Friday, November 9, 2012

Tantra Man

Despite what you might gather from my photograph, I wasn’t always a great ladies man.

I’ve never possessed that raw sexual energy once described in an advertisement for a Tom Cruise film: Every girl wants to be with him; every guy wants to be like him. But I’ve known guys like that, and most were not nearly as good looking as Cruise. I never understood what it was they had going for them – there was just something about them that nobody could explain. Now, in the 47th year of my life, I have discovered their secret. Whether they knew it or not, they were tantra men.

It will be helpful for those who have not yet completed the tantra rites to think of the male and female bodies as batteries. (Bear with me; this is how it was explained to me.) Women have the positive channel up top (breasts) where they, if you could see it, shoot out energy. Below their waists is their negative terminal where they receive energy. Men’s positive pole is below our waists. So join our positive pole with the female’s negative pole, move the energy in that circle, and a tantra orgasm can be obtained simply by breathing, without any exchange of fluids or removal of clothing.

How do I know all this? I recently became a tantra man.

In my university days, I tried everything to get the girls. I lifted weights, wore name-brand clothing, even attempted fashionable haircuts. It was all in vain. But since even a blind dog sometimes finds a bone, I had the occasional girlfriend. But it was not until I met Liina that the secret of those who had just something about them was revealed to me.

My journey to tantra began in the usual fashion. I was the typical husband who did spent weekends doing weird shit to please his wife: yoga, walking across hot coals, drinking ayahuasca, meditation, riding an elephant, and wearing an electric-blue Egyptian gallibaya around the house on weekends.

I found none of these activities to be a waste of time, though I would admit on certain occasions I would have preferred to be fishing. But doing things of interest to your wife is the role of a husband, even though most husbands find themselves subjected to more mundane tortures, such as attending the Nutcracker ballet or a classical organ concert.

But it was not until Liina insisted I attend a weekend tantra class that I understood the ramifications of my problem: My seven main chakras had been blocked for the past 47 years! Proper maintenance of these chakras is essential, but little different than keeping your Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine in shape. While the lawnmower may require merely an oil change, your chakras demand regular yoga, chanting, or an ice-cold enema to keep them in proper working order.

The benefits of clean chakras are known to many. The most famous tantra man, Sting, is said to have the ability to pleasure his wife with five-hour bouts of sex. Richard Gere, who is known to have levitated on American national television (the government removed the footage from the internet!), is popularly thought to be the secret owner of the world’s largest online tantra yoga academy.

In our weekend course in Estonia, Liina and I did not learn five-hour sex or levitation techniques on the very first day, and I would caution everyone not to enter the course with this expectation. I can say that it took a full three days after the course before I mastered the five-hour duration, though you may master it in only a couple of hours.

Of course tantra is more than just sex. It is a way to master one’s energy and live life to the fullest. A banker who clears his chakras will find he is capable of foreclosing on twice as many homes as before. An advertising man will discover that perfect headline to double the sales of hemorrhoid cream. Clean your chakras and your primal energy will emerge allowing you to transfer orgasmic levels of energy in a variety of settings without the need for sexual intercourse.

And though tantra is not just sex, the novice newly in touch with channels of energy may find the need for new sexual partners irresistible. “If your body demands that exchange of energy, then by denying yourself you are not being true to your own truth,” our yogi told us. And what reasonable wife would deny her husband the pursuit of his own truth?

One cautionary note: I have found that the open-minded tantra life is not one always best lived publicly. Driving to Tartu last week, I picked up a hitchhiker, having absentmindedly left my tantra diagrams on the floor in front of the passenger-side seat. After no more than ten kilometers the young female hitchhiker began to look around and noticed the diagram of a penis, with arrows denoting the seminal vesicle, prostate, and penis’ third eye. I could see the gears turning in her head, and so I was quick to offer: “It’s okay. I’m a doctor.”

She squinted at me skeptically, and while I was not wearing a khaki raincoat, she surely saw me, at the very least, as a pervert, and more likely even an axe murderer. After a few seconds she asked me calmly: “Why would a doctor need such simple diagrams?”

Which was a very good question, I thought. And before I could think of a good answer she had insisted I stop the car.

The car was still moving when she opened the door, and before I knew it she was bolting back toward Tallinn. “Okay, I’m a tantra man!” I shouted after her, but it was too little too late.

If there is one useful thing that every attendee of a tantra course learns, it is how to give his partner a deep orgasm with only a two-minute foot massage. A bit of a parlor trick, perhaps, but who among us is above wanting to amaze his friends at parties?

Thanks to that little trick I’ve started to earn a bit of a reputation around the neighborhood. So much so that a little hippie settlement has sprung up in my garden. Someone erects a new teepee just about every other day, and I have increasing reason to move about wearing my gallibaya.

It will eventually become a bother, I know. But if all they want is a foot massage can I really throw them out? Liina doesn’t seem to mind as long as I’m following my own truth (and as long as they stay out of the kitchen). Some of my business-minded friends think I should monetize the thing and start an ashram, but I’ve never been much for commerce. So I’ve decided it’s just part and parcel of being a tantra man. Keep your chakras clean; be in touch with your energy; take life as it comes. Namaste.

Give Vello for Christmas.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Correct Me

I was clearly in the minority. Four purebred Estonians seated around my kitchen table, blue-eyed blondes with names like Sepp, Kivi, and Kuur. One wore a linen shirt like he’d come direct from a song festival. They were right out of central casting, except that, because of my presence, they were speaking English.

My Estonian doesn’t completely suck, though my accent is at least as amusing as an Estonian’s accent when he speaks English. I comprehend nearly everything in the Estonian language, though I can be thrown by submerged metaphors about angry roosters or rusty plows.

My four friends were bantering about Kant or bad journalism or nudity on Pirita Beach or I don’t know what, and all I could wonder was why they had consciously handicapped themselves by speaking English in a discussion I was largely not participating in. They spoke English well, I have to say, but hardly at the level they could carry on a conversation in their native language. Why, I wondered, had they chosen to rob themselves of the eloquence they possess in their native tongue?

Of course it’s not just my Sepp and Kuur who do it. It’s almost every Sepp and Kuur. Almost anywhere I go in Tallinn (except the central market) I am addressed in English. Asking a question to a waitress or stewardess in Estonian, she will often respond: “So do you want to speak English?”

What I want, really, is a simple answer to my simple question. Often I suppress the urge to point out that we are, in fact, in Estonia, a small country just south of Finland and west of Russia, and the language spoken here is Estonian. If we were in Sweden and I asked a question to a waitress in serviceable Swedish, would she respond in English?

But I never answer with that speech. Because if I were after a discussion about sociolinguistic theory I would have asked Basil Bernstein, not some waitress, and her injection has already hijacked what should be merely a transaction and turned it into an exercise to feed her self-esteem.

In most places in the world the locals are flattered when you want to speak their language, and they take some pleasure in playing along, sticking with the local language until the moment the foreigner gives up in utter frustration. Why is Estonia different?

One popular theory is that since so few foreigners even attempt Estonian, every accent is seen as ridiculous. (Conversely, since everyone attempts English, no accent is seen as strange.)

Another easy theory to reach for is insecurity. Some need to demonstrate that “I, too, speak English” and are not inferior beings.

“We want to practice our English” is another reason I’ve heard, and this is perhaps plausible for longer conversations, though I find it hard to believe that saying things like “Do you want cream with that?” add much to the speaker’s repertoire.

“We want you to be comfortable” is the explanation I’ve received most often if I ask why they switched to English. But if that’s the motive why don’t they just as quickly switch to Russian when an accent is detected? A slightly different matter, you may say. But if it is, then the explanation should be changed to “We want certain people to be comfortable.”

My French friend Guillaume theorizes that Estonians don’t want foreigners to learn their language. They don’t want you in their inner circle, he says, and the only way in is to learn their language. To be sure, Guillaume is a lazy bastard and he has not learned Estonian despite the countless euros he’s spent taking lessons. I would discount his theory on that basis alone, except that it actually makes sense. For thousands of years, language may be the only thing that occupying powers haven’t managed to take away from Estonians, so why should they be eager to share it now with people who will only pollute it?

If it ended there we armchair linguists would have it easy, but on a recent trip to Norway (where I did not attempt Norwegian), I met an Estonian mother who complicated things even more: she spoke only Norwegian with her children.

I saw no evidence that she was ashamed to be Estonian, but I didn’t see any major effort to instill the culture or language in her children. I do not presume to present her as representative, but she is surely not a bizarre aberration, either. With tens- if not hundreds of thousands of Estonians having emigrated in the last twenty years, perhaps we ought to worry about the Estonian language.

“Nonsense,” says a friend of mine. “We were down to 30,000 Estonian speakers in year 1200-something-or-other after the plague and we rebounded from that!” Speaking about it as if it were only yesterday, he is certain there is no risk of the language dying.

But with population experts saying the number of Estonians will shrink to something like 700,000 by 2050, it might not be a bad idea to take every opportunity to encourage use of the language. Especially with foreigners who demonstrate an inclination to learn it.

