How Expressions are Created
In mid-November, the Estonian television news magazine, Reporter, asked questions of Tallinn City Councilman, Centre Party member, and Lasnamäe Mechanics’ School Director, Vladmir Belõi. To each question, Mr. Belõi attempted to respond “No comment.” Except that Mr. Belõi’s Estonian leaves something to be desired. The correct Estonian phrase is “ei kommenteeri,” but Belõi answered, “ei kommentaari.”
It may seem a small enough error to the rest of us, but to the Estonians it was significant enough to make the phrase part of the vernacular. “Ei kommentaari” entered the vocabulary almost immediately and was soon the chic phrase to use both at work and with friends. “What did you think of the presentation?” “Ei kommentaari.” “How does the blood sausage taste?” “Ei kommentaari.”
“No comment” has come to mean “Russians can’t learn Estonian,” which isn’t entirely fair, but is nonetheless funny.
Latvian Highway: You call this progress?
There’s a well-known Russian anecdote about a police officer with a wife and new baby. The young officer can’t make ends meet on his paltry government salary, and he explains his worries to his chief. The chief relents, ordering his secretary to give the officer “a 30 kilometer-per-hour speed limit sign for one month only.”
To readers who have not personally dealt with Baltic policemen, some of them will readily take bribes. The joke’s intended audience would understand that the policeman would use the 30 kph sign to issue fines which he would personally pocket. A practice which many suspect is still going on in Latvia.
An entire summer of Latvian road construction was recently followed by the placement of 70 kph signs on the new roads? Whatever explanation the state wishes to provide—indeed, there is a bump—most aren’t buying it. Local drivers are convinced it is simply another way for the Latvian police to fill their pockets.
A spirit not God
16 percent of Estonians believe in God says a Eurobarometer poll, giving Estonia the smallest percentage of believers in Europe. The Czechs and Swedes follow with, 19 and 23 percent respectively. (The European average is 52 percent).
Perhaps simply to be difficult or to stump the pollsters, 54 percent of Estonians claimed to believe in “some sort of spirit or life force”—and this is the highest percentage in Europe to believe so. (Europe’s average is 27 percent).
Hansabank’s cardless Christmas
Hooray for Hansabanka Latvia
While once an anomaly, corporate Christmas cards in the Baltic are close to the status of spam. And taking part in this new Baltic tradition isn’t cheap. Add postage to a company’s design (many feel compelled to have a card which sports the corporate logo), add printing costs, and companies soon have an expense not coverable from petty cash.
This Christmas, in lieu of sending Christmas cards, Hansabanka Latvia decided to give to charity—the charity of the would-be card-recipient’s choice. Hansabanka customers were asked via email to choose from one of three charities (the mentally retarded, the elderly, or a child-designed playground fund), and one lat was donated to that charity. In total, Hansabanka will donate 20,000 LVL (approximately 29,000 €) to the charities.
Charity isn’t commonplace yet in the Baltic region, so one deep bow to Hansabanka for leading the way. In fact, we admire them so much for this effort, we shall not include their holiday message, wishing us a “Lightsome and warm Christmas,” in this issue’s Baltish.
Well done, Hansabanka. May others follow your good example.
Ministry of Defense likes birds, too
“Believe me, defense ministry people also go hiking and listening to birds sing,” said Madis Mikko, spokesman for the Estonian Ministry of Defense. In December, the ministry came under for fire when it announced there would be two to three NATO flights per week under a 500-meter altitude. Estonian environmental activists worried that the flights would disturb nesting birds.
This year is City Paper’s 15th birthday
“...it’s a little hard to imagine how, sitting at one of Tallinn’s fine Soviet diners drinking dirty water and eating radioactive margarine from the Ukraine, one can criticize McDonald’s as tacky and unhealthy with a completely straight face.” –Mihkel Tarm in 1992, examining the controversy over the speculation that McDonald’s might one day open a restaurant in Tallinn (McDonald’s finally did open in 1995).
Mondo recommends: Reflectors
They may not look fashionable, but they’ll save your life. Every Baltic winter, drivers mow down a good number of pedestrians without them (about 50 in Estonia alone). Without a reflector, a driver can see you at about 30 meters; add a reflector, you’re visible at 130. And given that even some middle-aged Baltic citizens drive like pubescent American teenaged boys with raging hormones, an unfashionable piece of plastic dangling from your coat is a small price to stay alive.
Taken for a ride
Fighting the good fight in Riga
Taxi drivers have always driven on the edge of the law in Latvia—and not just by flouting traffic law. In the Soviet era, if you wanted to buy vodka at night or change dollars by day, a cabbie was the man. As capitalism took off, they became adept at sniffing out working girls and other pleasurable commodities.
Things are a lot more regulated these days in Latvia, on all fronts. But while a lot of drivers are content to do their job with a reasonable degree of honesty, there are some rogue elements on the roads.
As anywhere, speaking a foreign language can arouse some drivers’ xenophobia and greed. Recently, your correspondent hailed a cab on a street in central Riga on a Sunday night with some foreign friends. As we sat chatting in English, the meter spun disturbingly fast, racking up two lats for a distance of 200 meters—a fare suitable for two full kilometers. Telling the driver in Latvian to stop the cab produced a rude Russian response, so I increased the volume until he understood. We bailed out of the vehicle, followed by the furious driver demanding payment. More words were exchanged before his fist collided with my face. Feeling more shock than pain, we didn’t fight back but quickly went on our merry way—on foot.
This is not an isolated incident. A German guest was charged an outrageous amount to go a few blocks, and was then given change in Lithuanian litas. Another driver had the temerity to ask my Canadian friend to pay ten lats for an even shorter trip. When the guest came inside my apartment to ask me if I could break a twenty because the driver “had no change” (OK, you’ll hear from taxi drivers everywhere), I went outside to set this thief-on-wheels straight. He didn’t take the correct fare that I offered but instead chose to pursue us into the stairwell, where he stood outside my door and threatened not to leave until we paid what he originally wanted plus compensation for the fact the meter was still running. He was as stupid as he was greedy—behaving like a goon on someone’s private property is verging on a criminal offence, and a threat to call the cops saw him depart, sans money.
