Latvia Elects Seventh President

Today, Latvia elected it’s seventh president since 1920, yeah, I said it, since 1920. Unlike the BBC who pussyfoot around the matter, I have no qualms in saying that Jānis Čakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis, and Kārlis Ulmanis were all presidents of Latvia, and Čakste + Zemgals + Kviesis + Ulmanis + 50-year interlude + um, Ulmanis + Vīķe-Freiberga + Zatlers = 7, not three since 1991, or whatever nonsense those monarchists try to feed you.

I mean Oliver Cromwell and his son ran England for ten years, and when the monarchy was restored, it was by Charles II. That is, they didn’t start counting monarchs all over again, you bad British journalists.

Anyway, Zatlers is to most people outside of Riga an unknown quantity. He looks Latvian, which I guess is half of the battle. But the other half? “Mr Zatlers has headed several medical organisations,” writes the BBC. Perfect. Some minor surgery, and all of Latvia’s woes will be fixed.

For whatever reason, I find it hard to follow events in the other so-called Baltic states. I attribute it to the name thing and the border thing. First, the name thing.

The Balts all end their names in ‘s’. This means that each individual Balt merges into a pastiche of ‘s’s. In Latvia there are Gunters and Valdis and Aivars and Aigars and so on. In Lithuania, there are Mindaugas and Gediminas and Rolandas and Algirdas.

These impenetrable forests of Baltic names make it difficult to distinguish one Baltic politician from another. While in the Finnic lands we have names that are easy to distinguish, like Jaak, Jüri, and Juhan, in Baltic countries it’s all ‘s’ everyday. Kaunas. Vilnius. Venstpils, Cēsis. The fun never stops.

So congratulations, Zatlers, and good luck. With all the flamboyant homosexuals whose only aim is to topple Latvian society out there, you are going to need it. Not to mention the Russians.

Heiki Breaky Heart

The first wedding I ever went to was my own. It took place in Tallinn four years ago almost to this day. The only people there were myself, my wife, and the Tallinn city official that married us.

When we went to get our license to marry, my wife was informed that, because of my Italian heritage, she should know that it was entirely possible that I had another family somewhere near the village of Pacino or Corleone in Sicily, with little Ninos and Nunzios running around.

Anyway, we stood there and the official went through a semi-long statement, which included a poem. I understood about 5 percent of the ceremony, but when she looked at me and asked me a question, I said “jah”. Then I signed a sheet of paper, put a ring on my wife’s finger, kissed her, and … congratulations … I was married.

Since then our marriage has outlasted marriages by respectable and very much in love people. For example, we have been married longer than Lisa Marie Presley was to Michael Jackson, or Nicolas Cage was to Lisa Marie Presley.

Anyway, enough about us. Last weekend, we attended a “real” Estonian wedding. It occured in Tartu, and this time I understood a full 65 percent of the ceremony. I also got to meet “real” Estonians. Did you know that there really are Estonians with names like Sigrid and Birgit? And I thought they just put those on the name days calender because they ran out of names!

Anyway, after the ceremony — to which everyone brought flowers — ribbons were tied to our automobiles and off we drove, honking through red lights into the manure-rich fields of Põlvamaa, which is the county directly south from Tartumaa (for you geographically challenged people).

On the ride to the turismitalu, first the bride and groom stopped at some random place on the road to have their picture taken. I have seen this before and I have no idea why they do this, perhaps only to piss other drivers off that are not in the wedding party.

Then at another juncture, we all stopped our cars and got out as one of the groom’s friends began to play Estonian folk songs on his accordion. Apparently, in Estonia everyone knows someone that can play the accordion. Even if you were born in 1985, the year of compact discs, Nintendo, and the personal computer, if you are Estonian than you can play the accordion and sing songs about fishermen.

