Sunday, November 20, 2011


A while back I noted there was not much available in Tallinn’s Old Town in the way of food after eleven at night. There are a couple mystery meat kiosks, and also this place called Taco Express. It’s nasty. I’ve talked about it before. A friend suggested I check out a place called VS. The sign outside calls it “Kohvik VS” but all its menus, indoor signs and webpages call it “Café VS”. So café vs. kohvik. “Mingus, café is kohvik in Estonian.” Thank you, Anonymous.

I was in Tallinn for two nights, staying at a friend’s. It was the night of the big game—one of the Irelands vs. Estonia. Around four in the morning, the doorbell on the intercom rang.

“I’m staying at my friend’s place, in apartment three, but I don’t have the key. Can you let me in?” the slurred Irish speech was heard on the speaker.
—This is apartment three, you idiot. My host was visibly annoyed.
“Oh. Um, then my friend is in apartment four.”
—Nice try.

When we left the next morning, the Irish guy was asleep on the stairs inside the door. Asleep in a pool of his own vomit. Someone in the building had fallen for the trick, and the guy had fallen on the floor. My friend nudged him awake by gently tapping on the clean part of his back with his shoe and told him to leave. When we returned later, one of the other tenants had left a nice little sign on my friend’s door. There was no evidence of any stranger having created this work of modern art, and so we took the blame. The Irish guy just needed a place to sleep and splatter. It was a huge, organic mess.

Reinu Pizza has a museum in Tallinn, but it goes by its Estonian acronym—GAG. Pass this place if you’re coming from the train station, turn left at the Savisaar sign, go past the warning sign, go through the bar district and continue out of the Old Town for another ten minutes to get to VS, on Pärnu Road. It’s open late. Real late.

I went with some friends after going to the movies. The menu is long, the prices are acceptable, the portions are big, and the kitchen is visible. I had never been able to watch chefs at work, and now there were two such restaurants in Tallinn alone—VS and Vapiano. Apparently hygiene is a problem in the food industry, so these venues seek to reassure customers. If only they could do something about cashiers in supermarkets. So many times I’ve seen them wipe their noses and then weigh my vegetables.

One of my friends ordered some pasta dish. She said it was a bit bland. Another friend ordered a wrap. I don’t understand wraps. Vräppid in Estonian. The first time I’d had one was here, in fact. I thought it was an improperly made burrito, so I avoided them for years. I didn’t know they had become an international phenomenon during my time here. They’re pretty good usually.

I decided on the English breakfast. As it was English, it was nothing spectacular. A fried egg, fried tomato, sausage, bacon, beans…English vs. American breakfasts are interesting. The latter usually sports a stack of pancakes and something called a breakfast sausage. I love those. The closest thing to a breakfast sausage in Estonia is the grilled sausage in lamb intestines. It’s very close, in fact—the main difference is that with lamb entrails vs. breakfast sausage, you at least know what you’re eating. The American breakfast sausage might not even be made of material that was once alive. But it tastes good.

My host jokingly said, “I bet they have twenty kilos of bacon in the refrigerator here.”
—Yeah, you could probably just walk right in there and take it, I responded in jest. We’d had a couple beers. We were being silly.
“And do what with it?”
—Cover the walls, floor, ceiling, tables and chairs and the bar with bacon. A bacon bar.
“You probably shouldn’t do that,” Krista the waitress had meanwhile arrived to take our orders, overhearing our conversation and responding in English.
—Of course not, I reassured her.
“Seriously, don’t take the bacon,” she insisted.
“Don’t put bacon all over the place.”
—We were joking.
“I would have to be the one to clean it up,” she was getting more and more irritated.
—I’d like the English Breakfast, please, I tried to change the subject.
“OK. And anything else?” Krista asked.
—Extra bacon please. I couldn’t resist saying it.
She just stared at me, wondering if she could trust me to not line the windows with salty pig flesh.
“I’m sorry, I can’t give you extra bacon,” she finally decided.

It was me vs. the waitress. She won, because I simply didn’t feel like explaining that it was just a joke. My friends have since been back to VS. Each time, they ask for extra bacon, while looking at the ceiling. They ask where the bacon is stored. They ask how much it costs, and who does the cleaning. Krista still doesn’t get the joke. I’ve been telling everyone I know that if they happen to go to VS, ask about the bacon.

