pühapäev, jaanuar 22, 2012

kaksteist kuud

"And he puts his cocaine in the microwave. I mean, who does that?" Los Angeles, Los Angeles. It's such a ridiculously stupid city. People would rather spend hours in traffic than get behind some kind of comfortable and effective public transportation scheme. And I am one of these people. I am one of these people sitting at a table in an Ethiopian restaurant hearing about the exploits of an entertainer with a $500-a-day cocaine habit. "There were lines going everywhere. I mean here, there, on everything."

I like stories like this because it makes me feel as if I am rather normal, like I've made out okay in the stinky stanky tarpits of life. I've never even done lines. I credit Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)," but also just the idea of doing an expensive, addictive, and often life-threatening drug doesn't make sense to me. It's like heroin. Let's count the casualties. And this is something you will pay to do?

Hell yes. South of the border a drug war is ongoing. In fact, it's now referred to as The Drug War, so as not to be confused with the War on Drugs. As it was explained to me at the Ethiopian restaurant, the armies of the drug lords are stronger and more effective than those at the disposal of the central government. The enemies are carved into pieces. When they recently found a human head in a plastic bag near the HOLLYWOOD sign, it was thought at first to be related to Mexico's drug war, though it's more likely some local out to get national attention (and they all are). Should demand for Mexico's wares diminish in the Estados Unidos, the revenue base of the drug lords would similarly decline. But until then, more heads and hands and feet, more entertainers with $500-a-day cocaine habits, more traffic.

The Ethiopians eat with their hands. Their beer isn't half bad either. Better than Saku, not as good as A. Le Coq, easier on the gut than those jars of brown stuff the Setos sell from the back of their cars during the Setokuningriigi Päevad. One downside to knowledge of the Estonian tongue is the inability to speak about Estonia without using Estonian words or expressions. Like Setokuningriigi Päevad. It translates as "Seto Kingdom Days." But that just sounds clumsy and awkward. How else could you say it? "Days of the Seto Kingdom"? Just as bad. How about Viljandi Paadimees, the "Viljandi Boatman." That also sounds odd to my ears. And it doesn't matter how you translate it, because Seto Kingdom Days and Viljandi Boatman don't mean anything to anyone outside of Estonia because nearly all people on Earth are unaware of the existence of the Seto people, let alone their kingdom, and they have never heard of Viljandi, and therefore are completely ignorant of its mystical Boatman!

They do know about Kaksteist Kuud. This means "twelve months" in Estonian, but is interpreted by English-speaking ears as "cocks taste good." Everyone knows about Kaksteist Kuud. Go to some small Polynesian island and raise the blue black and white flag of the Estonian republic and you'll see the little naked children throng the shores shouting out, "Kaksteist kuud! Kaksteist kuud!" They've all seen the YouTube clip where the smarmy backpackers get pretty Estonian girls to say it over and over again.

Listen, even at the lowest points of my sad and alcoholic pre-marital life I did not stoop to the levels of these YouTube clip-uploading cafoni. Cafone is a southern Italian dialect word. It means a disreputable or ill-mannered person. I was once called this by an older person when as a teenager I ordered three hamburgers at lunch. But now I am calling you all out. It's time to let it go. Just as MTV retired "Ice Ice Baby," it's time to retire Kaksteist kuud.

But you know they won't let it go. No one will. Our friend recently was injured in Viljandi. She was walking down the street when someone dropped a couch on her head from a second-floor window. Just a minor concussion. But still! Our friend was hit in the head by a couch. I don't know why some part of me still believes life could be some other more rational or sane way. Couches falling from the sky. Microwaved cocaine. Kaksteist kuud. When the plane landed in New York it was snowing. Our driver was an old man, half my height. We listened to Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra all the way home. "Papa loves mambo, Mama loves mambo ..."

People keep inviting me to all kinds of events. One journalist wants to interview me about jealousy in relationships. Someone wants me to give a presentation at an assembly of Estonian teachers on the local education system. Sometimes I would just like to scrap it all and start playing João Gilberto tunes in some club somewhere. Or even Dean Martin. I could sing like Dean Martin. At this point, why not? In a way, it makes perfect sense.

esmaspäev, jaanuar 09, 2012

mart bryson

I've got a year's worth of reading sitting on my shelf: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, Down and Out in London and Paris by George Orwell, The Island by Aldous Huxley. Then there's At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, inspired by his own home, a former Church of England rectory. And those are just a few of the titles before me.

