Yesterday on my way into the center of Tartu, I met a younger relative of my wife’s named Ken who was walking up Jakobi street towards his school.

Ken is about 12 years old and he keeps changing every time I see him, getting older, wiser, et cetera. He and I stopped to chat, and he informed me that he was on his way to a school field trip, a school field trip to Otepää, the ‘winter capital’ of Estonia, where he and his classmates would be forced by their instructors to ski and enjoy themselves.

Can you imagine? Skiing as part of the curriculum? Another cousin, a few years younger than Ken, also must fulfill physical education requirements by going skiing right here in Tartu. It’s almost a chore. Something she has to do, no matter how badly she wants to stay at home watching Pokemon, or whatever kids are into these days. Estonian kids must ski, even if there’s no snow.

Every winter I have spent here, save this one, has been polar. It’s been freezing and the ground has been continuously covered with thick dark ice and fresh snow well into March. But this winter has given credence to rising global anxiety about ‘climate change’. It has snowed several times — most of November saw Tartu blanketed with a rich layer of white stuff — but January has been more like an darker and very moist incarnation of October.

But that doesn’t mean that the Estonian kids get a free pass. Instead they just keep the snow machines at Otepää working at night to ensure that every bus load of Estonian boy and girls has the opportunity to enjoy their homeland’s bounty of winter sporting activities.

Epp — my wife — says that being forced to ski has killed her desire to go skiing again in the future. Every morning during the winter season the children of Karksi-Nuia, the community in southern Estonia where she grew up, would have to board the bus with their skis, school bags and other accessories just so that Estonia could be the land that skis.

And to think, I was going to buy Marta — our eldest daughter — a pair of cross country skis to take advantage of our proximity to Otepää. But with unseasonal weather like this, snow machines or no snow machines, I am starting to think it’s better to rent than to buy.

This post has been corrected to reflect my wife’s experience with skiing in school.

statelessness in decline

Not sure if any of you readers care or noticed, but the number of stateless people in Estonia continues to decrease.

According to the Ministry of the Interior’s Population Registry, as of January 2, 2008, there were 112,422 residents with undefined citizenship, or 8.2 percent of the population.

Over the past five years the number of stateless persons has decreased by about a third. In 2003, 12 percent of the population was stateless. In 1992, 32 percent of the population had no citizenship.

One consequence of Estonia’s citizenship policy is that 8 percent of the population holds the passport of another state, mostly the Russian Federation, Ukraine, or Finland. Around 84 percent of the population of Estonia holds Estonian citizenship.

Recent efforts to liberalize some of the requirements, such as making the portion of the exam that deals with the constitution available in Russian language, assigning citizenship automatically to newborns that qualify rather than requiring an application by the parents, and allowing more seniors to wave the linguistic requirements of the citizenship test, have not been adopted by the ruling government.

I wonder when and how Estonia will declare itself to be statelessness free. Is it possible they will forget to count some old pensioner living at the end of a hallway in Narva somewhere? I guess anything is possible. The authorities have estimated that Estonia will cross the threshold of having zero stateless residents sometime around 2015.

I am gathering that in combination with free language lessons and school reform, mortality is also playing its role in this process.


We don’t subscribe to the Estonian tabloid SL Õhtuleht, but I am bombarded by the images it places on its front page every day in varying circumstances. Usually the photos consist of either horrendous car crashes or Estonian babes, though last week there was a photo of a dead dog that had starved to death.

This post, however, concerns itself with the babes. As you may have heard, during the 1990s former President Lennart Meri initiated the search for Estonia’s own Nokia — that is a product it could use to define its existence in the international marketplace. Like many an eestlane, he drew his inspiration from the lump of lingonberry ice cream to our north, Finland.

Some extremely lazy jobud (jerks) responded by saying that Estonia’s Nokia was already in existence and, uh, ripe for the picking. The lowest hanging fruit, if you will, was its natural resource of bodaciously blond women who are hotter than Raquel Welch’s character in One Million Years BC and Jane Fonda’s character in Barbarella combined.

