Saturday, February 26, 2011


Imagine everybody who has ever wronged you being in one place at one time, trapped somewhere they cannot escape.

For anyone who has ever built a house in Estonia, that place is the 9:30 p.m. Tallink Friday ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn. It is packed stem to stern with gastarbeiter returning from a week of blessing Finland with their craftsmanship and work ethic.

The ferry crowd resembles a parade of mafia middle management: thousands of short-haired thugs clad head to toe in black. Many sport bling. A few wear arm jewelry, peroxide vixens in heels ever ready to heed the disco’s call.

Looking at the men, I feel I know them all. And some I actually do.

In the pub with three pints before him is Andrus, who got drunk one afternoon and disappeared from ceiling work for 30 days, announcing upon his return that he’d been down with a virus.

By the one-armed bandit is another bandit, Mart the electrician, who worked assiduously for a month and then vanished with several thousand kroons intended to buy a fusebox.

There is Sven the mason who, while boasting of the young masons he had taught their craft, constructed an oven for me that only produced smoke. (He blamed the chimney, forgetting that he’d built that, too.)

Pulling a trolley full of gin long drink is Edgar, who did not own a single tool except a hammer (the only thing he couldn’t get from Ramirent, according to him).

And there, rocking out on his iPod, is Marek, an enthusiastic plumber who disappeared on the second day of work leaving his brand new cordless drill and a dirty pair of sneakers in the middle of my living room floor. He never returned to claim either.

It is a boat full of David Copperfields, all with highly polished disappearing acts. Even those I don’t know personally, I still feel I know their stories, and I mention this to the Finn I’m traveling with.

“They can’t behave like that in Finland,” he says. “They wouldn’t last even a day.”

But I wonder. It seems many have made a career out of lasting less than a day.

I nod to Andrus in the pub, and he looks away. Despite the fact we paid the same for a ticket, owing to the crowd on the 9:30 boat it is more his boat than mine, and I suppose we must play be his rules. A year ago I might have challenged him here, throwing down my glove and drawing my rapier for some therapeutic slashing and thrusting.

But my anger has transformed to wonder. I am dumbstruck by the construction culture: it calls into question everything I have learned about the self-correcting free market system. How can so much incompetence and laziness exist for so long? There are good Estonian workers, yes. Highly professional workers. (So hold your mail!) But they are not this crowd. What could the five workers I know possibly do in Finland? Do they sweep up the sawdust of sober Finnish carpenters? Or do I misread the situation and the explanation truly lies in how an Estonian friend, having seen the horror in my eyes while seated in the passenger seat of his car, explained his aggressive driving: “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t drive like this in your country.”

I wonder for a moment how we would all behave if this ferry went down. Would we degenerate to mayhem and thievery of the nature William Langewiesche described taking place aboard the Estonia in his 2004 Atlantic Monthly article? Or would things reflect the civility expressed by the film line given the Titanic musician: “Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you”?

And if the ferry did go down and all of us with it, would the country of Finland grind to a halt?

I ask, because I, too, am a gastarbeiter.

For several years now, the larger portion of my income has come from Finland. For Finnish firms international enough to need me, I write their magazines, their newsletters, the speeches their CEOs make at the stock exchanges.

I am a double gastarbeiter. I have left Canada for Estonia and, for part of each week, I leave Estonia for Finland. I console myself with the belief that what I do Finns cannot do for themselves. A speech in English by a non-native speaker made to a western audience too often resembles a Monty Python skit. I save the Finns from themselves. Or so I tell myself in order to believe I am different from the other gastarbeiters on the ferry.

But if the ferry went down and I knew I was doomed, Langewiesche would likely have no cause to chronicle my noble behavior. I would grab a lifeboat oar and help speed the journey of Andrus, Mart, Sven, Edgar, and Marek. “Godspeed, boys,” I might utter with each delivered blow.


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