The Truth Leaks Out

For all the times I pick on RIA Novosti, I should commend them for the following piece by Leonid Mlechin, who is called a “member of the RIA Novosti Expert Council.”

On several occasions over the past two years Russia’s state-controlled media has carried the opinions of experts who, with access to Soviet Foreign Ministry archives, openly discuss the illegal activities that led to the incorporation of Estonia into the USSR.

In 1940 the three Baltic countries were annexed and absorbed by the Soviet Union. Some of our politicians still claim that all three joined the U.S.S.R. of their own free will. But declassified documents from the Soviet Foreign Ministry paint a completely different picture. The Soviet Union incorporated the three republics after sending in troops, changing their governments by force, and holding elections that could not be called democratic by any stretch of the imagination.

As has been pointed out here before it may take some time until the government of Russia formally acknowledges those activities. But it’s nice to see that the ball has indeed started rolling at the “expert level.” Eventually it will trickle down to the politicians themselves. As Mlechin rightly points out:

… Modern politicians are in no way responsible for events in the 1930s and 1940s. Why should they display false solidarity with the criminals of that era?

UPDATE

In the comments section there was a question about how Estonians have dealt with the legacy of the German occupation. I decided to browse on over to www.okupatsioon.ee to find out. They have an excellent group of films, just click on films and you will get to choose which part of the 50 year-long occupation suits you.

It is told from the Estonian perspective. However, it lacks the passion or broad statements you’ll find in Mart Laar’s books. A lot of information is obviously left out, but it addresses collaboration with the Germans, and the concentration camps in Estonia. Many of the interviewees were children and teenagers at the time, so it’s based on many personal stories.

One part that will change the way I view Kuressaare forever is that the castle was actually used as a dumping ground for bodies during the first year of Soviet terror in Estonia in 1940. The old wells were filled with victims. It’s just … disgusting.

It’s unbelievable to watch how a small people – 1 million – are first invaded by a foreign power and ‘inducted’ into the ‘Sun of Stalin’ where clocks are set to Moscow time and slogans are displayed in barns. Then come the Germans, who send young Estonians off to schools in Germany to begin “Germanization” of Ostland. Then the Stalinists come back in ’44. I haven’t seen anything so bizarre since I watched old videos of “struggle sessions” in Mao’s China in the 60s.

There’s even an interview with Kindral Ants Laaneots, who spent a good part of his childhood in a camp in Siberia.

Highly Recommended for Estophiles.

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In Wake of Election, Atonen, Lukas Trade Looks

What a difference an election makes! Heading into the March 4 parliamentary elections, Reformierakond politico Meelis Atonen, a Viljandi native and father of two who recently turned 40, was still brandishing his anti-establishment locks as a symbol of how, like hair, the economy grows best naturally, with as little input from the state as possible.

Then all of a sudden, he’s Mr. 40 — the 70s meets 00s look sent out to pasture. I wonder if his gesture of getting a haircut was part of an alterior motive to score points with the short-haired Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. I expect to see a photo of Atonen with his sleeves rolled up, ready to get to work, any day now.

But what’s this? Tõnis Lukas, the 44-year-old Isamaliit candidate, Tartu representative, and father of three has decided to trade in his older, more conservative image from the days when he was haridusminister, for something that makes him feel more free, more alive, more youthful — and if you want to win in Tartu, you’ve got to get those student votes.

So new is Lukas’ look that few photos exist online of his growing mop of hair. He hasn’t entirely moved into replace Atonen’s shag in the absence of its place in the Riigikogu. Instead, he’s grooming more of an 19th century, Romantic awakening look.

Lukas wants you to see him living here in Tartu, cavorting with Lydia Koidula and Carl Robert Jakobson. He’s 70s alright, 1870s. Perhaps his alterior motive in pursuing this new look is that Ansip would mistake him for Atonen, and therefore give him a portfolio in the new government that was intended for Atonen all along.

A Day in Tallinn Part II

After I did my business on Pärnu maantee, I headed back towards the Estonian Foreign Ministry on Islandi Väljak. It happens that I am working on a piece about Icelandic-Estonian relations, and I needed a quality photo of the square, with the requisite shot of the plaque commemorating Iceland’s recognition of the restoration of Estonian independence in 1991.

The plaque is in English, Estonian, and Icelandic. It’s amazing how close you can get to the Estonian foreign ministry without arousing any dirty looks. I can imagine that if I did that at the state department in Washington that it would merit some questioning by a federal employee.

