31 December 2008

A Look Back at...Me :-)

1. Yellow mums: We teachers of Tapa Gümnaasium were at the country house of Alo and Rita, husband and wife and boys and girls PE teachers. It was Rita's birthday, not too long after school started September 1. That's Tiiu, the German teacher, with her black-and-white pirates bandana on, if you could have gotten close enough to get a good look. She often gets the party started wherever we are, whatever we are celebrating. Just as it is proper - demanded at Tapa Gümnaasium - that a man pours the wine and champagne, so it was etiquette for me to present Rita with the birthday gift from the kooli collective.

2. Plastic pale: Not quite in the country this time, I was in the backyard of Kai's Tapa home. Kai's a music teacher, and it was her birthday this time.

3. Inner-tube: It is never all work and no play at summer English camp, especially when there is a pond right behind the cabin and especially when the rain lets up for an afternoon in July.

4. Airplane: A farewell in June as I embarked on another mission from the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels.

5. Fireplace: Part of the real Estonian experience is here in the sauna in Tiit's brother's country house, situated on a hill at a bend in the Loobu River.

6. Apartment: Frank, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer like me, took the picture. Kathy, his wife, both from Washington State, stood by the door. We had all been at the theatre in Tapa one May evening, and we went to Maija's (with the glasses and big smile) apartment afterwards for a bite to eat and, of course, a bit to drink.

7. Standing around: Maija (a Russian teacher) and I stretched our legs somewhere in Bulgaria or Romania during spring break 2008.

8. YMCA group photo: Jenny, a former colleague of mine from the YMCA, sent this updated photo to me in March, showing who is and who is not still in the Financial Development Department back at the YMCA. Three are still there plus one who came back.

9. Beach: Like I said, it is not all work and no play at English camp, especially when (in July 2007) the sun was out! But, next time, tell me that that is no reason for me to take my shirt off. There were children around!

10. Ice sculpture: Estonian Independence Day, February 2007.

11. On the track: Tiit at a competition in Tallinn in the fall of 2006. I met him after shopping in Tallinn, naturally.

12. Two kids: Where did all of the legally responsible adults go? Tiit and his wife Lairi made me feel right at home back in September 2006, shortly after arriving from Ameerika.

24 December 2008

Christmas (in Estonia)

I stopped when I got to Lembitu Street. There was indeed more "Christmas magic" in the air, although, as I stood still, it felt and sounded more like ice than snow. The other magical, nearly miraculous, thing, was that not one dog had barked at me as I walked down Pikk and Õhtu Streets. It was around 12.30 a.m. - truly a silent night. In spite of its intentional and absolute austerity, the Soviet-era high rise across from me glowed from the electric Advent candelabra in a dozen or so windows. (There are seven candles on each candelabrum: four for the four Sundays of Advent plus three for the three Sundays to St. Knut's Day on January 13). I looked up over the otherwise colorless building to see if Santa was overhead. If he didn't have to worry about Russia for another week, would he be coming up from Southeast Asia through Greece and Poland to Estonia? Or would he be working a split-shift and be coming down from an eggnog break at the North Pole through Finland?

Christmas dinner at Tiit's house was exceptional. In "food world" at the Kaubamaja in Tallinn over the weekend I had seen frozen turkeys imported from France and frozen geese imported from Hungary. (That just doesn't seem right, does it?) At Rimi in Rakvere earlier in the day, Tiit and I had seen frozen turkeys. With no time to thaw one out, he bought a duck from the refrigerated section that was ready for the oven with not only a timer but with prune and apricot stuffing as well. In the picture above, in the aluminum pan in the center of the table, you see what was left of the duck.

In the upper right hand corner, in front of the Mandarin oranges, there is a decanter of Mrs. E's (Tiit's mother) homemade Christmas drink. Served in shot glasses, it was as thick as cough syrup. A concoction of a few different types of Estonian berries (along with spirits, of course), the drink had fermented since August. From this "natural" hooch to Bacardi Black and cokes (with ice and lemon, mind you) to champaign to coffee, Tiit keep the drinks flowing all night.

To the right of Mrs. E's Christmas punch is Mrs. E's homemade (and alcohol-free) "cranberry sauce", or what tastes and looks a lot like our cranberry sauce but is made with what Estonia has instead of cranberries. A piece of verivorst (which were sitting in a pan on top of a warm oven) and a spoonful of this cranberry sauce is what Christmas in Estonia is all about! Finally, just below the duck, underneath the knife, are Mrs. E's homemade hapukurk, or pickles. Nothing in a jar comes close to tasting as good and as fresh and as crisp as these do.