Now, I have paged through many a historical photo from the Estonian ärkamisaeg of the 19th century, and I didn’t notice any string bikinis, expensive manicures, hoop earrings, or eye liner. The photographic evidence from the 1920s and 30s is similarly devoid of the trappings of modern Estonian babe culture.

Therefore, the idea that beauty is part of Estonian national culture does not convince me. It’s a new phenomenon. And perhaps ever since Meri enshrined the Eesti Nokia mythology in popular culture, some Estonian women have been enthusiastically heeding the call of the reactionary jobud who argued that it was their duty to put Estonia on the map by absorbing themselves in the details of babery.

For me, this babe culture is both fascinating and superficial. How am I supposed to react to the posturing of the Estonian Amazon woman? Is my jaw supposed to uncontrollably drop in salivation as I blurt out, “th-th-th-th-there goes Estonia’s Nokia!” And if I don’t, is there something wrong with me? As a foreigner in Estonia you hear all the time about “the women, the women.” And yet, when you are actually here for a long time, is it possible that all this babe focus could get … kind of annoying?

To make matters worse, I have noticed that I have spent a few seconds too long reading about the skiing exploits of Estonia’s Kristina Šmigun in Postimees before I rip it up and load it into the ahi.

It was during one of these fire preparation sessions that I came to the conclusion that I had some sort of ‘thing’ for the Olympian. Not a bad thing, nor a naughty thing, not even an Eesti Nokia thing. Just a thing. I pay more attention to her than to Andres Veerpalu. Let’s leave it at that.

But here’s the question. Why is Kiku, who doesn’t subscribe to the beibe kultuur, more interesting than whomever is pining for their 15 minutes in SL Õhtuleht? Could it be that having two gold medals is more impressive that merely having two bronze boobies? And if you put the two together, well, you just might have Estonia’s Nokia right there.

Estonian women are capable of amazing things. As the old anecdote goes, a Saaremaa woman is supposed to be able to run a farm, raise 10 children, and take care of an alcoholic husband. And yet for the international masses they are too often defined by the babe culture than by their own accomplishments.

Estonia has weathered the feminist tumult of the past half century with some interesting results. It didn’t go through the Western feminist revolution because of its inclusion in the eastern bloc. Hence its feminist discourse differs from neighboring Sweden and Finland.

And yet it has preserved a form of gender equality from the 1920s and 30s that rivals other nations. issues that pester other countries, like the number of females with higher education, do not apply here. And here in Estonia, this duality is reflected in the prevalence of the babe culture along with the fact that women play leading roles in politics, science, the arts, athletics — everything.

What are we to make of this? Have things not gone far enough, as some Finnish politicians might think, or are things just right? And what is ‘right’ anyway?

This piece has been improved from a previous version.

varbla matus

Last week we drove out to Viljandimaa to visit Epp’s grandparents, Karl and Laine. Karl just turned 80 a few weeks ago, and he was in good spirits despite dozing off several times during our little party for him. Laine is pushing 80 and is quite active. During the visit she allowed us to borrow some old family photos, including the incredibly sad one above.

It’s of a funeral for 1-year-old Voldemar Landmann, Laine’s older brother, who died in 1929 in Varbla Parish. Had he lived, he might be like Karl, dozing off at a party somewhere, surrounded by younger generations of relatives, collecting a state pension, and watching the Estonian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on ETV. But that was not to be.

If you look closely you’ll see that there is an open casket. To this day, Estonians see nothing wrong in taking a group shot with the recently deceased. I never quite figured out who was in the right when it came to this cultural peculiarity.

Are Estonians more in touch with the cycles of life, and so comfortable with death that they commemorate funerals with group photographs? Or are they simply insensitive and enamored with technology, snapping photos of kittens and coffins alike with an itchy finger so that they can upload them to share with friends?