All of which makes getting around town a bit of a lottery. Then again, maybe it’s better that these guys only drive cabs instead of getting into bootlegging, pimping or currency trading.
Baltish Goes Global
For fans of Baltish, you can’t go wrong buying Doug Lansky’s book Signspotting. Mr. Lansky, an editor of the in-flight magazine Scanorama, has traveled the globe collecting abuses of the English language. See his book cover for three fine examples. Signspotting is published by Lonely Planet and available at good bookstores outside the Baltic region.
“Ambience felt Estonian”
Vague is the word, Nick.
In the October 24th, The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten reviewed the Manhattan restaurant, Bruno Jamais, with the following words:
The band played “Love Train,” and a man who looked a bit like Dennis Farina, in a black T-shirt tucked into pleated linen pants, took a henna-haired companion for a whirl. The ambience felt vaguely Estonian, with a little Southampton thrown in.
Since he did not explain himself, there is no telling what he meant by “vaguely Estonian.” But Paumgarten is no fool, and City Paper suspects the United States is on the brink of being overtaken by a wave of all things Estonian, just as the US, led by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is currently celebrating all things Russian. But if Estonia becomes fashionable, does it have enough stuff to make a Met exhibition?
For Idle Cocktail Chatter
• Soldier’s pay in the Iraqi army: 340 USD per month
• Estonian policeman’s salary: 423 USD per month
• Latvian state policeman’s salary: 399 USD per month
• Latvian traffic policeman’s salary: 341 USD per month
• Number of Latvian policeman quitting work in 2005 due to low pay: 550
• Cost to keep a prisoner at EU-prison standards in Estonia: 1,208 USD per month
• Number of Patarei Prison inmates whose feces was pumped daily into the bay of Tallinn prior to installation of plumbing in 2001:
Constable Dogberry on the Job
The security firm Falck is possibly best known for the controversy surrounding it: it has been heavily criticized for its cradle-to-grave near-monopoly on subcontracted public services in the Baltic States (ambulance, security, parking, just to name a few). But it’s also fair to say Falck occasionally catches bad guys and makes Baltic cities safer.
One Falck activity the average citizen never sees, however, is Falck’s copious amount of press releases about the important work it’s doing. Say what you wish about Falck, but you can’t say they don’t have a sense of humor. Here are just a few gem press releases (the headlines are ours):
Drunks attack Keskerakond
Wednesday night, a Falck patrol in Tallinn detained two drunk men who made a disturbance on the street and tore off a K-Kohuke advertisement from a trash can.
A gang of boys acted out their indignation on the ticket controllers by hitting and spitting on the controllers’ van. The controllers announced to the hooligan boys that they would call the police who would document the offense. Frightened in the face of the police, the boys used their own jackets to wipe the bus clean of their spit and begged forgiveness.
Falck PR people audition as mystery- novel writers
This past Saturday, a bit before the heart of night, a Falck security patrol responded to an Annelinn casino alarm, where a male citizen who had had a bit to drink accused a gambling machine of stealing his money. One Alexandr argued that he had won the game but the machine had not recognized his winnings. The man’s protests continued until the man himself demanded the police be summoned. The situation was resolved peacefully and the male citizen left of his own accord.
Drive like a Maniac, Safely and Legally
Four-time rally World Champion Juha Kankkunen will train you drive fast and safe in Kuusamo, Finland. At the completion of his course, students sit in the co-pilot’s seat as Juha himself pilots a four-mile rally course at speeds over 100 kilometers per hour in his 300-horsepower Mitsubishi. Why should Latvians have all the fun? Visit
History of Pelmeni
You may never eat it again
To disclose the history of pelmeni might not have been the purpose of Philip Longworth’s book, Russia’s Empires, but it was certainly the high point for this fan of what has been called the “Russian ravioli.” Pelmeni, according to Longworth, predates proper meat preservation.
Fall was the season for slaughtering animals and pelmeni was the system for preserving the meat. According to Longworth, peasants would wrap bits of meat in dough and toss them out the window where they would freeze in a pile. Throughout the winter, peasants would gather them by the bucketful, boil and eat.
Bangkok on the Baltic
“The whorehouse starts the minute you get off the plane” is one expatriate’s description of Riga’s sex industry, and unfortunately he’s quite on the mark. The walkway leading up to customs at Riga Airport is splashed with ads for strip clubs, and a brief walk around Old Town would make you agree that you are in Bangkok on the Baltic.
Pedestrians are accosted numerous times by touts for adult entertainment venues. Tourist brochures are crammed with ads for massage parlors and escort agencies, while striptease joints have mushroomed. But a recently opened “erotic club” takes the cake for tastelessness. Its location couldn’t be more symbolic. It occupies premises where the city’s top Mercedes dealership used to be—so is this an indication of prestige values in Latvia today? It’s a neon-lit junk pile near the Râtslaukums (Town Hall Square), the centerpiece of rejuvenation plans for Old Riga—is lap-dancing part of the future vision for the city? It’s about fifty meters from the new headquarters of the Riga City Council, and there’s a girl pole-dancing in the window—do the decision makers even care?
While we aren’t prudes who want to tell adults how to spend their free time, or worse—drive the industry into the unregulated underground—there has to be a limit. There is a place for strip-clubs, and there are places where all members of the public should be able to walk about without feeling harassed. Old Riga belongs to everyone, including tourists who come to appreciate the architecture and culture instead of just cheap beer and breasts. Recently, following the cancer-like spread of casinos and slot-machine joints, the city ruled that gambling will be restricted to major hotels. “Adult entertainment” should be similarly controlled before it does irreparable harm to the city’s image and social fabric.
Let’s Study Estonian
The Russian publishing house Astrel has introduced a new conversation guide targeted at Russian tourists who wish to visit Estonia. While full of good intentions, the guide is riddled with errors. A spokesman for the publishing house says they did not think to doubt the credentials of the translator, as he presented himself dressed in an Estonian folk costume.