An Estonian dinner, let alone holiday dinner, would not be complete without potatoes, and Tiit made some oven-roasted potatoes smeared with garlic and mayonnaise. They, too, were sitting on top of the oven. I would have eaten the rest of them - they were the size of apples and very nicely browned - had I not been in mixed company and thought that the children had to eat, too. The plastic bag (to the left of the pickles) was full of soft gingerbread cookies that Titt's wife baked and baked and baked and baked until she was tasting them in her sleep. We bought the chocolate tort, or cake, at Rimi, along with the duck, and it turned out to be a cake from the Pihlaka Kondiiter (or, bakery) in Rakvere, where I will occasionaly go in the morning for a cup of coffee and two or three sweet rolls!

Add a couple of kids opening up a couple of presents that appeared under the Christmas tree from nowhere, and you have Christmas.

Indeed Santa delivers presents to Estonian children on Christmas Eve, but he does it before they go to sleep! I remember a Christmas Eve 10 years ago with an Estonian family when, outside their house, Santa passed off their presents to an Old Mother Hubbard of sorts, modestly disguised - eerrr, dressed - for the occasion, who was quickly ushered inside to distribute them to all of the anxious kids. Your name on a package is no guarantee that you will get the package. No, in this country you have to sing - or dance or read a poem - for your Christmas presents, whether you are seven or 47.

As we played Lotte dominoes, one of Santa's presents, Aigi, Tiit's daughter, kept telling me she just didn't know where the presents had come from. Egert, Tiit's son, went to bed with a van in one hand and a box of wooden blocks under his arm. And I went home with Scooter's latest CD "Jumping All Over the World." That Santa.

23 December 2008

Christmas Eve (in Estonia)

Even though it is only December 23, it is basically "Christmas Eve" here in Tapa. Most of the shops (two years ago I would have said "stores") closed at 15.00 today (like they do in the States on the 24th) and will be closed tomorrow, Thursday, and even Friday. Ten years ago, grocery stores (ahhh, there it is again) would have been closed for three straight days, too.

The Selver calendar in my kitchen says that December 24 is Jõululaupäev (literally, Christmas Saturday, or Christmas Eve), December 25 is 1. jõulupüha (Christmas Sunday, or the first Christmas Day), and December 26 is 2. jõulupüha (the second Christmas Day). Students and colleagues have explained to me that "Christmas" in Estonia, that is, the day presents are exchanged and verivorst is eaten, is December 24. Then, December 25 is a day of rest, and the 26th (Boxing Day in the UK and Canada) is a day to visit family and friends. At Tapa's St. Jacob's Lutheran Church Püha Jõuluõhtul Jumalateenistus (Holy Christmas Night church services) will be at 17.00 on December 24. Then 1. jõulupüha services December 25 will be at 14.00 (kindly allowing folks to sleep in), where individuals will be baptized and confirmed.

There has been a little "Christmas magic" here in Tapa (in lieu of sunshine, I suppose). During the last couple of days of school last week, I showed "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and Dr. Suess's (not Jim Carey's, as students had hoped) "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." After each screening, I pulled up the blinds to reveal a steady stream of snowflakes quietly covering the grey slush outdoors. Then, Friday night, stepping out of Tapa's cultural center after the Virumaa boys, Virumaa girls, and Virumaa young men's choirs' annual Christmas concert, more snowflakes fluttered down beneath the street lights onto the slippery sidewalk. It snowed today, too, as "shoppers rushed home with their treasures...".

The coffee and walnut pie I baked this morning (pictured above on my kitchen counter) and took to the librarians this afternoon was my last official holiday "obligation", if you know what I mean. Last night was the teachers' Christmas party at the Wild Buffalo Saloon. Given the location, everyone dressed up like cowboys and -girls and did a little line dancing. I wore an $8 Indian "headgear" from a costume shop in Tallinn and drew Christmas trees on my cheeks with green finger paint. You can feed the six or seven buffalo that live on the premises of the restaurant/conference center/tepee park. They walk into a stable built into the restaurant (the place is in the middle of nowhere, so I'm sure they can get around any public health codes). You lift up a long, rectangular window. The buffalo stick their wet noses through it and unroll their skinny, black tongues. Then you drop a roll covered with sunflower seeds.

I made biscotti (for the first time in Estonia) Sunday for the half dozen teachers I usually hang out with. I finished my Christmas shopping Saturday and Sunday in Tallinn. I sent my last package to Illinois Friday afternoon (albeit a present for a nephew whose birthday was in November). I attended Tapa Gümnaasium's Christmas service Friday morning at church. I saw the annual 12th grade Christmas play Thursday night. This is something of a Tapa Gümnaasium tradition: The 12th graders (two years ago I would have said "seniors") write, produce, direct, and star in their own production, which they present to the entire community, including the gümnaasium's graduates who are back in Tapa with their families for the holidays. Earlier in the day, I bought myself lunch at the elementary school's Christmas bake sale and craft fair. I dropped the last of maybe a dozen Christmas cards into the mailbox Thursday morning.