After the stopover in Iceland square, I headed for the Estonian television studios on Gonsiori. You see, I had been invited to participate on a show called Kahvel to answer questions about Estonia in Estonian, through mine American eyes. Joining me was Scott Diel, editor of the City Paper, older, wiser, and more fluent in Estonian than I.

Walking into a television studio is a surreal experience. Hey look! It’s that guy I see everynight on the evening news. Oh wow! Here’s Marko Reikop and there’s Anu Välba. Can Tom and Anni from Lastekraan be far behind? There is a feeling that I am about to go on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Ed Sullivans in this case are Hannes and Kiur. Hannes is seated in the dressing room, calm and in black. He’s on TV all the time. This is his life. Kiur is there as well. He is talking to me in Scott very quickly. It seems that Scott understands all, while I only piece together his thoughts then ask Scott for reassurance on what he said. I feel utterly immersed in Estonia at this point.

I ask a rock band that is sharing the dressing room “Kus pruugi kast on?” The answer comes back like clockwork. “Kuidas?” What is it with me. Why can’t I get a sentence past the gates without my identity being discovered. Did I stretch a vowel too long? Was my “pruugi” not convincing enough. And to think, I am going on TV to speak in this language.

I won’t reveal the dialog that transpired because the show has yet to air. It airs tonight at 10.10 pm on TV3 here in Estonia. Being questioned on TV is a bit nervewracking. I may not have answered some questions clearly because of the way it was set up, but I managed to get most of my points across in this language. Scott was also there to answer first if I didn’t get the message the first time. When it was concluded I felt relieved. There was a bit of a high. It could get addictive. I can see why people do television. But after I wiped the make-up off my face, I felt whole again.

Walking through the streets of Tallinn on the way to the bus station, I wondered to myself how it was that I — a boring Italian-American kid from Long Island — wound up in the capital of this foreign land answering questions on an evening talk show about Estonia. And it occured to me that these magical turns of events are the reason that I keep coming back to Europe. You just can’t make these things up.

Anyway, let me know how I did. And Hurrah for Tallinn. A welcoming place.

Of jalgpall and other things …

This Saturday Estonia and Russia will face off in a football match with significant political undertones. Some 900 Russian football fans are expected to travel to Tallinn to watch the match, and it’s highly likely events could transpire that could be used by opportunistic political vultures in any number of ways.

It’s a reminder of the fact that Estonia cannot escape geography, and that its neighbor to the East not only outnumbers it 140 to 1 but also has something of a total lack of empathy or understanding for Estonia that it ascribes to other countries with which it shares borders, like Norway and Finland.

As the year 2005 dawned, Russia was in a position where it had to face the reality that Estonia, as well as its other former Baltic republics, had successfully made the transition it started with the Singing Revolution by joining both the European Union and NATO. It decided that it would have to sign a border agreement, initialed in 1997, with Estonia, and indeed signed the treaty in June 2005.

Then everything went downhill. Russia insisted that Estonia ratify the treaty first, Estonia attached attached a preamble to the law ratifying the treaty, which is a document of the domestic legal system and has no bearing on the text of the treaty itself. Russia disagreed with that and went through the rare action of legally removing its signature from the agreement, and, well, ever since then Estonian-Russian relations have been barely worthy of the term. Estonia’s preamble referenced documents that were too truthy for Russia, and they made the statement that somehow Estonia’s internal preamble would entitle it to getting Petserimaa back at some future 19th century-style territorial roundtable.

Russia then commenced with systematic violations of Estonian airspace, which it denied, although it also violated Finnish airspace, which it apologized for. The propaganda war emanating from the Russian foreign ministry and its news services has been unrelenting ever since, and it gained new momentum when scuffles broke out at a monument in central Tallinn last year.

Estonian far right activists, such as Tiit Madisson, whose books on the Holocaust could get him in trouble in Austria to say the least, then launched their campaign against the monument, pledging to blow it up, or, in Madisson’s words, move it brick by brick to the occupation museum.

Then there were the demonstrations. There were skinheads yelling “occupant” in Estonian at Russians yelling “fascist” in Russian. There were teenagers holding red roses for the army that killed or imprisoned nearly all of Estonia’s pre-war leaders. The youth dimension was enough to make a sane person nauseous.

The Estonian government, threatened with the collossal PR disaster that would ensue should the Bronze Soldier nonsense take on new, more violent twists, decided that it should be moved out of the city center to a graveyard — which are also routinely vandalized in Estonia, but that people don’t seem to worry about as much.

