29 July 2007

With Brooke Burns in paradise!

I fell in love with Brooke's legs and her smile when she hosted the American prime time game show Dog Eat Dog in 2002 and 2003. Now she is here on Estonian television in North Shore, or as the Estonians have named it, Paradiis Havail (Hawaiian Paradise, I think). It's good to have Brooke back in my living room, even if her character's life is a little messed up.

Helsinki: Newsprint on my fingers

I hadn't had any "hard" newsprint on my fingers for a long while - no Reader, no Friday Sun-Times, no Sunday Tribune.

Yesterday morning, though, in Helsinki with a 10 euro note burning a hole in my pocket, I walked into to the city's train station and purchased: The Guardian (27.07.07), 40 pages, plus the weekend "g2" section, another 16 pages, each 32x47cm, a little smaller than the Tribune and the Helsinki Times (27.07-02.08.07), 24 pages, each 29x40cm, a little longer than the Sun-Times. I also picked up a free copy of Six Degrees, "Finland's English Magazine", 44 pages.

Like a kid unwrapping a present on Christmas morning - wide-eyed, grinning, and oblivious to everyone around me - I looked through half of the Helsinki Times as Tallink's M/S Star chugged away from Helsinki's Länsiterminaali. "Prime Minister's media policy under attack", "Number of vehicles grows even though car registrations are declining", "Sweden beats Finland in honesty test", and "Income disparities increase prostitution". I was outside on deck nine, overlooking the Star's stern, in the morning sun and cool sea breeze. I would have had a cup of coffee with me, too, but in order to get this prime seat, adequately sheltered from the wind even when the ship is at full throttle in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, I couldn't waste any time in the growing lines of Finns at bars and cafeterias.

Then yesterday afternoon, on an express train from Tallinn to Tapa that felt more like a horse and carriage ride over 100 kilometers of cobblestones, I looked through Six Degrees with the same grin and wide eyes. "Will Finland Take Racism Seriously?" "Television Is Dead?" and "Working It Out without Finnish". By the time I got to the "Out&See" section, my fingers were grey from the newsprint! By the way, according to "Traditions May Change but Sausages Remain", the Finns' favorite food is meatballs. And I guess mahi-mahi doesn't sound so bad compared to sauteed reindeer (poronkäristys), a Finnish speciality fried in oil and spiced with salt and pepper.

This morning, Sunday morning, at about 6.30, with faint smudges of newsprint on my fingers, I delved into The Guardian out on my balcony with a cup of Jacobs instant Espresso (imported from Berlin by yours truly). "Boy shot dead after bike chase is 10th young London victim in six months", "Widow of July 7 ringleader tells of miscarriage on day of bombings", and "Extra cash found for low-paid NHS staff".

I left Tallinn on Friday at 14.00 and got back on Saturday at 12.30. For $142, or about one-fifth of my monthly salary before taxes, I got the round-trip ticket on the Star (which is a big ship doing the Tallinn-Helsinki run in a civil two hours instead of the arduous three or four like the other big ships) and one night at the Sokos Presidentti Hotel in the heart of downtown. I went to Kiasma, Helsinki's museum of contemporary art (free after 17.00 on Fridays), to the men's and housewares departments at Sokos Department Store, to S-Market, a grocery store (it seems the S-Group owns all things Sokos in Finland), and to the Academic bookstore, which I bet has more books in English (and Finnish and Swedish, for that matter) than most Waldenbooks in American malls.

So who is the Asian-Finnish woman in red? Wait....

25 July 2007

Jäneda: Suck Out the Marrow of Life

I went to the woods [but not dressed in a medieval tunic] because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life....
, Henry David Thoreau (seconded by Kevin Hogan, only I came to Estonia, which is almost like a big woods, because forests cover over one-half of the country).

In the spring, on behalf of Tapa Gümnaasium's director, I invited students and teachers from our four sister schools - Dobele Vidusskola in Latvia, Toijala Gümnaasium in Finland, and schools in Preetz, Germany and Loten, Norway - to participate in a summer English camp in Tapa. On July 16, two students from Toijala and their teacher and his wife and eight students from Dobele and two of their teachers joined six students from Tapa and me in Tallinn for the first day of a five-day camp.

