missed america

I’ve been reading The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson’s memoir of growing up in 1950s Iowa. I curl up with the book late at night after the children have gone to sleep and muddle through a few humorous pages before I hear the sound of the book hitting the floor and I drift off into slumber.

Bryson and I have some things in common. He was a kid from Iowa who by some twist of fate wound up as a writer in the UK. And I am just a kid from New York who by some other, more hilarious twist of fate, wound up as a writer in Estonia.

Anyway, I like Bryson and, moreover, I envy him. I envy him because the America he writes about is one I never knew, and yet long for, as does every American a little bit in his or her heart. The 1950s have been skewered for their open racism and intractable gender roles, their dismissal of everything ancient or spiritual for better living through chemistry. But they still sound good after all these years.

Case in point: Chuck Berry. I listen to his songs as I zoom around Viljandi, which might as well be some place in Iowa. “Maybellene” “School Days” “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” “Thirty Days” “Carol” “Memphis, Tennessee” There is so much energy in the music, energy and hopefulness. You get the sense of what it must have felt like when people got their first cars and were suddenly free to go wherever they wanted to, on their own, at any time, if they just had a few nickles and dimes for gas. Over the mountains. Across the desert. Just like that. Free.

Sometimes I imagine myself following suit, hopping in a car and setting out to explore the roads of America, spending the nights in seedy motels, breakfasts at local greasy spoon diners. Intriguing stories, colorful people, bacon at every meal, and all the time the revving guitar licks of Chuck Berry propelling me forward. But then I think that most of America probably doesn’t look much like that anymore. These days it’s probably “big box” chain stores from sea to shining sea. Starbucks, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Walmart.

I recently told a colleague from Alabama of my desire to see the South, to sip mint juleps on mossy plantations, to encounter the mystical land where the trees sink into the earth at night and the natives speak some twangy, Huckleberry Finn-worthy dialect, to boldly go where it’s not unusual to find a reptile in your sink in the morning. He looked at me like I was crazy. “We’ve got all the same shit you have up North,” he said. “Starbucks, Lowe’s, Chick-fil-A. Except there’s even more of it down South.” I don’t want to believe him, but I fear he may be right.

Best not to take the family along for the ride then. My eldest daughter doesn’t care too much for Chuck Berry anyway. She doesn’t understand why he talks that “weird way,” and why he has such a “strange name.” I thought this was a function of her ambiguous national outlook, but then again, when was the last time you met a seven-year-old boy named Chuck? While the last rays of the “golden days” of America still warm my shoulders, to my daughter they are more like the redshift of some distant, long-dead stars as measured through a high-powered telescope. “How weird.” “How strange.” “What does it all mean?” Get out those calculators!

I have a hard time comparing my ideas of America to the Estonians’ ideas of their own country. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am living through the country’s “golden days” though — a time when everyone suddenly had their own car and the freedom to drive it wherever he or she wanted, to Narva or Pärnu, or even straight to Portugal, stopping at little mom-and-pop cafes along the way.

The current adult generation of Estonia was born into cramped Khruschevka flats and leaning, wooden 19th century ghettos, and now many occupy grand, well-furnished apartments, drive respectable automobiles, spend their summers at their personal cottages, and take off in winter to sunbathe alongside the Britons and Germans and other Western European purveyors of horrible haircuts in places like the Canary Islands, Turkey, and Thailand.

The country has experienced a “big bang” of improved living standards and increased access to material goods. Some of them are still using wood furnaces and dry toilets, but now they have mobile phones and big screen TVs — whatever they are good for. Of course, the elderly have been screwed in the scramble, but, lest we forget, the elderly were the poorest group in 1950s America too, afforded a spare bedroom in the homes of their more successful children.