While to appreciate most of the mistakes requires a knowledge of the Estonian language, below are a few gems which (mis)translate well into English. The guide is currently for sale in Estonia.
Mitu mind on kokku? Tänan. How many I am together? Thank you.
Ma väga korrast ära olen. Me very out of order.
Olete tervis. You are health.
Mitu mind on? How many I am?
Kaua minu pilt on tegelik? How long my picture is actual?
Tagavara väljatulek Backup coming-out.
Hoiatage mind kui tuleb takso. Warn me when arrives cab.
Most apartment doors in the former Soviet Union opened inward, or so our survey shows. Modern fire code requires doors open outward: so you can break out of your apartment, if need be.
There are two theories as to why doors opened inward. Some say they were built that way at the behest of the KGB: so they could be kicked in. Some—including Swedish lore—say that doors opening inward signify that the visitor is welcome. Perhaps both were true: the KGB was welcome to kick in the door anytime they pleased?
We’re not yet certain whether all Soviet-era apartment doors actually opened inward, but you might look at yours. And let us know if it doesn’t.
Refugees lead the way?
Any non-EU citizen who’s applied for a living permit in Estonia knows just how welcome he is made to feel: not very. Could things be improving with refugees leading the way?
According to language of new legislation before the Estonian parliament, asylum seekers will have equal social guarantees to those of Estonia’s permanent residents. Asylum-seekers and people under temporary protection will have greater rights to state benefits, family support, labor market services, and unemployment benefits. This all, of course, is based on EU directives.
Estonia’s 1997 refugee law, now awaiting parliamentary annulment, offers the above benefits only to people who have received the status of a refugee. In eight years, only two asylum seekers from Afghanistan and two from Algeria have received refugee status. There have been approximately 100 applicants.
World Track & Field Championship: Baltic results
Hooray for the Baltic states, at least two of them, who made a big showing at the World Track
and Field Championships last month in Helsinki.
Andrus Värnik —gold medal, javelin throw (87,17 m)
Gerd Kanter —silver medal, discus throw (68,57 m)
Virgilijus Alekna —gold medal, discus throw (70,17 m)
Latvia v. Russia
Anytime a Baltic national football team plays Russia, it is cause for controversy on and off the field. This August’s match in Riga was clouded by allegations of game-fixing—The Latvian national team’s captain, Vitalijs Astafjevs, claimed his team was offered “impressive” bribes to throw the World Cup qualifying match. Later, Mr. Astafjevs apologized and said his remarks had been mistranslated.
While many fans felt Latvia should have won the match, the actual score was 1:1. And a few Russian fans added to the score by posing for pictures.
In Memoriam: Café Anglais
In 1940, Tallinn’s first Café Anglais on the Old Town Hall Square met its end with the Soviet invasion. This September, 65 years later, Tallinn’s second Café Anglais, owned and operated by Ann Sommerfeldt, will meet a similar fate.
This time, Café Anglais’ demise will not be at the hands of the Soviets, but rather the Tallinn Õpetajate Maja (Teachers’ House), which holds the lease on rooms in the building. The Teachers’ House wishes to obtain the rooms for other uses (seminars, etc.) and is well within its legal right to not renew the café’s lease. But still, long-time customers lament its passing. Café Anglais has been a pioneer of café culture in Tallinn and has set the standard for others to follow. It has always been an oasis of civilization, a welcoming home away from home for expatriates and Estonians alike. City Paper will mourn the loss.
Some stalwart supporters, however, hold hope that the café’s lease might be renewed. It is doubtful a public outcry would prolong the café’s life, but City Paper will gladly pass on your letters
(email@example.com). Grassroots efforts are not common in Estonia, but neither were good cafés, until Café Anglais opened its doors.
The Politics of Writing
“Sounds quite frightening—give us your culture and we will give you all the cultures of Europe.” So wrote Helena Kesonen, an Estonian high school student, in her 2005 essay “Small Countries and the EU.” She argued that the European Union seeks to exchange the individual cultures of small countries for multiculturalism and how devastating multiculturalism can be for the identities of those countries and their people.
Kesonen’s essay won first place in an annual English-language essay competition, organized by NORA English Language Bookshop and Hugo Treffner Gymnasium (both located in Tartu). The competition aims to “encourage essay writing” among 11th and 12th grade Estonians. The topic for the 2006 competition is “NATO and Europe: are they inseparable?” The English might not be perfect, but it is undoubtedly interesting to learn the views of young Estonians on European politics. Winning essays can be read at
and are alternated every eight weeks.
Baltic Guinness World Records
• Longest kiiking swing shaft—men
Kiiking is a sport in Baltic and Scandinavian countries where the aim is to complete a 360 degree revolution on a swing. The record being based on the length of the shafts for the swing, the longer the better.
• Longest kiiking swing shaft—women
The longest shaft used to successfully complete a 360° rotation in kiiking by a woman is 5.93 m (19 ft 5 in) by Kätlin Kink (Estonia) at Palmse, Estonia, on 19 July 2003
• Fastest Wife Carrying
The fastest time to complete the 235m (771ft) obstacle course of the World Wife-Carrying Championships, held annually in Sonkajärvi, Finland (first held 1992) is 55.5sec by Margo Uusorg and Birgit Ulricht of Läänernaa, Estonia on July 1, 2000.
• Largest matchstick
The largest matchstick measured 6.235 m (20 ft 5 in) long with a cross section of 27.5 cm (10.8 in). It was made by Estonian Match Ltd and unveiled and struck at the Ugala Theatre, Viljandi, Estonia on 27 November 2004.
• 100x1km relay (walking)
A relay of 100x1km was walked by 100 individuals in 8 hours 45 min 40.8 sec at Särevere stadium, Järvamaa, Estonia on 2 May 1998.
