Saturday, January 29, 2011

Go West, Young Man

At the emergency room — don’t ask — Liina was admitted immediately while I hung out in the waiting room with Robert. Having rushed to the hospital without packing baby food, I tried to buy juice from the vending machine. But holding a crying seven-month-old and trying to feed enough air-light 10-cent-kroon coins into a slot proved too much to manage. More fell on the floor than went into the machine.

“Here, let me help,” said an attractive young woman, who fed her own coins into the machine. The apple juice box plopped to the bottom.

“Here, take mine,” and I reached out to hand the young lady my coins.

“You keep them,” she said. “I’m leaving Estonia tomorrow and won’t have any use for kroons.”

Helena was twenty-three and studied art history at a university in Scotland.

“Will you come back to Estonia?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said flatly, and we agreed that there were currently few opportunities for young people in Estonia, or at least for art history majors.

“I know you from Facebook,” said Helena’s mother, joining the conversation from a wheelchair. We had barely enough time to determine our mutual acquaintances when the nurse wheeled the mother away for an x-ray.

“She fell on the ice in Old Town,” explained Helena. “She lives in Norway and was supposed to return home tomorrow.”

“Sometimes I’m not too keen on Estonia,” Helena said. “I fell in the very same spot a week before and people seemed angry that they had to walk around me.” She admitted that her mother had said people were nice to her, even stopping to ask if she was all right. “Maybe it was me.”

The nurse approached again and Helena stood for a chat and returned to her seat.

“Maybe they thought you were a foreigner?” I offered half seriously, suggesting they thought she was a soft westerner accustomed to cities where property owners keep their sidewalks clear of snow and ice.

“It could be,” she agreed. “Whenever I go into shops in Old Town they speak English to me.”

The nurse returned and Helena stood to receive the report that her mother’s leg had a dangerous break. The doctors would operate immediately.

“Well, I don’t know how long you’ve lived in Scotland, but you definitely don’t look or move like an Estonian,” I told her as she gathered her things to join her mother.

“What do you mean?”

It’s not often I get an invitation to deliver my armchair analyses, but I enjoy it when I do. I rose and mimicked Helena’s body language when she received the news of her mother. I put my hands on my hips with elbows behind me. I arched my body back and up in a bowed, I’m ready-to-hear-you posture. “You see, Helena,” I said. “You’re exposing yourself here. This is a vulnerable position. But it’s very confident, too. It shows you fear nothing from this establishment. Most Estonians would not strike this pose.”

“How would an Estonian stand?” she asked.

“Well, there could be many ways, but generally not your way. An Estonian’s pose would cede power to the hospital worker.”

Behind us they wheeled out her mother and pushed her toward a door to another part of the hospital. I raised my hand in salute. Helena stood and offered me her hand. I wished them both good luck abroad.

I looked down at baby Robert in my arms and wondered at what age he might pack his bags and leave Estonia. Although he’s only seven-months old, I’m already plotting his future (to the dismay of his mother). I’d like him to attend primary and secondary school in Estonia, but I think it would then be good for him to leave.

The American professor Robert Rebein has written of small places. Roughly: Small towns give you everything and ask nothing in return, except that you leave and never come back.
I think the same might be said of a small country, at least to some extent. Or, if we want to consider the case of Tallinn, I can think of few towns of 400,000 in North America which are able to offer enough to keep all its sons at home. It would be asking too much, both of the town and of the sons.

I’d like my Robert to leave Estonia so that he may better understand himself and the world. Liina will disagree, but I contend a city without a famous song written about is no place for young people. Small towns are where you settle after you’ve already had your adventures. Liina argues that travel broadens your horizons, and that’s true. But travel is not the same as living abroad for an extended period without the comfort of your pinginaaber and the friends you grew up with. The tourist, as G.K. Chesterson pointed out, “sees what he has come to see.”

There are surely exceptions. E. Faye Jones, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most successful disciples, apparently cheekily declared he would remain in Arkansas and let the world come to him. But that declaration was made later in life, after he’d ventured abroad for a turn flying torpedo bombers in the Pacific Theatre and lived in a half-dozen cities he wasn’t born in.

Maybe Urmas Sisask can stare at the planets from Jäneda and find inspiration. But then, I’d argue, he has as much access to the universe sitting with his piano in his garden under a dark Estonian sky than he would from any place.
But most of us aren’t exceptions.

It’s said there are 130,000 Estonians like Helena and her mother who have packed up and left. I say good for them. I even say we ought to raise a glass every time someone like Helena throws a few items into a bag and ventures out to strike a claim in the big bad world.

I sometimes think that the Talendikoju program ought not to be an invitation for Estonians to return, but rather a giant exchange program, where we bring foreigners in to do jobs which need done, and where we export as many young Estonians as we possibly can.

Not all will return. But those who do will enrich the rest of us. They’ll come back with the confidence of Helena, postures erect from knowing that they are no less than anyone else, and that they are very often more.

