Monday, December 27, 2010


I’m reminded of two things by this holiday’s snow. One is that popular catchphrase accredited to Marie Antoinette that is associated with the kickoff to the French Revolution. The other is a book and movie titled The Road. Christmas dinner, celebrated at the Mingus-in-Laws’, was delicious as usual. Blood sausage, pork roast, sauerkraut, vodka. A meal that can easily compete with the American Thanksgiving dinner. We were all too full to finish the gargantuan cake served for dessert. We did, however, manage to snack on gingerbread cookies and my homemade Pfeffernusse and eggnog while opening presents.

Mrs. Mingus-in-Law sent us home with a box of leftover cake. In our family, we combine traditions. Santa visits twice. Once in the evening for gifts from the Estonian side of the family, when he rings the doorbell and comes in and chats, and again during the night via the chimney to drop off gifts from the Americans. We had to tell the kids that because of the snow, Santa would have to make his second visit hopefully sometime next week. The packages never arrived. I woke up on Christmas Day and spent much of it shoveling out my backyard so I could drive to the shop, as the sidewalks were not yet passable in my neighborhood.

When I finished, I was very hungry, so I ate cake. It was my own fault for not thinking ahead and stocking up on food for a storm that did not predict. Neither did really, which just predicted “snow”. Snow happens in winter, and I usually think nothing of it. We also had cake for dinner. I entered the pantry and found a can of chickpeas, and made some hummus. “What is it, Papa?” Little Mingus asked.
—It’s a treat, I said. For you.
“Mmm, it’s good. I’ll never have this again, will I?”
—No, probably not. This is quite possibly the last can of chickpeas in Tartu.

I had to bribe a snowplough driver Soviet-style to get my road reconnected to the network on Sunday. We piled into the car and drove to the Tasku mall for a cup of delicious chai in a café called Cookbook. The mall was closed on what is one of the biggest shopping days of the year in the West—Boxing Day—and it was our fault for not magically knowing this. Let me clarify: one of the parking garages in Tasku said it was open, but the door was shut. I thought the opening mechanism was just frozen, as there was no sign indicating it was locked. The other garage allowed us in, and we even made it into the mall itself, only to find all the shop doors closed, the mall populated by elderly bus travelers snacking on cans of fruit on benches.

Starting to get very weak at this point. Must get food. “Let’s go to Werner, on Ülikooli Street,” Mrs. Mingus suggested. “Or let’s at least drive by and see if it’s open. They have some really good pastries and I hear the kitchen serves good stuff.” Werner. I hadn’t been there since, well, since they had chessboard tabletops and the venue was populated with local intelligentsia sipping tea and contemplating where to send their rook. If you managed to get a table there and didn’t play chess, you would soon be joined by complete strangers, who were usually the only Estonians and Russians to have any communication between them. Not spoken communication, mind you, but the international language of math as expressed by little plastic figurines vying for domination of a checkered board.

Wener, as their webpage calls it, was open, and had been completely remodeled. An extensive cake display would have made my mouth water on any given day, but I needed savory, warm food. “Do you have a menu?” I asked Krista, the waitress. She informed me the kitchen was closed. Cake it was, then. I ordered a white chocolate cheesecake topped with gelatin. It was mild. I got up to ask for a fork, as I just cannot figure out how to eat cake with a spoon. “Um, let me go to the back to look for a fork,” Krista responded. I looked around. No chess tables. A nice interior, and about twenty other people sitting with their cake and spoons.

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Of course that’s not her phrase—we all grew up hearing it—but I think it should apply to restaurants as well. If you can’t serve anything nice, don’t serve anything at all. Other restaurants and cafés open this day, if there were any, were probably serving stale leftovers. The cake was decent—not my personal favorite, but it was presented well and the lattes were large. About half the price for what you’d get in Komeet in Tallinn, but in Komeet you also get a killer view of the Old Town.

So this review of Werner doesn’t really count as a review, as you can’t judge a café by its cake. Or can you? I’ll let you decide. But I still have things to say. What can I talk about? The big topics at the moment are Tallinn mayor Savisaar accepting Soviet-style bribes from the Russians and the last few days of Estonia’s own currency, the kroon. Next Saturday we’ll all be paying in euros. Basically, the topic of the day is Western integration, and moving away from Estonia’s Eastern history, so I’ll talk about that.

I’ve lived in Estonia for more than a decade. I came to the startling revelation yesterday that I didn’t know any Russians. Well, a couple, but they were only half Russian, either the product of a Russian-Estonian marriage or one of the relatively few Russians whose families had been here for centuries. They weren’t Soviet-style immigrants and so didn’t really count, at least not for this conversation.