I haven't managed to read any of these books. Not only do I lack the time, but I also can't decide where to start. Fortunately, my subconscious has been providing me with some suggestions. It happened the other night that I dreamed that I lived in a house right beside Bill Bryson's rectory. I went to knock at the door, and after exchanging some kind words with his English offspring, Bryson appeared at the door and began speaking to me ... in Estonian.

Not only did he speak to me in Estonian, but he had the air of a mad professor about him, like Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, that hyperactive hum to his speech, but instead of spouting random facts about 19th century English life, he was spouting random facts about the Battle of Narva and Forest Brothers while I tried to engage him in some kind of normal, "Hi, I'm your new neighbor." As he spoke, he kept looking up, his eyes fluttering behind his glasses in manic excitement, as if God was speaking through him. And then I realized that it wasn't Bill Bryson before me. It was "powerful" Estonian Defense Minister Mart Laar!

Or some combination of the two, call him Mart Bryson or Bill Laar. I had never seen the link between the two of them until they were meshed in my dream, but now when I look at them, side by side, it seems so obvious how much these two men share. Perhaps they descend from the same brainy, burly, random fact spouting Viking, who after pollinating Estonia, had some ribald adventures in East Anglia, chattering on about some fascinating overlooked facts about Valhalla to his tired fellow Vikings along the way.

Laar's actually on my mind because of the leadership struggle in his party, Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit, officially called the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica. Watching the other contenders declared and undeclared speak to Estonian journalists on ETV recently was like having oneself dipped in liquid nitrogen. I cannot even mimic the stiff body movements and drone-like speech of the other heirs apparent to the machine at the top of which Laar still sits. Compared to them, Laar's fondness for looking up while he talks and occasionally moving his hands, if only to refresh his e-mail,  make him look like some kind of fiesta-loving, ultra charismatic Latino Estonian.

So my dreams are infused by books on my shelf and ETV, with a touch of some classic films starring Michael J. Fox. Fine. But then as we stood in Mart Bryson's doorway, we watched a stealth helicopter land in an adjacent property and a firefight ensue. It was SEAL Team 6, come to rub out Al-Qaeda instigator Osama bin Laden!

"You knew that Osama bin Laden was your neighbor all along and you didn't tell anyone?" I asked Mart Bryson as we watched the neighboring compound go up in smoke. "Well, I'm glad they took him out," he said, polishing his glasses. "That jerk doesn't take good care of his lawn." Then he shook his head and continued to chatter on about Hirmus Ants and the Battle of Tannenberg Line. When I awoke, it occurred to me that I have spent far too much of my time reading online news.

esmaspäev, jaanuar 02, 2012

the tourist

Sharm el-Sheikh. Never had much of a desire to go there, fearing shark and/or suicide attacks, plus hordes of euro trash and just plain old regular trash, left by the sides of sandy highways.

My excursions to Gran Canaria, while intriguing, produced various bouts of nausea and disgust when faced with bratwurst stands staffed by Spaniards, or self-sufficient enclaves of Norwegian-speaking pensioners.

Sadly, the Red Sea resorts and the Canary Islands are the only close opportunities for summer in the depths of winter for northern Europeans. Greece and Cyprus only start to warm up in April or so. There are charter flights leaving for Thailand or the Cape Verde Islands, but those are longer and more expensive plane rides. And the belt of land between the Canaries and the Sinai peninsula is besieged by domestic conflicts.

Here I look within myself and find an unabashed colonizer. Wouldn't it be splendid to winter in Algeria? Libya? How about Tunisia? Wouldn't it be great to covertly support Western-friendly, petroleum-exporting regimes that welcomed flocks of pasty northerners with bad haircuts and dyslexic fashion sense to bask in the sunlight of their endless summers? Wouldn't that be in our collective Western interest?

I gave into Sharm because the Estonian weather was leading the wife and I toward unhealthy thoughts. "I feel as if I am trapped in a bag," she said on one very dark and rainy December day. "And I would like to take a knife and cut my way out into the sunshine." And so after much contemplation we said yes to a tacky quick getaway to a resort on the Sinai peninsula. This probably raised some eyebrows among globe-trotting friends who prefer to take their kids to "real" places like Rwanda or Tibet for the educational experiences and bragging rights. As I have discovered though, children don't care so much about that stuff. Given a choice between an eye-opening intercultural experience and a pool with a water slide, they'll take the water slide, thanks.