The groom was given an axe and made to chop wood in front of the applauding crowd, ready with digital cameras and digital recorders to capture every humiliating moment. For her part, the bride then peeled a potato, which she held up to the partygoers. A random car came down the road and honked in appreciation of how tubli the groom and bride were. All travelers in the car were smiling; an unusual occurrence in Estonia.

Finally, we stopped at a building right outside the turismitalu where atop a tall chimney was a huge stork’s nest, complete with stork sitting on top of it, guarding its eggs. The groom climbed up and tied a ribbon to the building; a symbol of fertility, I guess.

At the party, we dined on potatoes, garlic-laden leib, and marinated chicken and fish. I ate way too much, but it was so good and I am not that overweight, so I figured what are three more oil-soaked slices of leib between you and me? Different members of the party were assigned roles: photographers, drunks (technically “noh, mehed” — guys that say “noh” (well) to remind people to keep drinking).

Then there were the shouts of “kibe”, to which the groom and bride had to instantly lock lips and make out in order to prove their love to the crowd. Then the crowd would count in earnest the seconds of tonguing — “üks, kaks, kolm … kaksteist, kolmteist, neliteist.”

There were also tower-building competitions and, of course, more accordion music. I like Estonian toasts. They are simple and to the point. The ones I heard were “thank you very much, it’s very nice to be here, good luck, lots of love,” and that’s it. There was no grandstanding, as far as I recall.

As we ate, they played dreamy ballads by guys like Uno Loop in the background. I heard “Mis värvi on armastus?” (what color is love?), what basically amounts to Estonian elevator music, at least three times. Then we sang songs together with accordion and guitar backing. Songs about postmen and fishermen, and things of that nature.

After I staggered off of my bench, my gut filled with potatoes and hapukapsas and pork, I went down to the lake for a walk. At that point, the band they had hired, which was really quite good, began playing Elvis covers. When I got back, they started asking around in the crowd for Heiki.

“Heiki, Heiki, kus on Heiki?”

An upright looking gentlemen with spectacles look puzzled and answered that he was said Heiki.

Then they told him they were going to play a song for him, “Heiki Breaky Heart.”

The band then launched into a rocking version of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1992 hit, which was 110 times better than the original. And you know what? It’s Tuesday, and I still have “Heiki Breaky Heart” stuck in my head.

A Scandinavian Playground?

When Estonia undertook its rebranding campaign at the end of the ’90s to change its image from the tired “former Soviet republic” to a positively-transforming Nordic country, all of its neighbors chuckled.

The Finns that paid attention perhaps suffered their own identity crisis, pondering the distinction between Scandinavian and Nordic, and if the Swedes thought that Estonians weren’t Nordic enough, could it be that Finland was really Baltic!?!?

The Swedes that paid attention perhaps were irked that some poor country full of Finnic bog people that only figured out what to call themselves in the middle of the 19th century could aspire to be as cultured, wealthy, and perpetually morose and neurotic as they are.

Meanwhile to the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Russians, Estonia’s attempt at inserting the word ‘Nordic” into every promotional booklet printed about the country reinforced their image of Estonia as a land of pompous asses, who dared to think that they were as good as Sweden, the greatest country on Earth (TM).

One can imagine many boots kicking fervently downward as Estonians tried to crawl out of the muck of post-Soviet identity in the international marketplace. It was only American and British guidebook authors, like travel guru Rick Steves, that realized that, ‘yeah, Tallinn is only 80 km from Helsinki, I better put it in my Scandinavian travel book’, or Lonely Planet that realized that ‘yeah, Tallinn is part of the Scandinavian experience, we should include a small segment in Scandinavian Europe‘ that gave Estonia’s rebranding strategy legs.

But the real testament to what has happened in Estonia is the prevalence of Swedish and Finnish capital, which total 70 percent of direct foreign investments in this land of barn swallows and corn flowers. This doesn’t seem to be changing. Despite European Union membership, German and British and French capital is not drifting to these quarters.

