I am so frustrated with the state of my Estonian language skills. Frustrated, angry. I’m angry at myself. I’m simultaneously lying flat on my face in the ring and yelling at myself to get up. Get up off that mat, Giustino, get up!
You might think of the main facets of language ability – speaking, reading, writing, and listening comprehension – as a sort of regatta where the sailboats begin the race and, though one may pull ahead of the other from time to time, they are generally neck and neck on their way to the highly anticipated climax, the finish line of fluency.
But it’s not really like that. No, language abilities are like the tides: the words flow in and the words flow out. My vocabulary has expanded and contracted multiple times, each time gaining new words and expressions, only to later lose some of them. I know other foreign guys here who don’t even bother with the Estonian language. I think of them as perpetual tourists: “I’m on vacation, darling, and besides, all the help speak English.” There are still others who have acquired fluency, who quip little indigestible sayings — they are called kõnekäänud — to you that make little sense, even if you do manage to translate them, unfold them, stake them out, and examine them under a microscope.
Take Nokk kinni, saba lahti. What does this mean? “Imagine you are a bird,” says a friend (and it’s always animals with these Estonians). “You are pecking away with your beak, your nokk, but if you peck too hard, then,” she lifts up a foot, “your beak gets stuck and your tail, your saba, is lahti, exposed.” But it doesn’t end there. “Then the bird struggles to get free,” she leans in to demonstrate, “and it pulls and pulls and pulls, and then, bang!,” she tosses her head back, “the bird loses its balance.” I stare. “It’s like you try to fix one problem, and you just wind up with another problem,” she tries again. “Ok,” I nod. I’m still waiting to use this expression in real life, but the best I’ve done so far is quote from a gin advertisement: nokk džinni, saba lahti.
The most formidable Estonian speaker I have met so far is Epp’s uncle, the legendary Onu Tiit. Tiit is the Mount Everest of Estonian listening comprehension challenges. With a muddy south Estonian mumble, even his kids sometimes don’t understand what he’s talking about. Usually I have to ask him to repeat things two times before I have a good idea of what he’s saying. Onu Tiit probably doesn’t know this, but he has now inspired me to press on. I will study, study hard just so that I might one day understand around 75 percent of what he says. When Tiit talks to Epp, she understands 100 percent. Poor little Giustino. He wants to run, but still can only walk.
While my comprehension skills boat fell back in the race, reading comprehension glided ahead. Each day I scan the Estonian online news media, learning more about this intriguing windswept peninsula. Some people think newspapers are the enemy, and being a journalist myself, and having seen the unscrupulous characters in the business who delight in fomenting discord amongst their fellow men and women by printing and distributing deliberately inflammatory texts to the masses, I tend to agree. “The shit’s going to fly once this story hits the streets,” I recall an old editor of mine chuckling and rubbing his hands together with manic, sleep-deprived glee. “We could start a war,” he was giddy. “I can hardly wait.” Indeed, it’s a miracle the entire world hasn’t spontaneously combusted by now, given the content of your fresh morning copy of Postimees, or Eesti Päevaleht, or Õhtuleht. But I keep reading. I have to keep reading.
From my sojourns in the Estonian infosphere, I’ve learned that the Russian chauvinist of the week is Sergei Markov. You may recall United Russia MP and political scientist Sergei as the venelane who took credit for organizing the 2007 cyberattacks on Estonian private and public IT systems. For this, he was banned by the Estonian government from entering the Schengen area, though his name was later controversially removed from that blacklist during Justice Minister Rein Lang’s one-month reign at the helm of the interior ministry after Ansip fired the previous minister, Jüri Pihl. Lang later handed those ministerial duties over to Marko Pomerants.
The Estonian media feels that it is its job, it’s raison d’etre, to keep us abreast of the ravings of Russia’s political establishment. Markov is quoted in this news story as saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if Estonian or Latvian Russian Black Panther Party-like groups were formed to bring about “total democracy” in these countries. Not like he’s hoping for that sort of thing, but the guilt would belong solely to the “undemocratic Estonian and Latvian governments” should such events come to pass. Of course, a mere political scientist, Sergei wouldn’t be willing to pack heat himself in the name of civil rights. Those kinds of menial jobs are usually doled out to the Kremlin youth. This is the kind of nonsense I wake up to when I eat my breakfast cereal. And you wonder why I am frustrated from time to time.
