pühapäev, juuli 26, 2009

midagi inglise keeles

The entire news staff of the Baltic Times quit recently, according to various news reports.

Vello Vikerkaar's got a stirring piece up on the issue right now: his Postimees piece inspired this venture into "me too" blogging.

I am not surprised, having seen editors come and go through the years. Several tried to reform the newspaper for the better but failed. At one point, one even told me, "If you want the job, it's yours for the taking." For some reason, I declined and decided to remain in my auxiliary capacity.

When I used to freelance for BT, I would fantasize about how I would remake it. First, I would kill all the cosmetic "Baltic" crap, whereby any creature living within the territory of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was a "Balt" -- a term originally used for Baltic Germans. Go into an Estonian supermarket and ask the cashier if she's seen any Balts lately. See what she tells you.

After the death of "the Balt," I would add an office in Helsinki to make it a full-fledged "eastern rim" newspaper. That might irritate people in that post-tsarist nordic country, but they deserve it.

Finally, I'd set up stringers in major Baltic Sea cities: Stockholm, Gdansk, St. Petersburg. The Baltic Times would have daily online content, and suddenly make other local English-language news sources in the region look provincial. It would be a sea-sized publication. We would keep a pensioner at a desk in Riga, the natural center of the region, and call it our headquarters.

That was a fantasy. Accomplishing it would have been impossible. I suggested the "Finnish office" idea to an editor once, but was told that Finland was labyrinthine and "you have to have a cousin up there to get anything done." From there, one could guess that an expansion to Stockholm or St. Petersburg was not really an option. BT would march on, publishing on such topics as "Baltic fashion," "Baltic music," and "Baltic fiction."

Nowadays, if you want something in English on the region, you've got to search the blogs, decipher the news stories on BBN, or wait patiently for The Economist's Edward Lucas to write something, when he's not in Ruthenia or Moldova.

Or you could just learn Estonian.

reede, juuli 17, 2009


There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about defense.

Most recently, Atlanticist thought leaders from central and eastern Europe sent the American president a letter to voice some disappointment with NATO, reaffirm their belief in the benefits of transatlantic relations, and stress the need for the same contingency planning that older NATO members enjoy.

Signing on behalf of Estonia were Mart Laar and Kadri Liik, head of the International Center for Defense Studies in Tallinn. Other notable signatories were Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

It is right that Estonians would like to know exactly how NATO would fulfill its Article 5 duties to come to its aid in the event of a conflict. At the same time, I would personally like to know what kinds of security guarantees other small northern European NATO members like Norway, Denmark, and Iceland enjoy.

What would NATO do if the Russian Northern Fleet would anchor off Kirkenes and annex the city? How would NATO respond should the Baltic Fleet leave port at Kaliningrad and launch a blockade and invasion of Copenhagen? We treat such ideas as preposterous but, other than the nuclear option, what would be the response?

Lost in the shuffle here when talking about the CEE is that Estonia is the last stop on the central and eastern European highway (or lack thereof). There are two very large nations in our neighborhood, Sweden and Finland, both of which play significant roles in our economic, not to mention cultural lives. While we use their banks, buy their products, and talk on their telecommunication networks, it seems our security has been outsourced to Washington.

I have no doubt that there are strong links between the defense ministries in Tallinn, Stockholm, and Helsinki. A Nordic Battle Group has even been created under the auspisces of the EU. But I keep feeling that, if we are talking about Estonian security, it would be helpful to clarify what roles two of its largest and wealthiest neighbors would play in a given crisis. Until then, we will have an incomplete picture of how Estonia fits into the puzzle of northern European security.

reede, juuli 10, 2009

nagu kaks tilka vett

Estonian author Friedebert Tuglas, author of "Meri" (1908) and Väike Illimar (1937) and ...

