reede, detsember 23, 2005

Turning Japanese

So I bought a CD from a group called Smokey and Miho, which is a side project between Beck's guitarist Smokey Hormel, and Miho Hatori, who used to sing with Cibo Matto. I actually interviewed Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto once, and thus have had peripheral contact with Ms. Hatori. You may know her as one of the Gorillaz as well. The Japanese looking Gorilla in Gorillaz ;) Anyway, I think it's safe to say that I found Miho to be a very attractive lady and got off day dreaming about what it would be like to be involved with a Japanese woman...and then I realized - it probably wouldn't be that different from being married to an Estonian.

There's a bit of a running joke in my family that my wife is part Japanese because she is in love with taking photographs. And I don't think it's her, it's a national trait. Almost every Estonian I know has a very well documented online life - complete with blog, photo galleries etc. And they take pictures of the dumbest things. They take photos of ugly buildings and passing vehicles and the dinner they ate. And somewhere back home in Estonia, they take the photos out and show them to family members. "And this is a photo of the steak I ate in Los Angeles..." says the well-traveled Eestlane. "Oooh" the other Estonians must reply.

I wonder if there is some truth to the 19th century deeply racist theories that placed Finno-Ugric peoples in the same "yellow race" with Japanese across the Eurasian continent. I won't believe the idea that these peoples are related solely based on their love of electronics and trading digital images, but the high cheek bones sure seem to connect Peipsi and Honshu. As the non-photo person I often feel weird about this cultural obsession. I mean I like taking a few photos, but I prefer moderation. A photo here, a little camcorder there - it all comes together into a perfectly lazy mosaic of my life. I feel sort of anxious about taking 40 photos for every outing then putting them all online for the world to see.

Not my Japanese/Estonian wife. She lives to take photos and I have become an expert at downloading them and troubleshooting camera problems at her insistance. Just like her love of smoked fish, blood sausage, and recording every moment via digital camera, I take it all in stride. It's like I am an American exchange student stuck on a trip to Estonia I will never return from. All I can do is continue to learn more.

Today was the perfect example of cultural collision. My wife had an article ready for SL Ohtuleht, and they wanted photos. Being Japanese-like Estonians that meant that, like, I should have a digital camera lodged in my anus and a wireless card in my brain so I could transmit images almost instantaneously. I should be able to blink to take the photo and send it - poof! - like that. I kept that poor Estonian at Ohtuleht waiting and waiting for those photos as I rushed to get them uploaded (after some mechanical problems) in time for his deadline. I called up a girl at a photo store nearby to see if they could put the photos on a CD because my computer wasn't working. But they could only do it by tomorrow. TOMORROW!? 24 hours is like 500 years in Estonian time. So I sweet talked my way into my old office down the street and used their computer. It was a holiday party and nobody seemed to mind. Yet by virtue of my gift of gab I got the job done in time. I guess it pays sometimes to have an Italian-American by your side!


esmaspäev, detsember 19, 2005

Dude, Get Over It...

It's official. Nobody likes to lose to an Estonian.

While Russian intelligence officers are still a little mad about that whole joining NATO thing, today's chief complainer is British fake Santa Claus Rob Horniblew (that's right, "horni-blew"), winner of the 2004 Santa Claus Winter Games, who was mad he was denied another year in the spotlight. This year Horniblew came in third behind Aare Rebban of Estonia and Finland's Olle Strömberg. Incidentally, Strömberg came in first in chimney-climbing, but Rebban won at kick sledding and reindeer racing. According to Horniblew, it was he that should have won the reindeer race.

Horniblew said it all came down to the reindeer sled race.

"You go up two at a time, head-to-head," he told The Mail on Sunday. "I was up against the Estonian and I won the race. He actually fell off his sleigh. But he got awarded extra points for falling in a particularly Santa-like style.

"I was pretty miffed at that, I can tell you."

pühapäev, detsember 11, 2005

State-Subsidized Children

For a lot of libertarians, particularly those that espouse a flat tax on everything - like the 26 percent flat tax Estonia has, our little Eestimaa is a dream land of unfettered market, where no evil government stands in the way between a genius and his fortune or a Finn and his cheap bottle of vodka.