Speaking for many of them, let me say that we do not need or want praise. (We know we’re tubli.) We will not be encouraged by free folk costumes. (Nor amber or matroshka dolls.) And we do not seek Estonian citizenship. (We are not fleeing the tyranny of Canada.) What we desire is to be corrected.

My friend Katrin in Tartu is the epitome of what foreigners need in an Estonian. If I say õieti when I should have said õigesti, Katrin is quick with a reprimand. If I use street language, she will frown and refuse to answer. If I say something capitally silly or with an unbearable accent (I cannot properly pronounce loll or kalli kalli to this day) she will laugh out loud and later relate the story to her friends. She offers no quarter. But she does correct me.

Estonians who do not know me are surely too polite to correct me, but I would invite you to get over it. What could better improve a foreigner’s Estonian than an entire nation who takes it upon itself to help him learn the language? I’m not talking about free language lessons given in church basements by pensioners with nothing better to do (though that’s not a bad idea). I’m talking about a dining companion who gently tells me what I really want is gaasiga vett, not gaasiga vesi.

And Sepp and Kuur could have their arguments around my kitchen table in Estonian. My theory is that the extra time consumed by me interrupting to clarify a meaning would be roughly equal to the time lost by them using English. Nothing would change in the grand scheme of things except that one foreigner would speak Estonian at a slightly higher level.

The danger of all this, of course, is that Estonians might start to learn from foreigners. My wife Liina is so used to hearing me speak incorrectly that she’s begun to parrot me. I know several Estonian women who have learned English from their spouses, complete with ghetto expressions and plumber-style swearing, but Liina has added a new twist and allowed my Estonian to replace her own. Daily I fear that Urmas Sutrop may show up on the doorstep and take her away from me.

Perhaps a compromise might be reached where Mr. Sutrop simply moves in with us and takes me on as his Eliza Doolittle. He could rid me of my accent, repair Liina’s laziness, and make sure little Robert grows up speaking one language properly. And the rest of you might do your part, also. After you’ve finished laughing at my sentences, just gently correct me. Otherwise, we all may be doomed.

Vello 24/7.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Stars and Cars

How did Anne Alamets get my name? And how could she have known I was jonesing for a Renault?

On May 22nd Anne’s email arrived which informed me that Lenna Kuurmaa traded her two-door coupe for a four-door Fluence (starting from €15,450), and Koit Toome swapped his Twingo for a Grandtour (starting €14,650). According to Anne, Lenna sold her old car on Facebook in an auction last March and needed a new one, and Koit needed a bigger vehicle to cram in all his band’s stuff! How could Anne have known I’d identify so much with Lenna and Koit? It was Kismet or something. Some stuff you just can’t explain.

After reading Anne’s email, the first thing I thought of was how Koit and Lenna must really love Renault if they were willing to tell me about their cars. Since the Estonians I know pride themselves on being well above mere commercialism, I knew that Koit and Lenna’s messages were from the heart. If they said it, it had to be true: Renault really does have a car that satisfies every need!

But just as I was about to race down to the dealership and buy the most expensive, biggest Renault on the lot under the most unfriendly financing terms I could organize, a tinge of jealousy entered my head. Why hadn’t Anne asked me to plug Renault?

Since I was not born in Estonia, I am no stranger to consumerism and its attendant savage western habits. In the early 1990s when I tried to get a coffee in a paper cup to go, restaurants treated me like a stinky beggar. “Coffee to go?” a waiter scoffed. “We Estonians are cultured people who drink sitting down. You will never see coffee to go here.”

Around the same time a real estate agent asked me how she might sell more homes (not that she really wanted or needed to sell – I am sure it was just curiosity), and I remarked that in the west the agents try to heighten their profiles by putting their photos on their business cards and for-sale signs. “That will never happen in Estonia,” she laughed.

So from early on I knew Estonians were a superior race impervious to the powers of advertising. And I also knew that for that reason I could never really become one. I would always remain a simple Canadian, one born with no special powers for resisting consumerism. As kryptonite brings Superman to his knees, as the color yellow makes Green Lantern powerless, a well-crafted commercial message can induce me to open my wallet and let you take all that’s there.

So for a little bit of baksheesh, or even by being asked nicely, I would have gladly lent my name to Anne Alamets’ ad campaign. Just as Lenna and Koit did, I could have made a video.

Imagine me advancing toward the camera as I explain why I traded my Skoda for Renault’s Megane Grandtour. The camera pulls in close as I remove the Grandtour’s door panels to reveal thousands of cigarettes with no tax stickers. The consumer is struck by the car’s amazing hidden cargo capacity as I deliver the line: Whenever I cross the Narva-Ivangorod border, I do it in a Megane Grandtour.

Or imagine me trading down in cars for something smaller. The viewer sees me in the driver’s seat, my two-year-old Robert jumping up and down in the passenger seat trying to break off the rear-view mirror. The camera then pulls back to reveal Liina, barefoot in the back seat smoking a cigarette and reading a gossip magazine. I turn to the camera and say: In a few short years Estonia’s population will be only 900,000. Twingo was made expressly for the Estonian family.

So what’s wrong with me, Anne Alamets? All the years I’ve written this column why have you not tried once to exploit my celebrity?

And what about my readers? Proprietary Postimees research repeatedly confirms that Vello readers are Estonia’s opinion leaders, the nation’s most intelligent, the most beautiful and virtuous. The nation’s übermenschen.

You should also consider, Anne, that those who listen to the music of Koit and Lenna don’t have the money to buy cars, yours or anyone else’s. The Vello demographic is far superior: my readers are actually old enough to drive.

Or, Anne, if you don’t like me for some reason, why not choose another cultural figure? Imagine a billboard of Tiit Aleksejev accepting the keys to a Grandtour stuffed with a fresh printing of Valge kuningriik! Or Annely Peebo paying for a Megane Cabriolet with her American Express card! Or Jelena Skulskaja or Mihkel Mutt, two writers whose faces are more ubiquitous than any politician, arriving on the HeadRead festival’s red carpet in a Laguna Coupe! Or Epp Petrone – whose readers are more like groupies – packing away her 17 children into a Kangoo Express Maxi.

Not to take anything away from Lenna and Koit. I know they are really hard workers. And I sympathize with anyone who earns his living as a performer in Estonia. Since no one can be on the Eurovision stage 365 days a year, half the time you’re performing at some redneck’s wedding or a businessman’s 50th birthday party, or some Reform Party event where a cabal politely applauds and then returns to plotting how to make Edgar Savisaar experience so much pain he will lie down on the ground and plead, “Mommy, mommy, take me back inside you.”

In the videos attached to Anne’s email, Lenna and Koit talked about the Renaults they love. Despite my personal preference for Lenna, I found Koit to be the better car spokesman. Lenna seemed perturbed that she had to make the video and her performance was tinged with an undertone of “Just finish the fucking video, will you, so I can get out of here with my free car?” If Lenna weren’t Estonian, I might have suspected she was lying.

But since Estonians are the world’s most savvy and skeptical people, a race of man who lives above commerce, possibly the only people left on the planet who have not given themselves over as slaves to consumerism, because of this I know that Lenna and Koit’s messages were sincere. They would not drive a Renault if it weren’t the perfect vehicle for them. That’s just how it is.

But I myself can no longer resist. The day after this column is published I’m going down to City Motors to find Anne Alamets and purchase a Renault. Maybe even Koit’s old Twingo.

Dept. of Shameless Commerce: Get the complete Vello here.

Friday, July 20, 2012


“What’s it like to be 25 and still eating out of your mother’s fridge?” I asked Tiit, the son of some close friends I was visiting. I was prodding him in good fun but quickly realized it was a touchy subject. The kid had been out of work since the day he got his MBA in marketing from the Estonian Business School.

Taking up my insensitive remark as the topic of conversation, my middle-aged friends explained to me that more often than not their twenty-something children - and their friends’ twenty-something children - are still living at home.

“Why not kick their asses out?” I suggested, having just popped open my fifth beer. Tiit’s parents then painted a picture of Estonia as a little version of Spain, where there is little or no opportunity for young people.

According to Tiit’s parents, the kids who had studied finance or IT were working and earning enough money to have small apartments and independent lives, but the rest, if they were working at all, were earning chicken scratch while chained to an oar on the lower decks of Estonian companies.

“Do the math,” said Tiit’s father. “Can you rent a flat, pay your utilities, and cover all your expenses on four hundred euros a month?”

The obvious answer was yes, if you had at least one roommate. But some practices common abroad just don't happen in Estonia. While in London or New York you might find an apartment shared by three guys fresh out of university, I’ve never heard of it happening in Tallinn. Tiit’s parents were clearly convinced that Estonian kids have it tough, so I shut up and popped open another beer.

Later on Tiit joined us in the sauna and I was able to hear it from the horse’s mouth. He’d been offered a couple of jobs, but they weren’t in marketing, and they all paid less than he thought he was worth. Feeling a bit bad about the crack I’d made earlier, I listened carefully and sought to empathize with the young man. But then I recalled my first few years out of university, when the best I could afford was a tiny room in a cocaine addict’s downtown Toronto flat.

“Of course you’re without a job,” I told Tiit. “Studying marketing in Estonia is like going to the botanical garden to learn about grizzly bears.”

