the town and the country

Is Estonia truly the land of zipping, ubiquitous wireless Internet connections, pay-by-phone parking, online banking, e-voting, young and savvy entrepreneurs, not to mention Skype? If you only read The Economist, you would think it so (and be very grateful to Mart Laar’s angelic first government, who set everything in motion decades ago). And it is all of these things. But it is not only all of these things. I have seen life in the countryside that would make even the most open-minded undergraduate hold his nose.

Meh. The countryside. Land of “dry” toilets (or, as I call them, in-house outhouses), land of do-it-yourself fire hazard electric wiring jobs, land of unemployed, alcoholic uncles. When we celebrated a relative’s 50th birthday last year, he took us on a tour of the graveyard to visit some old high school friends whose birth years were in the ’60s and death years were in the ’90s and ’00s. I remember the September light on the stones, the moss on the trees, the wind in my hair. “But how did they all die?” I asked as a particularly cool breeze picked up. “Alcohol,” came the deep-voiced and eerie response.

So, next time you read The Economist, remember that e-voting and pay-by-phone parking are wonderful, wondrous things. But so are professionally installed wiring, modern plumbing, and sober, employed relatives.

chart land

Forbes contributor Mark Adomanis has written some interesting pieces about the Baltics recently, from a perspective that is familiar in its insularity and origin. While bemoaning the use of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as ideal economies by conservative analysts in the US, Adomanis has decided to look at other numbers to prove them wrong.

So continues American analysts’ adventures in chart land, where one finds hard data to back his or her assertions about austerity and enterprise, and the other refuting those points by discussing mass emigration and declining population figures in the region, as Adomanis has done most recently. These actual, physical countries rarely penetrate ‘chart land’ because in ‘chart land,’ real countries don’t exist; only charts.

I cannot speak to Latvia or Lithuania, as I have been to Latvia three times, Lithuania once, and, unlike my American countrymen, I don’t feel justified in using them in contests of political ideologies by digging out a graph here or tossing up a chart there.

As for the Estonian population, I’ve said it before and will say it again — nobody really knows what the population of Estonia should be. In 1934, there were about 1.13 million people in the country, roughly 19,000 more than in 1922. During the Second World War, the population decreased by a fifth, due to Soviet mass deportations, refugees fleeing West, and war-related deaths. The rebound of the 1950s and ’60s that led to impressive and sustained population “growth” was based largely on migration from outside Estonia but within the USSR, and on the development of industries and regions that had been, until that time, nonexistent and sparsely populated.

For example, the village of Sillamäe in northeastern Estonia had a population of about 2,600 in 1940. In 1989, there were 20,500 people enumerated. Today, there are 15,800 people living there. Based on data alone, people over there in ‘chart land’ might be able to draw some interesting conclusions about people ‘voting with their feet.’

But if you had actually been to Sillamäe and were familiar with the place, you might realize that Sillamäe was a 100-percent planned Soviet city. As it was planned, its population growth was not organic, either. Since the Soviet-supported economy collapsed decades ago, many people have left, either to Tallinn, or farther west, to London, or even Los Angeles. Why have they left? Some ask. Here’s another question, Why should they have stayed? You are dealing with a city of people who emigrated from other places — Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan. They left those places behind, too. The view of the Gulf of Finland from Sillamäe at sunset can be gorgeous, but it’s not stunning enough to keep people bent on a better deal from moving on to better opportunities when they arise.

So now, in 2013, 22 years after 1991, 73 years after Sillamäe experienced its last organic growth, we are left to wonder — what population can Sillamäe, the former planned Soviet city, naturally support?

As someone who has been to Sillamäe, and has been in Estonia on and off again for more than a decade, I can say that the quality of life in Sillamäe is undoubtedly better today that when it was at the end of Soviet rule. It’s a prettier town, many parts of it cleaned up, hazardous environmental dumping waste sites capped and remediated. People working in Soviet factories like those in Sillamäe had low life expectancies, in part because of the rampant pollution both in the workplace and the city itself. Knowing that, seeing remnant traces of that skeletal Soviet life, if you were to walk into the slick, ultramodern offices of the rare metals producer Silmet today, you would certainly feel like clicking your heels together because life in Sillamäe has improved. And that’s perhaps what gets people so hopeful about that Skype office in Tallinn, you keep hearing about. Because they are familiar, personally, with the starting point.

These are subtle nuances that are lost on the denizens of chart land. We are not talking about props in your theoretical contests, we are talking about real countries inhabited by people with complex histories that cannot be summed up in a line graph.