Day One. We began a tour in English (to practice listening comprehension skills) of Tallinn's Old Town at Fat Margaret, or Paks Margareeta (first picture). We made our way, as all tours of Tallinn eventually make their way, to the town square, or Raekoja plats (second picture), passing the former KGB headquarters and The Three Sisters, Queen Elizabeth II's hotel when she visited Tallinn in October 2006. Since the Latvians had arrived in Tallinn at 4.30 on an overnight bus from Riga, they needed a little rest (third picture) after our lunch at Pizza Grande. Pizza Grande's thick crust pizza comes somewhat - mind you, just somewhat - close to Chicago's deep dish pizza. After a little snooze, we picked up the Finns from the port and took a bus to our "campsite" in Jäneda.

Day Two. For the obligatory icebreakers, we made name tags at breakfast, adding an adjective that described us for each of the letters in our names. For example, to my name Kevin, I added something like geeKy, intElligent, creatiVe, imaginatIve, and hoNest. Later, outside in the sunshine and the swarms of ravenous flies, we did a couple of improv routines that required more listening. Then, without talking, we got ourselves into a line, chronologically, based on the month and day of our birthdays. Finally, we began speaking in English and in public by introducing the person next to us, reading his/her name tag and perhaps some new adjectives: I'd like to introduce Kevin; he is geeKy, intElligent, creatiVe, etc. (fourth picture).

Then, sort of like Henry David Thoreau did in the mid 1800s, we marched into the woods for a 5.5km-long opportunity to reflect on, as Thoreau wrote in Walden, "the essential facts of life" (fifth picture). We ate wild strawberries and blueberries along the way. Oh, it was like the Day-after-Christmas Sale at Target. Where I saw only green leaves, looking like every other green leaf in the forest, the Estonians, Finns, and Latvians spotted edible and ripe berries. Every time we came to patches of berries, the group in front of me would race to the left and right of the path like shoppers after a $25 VCR.

Officially, we stopped four or five times along the way to write down (expressive writing skills) what we were missing now that we were in the woods, what we needed in the woods but had left behind, what was bothering us about the woods, and what was so great about being in the forest (sixth picture). Lunch and a refreshing lake for swimming awaited us at the end of our journey.

Day Three. We used the Palmse estate of the von der Pahlen Family for an orienteering exercise (team work and reading comprehsion skills). Each international team of four or five campers had a set of photographs of certains things on the estate grounds, like a specific gate or gazebo or a monument to land reform, pictures I had taken and had printed about a month earlier. Then they had to roam the grounds and find these things and do what was asked of them on the back of the photograph, instructions I had written, printed, and stuck on the photographs a few days before the camp started.

For example, I took a picture of the monument to land reform, which looks a lot like a tombstone. Although it was on a path on the estate, it was on the other side of the lake and in a wooded area. The instructions on the back of the photograph were: You need one "dead" body. How does everyone else at the "graveside" feel about the person's "death"? And then, of course, they had to take a picture of their scene (seventh picture). There was also a picture of a white bench, but there were many white benches on the estate. So they had to find the one that had the same trees and stone fence in the background as the one in the picture. The instructions were: Jump for joy! Jump, and take a picture with everyone's feet off the ground (eighth picture).

Day Four. Where better to perform scenes from Shakespeare's Hamlet, MacBeth, Twelfth Night, and The Taming of the Shrew (public speaking and reading comprehension skills) than in a real castle, as opposed to bits and pieces of one built out of plywood on a stage. At Rakvere Castle, as we draped the red tunic over our heads (ninth picture), we were transported back to the Middle Ages. We got a tour of the castle, including the piinakamber, or chamber of horrors. For lunch, we ate weiners, fried potatoes, and dark bread on very medieval-like plates and drank an interesting, sort of sour punch, perhaps an alcohol-free ale from medieval-like mugs. And then our four medieval acting troupes rehearsed for about 45 minutes before "doing Shakespeare", including Act I, Scene I from Hamlet (10th picture).

Day Five. Overnight, we jumped from the 13th century to 2008-2009, when some of the campers would be thinking about university. A Harvard University student and summer intern at the U.S. embassy in Tallinn spoke about studying in America - why to do it and how to do it. While high school grades are important to university admission counselors, she said, so are extracurricular activities at school and volunteer and vocational experiences in the community. We checked out of Jäneda at noon. Tapa's students gave the others a brief walking tour of Tapa before we all headed back to Tallinn to see everyone off.

Berlin: Party without Drugs?!