The matter, however, was bilateral. Beneath the statue are the possible bones of dead Red Army soldiers you see, which belong to Russia, even though Russia claims that it doesn’t have anything to do with the USSR, except when it comes to the good parts (glory and territory).

It also didn’t help that Prime Minister Andrus Ansip chose to peddle the issue down the “symbol of occupation” route as opposed to the “these men should rest in a cemetery, not a tram stop” route — which he has embraced more as The New York Times has stuck its nose in the issue.

But did that really matter? Probably not. The BS issue fit well within Russia’s preexisting propaganda war against Estonia and they’ve run with it ever since. Estonia later banned both the swastika and hammer and sickle, which the Russian foreign ministry — never ones for logic — decried as a glorification of fascism.

President Ilves, who vetoed the most recent bill allowing the removal of the BS, said that the Estonian government was passing out ammunition to its critics and indeed, if there is some kind of flare-up at this weekend’s game it may very well involve said metal war monument.

There is hope though. These gentlemen are no longer fighting with guns. They are likely to channel their energy into a sport that is played with one’s feet. I have read that everytime the Germans defeat the Brits, some dumb newspaper calls it a ‘Blitzkrieg’. Perhaps if Russia defeats Estonia this weekend, its newspapers can rightly plaster ‘Red Terror’ on the front cover the following day.

Four more years

Finland’s sexiest man Matti Vanhanen and his Centre Party were narrowly reelected yesterday in Finland, giving Vanhanen the opportunity to continue on as the prime minister in Estonia’s kindred nation across the gulf.

The election occured as Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was busy on his first official state visit to Finland, and Ilves spent the day in Oulu, singing the city’s praises.

The big surprise was the strong showing of Finland’s rightwing Kokoomus Party, which seems to be everyone’s favorite over at Finland for Thought.

It is now being rumored that the Social Democrats may be forced to return to opposition for the first time since 1995.

Where does Estonia begin and end?

An acquaintance of mine recently said he wanted to take a day trip to Estonia from St. Petersburg and selected Narva as a place to meet up. I have never been to Narva but I am aware that Narva is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian city on the wrong side of the border. While I am happy to meet him there, I’d prefer to show him something “Estonian” nearby so he didn’t go home thinking that Estonia is just like Russia with a different flag.

And I got to thinking about, what exactly is this place called Estonia? I am sensitive to this country’s place in the world because I feel that most outsiders have a limited clue of what it’s really like. Even the tourists — and the traveling journalists — only manage to see Tallinn. They never seem to venture into the ‘real Estonia’ of Viljandimaa. In fact, most of the foreigners I know in Tallinn don’t seem to get out to Mulgimaa that often. It’s hard to convince native-born Tallinners to leave their little town or to think that Estonia is more than Tallinn too.

Outside of Tallinn, most of the places I have been have been the same. There’s moist bogs, birch forests, fields ripe for the plowing. The islands are stunningly pastoral. The north coast is calming and fresh. If it has a food store and a gas station it has a name and it’s on the map. So many people worry about the issues of Tallinn. They write about AIDS and unemployment in Narva. But Viljandi? Pärnu? Haapsalu? Hell, even Tartu? It’s like these places don’t even exist.

When will some important newspaper dispatch their roving journalists to Võrumaa to learn about what life is like in southern Estonia, I wonder? Perhaps never. And if Narva is as Estonian as Tõrva, then how come nobody I know is ever going there? How come, in my mind, Narva seems as foreign as Pskov or Petseri. With my knowledge of Estonian – hardly fluent, but passable – I can go anywhere in this country and ask a question and get and answer. But most people I know that have ventured forth into Narva have been met with a language that is written with characters like: Информационное агентство. Лента новостей политики, экономики, культуры и проишествий.

I have no idea what that means, and the truth is that I don’t really want to. Learning Estonian is a fulltime job, and I also want to learn Italian before I die. I am not that talented in languages. I have written off learning French, German, and Russian. I’ll stick with my imperial tongue of English for international dialog. Still there it is, the conundrum of Estonia — a unilingual state — staring me back in the face. It’s been 16 years since Estonia restored its independence. The residents of Narva may have lived there since it was rebuilt following the Second World War. But the place is linguistically Russian.

Isamaaliit can pass all the laws it wants and it will stay that way. Barring some incoming attractive economy that lures all the young people of Jõgevamaa to Narva, instead of Tallinn, Narva will continue to present the Estonian state with that dilemma. “You are pretending to be something you are not,” it seems to say. Language reform laws that make sense in Tallinn, where knowing Estonian will get you ahead, seem absurd in Narva, unless of course you intend to move to Tallinn, which isn’t everyone’s goal.