I am not really sure, but it is sometimes uncomfortable to flip through a family photo album with Estonian friends, only to see their grandma there, laid out on display in a church and surrounded by mourners. It sort of ruins the moment. On the other hand, you are photographed at birth, and at your wedding. Why not at your funeral too?


Remember how I wrote that I missed our ahjud? Well the novelty of bringing firewood into the house is wearing off.

It’s not that don’t I enjoy a little pyromania now and then, it’s that you have to start the fire, then wait, then maybe it goes out, then start it again.

Once you are lucky enough to get the fire going, you must observe it all times to make sure you add more wood before the first batch is reduced to embers. And if you live in a house like mine, where you might have three going at the same time on a cold night, you become preoccupied with your ahjud.

We have a huge stack of old Postimees issues in our kuur. But it seems there’s never enough kindling for the fire. And I have burned through some pretty sentimental issues of Postimees or Eesti Päevaleht. Yesterday it was the issue about Jaan Kross‘ passing. A few weeks ago it was Juhan Peegel who went up in smoke.

I also tried to get the sauna going, to no avail. I had to crouch down and keep feeding the sucker old copies of Postimees and cardboard and basically anything dispensable I could burn. And yet the cold dampness of the sauna kept extinguishing my efforts.

In this environment, one can feel for the gentleman above for taking advantage of an old wooden home in Kopli in Tallinn, recently gutted by fire, that was demolished yesterday by authorities who have become sensitive that that area of the nation’s capital is something of a tinderbox.

I know he looks desperate making off with his booty of Kopli siding, but it is winter and he needs a bit more fuel for his sauna. I hope you understand.

our two cents

I find it a bit interesting some times that three of my favorite blogs in the region are authored by Americans, former Americans, or people who have lived in the United States for extended periods.

There’s Finland for Thought, authored by Phil of Baltimore, Marginalia, authored by the Chicago-born Peteris, and All About Latvia, run by Aleks — now back in Riga — who spent around a decade in Indiana.

Sometimes I wonder if we have been raised to cause trouble wherever we go: molded at an early age in the spirit of Tom Paine, who started one revolution in the American colonies, then left to France where he started another one. It’s as if we will always be creatures of the enlightenment, two centuries after its expiration date.

And it’s not just here on the Baltic rim. I’ve had passionate arguments with people about Russian politics, people who defend Putin and scorn Estonia, until I find out that they too are Americans who just happen to have been brainwashed by the Russian mass media before The Singing Revolution came to the local movie theater.

May I ask the question, who are we to judge or dictate or explain? How many times have I found myself buried in an argument over Estonian language laws only to realize that I never wrote them and I can’t even vote here! And yet those other Americans hiding behind their laptops project all the attitudes they have gleamed from their adopted home media towards me. What a spectacular waste of time!

It is a bit funny how we manage to elbow our way into the public debate, no matter where we are, though. It must be a talent one acquires through watching Looney Tunes and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Now Estonia has a president who might at anytime burst forth a quotation from John Locke. Lithuania too. Should anyone be blamed or thanked instead?

I guess we’ll just keep doing it like we’ve been doing it.

sauna katastroof

And finally we were home. After a flight from New York to Warsaw — which was delayed, like most flights on LOT Polish Airlines — we had a relatively smooth trip up to Tallinn, despite landing in a snow/sleet/rain storm.

This was followed by sloshing through the pouring rain from Tallinn to Tartu — so deliriously tired, I couldn’t tell whether I was awake or asleep (don’t worry, I wasn’t driving).

After all that traveling the one thing I desired most was a shower to wash the grime of journeying by air from my body. But there was just one problem. My brother-in-law Aap, who had been house sitting for the past month, informed us upon arrival that the water hadn’t been working for about a week.

You see, during a recent cold spell, the water pressure in the house literally blew the shower off the wall of our sauna. The metallic pieces lay strewn across the floor, and Aap decided to turn off the house water so as to keep it from continuously blasting from the sauna wall.