The New York Times, Forbes, and other media that continue to rely on Russia-based or focused analysts to cover Estonia are doing their readers a disservice. Regional branding aside, Estonia is part of the Nordic economy, and many of the policies enacted by the Estonian government are done with the implications of relations with the ‘mother’ economies of Sweden and Finland in mind. Euro adoption and austerity were both measures favored by Swedish banking interests, which dominate Estonia.

how it works

“I feel so bad for Kalle. He told me yesterday that his wife left him.”
“He did? When?”
“While he was working here in the kitchen.”
“But don’t they have children?”
A sullen nod. “He has a week to find a new place and move out.”
“What do you mean move out? She left him! Shouldn’t she be packing her bags, slamming the door?”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Oh, I get it. The woman stays in the house with the children and the man leaves.”
 Another sullen nod.
“And the man finds himself some shitty, one-room apartment somewhere and gives her all of his money.”
“Exactly.”

that smell

Ah, summer in Viljandi. Blue skies, clothing lines, everywhere charm & crumble. Awake at some reasonable hour, boil the water for the coffee, mix it up, take a sip, open up the door to the yard to enjoy the fresh breeze. But there was something different in the air this morning. A different smell.

“Something stinks outside,” said the abikaasa/spouse. “I was going to drink my coffee in the yard but I changed my mind.” What was the stink? Curious nostrils wanted to know. A familiar smell, they sniffed, the stench of manure. “They probably decided to clean the pig factory,” I said. She agreed.

The pig factory. Also known as the new-wave-band-name-sounding Experimental Pork Manufacturing Plant. Also known as “Ekseko.” A multistory building stands across the river in Viiratsi Parish. What goes on inside, I haven’t seen, but it involves pigs en route to becoming beer snacks who apparently defecate enough to stink up all the air within a certain radius.

Or it could just be some other random environmental affect. Ekseko on its website claims to be one of the good guys, satisfying ISO standards and helping out local farmers by buying their grain to feed their pigs whose shit is shipped back to the farmers to fertilize more grain. That smell is probably just bog gas or sulfur from some nearby undiscovered geothermal spring. Yeah, that must be it …

about mission estonia

Here’s something I wrote about my new book. An Estonian version of this text previously appeared here.

Estonia is blessed with expatriate writers. Abdul Turay, Vello Vikerkaar, João Lopes Marques… Sometimes it seems we landed our gigs as columnists on the basis of our foreignness alone. Our editors tell us to write about the foreign experience in Estonia because Estonians want to know what we think of them. At the same time, I believe we feel compelled as emissaries who have come from Western lands to make suggestions on how Estonia can transform even more positively than it has ever transformed before.

This is our position in this society: the missionary position. Like Jesuits of old, we have arrived by sea, and air and land to Estonia so that we can point out the locals’ flaws, save their souls, and guide them all the way to the promised land.

We missionaries come not only as writers. In any facet of daily life, you will find travelers from Western lands spreading their lifestyles. A Californian friend now teaches transcendental meditation in Tartu. In recent years, American and Australian friends of mine in Comedy Estonia together with Estonian collaborators have introduced stand up comedy to this country. From these tiny foreign seeds, we all believe, many Estonian flowers will blossom.

For years, I trudged along in my capacity as a missionary, writing columns and books for the Estonian audience. But something changed in my heart, recently, and I can only attribute this about face to living in this land and living in Viljandi.

It’s easy to play the role of the preacher in Tallinn and Tartu, where a foreigner can still feel as if he is at the center of life. It’s easier to believe you can make a difference when the parliament or the country’s most prestigious university is just a quick walk away. It’s harder when you are standing behind the local alcoholics at the bottle return in Viljandi.

In these desperate moments I have come to embrace a new reality, that the best I can do to change Estonia is paint my house, plant my garden, mow my lawn, and make sure my children’s teeth are brushed. From this new-found fatalism is born these columns in this new book. I write to you now not only as a foreigner, but as one of you, just an average guy from Viljandi.

A significant chunk of this material has appeared in abbreviated form in the magazines Anne ja Stiil and Eesti Naine. Other columns are based on posts I have written on my blog, Itching for Eestimaa. But a lot of the material is new. When I first held the book in my hands, I couldn’t believe how much I had written, and it happened almost effortlessly, just for the fun of it.

My hope in all of these endeavors has been to write honestly, to the point of embarrassing myself and, let’s face it, a lot of this material will make you blush. But you’ve got to embarrass yourself if you want anybody to listen to you, to really listen to you, to take you into their hearts.

In these moments, I think of those ancient missionaries with their silly robes and crucifixes, looking like a bunch of girly boys, fanning out into the wilderness in the name of faith. A missionary’s life has never been easy. And the only way to manage with it, I believe, is to actually believe in what you do.