Estonia is too small and too far for serious investment when dollars and pounds can flow into larger, closer markets like Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic. For the Finns, Swedes, and to a lesser extent the Danes and Norwegians, Estonia is attractive because it’s a market they can dominate with relative ease.

Used to managing multinational corporations, Finnish and Swedish businessmen probably find the Estonian market to be a breeze. They can take a quick ferry there or fly there in an hour or two. And since the people are as wired and as … Lutheran … as they are, they make easy business partners.

Not to mention that so much of the money flowing here is spent by Scandinavians and Finns. It’s spent on summer houses, or on food and beverage businesses that are actually owned by Nordic capital. It’s spent on the tourist industry. Swedes build spas for other Swedes in Estonia. I mean there are people in Estonia that are handling telephone inquiries for confused Swedes. It’s not that easy to get Indians to do the same job, so Estonia is an attractive choice for this brand of outsourcing.

Also, in the Nordic market, 1.3 million is a lot of people. That’s more than 1/9 of Sweden, 1/5 of Denmark and Finland. If they could own everything in this market too, and make it eventually as wealthy as they are, then that would be a legitimate longterm investment.

What I am getting at here is that the Estonian market is less foreign than it is an active player in the northern European economy. With that comes the financial security of being connected to a comparatively stable system, but the other questions about what markets lie beyond Stockholm and Helsinki and Oslo and Copenhagen? How can Estonia become not just a regional player but attract capital investments from elsewhere in Europe and, indeed, the world?

And, again, why would anyone else want to come play in the Scandinavians’ backyard? It’s “their” market. It’s within “their” sphere of influence (ha ha). These are questions that should be answered as Estonia moves forward. Without trying too hard, Estonia has become — or regained — a position in the Nordic community. What will be the next steps, and how will this relationship develop?

There are no ‘spheres of influence’

I was reading this isolationist claptrap from the Cato Institute this morning that basically makes the argument that NATO should reexamine its mission in light of its commitments to the Baltics. The following line obviously struck a nerve:

Indeed, a crisis could result if a future Russian president concludes that NATO’s mere presence in the Baltic region is an intolerable intrusion into Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence.

And that got me thinking about this curious term, ‘sphere of influence’ and what exactly it means. And I began to understand that the term is nothing but a moldy intellectual raisin leftover from the Kissinger years when strategists divided up the world into ‘spheres of influence’ as part of an ambition to create a multi-polar, rather than bipolar (haha) world.

But in reality, throughout the entire Cold War, the concept of spheres of influence was a misnomer. The Soviets had no problems supporting Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries in Latin America. They even parked some weaponry in Cuba as I recall in the early 1960s. They had no respect for an American “sphere of influence.”

Meanwhile we flew spyplanes over Soviet territory, and in the late 40s and early 50s, British intelligence was quite active in the Baltic region. The US and the USSR fought proxy wars from Angola to Vietnam. The world in no way was divided into regions of influence. The very idea smacks of weakling diplomacy at some 19th century conference where empires divide up the spoils at the end of a war.

But even if you go back to my home of New York, you’ll see the same thing. The Dutch originally claimed all the land from the Delaware River to Rhode Island. But then the English took Rhode Island, and the Swedes moved into Delaware, and the English took New Haven, and … surprise … in 1664 the English fleet sailed into New Amsterdam harbor and by show of force took control of the city that is now called New York.

No one, it seems, has ever respected the idea of a sphere of influence. There is just competition between states. That’s all there really is. According to Wikipedia, an SOI is “an area or region over which an organization or state exerts some kind of indirect cultural, economic, military or political domination.”

Good to see that according to Wikipedia, Estonia doesn’t fall under the Russian sphere of influence. As a sidenote, the isolationist conventional thinking is that the Baltics are worthless so they don’t merit defense.

In any case, the U.S. should never have undertaken military commitments to the Baltic republics. These obligations are a dangerous liability, and the U.S. must extricate itself from them.