• Largest potato salad
The largest serving of potato salad was made by Spilva Ltd, Latvia and weighed 3.27
tonns (7,224.5 lb) and was exhibited at the International Exhibition Center
of the Riga Technical University, Riga, Latvia on 1 September 2002.
• Largest shortage of men
The country with the largest recorded shortage of males is Latvia, where 53.97% of the population is female and 46.03% is male in 2002.
• Greatest weight lifted by human beard
The greatest weight lifted with a human beard is 62.05 kg (136 lb 12 oz) when Antanas Kontrimas lifted a girl 10 cm (3.93 in) off the ground during ITV’s Guinness World Records: 50 Years, 50 Records at the London Television Studios, London, UK on 11 September 2004.
• Largest TV sculpture
Gintaras Karosas created a sculpture entitled “LNK Infotree” using 2,903 individual television sets, spanning 3,135 sq
meters (33,744.85 sq ft) at the Open Air Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania.
A Haircut in the Anus
“Anus” means nothing in Lithuanian, and so we were surprised to find this ladies’ hairdresser located in Vilnius. It might be worth getting your haircut there just so you can tell friends, “I spent the afternoon having my hair done in the Anus.”
From the Department of Major Mistakes
The Mini-Europe themepark in Brussels receives around 300,000 visitors per year who see symbols from 350 European cities. Since the ten new EU members’ symbols have not yet arrived, the park itself created placeholders for them—the park’s mascot, a meter-high paper turtle, decorated with national symbols from the ten new countries.
Latvia’s turtle was decorated with a gray-brown soldier’s trenchcoat and a Budyonovka military hat featuring the red Soviet star. A tourist could push a button and hear the words to the hymn “God Bless Latvia.”
Thierry Meeùs, the park’s director, says it’s his mistake. But some fault, Meeùs says, must lie with Latvian officials, who let his requests for assistance go unanswered. When the officials ignored his request, the park director attempted to manage on his own and found the idea about heroes of the red army on the internet—from an already existing monument in the city of Riga. Meeùs says he was never out to offend anyone. The paper turtle will be replaced with a replica of Riga’s Freedom Monument.
Vilnius’ new exhibit will feature a replica of a Vilnius University building.
Tallinn’s turtle-replacement features a replica of the city wall and Fat Margaret’s tower. It is said Mayor Tõnis Palts corrected the spelling of TALLIN on the exhibit’s nameplate by adding an extra “N” with his own pencil.
‘Tis the (pickpocket) season
Watch your purses, please. Gangs of pickpockets and thieves prowl the Baltic old towns, and despite efforts of local police, they can’t be everywhere at once. One fun alternative to actually worrying about your purse is to rent a bodyguard from Falck. This service begins at around 17 € per hour
www.falck.lt) and can add spice to an otherwise average day.
The Pope of Vabaduse Väljak
“Spare a few kroons,” he shouted to a passerby. His beard was long and unkempt, and it made me think of Rasputin. “Beautiful weather, isn’t it?” he addressed me. I agreed that it was.
“I’m a descendent of the czars,” he said, and he took a seat next to me on the flower boxes in Vabaduse Väljak.
I nodded. Who was I to say he’s not?
“Could you give me twenty kroons?” he asked. “I got thrown out of my apartment and don’t have anywhere to live.”
I don’t like lying to beggars, and I told him I wouldn’t give him money.
“You’re a foreigner,” he noticed. “Where is home?”
I told him.
“I own that building,” he said, pointing at the house which holds the Kuku Club. “I own a bunch of others in Old Town, too.”
“Why don’t you live there?” I asked.
“Spare a few kroons?” he asked a young woman walking by. She shook her head, didn’t speak.
“Why don’t you live there?” I repeated, gesturing toward the house.
“Don’t want to,” he said. “Watch this.”
“Do you speak Estonian?” he asked a middle-aged woman.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Then how about a few kroons?”
She smiled and kept moving.
“Estonians,” he turned to me, “are so proud that they’ll always admit to being Estonian.”
“Young lady,” he barked, “Do you speak Estonian?”
“I do,” she smiled. But she wasn’t willing to give him any money.
“Madam,” he shouted, “Do you speak Estonian?”
The woman ignored him.
“Sir!” he stood to address a businessman, “Do you speak Estonian?”
The man shook his head and walked away.
“Strange,” he said, turning to me. “Strange how so few people in this country speak Estonian.”
Cat in the Hat—По Русски!
The American Chamber of Commerce in Estonia recently presented a dual-language version of Dr. Seuss’s American classic, The Cat in the Hat, to children in the Estonian city of Narva.
The chamber presented the book, because it believes there is too little literature which introduces the American language and culture to Russian-speaking children. The chamber will distribute 2,000 books to schools and libraries in Estonia.
The Russian version of The Cat in the Hat, translated by Irina Rozina, is said to preserve the English version’s rhyme-scheme. No easy task, certainly, and our hat is off to Ms. Rozina.
CNN on the job
During CNN’s coverage of US President George Bush’s visit to the Baltic region, the network angered Lithuanians by referring to President Adamkus as “Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas.”
Shortly following, Estonians were treated to President Arnold Rüütel’s speech—broadcast live without translation. Estonians around the world were surprised to hear their native tongue on CNN, even if it was in the form of President Rüütel’s old-school monotone delivery. Their surprise soon changed to bemusement when superscript labeled President Rüütel as “Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.”
Shortly thereafter, CNN’s press conference transmission was interrupted, replaced with an in-depth and moving documentary on Mariah Carey’s recent mental breakdown.
Contributed by Jerry Wirth in Riga
Summer driving: Bribing the Traffic Police
There’s an art to the bribe and often a protocol. Those who violate it risk stiff fines or, possibly, even jail. It was once common practice to bribe police officers in every Baltic country, and some claim it still is. But should you be stopped while driving in the region, make your own decision about whether to try it—knowledge of the local language or Russian is essential—but please don’t hold us accountable.
Estonian police have been called “uncreative,” since they are unlikely to take any bribe from you. What is more, the Estonian government has created a system where officers are forbidden from accepting payment of fines—you must pay at a bank or via a bank transfer. And bank tellers are rarely interested in your guilt or innocence and do not accept bribes.