In hindsight, I remembered there had been two tables of Irish football hooligans. They’d been causing problems for Krista, and she apparently hadn’t been able to differentiate between our accents. She thought I, too, was from one of the Irelands. That explains why she just couldn’t take a joke, even though it wasn’t directed at her. But when it comes to Tartu vs. Tallinn and waitstaff understanding the often patronizing behavior of patrons, the result is a tie. I am beginning to understand why no waitress in Tallinn or Tartu has ever asked, “How are you today?” It’s not because she doesn’t care. It’s because she doesn’t want to know.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Kebab Pizza

“Eat my shit!” a man named Jukka screamed in a heavy Finnish accent. I think his name was Jukka. Someone kept saying, “United States of Jukka”. He was frantically nailing wood to an outhouse in a field in an effort to lock in a fat man who was equally frantically trying to get out. Pants down, he started crawling through the hole in the seat, getting covered in what Jukka had just suggested he eat, as they flooded the small room with tear gas. It was disgusting, it was uncalled for, it was playing loudly on the television while I was eating a Finnish kebob.

A little research revealed the show is called The Dudesons. Just so you know. I was eating in a new place on Narva Road in Tartu called Kebab Pizza. There can be no mistaking it—they sell kebabs and pizza. An interview I read with the owner revealed that he originally wanted to sell soup, too, but “Kebab Pizza Soup” wouldn’t fit on the sign.

The owner, Kristjan, said in the interview, “There are kebabs available in Tartu in a few places, but they’re not real. I don’t know if the seasoning is different or what, but something is wrong.” He also admits to having spent time in Finland (i.e. construction worker), and liked the kebabs there, so he decided to try out his own kebaberia in Tartu. And good for him! Honestly, I did enjoy my meal, and the price is right at three euros. He also had financial help in the form of several döners. Ha!

But I have to say I find it at least a bit odd he would use a Finnish kebab as his template. Kebabs are Turkish originally, specifically German Turkish, which was probably copied in Denmark and eventually made its way to Finland, and now on to Estonia. I had to remove a few pickles from my kebab.

As I studied the menu for the first time, I couldn’t quite figure out how this particular kebab enthusiast had decided to interpret an authentic kebob. The first thing I smelled when I walked through the door was ketchup, although I didn’t actually see or consume any. The kebab with freaks, first on the menu, seemed good. I asked about it.

“What is your kebab with freaks?” I asked.
—It’s a kebab, with freaks, Krista the waitress dryly replied.
“No bread?”
—We don’t serve leib here.
“No, I meant is it wrapped in a tortilla or something?” I pronounced “tortilla” correctly, the double ell pronounced like a wye.
—Of course it’s not in a tortilla, she corrected me with a double ell sound. It’s rolled in pita bread. It’s the kebabirull.
“Oh, ok. And what kind of sauces?” Please don’t be ketchup! Please don’t be ketchup! I silently prayed.
—Salad dressing and kebab sauce.
“Kebab sauce? What’s that?”
—It’s the stuff in this bottle.

She pointed to a bottle behind her that said, sure enough, “Kebab Sauce”. I ordered one. She said it would take about ten minutes. I was in no hurry, but I still couldn’t understand why it would take ten minutes to roll a kebab and squeeze out some sauce. But I think I know why now. I could hear all sorts of chopping and cutting in the kitchen. My roll/wrap/kebab was served with a smile. There was a basket on my table with a bottle of red liquid in it. Alas! ‘Twas no ketchup, but Tabasco! Awesome! The kebab thingy itself was nice and toasty warm, not scalding hot like when it’s fresh from the microwave, and even the lettuce and other fillings were warm, as was the pita. That was very nice, I must admit. But the pickle…

I found out about this place in the Postimees Online newspaper. Fifty comments. Most of them, as usual, from retarded monkeys. Some gems from among them:
—I hope it’s a real kebab, like in Sweden.
—A pureblooded Estonian don’t eat no kebab, our food is barley and pork.
—The main ingredient on white flour, lots of fat, some salad/onion/cucumber/tomato slices and the money will flow.
—We really need a diner where they offer sauerkraut and barley and fresh milk for a normal price.

The last two comments aren’t worthless, however. They’re critical of the fast food culture, and pine away for what they consider healthy food. The last comment, as you might not have noticed, mentions nothing about food with color, such as salad and onion and cucumber and tomato. And fresh milk, while indeed tasty, is loaded with fat and a whole host of other health risks. That’s why pasteurization was developed.