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (2003) and The Truth (With Jokes) (2005)

By the way, we are selling or renting out an apartment in the homey Tartu neighborhood of Karlova. You can find information on this housing opportunity here.

teisipäev, juuli 07, 2009

hammer of the gods

They took an Estonian Cross of Liberty from 1919 and stuck it on a pedestal in Tallinn. The monument was officially opened June 22 to coincide with Võidupüha -- "Victory Day" -- which commemorates the victory of Estonian troops over the German freikorps at Võnnu (Cesis, Latvia) 90 years ago.

I like that they built a monument to the veterans of the Estonian War of Independence. I enjoy how Estonian nationalism is focused on 1918 rather than 1945. The First World War lacks the Biblical narrative of postwar Allied history. The narrative of the Great War, the assassination that led to thousands of more deaths, the collapse of empires, the shifts in alliance, the chaotic emergence of new states, seems more representative of the nature of human conflict. Estonia at that time produced heroes, heroes who actually won and made a state from a territory that was only several years prior two Baltic provinces that had been traded by neighboring empires for hundreds of years.

So the victory deserves commemoration. But how? The erection of the võidusammas -- victory monument -- was your typical Estonian production, filled with backbiting and intrigue, allegations of misused resources, aesthetical battles pro and con, and worries over whether it was just too "anachronistic" and "aggressive," in the words of one German-born Tallinn academic, for a modern city center.

I went there Sunday morning. There was no one around. Like most commentators, I was pleased that it was not completely revolting, but -- a Cross of Liberty on a pedestal? That's the best you could do? In Suure-Jaani they have a statue of Lembitu of Lehola on his back, sword in the air, fighting to the death for his freedom. I always liked Suure-Jaani Lembitu. He was fearless man holding a weapon. But the new monument? It looks like a weapon itself.

I could imagine some science fiction film where the buildings of Tallinn come alive. The Stalini maja -- an imposing multistory Stalin-era building across from Stockmann kept intact for historical purposes -- begins to breath fire. From its perch on Liivalaia and Tartu maantee, Stalini maja uproots itself and starts moving towards the Riigikogu on Toompea. It's slicing the air with its hammer and sickle star. It could be the end of the Estonian republic.

The Riigikogu is defenseless -- the Russian Orthodox Church won't allow him to hook up with his stalwart ally Vana Toomas on Tallinn's Townhall Square. But, suddenly, the Riigikogu reaches around the Orthodox priest and grabs a hold of the võidusammas, a ready-made battle axe, a hammer of the gods. A couple swift blows from the võidusammas brings the Stalini maja to its knees. Its remains are jackhammered and used to make new parking places. The Riigikogu dusts off its battle axe and returns it to its place, where little girls in national costumes bring it flowers.

It would make a great film but, in reality, the monument looks kind of out of place. Tallinn's vibe is a Hansa one. It's the air of thrifty merchants of various backgrounds making a living backdropped by picture perfect cobblestone lanes. It was the hometown of Jakob de la Gardie, a statesman of French extraction turned nobleman of a German-speaking city in the imperial Swedish center of its Estland province. There's a shopping center named after his family now, across from the McDonalds near the Viru gate. That's Tallinn right there. That's what the city is about. Is it also a home for this hammer of the gods? Apparently so, but I am not yet convinced.

esmaspäev, juuli 06, 2009

hingame üheskoos

Who can describe music? The sound of thousands of people singing? It's an impossible task, but why not reach for other musical metaphors to guide the way?

When I was in Tallinn this past weekend, the music of one group kept coming to mind. It wasn't any of the hundreds of choirs that made up the singing organism of the Laulupidu, where balloons drifted by bearing the soulful words: Hingame üheskoos! -- "Let's all breathe in concert." It wasn't the sweet rock'n'roll of Rein Rannap, one of my favorite Estonian songsmiths whose works were on display at the festival, sung by rows and rows of ecstatic teenagers. It was Led Zeppelin.

