Thursday, May 29, 2008

...meanwhile, PayPal seems to fully support Baltic accounts now, in that it's possible to receive money, and withdraw it as well (for a fairly reasonable flat 2 Euro fee).

Which is nice.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Functionally Immortal

Tartu residents, rejoice: Zavood is not going anywhere.

Tartu is a campus town, so for a community of a hundred thousand it has a massive amount of pubs, most of them congregating within a reasonable stumbling radius of the University main building and the central dorms. A lot of these pubs come and go, but some are permanent fixtures - and the most legendary of Tartu booze houses is Zavood.

Its main virtue is opening hours: Zavood stays open until four AM, long after most of the rest, and even after the clubs have shut for the night. Once the main entertainment is concluded, those with a high alcohol blood content drift towards Zavood, a few rooms in a semi-basement down an alley just outside the Old Town. There are other late-night haunts in the city, but Krooks is a metal pub with its own specific audience, and Half Six is not bohemian enough. Zavood has no pretensions, not even a theme as such: it is the quintessential student pub. Loud, relatively cheap, and very seedy. Also very full. Tartu is not that small, but if you've lived here for a few years, you know that on any given night you can show up at Zavood around 1 am and see someone you know - probably on their fourth pint of cheap lager.

Zavood seems functionally immortal. All Tartu pubs suffered a great blow when the EU smoking ban came into force, but Zavood somehow just made it work: on a really good night the inside is likely to be reduced to a steady stream of customers picking up their glasses, while most of the socializing happens in the alley outside, conveniently equipped with concrete bannisters on which you can leave your drink.

It is this aspect of Zavood that irritates the owners of the building, a student fraternity. The Zavood mob, while mostly friendly, can get unruly; some of the other tennants complained, and the fraternity tried to pull the lease. It looked like the legendary pub would have to close up after August - or at least move.

Now, it seems that Zavood's Italian owner has made his arguments stick in court; the fraternity's decision to kick them out came after the new lease had been sent off for signing, so according to Zavood, the extension till 2011 is binding. There's some legal hustle related to whose signature was on which paper when, but the preliminary ruling seems to have been favourable towards the pub, so it looks like the Tartu fixture will stay.

See you there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sing Praises

I'm a blogger, and thus, by definition, a critic - but I do try to be constructive, and I take real pleasure in praising a job well done. In the spirit of that, I have had some really, really good experiences with - an Estonian online shop selling all sorts of electronic bits. I've used them before to buy an Xbox 360 wireless controller (for my gaming PC, natch - allows me to get the most out of my big LCD TV and my awesome red leather couch), and they did a great job. Their main line of work is small-wholesale sales to corporate IT divisions, but their website does allow single item purchases fulfilled directly by GNT, the big warehouse that brings most electronic components into Estonia and serves a lot of the retail shops.

So now, I have a new toy. Retail price for this is at least 4000 eek, and that's at the house of ill repute that is K-Arvutisalong. sold it to me for 3260 eek, including delivery to my door in Tartu the next morning. Brilliant.

Now you lot, who are reading this blog, will need to suggest cool destinations for the new gadget. ;)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Europe's Marshall Plan

Via Postimees comes news of a project devised by Poland and Sweden to create a loose affiliation between the EU and five nearby states: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Eastern Partnership would involve visa-free travel, free trade, and the very voluminous umbrella term of "strategic partnerships".

Brilliant. This is the first truly plausible and useful act of EU foreign policy that I've seen. Edward Lucas ought to be extatic: weary of Russian and Iranian sabre-rattling and back-room negotiations over contested membership plans, the EU begins to play sphere-of-influence games unashamedly. The EP has already received support from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands; France is expected to play along in return for approval for its own similar project in the Mediterranean and North Africa. That will also bring support from Spain and Italy.

The beauty of the EP and MU projects is that they return to the core values and competence of the European Union: economical rather than political; practical. They offer the affiliate countries the benefits of the rich, powerful, clever, established force that is Europe, without the restrictions of membership - and often those simply cannot be implemented in adjoining states even with the best of goodwill - and without the finality of taking sides, either against Russia or against the extreme bits of the Middle East. Poland, the dreadnought of New Europe, is expected to take the lead in incorporating the leftover bits of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and the North Caucasus, while France has taken it upon itself to spearhead the EU's expansion of influence into near Arab territories, where it has a presence and a history. (While its colonial past might bother some in North Africa, France has been the neutral party in Middle Eastern affairs since the middle of the 20th century.)

The EP/MU initiative allows Europe to pursue its interests on the south-eastern bearing without getting bogged down in the quagmire of politics and offense; it will be playing against the other major entities in the region on its strengths. There is a lot for Eurocrats to get wrong here, but if they succeed, it will assert the EU not only as a common force, but undeniably as a new world superpower.

Friday, May 16, 2008

In every port in the world...

you will find Estonian beer.

I'm sure Mozambique has a port...