But new stats out of the Estonian Statistical Office show that government subsidies do work to increase productivity, at least in one particular case.

The institution of the Parental Benefit Act on January 1, 2004 showed Estonia adopting a more social democratic population policy, providing parents of new Estonian children with their salary and a year of parental leave, "not less than 2,480 EEK (EUR 159) per month" with a "ceiling set at three times the average 2004 salary - 19,191 EEK (EUR 1230) per month."

The result of state-subsidized unprotected sex? More kids. According to the Estonian Statistical Office, 13,992 births were reported in 2004, a 7 percent climb in reproductive out put compared to 2003, and a 15 percent increase from a recent population low of 12,167 in 1998. Results for 2005 are not reported yet, but the noticeable spike after one year of having that act in place shows that some people thought government subsidized children sounded like a good idea.

So the free market may be great, libertarians, and Estonia may be a wet dream for those who are loath to pay taxes, but social democracy appears to still work sometimes, especially in the bedroom.

reede, detsember 09, 2005

BNS - Number of Non-Citizens Down to 10 Percent

What is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov going to complain about in five years?

According to Baltic News Service, "As of the end of November the country had 136,533 residents of undefined citizenship.". BNS quoted the Estonian Population Minsitry as saying that "since 1992 until this November 30 Estonian citizenship by naturalization had been granted to 137,617 people."

And according to the Estonian Statistical Office there are 1.35 million people in Estonia. Which means non-citizens in 2005 account for 10.1 percent of the population, and declining.

kolmapäev, detsember 07, 2005

Vaindloo: Russia's Favorite Estonian Island

They've done it again. According to Interfax:

The Estonian Armed Forces have accused a Russian An-12 military airplane of violating Estonia's airspace.

The plane, en route to Kaliningrad, briefly entered Estonian airspace without permission near Vaindloo Island, sources in the Armed Forces' staff told Interfax on Wednesday.

The An-12 was spotted by an airspace monitoring center in Amar, outside Tallinn. Its crew contacted Tallinn's air traffic control center.

There is no statement posted at the Estonian Foreign Ministry website, but according to the Baltic Times they plan to protest the violation of their airpsace through diplomatic channels, (NATO).

For those of you who don't know where Vaindloosaar is, as I did not know until 15 minutes ago, it's about 30 km north of Kunda in Lääne-Virumaa. So it's pretty far away from the Estonian mainland, (it may be its second most distant island, after Ruhnu). It is also 200 meters wide by 600 meters long. So, it can be said that it takes talent to find Vaindloosaar in the Gulf of Finland. But the Russian airforce has found it, and they have violated Estonian airspace more than a dozen times since 2003. In particular they have violated airspace near Vaindloosaar in August 2004, twice (in five hours) in November 2004, again in April 2005, and as recently as this October. Russia has denied all intrusion.

The clever Estonians have noticed the trend, and some say that Russia may be doing it on purpose to annoy them. *shock* It is interesting that they have been "testing" NATO territory more deliberately since March 2004 when the Baltics were admitted.

But whatever their little game may be it seems funny that it includes Vaindloosaar. From what I gather it's has only been known until now for bird watching and its 130 year old lighthouse. Now it seems to be the Russian airforce's favorite Estonian Island.

reede, detsember 02, 2005

A Quick Tour of the Nordic Capitals: Helsinki & Tallinn

And so we're on to the final lag on our quick jaunt through the six Nordic capitals, heading to the land of Finno-Ugric peoples that seem simultaneously caucasoid and mongoloid. In my opinion, Finland is like the Greece of the north, while Estonia is like the Cyprus of the Baltic. The stereotype is that Finns are fat drunks, while Estonians are thin drunks. The stereotype is probably correct. Both capital cities have their charm, although Tallinn is obviously the more immediately pleasing of the Finnic cities, but first...