Tiit gave me one of those looks that made clear he’d been told at school that he held a coveted skill set and had been pumped full of that you’re-the-future-of-the-nation bullshit that young graduates get everywhere.

“What’s a Soviet-era professor know about marketing?” I continued. “And if he’s worked in the business then his experience comes from a tiny country with a homogenous population of look-alike whiteys. Why didn’t you study math or physics?”

I know I shouldn’t have said it, but I was drunk and it happened. But sober now, thinking back over those words, they are more or less true. And it turned out okay, really, because my honesty got us talking about Tiit’s feelings, and according to my wife Liina, talking about your feelings is a good thing.

Tiit then told me about the Winners’ Generation, “the generation who had balls but not necessarily smarts, the incompetents who occupy Estonia’s seats of power but who won’t get their fat asses out of their chairs so the new generation can have their jobs.”

“Yeah, man,” I cheered, actually taking out a notebook to copy this stuff down. “More spleen!”

And Tiit obliged: “These sad fucks for whom everything is ‘service,’ including art, and success is measured by tickboxing through a list of Soviet-era dreams they established by watching some western series from Finnish TV. And that is the ceiling of their imagination, this sad generation of one-dimensional men in beige sandals that they wear with like-colored socks. No soul, no fantasy, just emptiness.” I half expected him to start singing Bruce Springsteen songs, but he instead muttered something about Blur’s “Charmless Man,” a group I wasn’t hip enough to know and had to google later on.

I’d worked with some of Estonia’s Winners’ Generation, those born in the mid 1960s, those who were in the right place at the right time, “who bridged the past and the future,” as Linnar Viik once characterized them in an interview.

The Winners were the self-anointed Princes of Estonia, and although my words wouldn’t have been as condemning as Tiit’s, I had found some of them to be spoiled and lazy. “After I rest for several weeks I may be able to make a decision,” one Winner told me just last week when I approached him about his interest in a project. This Winner was the sort often profiled in Estonian business magazines, the narratives so full of flattering drivel that reading one start to finish is the equivalent of a warm enema.

Tiit was angry, but I understood his point: In a true meritocracy many Winners would probably have to give up their chairs. The skills they brought to the table in the early 1990s are often not the skills that industry is currently in need of. But despite Tiit’s outpouring, I wasn’t convinced that his generation - shiny diplomas, no experience - were necessarily the best replacements.

So while I didn’t fully buy into what Tiit preached, I did wonder how a guy with so much passion wasn’t employed somewhere. I mean, channel that energy into any job and there’d be no stopping him. Perhaps Tiit was too proud for his own good?

The next day I sent Tiit an email with a link to an article quoting Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "The pyramid tip is always narrow. In the years after the Winners it's nearly impossible to replicate such quick and successful careers. A 45-year-old manager or top specialists intends to remain in his job for at least another 25 years."

I suggested to him that 25 years is like a prison sentence. Twenty-five years of sitting around waiting for a Winner to give up his chair. And so I suggested to Tiit that he move to the UK, share a flat in a seedy neighborhood with Polish and Lithuanian construction workers, and get the first job that’s offered him. Even a job in a London McDonald’s would teach him much about ethnic relationships, conflict, working efficiently, and how not to put his hand into a 2,000-degree vat of boiling grease: stuff they don’t teach you in Estonian marketing courses.

Tiit didn’t reply to my email, and so I can only conclude he wasn’t too keen on that advice. Maybe he decided instead to go back to school and study mathematics.

Liina says my problem is that I’m too insensitive. But I say the problem is that the real world is even more insensitive. Regardless of what the career placement officer may tell you at your local university, absolutely nobody is waiting for you once you get out. There is only the job you want and the job you can get. And sometimes you just have to take the job you can get.

Mom and dad are there, though. They really do care, because they know how special you are. And they’ll always keep plenty of beer in the fridge.

More speeches to give your kids here. And, no, I have no idea why some text appears with a white background.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Little Revolutions

Pissed off consumers on one side of the counter. Bitter 50-something Soviet-era shopkeepers on the other.

“This is just unacceptable,” an architect I knew stood with the customers, his face growing increasingly red. “I want you to understand why I cannot use your work.” The smirk on the face of the copy shop’s battleaxe widened in direct proportion to how angry the architect became. “My drawing is green, and look at your copy. What color is it?”

Standing a meter away even I could see that it wasn’t green. “What color is this?” the architect asked me when the shopkeeper put her hands in her pockets and stared away into space.

“It’s piss yellow,” I answered loudly enough she couldn’t ignore it.

“Piss yellow,” repeated the architect who turned again to the shopkeeper. “Are you now going to tell me it’s green?”

The shopkeeper stared at her feet for a good long moment. “No, it isn’t green,” she finally conceded. And then I just about hugged the architect for his small victory over some of the nastiest human beings in Estonia. I had used that copy shop dozens of times, each time secretly hoping its employees would be visited by the plague.

I’m not proud of wishing ill on unfriendly shopkeepers, but I have to admit that I am not above it. Almost every week, during some customer interaction in Tallinn, I think to myself while staring the shopkeeper: Would it be too much to ask for you to just go away and die?

“But it’s not our fault,” the shopkeeper added as soon as she’d conceded that green and yellow were not the same. “It’s the machines!”

As the architect puzzled his way out of that one, an Estonian pianist known for his dramatic flair flew through the door.

“This is a disaster!” he shouted, brushing past all of us in line to the counter where he threw copies of a musical composition in front of another shop worker. “The black is not black, the white is not white! Do you know how much money I have spent in this shop? Twenty thousand euros I would bet you. My entire career I have come here. And now look what you give me!”

As I stood on my toes to peek over the pianist’s shoulder to see if they’d made his music piss yellow, the employee folded her arms to form a shield, jerked her chin skyward, and entered her thousand-yard stare. “It’s not my fault,” she said. “It’s the machines!”

The pianist paused. He looked at the shopkeeper. He looked at the architect. Then he looked at me, his expression saying, Does she really think I’m stupid enough to accept that as an answer?

He was asking for my help, I could see, and I wasn’t going to abandon a man in the right.

“It’s the machines!” I shouted at my highest volume. “The machines have taken over, and it’s up to us to stop them!”

“Oh, my god!” exclaimed the architect. “They’re probably unstoppable now. They’ve taken over the entire city, at the very least the city government.”

“He’s right,” cried the pianist. “Maybe Bruce Willis is available to fight these machines?”

Other customers also got into the spirit of things.

“I’ve warned my son about computers,” said a middle-aged woman, though I was not sure she’d completely understood. “Computers can be dangerous!”

“Perhaps we should set fire to the machines!” offered a very old man with a cane. “That sometimes works in the movies.”

“A great idea!” howled the pianist. “A huge fucking fire! It may be the only thing that will work!”

“I’m with you,” the architect declared. “Perhaps you have a canister of gasoline we can pour all over the copy machines?” he asked the shopkeeper, striking the flint on a ruby red cigarette lighter produced from his pocket.

Such camaraderie and singleness of purpose I had never before had the privilege to be part of in Estonia.

I’d of course heard of the Baltic Chain and Hirvepark, but they were not a part of my youth. Until now, the Estonia I had known was one of passivity, of people shrugging and turning the other cheek. But finally, after 20 years of waiting, I was present for the moment when an Estonian finally put up his hand to say, “Enough.” And it was an object of beauty.

So what if it was only in a copy shop? So what if the adversaries were nothing but some middle-aged ciphers? It was still pure joy to see citizens confront the perverse stupidity of somebody’s system.

I sometimes imagine what it might be like if Estonians collectively got tired of the shenanigans of the city government. I imagine thousands of them converging on city hall some sunny day. When they arrive they knock on the door and are politely received by the mayor.

“Won’t you send these people right out?” asks the people’s representative, who hands the mayor a list. “And examine the list for your own name, too.”

Seeing there are a few thousand people outside, those called have little choice but to come out. And the people show themselves to be in no real hurry, having brought lawn chairs, thermoses of coffee, and pastries wrapped in newspapers, which they happily share between them.

The people on the list report one by one, whereby the people’s spokesman offers them his seat, and calmly delivers the message: You have violated our trust and proved an embarrassment to the republic. You are requested to leave your post immediately and report to a farm in Põlvamaa where you will be retrained with a useful skill. Thank you for your time. That is all.

While the Greeks and French may be talented at setting things on fire, they have a rough and clumsy way about them. There is really nothing more elegant than Estonians deciding they are going to get their way.

Classy protests are few and far between, but when one happens abroad, I often look to see if Estonians are not behind it.

When University of California at Davis students lined the path from Chancellor Linda Katehi’s office to her car to silently shame her for the pepper spraying of students, the composure they showed was an act so elegant in its execution that I scoured news reports and blogs to see if an Estonian name might not be behind it.

Although I wish Estonians luck with their IT, I am not convinced it’s going to be a famous export item. But why not singing revolutions? It isn’t everyone, you know, who possesses enough self-control to not throw a Molotov cocktail.