I wonder if Estonians of the future will look back on these years as an era of “happy days,” but I doubt it. Despite the efforts of the best song smiths, they are still cranking out crappy europop, and there is no Chuck Berry-like savior in sight. And the country seems to carry on a perpetual doomsday mentality, where the silver lining of every cloud is overlooked to focus on its dark and stormy center. “Don’t worry, it will get worse.” This is the country’s graveyard mindset. While their Nordic neighbors profess to be the happiest on earth, the Estonians often proclaim their deep dissatisfaction with each other and everything else.

Even now, as warm summer sets in, people are openly friendly to one another, but probably think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Given that most of them have never had it so good, I wonder why that is.

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igal tibil on auto tänapäeval

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

The setting: a parking lot in Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city. The parking lot is situated on top of a hill. To the rear stands the university library, across the street is the Vanemuine theater. Both buildings are culturally significant, both are sprawling masses of gray. Neither has any discernible shape. The day is gray and misty. The parking lot accommodates the maximum number of vehicles.

The characters: My daughters, two little girls high on gelato, running around the (mostly) dry fountain in front of the library. A friend named Kristjan, a wiry Estonian man in his mid thirties with deeply set, Finno-Ugric features, and deeply set hatred of neoconservatism. He is dressed in black and seems preoccupied with the state of the world. Me, a Roberto-Benigni-meets-Luciano-Pavarotti colossus of awkward gestures and jerky body movements, dressed in a gray coat and flat cap. I am in dire need of a shave and haircut. Finally, a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, dressed in a white coat with jeans. She is tiny, and perhaps stands as tall as my elbows. The woman has long blond hair that may or may not be genuine, and one of those eyelash jobs that consist of generous helpings of mascara and tiny false pearls.

The young woman approaches me. Kas te saate mind aidata? she asks. Mul on aku tühi. Kas teil krokadiilid on?

My brain is a bit slower than usual, perhaps because I have just consumed a giant glass of melted ice cream. Still, it quickly processes that she needs my help and that her car battery is empty. The last bit, about the crocodile, throws me off. In the distance, my children are running wild in front of a sculpture of the revered semiotician Juri Lotman’s profile. Kristjan is watching them with an unsatisfied look on his face that tells me that he is now thinking intensely about global inequality.

I mumble something like, “I’m sorry,” to the young woman and walk away. She frets, biting her lip. She looks around for another person to save her. As I walk toward my car, I think about crocodiles. I think about their big jaws. A certain poem by Lewis Carroll comes to mind. I think about how if the woman’s car battery is empty, someone will have to jump the car. To do that, would require jumper cables. Then something clicks in my tired, gelato-weary brain. The jumper cables resemble the jaws of a crocodile. Perhaps the animal-obsessed Estonians refer to jumper cables as crocodiles?

I return to the woman a moment later with the cables in hand. I have been saved so many times by other travelers in situations just like this. Now it is my opportunity to return the favor to the universe. The woman shows no sense of relief, and she has no reason to, as my oldest daughter is now tugging at my sleeve. “I need to go pee pee,” she says. “I’ll be right back,” I tell the woman.

Twenty minutes later, my daughter and I emerge from the library, during which time she locked herself in the bathroom, and I stood outside the woman’s toilet, unable to rescue her until an inquisitive librarian inquired as to why the strange man was hanging around the woman’s toilet and promptly entered and liberated the frustrated child. In the parking lot, the woman is still standing in front of her car. My wife Epp has now appeared, following an afternoon meeting with some witches and conjurers on the edge of town. After some light bickering about what took so long, laughter ensues when I explain the toilet situation. Now, to rescue the woman.

“Every chick has a car these days,” Kristjan remarks to me with a grin before I pull my car in front of the young woman’s tiny white car. Igal tibil on auto tänapäeval.

I have the cables in hand. I am ready to jump the young woman. But there’s one problem. Does red go on the positive or negative? And which to connect first? I am almost 98 percent sure that red goes on positive and black on negative, and positive is connected first. I have done this so many times before. Why can’t I remember now? I think about calling my father, but decide against it, as not to embarrass myself again. Epp calls our business partner Tiina who knows everything about cars, as her father is a mechanic, but she does not pick up. Just then, two men and a woman pass by I inquire about the colors and they are eager to help. The men speak Estonian. One is dressed in a red jacket. He has the kind of sturdy figure and round face that make him immediately recognizable as an Estonian. To me, with his short red hair and big cheeks, he looks a bit like the outgoing Virginia Senator Jim Webb, but nobody here knows who that is. His friend is darker and lankier. The woman is dolled up. Long black boots, black dress, blond (from the bottle), miserable makeup job.

