to catch up with her and just as she turned her head I removed a shiny blue can of Gin Long Drink from my pocket. “I have more,” I said.

She quickened her pace which I took as nervousness. “Could we not meet?” I said emboldened by her palpable quickness of breath. She stopped and looked at her feet. “I could tweet you,” she offered guardedly, and she dashed down a staircase on her right. I did not follow. Despite her beauty — she was a fine specimen — a 140-character limit was not going to allow me to complete the magazine.

I began to worry how I might write an entire magazine requiring 40,000 words if the most input I was to receive was a host of Powerpoint slides and random, 140-character tweets. I sought guidance from the medicine man who had brought me to the tribe.

“The drums say you have Gin Long Drink,” he said to me before I had even a chance to sit down. “Long Drink is strong medicine.”

Indeed. And I knew a ferryboat where it was kept.

The magazine proved a success. The stories celebrated the wisdom and cleverness of the tribe and enumerated the superior quality of its goods. And despite their worry that a photograph could steal a soul, they permitted my colleague Kaupo (whose name amused them) to make attractive, well-lit images of them in their daily routines. Pekka was photographed in front of a projection of a histogram, remote control in hand. Heikki was shown from behind, staring hard at a multi-color pie-chart slide on his computer.

As a show of thanks, I was invited to the tribe’s summer conclave, where after a welcome Powerpoint detailing the tribe’s seasonal successes, we adjourned to a row of chairs near a pristine lake. Male tribesmen removed their shirts to tan their pale bodies. Strong medicine in blue cans was passed, but it was still some time before the silence was broken.

“If you close your eyes and stare right at the sun,” said Pekka, “then the image you see is much like Powerpoint.” Braves all around grunted in assent.

Get more ethnography here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to Become a Nature Photographer

Every third Estonian claims to be a nature photographer. If you don’t believe me check the census data. It’s just one of those peculiarities of the country.

Most don’t sell their photos and, if you corner them, they’ll admit they’re not professional nature photographers, but rather masons or dentists or accountants or lawyers. But if you meet them in a dark bar on the edge of the wilderness, before you even have your drink ordered, they’ll identify themselves as nature photographers.

Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc, a news shooter for ERR’s English-language website, is one of them. “Veux-tu aller avec ton roi à Soomaa?” Jacques barked over the telephone. Or something like that. I don’t speak French, but that never stops Jacques. Each time I remind him I’m from the other part of Canada, which he is only able to remember until the next time he calls.

When I finally got Jacques to switch to English he informed me that we’d been invited to accompany some nature photographers on a canoe trip in Soomaa. Since it was the flood season, they were making their annual pilgrimage, and if I would quickly stuff some dry clothes into a plastic bag then two authentic nature photographers would be in front of my house within an hour.

“Where could the damned thing be?” Tarmo the nature photographer was rummaging around inside his car, tossing thermos mugs and maps this way and that. “My hand lotion. I need my hand lotion!” After he found it and greased up, he offered me his hand. “I’m Tarmo. They say hand lotion is addictive, but I’m not sure.” I rubbed into my skin what Tarmo left on me, half wondering if I’d soon want another hit.

As we drove toward Pärnu, Tarmo and Jacques sat in the front, discussing their choice of long underwear. Jacques was wearing French military-issue polyester, while Tarmo had new Merino wool.

“Smell me,” said Tarmo, shoving an arm in Jacques’ face.

“All I smell is hand lotion,” said Jacques. “But it’s nice.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” explained Tarmo. “In two days you’ll smell like Vello’s butt, and I’ll still smell like, well, hand lotion.”

I thought about joining the conversation, but I had no idea what type of underwear I had. Liina bought it for me several years ago and so far it had kept me warm. But today it was five degrees and raining, and we’d spend all day sitting in Tarmo’s canoe. Maybe I should have thought more about my underwear.

Throughout the drive, when Tarmo and Jacques weren’t discussing the newest in keep-warm fabric, they were talking about Janno, one of Estonia’s more famous nature photographers, a photo god of sorts, who had just published a series of polar bear photos which had drawn more than 100,000 visitors to his blog. This was of course the dream of any creative human: to have another human want to look at his work. And 100,000 was quite a few other humans. We were due to meet Janno in just over an hour, board canoes, and photograph the rainy, flooded wilds.

But when we arrived Janno wasn’t there. After a series of phone calls, half of them disconnecting mid-stream due to lack of signal, it was determined that Janno had left his telephone at home. Some other nature photographers, who did not have their own canoes, would rent them from the Viljandi side, and we would somehow meet on the water. Janno would presumably be among them.

