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.