So consider this book, Mission Estonia, as a chronicle of all the embarrassments and hardships I’ve faced along my way. I still have faith that things will change for the better. I still believe in Estonia.

cosmic things

On our second or third night in Viljandi, we went to visit two friends of ours, a musician and a poet, who live around the corner. The musician plays homemade instruments, including a large wooden phallus stuck with nails that he saws at with a violin bow in order to produce an industrial, maritime vibe, while crooning like a humpback whale in high and low pitches over the metallic droning. The poet’s poems are thick with references to nature — animals, plants, phenomena. She talks about flora and fauna for which I’m not even sure there are English words. Does she really know these plants and animals, or does she just have botany and zoology books on her desk, to select random terms from when she gets tired of expressing her feelings?

The funny aspect, is that by Viljandi standards, these two individuals are normal. That same night, we were visited by a man with a long billy goat’s beard who is known locally as “Beard,” and “Beard” (or its Estonian equivalent) just might be his real name. When he entered, he gave me a hug. Beard was talking to us about Yin and Yang energy, and he was serious. “You mean like on the flag of South Korea?” I asked, puzzled. “Yes, for example,” Beard gestured in a mystical teacher kind of way. As I recall, the world is divided up into masculine and feminine energies. Lakes have one kind, rivers have another. “You’ll notice that when you are standing beside a lake, it’s quite a different feeling from when you are standing beside a river,” Beard went on … All eyes were on him.

I thought my Swedish friend Erland was exempt from Viljandi’s far out worldview, but the other day while grilling in the yard, he began staring into the wisps of the clouds and talking about aliens. “And you know what they say, that the aliens are actually us, that we are coming back in time to study ourselves …” I could see the white fluffy 11 pm clouds in his eyes. “Oh,” he rubbed them. “I had a dream about this the other night. It was such a cool, cool dream. I told Lea all about it …Goddamn flies, it’s like the second you put some grilled fish out, they’re all over it.” “Where is Lea?” “Don’t worry, she’s coming, she’s coming, Oh, go away stupid flies, go away …{he waves them away} … Now what was I saying about the aliens?”

expats

Expats piss off homeland Americans. They rile the, defile them. An expat to a homeland American is a betrayer, a traitor. And why? Because the expat called their “Love it or leave it” bluff. “Love it or leave it!” That patriotic phrase. The sayer thinks he has you up against the wall, because who would have the guff to actually leave the homeland?! But the expat does. Watch him turn and go. That smug wannabe Hemingway bastard with his parental renumeration and his black turtleneck and knowledge of other tongues! That almost-as-bad-as-a-Frenchman Yankee with his softness for socialism and his friends with funny names and his ability to pronounce Tallinn the correct way (and it doesn’t rhyme with baleen, Ishmael). But you know, from the bottom of my heart — I haven’t rejected America. I have embraced my own weird, meandering life. It led here. Doors opened, drawbridges materialized. And I see nothing wrong with drinking Saku and alternating between Estonian and English with a Swede in Viljandi on the Fourth of July. That’s just how it went for me. My story. Love it or leave it. Lõpp.

-aale, -oome

Täna lähme Hiiumaale, siis homme lähme Saaremaale, siis ülehomme lähme Pärnumaale” —

 This was the first comprehensible Estonian sentence I heard uttered when I stepped off the plane in Tallinn. It was a cheerful, spry youngish woman who said the words, a fine, upstanding, big-blue-eyed completely un-lecherous-thought-provoking flaxen-haired, blade-of-grass-like woman. And what the woman’s words said to me, was that it is summer in Eesti-land. Summer is the time for -aale, whether it be Hiiumaale (to Hiiumaa) or Saaremaale (to Saaremaa). One other traveler threw in an -oome for added suvi summery spice, Aga meie lähme homme Soome

Summer brings with it White Nights Etiquette … So Epp explained to me … With “White Nights Etiquette” one is free to call on friends at 11 pm, because it’s still day out, technically, supposedly … We have been all waiting a long time for warm weather. It came.

Meantime, Edward Snowden is still in the john at the airport and Moscow, and Putin is making himself look like Mr. Freedom Champion by allowing him to chat with his buddies Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange from the back stall, unmolested. Mohammed Morsi is no longer president of Egypt, or so it seems {and all Estonian sunworshippers who head to Shark el-Sheim in winter will have extra explaining to do to concerned relatives — “Oh, no, everything’s fine down there, no troubles at all, you’ll see” …

Makes one happy for a peaceful, bucolic, lazy, pastoral, straw-in-the-hair, mating-in-the-haystack kind of baltoscandinavian summer … Like extras in a Ingmar Bergman film … With lots of bonfires and site visits … -aale today, -oome tomorrow.