teisipäev, detsember 17, 2013


For a long time now, I have written here in this place. You've seen me come and go and develop and devolve. Now, at last, I know where I need to go. North! It's my newer blog and I will be writing there.

neljapäev, detsember 12, 2013

peppermint tea

In a recent business-related discussion, I happened upon an interesting question. It had to do with food production, and to brand something made in Estonia for the regional market with an N or a B. That's right: Nordic or Baltic. Just thinking about it was absorbing, because all of those prejudices floated right up to the top. Let's take something harmless like peppermint tea. I love peppermint tea. Now, would you rather drink Nordic Peppermint Tea, or Baltic Peppermint Tea? Hmm. Nordic brings to mind cleanliness. It smacks of Ikea and so there is a flavor of overproduction in the term, as in these tea leaves were handpicked and produced in line with 700 pages worth of government regulations. Still, they are Nordic, which means they come with a Sami folk pattern on the box and are of high quality. Baltic Peppermint Tea didn't sound as savory to my ears, though, nor to the ears of my Estonian colleagues. And nobody could say why. Or maybe we all really knew why we didn't want to drink Baltic Peppermint Tea, and lacked the courage to admit it.

kolmapäev, detsember 04, 2013


Estonia has a new minister of culture, and her name is Urve Tiidus. That's right, her name. The former mayor of Kuressaare is a woman. Estonia's cabinet now has its second female minister. While this is certainly cause for celebration, let's not forget that women are the majority in Estonia. There are 689,000 women. There are 598,000 men. That's a 54 percent to 46 percent split. Which, I guess, would mean that there should be seven female ministers and six male ministers, if you do the math, in an ideal world, in an ideal world...

why no western ukraine

In third grade, I was very proud, because I was one of the few students who could pronounce "Czechoslovakia." Other kids would prod me -- "Say it! Say it!" "Say what?" "You know what, just say it!" "Oh, {an eyebrow raised}, do you mean, CZECHOSLOVAKIA?" "See! I told you that he could say it! Pay up, boys!"

It was a talent that perhaps could have earned me a future slot as a diplomat in Prague {"The Secretary of State informed me that you are capable of saying it..."}, but, alas, there was that pesky Velvet Divorce. It happened {snap!} like that. Czechoslovakia dissected, cut into more easily pronounced halves. Nobody blinked, nobody twiddled nervous thumbs, the anxiety level was nonexistent, it was all calm and fine, at least from the vantage point of a New York junior high school student. Now that I read more about it, I can see that many people even opposed it! Still, it was bloodless, soft as velvet, and who doesn't like velvet?

What I don't understand, is why there is opposition to a Ukrainian "Velvet Divorce"? It's apparent that Western Ukraine, those parts of current Ukraine that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is/are not happy with Kiev. They aren't happy with Donetsk. Western Ukraine! Doesn't it sound grand? {"Don't worry, mother, she's from Western Ukraine."} And yet, when somebody brings up a partitioning of Western Ukraine from the rest of it, all you hear is no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. To which, I must respond, Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?...


esmaspäev, detsember 02, 2013


Very pleased to hear of the demonstrations in Kiev. One thing that always impressed me about former Communist/Eastern/New Europe {as opposed to glazed over, apathetic ABBA- and Boney M-listening Western/Old} is the belief in "people power" -- that change from the bottom up is still possible. Count me among those Western Europeans {or Westerners in general} who remain convinced that there is no such thing, and that our systems will remain mired in lethargy for eternity. We {or some of those among us} were not surprised by what has happened in Ukraine over the past month at all. But what is surprising is the tenacity of these EU-friendly parts of Ukraine, these demonstrators who simply do not give up. I do not know what their great ambition is -- the common currency, Schengen? -- but they are banging at the gates, crying to be let out of post-Soviet limbo land. They want a future. Don't we all?

neljapäev, november 21, 2013


The meeting took place in an abandoned barn on the western most tip of Hiiumaa. Outside it was raining, and the sea was stewing up with caps of white, and the pines were shimmying, and even the savage gulls were huddling under the eaves of the deserted summertime lodgings and wishing they had gone south like everybody else

The Candidate entered the barn and made his way past the fishing nets and dinghies to the very back. Then he pulled on the rusty sickle, just as he was instructed. The secret door creaked open, and he followed the steps down, kicking up the sand and hay that had accumulated in the corners of the steps. At the bottom, the Candidate crouched under a heavy beam and came into the light. It was a bare room, with walls cut from  salt-air-dried logs and sandy ground for a floor. In the center of the room, he saw a small wooden table. There was a man seated at it.

"Good afternoon, Minister," said the Candidate to the man.

The Minister said nothing. He was reading through some paperwork. When he was done, he looked up at the Candidate through his glasses and gestured for him to sit. The Candidate took his chair opposite the Minister. Then the Minister folded the papers up in a folder and tossed the folder across the table.

The Candidate took it in his hands. He felt its weight. Then he scanned the text on its cover. It read, in Estonian, "Government's Top Secret Plan to Remove Anti-Ruling Party Elements Who Write for State-Sponsored Publications."