There is nothing I would have enjoyed more, quite honestly, than to see that copy shop set on fire, but we all knew that nothing of the sort was to happen. The Soviet battleaxes were as safe as they could be. They could only go home that night, like Linda Katehi, secretly ashamed for having let things reach the point they did.

I imagine that copy chop is as puzzling to the architect and the pianist as it is to me. Like me, each time they patronize the shop they speculate as to how it’s possible every single employee can be so bitter.

Perhaps the employees were genetically engineered in a secret laboratory deep inside the Urals? They were people bred to be emotionless, who were simply released on the world when the funding ran out in the 1990s.

Or perhaps all the copy shop staff are orphans, children who grew up without being held in the arms of a loving parent even a single time in their entire lives? They had come from a cold, cruel world, and were only giving back what they received.

Or is their story more quotidian? Perhaps all the workers are former executioners from the Patarei women’s prison?

Or perhaps they are former mistresses of the copy shop owner? They fell hard for him, were nurtured by his love, only to be thrown over for another woman. They were still needy, and they had nothing to do in life but to work in close physical proximity to him, spending their remaining years tearing themselves apart, wondering why they weren’t good enough to be The One.

This is no ordinary copy shop, after all. One could send a troupe of professional circus clowns into the shop, and each would leave in severe need of psychological counseling.

There is a second copy shop within walking distance of the city center, but I do not go there.

Its employees are not especially friendly, either, but they seem to present no great psychological puzzle. When you pay what it costs for copying, if you can’t get good customer service then it’s still nice to get a little something extra, even if it’s only a glimpse of life’s rich tapestry. Just don’t go there looking for quality copies.

Enjoy a battleaxe-free purchase.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Back to School

“You’re ten minutes late!” the teacher barked at me as I entered her classroom. “I’ve already started the lesson!”

I’d left my home an hour before the appointment, since the school was in one of those Tallinn neighborhoods right out of the Russian film, "The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!" Upon arrival in the general vicinity, I parked the car and asked directions from a local who sent me to the wrong school.

Although most Tallinn buildings do have a number on them nowadays, the old Soviet axiom still often applies: “If you don’t know where you’re going, then you have no business being there.” With the possible exception of Ülemiste Airport, modern Tallinn was simply not built with anybody but the locals in mind.

Even though I had called the school to say I’d be late and explained what had happened the teacher was still rightly unimpressed. Perhaps she was one who harped on the virtues of being prompt, and so by allowing me to stay she was compromising some formerly unassailable standard? Or perhaps she was in a pissy mood because the teachers’ strike was due to begin in just a few days?

But I couldn’t hold it against her. I was, in fact, late, and in my experience it’s only the better teachers who invite strangers into the classroom.

“Hey, I don’t mind leaving,” I offered. But she decided I should stay.


As the father of a young son, the kind of education he’s going to get in Estonia is of keen interest to me. Critics say Estonian schools still stuff students full of useless facts instead of teaching them to think, and so I am always interested to visit a school and see for myself what the students and teachers are thinking.

I have followed the teachers’ strike, attending the rally on Freedom Square to talk to a few of them, as well as reading the coverage in the newspaper.

(A slight digression: At the rally, I noticed no grammatical errors in any strike sign. About how many protests can you say that?)

While I find it hard to take sides in the strike, it does seem that some politicians have used all available opportunities to belittle the strikers. To call the teachers naïve or suggest their activities evoke the red flag of Communism would seem to say more about the politicians’ understanding of democracy than about the teachers themselves.

As an outsider, to me it seems rather that the strike has fueled a healthy dialogue about education. And the “strike” – three days – can hardly be considered much of a strike by anyone who’s ever seen the real thing. Perhaps the politicians should rather express thanks that the teachers let us off so easily?

From what I’ve gleaned from the papers is that how much a teacher earns – whether above or below the average – depends largely on how you slice and dice the numbers. If I were a teacher, though, I think I’d have a problem with earning anything close to average.

One thing society is surely guilty of is constantly feeding teachers with the talk that they are some of society’s most valuable members, those in whose trust we place the delicate minds of our precious children. But then the 600-and-some-odd euros we pay them each month seems to send a different message: We value you less than a construction worker.

What if the ugly truth is that we as a society do not value teachers at all? That we see them as little more than babysitters with university degrees?

An American friend of mine – a professor of philosophy at an east coast university – has an interesting point of view. “Schools are just a place to get kids out of their parents’ hair during the day,” he argues. Beyond teaching mathematics and serving as a forum to socialize kids, my friend doesn’t think schools have much to offer. “What’s much more important is what happens in the home,” he says. “Are there books around? Is there art? What kind of things do the parents talk about with their kids?”

My friend may be right when the world is seen through the middle- and upper-class prism. But I think he’s wrong concerning the bottom layer of society. It may be my years working in America creeping in here, but I don’t think much education takes place in the homes of those trapped within the cycle of poverty. Just as a school lunch may be the only healthy meal a kid gets all day, a state school may be his only opportunity for an education of any sort.

But since many politicians are career politicians, and since these lawmakers tend to come from the middle and upper classes themselves, my professor friend’s point of view may be more representative than we know. Ilmar Raag probably got it right when he wrote in the pages of Postimees about empathy and government. Most of us in the middle and upper classes – career politicians included – don’t have the faintest clue what it’s like inside the huddled masses. We don’t even want to know.


I don’t pretend to be an expert on life in Lasnamäe, but from talking to the kids in schools and elsewhere, the vibe I get is that kids are getting mostly negative signals from their parents: The deck is stacked against you in Estonia. Even if you speak Estonian without an accent, you won’t get the job because of your Russian family name. Just bide your time until you can emigrate west. And then take us with you.

But the positive message for the children – that not even an angry, disenfranchised parent can take away – is this: EU citizens are welcome everywhere. Get a good education and the world is yours to conquer.

I don’t try to preach to kids, but I do try to point out that university educations in Estonia, even given the low salaries, are about as inexpensive as you’ll find. I also try to suggest that wanting to leave the place you were born is, at least in part, attributable to reasons other than ethnic. When I was their age, all I wanted was to get the hell out of Scarborough, Ontario.

I don’t have the answers to The Russian Problem in Estonia. I won’t even pretend to know the questions. Perhaps over time it will sort itself out. Dissatisfied youngsters will leave the country, and those who want to stay will learn the language despite the difficulties. (If it’s possible for Russians to acquire fluent Finnish to sell wigs and cheap Chinese crap to tourists, then I imagine most anything is possible.)


When it comes to my own kid, I have to confess I would not want him getting hit with the negative vibes present in some of the schools I’ve visited. Just how much art would we have to discuss at the dinner table to counteract the effect?

Nor would I want him having to endure the daily grind of school in some of the Tallinn’s dilapidated structures. One school I visited (in Mustamäe) was fit for little more than use as a shoothouse for urban warfare training. But that was a year ago, and so maybe they’ve torn it down by now. Or maybe it just fell down.

But I might also not be so eager for my son to study at one of Estonia’s so-called “elite” schools, where I am told a dessert cart is wheeled between the desks and each lucky child removes an iPad for the day’s lesson.

I have been told by students in these schools that they feel pressure via regular reminders that “You are the future leaders of the Republic.” And the stories my friends tell of gaining a place in the school for their children – how they've taken the school director to lunch or dinner, or how they registered their kid at a friend's address in the school's district – these turn my stomach as well.

The good news is that I have also visited Estonian schools much like my own in Scarborough – not elite, though not full of the bitterness of the disenfranchised. In these schools half the class is attentive and the other half stares out the window like zombies. And I feel right at home.

I am not uncomfortable knowing that my son will simply get into whichever school he gets into. While I refuse to wine and dine a school director, I do believe in doing my part to better the overall system. Taking part in it when asked, and supporting the teachers as they do their jobs.

Long term, I think it might behoove us to put some thought into what kind of hypocrites we are. If teachers truly are as important to society as doctors, attorneys, and members of Parliament, should the paychecks not reflect that?

And shorter-term, I think the very least that we as a society can do is to allow the striking teachers to keep their dignity. What we might discover is that in allowing teachers to keep their dignity, we’re able to maintain our own, as well.

Read the collected Vello.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Not Kingly, Not Manly


“So what is it you do?” I asked one of the men sitting across from me at a dinner party. But it was clearly the wrong question.

“I’m an intellectual,” he said, exhaling dramatically to indicate that I was a complete idiot for not knowing who he was.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I was tempted to say. “I thought you were just an asshole.” But the specter of Mother Vikerkaar appeared in the room and I thought better of it. “So that’s a job title now?” I asked instead.

Then the man two seats over took up the topic and said he was making films about intellectuals but how Estonian TV networks weren’t interested in airing them. “They only want to hear about Eurovision,” he said.

There had clearly been a mistake in the seating chart. What was I doing with these people?

Then the discussion turned to a debate over which was the most elite secondary school (English College, the 21st, or Realkool? – with no mention of the Woburn Collegiate Institute in Scarborough). Then the dikes finally broke and we were all drowned in a Hit Parade of Western Philosophy. Abélard, Acquinas, Adomo, Aristotle, Augustine. It was if someone were reading off crib notes in alphabetical order.