Estonian officers do have the authority to determine the fine within a given set of parameters, and they have been known to show mercy to some people on some occasions. Still, the vast majority of people we know report no mercy shown in the last several years. So if you don’t want to pay, don’t break the traffic laws.
Saulkrasti is Latvia’s longest village (something like 14 kilometers), and fining speeders used to be a major industry there. And it was known you could put a two-Lat coin on the dash, take your license and walk away. Some say this is still the case, but that the price is now in the range of five to ten Lats. Cops have to make a living, too.
If you want to bribe an officer in Latvia, it’s highly recommended you ask a local to explain the nuances of the transaction. But if you’re stubborn or just itching to risk a trip to the slammer, there is this classic Russian tactic you can use: Shove a hundred dollar bill in the officer’s pocket, exclaim in a rather annoyed fashion “Бери Собака” (pronounced “bear-ree sobaka,” literally meaning Take the dog), and drive off spraying gravel behind you.
Because Lithuania’s road police are consistently at the top of Transparency International’s list of corrupt institutions, the price of a bribe is climbing.
In Lithuania, if you’re caught speeding, you must pay the fine immediately. But here’s the catch: you may not pay the officer, rather you must pay at the nearest police station. This means a lot of your time spent driving to the station and filling out reams of paperwork, and so the road police are often willing to “reach an agreement” with you.
If you want to try it, ask the officer if an agreement can be reached (ar galima susitart, literally “could we find an arrangement”). We’re told these “arrangements” go for between 100 and 300 Litas (around 30 to 90 euros, but you pay in local currency), depending on your speed. Getting out of a parking ticket is closer to 20 Litas (around 6 euros) we’re told. It is said that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get off on drunk driving charges. What used to be a standard 100 USD bribe, we’re told, is now in the range of several thousand Litas (divide by 3.45 to get euros).
City Paper, known for “telling it like it is” in the region, obviously is unable to verify the above information through official channels. And we cannot guarantee that your bribing experience will match those we describe. We present the information because it is interesting, and we hope it brings additional exposure to bring about reform.
Russian Bribing Anecdotes
You’re not the dog
A young officer flags down a large, speeding Mercedes Benz. The car pulls up alongside the officer and the smoked window comes down on the driver’s side. The driver shoves a hundred dollar bill in the policeman’s pocket, says “take the dog,” and drives off. The young policeman retreats to his patrol car and explains the situation to his more senior partner.
“They put this money in my pocket and told me to take the dog. They showed me no respect at all.”
“I’m the dog,” says the senior officer, reaching into his partner’s pocket and removing the cash. “You’re the puppy.”
On my money?
A police officer stops a speeding Mercedes on a regular basis, and each time the window is lowered and the driver puts one hundred dollars in the officer’s pocket. This happens for several weeks straight. One day, the Mercedes doesn’t appear. A second day passes and the Mercedes is not to be seen. The officer begins to worry. The third day: no Mercedes.
On the fourth day the Mercedes reappears, the officer stops it, and receives his hundred dollars.
“Where the hell were you?” the officer asks. “I was worried sick.”
“I was vacationing in France,” says the driver.
“What?” exclaims the officer, “On my money?!”
Give him a 30
A young police officer’s wife has just given birth to his third child. The officer is having trouble living on his salary and approaches his boss on the subject. “It’s getting tough to buy groceries,” says the young officer. “I need your help.”
The officer’s boss ponders the question for a moment. “Okay,” he shouts to his secretary. “Let him have a 30 kilometers per hour speed-limit sign.”
Russian military blouses are designed with two deep breast pockets, allegedly constructed to hold one loaf of bread each. In modern times, these pockets are ideal for holding booty given to border officers.
“What’s that you’ve got?” asked a border official on a recent crossing. “Is that beer?”
“No,” we informed the young man, “it’s an energy drink.”
“Think I could get a few of those?”
We were certain he could and handed him three, which quickly disappeared into the deep pockets of his blouse.
Baltic or Baltic(s)
Anyone who checks a dictionary will find something close to the following:But there are those, including City Paper, who persist with “Baltics.” The Economist also uses “Baltics.” One reader, Estonian Margus Klaar, suggests that everyone is wrong. Mr. Klaar suggested convening a jury of “two highly qualified grammar professors from distinguished universities who have opposing points of view, while at the same time being of the same opinion. Furthermore, they should have access to copious amounts of alcohol.”
In the pure Baltic spirit of Mr. Klaar’s suggestion, we contacted some linguists and philologists, and here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
— “Baltic is an adjective. Look it up. Is there such thing as a plural adjective? Can you add an “s” to an adjective to make it plural? No, of course you can’t. The matter is settled.”
— “Just because The Economist uses it, doesn’t make it right. My god, those savages place punctuation outside the quote marks while at the same time advocating the use of American English in international forums. Now how’s that for a contradiction?”
— “It’s acceptable in the vernacular. Get over yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. If ‘ain’t’ is in the dictionary, we surely aren’t hurting anyone adding an ‘s’ to ‘Baltic.’”
Mr. Klaar, as far as we can determine, you are right. But this is a battle you’ve lost. As all the experts pointed out, languages change. Perhaps we should, too?
Time enough to fix the roads?
Estonia is to have the EU presidency in 2018 with Great Britain and Bulgaria as partners. According to the EU constitution, presidencies will be run in groups of three, with each group containing a large and a small member state and at least one new member state. Estonia could have received the presidency in 2008, but the Estonian government said the country could not be ready on such short notice.
City Paper hopes the Estonian government will treat this as an excuse to repair her embarrassingly bad roads.
Finns wigging out?
Judging by stores in Tallinn’s port shopping center one might conclude every Finn owns a track suit and at least one wig. Some say the high prices at this shopping center (0.4 € to use the toilet!) make it a place to avoid.