The Candidate glanced up at the Minister. The Minister nodded but said nothing. Then the Candidate opened the folder. On the first page, he saw there was a list of names. It was written in black. Some of the names were very well known. When he read the names, he winced, because they belonged to famous people. In fact, the Candidate suspected that some of the persons named on the list might have even been to the secret Hiiumaa barn cellar before.

Then the Candidate turned the page over and saw an image of a white stone building overlooking a beach. There were palm trees around it, and there was a young brown-haired woman in a polka dot bikini sitting on its veranda. The Candidate studied the lady. She held an umbrella drink in one hand and was smiling. The Candidate smiled too, because the woman in the photo had very nicely tanned legs. Beneath the image was a single line of text. It said, in Estonian, "Your Future Timeshare in Maspalomas."

The Minister chuckled a bit when he noticed that the Candidate was smiling. Then he snorted and pretended that he was clearing his throat and resumed his stone-like pose. The Candidate shut the folder, but the images of the white house and the tan legs were still hot in his mind.

There was a pause.

The Minister looked up at the Candidate again through his glasses, as if he was awaiting a response. The Candidate bit his lip. He looked around the room, at the sandy floor, the wooden boards, the gray-haired man seated at the table. He thought of the names on the list, the white house, the smiling dish with the umbrella drink. Then he shrugged his shoulders and dipped his head as a sign of assent.

esmaspäev, oktoober 21, 2013

the cyclops

One can look at Tallinn in different ways. Some see a city that has been multicultural and market-oriented since at least the 13th century. Others see it as the capital of Estonia. The incumbent ran his campaign with this first perspective. The challenger ran his with the second. And I don't think the opposition's campaign was ever about winning. It was about doing what the conservative party enjoys doing -- sticking it to Savisaar. Maybe a few of them were disappointed that Eerik-Niiles Kross lost, but most knew that bringing down the Cyclops of Lindanisse was a political impossibility, yet delighted in watching Aeneas storm his beaches and fling rocks at him anyway. It's a shame, because Tallinn needs new management. Any person who has scaled the ruins of the Linnahall at the foot of Old Town, stepped over its rubble and weeds and graffiti to greet a friend coming off the boat from tidy Helsinki on the other side, has felt those familiar pangs of shame. Too much of the city looks like that. Neglect, poor planning, asshole capitalist architecture. The city suffers from its leader's myopia. The Cyclops wins an election and he thinks that it's because he is doing such a swell job. But it doesn't feel that way. Savisaar's city feels slower and lethargic. Its free transportation leads nowhere. And yet a challenger who can match his rhetoric of inclusiveness and optimism is nowhere in sight.

teisipäev, oktoober 15, 2013

solidaarsus puudub

Solidarność was the message of the red letters scrawled across the pin pinned against my chest in college by a Polish girl with a Bible-thick collection of indie rock band compact discs. I had never given much thought to Gdańsk trade unionists, but I had already been marked as one of them. These days you never hear the term, either in Polish or English, and if you do hear it in Estonian, solidaarsus, it sounds hollow, because anything tangentially connected to altruistic impulses was thoroughly discredited by the Fall of the Soviet Union. But the hyper-individualistic "investors' state" of tech-savvy marketing and start-up worship that was grafted onto the bones of the ESSR is still heavy on the skin and light on the meat. We are told that it is natural and Estonian to derive sinister pleasure from the failures of one's neighbor, and if he should succeed, we are told that it is natural and Estonian to envy him, and to surpass him, if only to delight in his come down.

It eats away from the inside, turns the warmhearted cold. While no narcissistic writer could be expected to produce white papers of concise, pithy, logical thought and policy suggestions, we might expect a sort of temperature-reading of the national mood. The thatcherite-reaganite posturings of the middle aged have acquired a musty, dangerous smell. They sit lit up under fresh slogans like week-old tuna fish sandwiches beneath electric lights on ferry cafeteria shelves. The cheesy populism of the Edgar-led side moves clumsily, like an unfrozen woolly mammoth feeling its way across the ice for the first time in ages, accompanied by an orchestra of younger people's derision and snark. Political life sleepwalks through elections and, "Did you hear what he said? Did you see what she did?" Every somnolent step is one closer to no holds barred parody.

In the freshly assembled honeycomb bee-colony towers of the northern cities, the young man is tossing screens back and forth with his thumbs and deciding on the cultural origins of the night's savory meal. Japanese, Hungarian, Azerbaijani? Fling! He flings a screen aside and Skype chats with his friends and then his phone buzzes and his doorbell buzzes, too. He must now decide on a vacation destination for the coming dreary doldrums. Lanzarote? Limassol? 

In the towns along the less traveled highways of the south, the red paint is peeling, the window glass broken, the ancient curtains dance within the cracks. An old man sits on a crumbling cement stoop, helping himself to his morning juice. Bear Beer, black label, 7 percent alcohol, 2 liter bottle. He undoes the cap, places the plastic to his dry-skinned lips. The wind picks up some more and the curtains dance, just like the ghosts do, all across the parish.