And they’ll carry with them higher expectations. Higher expectations for themselves and for the society in which they live.

Visit our lovely gift shop.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Donkey Jockeys

It’s a matter of professionalism. And a simple matter of self-respect. But everyone I make this argument to tells me to shut the hell up, that I’m simply wrong, or that I should accept that the battle is lost before it’s begun.

They tell me my criticism is minor compared to the larger crisis in journalism, the major issues we ought to be wrestling with to improve the state of things. But I’d argue the first crisis to be dealt with is the one journalists have created for themselves: their identity crisis.

Lately I’ve been getting out to a few press conferences. I don’t go so much as to write about Mr. Savisaar’s quit-picking-on-me rant du jour or to hear IMF representatives think twice before saying nothing. I go to get out of the house, to see how the world is turning, and enjoy the bizarre, snail-paced spectacle of what Estonians call the pressikas.

The press conferences I’ve witnessed are pretty much interchangeable. The gray mass of journalists quietly trickles into the appointed room, invariably choosing seats at the back of the room. Among the reporters are many sleepy young men in worn sweaters and jeans, hair jutting out in random places in the fashion American collegiates refer to as “nappy head.”

After a short delay, a suit-clad young man with a boyband haircut appears and provides speaker introductions vaguely reminiscent of Vegas nightclubs, even though the speakers are already known to all and name cards are present in front of each.

The speakers themselves appear professional, wearing suits, ties and shined shoes. But they seem terribly annoyed, as if they would very much rather be somewhere else and have deigned only under great duress to attend the press conference that they themselves have organized. Their expressions cast them as the adults who have agreed to indulge the children.

And so the two sides face off: the Narcoleptic Self-styled Bohemians versus the Antsy Irritated Establishment.

As I see the regular lament and hand-wringing about Estonia’s media, it more or less goes like this: The critics say that experienced journalists are too few, most of the senior ones having left long ago to pursue other, better remunerating ventures. Politicians seem to be routinely grumpy with the press, as if they cannot get a fair break, when, by western standards, it has always seemed to me that they tend to get off easy when question time arrives.

The press itself is refreshingly introspective, occasionally even self-flagellating. There is acknowledgement in their own pages that they could do better and they mourn the turn toward yellow led by a compete-for-clicks environment.

While I find neither the Bohemians or Establishment more in the right, it seems to me that like many other areas of Estonian life, the debate itself is healthy, and as long as it goes on we are only in for an improved quality of the press. Where the head goes, the body will follow.

What I would like to see—and where I am told my cause is lost—is an improvement in the appearance of the press. It is my belief that a polished exterior is often the mark of an organized interior. And when that is not the case, an exterior may rally an interior to live up to its example.

Not all Estonian journalists dress down, of course. Should Priit Pullerits, Priit Hõbemägi, or Sirje Rank be in attendance, they will be as professionally clad as their foreign colleagues who may be witnessed on C-SPAN pelting Mr. Obama with questions.

But while Estonia’s politicians and businessmen seem to have too little respect for the press, I can only hold the press responsible for having too little respect for itself.

“What you need to get through your thick foreign head,” says my wife Liina, who was briefly employed in public broadcasting during the Soviet era, “is that the press were bohemians. If you were in the press in Soviet times, then you were a rebel and you dressed the rebel part.”

To which I of course respond that it’s been 20 years since the Soviet Union and most of the journalists attending the press conferences are too young to remember it.

It is also difficult for me to see journalists as rebels. We are every bit a part of The System. One may argue our role is to keep the rest of the system honest (and I’d agree), but does that not make us more policeman than rebel? Have a look at a policeman’s haircut. Would he function better in his job with hair down to his ass?

And, most importantly, if a journalist can write like a rebel, then he hardly need worry about dressing like one. (Flaubert: “In order to write like a revolutionary, you need to live like a bourgeois.”)

A nattily-dressed Estonian editor friend of mine argues that she can’t pay her staff well enough to ask them to dress professionally. But I lack sympathy. Journalists are paid poorly in most societies and the more respectable newspapers still require them to turn out in a tie. And I argue that an affordable, presentable pair of trousers, jacket, and tie cost far less than the designer jeans some of her reporters wear low enough to reveal their pubic hair.

It isn’t as simple as everyone putting on a necktie, my editor friend argues. She’s right, of course. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt things. People treat you how you treat yourself, a motivational consultant once said. My French writer friend Guillaume says that his stylish countrymen “dress to show respect for a place and for ourselves.” Would a well-dressed, attentive, whip-smart journalist inspire better answers from the subjects he interviews? The Antsy Irritated Establishment can best answer that.

A tie-requiring editor I know in the United States likes to inspire his reporters by borrowing from Jeremiah when he sends them out into the world. He tells them to let their subjects “hear the snorting of our warhorses, let them feel the ground tremble beneath their feet, as we approach to devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who dwell in it.”

Of course it’s hard to leave that impression if you show up riding a donkey.

Read it in Estonian and join in the mudslinging here.