And then it hits me. Am I really looking at Narva, or am I seeing Vyborg? Like Vyborg, Narva was also founded by the Swedish empire as a administrative and trading post. Like Vyborg, Narva has also always been a political football, changing hands with battles. Like Vyborg, Narva has always been a diverse city. And, finally, like Vyborg, Narva was similarly evacuated during the war and resettled afterwards by people from all over the USSR. In the end, like Vyborg, Narva became a Russian city.

Yet unlike Vyborg — a gorgeous city that no doubt still arouses negative feelings in Finns about what the USSR took from them 60+ years ago — Narva is still in Estonian hands. This is a country of 1.34 million. You can drive for hours through the countryside and still only see a handful of people. And yet one of its silent and ambitious long-term projects is trying to get Narva to speak Estonian. It is said that the favorite sport of Estonians is uphill skiing. I am inclined to believe the saying when I think about Narva.

I wonder why, in the early 90s when there were rumors of Narva seceding from Estonia, that the Estonians didn’t let Narva go. Was it the historical symbolism of the two castles facing each other? Was it the possibility that the unspoiled beaches at Narva-Jõensuu would be lost? Is it because Paul Keres was from Narva and the new government wanted so badly to feature him on their restored currency? Or was it because Estonians know that Estonia is a peninsula, and they want to keep it that way. Maybe it was because the residents of Narva themselves changed their minds.

And that’s the thing. If Narva were polled, they probably would choose to stay in Estonia. And plans are being discussed to rebuild some of the more attractive buildings from Narva’s Old Town that were lost in WWII. If and when Narva Old Town is rebuilt, will that mean that more people will visit from the rest of Estonia? Will that mean that people will buy apartments there and work with the city with as much gusto as they have managed to dress up Tartu and rebuild Tallinn? Will Narva eventually become as Estonian city as any other. Or will it continue to be a piece of Russia, floating inside Estonia?

That’s the tricky thing about talking about Estonia’s situation today. It keeps changing.

A Day in Tallinn Part I

On Thursday I left my safe European home of Tartu and ventured forth across the sprawling countryside to Tallinn, a city I know well and where I lived in 2003 and 2004.

There’s relatively little on the road to Tallinn from Tartu in terms of civilization. There are small farms, and occasionally you pass through a settlement of homes that may or may not be a spot on the map.

Instead, there’s nothing but birch trees and wandering meadows. I’ve been to most of the population centers of Estonia, barring Ida-Virumaa, and I can say that, yes, it’s safe to assume that only 1.34 million people live here.

As you approach Tallinn the land becomes infinitely flatter. There are fewer trees. Instead large metal and concrete boxes, the symbols of Scandinavian and German investment, begin to dot the landscape. As it is with the larger buildings in Tallinn, I wonder if Estonia actually has enough people to work in and patronize all of these establishments. Wouldn’t it be great if we could clone Estonians or bring them all back from Canada and Sweden in about a year’s time? Now that would be interesting. Then I would believe that all of these buildings had been built with purpose.

As you get closer to the city you begin to notice another odd trend – American-style suburban homes, clustered around or near the large geometric shapes. Do people live there? It doesn’t look like it. I privately hope that the Estonian wilderness will spread like fire, and that peaceful birches will engulf these settlements, bringing them back into the Estonian context.

Then comes to airport, and then the traffic. So much has been erected in Tallinn over the past few years that shopping centers that once seemed imposing and new appear normal backdrops to busy dump trucks and bulldozers. Between the crest of the hill and the bus station, the remnants of communist neglect appear – Breznev-era buildings with weeping facades, stone walls turned muddy by traffic exhaust.

I tend to have a negative reaction to communist architectural legacy. Estonian culture is not as strong as German culture, but still the northern mindset is as infective as the Mediterranean mindset is in its context. The northern mindset craves peace and order. Ugly buildings create an impulse to paint, to scrub clean, to refinish – to make new and orderly.

Lastekodu is not my favorite street in Tallinn, but it is long and it must be taken to get to the center. The bus station is populated by rolypoly older men and attractive young women that look like they work very hard on their appearance. In a way, their attention to detail is a turn-off. Clothing is properly tucked in, boots are level, hair is perfectly tucked behind each ear – again it’s the manifestation of order. It my mind, though, computers are not sexy.