How he managed to live without running water for a week is a mystery to me. Did he brush his teeth? Did he order in coffee? How did he flush the toilet sans eau? Had he been holding it all this time? I decided that the guy was from Mulgimaa and that it was better to leave such questions unanswered.

Luckily for us the torumehed were able to come the next morning to install a new shower in the sauna and I was fortunate to be blessed with a good old fashioned case of irregularity from my travels, meaning I wouldn’t have to use the compost heap for some … more compost.

But I still can’t get that image out of my head — of the shower head exploding from the wall due to a cold snap. Could it happen again? While I am standing in front of it? Is this a regular occurrence in Eesti land? Who knows.

hella hella

It’s an odd thing, but sometimes Estonian and American cultures cross-over in unforseen ways. Sure there’s the small linguistic coincidences — Estonians call pizza pitsa — but then there are the bubbles of mixed meanings that appear out of thin air.

Today, I received an e-mail from a woman named Hella, and I realized that ‘hella’ is also a New England slang word that adds emphasis, as in “Teddy got hella laid in Martha’s Vineyard.”

In New York nobody would say something is ‘hella cool’, but up in Boston, the Sam Adams beer is ‘hella refreshing’, the recent study in The International Journal of Rural Psychology is ‘hella intriguing’, and the pizza in Cambridge is ‘hella good’, only one stage below ‘wicked’ — the ultimate expression of joy for any Red Sox fan.

Whenever I read or hear the name of someone whose first name is ‘Hella’ I automatically expect that a) their last name will be the noun that is intensified; and b) the rest of their commentary will be your usual irritating Masshole fare, along the lines of “Yankees suck.”

If an Estonian person’s name is Hella Must, I therefore assume she is extremely dirty. If her name is Hella Lemmik, then she’s my absolute favorite. And if I hear the name Hella, warning bells go off preparing me to hear a tale about a catastrophic journey on the T — the Boston area’s mass transit system, bereft of the letter ‘r’.

These are subtle linguistic detours that few in the world are bound to experience.

the estonians are not the french

First French President Nicolas Sarkozy is estranged from his wife, Cecilia. Then they reconcile while he campaigns against Ségolène Royal. Then they divorce after he wins. The next thing you know he’s holding Carla Bruni’s hand at Euro Disneyland. And nobody bats an eye. Why? They’re French.

Watching the French president woo his actress/songstress/Euro Disneyess has made me insanely jealous for something similarly exciting to transpire in Eesti land. Unfortunately Estonia, with its wholesome culture of family values, Uncle Milty, sinine must valge, and Vanilla Ninja is not France.

I tried to imagine a high profile politician plotting such a move. What would happen if Andrus Ansip left Anu Ansip for Anu Saagim? Or if Mart Laar ditched his family for someone younger and more artistic, like Kerli Kõiv? Maybe we should expect to see Jüri Pihl holding hands in a tender moment at the Kumu art museum with Blacky sometime soon?

But that’s not to be and, I must admit, when I even think of an Estonian soap opera involving politicians and celebrities, it sort of makes me want to barf. Despite their stinky cigarettes, cheeses, and snails, French people can get away with that kind of thing. Estonians, with their sprats, hapukoor, and more hapukoor cannot.

French people are sexy. Estonian people are (mostly) cleanly. There is a difference.

decisions, decisions

Something weird happened after Barack Obama won in Iowa last week. People around me started trying to figure out who he was, in a historical context.

Is he a visionary Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, like Obama, rocketed to the presidency in 1932 after serving only three years as a governor of New York at a similar age (he was 50, Obama will be 47)?

Is he a soulful James Earl Carter who came out of nowhere in 1976 to give people hope after eight years of Nixon-Ford, Watergate, and Vietnam?

Or is he some wild combination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., two men that greatly inspired the generation of Hillary Rodham Clinton, and two men whose ghosts haunt them every time they see Obama give one of his speeches?