While the he helps consult the young woman on letting the battery charge, the dolled up woman complains loudly to the Jim Webb lookalike. He answers her back in Russian. This throws me off completely. Are these guys Estonian Russians? It’s possible. Tartu has a sizable Estonian Russian minority (about 16 percent of the population considers itself Russian), but most are well integrated into society and the “us and them” vibe that still pervades to some extent in Tallinn is absent here.

When the young woman’s car successfully starts up, I thank the Jim Webb lookalike in Russian. “Sbasibo,” I say, awaiting a quick, happy retort in Russian. Instead he looks incredibly confused, as if he doesn’t understand the word, or as if I have even insulted him. I say Aitäh instead. Then the two men wave to me and rejoin the Estonian Russian woman, who is still pouting beside the car. I imagine she might have been jealous of the young woman in trouble.

On the way out of Tartu, we try to decipher the ethnopolitics of the parking lot situation. Kristjan hypothesizes that the Jim Webb lookalike was an Estonian guy with an Estonian Russian girlfriend. “Estonian women prefer to partner with foreign guys like you,” he says. “That means Estonian guys have to partner with Estonian Russian girls. But then who do the poor Estonian Russian guys hook up with?”

“I don’t know,” I answer. “Uzbeks?”

“Chinese!” Epp proposes and laughs from the backseat. She might be serious.

We drive on. “Can you believe the Estonians reelected Andrus Ansip?” Kristjan says, glaring out the window at some unfinished suburban housing developments. “This is very Estonian. We have an economic collapse, and we’d rather blame ourselves than a politician. High unemployment? It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.” He taps himself on the shoulder.

“There is a photo of Ansip in that sports club over there,” I gesture at a building on the edge of the city. “It’s on the wall. It’s of him, Siim Kallas, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen. I guess they took a sauna together.”

The part of the city we are driving through now is an ugly landscape of gray buildings, power lines, mud, and mist.

“Sure,” says Kristjan. “I bet they had a nice little neocon summit in there.”

In the backseat, the children are now fast asleep, their sugar highs finally crashed as we head back to Viljandi.

the missionary position

I was reading some of the colorful comments regarding an interview I did with ERR last month. While I decided not to join in the fray, I did come away from it feeling a little more bitter and less satisfied with life.

I actually have little reason to feel bitter today. The weather is gorgeous. Not a cloud in the sky. The huge mounds of dirty snow are melting. At lunchtime I went for a walk around Viljandi, took in the lake, the winding old streets, the proud renovated homes that gleam in the sun and the shanty-like dumps that still stand beside them looking as if the Germans only retreated yesterday.

Viljandi. I took a deep breath and tried to accept that winter is really over. In my heart I don’t believe it is, but the weather and the calendar say it is so. I had resigned myself to an endless winter. Antarctica until the end. It’s been months since I succumbed to the cold. And now it’s suddenly mild? And I am just supposed to forget about all that? But I must adjust. I have no control over the weather just as I have no control over the condition of Viljandi’s houses or sidewalks. Estonia just is what it is and I strongly suspect that I will be unable to change it in any meaningful way. How could I? I am just one man, and certainly not gifted with the self confidence or spiritual fortitude to join the ranks of Dr. King or Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated, I’ll add. No, just a puny individual. Ok, I may be a little taller than most, but so what?