Fifth stop: Helsinki, Finland.
For starters Helsinki is much bigger than you expect. Finland seems like the black sheep of the Nordic countries, and you expect its capital to be nothing special. BUt the city is big and interesting. Unlike Stockholm or Copenhagen, Helsinki is a fairly modern city, which means its roads follow some sort of grid logic. The "head" of the city (I wouldn't call it the center) is the Esplanaadi which protrudes away from the harbor and up towards the trains station and that big Lutheran cathedral you see in that photo to your right. Of course there is also the giant Stockman's department store. The reason Helsinki is overlooked by tourists is because it lacks in that immediate Euro charm that draws the throngs to Venice and Prague. It's square and even and often gray and brown and nothing too exciting. As with Oslo, the better, more "capital-like" city lies on the sea - Turku - which actually used to be the capital. But Helsinki has its treats. My favorite place was Savonlinna, an old barracks in the harbor. The whole harbor is interesting and it might be fun to just cruise around. Also, I have never wandered around Helsinki at night without something going on and people doing something. Unlike sterile, uninteresting Oslo, the drunks of Finland appear as if they have a good time in the open up here. Also, if you are looking to stay inside, you should check out Chiasma, the art museum. It's really interesting.

and Final Stop, Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn seems to be undergoing a major renaissaince in building these days. One day it's an abandoned factory, the next day it's been destroyed, the third day there's a Swedish-style shopping center there in its place. The architecture here, outside of old town, is postmodernity defined. In one place you find an old church, then a Khruschev-era building, then a rotting 19th century dwelling, then one of those giant Nordic-style department stories, all on top of each other. While jarring and inconsistent, it gives the explorer a desire to find the diamonds in the rough. The old town is obviously very nice and easy to get lost in. I've never really bought much there myself, but I am sure there are lots of things to bring back from so far away. The public transit leaves something to be desired as the trams are often packed, muddy, and friggin' gross. They also have this outdated system for checking tickets so watch out you don't wind up in the back of a security vehicle paying the fine! Tallinn is supposed to have an outrageous nightlife, and I am sure those stag parties are great, but I think that's more advertising than reality. The feeling in the city itself is mostly sterile northern efficiency. Tallinners have a reputation in their country for being materialistic and business-like. I think that's true. My favorite parts of Tallinn city are Kalamaja - a neighborhood of old wooden houses northwest of the old town and grimey train station (which is looking better too) and the old town itself, which is really fun to walk. Toompea, the neighborhood where the parliament building is located, in particular is more peaceful than Raekoja Plats (townhall square) which is loaded with tourists all-the-time. The neighborhoods in Pirita are similarly pleasing, like Kalamaja, for a reflective, peaceful walk. It's hard to know what to do outside Tallinn, since I have spent so much time inside the city. But I'd recommend no matter what picking up some Saku Originaal Strong (the best beer EVER) and eating some chocolate from Kalev to keep the seratonin levels in your brain up on those moody Estonian days.

neljapäev, detsember 01, 2005

A Quick Tour of the Nordic Capitals: Oslo & Stockholm

Norway and Sweden. As the two countries of the Scandinavian peninsula they seem like brother and sister. However the the countries that essentially share a language and history are quite different. Norway is a wilder, more remote kind of place, while Stockholm seems like the epicenter of Nordic civilization with its proud Gamla Stan (old town). I visited both cities in 2001, and again in 2003.

Third stop: Oslo, Norway Oslo is the capital of Norway, but it seems sort of like an afterthought when you read about how beautiful the rest of Norway is, particularly Bergen. Far from the fjords, Oslo seems like a city born of convenience and little else. Like Reykjavik, most of the main public buildings here, as well as infrastructure, appear to be decades old, though well-kept. The city is rather sleepy and at times seems backward or struggling to keep up with the times. It is also really, really cold. The kind of cold that numbs your lower spine if you don't watch out. I was there in October with a fever and it was miserable. Unlike Copenhagen or Reykjavik - when I walked through the streets of Oslo I wasn't that interested in what was going on in all those windows. Norwegians, of all northerners, seem the quietest and least friendly. Things seem pricey, but not worth it. My favorite place in Oslo is the Akershus Castle on the eastern side of the harbor. Whatever you do you should stay close to the harbor because that is where the life is blowing in from the icy water. The old stones of the fort will keep you strong in the face of the mediocrity below.