A somewhat odd brand, created for export by Tartu's A. Le Coq (hence the signature pyramid bottles) and completely unaffiliated with the Wiru Õlu factory. The latter were quite good sports about it actually, saying they didn't mind - it was just free advertising for them.

I still remember the cognitive dissonance of seeing a bottle of Türi Vodka in a San Diego supermarket - at a price far exceeding the familiar output of its middling Estonian manufacturer.

Still Alive

Surgery went well. Out of the hospital now. Feeling vaguely like Doctor Who after a regeneration cycle ("huh, new teeth"). Wondering how long I will be pissing green for.

No solid foods for six weeks. Hopefully not being hungry will help; also, the really awesome Kenwood smoothie machine I have at home. Looking forward to trying various ways of crushing berries in liquids.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two Revolutions

I expect I'm the last Estonian blogger to mention something about the Laulev Revolutsioon film. I kept putting off seeing it, despite all the publicity and good reviews; I finally got the DVD when it came on sale in the supermarkets. Yes, I actually paid my 12 Euro for it.

The story told by the film is one that needs to be told, and I think I'd say that even if I had nothing to do with Estonia. It is a story of success, and an inspiration for anyone. Discussions of the Soviet Union's demise can take up a few blogs' worth of space on their own - the arms race spendathon, the Afghanistan war, the Warsaw Pact's obligation for financial assistance to Communist bloc states, etc. - but none of that diminishes the accomplishment of the Baltic states. There is an old short story, by someone famous I'm sure, about hunting dogs - how a pack of ferocious wolfhounds needs a single pitbull. When they have a wolf surrounded, the dogs know he's doomed - but none of them will attack, because the first dog to make a move will get badly hurt. So they need the single little pitbull, who is no match for the giant wolf, but he has no fear; he'll jump in first and distract the beast, so the hounds can finish the job. In the same way a decrepid empire can last for a long time, surrounded by hesitant enemies, until one brave soul goes for the throat.

The Singing Revolution, a film made by American expats, goes a long way to explaining the nature of Estonia's independence to people who might not have known much about it. In that, it serves a very important purpose; however, I could not help but feel that it was a bit shallow. It went into some detail about the actual mechanics of restoring the independence and the relationship between local and Moscow authorities; but not quite enough. There is a remarkable special, about an hour long, that was broadcast on the Kalev TV channel, which showed the process in great detail, and I seriously recommend it to anyone interested in politics, statesmanship and negotiations. (If any readers know the name of that film or can provide a link, I'd be very grateful.)

The other side of the story is the spirit. And here too there is a better example. The Tustys actually struck a very good balance for a film aimed at foreigners - they couldn't make it too intense, or it would throw off the audience. But if you're really interested in the sort of feeling that fuels a singing revolution, you need to watch the Revolution of Pigs.

There have been a number of big movie productions in Estonia in the decade. An interesting aspect is that the posh ones fail. The most painful Estonian movie in recent memory has been We Will Not Sleep Tonight, featuring a load of individual talent mixed together to create ninety minutes of wank. Fortunately, that same year it had an antithesis: a film made completely by amateurs, on pure enthusiasm and love of the art. With actors selected from an open casting call of regular schoolkids, and a crew that completely lacked pretension, they made something absolutely remarkable - a movie that was true.

Sigade Revolutsioon is actually based on a true story - the rebellion of a camp of teenagers in the 80s, bussed out to the countryside ostensibly for work duties. The film shows how the kids, apprehensive about their future, scared of conscription into the Soviet Army to go and die in Afghanistan, and tired of the bullshit spewed by their loyal Communist elders, decide to stop obeying the great machine. The beauty of the film is in the details, but the importance is in the story. The actual uprising of 1986 probably didn't quite happen like that, and the film does not furnish a happy ending; the Soviet Union is still stronger than any individual. But these kids look and feel real, and you know that five years from now, they will be at the foot of Tallinn's TV tower, standing together in front of the armoured combat vehicles of the Pskov Airborne Division. Our world's true heroes are the ones who will stare down the barrel of a gun unarmed, and say to the soldier who could murder them by the thousands: You Shall Not Pass.

The whole world knows the recipe - and effectiveness - of Mahatma Ghandi's revolution: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. The problem with a Ghandi-style revolution is that you need a Ghandi to do it. The greatest message that you need to receive from these two films is that it was done by regular people. There was no Last Action Hero here, no Neo, and no V. The pitbull that went for the wolf's throat was an ugly little bastard. For all of its tanks, missiles and KGB firing squads, the Soviet Union was brought to its knees by a bunch of bearded geeks who simply said no.