Well before they arrived at Wittgenstein I felt like standing to quote a character from White Noise about the communal ego: “You say I’m a genius; I say you’re a genius; and we’re all geniuses together.”

But I didn’t have the courage to cause a stink, and so rather I silently recalled the words of Bluto, one of the intellectuals from the movie Animal House: “Grab a brew. Don’t cost nothin’.” Which means I got drunk instead.


Last week, I worked at my friends’ secondhand English-language bookstore in the Old Town, substituting for them while they were away making porno films or assassinating evil African dictators, or whatever it is that booksellers do on their days off.

I was humbled by the fact that every customer who entered the store seemed better read than I, and I lost count of the number of obscure literary references I was supposed to pick up on, because working in a bookshop they assumed I had read everything on the shelves. (I found myself wondering if forest rangers are often asked about specific trees among hectares of forests.)

Also, many people felt compelled to tell me about the size of their personal libraries (thousands of volumes), and they were shocked to learn how light I travel: my library is limited to a hundred books or so.

I could not even escape intellectualism on the bookstore’s radio: “…not singing about frivolous things…” said a talk show host about Leonard Cohen, who then noted that Cohen was writing on the “human condition, duality of our flesh, higher self…” Puleez. Give me my vomit bag.

But one of the things you do in a bookstore is read, and while leafing pages I stumbled upon an observation made by Iivi Anna Masso to Toomas Hendrik Ilves in the book Omal Häälel: “Paradoxically, this is a problem of our northernness – to be ill at ease with elitism is a northern phenomenon, and in the 'old' Nordic countries it's feared even more than in Estonia.” If this were true, I thought, then someone had failed to inform those at the dinner party.

Thinking a bit, I wondered if perhaps the Estonians, though not known for speaking in coded language, have simply employed a euphemism: visionary. I have noticed it is currently fashionable in the country to refer to oneself as a visionary. Is it perhaps the Bud Light-version of Intellectual?

But I have always considered a visionary to be an action figure from Hasbro, or a millionaire with a self-image problem. Even Steve Jobs refused to describe himself as a visionary. (“Technology leader” was his preferred term.)

I somehow believe the real visionaries among us aren’t the guys who call themselves visionaries. (And shouldn’t a true visionary have the courage to call himself an oracle?) And I am sure true visionaries are not the guys who continually post inspirational quotes from self-help books on Facebook. Real visionaries are more the troublemakers and the shit-stirrers, the activists, misfits, the dreamers and the downright crazies.

The moment I hear the word “visionary” I unsheathe and ready my dagger. I want to sit across the dinner table from a visionary just about as much as I want to receive a Jackie Lawson e-greeting card or walk barefoot over broken glass.


I’ve often wondered why it’s not okay to be smart in Europe without branding yourself as such. Perhaps it’s the North American in me, instructed from birth to pretend that class differences don’t really exist, even when they’re staring me right in the face.

I’ve long been a fan of intellectuals who shun the title. Like Joan Didion. She’s said the term “doesn’t make her reach for her gun,” but that she isn’t one because she doesn’t think in abstracts.

But mostly, to me, a peasant boy from Scarberia, Didion seems like somebody I’d like to drink a beer with. From her essay “Insider Baseball“: “[I]t had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations, […] had not gone to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives…”

My favorite Canadian intellectual — who will reach for his gun if you employ the term — is a timber framer with little formal education. Michael is a boat builder and collector of antique tools, all of which he employs in his craft. He can speak for hours on the virtues of Damascus steel, the art of typesetting, or Plato’s conviction that books were a poor substitute for dialogue – and convince the listener that each topic is of burning relevance to his own life.

I also find refreshing a diplomat I know in Tallinn with the courage or courtesy (I’m not sure which) to answer in the affirmative with a one-word response: “Rad.” (Probably only in unofficial communication, as the term has not surfaced in the Wikileaks memos.)

Were I to ever achieve status as a writer to the extent that readers make pilgrimages to my home, I would hope to be a recluse in the manner of Cormac McCarthy, who was once reportedly so aloof that he stowed his mail in the trunk of his car – unopened royalty checks, included, until his agent arrived to cash them for him. Or Pete Dexter or William Gay, modern day Hemingways who can make a fist fight real on the page because they’ve started a few themselves.

And so I should have punched out those fool dandies across the table from me, I know. I should have stood, thrown down my napkin, and declared that they had offended the sensibilities of a Thoreauian.

“To be a philosopher,” I might have crowed, “is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men.”

But, alas, I did not. And perhaps in Estonia, as in America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler (as Gore Vidal told us). And if you think you’re a great thinker then you must say that you are. Perhaps there is nothing American about it? Perhaps it is simply human? If so, I am saddened.


Saturday, March 3, 2012


Just like you, I’m excited to see if Anna-Maria Galojan will be granted political asylum in Great Britain.

I admire her cohones for attempting that maneuver, but I also have to wonder how she found a British attorney willing to take on her case. They don’t work for cheap, and if she hasn’t somehow squirreled away the cash, will she sell her designer clothes on eBay to cover the several hundred pounds sterling per hour she’s being billed? Or is her tab being footed by a political party? And might she appear again in Playboy? Is she considering hosting her own talk show? Will Estonian Public Broadcasting take it, or is it more a thing for Tallinn TV? Or will she keep her current high-profile position as foreign- and energy policy analyst for that elite English-language diary, The Baltic Times?

And in addition to Anna-Maria, what about that ex-Pirita politician who likes to drink coffee in Amps? Did he only have to return the bribe he got? No jail time? Did he lose friends after his conviction? Did the family stay intact? Will we witness his return to politics after finding salvation in Jesus Christ Our Lord? These are the questions which haunt me when I see him in cafes, sipping coffee and laughing with his friends.

And what about the other Estonian businessmen wrapped up in court cases currently? There are the land scandal guys. Will they have to risk homosexual rape in a penal institution? (Does that even happen in EU prisons?) And who’s going to get only the finger wag, sentenced to lay low for six months before actively rejoining business life as a local hero?

And what about the businessman who may or may not have paid someone to whack his associate? I see him weekly at the grocery store, but I can’t bring myself to ask the obvious question. Would “How’s that murder trial going?” be an appropriate question in a culture which prides itself on the lack of small talk?

Growing up in Canada we never had it so good: you could never see your criminal class in the grocery store. Once a person became even scandal material, he retreated completely from public life. You might witness him step outside his home in a bathrobe to pick up the morning paper, but there was far too much peril in shopping or café sitting. But in Estonia it’s like we’re all in one big Catholic marriage: for better or worse, we’re going to make this thing work.

In Canada, there was my scoutmaster, arrested for indecent exposure, caught showing his tool to a group of small boys in a schoolyard. Reportedly, he revealed himself in the classic fashion (raincoat), but the small children were unimpressed. They went about their business on the playground unfazed, even though thousands of dollars was later spent on them for hours of obligatory counseling. And the scoutmaster? It was before the digital era, and so he packed up and moved to another city several hours away, safe for as long as it took a newspaper clipping to follow.

Then there was my tennis coach, sent to prison for fondling an exchange student. Reportedly, the coach had asked for photos of the Scandinavian boy in his underwear in order to evaluate his physical fitness, photos which were duly sent. When the boy arrived, he was the beneficiary of special off-the-court training sessions. The coach, after his release, also moved several hours away to start a new life, hopefully sans his special kind of tennis.

There was the science museum director, tried for keeping someone else’s artifacts at home, and perhaps selling a few on eBay. Until the end, his family maintained his innocence but the court disagreed and he was both bankrupted and jailed by the system. Released early due to ill health, he moved to a new community and died several years later, presumably from the shame of ostracism. His case was so well publicized that he could never again visit the grocery store without enduring shouts of “Shame!”

The moral here? In a country of 34 million people, criminals are disposable.

Having never had the opportunity to see a prison in Canada, in the 1990s I took advantage of an invitation to visit a prison in Estonia. There were no politicians that I can recall, but rather garden-variety thieves and rapists who were serving their sentences in the filth and squalor of pre-EU prisons. And amongst it all a book club to which I had been invited to speak.

We all hit it off quite well, though I only recall that we never talked about books. Among other things, we did talk about their one celebrity prisoner – a foreigner in for drug trafficking – who did not attend the book club. Perhaps it was because he was my acquaintance? Or perhaps it was because he spoke not a word of Estonian, the language of the book club?

After my first visit, I began to receive telephone calls from a couple of the inmates. “How’d you get my number?” I asked. “And how’d you get a phone?”

“We can get anything in prison,” the caller replied.

They could get anything except me to return, which the warden strictly forbade. “This is a prison not some boulevard café,” he told me when the inmates invited me back for a third time. “You just can’t come and go as you please.”

Several years later, one of the inmates was released, and invited me to tour the Patarei with him. He’d served several years there, and his comments made during the tour demonstrated such remarkable knowledge that the guide – a retired guard – was prompted to ask how a tourist could know so much. After the tour the former inmate approached the retired guard, shook his hand, and told him who he was. He had never been guarded by the guard, but had read a book on prison life authored by the man and respected him very much for it.