Too late! Look, the argument that Estonia is indefensible is a false one. As stated previously, Estonia won its war of independence with the limited support of other countries, notably Britain and Finland. In all other previous wars, Estonia has been defensible.

Sweden lost Estonia in the 1710s because all the forces in the Baltic region — Denmark, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia — ganged up on it. Not to mention Charles XII made disasterous tactical decisions (like invading Ukraine). You could say the same for Hitler as well. He made the foolish decision to invade Russia, and lost, not to mention he was fighting a war on two fronts.

Neither of these wars saw the strategy of the War of Independence utilized. In Finland’s Winter War, the strategy of simply defending the state’s borders was used to defeat a larger, more powerful enemy. And that’s the thing. Russia’s armies have been notoriously ill-prepared and disorganized. Given the current crises in the military over there, it seems like it’s a long-standing issue.

But don’t ask me for guidance. I am sure that the gentlemen and women in NATO thought long and hard about military assistance to the Baltic and determined that it was, in fact feasible. Moreover, they recognized that an attack on the Baltics would be a disaster for Europe. The last time something like that happened, it means tens of thousands of refugees pouring into Sweden and Germany.

Not to mention the financial impact such an action would happen when 70 percent of your foreign capital comes from Finland or Sweden. A war in Europe would be a disaster for everybody, and that’s why institutions like NATO exist — to clear everyone’s mind of that alarming option. NATO is a deterrent. It is an institution that arguably preserves the peaceful resolution of conflict. I really wish the Buchananites would wake up and understand that.

What is to be done?

In a few more days, the Estonian Statistical Office will publish population data for Estonia as of January 1, 2007. This happens once a year, and it provides us with info on the changing demographic information on Estonia in lieu of an official census, wich isn’t scheduled until 2011. If the patterns of the past are correct, we’ll probably catch a glimpse of a few interesting trends.

The first is the most obvious. The population in Estonia will decline again. The preliminary numbers show that as of Jan. 1, there were 1,342,000 people in Estonia, down from 1,367,000 five years ago. There are a variety of reasons for population decline in Estonia. One is that more people die than are born (duh), although in recent months that has been changing. Another is emigration. And finally, there’s abortion, because at conception, there is positive population growth, but a good chunk of those potential babies never make it past the first trimester.

Another trend is a shift in nationality in favor of ethnic Estonians. That change is happening across the board. Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Finns — their proportion of the population continues to decline, while the Estonian proportion continues to rise. In 2001, Estonians made up 68.2 percent of the population. Last year they were 68.6 percent. Meanwhile every other group declined. Maybe they leave. Maybe they identify as Estonians. Or maybe they just have a larger number of elderly in their population group. Who knows?

This is not an unusual occurrence. The decline of Swedes in Finland followed a similar path. For whatever reason, Swedes in Finland went from being 15 percent of the population in 1800, to 6 percent of the population in 2005. Up until the 1890s, Swedish was the language of administration in Finland. In 1892, Finnish became co-official, and this carried over when Finland became independent. But despite Finland’s official bilingualism, and attempts to “save” Finland Swedish, the language there is in decline.

This has happened so much so that when I inquired from Finns about their Swedish capabilities, I was met with a sort of shrug and told “they have their own newspapers and TV shows.” Then when I asked an editor of Helsingi Sanomat if the paper intended to print news to serve any of Finland’s lingusitic minorities — the Russians in Helsinki, for example — I was met with a cold stare and told unequivocally “no”. Bilingualism was touchy-feely, official crap, apparently, but in Finland, the language was Finnish. At least that’s the lesson I learned while I was there.

Still, the reality for Estonia is, no matter what historical spin you put on it, there will be a large Russian-speaking community in Estonia for many years to come. Because of recent events in Tallinn, many are wondering what can be done to better integrate this group. But nobody seems to have the answer. Some say relax school reform, others say ride around in a sleigh in Narva handing out Estonian passports, and some others talk of making Russian a second state language, “like they have in Finland”, as if that would change the overall situation.