Other comments talked about name laws. While I strongly support local business using Estonian names and words (why be embarrassed about your language, Estonians!?), I think that with this place in particular, not much of a difference would be made if it were translated. Pitsa Kebaab. That’s because the foods themselves are imported concepts. You don’t hear tales about Uncle Vello, who lived three centuries ago, and his amazing noodle. No. Today, you hear about boys named Kevin-Ritšard who eat topsikoogid and tšipsid. Where did all the barley go, you might ask while sipping on a two-liter plastic bottle of Karuõlu (Bear Beer)?

But this place is nice. The guy had the guts to open a new place that didn’t offer mystery meat burgers, and from my experience today it was “quite normal”, in the Estonian sense (that means “pretty good” in Language). Hopefully he won’t get lazy and dependent on store-bought, pre-made ingredients and turn into a food assembly. I will definitely visit again, but I do hope he changes the channel on the television.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Years ago a friend had a house in Võru County that was robbed. The thief took everything. Dishes, towels, furniture, electrical wiring, even a plank of wood from the floor. There was one lamp that apparently was not to his liking, however, as he left it there. He didn’t forget to cut off the plug though, and steal that, too.

Our friend was devastated, of course. She invited us over to have a few drinks and complain about the crime. But Mrs. Mingus and I had good news to brighten the mood at this small party—we had just that day discovered we were going to be parents. An interesting spectrum of emotions that night, ranging from rage and loss to delight and elation. Then our friend’s sister showed up with a pastry that changed my life forever.

A small, white cake, hard frosting on top, with a layer of apple-flavored something or other in the middle, nestled between what seems to be a sort of short bread. “What is this?” I asked in utter bewilderment. “It’s amazing!”
—It is Alexander’s cake.
“Who’s that?”
—No, in Estonian it’s “aleksandrikook”.

The next day I looked everywhere. I tried each different aleksandrikook I could find, all of them more or less disgusting. Some had chocolate swirls on top, some had pink with chocolate swirls on top, and they were all dry. Too dry to consume. It was like eating old hay. Then I found the right one: Pagaripoisid. Pagaripoisid (Bakery Boys) is a bakery factory in Tallinn. They have a small chain of cafés in various cities in Estonia—not, of course, in Tartu, however. This cake is my favorite store-bought pastry in the country.

Our friend’s thief was caught, and confessed. He served a month in prison and was ordered to pay for damages. He is now (or perhaps still is) an unemployed alcoholic. He will never reimburse our friends for his crime of desperation, and will eventually die a pauper.

In summer of last year we installed a water system at our summerhouse, also in Võru County. Fresh stream water, purified by a good water filter as well as a network of beaver dams upstream. After a long day of healthy, hard work in the yard, which is my passion in hot weather, we could finally take a shower in amazing water. (I was surprised…the water you bathe in really does matter!)

Just two months later, Mrs. Mingus went to check up on the place, and discovered the sauna had been robbed. The thief took everything. The water pump, water boiler, shower curtain, shower, a bucket, almost-empty bottles of shampoo, a bar of soap that probably had a hair dried on it, the pipes running along the walls, the outside lamp, and half a roll of toilet paper.

This reminded me of a story I once heard. A thief on Saaremaa robbed a house and took a dump under the tree by the window he’d entered through. He then wiped himself with his phone bill, which of course had his name on it, and he was quickly arrested. He was released three days later. At the same time, a newspaper headline announced that Edgar Savisaar had been missing for three days.

I was at home enjoying an aleksandrikook with my kids when my wife called, in tears. “They took everything,” she sobbed. I told her to call the police, and when they arrived more than half an hour later, they began their investigation.
“It’s very unlikely that we’ll catch your thief,” the officer said.
—But what can you do to catch him? my wife pleaded.
“We’ll just register what was stolen, and it will enter the official statistics.”
Then I had an amazing idea. It was risky, it probably wouldn’t work, but it could change the course of Võru criminalistics forever. Take fingerprints!
“He won’t have left any,” the officer tried to get out of doing his job. He was pressured to dust for prints, and found some on the window that was broken into.
“The prints won’t be on record,” the officer tried to get out of doing his job. A few months later, we got a call from the Võru police. The thief had been caught red-handed, emptying out another house. As it turned out, he had robbed more than twenty houses in the area, leaving prints which—the officer was right—were not on record, but which could now be linked to the man himself, because the officer had been pressured into dusting for prints. He confessed to all the crimes, and was due to stand trial.