Just as I succumbed to winter and now spring, I have come to accept that I am not going to wean the drunks at the A ja O off the bottle. I am not going to stop your cousin from blowing his salary at this country’s myriad casinos. I am not going to make your waitress more perky, or neuter your neighbor’s cat so that your property doesn’t smell like a club urinal during Spring Break. I am not going to “integrate” the Estonian Russians or tame the vehicular insanity of the Tallinn – Tartu highway. I can barely get my children to put their jackets on. How am I supposed to change Estonia? I can’t even vote.

Yet, the impression I get from reading ERR comments, and the reason I stopped reading them on Baltic Business News a while back, is that it seems so many foreigners think that they can somehow change Estonia. That it would be easy, if only everyone listened to them. Not only that, it seems as if they are frustrated that Estonians haven’t listened more attentively to their exceptional and brilliant ideas. It is my observation that when so-called Westerners come to Estonia they often fall into the trap of assuming this “missionary position.” The perspective includes a) the belief that one has come from a superior culture and b) the same person is therefore entitled to lecture the locals about the “proper” ways to do things to make the inferior culture more like the superior one.

I admit, I have done the very same thing here on this blog, over and over again. It’s most likely unavoidable and probably not just a symptom of the imaginary West-East or American-European divide. Estonians who find themselves confronted by the peculiarities of any given Western country also tend to gripe. “What, no free Internet?” “Paper checks? You guys are still using these old-fashioned things?” “You still have a landline?” “This bread is terrible.” “What do you mean they don’t sell astelpaju siirup at the corner store?”

Still, I doubt that any of these Estonians actually thought that by writing a well-intended blog post or commenting anonymously on an online news story they could change things. It’s one thing to opine about paper checks. It’s another thing to expect their immediate elimination based on the sharing of one’s superior wisdom. There are only 1.3 million Estonians, remember, and they live in 132nd largest country in the world, right between the Dominican Republic and Denmark. Most are aware that changing the financial idiosyncrasies of the United States is beyond their means.

Given this sense of resignation, the sight of Western missionaries nudging into the Estonian melee to point out how things really should be becomes more and more hilarious. “Hey, you, disenfranchised Estonian Russian kid, learn Estonian already. And you, grumpy waitress, be more friendly. Haven’t you heard, the customer is always right?” I may have been that very person, I probably still am, but if I am, I don’t really expect Estonians to take an American like me very seriously anymore.

Maybe it’s because I am an American. Fifty years ago I might have had the cultural firepower to go around bragging about my shining city on a hill, where the plumbers live right next to the doctors, but these days the doctors live beyond tall fences, down long driveways, far removed from the plumbers, who may or may not be citizens. And don’t ask me. Ask everyone else. Sixty-three percent of Americans think our country is heading in the wrong direction. It is the majority opinion.

Sadly, rather than just bringing our bright ideas to Estonia, it appears us men of the West have also brought our bitterness and dissatisfaction. And if you read most online comments in Estonia, it’s more of the same. Fingerpointing and vitriol. It makes you wonder if we really are so different.

leib, sai, sepik

Kärt, my daughter’s classmate, came over to visit the other day. Kärt was hungry and wanted something to eat. The following conversation ensued:

Kärt: Kas teil leiba on? (Do you have any black bread?)

Me: Ei ole. (No.)

Kärt: Aga kas teil saia on? (But do you have any white bread?)

Me: Kahjuks meil ei ole. (Unfortunately we don’t.)

Kärt: Aga kas teil siis sepikut on? (But do you have any brown bread?)

Me: Ei. (No.)

Kärt: Aga mida te siis sööte? (Then what do you eat?)

The next day I went to the A ja O and bought a big loaf of sai (white bread) and another of what I thought was sepik (brown bread). When I got home, though, I noticed that my sepik was actually a new invention called saib, which marries sai (white bread) with leib (black bread). I’m still not sure what to do with the mysterious saib.

I am even more at a loss when to comes to describing Estonia’s varieties of what we English speakers simply refer to as “bread.” Leib, for instance, is not always black. And sepik is often more beige than brown. The words refer as much to consistency as to color. But there is no catch-all word for “bread.” Estonians are particular when it comes to their leib, sai, sepik, and saib.