Every country needs a revolution like that.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Estonian Healthcare - Redux & Personal

I've written before about Estonian healthcare - how it's considered crap, though probably undeservedly. Of course, it is difficult to pass judgement on a system that you've only ever used for trivial matters. I've had major surgery when I was very young, but that was still in the Soviet times and I remember nothing of it. Otherwise I never had cause to avail myself of Estonia's hospitals for anything more serious than an adenoid removal, which took half a day and resulted in as much ice cream as I could eat; not a complete waste, then. A couple of years ago I got into a fairly impressive car accident, was ambulanced to Tallinn and checked over at the ER; I was sent home the same evening with some stitches and a concussion. That was luck. But in 2008, I've been deliberate.

I'm a big guy. Always have been. I'd resigned myself to being fat for the rest of my life; and then I decided I was going to do something about it. The key factor was the appearance of bariatric surgeons in Estonia; but the turning point was late last fall, after I'd been swimming regularly, three times a week, for about half a year. I was feeling a lot better and gaining muscle mass, but not really losing much weight. My last bit of self-deception - that I could get into shape through diet and exercise - fell away: there is no way I will ever have the sort of self-discipline for the sort of massive weight loss I need. There are people in the world who've done it, and I have the greatest respect for them, but that's not me. Growing up fat meant a lot of confidence issues; Antyx readers will recognize that confidence is not something I have a problem with. The way I did was to stop hating myself. Self-discipline on the order required to go from the clinical definition of morbidly obese to more or less normal would have to stem from a burning hate for my own body; and that is not a choice I am prepared to make. Even if it kills me.

Fortunately, I now have the opportunity to cheat; to achieve the result while bypassing the part that makes it so difficult for me. Not that the cheat itself is particularly simple, but it's something I can do. There are surgeons in Estonia who do the operations that result - reliably - in radical weight loss; I am still young and have most of my health; and I can afford the surgery. I'm paying a little over two thousand Euro for it, which isn't a lot. Thanks to the Estonian healthcare system.

My first move was at the end of 2007, when I saw my GP (or rather one of the GPs sharing a pool of patients) for a severe sore throat. I got a week's bedrest and a referral to an endocrynologist - a specialist on metabolism. Since this was not an urgent matter, I got put in the back of the queue; a little over a month till my visit.

When the time came, it was all remarkably efficient. I paid 50 EEK (3 Euro and change) for the initial visit. The doctor ran a bunch of tests, some that afternoon, the rest on the next morning. A week later I got the results, with commentary, and some research on the state of bariatric surgery in Estonia. The doc confirmed the diagnosis I'd known already: hyperinsulinemia, the most remarkable thing about which is that it is not diabetes. What it does do is cause an appetite disproportional to consumption. By this time I'd recognized that I eat more than most people; but I do it without really thinking about it. It's the difference between hunger and appetite, and it's something that ought to be fixed well by an operation that constricts the volume of the stomach. The endocrynologist gave the go-ahead.

I then contacted the surgeon, from a Tallinn private practice. It took a while to set up a visit, and when I did travel to the capital, it turned out that he was in surgery; apparently he actually works as a gastric surgeon on the staff of Tallinn's regional hospital as well. Fair enough, really; but what I did find out was that the metabolism workup was not sufficient. I'd also need to be cleared by a gastroenterologist. Fortunately, I could do that in Tartu.

This time I didn't feel like waiting a month, so I cheated. I paid the university hospital for an unreferred visit to a specialist doc. My 300 EEK (20 Euro) got me a time within two business days of putting in the request on the hospital's website. Since I did actually have national health insurance, that was all I paid; the ultrasound, gastroscopy and doctor's consult were all free. The GE was one of those old doctors that somehow instill tremendous trust. (I've never been afraid of docs, not even of needles when I was very little; an old relative that died before my birth had been something important in Estonian medicine, so all through my childhood various doctors had been very pleased to meet an heir to that family. Comes with having an uncommon last name.) She gave me the OK, and mentioned what she knew about the bariatrics in Tallinn; some 70 surgeries had been performed successfully there.

Most of those were of the really hardcore kind. There are three types of surgery available, and the most radical one is an actual bypass, where the patient's guts are rerouted. (Curiously enough, since it's purely surgical and does not involve any medical gadgets, it gets paid for in full by the national health insurance.) The least invasive type is the gastric balloon, which they insert through a tube down your throat - but it stays there for no more than 6 months, and I needed a longer-lasting effect than that. So I'm getting a lap band - a sort of belt that gets tied around the top part of the stomach. The upshot is that very little food can actually fit in there, so I can't overeat - and apparently most of the nerve endings are at the top of the stomach, so I constantly feel really full. It's not a magic pill, but it's been around for decades, and it seems to really work.

The great thing about the lap band surgery is that they're not cutting any internal organs - just adding a new bit. Sounds safer than removing an appendix.

Today, after my extended three-day birthday celebrations involving cake and a last Chateubriand stake from the Crepp meatery, I weigh 149.8kg. My surgery is on Wednesday. I'm about to put my gut where my blogging finger is.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Happy Birthday to me. :)

I'll be at the Maailm pub on Friday night if any Tartu readers want to come along and say hi.


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