"Party without Drugs?!" was an exchange with youth from Estonia, France, Germany, Poland, and Spain at Kids & Co. in east Berlin from July 5 to 13, 2007. It was funded by the European Union's Youth in Action Program. Three teens (second picture, right to left) and three teens (in front of the Brandenburg Gate) from Tapa participated in the exchange - the only Estonians, along with a young German woman from the European Volunteer Service program, who was working in Tapa, and me (with Mr. Confucius).

At the beginning of the exchange, youth chose to attend meetings, workshops, and rehearsals, led by young adult artists, on African drums, theatre, dance, or juggling and plate spinning. On the last night of the exchange, each of the four groups performed what it had created, prepared, and practiced during the week.

Risto (on the drums in the center) brought down the house with his own routine that made it easy and fun for all of us in the audience to clap along with the beat. The other Risto from Estonia (sixth picture) starred in an original fable about a priest at Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn. Risto played the priest looking for a little more fun in his life; his fellow actors represented the three onion-shaped spires of the church.

Marge (on the far left in the seventh picture) turned into a Fly Girl with a frenetic dance routine worthy of any T-Pain music video! The girls were horizontal to the floor - and on the floor - as often as they were vertical. Toomas mastered the age-old art of balancing a spinning plate on a stick (it's all in the wrist), juggling balls and bowling pins, and, of course his favorite, fire!

In addition to the workshops during the day, there were "country nights" after supper, designed to introduce exchange participants to each others' countries. During Estonia Night, Risto and Katharina, the German volunteer, strutted down our makeshift catwalk in traditional Estonian folk costumes.

There was lots of scheduled down time: to play chess, billiards, fusball, and soccer at Kids & Co.; to walk around the Hellersdorf business district, the Berlin neighborhood we were in (which had an Aldi as well as an indoor shopping mall and a movie theatre complex); to take the metro to Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz, the heart of Berlin; and to visit the Berlin Wall and the East Side Gallery, where "we" Estonians wrote our names (14th picture). Of course, we couldn't leave Berlin without completing an evaluation, which the Estonians youth did in Estonian and English. I just proofread it.

02 July 2007

X Noorte Laulupidu 2007

So at last, a Chicago-style outdoor summer festival: the 10th Annual (X) Youth (Noorte)Song (Laulu-) Fesitval (pidu), held the day after the Youth Dance Festival.

I waited for the 7.54 express train, which I had taken yesterday, for another civilized ride to Tallinn. I knew something was not right when 1) there were just a few people on the platform and 2) the 8.10 train from Tallinn arrived. A 2007 graduate of Tapa Gümnaasium stepped off the train, looked at me, and said flatly "Don't ask." I smiled, for those two words (appropriately chosen and correctly delivered) re-inforced my own assessment that I am indeed teaching students how to communicate as well as how to use articles, linking words, and the past continuous tense.

I understood that "Don't ask" meant this member of the Class of 2007 had had a very good time in Tallinn. You see, the 8.10 train is the first train out of Tallinn. It leaves at 6.40. So it is the train people take home after they have partied all night in Tallinn. Honestly, it's not unlike the early morning weekend trains that leave the Northwestern station for Chicago's western suburbs with young people who have spent all night on Rush Street.

I had The Guardian Weekly with me. So it was no problem waiting at the dilapidated station for the 8.41 train to Tallinn. On Sundays, there is no 7.54 express train to Tallinn. One can only get a fast and comfortable ride to the Estonian capital at 18.39.

I got to Tallinn more than an hour behind my own personal schedule. I had planned to have coffee, read more of The Guardian, and then visit two art museums before entering the song festival grounds at 13.00. On the other side of Old Town, I got even further behind schedule, because all of the dance and song festival participants, along with their local communities' brass bands, were parading through Tallinn's main arteries to the song festival grounds. I stopped and watched anyway - and listened. The people in the parade, from 6 to 26 years of age maybe, dressed in traditional Estonian folk costumes, were singing and waving at everybody, and hollering like they were from Texas, and proudly chanting their town's names: "Pärnu! Pärnu! Pärnu!" And the bands were playing songs like "When the Saints Go Marching In." And the spectators on the sidewalks were shouting greetings and congratulations at the young people, and the kids were smiling and shouting back.