Why not? They were the teachers of Norse Mythology 101 to junior high school students everywhere. And there was something deeply northern and slightly mythic about the whole event. The hordes of the blonde and blue-eyed. The noise as the crowd egged on the giant flames of the Laulupidu torch. The cool and soothing winds of the north coast, putting thousands of austere blue, black, and white flags to move. And then, the opening of the mouths, the flow of sound, the breathing in concert. I am not of this land, I sensed, but I understand what these people are saying.

One recurring thought I have when in the company of Estonians is that they are still pagans. They have modern technology and speak the language of liberalism, but when you are out in the countryside with them, seated next to a bonfire, it's not hard to imagine how their insurgent armies slayed Cistercian monks during the St. George's Uprising of 1343. Such thoughts resurface, even as I watch floats pass by bearing the young choir singers of Saaremaa -- they whose forefathers renounced Christianity in 1261 and slayed all Germans on the island.

Pop music and pop history aside, Laulipidu is an exercise in identity building. Our friends and acquaintances may make up one voice in one local singing group, but at Laulupidu, all of the chains of singers are connected. The people breathe as one. They have been doing this since 1869. Young people take the bus from, say, Sillamäe to Tallinn as local singers. They leave the Laulupidu as one of the Estonian masses.

The folk costumes that people wear at the Laulipidu though are exemplary of Estonia's ardent individualism. Sometimes it seems every local parish has its own folk costume. The men of Mulgimaa -- a band of south Estonia stretching through Pärnu, Viljandi, and Valga counties -- wear the Mulgi kuub, a long, black robe symbolic of affluence and ambition. The ladies of Setomaa -- a border region in Võru and Põlva counties, wear on their chests kilos of silver jewelry. Once upon a time, it served as their doury. Now it is purely for fun.

For our family, choosing rahvariided -- national clothes -- is a conundrum. Epp is from Mulgimaa, but her mother's family is from the West Coast and her father's family from near Rakvere. As mentioned previously, we have now shacked up with the Setos, but Epp's mother used to wear a folk costume from Muhu island, "because its the most stylish," she explained. I told her that if I have got to dress up, then I am going with the Mulgi kuub. No emasculating knickers for this writer. And the president wears one too. "Folk costumes don't have anything to do with where you are from," a friend told me during the rongkäik. "You wear what you like best."

You may think that Laulupidu is an event that can only be experienced at Lauluväljak. This is not true. In some ways, the TV coverage is better. At home or in a cafe, you can get a much clearer picture of what is going on. The crowds are invigorating, but Laulupidu can really break you as you contort your body to best use your minuscule amount of personal space. I got a taste for what the event was like for the armchair singers in the cafe at the Tallinn bus station. The waiting passengers sat mesmerized by ERR's coverage. Most sang along as the festival rolled on past the festival's scheduled set list.

pühapäev, juuli 05, 2009

elagu epu mees

Rongkäik. If I was translating it into English, it would literally mean "train way," but really it's a parade, and yesterday the parade to Tallinn's Lauluväljak (Song Festival Grounds) where Estonia's famous Laulupidu (Song Festival), held every five years, was set to take place.

Th parade started at 2 pm. We heard the drums beating, and soon it seemed all of Estonia was marching past in folk costume, city by city, parish by parish. There were even singers from Kiev, Ukraine; Stavanger, Norway; and Vancouver, Canada. Other places too. Hungarians, New Zealanders, Latvians. It took a very long time for the big Estonian counties to filter through during the rongkäik. I wasn't even aware that so many people lived in Ida Virumaa, "where the sun starts to rise over Estonia," as they declared proudly.

To show ones appreciation for a certain parish or singing group, you have to yell out Elagu ____, or "Long Live ___." For example, when Tallinn gümnaasium 34 passes by, you must salute them by crying out Elagu Tallinna Gümnaasium Kolmkümmend Neli! I waited patiently for my pet towns and parishes to pass by just so I could salute them with a little Elagu Sürgavere Kool! or Elagu Karksi Lauljad!

