Clouds In The Head


Eek! It’s the Kroon!
21 August, 2008, 4:08 pm
Filed under: travel versus unravel

While working as a dogsbody in a chalet in summertime Switzerland in 1991, I happened to meet an Estonian Canadian who also happened to be the assistant to the foreign minister of the brand new republic of Estonia. I asked what it was like there, and Peeter said, “great, come over some time”. He was a tall, energetic, opinionated, charismatic man who was giving his all to the new nation. A year later I turned up on his doorstep.

Peeter promptly got me two jobs, one rewriting the blurb about Tallinn for a publication called Tallinn This Week, the other teaching English at the Pärnu business school, a fresh-eyed establishment in the country’s premier seaside resort town, run by a former swimming coach. The publisher of Tallinn This Week, the former playmaker of the Estonian basketball team, who’d made a reputation for himself by writing a book called Basketball Novel, asked me if I’d look over the English version of an Estonian travel guide he was putting together. I did.

Written by Estonians and translated into English, German and Finnish by Russians, it was one of the funniest things I’d ever read. I pointed out to Mihkel that it was unpublishable. He announced that he’d already published the Finnish and German versions. I said if he paid all my expenses I’d travel round the country re-doing the book for him. In English instead of Estglish. He said yes. I soon discovered: that Estonian is one of the world’s more difficult languages (unlike Russian and Sanskrit, it’s in a different language group to English); that you need to take a comb when you visit the swamps to comb out the constant invasions of elk fly; that wherever there was a spare 700 year old building, the Estonians would put in a bar; that the chocolate is delicious, except the cheapest kind which tastes like pure pig fat; that winter comes early but the longest day of the year, St John’s Eve, is the day all the traditions come together at once; that Russians are very sexy and Estonians very resilient; and that whenever Estonians spoke English, and only then, they smiled.

I was there when the Kroon (abbreviated EEK) came in. The inflationary rouble disappeared, crisp new kroons appeared, the economy started to look up. It was a basket case country, but the least baskety of all the former Soviet lands. And there I was, re-writing, touring manor houses, ruins, universities, beaches, army bases, not quite succeeding with my abominable Estonian (Mina ei räägin eesti keelt! Vabandage!).

The book sold out. I did a new draft after I’d arrived back home, based on information posted to me by Mihkel. The Foreign Minister became President. Peeter moved to the Education Ministry. I put some Estonian Australians to sleep with my extensive slideshow. And I haven’t been back.

It’s strange being an expert on a country hardly anyone goes to where they speak an impossible language and harbour fabulous mediaeval towns of a hanseatic nature. I often think about the place – some wonderful moments, some weird ones – must tell the story of my mugging some time, for example – and I can’t imagine that it’s changed much, though I know it’s now the bachelor party/brothel of every second pommy bloke, and produces decathletes and cycling stars. I don’t feel I ever fully penetrated the place. But I’m not sure that I didn’t penetrate the place either. Nor that it didn’t penetrate me. Knowing a country is an amorphous impossible undertaking, for inhabitants as well as visitors. My outsider eyes could see things the locals couldn’t. And theirs could see me right back.

Of which more, soon enough.

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