I bought some aleksandrikooks to celebrate. By this time, Pagaripoisid had changed the color of the frosting to pink. It still tasted the same. That is the wonder of modern chemistry. Pink frosting tastes like white frosting, and pink powder can catch a criminal with white-power tattoos on his arms.

We drove to the Võru police station to file charges, and answered specific questions about the price of each item stolen. Luckily we had receipts for everything. The detective would only tell us his name, but we found out—by accident—that the criminal would have full access to all our personal information, which had been required by the police in filing our charges against him. Address, email, telephone, children, how often and when we went to our cabin, and so on. Such is the legal system in Estonia. The detective, I think her name was Anne Pihus (she had talent in the palm of her hand!), raised a stink when we demanded that our personal information be removed from the case file, but she eventually complied.

I searched for the thief on-line, and found him. He owed money to half a dozen banks, creditors, casinos and so on. There was no way we were ever going to get any money back from this asshole, who had apparently never done a hard day’s work in his life. Then a couple weeks ago, I looked him up again, just a week before his scheduled trial. He now had a Facebook account, and I could see photographs of him. He was a musclehead. A member of three different gyms and weight-lifting clubs. So that’s how he could single-handedly lift the boiler off the wall while it was still full of water. You could see the tattoos on his arms, one of which was also anti-gay. Sentencing him to jail would obviously be futile, because he was so homophobic he would not be able to properly enjoy his prison time.

Then his trial was just last week. He didn’t show up. I sent him a reminder about it on Facebook, as Mingus, which of course is my real name. He didn’t respond. He did, however, manage to sell his Võru apartment in an auction, for eleven thousand euros. How he was allowed to keep this with all his debts and crimes is beyond my comprehension. And doesn’t skipping trial count as contempt of court? Shouldn’t the police have immediately gone to arrest him? Apparently the Võru police don’t use Facebook. This morning, while sitting in Pagaripoisid headquarters in Tallinn, on Vana-Lõuna Street, enjoying an aleksandrikook fresh from the factory floor, I looked him up again. He’d updated his current city to Madrid, Spain.

I know of someone else in Madrid. At least he used to live there. The local Nazi ringleader Risto Teinonen was hiding out there for years. Now he’s been kicked out of his own Nazi party because—surprise, surprise—he’s actually gay.

The staff are polite in Pagaripoisid, but ordering a coffee seemed somewhat tricky. “…and I’d like a coffee too, please”, I asked politely.
—What size? Krista the waitress asked.
“Just a small.”
—We don’t have small.
“What do you have, then?” I was a bit confused already.
—We have medium and large.
“How can you have ‘medium’ without ‘small’?” I just couldn’t resist exploring the logic behind this.
—What do you mean? Krista asked.
I explained the theory of medium being a comparison of small and large, and that without the former, you could not have a comparison.
—Do you want a medium or a large coffee? she asked, getting exasperated.
“I would like a small coffee, which you call a medium,” I compromised. But she actually smiled, finally realizing the oddness behind their sizing system.

But regarding the thief—I’m not angry that I won’t get money back, but I am annoyed that I won’t get my time back. The time I spent installing the system, roughly twenty hours, and I will have to do it again. Come to think of it though, I will have paid for the water system twice, once it’s replaced, and I would have probably paid an equivalent amount a third time as well, in the form of tax money spent incarcerating this worthless person who in no way contributes to society. Now it is Spain’s problem. He will go to jail there eventually, I am sure.

But wait! I will, eventually, pay that same amount twice more for his more expensive Spanish prison expenses in the form of tax money spent on a financial bailout. So I can’t quite decide if the police are doing anyone a favor by freely allowing the thief to skip the country. Estonia basically already has the highest percentage of its population in prison in the European Union, and it has to let other countries help clean up its mess by letting its criminals go to these countries to export their skills.

Why can’t Estonia export pastries instead of criminals? They could make a killing on these aleksandrikooks. Export cake to pay for its criminals. I don’t think Pagaripoisid is the best pastry company I’ve ever tried. Far from it. But I do think it’s the best in Estonia, and the aleksandrikook is heavenly. The main reason why is that they are not afraid to use flavor and moisture in their products. Eesti Pagar, Astri, Pere Leib, Lõuna Pagarid, and other similar bakery chains are just boring and dry. Some of them make good kringels, but that’s about it. Fazer is decent, but their products are available absolutely everywhere, and they’re Finnish, not Estonian, so I can’t really include them in this list. Unless of course you take into account that many of their factory workers undoubtedly come from Estonia to escape prison time.