What I know of these mystery people mainly comes from Russian literature from more than a hundred years ago (I love the classics—Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev to name but a few) and derogatory Russian jokes as iterated by Estonians. I did have one close encounter with a Russian once. The day I got my Estonian driver’s license, I went out for a celebratory drive. I was annoyed by a large SUV tailing me at less than half a meter. He felt the need to pass on a single-lane, one-way road with cars parallel parked on either side. As he drove by, I flipped my middle finger in the window. He didn’t like this. From my point of view, showing someone the middle finger while driving is no more serious than honking the horn. I didn’t know it was a capital offense in Estonia, as I was new to the local driving culture.

He stopped in front of me to where I couldn’t drive, and there was a car behind me. I was trapped. A huge muscleman who looked like Mr. Clean got out and approached the car. Fortunately I hadn’t locked the door because he would have merely broken the window. Opening the door while I was trapped by my seatbelt, he slapped me twice with the butt of his hand and screamed in Russian, to which I replied in Estonian, “Sorry, I don’t speak Russian.”
—Kussa oled? he continued, now in Estonian. This means, “Where are you?”
“Olen Tartus” (I’m in Tartu), I cautiously answered. What was this guy on? He didn’t know where he was.
—Nyet, kussa oled? Anglisky, Deutsch, kussa oled? I realized he was trying to say, “Kust sa pärit oled”, or “Where are you from?” So I used my knowledge of Russian literature.
“I’m from France,” I answered in Estonian. He immediately calmed down.
—Tell people in France, “Meh meh meh!” And he stuck his tongue out and showed me his middle finger. Then he left.

I understood immediately that this man didn’t behave like this because he was Russian. It was because he drives an SUV. I have had a lot of very positive encounters with Russians in Estonia as well. “There are people who have lived here for fifty years and can’t say ‘Hello’ in Estonian,” I am told by almost every person I meet when they discover I speak Estonian. And they have a point: Why do so few Russians speak Estonian? I think a more relevant question would be: Why would Russians speak Estonian?

There has been a lot of controversy of late because of new integration laws basically forcing Russian-language schools to switch to Estonian, and the Language Inspectorate “raiding” businesses and schools to make sure everyone’s speaking the official lingo. It’s not like Russian cashiers are being fined for speaking Russian with Russian customers, but a lot of Russians do feel harassed. You can’t blame someone for how they feel. From an Estonian’s point of view, if you want to live in this country, you gotta’ learn to talk Estonian. Period. This is common throughout the world. Russian is the language of the occupier. But has the Russian point of view been considered? They lost their empire, and they didn’t even choose to come here in the first place. To learn Estonian would be to admit defeat. And let’s face it—Russian culture is rich. They even have their own unique religion. While I’m no fan of organized religion, this is still impressive. Even if their Santa Claus is blue. What possible benefit could a Russian, who lives in a region of Estonia where almost a hundred percent of the population speaks Russian, gain by learning a language spoken by just a million people?

What I am ineptly trying to say is that both sides need to give concessions. It probably is a good idea for young Russians to learn Estonian. But Estonia has a problem: nearly a hundred thousand ethnic Russians in Estonia don’t have citizenship in either country. Estonians say that the people in question don’t have to choose Estonian citizenship, and there is no such “go back to Russia” rhetoric that I’ve picked up. Obviously there is some, but no more than English people telling Normans to go back to France. But the problem is that many of these people don’t have health care or access to proper schools because of their residence status. Why would they go to Russia? They don’t even have Facebook there, as you can see in this image of European Facebook usage. Why would they choose Estonian citizenship? They don’t feel welcome. Then again, I also don’t see these Russians taking much initiative to “get out of Narva”, as it were.

A lot of people will understandably be angry with me for saying this, for even talking about this. “You’re not Estonian, you don’t understand the situation,” many might respond. And these people would be right, I’m not Estonian. To these people, I would reply, “But this is how it looks.” Consider that, please. It doesn’t really look that bad, but it could be a lot better. Mrs. Mingus is Estonian, and our children are dual citizens. We are raising them to be proud of two cultures. I write this not to be an unsolicited critic. I write this because I care about the country my children will grow up in. If I did not care, I would say nothing.

I hereby designate the seventh of January as National Hug a Russian Day (the sixth of December is Hug a Dutchman Day). Go to your neighbor, the one you’ve never spoken to—the Russian neighbor—and give him a hug. Speak English to him. It’s a neutral language I’m sure everyone can accept. All schools in Estonia teach it anyhow. The way I see it, Estonians have already chosen not to force Russians to pay in kroons. Both sides together chose to pay in euros. That’s good progress.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Café Bianca

Be warned before you continue reading that I am friends with the owners of Café Bianca. That means I can’t really say anything bad about it, except that it sucks! Just kidding. No really, I’m just kidding. It’s a great place to have a lunch or grab a quick coffee. Located at Kalevi 13 in Tartu, just a couple buildings down from the courthouse, I think everyone knows the building based on this first image.

