laupäev, juuni 23, 2012


Who's the boss?
The historical amnesia is stunning. This morning, buying a sandwich on a sunny square in Nuremberg, I had a dialogue with a friendly baker who told me that everything I knew about Estland was wrong. This started when I announced that I lived in Estland, although I am a New Yorker, expecting some kind of European comradery, and instead was met with big eyes and "Strasvoitye" or however the hell this well-known Russian greeting is rendered in the Latin alphabet.

"No, no. That's Russland," I told the baker, "not Estland." "Yes, but they are all speaking Russian in Estland," she told me. "No, they speak Estonian in Estland. It's like Finnish." "Oh, yes, they spoke that long ago, but now everybody speaks Russian," she answered. "No, I live there, trust me, most people speak Estonian," I continued. "Well," the baker harrumphed and put her hands on her hips. "That's not what I learned in school. I learned that they all speak Russian." "But they don't. They actually have a lot of German words in Estonian, kviitung, kassa, treppe ..."  "That's not what my teacher told me," the baker fired back. "Kuulge, kui te tahate ma võiks rääkida teiega eesti keeles," I shouted over the counter. That really frightened her and she sort of waved me away back out into the square.

It's funny because the Rathausplatz in Nuremberg looks a lot like the Raekoja plats in Tallinn. Here, I am reminded of the anecdote about the German who booked his flight to Estonia in anticipation of visiting some kind of little Russia and was disappointed upon landing to find himself still in Germany. But the Germans don't seem to know these things, and this begs the question, who wrote the post-war history books in Germany? In an effort to expunge all imperial urges from the German national character, were all mentions of the German people's historical legacy in the east cleansed from local memory?

Modern Germans may not know a lot about Estland, but they seem to know a lot about football. Last night's football/soccer game -- Germany versus Greece -- had the aura of some ancient war. The national anthems were played and the cameras slowly panned across the faces of the brave warriors who had come to battle over national pride by kicking a ball around on a field. The squares of Nuremberg were thronged by people wearing patriotic garb watching screens positioned outside of every bar, including a large screen in one particular square where tents were set up to provide the masses with their choice of alcoholic beverage. Each time the ball came close to the Greeks' goal, the crowd gasped and some even began to cry, only to let out a disappointing sigh when the ball was kicked beyond the goal into the crowds.

This reminded me of the time I fell asleep watching Italy play Brazil in the summer of 1995 and woke up an hour later and the score was still 0-0. An exciting game that was. Yet, eventually Germany did score, and then Greece scored, and it was a game. "There's a political element to this game," a friend yelled in my ear. "The Germans are pissed at the Greeks because of the crisis, and the Greeks are pissed at the Germans because of the terms of the bailout," he said. "But the Greeks are a bunch of lazy pieces of shit," he went on. "They sit around and smoke and eat stuffed grape leaves and then expect to retire at fifty with a nice fat pension. Well, that's not going to happen anymore ..."

I'm not sure if the rest of the Germans on the square felt the same way, but there was no shortage of national pride each time they scored. My God. The close ups on the sweaty faces of the players, the hair in their eyes, like Henry V's bloodied men at Agincourt. And then there was that woman dancing around on the sidelines who I was convinced was an impersonator of Angela Merkel until my friend informed me that it was actually the Chancellor. She was in on it too, every dance another thousand votes locked up for the next election. Look at Angie go!

This is it how Germans do nationalism these days. They are too busy winning football matches to worry about who speaks what language in Estland. If their high school teacher told them that everyone in Estland speaks Russian in 1988, well, it must be so, actual person who lives in Estland telling them otherwise right in front of their face in 2012 be damned. And there is a sort of unquestioning rigidness in the German character that perplexes me, this odd tick that makes them believe their teacher over the man in the store, or follow rules simply because they are rules. But who is making these rules, eh? Is it the same chap who's been writing these history books? Tell me please, oh Nuremberg baker woman. Who is this faceless Saxon pied piper that so many so enthusiastically follow?

Bitte schön.

esmaspäev, juuni 18, 2012

satori in copenhagen

Ring! Ring! An Illumination!
I would have felt lonely if it hadn't been for the bikes, the fleets of bikes running me down scared in the streets of the Danish capital. Everything has changed here since I last called this land home, but the bikes are a constant, they never leave, rather, there are only more of them. This is a country, or at least a city, where this form of transportation is king, and that means it rules above all others, cars, pedestrians -- you hear the bell ring twice and that means get the hell out of the way because some albino Amazon woman who looks like Brigitte Nielsen (pre Flava Flav) in a business suit is about to mow your sorry foreign ass down faster than you can say "Tivoli" or "Pølsevogn."

Yes, bring it on, bring me some more Tuborg Classic, reignite that youthful hunger for carousing and destruction. And then, when sobered up, back in Estonia, I yearn for those ladies and gentlemen on bikes, the bells but a sad nostalgic song, like one of those post-new wave anthems that were designed to make you cry: "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order, "How Soon is Now?" by The Smiths, "Enjoy the Silence" by Depeche Mode -- And there's a reason these songs are still being played in Copenhagen.