...the sound wasn't sad. Why, this sound sounded merry. It couldn't be so! But it was merry! Very!
Yes, I thought I was in Whoville! I have been in Estonia for 10 months, and I have attended three graduations, celebrated three national holidays, attened a dozen sporting events, and sat through countless school assemblies and never - never - have I heard so much energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, I needed a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, the contingent from Tapa had marched past as I had bounced up and down on the train. So I crossed the street, through the giddy dancers and singers, hell-bent on getting to Coffee In. Near the Estonian opera house, a red light slowed my own march. As I approached the corner, I noticed a guy in a white t-shirt staring at me, and as I purposefully walked away from him, his eyes followed me. Then he stretched out his hand and greeted me in English with a thick Russian accent. He was an alumni of the Russian gümnaasium in Tapa who had come to my English conversation club seven or eight years ago. He wanted to be a journalist then. I remember he tried to pin the Kosovo war on the Americans. I contended it was a NATO decision. NATO, the United States - six of one, half dozen of the other - but I never told him that I thought he was right. He is a journalist now and had just interviewed one of the conductors from Tapa's own music school.

With a hot cup of coffee, I followed the jubilant procession as far as the Kadriorg Museum of Art, which had a wonderful exhibition of "Portraits of Russian Emporers." At 12.30, I headed for the nearby song festival grounds. Although I was walking through the densely wooded Kadriorg Park, I just followed the people (especially old women with sweaters draped over their arms), because everyone was going to the same place.

Indeed, it was like a Chicago summer festival: beautiful people sitting on the grass (albeit with no room for picnic baskets and glasses of white wine), more beautiful people shuffling along the asphalt paths (talking on their cell phones), bright yellow umbrellas of ice cream vendors twirling in the light breeze, clouds of grilled sausage smells drifting overhead, and, at the center of attention, a large outdoor amphitheater gradually filling with the same choirs that had just paraded through Tallinn (pictures above).

I thought I was "home," that I really hadn't missed the Taste of Chicago, the Fiesta del Sol, the Chicago Jazz Festival, or the Grant Park Music Festival after all. But then, after receiving applause for doing the "Wave" more times than they really needed to do it, the 18,000 young people on stage began singing, and I felt like a foreigner again.

Unlike Chicago's Jazz Festival, Gospel Festival, Blues Festival, and Grant Park Music Festival, the Song Festival in Tallinn has an uncommon connotation, for this festival is a celebration of Estonian pride, determination, and persevance. Some of the songs, more than I am comfortable hearing at an outdoor summer festival and certainly more than I am accumstomed to hearing in the States, are about the motherland (or isamaa in Estonian, the fatherland).

In his address at the end of the five-hour festival (not counting the four-hour parade) President Ilves proclaimed: Once we sang ourselves into a nation. Once we sang ourselves free. On these days, you singers and dancers have made us greater and more powerful with your songs, into something more vivacious and younger with your dances. Take this feeling with you to your homes and schools. To your towns and villages. To your parishes and counties. Like the song written for the 10th Song Festival says, “Hold the flag high!”.

My point is that with "McGyver" and "The Sopranos" on Estonian television, Shrek III and Pirates of the Caribbean in Tallinn movie theatres, "super" and "Oh my god" in the Estonian vocabulary, and Comet and Columbia products in Estonian stores, there is still indeed something uniquely Estonian, something much more deeper at the core of Estonia than its language or geography. Something that the young singers and dancers have in common with their parents and with their grandparents.
I've got to think what else I want to say....

X Noorte Tantsupidu 2007

Spring, errrr, Summer in Estonia

Hungarian bing cherries for 45EEK a kilo, or $3.91 for 2.2 pounds, or let's say two bucks a pound. How much were they at Whole Foods this year?

Roses and carnations from Tapa Gümnaasium's Class of 2007. There is a scheduled pause in the graduation ceremony for the students, who do not wear cap and gown but slick suits and prom dresses, to go into the audience and give flowers to their teachers. I got a lot, which sort of confirmed that I did indeed connect with these young people. I remember one brilliant exchange in a class with 12B. We were talking about - really laughing about - Easter traditions. One guy asked me if I were going to paint eggs, and I said no, I am not going to paint my munad. Munad means eggs in Estonian as well as testicles. "No, I'm not going to paint my balls" is what I was saying, and everyone laughed and, I think, appreciated that their English had - for at least the two minute George and Gracie routine - been worth it.

I grew a few potatoes in a pot over the winter. Lots of vines - lots of green - crawl out from one potatoe. So I had it sitting on a long window sill all window. In February, I mentioned to one green-thumbed teacher that my potatoe plant was doing really well. She looked at me as if I had said marijuana, or poppy, or home porn videos!