City Paper says it is a fascinating train wreck of cultures and urges you to visit. Bring out the inner anthropologist in yourself. Observe. Be dazzled by the Russian shopkeepers who speak fluent Finnish and call out to you as you pass. Study Finns as they get haircuts at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning. Even art teachers will be amazed by the pantone spectrum of wigs on offer. And should you decide to get married in that last-minute rush to your ferry, there’s a bridal shop right on the corner.
Vikerkaar stirs the pot
City Paper writer Vello Vikerkaar recently fired a broadside at the Estonian Eurovision selection broadcast. Vikerkaar found very little redeeming about it, calling the program a “teen conspiracy” and “amateur talent contest.” The Estonian daily,
Eesti Päevaleht, translated excerpts from the article, and soon Estonians were trading insults on the Päevaleht website. Estonian parliament members made note of Vikerkaar’s article and, for a moment, he was the talk of the town. No one was able to remain neutral.
Read the entire article at www.balticsworldwide.com
(Road to Eurovision page) or, if you read Estonian, see the Päevaleht translated excerpts at
Moonshiners : 10,000, Government : 0
In late 2004, Estonian tax and customs board discovered a hose in the Narva water reservoir through which several tons of spirits were illegally pumped from Russia to Estonia. The hose was more than a kilometer long and ran under the reservoir’s ice. The moonshiners pumped spirits several times daily into an Opel car which was rebuilt into a spirits cistern to accommodate more than a ton of spirits.
A customs spokesman said a ton of illegally imported spirits equates to 140,000 EEK (almost 10,000 €) in lost excise taxes for the state.
Veteran Baltic travelers will recall the ubiquitous Soviet aluminum flatware in the early 1990s. Remember spearing a pea only to have your fork bend in two? Bill Bryson, in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, reminds us that aluminum was once very much in vogue. It wasn’t discovered until the 19th century and was then considered rare and precious. The United States Congress seriously considered an aluminum foil-topped Washington Monument, and the French royal family once discarded the state silver and replaced it with aluminum. “The fashion was cutting edge even if the knives weren’t,” writes Bryson.
Decoding Diplomatic Plates
In some countries it’s wise to avoid cars with diplomatic plates as they drive like maniacs and aren’t accountable for accidents under local law. It certainly used to be that way in the Baltic states, but the diplomatic communities have tamed their local drivers and generally set good examples.
How to know who’s run you over:
CD = Corps Diplomatique
No, it doesn’t stand for “Crazy Driver.” This is the most commonly observed plate in the Baltic states. It’s a diplomat’s car, possibly a first or second secretary. Of course it might be a spy’s car, too. Every embassy is said to have one.
CMD = Chef Mission Diplomatique
Chef doesn’t mean cook in French, but boss. If you’re cut off or run down by one of these, it’s likely the ambassador’s driver who has done you in. This plate is only to be found in Estonia and Lithuania, as Latvia issues only CD plates.
AT = Administratif Technique
This isn’t a diplomat’s car but an administrative or technical worker’s car. Possibly the guy who fixes the computers or services James Bond’s laser watch.
The language of diplomacy
These abbreviations are used in many countries and are from the French, who give us the language of diplomacy. In the United States, a different system of marking cars is used, with letter codes marking the embassy-origin of the vehicle. One story—perhaps apocryphal—goes that during the Reagan administration, special assistant to the president, Dana Rohrabacher (now a California congressman), got the state department to use FC to designate Soviet diplomatic cars in the US. Purportedly, FC stood for F**k Communism, which is decidedly not the international language of diplomacy.
Unsung Heroes of the Hunt
The job was originally done by peasants, the nobleman dispatching them into the forest to drive game to stationary hunters. The modern marketing wizards in Tallinn’s Scottish Club have found a way to get guests to pay the club to work as drivers. Drivers’ work is billed as fun for women and children. Hunters position themselves near forest roads which the game must cross, imbibe from crystal tumblers and sample meats from silver trays. Drivers slog through marshland calling out at regular intervals to roust game and keep from getting lost—not to mention shot.
While the popular image of the driven hunt is of noblemen exploiting peasants, author Richard Almond (Medieval Hunting, Sutton Press, 2003) claims this is not the case. His ten-year examination of tapestries and other depictions of the hunt, reveals that women and peasants often played an active, even enthusiastic role in the hunt. This writer’s limited experience confirms Almond’s research: all enjoyed themselves.
Estonians find it curious that David Copperfield, the famous magician, would put a small city like Tallinn on his world tour. Some believe he might be looking for a girlfriend (the press reports that he has or has had an Estonian girlfriend). Others are connecting Copperfield’s visit to former Defense Minister Margus Hanson’s missing briefcase—stolen from the minister’s house while he slept. (The minister is now under criminal investigation for improper care of state secrets.) Estonians are suggesting that Copperfield is coming to Tallinn to find the missing briefcase.
The Truth Well-told?
Baltic media regularly comment on the growing number of British stag parties held in the Baltic capitals. One website has particularly rankled resident British, as some believe it does a disservice to the image of Great Britain. The image of Great Britain notwithstanding, it is worth noting that this website,
www.tallinnpissup.com, has its share of fun with the former British colonies:
“Arrive in style in a new white limo, which can squeeze in 10 people (or 8 Americans)…”
Mother and Child Reunion
When a moose and her calf wandered into the Lithuanian city of
Siauliai and became separated in traffic, taxi drivers, not usually known as compassionate people, located the separated mother and child. Using their radios, they became impromptu drovers, reunited the mother and child, and led them out of town under the protection of a thirty-taxi escort.
The Ultimate Souvenir from Lithuania
Some tourists buy sweaters. Others wooden spoons or amber. Occasionally, one tries to buy a Kalashnikov. While illegal to purchase and export, the workhorse Avtomat Kalashnikova, popularly known as the AK-47, is a fine tool to repel burglars or rid the barn of stray cats.