Oh Denmark! You gave Estonia your three lions, you gave Tallinn its name and Harjumaa its flag, but you came too many centuries too early, long before bicycles were the fashion. If there is an ancient tapestry depicting Valdemar II (The Conqueror)  riding his bicycle into battle in Lyndanisse, politely ringing that bell to any Finnic pagans who stand in his way, it has long since been lost or disappeared into the archives of some invading country.

Here in Viljandi I long to ride my bike everywhere, but there are too few occasions, it is something that must be selectively done, "Today, I will ride my bike!" You must don your helmet, proceed to fine designated recreational areas. Everything you need is in walking distance, and if not, it's within driving distance, But biking distance? Does such a concept even exist?

Even when I lived in Estonia the first time, in the dreaded and dark winter of 2003, there were young eestlased around trying to ignite a cycling revolution. It was hard and still is. In Tallinn, my cyclist friend informs me, things become more and more "human" every year, meaning there are more cyclists, him seeing driving around in some blinged-up "I've made it!"-mobile  as the post-Soviet form of neanderthal grunting, a sort of knuckle-dragging, hunched-over sashay before learning to walk upright and straddle a bike. Terrible. But I do see old grannies in Setomaa riding to the store with their long skirts fluttering in the wind. How I love those scenes. If only there were more of them!

In Viljandi, I am lucky to see people riding bikes around the town center, usually young ökoinimesed or poets or artists. Sofia Joons passed me on a bike a few times with a cheery hej hej, but that doesn't count because she's Swedish. The bikes do not dominate because the infrastructure isn't there to support a bike-dominated society, you see, one needs specific lanes for bicycles before one can lead a cavalry of cyclists into battle against pedestrians and automobiles. If only the infrastructure was there, I might use my bike every day, because most of the destinations that are within "walking distance" and "driving distance" are actually within "biking distance." Bumping over cobblestones and crumbling cement and asphalt is fun, you know, but it won't provide you with that thrilling "Valdemar II (the Conqueror)" feeling.

esmaspäev, juuni 11, 2012

tweety bird

I'm a sweet little bird in a gilded cage.
What is Twitter? What point does it serve? And, of utmost importance, who invented it? Has he been drawn and quartered already? Gibbeted and suspended above the carrefour of the online world? These questions rotate around my head like bassinet toys. Maybe Twitter has some ancient progenitors, perhaps Roman wall graffiti scrawled by the doors of bath houses and cat houses in vulgar Latin. And, if so, did senators of old engage in "flame wars" via bouts of noctural facade carving?

One can imagine Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a quasi-latinate name to be sure, toga, laurel leaf crown, creeping up beside some public Palatine latrine under light of moon, sharp implement in hand, to express his frustration with the pronouncements of some contemporary economist who has drawn his ire. The sun dawns on the scribbled words -- what was the Latin word for "wogs" again? -- but, alas, who cares, the media reacts, from any hill one can hear the diapason of the city state's echo chamber. Scandal! Twittergate! Panem et circenses!

Maybe such scenes really did occur, but if they did, they were just as meaningless then as they are today and forever will be, not to mention shameful. Paul Krugman's visiting and revisting of Estonia was just a play in the larger game of economic heads smashing themselves against each other. It has little to do with Estland or its people. GDP numbers and other metrics of scoring international gymnastics do not reflect the true health of this country, they cannot, for a man can be an excellent employee in fantastic shape and still blow his brains out at the end of the week.

At the eye of the swirling storm that is the Great Recession is a question of soul, that is, America's ailments are not caused by Wall Street but by sheer gluttony, that blight of the American soul, that metaphysical corrosion that manifests itself in malaise, lethargy, obesity. Estonia's crisis of the soul will not be navigated by men with charts and graphs, but will end when the common man or woman abandons his envy for his or her neighbor -- the large, moose-like neighbor, in particular -- and moves beyond the ideal of catching up to one of achieving simple excellence.

Consider this. Even in the darkest days of Tsarist rule, the Estonians bred like rabbits. But in today's online world, they can barely find time for sex, what with all the late-night Twittering and Skypeing. Yet Estonians in the mid-19th century were pumping them out, Jüri, Mari, Jüri, Mari. It was a demographic deluge. Today there's barely enough new citizens to break even. The Estonians of yesteryear wore rags, spent candlelit nights chewing leather to soften it for future shoes. And this was the context in which the country's people became awakened, not in spite of the poverty, but because of it, because the people knew their land and loved it for what it was because it had made them and it was theirs.

So, my fellow Romans, put aside your Twitter and your Huffington Post, extinguish your flame wars, discard your graphs. If Paul Krugman wants to write about Estonia, that's fine, but he must come here first, he must walk its fields, shoulder its timber, swim in its lakes, dance with its widows, and, above all, be barred from conversing with its political leaders and Ministry of Finance functionaries. Every nation has its problems, sure, but shadow boxing on the Internet is no way to solve them. There must be better ways.