I’d been waiting for months to finally sample what I fully expected to be the best neighborhood café in the city, and there are aspects of it that proved my expectations fulfilled, though not just for the law-and-order region of the city. I’ll talk about why soon enough. It kind of reminded me of Nop in Tallinn, but with even better food.

This is one part of town where the city government really fudged things up. Several houses boasting the most amazing and often unique architecture are immediate neighbors. Many of them are, or at least were, owned by the city itself. The city refused to fix them up, or even sell them to people who wanted to fix them up, and the result was abandoned, decrepit playhouses for street children. I personally had to call the fire department years ago because one of the houses had an external chapel, complete with a burning mattress. The same dispatcher who answered the phone could be heard on a loudspeaker just seconds later at the fire station a block away.

The city could have made tens of millions (of kroons) selling off these properties during the Boom, but ultimately decided it would be a somewhat better idea to wait until the economy was near rock bottom and the houses, like the housing market, were near collapse. One house, finally being restored, is supposedly going to be an animal shelter. It has been a mark of shame for the city for nearly 20 years.

Anyhow, back to the café. Both partners in this small business were present the day I visited. The American-Estonian partner, Christian, greeted us at the door. One very cool thing that we noticed was a moment later, two older ladies entered. Christian sat them at a table, took their orders without writing anything down and then recommended books they could peruse during their brief wait. Books on architecture, history, art—books from Christian’s personal library at home. In any other café, the only thing the staff would bring from home would be a virus.

It seems that the menu changes on a daily basis. Even Christian doesn’t know what’s going to be on the menu the next day. That’s left up to the other partner of Café Bianca, the namesake, the wife of the fabled Romanian cooking godfather from Vilde—I’ll call her Krista. We stopped in the day before as well, though just for coffee. I didn’t know there was food available, so I’d already eaten. The menu had lasagna listed, one of my favorites. I was hoping it would be served again when I went to eat, but the dish of the day was instead roasted vegetable soup with a grilled cheese sandwich.

The soup was very good of course. What amazed me was the grilled cheese sandwich. Never in Estonia had I been served such an amazing grilled cheese sandwich. Then again, never in Estonia had I been served a grilled cheese sandwich at all. As far as grilled cheese sandwiches go, it was good. It’s kind of a hard thing to mess up, after all. A grilled ham and cheese sandwich. It’s simple. Perhaps too simple for other restaurants and cafés, which insist on serving food that has French prepositions and spelling in the name. Croque monsieur à la Chalève. No, Krista’s not pretentious. It’s just a freaking grilled cheese sandwich! I feel like I’m overreacting here, but it is the perfect accompaniment to soup. Why hasn’t anyone else realized this?

Mrs. Mingus and I decided to share a quesadilla as well (phonetically spelled ke sa DI ja in Estonian). While it was not exactly Tex-Mex in flavor, it was very enjoyable. If I understood correctly, this menu selection was a regular, available every day. But the coup de grâce was the Christmas cake. A tiny bit rich for my personal preferences, but that’s what a Christmas cake is supposed to be—rich. And a wealth of ingredients was used. Cranberries, cherries, oranges, dates, blueberries, prunes and raisins.

When Christian was asked for the bill, he didn’t need to bring one. He instead chose to quickly recite everything ordered along with the prices. Payment in cash. Card payments soon available. You can get a receipt of course if you want one. This place just opened—there’s not even an official sign yet.

Obviously this café doesn’t occupy the whole building. The Tartu Centre for Creative Industries (Loomemajanduskeskus) operates here. What is that, you might ask? Well, the name doesn’t really mean anything to me in English or Estonian. It’s a local business incubator. It helps local businesses to get on their feet, with a bent on art. Funded by the city government. I have friends who have received help from them, and they all speak favorably of it.

And now for the negative part of the review. There’s a doorstop at the top of the stairs in front that bewilders me. Why is it like this? With all the safety regulations in modern Estonia, has no one thought that perhaps this is deadly? One slip on the tile and that’s the end of you. At least if you landed on this, you wouldn’t have to worry about sliding down the stairs after.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


After more than a month of living on a diet, I am proud to say that I lost most of my dignity and finally ate at Hessburger. I should have photographed my meal, because I don’t think I’ll eat there again, and thus will not review it. But if you just have to have fast food while on a diet, it’s the place to go. The quarter-liter drinks and miniscule fish fries won’t make you too fat. Fish fries? Well, French fries, but because they don’t seem to change the oil too often, they taste like fish sticks. The burgers though—let’s just say I was surprised the patty filled even half the bun. They really make ‘em thin there. And due to my promise to myself and my family to never eat at McDonald’s again, I think that pretty much cuts fast food out of my life. Win.