It takes a 7.62 x 39 millimeter M1943 cartridge and fires 600 rounds per minute. Inside the 415-millimeter barrel are four right-hand grooves allowing one turn every 235 millimeters for a muzzle velocity of 715 meters per second. The rear sight adjusts with a slide and ramp to allow ranges up to 800 meters. The battle sight is good up to 200 meters. The Chinese models have a double-strut folding metal butt-stock. All may be accessorized with a 6 x 4-pattern bayonet.
It’s said Comrade Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov invented the weapon while in the hospital recovering from a war wound. He wanted a weapon that wouldn’t jam. It’s said he never made a cent from inventing the world’s most popular assault rifle. One has to wonder if he had regrets. Like Oppenheimer. Like Nobel. At last report, Mr. Kalashnikov is still alive, living in Lithuania. But he doesn’t receive visitors, so please don’t try to find him.
In 1995, Arvo Veski of the Estonian Border Guard was stationed on Ruhnu, an 11.5 square-kilometer island located 40 kilometers from the Latvian mainland. “Ruhnu is a strategically critical Estonian island,” jokes Veski. “Any invasion by Latvia would come through here.”
One summer day, Veski was watching the sea. “I saw an object moving closer to us but nothing registered on the radar.” Veski dispatched a boat to investigate. The object turned out to be a raft built out of 2,000 plastic juice jugs, 500 tied to each corner of the raft. It was manned by three Latvian boys, aged 15 to 20, self-proclaimed extreme sport fanatics who hoped to be lucky enough to make Ruhnu Island. “The raft couldn’t be steered well and could have floated into the shipping lanes,” says Veski. “They were lucky.”
Five years later, Veski was still at his post on Ruhnu Island and spotted another strange object on the horizon. He dispatched the boat and rescued the original three Latvian boys plus two new crewmembers—this time on a raft built atop thousands of inflated Lifestyles condoms. The boys had set out on an anniversary voyage to Ruhnu, this time with two local celebrities: a blind masseur and a one-armed mountaineer. The five had approached Lifestyles, which donated the condoms—a thicker, more seaworthy variety marketed to homosexuals—to become the crew’s official sponsor.
Tursa the Great
Central Europe’s most famous hunting guide, known as Tursa, had not only an intimate knowledge of game, forest, and field, but an uncanny knack of making sure his clients never missed.
Tursa, still hunting in his sixties, was the preferred guide of communist party bosses in Lithuania. He is legendary for his ability to watch both an animal and a General Secretary of the Communist Party at the same time, squeezing his trigger at precisely the same moment as the party boss.
Please Don’t Feed the Bear
In July, a drunken man fell asleep in the Tallinn zoo, somehow going unnoticed by zoo staff and security. Awakening around one in the morning, the man decided Franz the Polar Bear looked hungry.
The man fed Franz cookies, and Franz held both the man’s hand and the cookies gently in his mouth. When Franz failed to release the man’s hand, the drunk beat Franz over the head with a vodka bottle.
Perhaps understandably, Franz decided to keep the man’s hand. The man underwent an operation, but is now reported to be permanently left-handed.
No Lifeguard on Duty
Shortly after Estonian independence, a joint military exercise was organized between American Navy SEAL divers and Baltic divers, some of whom had served as divers in the Soviet Union’s elite Spetznats units. The Americans demonstrated how their divers prepared for a mission.
“When every condition on this checklist is fulfilled, the US Navy SEAL hits the water,” said an American colonel, explaining SEAL safety procedures to Baltic divers. “Now, how was it with the Soviets?”
“Very similar,” replied a former Spetznats diver. “In fact, we had the very same checklist, and when any one of the conditions on the checklist was fulfilled, we hit the water.”
Islander Bags Swimming Hog
Estonia’s tiny Ruhnu Island is home to deer, fox, and exactly 60 people. No other animals, save for livestock and dogs, populate this 11.5 square-kilometer island.
In 1999, the islanders discovered strange tracks surrounding areas of the forest floor where the vegetation had been destroyed. Crops in a nearby farmer’s field had also been turned up. The coast guard, which mans a post on the island, was called in to consult. Hunters were summoned and culprit was diagnosed as a wild hog.
How the animal made it to the island is still a mystery. Wild hogs have never lived on the island, which is closer to the Latvian mainland than it is to the Estonian—50 and 80 kilometers, respectively. The sea had not iced in decades, which eliminated the possibility of the animal covering the distance on ice. The only remaining possibility is that the hog swam the 50 kilometers. Skeptics exist, but most islanders do not doubt it.
Once the animal’s presence was discovered, islanders began hunting it, and it became a matter of honor. Repeatedly, the hog proved too clever for the local hunters—on two occasions, hunters missed the pig and killed village dogs instead. This was seen as ineptitude by an aspiring hunter named Sulev, an island teenager who had worked as a beater on several of the hunts. He felt the hunts were turning into nothing more than a waste of good dogs. The older hunters arrogantly dismissed the young man’s suggestions.
Sulev studied in his spare time to pass the state hunting exam. Three years passed, and most of the islanders gave up the hunt. Not Sulev. He lashed together a tower at the edge of his father’s field and waited out the pig. Last November, with a single, clean shot from the tower, he dropped the 250-kilo, 7 year-old wild boar.
Tipping in the Baltic
“Tip if you want, I won’t get any of it.” –Estonian waitress when asked if a service fee was included in the check
Service staff are paid a living wage in the Baltic States, and tipping, while often welcome, is not expected. If you are pleased with the service, you may tip. The amount is up to you. The American custom of 15 percent is usually considered too much. If you are paying with a credit or debit card, it’s better to leave the tip on the table in cash. Some companies which handle the electronic payments take 60% of the tip amount as a transaction fee. So if you do decide to tip, make sure you know who you’re tipping.
During the first Chechen War in the mid '90s, Russian General Boris Baturin claimed
a band of drop-dead Estonian blonds were fighting with the rebels, and that 20 had been
killed. His proof they were Estonian? "All the world's natural blonds come from the
Baltic states," he said.