Good thing we’ve now got contingency plans. Six years after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the collective defense organization has agreed in principle to draft plans to come to the aid of the Baltic countries in case of an attack from somebody. Good to know. According to our trustworthy correspondent Edward Lucas over at The Economist, it was the Poles who finally pushed the deal through, somehow convincing the recalcitrant Germans and “other countries” (who?) to drop their opposition.
Baltic defense plans will essentially be an “annex to existing plans regarding Poland, but with an added regional dimension,” writes Lucas, leaving room for Sweden and Finland to take a role in the planning too, as they damn well should, considering they own most of Estonia, anyway, (it’s rumored, for example, that the replacement investor for SAS in Estonian Air might be Finnair. One can only hope). A big bilateral American exercise, including a fabulous USO show, is already planned for the Baltic this summer, too, and is likely to widen to include the other aforementioned countries, Lucas writes.
As I’ve mentioned previously, while I am glad NATO finally got around to doing what it was created to do, I am curious to see the contingency plans for older members Denmark and Norway. Like Estonia, they are also water-bound and exposed. But such things would never happen because it would be so uncivilized, and Moscow, being the Third Rome, is on a mission to civilize, not to undermine civilization, right?
This is precisely the logic behind President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ recent declaration that Moscow is not a threat to Estonia. Estonia is in the EU and NATO, the clubs of the civilized. It may even soon have the euro as its currency. And the Third Rome wouldn’t attack a country that has the euro as its currency, would it? That would be a PR disaster. For some reason, the Russian elite is still sensitive to how it is seen in the West. And this odd tango between Europe’s perceived moral authority, and Russia’s self-assigned role as savior of humanity, is what, in the end, keeps us safe at night. Estonia in its 90-year-long soap opera of a history has never been more secure than it is right now, argues Ilves.
He may be right, because as caustic as domestic politics can get, one only need to look at the 1920s and 1930s in Estonia to see how divided the country was back then, how ripe it was for the picking. Estonia endured a Communist attempted coup in 1924, followed by the rise of the right-wing Vaps in the early 1930s, the failure of Jaan Tõnisson’s government, and the eventual benevolent dictatorship of Konstantin Päts, who let the Commies jailed in 1924 out of jail in 1938 (not a smart move). Some think of the Soviet period as some kind of total lobotomy that severed all connections to Estonia’s political past, but these divisions exist today. You’ll find Estonians who strongly support Päts’ rule: even if he was a dictator, his heart was in the right place, he was looking out for the national interest, building the state, they say. Then there are those who praise the Vaps as sharply dressed, goodtimey patriots who, if they had been successful, would have staved off a Soviet invasion in 1939, somehow, some way, I’m sure of it. There are Tõnisson people, too, still kicking around. Tõnisson was such a great speaker and gifted diplomat. He could have charmed the two-headed snake of 1930s authoritarianism into submission. That’s the thing about history. It never ends. It just goes on and on and on.
No wonder then that Andres Anvelt recently became head of the Social Democrats in Tallinn. If the name Anvelt rings a bell, you’re right, Andres is the grandson of notorious Estonian Communist Jaan Anvelt, who led a short-lived Bolshevik government in Tallinn before going underground. Involved in the 1924 uprising, he subsequently fled to Moscow, where he worked for Comintern until he was beaten to death during an NKVD interrogation in 1937, and declared an enemy of the people. With that kind of background, it’s only natural that Andres would join SDE, which has interestingly become the ideological offspring of Estonia’s deep left wing past. That’s what I love about Estonia. Every family’s got a few reds or Vaps in it. These people are so mild mannered in person, and yet they’ve passionately indulged themselves in every passing ideological fad.
But that’s just the news in 2010. I crumple it up and burn it in my wood-heated home. The Estonian word of the week, by the way, is vingerpuss. It means ‘practical joke.’