I had the honor of playing Jõuluvana (Santa Claus) for a third grade Christmas party on Monday. We sang "Jingle Bells" together in English, and everyone was a little startled when I added "Ho-ho-ho-ho" after "...laughing all the way." Before that, I attended the teachers' union's annual Christmas dinner, where, like the last two years, I got my first taste of the season of verivorst.

09 November 2008

Fathers' Day

Today is Isadepäev (Father's Day) in Estonia. Yesterday, I was in the kontserdimaja (consert hall) in Jõhvi, which was opened in this eastern Estonian city in 2005, to hear the Grammy-award-winning Eesti rahvusmeeskoor (Estonian Men's Choir) and the Rahvusooper Estonia poistekoor (Estonian National Opera Boys' Choir) sing songs from "fathers to sons and from sons to fathers". The conductor was the famous Hirvo Surva. He is famous in his own right for sure, but I like him because he is just about the same age as I am and enjoys working with young people...and likes to have a little fun on stage.

27 October 2008

Mina ikka olen siin

Yes, I am still here...
in Tapa, soon-to-be viisavaba Estonia...
teaching the Queen's English (when was the last time you heard someone from Joliet say "I'd rather we had left home a bit earlier, then we wouldn't have been caught in the rush hour traffic on the Stevenson"?) to 23 sixth graders and 50 high school students...
for 11,044 Estonian kroons (EEK) a month before taxes - that's $920 on the days the dollar is really strong...
or about $7 an hour for a contractual 35-hour work week.

According to Eesti Statistika, in the second quarter of 2008, the average gross monthly wage in Estonia was 13,306EEK ($1,109). The highest monthly wage was in the financial sector (21,876EEK; $1,823); the lowest was in the hotel and restaurant industry (8,323EEK; $686). The average wage in the education sector was 13,907EEK ($1,159). So I really can't complain. Crew jobs at the McDonalds on the corner of North and Wells in Chicago, on the other hand, pay $1,050 a month for a 35-hour week, or $7.50 an hour.

It seems to me more and more that I am earning Estonian wages but paying American prices. A small jar of Barilla spaghetti sauce costs $2-$3. You can't buy a brand new pair of tennis shoes, no matter how pimped out they aren't, for less than $75, even when everything is on sale. My friend Oleg has always said that the price of a movie ticket in Tallinn is more than in Riga and Vilnius. A matinee at Coca-Cola Plaza costs 70EEK ($6); an evening screening costs 120EEK ($10). Comparably, a matinee at the Kerasotes City North 14 in Chicago costs $8.50, and an evening screening $10.50.

Speaking of movies, the title of this post Mina ikka olen siin means I am still here. Mina olin siin (I Was Here) is the name of one of the latest in a string of Estonian movies to come out. Click on the Estonian title above for a YouTube trailer. Detsembrikuumus (December Heat) is yet another new Estonian movie. A portion of this one was filmed in front of the train station in Tapa, which in the movie is the train station in Tallinn. The film will be shown an unprecedented two times in the same day at the culture house in Tapa, which is grossly inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. Click on the Estonian title above for a YouTube trailer with English subtitles. Click on the English title for the English version of the movie's website.

01 September 2008

First Day of Wint-- errr I Mean School

Yes, it is September 1, the traditional first day of wint-- errr, I mean, school, in Estonia. Why do I keep doing that! We were outside for a few speeches, a couple of songs, and the ceremonial donning of the school caps by the 12th graders. I think each senior was also tapped on the top of the head with the book of wisdom by Tapa's mayor. Inside, the 12th graders officially welcomed the first graders into our lovely gümnaasium community. I'm not sure, though, that this year's class of first graders were as happy as the grinning first grade class of 1958 above.

While this was only my third 1. september ceremony, it was Tapa Gümnaasium's 90th. So, in the evening, the very popular rock band the Smilers kicked off the school's 90th anniversary celebration with an outdoor concert for the entire city. For 15 minutes or so there were these three local guys - probably in their 20s - standing in front of me. If it were two o'clock in the morning and these guys were walking towards me, I would definitely cross the street. Yet, they were having a remarkable amount of innocent fun here, playing their air guitars and singing every song along with the Smilers. That's the kind of band I think the Smilers are: no one admits they like them but everyone knows the lyrics to their songs.

24 August 2008

My International Music Video Debut

The port in Hamburg (Germany), along the Elbe River, is massive - like the guts of a city with big shoulders - and yet fairly accessible to little people like you and me. It is a lively tourist destination, a popular venue for local events, and a fitting companion to the city's saucy Reeperbahn district.