Lastekodu rolls forward and gives birth to Liivalaia, and the big signs of kapitalizm – Stockmann, casinos, …IF insurance, speakers playing pop music, young ladies with expensive manicures, young males with expensive mobile phones. The traffic is completely unpredictable and unwelcome. Still, things are quiet. Oddly enough it is the young people that make the most noise. They travel in groups and talk. I was once told that the silence of Estonia’s cities is a artifact from the Soviet era, but I think that’s clever marketing. Most other northern cities – Oslo, Helsinki – are similarly quiet. I like it. It allows me to think.

There is of course the monstrous Stalin house, which now houses a furniture store and a casino, across from Stockmann. It scares the hell out of me everytime I see it. I get scared by the idea of military parades and mustachioed dictators and posters of leaders on public walls. I am afraid of brainwashed masses stirred to unspeakable deeds by the power of control. That’s what that building looks like to me. If anything I am glad that it houses a casino. The ultimate ‘up yours, Stalin’.

After the Stockmann complex comes the Kaubamaja complex. This is a shoppers paradise. Tallinn is so much more diverse than Tartu. Unlike in 2003, I hear Estonian mostly, whereas in the past I feel I heard Russian being spoken more often. Obviously I hear Russian about 40 percent of the time, which I guess is demographically accurate. But then there’s the American English speakers in the Kaubamaja food store. How weird – they are on vacation, and I am here on business. I decide to leave them in their tourist bubble. What can you buy in Kaubamaja to eat for lunch? I choose two Dallase sai. I don’t have the patience for any kind if salat.

Finally, I roll past Tammsaare and into the Old Town with its stores of souveniirs and vodka. The smell of roasted nuts from Olde Hansa is sickening, along with the music. It’s not like I particularly dislike it, it’s just that it interferes with my enjoyment of the quiet. Everywhere there are places urging me to spend my money. Molly Malone’s tells me that it serves real Irish food. Oh joy, runny eggs, boiled potatoes, half cooked sausages, and Heinz baked beans! Yummy.
On the other hand they also offer spaghetti bolognese, which is easy to make and usually tastes good.

Walking in the Old Town is a bitch. There’s a reason they call it Pikk Jalg, it’s because it stretches the hell out of your legs. And then when you finally reach the top of Toompea, there’s another tough turn and you must continue uphill. Ouch. I wonder how it is that so many Estonian legislators are out of shape if they have to climb these hills to work.

Then it’s over to Pärnu mntee. I walk past the Pronkssõdur monument, which is covered in adoring flowers. I still can’t believe that there’s so much controversy over this one memorial. It’s pretty insignificant as far as memorials go. I imagine that we have monuments in Washington to many forgotten soldiers that most people wouldn’t notice if it went missing. Perhaps Spanish nationalists would destroy the forgotten monuments to the soldiers of the Maine who died in Havana harbor in 1898? Would Americans even care? I know the answer. The answer is ‘no’.

Crossing into the business area of Pärnu mntee. is serious business. There’s trucks spewing fumes and totally insane Smokey and the Bandit-esque drivers. On did a screeching U-Turn in front of oncoming traffic. I saw the driver and his passenger. They were laughing. They are completely crazy. And people wonder why there are so many traffic-related fatalities last year.
I happen to yell “Holy shit” quite loudly, a sentiment which is shared by nearby pedestrians on their way to attend a wedding.

To be continued …

Controversy

Dear readers,

I am working on a project assembling a list of other monuments in Estonia that could be construed as controversial but, for whatever reason, are not as controversial as Härra Pronks.

I was considering that the monument to Barclay de Tolly in Tartu might be one of these, him being a Baltic German warmaker in the service of Imperial Russia, but I wasn’t sure if that was controversial enough.

So what do you think? Do you know of any memorials or monuments in your hometown in Estonia that could be “the next Pronkssõdur?”

Thinking about 2009 and 2011

Now that the 2007 parliamentary elections are behind us and the big question is whether Mart Laar will get to be foreign minister or if Urmas Paet will keep his seat at Islandi Väljak, I have been thinking about what kinds of issues I would like to see in the debate during the municipal elections in 2009 and the next parliamentary elections in 2011.

The first issue, which I believe is up for grabs in terms of parties but that could favor the Rohelised, is some kind of commitment to sane urban planning. Across Estonia, haphazard urban planning has left some of its most picturesque cities with a mishmash of 19th century wooden dwellings, Stalinist architecture, and sleek 21st century modern buildings with jagged edges and endless windows.