My newly free friend and I had a coffee together where he told me he’d been admitted to university, which pleased me very much. I loaned him 500 kroons and I never saw him again, not even in the grocery store.

But I know it’s only a matter of time before we meet. In a country so small, not meeting is probably a statistical impossibility. So when we do meet, given the mores of a small society, how am I expected to behave? Must I, like the rest of Estonian society, tacitly welcome him back to the world by pretending the past is water under the bridge? Because – as an Estonian politician once explained to me – in such a tiny society we need everyone we can get. (We often don’t seem to need those in Ida-Virumaa, though that is another story.)

So should I ask him how he’s doing? Did he finish university? Is he gainfully employed? Is he happy? Does he have a wife? Children? Or will I have the cohones to ask what I really want to know: Am I ever going to see my 500 kroons?

I’ve never met Anna-Maria, but I feel like I know her. Via Facebook, I’ve followed her many adventures, where we enjoy many mutual friends. My feeling is that she’s truly destined to have a talk show, and when she does I hope she’ll answer all my burning questions about a public life on the lam. She has 5,000 Facebook friends currently, but has anyone unfriended her since her conviction? Or has this incident, in fact, brought her more friends? Has she ever turned anyone down for friendship?
I’ve not yet tried to friend her. I wonder would she take me seriously? Would she be my friend?

Vello in print.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Last month in Moscow, Vladimir Putin attended a no-rules, ultimate-fighting bout. The western press drew attention to the fact that the Prime Minister was booed, but what few covered was the fact that the American, Jeff the Snowman Monson, had a leg in his bone snapped by a kick from Feodor the Last Emperor Yemelianenko. As the New Yorker’s David Remnick described it, Monson, beat to a bloody pulp by the Russian, had to be carried away to the dressing room, his lips “as fat as bicycle tires.”

Although Team America may have lost that particular match, to their credit, Americans still love violent sports. Their blind dedication to their rather boring version of football produces problems with memory and concentration, creates speech impediments, headaches, neurological issues, and a higher incidence of depression in its professional players at 19 times the rate of the normal population. And plenty of amateur players (read: children) suffer head and spinal injuries each year for the glory of their parents who live vicariously through their little footballers and teach them the game as toddlers. But still Americans will risk it all for God, Country, or the honor of the neighborhood school.

In Canada, though we haven’t the budget for destruction that the Americans have, we still have the appetite. Our incidence of firearm ownership is through the roof, and hockey, that full-contact sport for middle-sized white guys, usually can be counted on to produce a fight that scatters teeth and paints the ice with blood. And sometimes the players fight, too.

But in Estonia, much like the rest of Europe, citizens enjoy a version of football which is actually played with the feet. There is also badminton and volleyball. And a sport called handball, where tall men struggle to throw a small rubber ball into a net. To wind down after a game, players are known to go home and apply for EU agricultural subsidies.

Sometimes I worry about the Continent.

But Europe wasn’t always full of pantywaists. Dueling was once popular in Estonia and elsewhere, even at the student level. The single goal of a mensur bout was to endure injury stoically. Student corporation members fenced at arm's length, attempting to strike unprotected areas of the opponent's face and head. The smite, the scar across the cheek, chin, or forehead, was considered a badge of honor. Those were the good ol’ days.

A friend of mine is pimping for the foreign owners of a new company to be established in Estonia and has orders to hire a CEO. Recently, he consulted me at my EU-funded think tank where I earn a comfortable living serving in the capacity of Senior Armchair Anthropologist.

Many of the Estonians my friend approached about the CEO job had not only politely declined an interview, but had felt compelled to send page-long essays detailing why the new enterprise would fail. My friend showed me the letters (names blacked out, just in case you sent one, dear reader) many of them ending with some version of the sentence, “I simply can’t afford to be part of a failed enterprise.”

“Not that I expect this to fail,” my friend turned to me for help, “but why can’t they afford to be part of a failed enterprise?”

I had to explain to him, a naïve American who thinks everybody enjoys horror movies and rubbernecking at car wrecks, that while in his country failure – even multiple failures – was no big deal, in Estonia failure was the equivalent of a dueling smite running horizontally across the ass. You could never again enter the sauna with your friends.

The 30- or 40-somethings with experience he wanted to hire were, in American parlance, either chickenshit or already entrepreneurs. If he wanted risk-takers, then he was going to have to either look a lot harder to find his Estonian Richard Branson, or simply give up and hire a 20-something. I counseled deceptive advertising: Instead of “Manager needed for deeds of derring-do,” go with “Warm place to sit, high salary, flash car.”

My friend argued that my theory was bullshit, that the only truly safe jobs in any country were those in government and, in this economy, possibly only those in parliament. In order not to lose the argument, I laughed my superior laugh and used my medical doctor voice to pronounce a diagnosis on the entire 40-something population: Atychiphobia.

If I was wrong, then where were the Estonian businessmen with huge appetites for risk? Where were the ones who, when they board a Tallink ferry in tossing seas, stand on the bowsprit with a harpoon in hand? (Perhaps they’re all in IT? Or working abroad in Russia?) Later I called the American and suggested he hire a Russian.

I don’t know about risk, but macho is an integral party of the Russian culture. And it comes top-down. While I’ve never seen a photo of an Estonian leader shirtless, Vladimir Putin has been, according to David Remnick, "photographed riding horses bare-chested, tracking tigers, shooting a whale with a crossbow, piloting a firefighting jet, swimming a Siberian river, steering a Formula One race car, befriending Jean-Claude Van Damme, and riding with a motorcycle gang.” Remnick wrote that once, on national television, Putin boldly attempted to bend a frying pan with his bare hands. He failed with the pan, but was unashamed. “See,” I told my American friend. “Case and point.”

Of course, not all Russians are like Putin, and not all Estonian 40-somethings are chickenshit. Admittedly, the Estonians I hang out with like to wrestle alligators just as much as any Canadian I know. And who can blame a guy for wanting a comfortable job?

It’s unlikely that the days of the mensur will return to Estonia anytime soon, especially with all that EU money around to incent us to practice good table manners and oppose capital punishment.

But I sympathize with the frustration of my American friend. Which is why I’ve invited him to over to watch the cockfights my French neighbor runs in the basement of his Nõmme home. It’s a setting where there are no international boundaries, where men of all races and creeds are united by our bloodlust and appetite for risk, even though the penalty for fighting roosters in Estonia is probably about as stiff as the two-minute suspension in handball. But, hey, we’re in the European Union, I remind my American friend. Life is supposed to be easy. If any of us wanted to suffer and toil and make a big deal of it, well, just east of here there’s a great place to get shirtless.


Vello collected.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Little London

Finally. Among Old Town's impossible number of strip clubs, amber shops, liquor stores, and shoe stores selling only black shoes, emerges a used English-language bookstore.

Slothrop's at Müürivahe 19 forms the lower end of what some are calling Little London (Drink Bar & Grill at Väike Karja 8 demarcating the upper bound), and though two venues perhaps do not London make, it's at least a start.

Of all Estonia's success since independence, I find it hard to count the Old Town among it. Despite its beautiful architecture, it's still a little depressing that it hasn't developed too much beyond being a home for Tallinn's red light district.

(Not that strippers are bad. On my last trip to a strip club I learned the girls are from Belarus and the Ukraine and live in dorm rooms above the club. Some are into real self-improvement, too. “My sister learned Estonian, earned enough money stripping to pay her way through Estonian Business School, and now works in banking,” a young Belarussian told me. I asked what grand plans she herself might have. “Oh,” she demurred, “my sister is the smart one.”)

It’s true that much of Old Town has been nicely refurbished – its architecture is stunning and it’s a great gingerbread destination for seasonal glögg drinkers – but it seems to lack a soul. Its progress seems to have halted before a community was formed.

So perhaps Little London is worthy of emulation: chop up the Old Town into smaller, manageable, intimate units.

On my last trip to Little London I picked up a Charles Portis novel at Slothrop's (thanks for stocking more than Palahniuk), took a seat at Drink Bar to say goodbye to Anchor Liberty Ale (thanks for stocking more than Saku), and started to have Disneyesque fantasies about what I’d do as the Real Estate Developer With the Heart of Gold who leads Old Town to prosperity.

I’d give a block over to musical instrument shops under the direction of the Nunne Street shop selling sheet music (Noodid?), give the art galleries to yellow-doored Temnikova & Kasela, let Vivian Vau rule a clothing district, and put the cafes under the supervision of the Black Poodle and Kehrwieder folks. I’d add an obligatory Little Italy and Little India. And we could surely tolerate a Little Reeperbahn (though let it be little).

Yes, I know, maybe the country's still not affluent enough to support the kind of Old Town we'd all like. So I've taken to blindfolding myself while I negotiate the Bermuda Triangle of Viru Street until I reach Müürivahe. I hang a left after McDonald’s, wave at the girls in the window of the joint I’ve renamed Stringfellows, and then, as the Brits say, Robert is your father’s brother.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ashram Vikerkaar

For me, a yogi will always be a bear. Or a malapropist baseball player (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”).

But to Liina, and to much of the rest of the world, a yogi is a yoga practitioner. And some of them are operating an ashram in my house.