Actually, I let others cheer them on. I was too busy trying to keep an eye on my wandering Pippi Longstocking-esque daughter who makes friends and gets into adventures wherever she goes. When Pippi grows up a bit more, she'll happily cheer every choir that passes her during the rongkäik. But I was a little shy. I am used to that "I'm paying more attention to you because you have a funny accent" look I get from cashiers in Estonian shops. I was afraid that if I belted out "Elagu Meremäe Vald" the wrong way, I might get 25,000 of those stares. So I kept my mouth shut.

Then a funny thing happened. I was keeping one eye on Pippi and one eye on the crowds of lovely flaxen-haired Estonian ladies when one of them saw me and shouted out for all to hear Elagu Epu Mees! -- "Long Live Epp's Husband!" The women in the choir, which was part of the long contingent of Tallinn singers, immediately cheered this husband of Epp's. Epu mees? It took a moment to register. Noh, mina olen ju Epu mees. I spun around and waved to my admirers. They flashed smiles of warmth in my direction. The sun gleamed in Tallinn harbor. I felt flattered. It's been awhile since I was cheered. I'm not a nobody with a funny accent anymore, I beamed. I'm Epp's husband.


neljapäev, juuli 02, 2009

summer reading

I was impressed. My Lithuanian host in Kaunas spoke not only English but Russian as well. He had to be the same age as me, or even younger. How did he do it?

"What, speak Russian?"

"As far as I know there aren't too many Russian speakers in Lithuania. How did you learn?"

He gave me an odd look, as if I asked him how he learned to swim or tie his shoes.

"We learned in in school and," he paused, "it's a very useful language. You should learn it."

"No way," I told him. "Learning Estonian is a full time job."

He gave me that same strange look again, as if I had escaped from the Kaunas insane asylum. His look said, He speaks Estonian but not Russian? How could that be possible? He probably doesn't know how hard it is even to learn Estonian, and I mean really learn it, learn it so that you can read any newspaper article or book off the shelf. It takes time, patience, and a good dictionary.

It also takes stamina, stamina that is not fit to be wasted on learning Russian or any other "useful" language. If I opened the Russian door or Arabic door or Chinese door, they would become more languages I had tinkered with but never really learned. That's not what I intend with Estonian. I intend to be as functional as possible. That's why my summer reading is Pikk Jutt, sitt Jutt ("Long story, shit story") a newish Estonian-language title by Vello Vikerkaar.

Who is Vello Vikerkaar? He's a foreign Estonian, a väliseestlane, and like a lot of väliseestlased, he brims with witty insights and a hint of arrogance. Until they became presidents and ABBA managers, most väliseestlased could be seen as having drawn one of life's medium-sized straws. They weren't farmers running from the Khmer Rouge, but life was no swanky suite in Vegas either. They were citizens of a country that existed on some Western maps and in corners of the universe of international law. They couldn't restore the family farm because the family farm had been collectivized.

So Vikerkaar can be forgiven the dry way with which he digests life's absurdities. In a way, it's what's made him famous. Aside from cross country skiing and šašlõkk consumption, dissecting other Estonians is a national passtime. Another is wondering how Estonians are perceived by outsiders. Put the two together in one weekly column, and you get the success of Vello Vikerkaar.

The dictionary and I are two chapters in already. I've already picked up nifty words like jändama (to make a fuss) and kütkestav (glamorous). I've followed Vello as he and his Estonian-born wife Liina take in Liina's Aunt Virve, a woman with a very inconvenient, wire-gnawing pet bunny. I've been there with Vello as he traces the origins of the famous Ernest Hemingway quote, "in every port in the world, at least one Estonian can be found."

An added bonus is that Vello, who was reared in Canada, writes in English, which is later translated into sturdy, riigikeel Estonian. There are few funky south Estonianisms (they have a habit of slippin a dialect word in here and there) or metaphors about farm animals in the book. From my perspective, it's a good place to start for an Estonian language student who yearns to break free of tiresome self-help books.