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.