That being said, Sharm is Egypt, the same way that Disney World is the United States or Cancun is Mexico. There is no escaping Egypt, the Egyptian national character, its honeyed foods, its overwhelming desire for tips. The first Egyptian I met was already holding my baggage when I went to pick it up, asking for money. I gave him three bucks. Which meant I didn't have any other small change for the three other guys who asked me for tips between the airport door and the door to our hotel room.

Nothing in Egypt has a real price, it seems. After years of orderly Estonian shopping, I arrived in a land where everyone is trying to take you for a ride, sometimes literally. I just happened to be standing outside my hotel when a fellow with a camel came by and picked up my two daughters and rode off with them down the block. It cost me 250 Egyptian pounds to get them back. The "official price" was 300, but he gave me a discount because I "look Egyptian." It was all in good fun, but there was a sense of extortion in the air.

Egypt was the third Muslim country I have visited after Turkey and Malaysia. I've gotten use to the headscarves, they remind me of nun's habits, except more colorful. So the women are basically nuns who can have sex. Terrific. But the Saudi ladies in full get-up baffle me. It's not that I have no idea what they look like, it's that I wonder how do they eat or drink without revealing their faces. Supposedly they come to Egypt to experience a more tolerant and open culture. Saudi Arabia has this ominous image, even in Egypt. It's right over there, and yet nobody can go over there. I'm not sure what happens to you if you accidentally get lost while snorkeling and wash up on a Saudi beach. I don't want to know, actually.

There are plenty of other nationalities in Sharm. The English were the friendliest and the most "normal," in that they would speak to you and tell you about their lives and talk about The Beatles. The Scots are affable yet indecipherable. Fortunately, having read Kidnapped and watched Trainspotting, I was able to get by. The Russians are also friendly, to each other, and seem to ignore people who do not speak Russian. Hence, the estrangement some Estonians feel toward their monolingual neighbors is not confined to this small land.

Russians also have the most fantastic sense of fashion, particularly the women. I was unaware that such apparel could even be acquired at a regular store, and was not to be solely found in sex shops. It also seemed that some Russian women enjoy complaining. I watched one scene by the pool where the woman complained and complained to her husband, who pretended to be asleep. This seemed to bother neither of them. She went on complaining, he continued to snooze. In the end, they both got up and went and had lunch, holding hands.

The number of Russian tourists in Egypt creates a challenge for other nationalities. On one hand, Russians are great fun. I watched a Russian man grasp his mate's voluptuous bikini-suspended breasts as they dove into the water together, laughing all the way, completely unashamed of their playful display of affection. On the other hand, the separation between "us and them," Russian speakers and non-Russian speakers, is annoying. Just because we may not speak the same language, doesn't mean that you have to avoid eye contact and/or sign language.

Estonians are the opposite. They are happy to speak any language to prove their resourcefulness and utter brilliance. Estonians also feel naked unless they have either a beer or some kind of telecommunications device in their hand. Our GoAdventure diving instructor took a break from scuba diving to post an update on a social networking site. The Estonian word for a wet suit is "kalipso," which confused the hell out of me. The wife's asking me for a "kalipso," and I'm looking around for Harry Belafonte to serenade us with "Jump in the Line."

Scandinavians are a mixed bunch. Danes are outgoing, friendly. Norwegians aren't. Something about the way they carry themselves makes me wonder if they secretly believe that they are the best that mankind can do. These are not only my thoughts. A Swede described Norway as a "nation of oligarchs," nouveau riche given to flaunting their oil wealth. A Dutchman opined, "they have all of our problems with one-tenth the amount of people and ten times more land."

I only heard one other American voice in Sharm, identified by the overuse of the word, "like." "And then I was like riding this camel in the desert, dude. It was, like, totally awesome!" I'm not sure how the Egyptians feel about Americans. When I went through passport control, the guy shook his head and laughed to himself, almost out of pity. "Ah, an American, an American ..." When I told a Bedouin lady that I was an American, she wrinkled her nose and frowned, as if she was about to vomit all over me. She still took my money though. We spoke Italian to each other.

I indulged myself as a tourist. An Egyptian friend even procured for me a hookah, which after a few false starts, I got the hang of, and one could see me sitting in a chair, blowing circles of smoke into the air, living it up, watching belly dancers. These are all just hazy memories now, photos from a family vacation. I stocked up on souvenirs too though.  So if you see a guy zooming around Estonia wearing a checkered scarf on his head a la Arafat and blasting Egyptian Top 40 from his car speakers, don't be alarmed. It's just me.