But where in Tartu can you eat if you’re short on time, and don’t want to feast on industrial leftovers that aren’t good enough for even Mickey Dee’s? Let’s face it—most of the restaurants here are slow as escargot, unless you score a lunch special somewhere. Vilde has a pretty good one, at under three euros. Oops, that’s next month. Let me try again. Vilde has a pretty good one, at forty-five kroons. However, I’m talking about dinner.

In a rush one snowy night last week, I decided to give Ruunipizza a try, on Rüütli Street. The first thing you notice, apart from the fairly extensive menu, is the ceiling. Reminiscent of a frat boy’s bedroom ego, I’m fairly certain you could look down the blouse of that hot teenager sitting in the corner across the restaurant. It’s covered in mirrors. That’s not the current owner’s doing, however. This space used to be a bar called Rüütli Pubi. Pubi means pub, if you didn’t catch that.

Rüütli Pubi had its jaans where the kitchen is now located. Just if you’re interested in knowing that. Ruunipizza built an external jaan that juts into the dining area. Made of cheap drywall and a lack of soundproofing material, I suppose I don’t need to complete this sentence.

I’d heard their food was good and cheap and fast. Rumor was right. It is cheap, and if you don’t mind cheap, then it is also good. And if you’re on a diet, then you won’t mind the portions being small either. Then again, for the price, gram for gram it’s still a bit less expensive than a more reputable establishment. Just a bit, mind you.

I ordered a crêpe with bacon, garlic and cheese. Mrs. Mingus ordered some other crêpe that had canned vegetables on it. That may sound overly harsh, right? The menu says, “Canned Vegetables”. Look toward the bottom of it. Her crêpe was nice and full, completely appetizing, in all honesty. Mine was flat as, well, flat as a pancake. I took a peek inside and it was mostly empty, compared to hers. The bacon was pre-sliced and cold as a bone. Some of it didn’t even make it into the crêpe. I sent my plate back.

Krista, the cashier (maybe also the food assembler?), never apologized, but she took it back with a smile and a moment later re-served me, again with a smile. Now my crêpe was appetizingly stuffed as well. And it’s not bad. Not at all. At least when it’s warm. I am curious though as to what kind of cheese was in it. The menu lists Saare cheese, presumably from that big western island resort place owned by Finns (like Hessburger), but I suspect the all-popular atleet juust, or “athlete’s cheese”, one of the most unfortunate food names I’ve ever heard.

Then suddenly a young man burst into the restaurant, with half-centimeter long hair, an argyle sweater vest, piercing eyes, a crooked smirk on his face that never left and a laptop bag. He loudly asked Krista from the door, “Do you have a plug for a Macintosh?” The brand name was heavily emphasized. He was proud. Krista pointed to the wall under the table next to me. That Macintosh plug was very similar to normal plugs, if not identical. He sat down and pulled out his prize machine, neglecting to plug it in. The back of the screen said, “Dell” in big letters, and there were tape stains surrounding it. I would wager he didn’t know his self-adhesed label was lost.

A moment later he started listening to rap at a few hundred decibels above what is considered polite in a public eatery. In addition to not plugging in the power cable, he didn’t plug in the earphones sitting between the laptop and the trackball mouse, which was plugged in. After a moment, I started to stare at him. He sensed it, and his smirk became smirkier. So finally I just leaned forward and ventured an “Excuse me,” which was met by his “Mis asja?” (“Huh?”) and disdainfully reluctant eye contact. I tapped the back of my fork against his earphones and firmly said, “Please.” He obeyed.

As we drove home (my diet was over, so no more walking), Mrs. Mingus remarked how our car didn’t handle the snow very well. I suggested that we sell it and buy a Mitsubishi. And then chisel off the make and stick on a Volvo symbol with wood glue. It’s true though, it’s very hard to drive on the streets of Karlova with the way the city ploughs the roads here. The city obviously hasn’t heard of snow-day parking, used widely throughout the snow cultures of the world. Park on one side of the road one day so the other side can be properly ploughed, and if your car is blocking the road, it gets towed.

That doesn’t happen though. It’s a practice that more than pays for itself in terms of ticket fines and tow-truck fees, but apparently tow-truck technology hasn’t been discovered here yet. Neither has shovel-out-your-backyard-and-park-there technology. On a more positive note, most of the sidewalks have been beautifully ploughed this year. Not shoveled, but ploughed. It’s just pure pleasure to walk in the neighborhoods and gaze at all the snow-covered trees in the parks, the asbestos roofs masked in white softness. An ATV with a small plough attached to the front drove by at more than a hundred, in a hurry to find the Rimi parking lot and get to work. Too fast for me to get a photo. I think he’s still looking for that parking lot, too. Selver’s not very far, and I should walk more anyhow, especially as it’s so pretty outside.