Meanwhile, Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht and Eesti Televisioon all have Russian-language versions. Even I can vote in municipal elections if I stay here for five years. You’ve got to take a test to get a passport. It’s a bitch of a process allegedly for some, so I do hope they spend some of that surplus on that so Estonia can assign citizenship to the 118,000 people that still don’t have it. Unemployment is 5.3 percent. Anecdotal evidence shows that Russians feel excluded or like they don’t belong. But then I am reminded of the Finland Swedes “who have their own newspapers and their own television shows” and think, isn’t the life of a minority like that in every country?

On the bus to Tallinn recently I witnessed two things. The first was a pack of young Russian-speaking kids, about 12. They all spoke in Russian and I even began to understand some of the stuff because they didn’t shut up from Tartu to Tallinn (one even hit me in the head with a sneaker at one point. Boys will be boys). But then one’s phone rang and he switched immediately to Estonian. He had a little bit of an accent, but it was very slight. And he was no older than 12.

Then at the bus station I was approached by a young man in his early 20s. He spoke to me only in Russian. I had a hunch that he wanted some money, so I decided not to answer him back in English, and I figured that Estonian was out of the question. So I just ignored him. And my sensitive and intuitive soul began to wonder if I had just made the young man feel less at home in Tallinn by ignoring him. Perhaps he felt leftout. Ignored by society. Maybe my sleight of hand would encourage him to join Nashi as a commisar and actively work to destroy the government of AndruSS AnSSip. What could I do about this, and furthermore, what could society do?

I tried to find a metaphor to help me sooth this linguistic dissonance that rattled around in my mind. And finally I decided that I could do nothing except not give him any money and go and buy my bottle of Värska to drink.

4 AM, Heathrow Airport

I wrote this at the 24-hour Starbucks in Terminal 4 of Heathrow Airport on Saturday morning. I am not sure if it is any good, but it sums up some of the things that have been on my mind vis a vis Eestimaa. I call it a “Treatise on Cyber Warfare” because it sounds good. Here it is:

How do you defend a small country from a larger, aggressive neighbor? This question is at the heart of so many Estonian policies, it’s hard to tell where to begin.

Take the Ministry of Defense. It has a psychological goal to create widespread opposition to foreign rule among the Estonian population. And people wonder why they moved a Soviet war monument from the center of town!

For us out here in the world of the Internet, and as has been apparent from the recent cyber attacks on Estonian infrastructure, there is a high awareness that on every forum there are those that work psychologically or in reality for the goals of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin.

Like Russian policy in the past, and as the perfect metaphor of the Internet attacks provides, they intend to attack their target by overwhelming it with force and/or by sowing instability with the clear, logical goal of instating its control within the mask of chaos. Imagine a poison that works by making the individual appear to suffer from food poisoning, then reveals its true identity by the time that it is too late. That, my friends, is Russian foreign policy.

But how does a small nation counter that policy and how, in particular, can Estonia survive when the Kremlin is allegedly regaining power? I have been pondering this, and I think that it is important now that Estonia defines its goals with regards to this cynical power in Russia and acts consistently according to those redefined goals. Some of you may not like what I am about to say, but they are thoughts, and thoughts that need airing.

1. It is time to accept the Russian government for what it is.

So many foreign policy goals towards Russia seem like domestic goals from within Russia, especially from Estonia’s rightwing politicians. But the fact is that Russia is run by ex-KGB men, and they will not renounce Stalinist history. The Russian government is not rational. It is not compassionate. It is not a true friend for Estonia. It is a sea that needs to be kept at bay. Estonians live in a bad neighborhood. They must recognize this. Estonians say that Russia screwed them over the border treaty and that Russia is not acting logically or legally. Why is this a shock? How is that unexpected? Of course Russia did what it did. It does not respect laws or conventions. So then why even bother to expect them to reverse their position? It’s fruitless.