“It’s gonna be a goddamned song festival,” announced Tarmo, pocketing his telephone and reporting the intel he’d gleaned from the conversations. “Every canoe in Estonia is currently in Soomaa. There may even be a Nature Omnibus.”

“I thought those were mostly full of pensioners?” I said. “And it is a weekend, right?”

Tarmo and Jacques looked at me like I’d peed in their camera bags. It was clear that nature photographers considered themselves the eagles of the forest, soaring majestically, high above the ground-dwellers who must forage for nuts under leaves and logs. “Well,” Tarmo conceded, after a long silence. “The pensioners won’t go too far in their boats. We’ll just go farther.”
And so, after another application of hand lotion, Jacques and I stepped off the dry road into our canoe and floated into the flood plain.

Soon followed Tarmo, but I would never have recognized him. He was paddling hard in a short sea kayak, dressed in a yellow dry suit, a rubber gasket sealed tightly around his neck, his head crowned with an astronaut’s cap. “They call him Gagarin,” said Jacques from the stern. “He not only dresses like that, but he’ll go anywhere to get a photo.”

It was true. On a dare, Tarmo had once crawled into a den of hibernating bears to get a photo of the cubs. To increase his odds inside the den, he wore a hockey goalie’s mask, thick fingerless gloves, and fired a series of shots with and without a flash. Shouting to his friends to extract him, they pulled him out by his feet and then all ran to the safety of a metal cage where they examined the photos. Tarmo had given the bears redeye. And so it was with nature photographers. You could risk your life in a den of bears and they would still criticize your work.

We spent the entire day navigating through the song festival looking for perfect light and for Janno. Nature was replaced by throngs of canoes crashing through forest cover and the occasional shriek, sometimes from joy and occasionally from an overturned boat.

Though few photos were taken due to the rain, we did not find Janno until the evening when we beached our boats and he arrived by car. “Smell this,” was the introduction I got from Tarmo, who led me to Janno’s car and insisted I sniff.

“Hand lotion?” I ventured a guess.

“No, smartass. A dead fox. Janno picked one up off the road last week and can’t get the smell out.”

“Picked it up, why? To eat?”

Tarmo considered this a question not worth answering, shook his head, and ordered everyone in their cars. We would be heading for a meal and a sauna in a Kilingi-Nõmme guesthouse. The cold and wet had spoiled everyone’s appetite for camping.

At dinner it became clear that Janno had picked up the dead animal to give it to a wounded feral dog, recovering under a friend’s care. Janno’s tales of his unsuccessful attempts to rid his car of the smell led to more discussions of the superiority of Merino wool underwear (Tarmo encouraged everyone to smell him) and eventually to the discussion of photography. Janno’s polar bear photos had already been stolen and circulated around the globe. He had received no money of course, and many of the thieves had even removed his name and replaced it with their own. As if to add insult to injury, the Kilingi-Nõmme guesthouse was distributing Estonian government-funded country tourism brochures which featured a cover photo by Janno. A photo for which he’d received neither money nor credit.

“You should sue them,” I offered, trying to whip the shooters into a frenzy. “Set their office building on fire,” added Jacques. But the photographers only shook their heads, as if to suggest that suing someone or setting something on fire were distinctly North American and French behaviors, respectively.

The next day the sun shined brightly – another curse for photographers – and we were too late on the water to take advantage of any of the morning fog. This day there were even more canoeists, but the Sunday boaters were more well-behaved. A flotilla passed which was full of Centre Party politicians. We passed an internet guru. A well-known banker. Even a former porn star. It was a floating song festival and well worth the trip, even though nature is better viewed alone.

On the way home we crossed the Pärnu River and witnessed a canoe ram a tree head-on and capsize. First on the scene, we pulled over to assist, and as Jacques tied together every piece of rope he could find, Tarmo climbed into his Gagarin suit.

The canoe washed far downstream and the couple clung to a tree in mid-current, stranded with their bodies half in the near-freezing water. Tarmo grabbed the rope and headed upstream for the bridge.

“What’s he going up there for?” I asked Jacques, as the treed woman screamed for help. “He could wade out right here by the woman.”

“Do you know how much that suit cost?” asked Jacques. “You spend that kind of money then you've got to have drama.”

And with that Tarmo leapt off the bridge into the swiftest current and drifted down to the girl clinging to the tree branch. He fixed a line under her arms, swam until he had sure footing, and then pulled the girl to the bank. He repeated the procedure with the man, though without the action-hero bridge leap.

“Thank you,” panted the couple who by this time were being whisked to a waiting car which would take them to a nearby sauna.

“All in a day’s work for a nature photographer,” replied Tarmo in a faux-deep voice. As he walked to the car he clapped me on the back. “Say, Vello,” he offered, “any chance you want to smell my underwear now?”