Fourth stop: Stockholm, Sweden. After provincial Oslo, Stockholm seems like a positive metropolis. The buildings are consistently inviting and Gamla Stan, in particular, is worth the trip alone. Swedes are not much more sociable than the Norwegians, but they tend to gather together in larger groups and seem more approachable. I can't really think of my favorite place in Stockholm, but I can say it is a city that let's you breath with its wide avenues and public spaces. A few places I have discovered while there are 1) The Observatory Museum in Vasastaden, north of Norramalm. Skip the museum and climb the hill for a nice relaxing view. the area in general is inviting and welcomes you to hang out. 2) Gamla Stan - walk the old town many times. It's really beautiful. 3) Sodermalm. This place is less explored but it also has a lot of nice shops to experience especially near the bridge that connects the southern island to Gamla Stan. My favorite thing to do woul dbe to walk that bridge from Sodermalm over the river to Gamla Stan at night. I have done it several times and the beauty of Stockholm's harbor never ceases to amaze. Also, if you can, take a ferry through the archipelago. The lttle rocky islands, with their red cottages, complement Stockholm's royal style. The capital of the Nordics, for sure.

A Quick Tour of the Nordic Capitals: Reykjavik & Copenhagen

*This story has been updated to correct factual errors*

For some reason I have been itching to travel again. It must be the whole month I've spent without getting on a plane. So I thought I'd turn this blog into a little travel guide for the six Nordic capitals: Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn. Yes, yes I know, Tallinn is included in most guidebooks in the East Europe section, for some good reasons, and bad ones too. But because Lonely Planet and Rick Steves have started including Tallinn in their Scandinavian guidebooks, and because this blog is about Estonia, and because I have been to all the Nordic capitals, yet not all the Eastern European or Baltic capitals, I decided to do it, in the words of Frank Sinatra, "my way."

First stop:
Reykjavik, Iceland, also known as, "Stærsta smáborg í heimi" or "The smallest big city in the world." That it is. With a population of about 190,000, is a pretty small, yet famous town. I went there in March 2001 hoping to find outrageous parties with beautiful women. Instead it was rather cold, gray, lonely, and brown. The city itself is cordial enough, although a lot of the infrastructure - like bus station - looks like it dates back to the Johnson administration, or in Reykjavik's case, the Geir Hallgrímsson administration (he was mayor from 1960-1972). The city has the feel of a fishing village, and the harbor figures prominently. The downtown is meandering, yet not that large, and the outskirts are framed by brownish green hills and painfully transplanted deciduous trees. If I could pick an Icelandic meme, it would be either death or hardship, and one place to visit would be the ancient cemetery on the southside of town. Gnarled and overgrown, it's the perfect place fto visit and you get a good view of the city too. Altogether it's a sweet place though, with lots of little shops selling expensive food and knit sweaters that cost a lot. I think the pervasive feeling in Iceland is one of frontier distance and independence. By being on an island so far away from the mainland you feel an immense weight has been lifted from your shoulders. Nobody can drive to visit you. They must fly. How perfect.

Next Stop: Copenhagen, Denmark. About 1.8 million people live here giving it the ambience of a big European city. The city is divided up into "bros" or boroughs, with the center most accessible through the Norrebro or Vesterbro stations. The center of the city builds upwards from a series of canals, and the streets are, like Rekjaviks, old and twisting, offering more knit sweaters, kabobs, alcohol, chocolate milk - all that stuff that Danes like. Saturday night in Copenhagen, or any night, is pure mayhem, as *nany* Danes are functional alcoholics. Don't be surprised to walk into the main train station at 1 am on Sunday morning to find passed out young women strewn about the entrance where their dates left them. The Strøget is the center of the city, a long series of walking streets where you'll see a lot of good looking young people wearing expensive clothing and listening to so-cute-you-want-to-vomit pop music. Of course Copenhagen also offers Christiania where you could famously go and buy soft drugs at all hours until the Pusher's Street was closed down a few years ago. My favorite part of Copenhagen was Norrebro, where there are some nice parks, record stores, and modestly priced middle eastern restaurants. It's a good place to relax in a city that has often be characterized as pure evil.