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.