Estonians must accept that their neighbor is not one to be negotiated with, but rather one to be kept out of as many affairs as possible. That means ending diplomatic impasse with Russia quickly and efficiently, with the sole interest of keeping the Kremlin’s fingers out of Estonia. Remember, Estonia is operating from a position of strength. It controls and administers its own territory. I welcome every effort from the Estonian government to keep Russian political interests out of Estonian politics.

2. It’s time to dig in for a propaganda war.

Estonians somewhat naively expect logic and goodwill to eclipse the foul anti-Estonian propaganda that is used for domestic purposes within Russia. In some aspects they are correct. That is because most of the West views Russia with suspicion. Russian news is equally as slippery. Estonians, as Westerners, speak a common mental language that other Westerners understand, 1+1 = 2, et cetera. But Estonia must do more to make its story known in the West.

Estonia should continue to rely on its foreign ministry and some institutes for support, but should also build a greater presence in other key political centers in Europe. Who is busy selling Estonia in Paris? Who does this chore in Madrid or Rome? Estonia must broaden its connections with its allies. Right now key diplomatic initiatives are being undertaken, especially regarding NATO and EU goals in places like Ukraine and Georgia. But Estonia must work harder to woo key global and European players like the UK, France, Germany, and Italy. They should be priority contacts for Estonians. The recent work with Israel and Japan should be commended. A trip from President-elect Sarkozy would be an asset.

3. It’s time to renew the commitments to pan-Scandinavianism and pan-Europeanism.

Estonia started off on a good path in the late 90s by trying to rebrand itself as a Nordic country. This was met with resistance from some in the Nordic community, as well as the Latvians and Lithuanians, but it worked in helping Estonia portray itself as an up and coming hi-tech society to people outside the region. It used skillful marketing to change its image from foreign and unsafe to stable and accessible. But the job is not done, especially in Western Europe. In the UK and even in Sweden today Estonia or Estland is some suspect place near Russia (ie. near chaos). So the job of rebranding Estonia is not finished. Instead, these ideas should be continuously restored.

What is lacking again is a constant reminder of Estonia’s place in the global sweep of history. We must ask ourselves honestly, how did Estonia come into being? It came into being because of its connections to Germanic and Swedish intellectual culture. Estonians don’t call it the “good old Swedish days” because they think Swedes are dapper blondes with nice cars and want to be them. Estonia, for all its lovely native culture, was a colony of the Swedish empire. But because of its status in that empire it was exposed to the comparatively liberal values of the Swedish empire in the 17th century, which laid the groundwork for the rise of Estonian nationalism in the 19th century. Think of the Romans in the UK. They came and stayed for 300 years, but after that their legacy has never been carried away. Instead it has been built on, age after age. We tend to forget how important history is, but Estonia must stay true to its roots and think about its future in terms of that perspective.

This narrative is working its way along, but it is unfinished. The recent events in Tallinn showed a government that is capable of governing in times of chaos and diplomatic intrigue, but it also revealed a country that has some adolescent growing pains to go through before it achieves the desirable status of irreplaceable normalcy where civic institutions are pushed forward by the hard efforts of the past.

4. Reject Conflict, Embrace Progress

After dealing with all the negativity from Russia in recent weeks it has dawned on me that the appropriate response should not be to negatively push back but to act positively and pragmatically. A negative action should be met by a positive one. The Russian propaganda engine churns, while the Estonian one builds relationships in Paris. Fighting swarms of Internet propagandists isn’t going to work out to the advantage of those who enjoy Estonian sovereignty. Instead, we should fortify our castles in other ways.

The best way to deal with the Nashists is not to fight back, but to ignore them and treat them with the dull rhythm of law and order. Their negative actions should only result in positive reactions. Their hunger for conflict should never be satiated.

Let them starve.

Another Fine Mess

I forgot to put this in the last entry, so I’ll add a few more stories and observations here. So, after my business ended on Wednesday evening, I decided that it was time to go and check out those brooding mountains around Edinburgh and, perhaps, climb a few.