When I was there in August, that ship from Monrovia (pictured above) was in one of two dry docks across the Elbe from the Landungsbrücken metro station, which is sort of the pedestrian's gateway to the harbor. You can transfer from the metro to a ferry on the same ticket and ride up the river past the dry docks to the beach at Neumühlen. If all that is not cool enough, you can take an elevator down into the ground and walk under the Elbe through two tunnels to look at Hamburg from the other side. Not so very long ago, cars, loaded with shipyard workers, used to take larger elevators down into the ground and drive through the tunnels, too. Now note just how small the white van is compared to the Monrovian ship's propeller, let alone to the ship itself.

I was in Hamburg in August with 10 teenagers from Tapa to participate in (another; my second in two years; ssshhhh) international youth exchange. The host organization was Weltenlos e.V. , and the name/theme of the youth exchange (or, jugendbegegnung in German) was Europe: Your Roots. Your Targets. Your Actions. Youth from Sliven, Bulgaria, population 110,000, and Ancona, Italy, population 102,000, as well as Hamburg, population 1,800,000, joined us country bumpkins from Tapa, population 7,000.

The beauty of an international youth exchange - well, I think there are many, especially for the teens in a relatively small and backward town like Tapa and a relatively poor and under-developed country like Estonia. Of course I really enjoy riding the inter- and intra-city trains in Germany. Truly, the Estonian passenger train service (as hard as it tries) is just one step above horse-drawn carriages compared to German rail service. Yet I get more of a kick out of seeing young people, particularly my students from Tapa Gümnaasium, grow, adapt, blossom, branch out, connect, mature, etc. over a 10 or 14 day period. At first, it's within the Estonian group. Gradually, it expands into other country groups. After a week, a couple of kids have enough self-confidence in themselves and their English that they come to feel right at home with the whole group, with the youth and the adults alike.
Although Hamburg was about as damp and dark as Estonia (IT'S AUGUST FOR GOODNESS SAKES), the kids heated the place up by creating their own multi-lingual music video All Is Love, with a young man from Tapa in the leading role and a young woman from Tapa one of the principle singers (and I thought all Estonians were shy). My close-up in the video, unshaven and all, comes at 6.37 by the way.

01 August 2008

Õpilastega: London

Six 12th graders from Tapa Gümnaasium and I were in London from Friday, July 25 to Tuesday, July 29. I had my wallet in my back, left pants pocket; DK's Eyewitness Travel: London Pocket Map & Guide in my back, right pocket; my Oyster card in my front, left pocket; and my "handy" (as the Germans call cell phones) in my front, right pocket.

We again stayed at the London Backpackers Hostel across from the Hendon Central Tube station on London's north side. Over the course of four nights, I had roommates from Mexico - sisters on their way to Rome and a Ph.D. student coming back from a conference in Glasglow; Switzerland - a junior at university majoring in biology going to an intensive English course in Edinburg; Canada - a photojournalist who was a little vague about his assignment in London; Germany - a young woman putting off starting university; and Oregon - another young woman who had just flown in from China where she is teaching English.

The weather was fantastic. So I hung out in Hendon Park - just half a block from the hostel - in the morning with a cup of coffee and one of London's dailies and in the evening with a proper doner kebab and brochures from the museums we had visited during the day. One evening, I watched a group of Indians play cricket. Yes, maybe it moves a little faster than baseball, but I think you would still need a beer, some peanuts, a "Kissing Cam", and fireworks to really enjoy the game.

On this trip (by the way, my second in two years), for the very first time, I walked around the Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge, walked along the Princess Diana Memorial in Hyde Park, walked through Southwark Cathedral in Southwark, and finally - after more than 25 years - got to Brent Cross Shopping Center, a 10-minute walk from the hostel and probably a 15-minute drive from Finchley, where I lived in 1982 during my semester in London with Rosary College.

Like last year, on the day of our departure, from the time I got to the school in Tapa to the time I got through passport control at Stansted Airport, I second guessed myself: Is it a good idea to organize a trip like this? Am I doing too much? Am I taking too many risks? Is it too much responsibility for me and too much to ask of students? What will their parents think when they tell them about the hostel? the snack food meals? the crowds of people? Then, in London, first in Camden Town and then at Oxford Circus, I saw groups of kids, younger than the students from Tapa, smoking, of course, speaking Spanish or Italian, and, eventually, huddled around a twenty-something adult in a blue EF shirt, listening for details about what was going to happen next, as soon as so-and-so appeared. So, yes, I re-assured myself, it is a good idea (certainly not a novel one). The more I do it, the easier it gets and the more the risks are minimized, or at least anticipated. I like the hostel (with a full kitchen and renovated bathrooms), the neighborhood (with the park, a grocery store, and Brent Cross), transportation from Stansted and to central London, and, well, while I would pay 22 pounds to see Vanessa Redgrave in the Year of Magical Thinking at the National Theatre, even with a real job, I don't think I'd pay 16 pounds to go into the Tower of London, especially when the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate, and the Wallace Collection are free.

English Teachers in Latvia

Õpilastega: Ohepalu