Came across a hardcopy of RFEAJ in my files the other day. RFEAJ is the name I gave the electronic diary I kept when I was living in Tallinn back in 1993. Once a week, I would email two or so pages of text back to my friends and family in the United States. Each of these weekly proto-blog entries was divided into a dozen or so short anecdotes about whatever I had happened to observe the week before – or whatever I remembered from earlier weeks – or even from earlier trips. Reading RFEAJ over now, many of the entries seem stupid or even embarrassing. Maybe I was just trying too hard back then …. Oh, well.
And yet, there are several interesting pieces in RFEAJ – mainly my observations of an Estonia only a year and a half into its newly recovered independence. For what its worth, I’ve decided to share some of these short entries to see if they might jar loose another memory or two. This curated selection is focused on some of the changes I watched taking place 25 years ago. My edits have only been minor or cosmetic. Otherwise, I’ve tried to be faithful to the original retro PINE email format and layout.
***RADIO FREE EAJ***1993***Tallinn, Eesti***
THE FORMER SOVIET UNION IS FALLING APART. Literally. Day-by-day. And it almost fell on top of me. Well, not quite. Let me explain: Everything built during the Soviet Union is in such bad shape that sometimes I’m amazed that you don’t just walk down the street and watch things collapse, fall apart, dissolve, or dissipate around you. Buildings, bridges, overpasses – everything is so poorly built that you wonder how it still holds itself together. It’s like everything is hanging together by a thread – and you can see the string unravel as you watch. Of course, I always used to say this – and mean it – in an abstract or intellectual sense. But it suddenly became very real for me just the other day. As I was walking home, a huge chunk of masonry fell off the top of my five-story building and landed on the ground right near the front door. If I had been walking directly under it when it fell, I would have ended up in a hospital at least. And so, no more abstract thinking for me. I need to focus on the real.
DRIVING SCHOOL. Right near my apartment is a driving school. Although the streets are often covered with ice and snow, everyone still shows up every morning as if it were just another day. Interestingly, most of the driving school students are women. Now if you’ve ever traveled the lands of the former Soviet Union, then you would know exactly how strange that is. In all the time I spent in Moscow and Leningrad, I only ever saw one woman driving a car. In Tallinn, women drivers are now everywhere – busy helping Estonia drive itself all the way to Scandinavia and the West.
CROOKED BRICKS AND CRACKED WINDSHIELDS. Why is it that no one in the former Soviet Union knows how to lay a brick? Why is it that the windshields of almost every car, bus, or truck have cracked windshields? Any experienced travel to this part of the world knows that these aren’t, of course, real questions. They are simply givens. Every brick you will see will be crooked. Every windshield you see will be cracked. Don’t ask why. You might as well ask, why does the sun shine? Of course, there are answers to the first question (bad bricks, poor cement, lazy workmanship) and to the second (bad roads, road debris, high replacement costs) although they remain fundamentally unanswerable as the real reason is that most people just didn’t care. I bring all of this up because as I rode the bus from Tallinn to Riga and back, I passed the first new private houses and apartment buildings that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world where the bricks were not crooked. After looking at crooked Soviet buildings for months, when you see a new building where the bricks have actually been lain properly in even rows, it just jumps out at you. Fortunately, in Estonia and Latvia the art of brick-laying is making a comeback. It reminds me how after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Britons lost the use of the potters’ wheel as they went back to shaping their clay without them. The Soviet Empire’s occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had just as drastic an effect – but in reverse. In the British case, the departure of the foreign invader brought chaos. In the Baltic case, it was the arrival. Not only did time stop when the Soviets annexed the Baltics fifty years ago, it actually went backwards. The trick now is to figure out how to compress time as much as possible in order to speed up Estonia’s recovery.
TAXIS AND METERS. Or, taxis as meters. Meters of development of an economy or society. And so, I would like to propose the following theory: you can judge the development of a country by its taxi drivers, their honesty, and whether or not they use their meters. Those of you who have lived or traveled around the world should have an idea of what I mean. In Moscow or Mexico City, you need to haggle with the cab driver on a price before you even get in the taxi. If you ask them if their meter works, they will usually say, no, it’s broken. Once you are the taxi, however, the meter is usually running – but that’s only so that the taxi driver can pretend that he was charging you the real fare when you are really paying X times more. Taxi companies are aware of the scam but turn a blind eye because they get a kick back from the driver. If everyone is on the take, then you will be taken. Back in mid-1990 and mid-1991, Tallinn was pretty much the same way. However, independence and the introduction of the kroon (Estonian crown) seems to have worked magic. Suddenly, every taxi meter works. And now, you only get charged what the meter says. And if you try paying in U.S. dollars instead of in kroon (as I tried a few times), then the taxi driver will refuse. So, if we use taxis as meters, then it looks like things in Estonia really are changing for the better. Chaos dissipates when there are rules in place that are clear and which everyone plays by. Unless, of course, you are living in another country where chaos is the rule that everyone plays by …
LOOKING UP. Not just things are looking up, but people as well. The old Soviet-style of walking down the street with your eyes averted or turned down, avoiding eye contact, and not looking at anyone else is slowly fading away. In Leningrad, I could observe everyone without ever being seen. On the streets of Tallinn these days, people are finally looking up. Making eye contact. Looking at each other. Curious. Checking each other out. It’s nice. Because it means that something inside people is starting to change. People are no longer afraid of one another. Of course, there is a drawback to this new way of walking down the street. It means that I can no longer observe unobserved. And by looking up, people also miss the many dangerous obstacles (e.g., pot holes, construction material, trash, etc.) that still clutter every post-Soviet street. Which may have been another reason for looking down – besides being afraid of others.
TRASH CANS. There I was walking up a street the other day. [NB! Since Tallinn is built around a hill, you don’t always get to walk down streets.] And I needed a place to throw away my Snicker’s wrapper in order to dispose of the evidence when BOOM! a trash can suddenly appeared right when and where I needed it. I was so shocked after never having seen one before that I just stood there for a minute. And then I looked around. They’re everywhere. Estonia’s first trash cans are sprouting up like mushrooms after a fall rain. Hundreds of clean, lean, and newly painted green trash cans. And these metal mushrooms are now spreading everywhere. They’ve even reached my neighborhood. Amazing. It can’t be long before the first anti-littering campaign begins. And then recycling centers appear ….
Image: A miniature Albanian bunker made from alabaster by an unknown craftsman.