I saw in my 2001 edition Lonely Planet Britain guidebook that Holyrood Park has climbing trails. I also read that it was an easy 30 minute hike to the peak of the highest one in Holyrood Park, called Arthur’s Seat. It was getting about dusk, but the sun didn’t seem to be setting anytime soon, so I began my adventure.

After making my way to the foot of the Royal Mile, I quickly made my way into the foot of the park and found the trail that would leadme to Arthur’s Seat and spectacular views of the Firth of Forth. I entered a bit of a valley and began to spy those lovely yellow bushes that ring the largely treeless hills of Holyrood Park. I was totally alone, and suddenly I felt my survival mechanism kick in, perhaps informed by too many Hollywood films. I began to suspect that the Sand People from Star Wars might be tracking me and my droids, or, even worse, that Mel Gibson, his face painted blue, might swoop down in a kilt and carry off with me head.

Instead I saw fellow Americans on their way down from the summit and was glad to think that if they made it up to the top, I could too. So I kept going up higher and higher. I began to regret that I had eaten all those cookies for breakfast. And then there was the chicken curry for lunch. I could feel it all sitting like a pile of rubbish in my intestines. The sweat began to pour off my forehead as I trudged upwards. A sweaty jogger passed me by, even as the path towards the top became rocky and steep.

Finally I made the mistake of looking down. This was truly a “Holy shit” moment. The whole of the Firth of Forth was below along with the miniature city of Edinburgh. And even worse, the peak I was heading for was up higher. I was out of breath and then when my eyes refocused I looked down and saw that below my path was a steep angle of bushy grass heading down meter after meter into the valley, where a chummy miniature Scotsman was walking his miniature dog. I began to feel lightheaded and disoriented at this moment, and suddenly remembered something about myself: my great fear of heights.

I tried to move my body up the path towards the peak, but a hard wind began to blow specks of humid rain on my face and I knew that if I ever got to that top, I was going to cling to the Earth crying until some butch Scottish jogger found me and ordered a helicopter to rescue me. I decided it was time to take an alternative route down. I followed an open stretch of land below the peak and found a nice even path that I presumed would take me down to the bottom so I could go home and treat myself to a beer and reflect on my cowardice.

Unfortunately, the path turned into a steep, slick rocky staircase that took me along a path that ringed the peak on one side. I decided to throw my pack on one side of my body, the side closer to the mountain, so that if the wind did knock me over, I would fall against the mountain and not down it. All the while I watched Scottish female joggers on paths below me, blissfully unaware of the chicken that was about to fall on them to his death.

I made the mistake of accidentally leaning into those fine yellow bushes which I found were prickly and hurt my hands. A perfect metaphor for nature, and especially Scottish nature I thought. Inviting from a distance, threatening up front. I went step by step along that path, as the wind picked up and the rain began to fall a bit harder. It was still just drizzling but I wanted to get down before any real storm developed, leaving me cold and wet on the side of a mountain in Scotland.

Finally the path gave way to a slope that ran through a natural corridor of vegetation, and beyond that a path that led down the sloping lower portions of the hill to the base of Hollyrood Park. I was safe. I would live. And then, below me, a Scottish lady jogger went jogging right up the path I had just crawled down from without any outward signs of fear of heights or a lonely death in the park. I thought about my wife, who would have probably ambled up to the summit with no problem, and wondered what happened to the courage gene, and how come I didn’t get it?

I concluded that I was a coward, but that that was ok with me. I have other skills to live on, and he who fights and runs away lives to run away another day. Besides, I’ve almost been killed a few times by the bloody British traffic here which drives on the wrong side of the street. So what’s a little mountain adventure in the context of the every day perils one must face in this country?

At the base I tried crossing the street, again fearful of getting mowed over by an impatient Briton in their car. Do you know that I have crossed the street three times so far here to get on the correct side to catch a bus, only to see the bus go whizzing past me on the opposite side of the street where I just was, because of English traffic law?