The other day I came home to find a half dozen of them wrapped in brown blankets, sitting straight-backed on the second floor of my house, staring out the window at the rare winter sun. WTF? I might have tweeted, if I were the tweeting kind. Instead, I greeted them. Met by silence and assuming they did not hear me, I greeted them again. Then one whispered: “We’re meditating.”

I found Liina down in the kitchen brewing one of those Chinese teas with a name nobody can pronounce. “Who are those people?” I asked her.

“They’re meditating,” she replied.

My first encounter with the East came in the 1980s. One sunny weekend I was walking in Central Park enjoying a cold beer, when I saw a dozen Asians in Mao jackets and pajama pants making synchronized, slow motion movements as if filming a scene for a kung fu movie. I stopped and observed a while, wondering if I might be able to push one of them over, or if they’d re-set their speed and chop me before I could reach them.

It was a while before I encountered the East again, since the Estonia of the 1990s was more engaged in aping someone’s idea of the west: track suits, brick-sized mobile phones conspicuously displayed, and robot-like dancing to German techno music. About the only hint of the East I could find was shaving cream made in India. But just when I started to worry that Estonia had become little more than a vacuum to be filled by the West’s detritus, I met Liina.

If the rest of the country was looking West, Liina had somehow turned East, and she had a small army of friends who had done the same. Some traveled to India, hung out in ashrams, and returned wearing friendship bracelets and spouting phrases – “Dreams are whispers from the soul” – which I could have sworn I’d seen on American corporate motivational posters.

Many of these people started to hang out at our house, though the sincerity of their commitment to all things Eastern, I felt, was sometimes dubious. (A refrigerator full of beer is a powerful magnet and pulls from all directions of the compass. Somebody should put that on a poster.)

The East was a fad for most of them, and the majority soon disappeared into the woodwork, some re-materializing in the early 2000s as bank managers and lawyers. Liina remained committed, however. She did Tai Chi, yoga, worked with pendulums, ayurveda, and read copious amounts about Chinese medicine. I admired her commitment and even tried a few things myself, like fire walking, yoga, and vegetarianism – though the latter lasted only three days.

Liina would be uncomfortable if I described her as a guru – which I understand to mean “teacher” — but she cannot dispute that her commitment to spirituality has attracted some followers.

I have followed her into yoga classes which we attended together while living in Toronto, and I was immediately attracted by the idea that yoga could stop aging. The best yogis appeared to be decades younger than they actually were, and I was told this was the result of a chemical released when the spine is bent.

My interest was piqued by this, since my writer friends in North America had adopted the western solution to slow aging: they used fifteen-year-old photographs of themselves on the jackets of their newest books. I began in earnest my quest to slow the signs of aging through yoga, eventually becoming serious enough to purchase my own mat.

When Liina and I returned to Estonia I joined Jocke Salokorpi’s Ashtanga yoga studio. I liked Jocke, not only because he was friendly and easy-going, but because he didn’t make too big a deal out of Sanskrit. In my previous experience, instructors took sick pleasure in barking the command, Adho Mukha Svanasana, as if everyone in the room had grown up with a Sanskrit-speaking nanny and knew it as practically a mother tongue.

Jocke also made yoga fun, once playing a bit of music from The Last Samurai and having us all holler ninja war cries as if we were about to carve up Tom Cruise with a straight-blade ninjatō.

I have no idea of Jocke’s personal philosophy, but I liked his approach to the East, which seemed to recognize that I wasn’t about to give up everything Western for an orange robe and sandals. Yoga for me was just the one hour a day which equipped me to deal with the bullshit present in the other 23. I am a yoga dilettante, I admit.

Because of this, some of Liina’s peers, including those in the Brotherhood of the Brown Blanket, have not adjusted well to my presence in the Vikerkaar Ashram, as I somehow disrupt the higher vibrations of their more elevated universe. They have suggested to Liina that I might come home a little later in the evening, or enter the house a bit more quietly than I do.

To assert my claim to my own home, I have taken to carefully stocking the refrigerator. Imagine the ashram student who opens the door in expectation of finding his kohlrabi, amaranth, or yerba mate, instead to be greeted by multiple bags of frozen pelmeeni, a three-day old cheeseburger in a greasy McDonald’s sack, and the tongue of a cow boiled until it is the gray of Estonian winter.

And I have acquired a collection of the finest direct-to-video work of actor Steven Seagal, including Exit Wounds, Half Past Dead, and Out for a Kill. There’s really nothing like the sound of the bad guy’s femur snapping to add spark to a session of meditation.

I’ve also taken to greeting ashramites at the door with questions like “Do you have a tattoo of any winged creature on the part of your ass visible just above your belt?” (the women think I’m omniscient), or “Does the scent of grilling animal flesh help or hinder your meditation?”

They still come around sometimes, but those who stay are beginning to understand that I run a different kind of ashram. Chant all you want, but when the Toronto Maple Leafs come on the satellite TV then our house changes from ashram to hockey arena. And then you can pop open a cold beer and sit next to me on the couch, or you can head out to the doghouse for meditation. The dog won’t mind. He’s inside, watching the game with me.


Vello's seminal work on meditation available here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Power Trip

First come two blue-and-white police Skodas followed by a pair of black BMW X5s. Then it’s the president’s gleaming Audi A8 led by three lions on the number plate. Then follow two Scandinavian ambassadors in their black Volvos, dust-covered except for spotless national colors on polished stainless steel flagpoles. In pursuit is another X5, blue light flashing, and then two more cop cars. Then, straggling in the rear, behind the part of the motorcade any self-respecting terrorist or disgruntled ministry worker might want to blow up, is a rented silver van.

That’s where I am, in the back row of the van on a seat covered with what I hope are only food stains. The motorcade has just blown the light at the Viru roundabout, and instead of mowing down three American Indians in buckskin and war paint toting a synthesizer and drum set across the street, our driver has applied the brakes to wait out the light.

I ask my fellow passengers if we’ll arrive at our destination before everything is over with.

“Maybe they’ll serve you salted peanuts or give you a logoed umbrella as a souvenir?” a journalist remarks, compelled to put the new guy in his place for displaying too much enthusiasm.

“If you arrive in time, you’ll get to see Ilves present his guest with a painting of a ship made from tiny bits of amber,” adds another.

It’s my first Estonian motorcade, and I have to admit I’m excited. Were I not here, after all, I’d be staring at a computer monitor, or scooping up dogshit in the yard, or any number of less interesting things than watching diplomats and government officials preen and pose.

But the passengers on this bus are jaded journalists or ministry officials so far down on the food chain that they don’t even rate a ride in an unwashed Volvo. These are the ministries’ coffee fetchers and bag carriers, whose moments of glory come when a pissed-off minister wants to vent and they just happen to be in the room. A thankless job, but it’s the only action in town. I mean, not everybody can work for Skype.

But, hey, it’s a job, and these ministerians are already nicer to me than the journalists. “There are always delays,” one soothes me. “You’ll get to see what there is to see.”

What there is to see, of course, I have no idea, but the invitation to join the entourage was the best offer of the week and, really, how many times in your life do you get to join the circus? True, I may not be a full-fledged clown, but cleaning out the animal cages I still see more of the Big Top than the average Joe who drinks beer and farts in front of his television every night.
In 1994, during President Clinton’s visit to Riga, I was part of a group invited to meet Mrs. Clinton. Asked to be present a full three hours before her arrival, I was x-rayed and metal-detected and then ushered into a room with about fifty other people. A few moments before her arrival, Secret Servicemen entered the room with two German Shepherds who both put their noses right in my crotch to pronounce me First Lady fit.

When Mrs. Clinton came through the line it came out that the mother of the guy next to me was a major donor to the Republican Party of Arkansas. Although the man’s mother was an enemy of Mrs. Clinton, the First Lady knew her, and they chatted as if old friends. When Mrs. Clinton arrived in front of me, I knew I would have to do better.

“My mother hates his mother,” I said, and she laughed and asked my name.

“Vello?” she queried. “What kind of name is that?”

“Gypsy,” I replied. “We’re palm readers, but we’re Democrat.”

“Well,” she stepped back to take in two such distinguished mothers’ sons, “today has certainly been interesting for me.”

The higher a government official moves up the food chain the duller his days become. When you reach the highest levels, a huge part of your day is devoted to public appearances where you spew complete bullshit to people eager to be hit in the face with it.

Imagine the hundreds of people who said things to Mrs. Clinton like “Oh, I am just the biggest fan of yours.” And she replied, “Thank you for saying that,” while all the time thinking, Jesus, why can’t I go somewhere and get high?

The cool thing about living in a small country like Estonia is that it provides easy access to power, and I don’t just mean that you might find yourself seated next to the president in a restaurant.

In 1993, I was literally an arm’s length from John Paul II, but instead of touching His Holiness, I allowed Estonians to take my place to cop a feel of his ermine-lined red velvet shoulder cape. I could only imagine how they felt, a people separated from the West for fifty years and then one of the first foreign dignitaries to arrive after independence is a frail old man dressed in white who rides around in a bullet-proof golf cart while an Armani-clad security force jogs beside him. So this is what we’ve been missing? they must have wondered.