I will confess that at least three people told me they were anticipating Obama’s assassination should he win the nomination because the US “isn’t ready” for a “person of color” to move into the “White” House.

I found this talk extremely depressing because as I walk around the southern tip of Manhattan island, I can’t help but notice that Barack Obama looks more like the America I grew up in than the one people claim he is too different to lead.

At school I have had friends and acquaintances of every background, often times mixed. If you bump into any random human on Pearl Street, it’s likely they have a story that begins in as odd a place as Honolulu, Hawaii and leads to Indonesia before stopping in Boston and Chicago.

This is what they call the “generational divide” in politics, and Obama has played his hand well by distinguishing himself from all the things about American politics that have made this younger amorphous and multicultural “generation” — if such a diverse and abstract group of people can be recognized under one heading — tune out altogether.

Who wanted to fight about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 when they couldn’t even remember that war themselves? Who wanted a political bloodbath over Roe vs. Wade from 1973, when all of us, including Obama, entered adulthood with it in force? America, over the past 20 years or more, has been so bogged down in mind-numbing arguments over “faith” or “guns” that large swaths of younger Americans have remained apolitical because, like they have said on numerous occasions, they really don’t care.

And so to them, including myself, seeing Barack Obama speak, someone who looks like someone I might work with during my life, someone whose history of an extended family matches so many families I know, and someone who was a tyke in 1968 — a year in which he is allegedly stuck — is as tired of Boomeritis as we all are, its refreshing and dangerously appealing.

I want to look away because I am afraid the man with the pretty words may sell me something we both know he cannot sell: hope in a better future. Change. Who can sell these things? Nobody. Because if you look at the history of the US, change in the form of a presidential candidate does not come often and if it does, it is because it was packaged that way. Thomas Jefferson was an old hand in American politics by the time of his Revolution in 1800. Was it really a revolution then?

As engaging as I find Sen. Obama, I have a hard time listening to 30-second clips of Hillary Clinton because she is telling me everything I have heard from Democrats all my life.

She is an appealing candidate, because you figure after eight years sharing a bed with Bill Clinton — and our spouses do know us, at least most of the time — she would be best to inherit the groaning apparatus of American foreign policy.

And yet I cannot listen to her. I respect her somewhat, but listening to her speak, I find myself wondering if Teddy Kennedy wrote the script. I know that to some people Teddy Kennedy is a dirty word, but I think he represents Massachusetts, warts and all, to the hilt.

And I hear the same promises from her that I would hear from John Kerry or Al Gore or Bill Clinton or Mike Dukakis or Walter Mondale. I hear about universal health coverage. I have heard a lot about that in my life and I don’t expect to see it happen, even if Hillary becomes president. Even with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress. There are just too many institutional tripwires to stop that kind of change.

But beyond that is the arrogance, not coming from her but coming from her husband who called Obama’s political rise a “fairy tale” in a demeaning way. It’s an arrogance that says “we know better than you.” But did Bill Clinton really know better? His record was either hit or miss and blame it on the Republicans. His professional hacks — Paul Begala, James Carville — alienated so many young voters that they were able to turn comics, like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert into folk heroes.

Given a choice between real politicians or comedians, younger people would probably choose the latter. This is the legacy of the Bush-Clinton-Bush years, years of non-ending arguments over what the definition of ‘is’ is. People would put more faith in Colbert for President than they do in Hillary for President.

So, to summarize, voting for Hillary Clinton would give some younger people icky feelings, feelings that might dissuade many young people from voting for anyone at all, except perhaps a comedian-cum-talk show host.

Barack Obama would also give them icky feelings but in a different way: of actually in believeing in something again for a few minutes, only to be let down again. I mean how many times can you put a quarter in the slot machine before you realize that today is not your lucky day? Some of us just never win. Ever.

Barack Obama: he inspired one part of America and scares the other part. Hillary Clinton, she embodies a different part of America and turns the other part off from politics. Who is the better candidate? Decisions, decisions, decisions …