Anyway, I was glad to get down at that moment because the skies began to open up and it got dark. I found myself an African food establishment to take refuge in, and returned to my hotel. It was 10:30 pm.

The Royal Mile

In case you wondered what happened to me, I am on a trip that originated in Edinburgh but will finish tomorrow in Oxford followed by a London-Tallinn return home.

What can I say about the UK? Well I am still trying to figure out which George Georgian architecture is named after, and, by the way, how did so many buildings in Edinburgh turn filthy black?

I’ve had a number of pints on a number of nights, and passed the time contemplating a Republic of Scotland with Sean Connery as its president. The Scottish National Party recently won the election here, and I got to watch their dour leader talk about the Scottish national interest on TV late at night. I was also asked by a random pollster on the street about this victory to which I declared I was happy, because labour and the conservatives are rather boring.

In Scotland, everyone is toasting you all the time. “Cheers, mate” is what my passport control officer said to me as I entered the country. “Cheers” “Cheers” “Cheers” — I feel like a regular Ted Danson. People like queues as well. This brash New Yorker quite purposefully got out of queue to board a bus and was met with several gasps by shocked queuers. Stores close at 6 pm, which is ridiculous and lame. Just as I am getting ready to shop, they are closing their doors.

Then there’s the money. You give someone a £5 note and you get back a small bag full of change. You get on a bus to go somewhere and you are expected to expertly filter through this pile of 20p and 2p and £2 coins to provide the driver with the correct amount related to the number of stops you intend to stay on for. Everyone looks at you like you are an asshole, but, in my opinion, whoever came up with the 2p coin is the real asshole here.

Everything is also expensive. You are tricked into thinking you are in the US because the prices match. “Hey, 4.20 for a kebab combo platter, what a deal!” you think. But in reality it costs more like $8. And that, my friends, like most things here, is a rip-off. That’s why Brits come to New York to slum and shop. Our most expensive city is cheap for them.

You’d think that being in an English-speaking country would make my life easier. It hasn’t. That’s because I feel as if I am speaking a foreign tongue in the way I must strain to understand them and they must strain to understand me. I almost just want to not talk altogether. I thought about faking an accent but I figure that’d get me in more trouble. I get asked where I am from all the time. My English sounds more like the Engish of the local Polish labor force than the stuff coming out of the mouths of Scots.

But I must say, I like it here. History is always slapping you in the face. I literally bumped into an old Anglo-Saxon church here in Oxford today. And the Nokia store in Oxford is actually housed in one of these leaning towers of the Elizabethan era. It’s just amazing. It’s also nice to have access to interesting foods, and you can bet that when I come back I’ll have some local cheddar with me to last me a week or two before I have to switch back to kadakajuust.

If there’s one thing that perturbs me, it’s the Royal nonsense. In my bones, I really still can’t believe that this country has a hereditary monarchy, and that her face is on my money. Even in Edinburgh, there are monuments to tough looking soldiers in funny hats and kilts who fought for the empire in the Second Boer War. This was a war between breakaway Afrikaans (Dutch) states in South Africa and Great Britain. Not exactly something to get worked up over, but I guess any war is good enough to reinforce belief in an empire.

Then there’s the celebrity nonsense. Yes, I believe Kylie when she says she is not having an affair with a married man. No, I am not interested in Kate Middleton, Prince William’s ex. In fact, I’d like to meet Kate Middleton, just because I may be one of the few people in this country that doesn’t know anything about her and dosn’t want to know anything either. I am wonderfully uninformed about celebrity goings on here and I want it to stay that way.

Anyway, I am still waiting for Scottish nationalism to bear its fruit and give us a Connery presidency before the “real James Bond” is too old to hold office. And for a little taste of home tonight, I spent 90p on an “American cookie” — which was an attempt at a chocolate chip cookie. It tasted more like cake and chocolate chips, but it was still really good.