It was in a similar spirit that I met President Bush in Tallinn in 2006. In a tiny, packed hotel conference room a disk jockey played “Hail to the Chief” and the crowd rushed a velvet rope as Mr. Bush entered the room and leapt upon the dais. “I’d like y’all to meet Condi, my Sec-uh-tary uh State,” he said in that faux-cowboy voice which comedians had down pat. Then he spoke nonsense for a few moments before working the rope, paying careful attention to those who couldn’t be bothered to fight the crowd to press presidential flesh. Somehow the two of us got to talking about how the dry season had influenced fishing on his Texas ranch. “Well, let me know ahead of time,” I offered, “and we can go fishing here.”

“Really?” he seemed stunned. “People fish here?”

“Mostly with explosives,” I replied. “But a spinning rod works, too.”

That got the president thinking. “Explosives,” he nodded. “Wow.”

So I have never understood why journalists don’t get more excited about hanging out with dignitaries. It is what you make of it, and if a journalist is bored, well, it’s his own damned fault.

In 2000, David Foster Wallace chronicled life in the John McCain entourage, in “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub,” the Twelve Monkeys being the starch-shirted reporters for newspapers of record who, at least as Wallace saw it, traveled with jumbo-sized cobs up their asses.

The only starch that the reporters seated around me on this bus have ever encountered, however, is in a potato, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that the ministry coffee-fetchers held more potential for fun.

So I ask one of the ministerians, an attractive 20-something in a pair of governmental pumps, what drew her to the job. She didn’t miss a beat: “I wanted to help my country.”

“Hey,” I hold up my hands in surrender, “you’ve already got the job. You can tell the truth.”

Estonians aren’t good bullshitters, and if you give them the chance they’ll often tell you the unvarnished truth. She thinks a minute and replies, “Well, I get a front row seat to what everybody else has to read in the newspaper.” Then another pause. “And it’s kind of cool to be around power.”

I gesture toward the starch-free journalist who by now was now paying rapt attention to our conversation. “He agrees with you,” I tell her. “He just refuses to admit it.”

The rest of the discussion doesn’t take much imagination. The journalist calls me a sellout whore for not taking my job seriously enough. I call him a sellout whore for writing down whatever officials spout instead of piping up with intelligent questions. He argues that if journalists caused too much trouble nobody’d be invited. I argue that missing Reflector Day at Paide High School isn’t a major sacrifice. It quickly degenerates into one of those did-not-did-so discussions, which can end only by insulting each other’s mother.

But before a fistfight can start the light changes, and the driver jumps on the accelerator as if kicking at a cockroach and we pull a few Gs racing after the motorcade. By this time there are too many civilians between us and our destination, and the silver bus has no blue light. The young ministerian reports that we’ll probably miss the national anthem but that we’ll surely catch the second half of the speeches.

“And the other half we can read on Facebook!” I exclaim with enough visible joy to irk the journalist. But inside I’m really a bit depressed. Because I can imagine how everyone might have enjoyed it if we were there for the national anthem, me there in the back with the bus people, the only guy in the crowd bravely singing along.


The Collected Vello here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Role Models

“Auto.” It wasn’t Robert’s first word, but it’s his favorite.

Robert sees autos everywhere. When we explore the neighborhood in his stroller he shouts “auto” every time one passes. Several times a day he points out the window to our own car parked in the driveway. “Auto.” Even reading a book where a little boy locates his ears, eyes, and nose, Robert points to the illustration on the boy’s shirt. “Auto.” Indeed, I hadn’t even noticed.

I don’t know where he gets it. We are not particularly an auto-centric family; no one in the family has ever been a gearhead. And ever since I’ve been old enough I had to pay for them myself, I’ve thought of cars as a necessary evil – an asset which devalues 20 percent the moment you drive it off the dealer’s lot. Liina and I have only one car between us, and it is nothing fancy: a Skoda wagon that we bought used. Most of the time my transportation is a bicycle, which elicits no reaction whatsoever from Robert, except for when he sits on the back in his child seat, which allows him to see and identify even more autos.

Liina and I have considered that he might get his love for cars from our gearhead neighbor, the one Robert can see from his bedroom window. This is a kid whose entire life consists of a 15-year-old BMW, leather jacket, gold chain, bad haircut, illiterate friends, techno music, cheap beer in two-liter containers, and cursing at the neighbors (us) over the fence.

It is perhaps too early, but I worry that Robert might want to emulate him. As far as I can see, the he contributes nothing to the GDP, sponging off his 50-something parents who go to work in the morning while the young man blares bass from his second-story window. He is not even polite. Perhaps the gearhead’s presence is why some of my other neighbors – bankers – must earn so much: someone’s social taxes have to support the deadbeat.

I see the gearhead and I imagine Robert at 18, lighting spliffs on the sofa and declaring that he’s not going to work until his journey of self discovery through the lyrics of “My Beamer Has New Tires” is fully complete.

It is my hope of course that Robert will choose role models closer to home – his father – which of course creates its own attendant worries. Am I worthy?

Robert’s grandfather, a taciturn man not known for dispensing much advice at all, told me shortly after Robert’s birth that I would have a period of ten to twelve years to teach Robert something, and after that it would be pretty much hopeless – the young man would decide things for himself.

(The only other advice I recall my father providing me was before my first date: “Treat all the girls like ladies. Those who are expect it. Those who aren’t appreciate it.” Years later, comparing notes with my brother, we discovered that the pre-first-date advice given him was entirely different: “Never trust women with two first names.” Perhaps we each got the advice we needed?)

My father, in my eyes, was a sterling example of what any father should be. While he was not as affectionate as modern women would perhaps wish, he was a model of fairness, discipline, hard work, and devotion to his family and community. Mother was God. Not a negative word about her was permitted. You did not swear in front of her. You finished everything she put in front of you on a plate.

He was compassionate. Driving sideways into a post, I once put a dent the full length of his favorite hunting vehicle. He only put his arm around me to forgive. He never bothered to fix it.

He great dignity, too, though some would call it pride. I remember during one period of rather tough economic times he refused to take even a cent from the government. Even pleas from my mother that he had paid countless times more money into the government – so why not take some out? – were ignored. We were not that desperate and never would be. We could live on less. It was better to be your own man.

Through times good and bad he was a master of composure. Perhaps it was stoicism. As his son, I saw it as raw conviction and self-confidence. He could not be visibly shaken; or if he was, it would not have happened within view of his children. The only time I ever heard him lose his temper was when another duck hunter criticized his dog. (And God help the man who would have criticized his son.)

And so I have considered what kind of example I am setting for my son. Is Robert seeing anything worth emulation?

William, an American friend of mine, who is completely devoted to his children, once flipped the bird to a reckless driver who came close to hitting his kids. The driver stopped his car and challenged my friend to a fistfight. William, a former Golden Gloves champion, could have easily given the driver the beating he deserved and gone on to smash the windows of the precious car, but with his kids present, William was left in a quandary.

In a traffic culture like Estonia’s there is no shortage of opportunities to flip drivers the bird. Robert currently lacks the motor skills raise his middle finger, but he is a little sponge, and so I have attempted (unsuccessfully) to resist the temptation to point my finger at the country's deserving many.

I’ve become almost paranoid about my own behavior. Are my clothes clean enough? (Does he notice me shine my shoes?) How are my table manners? (What if he catches me eating over the sink? Am I pushing my soup spoon?)

Of course what he more closely monitors are things like how I treat his mother. Even though it may be considered a declaration of love in Eastern Europe, I’ve never beaten her, but now I’m even more careful to try to show her the respect she deserves. I now endeavor to tell her she is wrong in a fashion worthy of my own father (“Oh, I’m not so sure about that, dear”), instead of slipping into the lazy approach (“What are you, on crack?”). I have probably failed, and so I hope that, though Liina may not, children will perhaps award points for good intentions.

I also attempt not to reinforce his antisocial behaviors which I find amusing. When he makes the farting sound with his mouth I try not to laugh. When he rolls around on the church floor as if possessed by Satan, I try to simply pick him up. When he climbs out of the shopping cart to ride the supermarket’s conveyor, I try to remove him before he reaches the scanner. Although I am rarely successful, I think of my own father and try to live up.

Given Robert’s love for automobiles, I have braced for the day when his love of something inanimate surpasses his love for me. I have taken the magazine essay, “Why I Hate Barney,” to heart, the lament of a father whose infant son has given his heart to a purple dinosaur.

But amidst the worrying, Liina and I have instituted counter-programming measures to indoctrinate Robert against gearheadism – and here, one must fight fire with fire. Whenever he says “auto,” I offer him a toy gun.

Liina and I are also aggressively working with new vocabulary. She is teaching him about herbal teas and healing plants. I am instructing him how Salmo trutta may be caught on an imitation Ephemeroptera. On his own, he is taking a seminar course on the best movies of Jean Claude Van Damme.
Hopefully Robert will move on from cars and Liina and I can return to the more usual parental concerns, like worrying that our son might be gay. Of course, I suppose it is possible he could turn out to be both. And we would still love him unconditionally.


More on gearheads.