09 February 2008

The Armpit's Past, Present, & Future

The Armpit
The words dirty - appalling - disgusting - uninviting - revolting - loathsome - and scandalous - all synonyms from Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus for the word ugly - are just not adequate to describe Tapa over the last three or four weeks. Reading in The Guardian Weekly (31.01.08) that the US version of "The Office" was now on British television, I was reminded of the "armpit of" phrase. Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the show's Dunder Mifflin office is located, was once called "the armpit of America." For all its current ugliness and dirtiness, I would like to nominate Tapa as the Winter 2008 armpit of Lääne Viru County, Estonia.

Without the traditional winter snows to conceal the summertime's soft dirt, loose gravel, and black puddles, Tapa looks disgustingly raw - like a 13-year-old two days after he slipped on the stub of a pine tree branch and slid down the scaled trunk, like a New York fireman down the firehouse pole, ripping the skin off his palms, the underside of his arms, and the tops of his knees. While there was a beautiful crimson sunrise just after 8.00 on February 1 and while you can still see a city block ahead of you as late as 17.30 most afternoons, the increasing number of hours of daylight only expose a revolting look back to the crude Tapa of the 1930s.

The town is not just uninviting right now; it's practically uninhabitable. What little snow there is, melts overnight and, unable to run off, spreads out from the curb into the street. Inattentive or insensitive drivers splash the water (and crumbs of gravel or asphalt from the street) onto the sidewalk, where it soaks the loathsome slush that is never, ever shoveled away. No, it is left to harden night after night and to be continuously remolded during the day by the paws of stray dogs sniffing the corners of buildings, the outdated dress boots of old ladies shuffling from one end of Main Street to the other, the brightly colored hand-me-down galoshes of elementary school children, and the wide tires of the baby strollers that young Russian mothers push around in all four seasons.

On many of Tapa's residential streets, where there are no sidewalks and consequently no curbs, let alone gutters, not to mention street lights, the slush lurks in the muddy, ankle-deep ruts of the cars, buses, and even semi-trucks that park alongside the road. The footpaths in the town's parks, genuinely charming six months out of the year, are either mud pits or shallow canals today. After a good freeze, where it is common to ski from one end of town to the other, residents can ice skate. The potholes in front of the bus station, seeming as old as and as permanent as the craters on the moon, are miniature ponds of eau de Tapa from which passengers, alighting from their four- and five-hour journeys from Narva or Pärnu, can immediately freshen up.

It is appalling that the very country that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization regards as an international leader in cyber defense, according to Mike Collier's article in the February issue of City Paper, still sows a thin string of sand on its sidewalks as well as on the platforms of its train stations to keep people from slipping on the ice and snow. It is scandalous that the country that is, according to Collier, "committed to developing a cutting-edge cyber-security industry [and selling] its expertise around the globe" doesn't know what the hell road salt is and doesn't think twice about walking in shit and slush all winter.

The Past, Present, and Future
Yet, while at-a-glance, Tapa could be the armpit of Lääne Viru County, deep down, it could well indeed be its heart as well. On Friday, February 7, I attended the Noored Muusikud (Youth Music, Music for Youth, or Young Musicians - I'm not sure which but all three are appropriate) concert at Tapa's cultural center where there was a confluence of Estonia's past, present, and future.

The past was obvious: the cultural center itself, a 15-year-old block of cement with enough steps on the first floor alone to take you to the second balcony at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. The present was impressive: this was Tapa's third annual Noored Muusikud, conceived and organized by a student at the gümnaasium. The goal of the program is to showcase young artists performing exceptional music. The future was inspiring: excellent young Estonian musicians, some of them with roots in Tapa.

Margus Vaher (pictured above, with the guitar) was the evening's humble headliner, a 23- or 24-year-old student at Tartu University, who sang a little Gershwin, a little Alice Cooper, and a little Jäääär. In December 2007, Vaher won Estonian Television's (ETV) 2007 "Kaks takti ette" song competition. (The Kaks means two, ette can mean before or forward, and maybe takti means beat.) This 13-week competition that aired on ETV in the fall is quite a bit more prestigious (it's been around for 35 years) and a lot less commercial than "Eesti otsib suuperstaari" (Estonia's franchise of "American Idol"). Vaher was again on ETV in February 2008, singing a duet in the Estonian Eurovision contest. He sang "God Inside Your Soul" - not the most politically correct lyrics for an international song contest - with a 2007 "superstaari" finalist and my personal favorite Luisa Värk. Although Vaher's head is nearly the same shape as Herman Munster's, his husky voice, strong and solid like oak, made me crave a glass of cabernet savignon with some songs and a cold, frothy beer in a thick glass stein with others.

By no means was Noored Muusikud a one-man show. In fact, it was a two-and-a-half-hour show. A clarinet quartet from the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy performed as well as Mirjam Dede, another 2007 "Kaks takti ette" contestant, and her jazz ensemble. Kadri Kipper (above, in an elegant black dress), another student of the Music and Theatre Academy, belted out Mozart, Puccini, and Glinka arias. And last, but certainly not least, the Virumaa Tütarlastekoor (Girls' Choir of Viru), in their red Clara Barton capes, sang, among other songs, "Ei tahati minna" ("I don't want to go"), which gave me goosebumps. With this much class in Tapa, you'd think they'd keep the sidewalks clean.