What is lacking is consensus on what Tallinn should look like, what Tartu should look like, what Pärnu should look like. New may be good, but it may also be ugly. Who gets to say what goes where. In my experience, municipalities with a clear sense of what the city should look like are able to retain their charm and therefore their allure for local residents – who choose to stay – and tourists and visitors – some of whom also choose to stay.

Some questions you might want to ask yourselves in Tallinn are: “Why is there a McDonalds in the Old Town?” and “Why did they build Ühispank right next to a tiny wooden church?” Who is in charge, here?

Another zone of opportunity for politicians is Ida Virumaa county, where Keskerakond got more than 50 percent of the votes on March 4.

Politicians from other parties should be asking themselves why citizens in one of its more populous counties chose a party that very likely won’t do anything to better their lives if in power. Has Keskerakond promised them anything that other parties haven’t? Not really.

This makes me think that parties that want to win in 2009 and 2011 should stop writing off Ida Virumaa and should invest in operations there. There’s no reason why the Sotsdems or the Rohelised shouldn’t be getting more of those left-leaning votes. The electoral battles of the future will be fought in places like Kohtle-Järve. Start preparing now.

Finally, Estonia, like always, is caught up in many conflicting trends between nationalism and multiculturalism. It’s likely there will be more gay parades and Pronkssõdur grandstanding in the future.

The wisest parties will be the ones that don’t stick their nose in these beehives but do their best to ensure the public peace. Rather than shooting off opinions on these touchy feely issues, parties that hope to win in the long-run should present themselves as unentangled moderates in the cultural sphere.

Estonia has presented itself to the world as a multi-cultural country. Those that embrace that reality will spend the least political capital while other parties toil away defending their positions. This is a lesson that Keskerakond has used to its benefit and one that other parties can learn too.

Emakeele päev

Today is Emakeele päev, or ‘mother tongue day’ in Estonia. I guess the philosophy behind this holiday is to create nation-wide appreciation for the language of Estonia, Estonian.

I have been working on my Estonian lately by picking my way through Dagmar Normet’s book Une-Mati, Päris-Mati, ja Tups. Each page yields an unending avalanche of new vocabulary words. Just from the first pages of this book I have learned:

Noomima (to scold), Vahva (cool), Oivaline (wonderful), and Püstitama (to erect). Another key word, used all the time in Estonian, is Mõistma (to realize/understand). All of these words, just from the first few pages of a children’s book.

People tend to think that Estonian is an impossible language. I do not agree. I recall watching my roommate in college trying to learn Japanese characters, just so he could write a basic sentence. Now that was a tough language.

But the real challenge here is learning the vocabulary and remembering it. The grammar can be learned, with effort, well enough, and if you listen to Estonian enough you’ll be able to guess the cases. But the vocabulary is so different that words literally slip in one ear and out the other. It takes a long time to make words stick for good.

To an English speaker, how am I really supposed to figure out the difference between suusatamine (skiing) and suitsetamine (smoking)? Then there’s the difficult past tense. Ma suusatan (I ski), ma suusatasin (I skied), ma suitsetan (I smoke), ma suitsetasin (I smoked), and then the mouthful, past perfect mina olen suusatanud (I have skied), ma olen suitsetanud (I have smoked).

And if you make one tiny mistake, nobody understands what you are talking about because in the Estonian language everything has to be put into context. You have to explain everything or else people just don’t understand you. For example, the other day I went to buy tissues at the Apteek.

I was sent to buy ninataskurätikud, literally ‘nose pocket towels,’ but instead I asked for ‘ninakäterätikud’ or ‘nose hand towels’, to which the müüja (seller) mockingly replied, “Kuidas?” (What?). Another time I was sent to buy tikkud (matches) and wound up asking for tundlik (sensitive) instead. These words are all gobbeldygook to me. They are random combinations of consonants and vowels.

One of my first brain busters was learning to differentiate between ostma (to buy) and otsima (to look for). The only real difference is that one is ots and the other is ost. These two sounds make a world of difference.

Of course, English is no easy language either. English speakers forget how difficult this language is. In reality, English is nothing but an apple that fell a bit far from the Germanic tree. It’s a mutt, in other words, an odd mix of German, French, and Scandinavian languages with Celtic syntax and pronunciation added in. What makes English that different from Estonian? Not much.

I try to remember this fact as I work my way through the Estonian language. I try to remember that for Estonians, what’s the difference between “sale”, “sail”, “seal” (to close), “seal” (the animal), “cell” (the bilogical construct), and “cell” (the room in the prison) not to mention “shell”?

As hard as your language is for me, I am sure that my language has been just as much a pain in the ass for you.