Hundreds of tons of Lithuanias interim, post-Soviet currency, the talonas,
were ground up and made into toilette paper after being withdrawn from circulation
in 1993. The transitional currency was replaced by the litas, the present-day
Estonian Mait Lepik won a 1996 banana-eating contest by
wolfing down 10 bananas in three minutes. His secret was to not
peel, and just gulp the skins, stems and all.
The last pagan priest in Lithuania died only in the
1600s. Lithuania converted to Christianity in the 1300s, the
last nation in Europe to do so.
Lithuania was listed in the Guinness Book of Records
for producing the worlds largest petition. In 1990, Lithuanians
here and around the world gathered 5,218,520 signatures calling on Western
nations to recognized Lithuanian independence when Moscow still claimed
Into the 1700s, ruling German landlords had the Right of First Nights
over their serfsthat is, they had the right to sleep with newly wed
brides on their first night of marriage.
Among the many celebrities in the West who were from Lithuania or whose parents
were: Al Jolson, Charles Bronson, all Three Stooges, and Aaron Copland. Pope John Paul
II's mother was from Lithuania.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote large parts of his epic work on
Stalinist crimes, The Gulag Archipelago, in the southern Estonian
town of Otepää in the 1960s.
Latvia was included
in the 1999 Guinness Book of Records as having the
worlds highest road death accident rate per capita.
Lithuanias Chernobyl-type Ignalina nuclear power plant
consulted an astrologer in 1994 to predict any potential safety
Estonia is said to have one of the highest divorce rates
in the world, with nearly 80 percent of all marriages splitting
The late 1500s were so cold in Estonia that traders regularly walked across the
frozen Baltic Sea to Sweden. The weather, plus a comet in 1577, led to a popular belief
that the world was coming to an end.
The origin of the word Riga is disputed. Some say it came from the Old
Baltic word for curved, ringa, as in the curved bend of the river next to
which the city was founded.
The concept of inheritance didnt take firm hold in Lithuania until the 12th
century. Before then, property of the deceased was competed for in horse races.
Latvians are the most avid newspaper readers in the world, according to a recent
survey. Some 96 percent of Latvians read a paper daily; the European average is 61
In Lithuanian pagan-era mythology, the moon and the sun were
husband and wife. When the moon pursued an affair with the Morning Star, the furious sun
sliced the face of her husband, accounting for the crescent moon.
Estonia has more marshland per square kilometer than any
nation in Europe; bogs cover some 20 percent of the country.
After Lithuania won independence in 1920, there was talk of restoring the Medieval-era monarchy.
Some suggested bringing in a German noble to be crowned King. But the plan was considered
impractical and shelved.
Because of its many islands and winding coast, Estonia's coastline adds up to 3,794
kilometersfar longer than Latvia's and
In the 1800s, Latvian researchers compiled over 1.5 million national folk songs (dainas),
or one for every Latvian alive today. It's said to be the world's largest collection of
Per capita, Estonia has the highest percentage of mobile phone users in the
former Soviet bloc. Almost 300,000 Estonians have mobiles, or nearly 30 percent of the
In 1812, believing an invasion by Napoleon was imminent, ruling Russians ordered
that Riga's suburbs be burned to the ground in order to deny French troops shelter. But
the thrust of the French invasion was farther south.
Thanks to mass emigration early this century and especially because of the Soviet takeover
in 1944 which forced many Lithuanians to flee, there are now over three million people of Lithuanian
decent living outside the country. Some 800,000 Americans claim Lithuanian heritage.
German composer Richard Wagner lived in Riga from 1837-1838, where he managed the German
Opera and Drama Theater. He also composed his first opera in Riga, Rienzi. He
reportedly had to get out of town fast, with scores of debtors hot on his trial.
Inspired by the film Jurassic Park, in which dinosaurs are recreated from DNA
found in mosquitoes trapped in amber, the Baltic presidents in 1994 gave U.S. President
Clinton a large piece of amber with an insect imbedded in it.
After Sweden absorbed Latvia in 1621, Riga quickly became the largest city in its
empireeven larger than Stockholm.
The KGB once used the spire of Tallinn's Oleviste Church as a radio tower. They
stopped using the old city church as a communications tool only in 1991, after Estonia
In 1187, marauding Estonian Vikings sacked and burned Sigtuna, the No.1 Swedish
city at the time. It is a historical fact that Estonians are proud of and like to hark
back toespecially in the company of Swedes.
John F. Kennedy spent the summer studying in Riga in 1939 as part of a student
exchange program sponsored by the U.S. embassy.
The tradition of Christmas trees may have originated in the Baltics, say many
Baltic historians. Journals from Riga in the early 1500s mention the practice of local
merchants decorating fir trees on Christmas Eve, then setting the trees alight after a
festive meal. Chronicles from Estonia also describe how German knights in Tallinn would
carry a tree to the Town Hall Square, draping it with colored paper and fitting it with
candles. Only later, say many historians, did the knights introduce the trees to their
German homeland, from which the tradition spread to the rest of the world.
All three regional languages, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian, had no single
standardized form until the early half of this century. In each country, there were at
least two or three different dialects spoken. The High West Lithuanian dialect was
declared the official language in 1918, and the North Estonian dialect was declared
standard Estonian by 1914. In Latvia, the process of harmonizing the different dialects
went on into the 1920s; the Latvian in the Latgale region is still distinct from standard
Latvian. Estonians and Latvians also tried to purge their languages of German words, while
Lithuanians tried to rid their language of Polish words.
In antiquity this region was known as the Amber Coastso described by the
Greek poet Homer after the golden translucent resin found off Baltic shores. Virtually all
amber came from the Baltics and, via trading routes, arrived in Greece by 2000 B.C. It's
the only jewel mentioned in Homer's Odyssey: the cunning rascal came to my
fathers home with a golden necklace strung at intervals with amber beads. Some
Baltic amber has even been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs; treasure found with
King Tut included an amber necklace.
So thick were forests in this region 1000 years ago, it is said a squirrel could
hop from tree to tree from the shores of the Baltic to Moscow. About half of the area in
the Baltic states is still forested.
PAPER-The Baltic States