the elf advises

foxandtomten3IT’S HARD TO RECALL when the elves first came into our lives, but it must have been during our oldest daughter’s second Christmas. The jolly child — who was adorable, with fat apple-red cheeks — would awake in the weeks leading up to Christmas to find some sweet waiting for her in a slipper beside the window. “Oh, päkapikud tulid,” she would mutter to herself on those long-ago mornings, munching on a chocolate, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

For her, as an Estonian, it was natural.

To me it was strange. Having grown up with different, American traditions, I understood that two tasks were assigned to elves. The first was to observe children in the weeks leading up to Christmas to see if they were deserving of gifts. The second was to spend the rest of their waking hours toiling away in some kind of massive factory at the top of the world to produce those goods. So, espionage and slave labor. Such was the lot of the elves as understood by the Americans.

The Estonian elves were different. Independent, crafty. They were the undisputed Lords of Christmas, to whom everyone else, even Santa Claus, was secondary. The entire Estonian Christmas holiday revolved around their stealthy movements. From the moment the first sweets arrived at the beginning of the advent until the last bites of blood sausage were digested on Christmas, the elves were essentially running the Republic of Estonia. Children would gather and sing songs to revere these tiny gods. “Meil on päkapikud käinud, aga neid me pole näinud …” “Kuidas kõnnib, kuidas kõnnib, väike päkapikk.”  “Seal elab päkapikk. Seal elab väike päkapikk. Seal elab päkapikk.”

They were also active in commerce. I will never forget the day I strode into a home goods store in Estonia, only to be greeted by an enormous icon of a wise-looking, red-hatted elf that read, “Päkapikk soovitab” — “The Elf Advises.” The Estonian elves, like the Estonian themselves, were quite resourceful. Not only did they deliver chocolate, but they could advise on sponges, rat poison, moth balls, and the like.

Our nine-year-old daughter has kept me up to date on the activities of the elves this year and I continue to learn more about their habits. For one, I am told that the elves are no longer peddling only in sweets. Some children come to school boasting that the elves have brought toys, even hover-boards. Others get whole boxes of candy, rather than just the traditional one or two pieces. She also knows exactly when the elves arrive. “Well, considering they start at midnight, and have to take care of the Finnish kids before they get to the Estonian kids, I would estimate that they come anywhere between 2:30 AM and 4 AM,” she informed her curious younger sister. When I asked her how she knew that, she scoffed at me. “Huh. Everybody in school knows that.” Selge.

It’s interesting how these children understand intuitively that the Finnish elves and the Estonian elves are connected. I know that it was several years ago when an Icelandic acquaintance mentioned to me in passing that the elves had recently visited her children in Reykjavik, leaving behind the same offerings of chocolates and modest gifts in slippers placed by the windows. As I began to read more about the role that elves have played in ancient nordic pagan beliefs, I understood that elves have been prowling around this part of the world for a long time. It made their appearance in our home, year after year, seem rather precious and sacred.

international wardrobe


It was all quite exotic. My clothing had been to more places in the world than I had.

YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN IT, a massive pile, like my own private garbage heap. Almost every item of clothing I had retained in the past 36 years was amassed on the bed in my new apartment, pants, socks, underwear, long underwear, dress shirts, ties, suits, pants, sweaters, socks, t-shirts, hats, belts, jackets. And just when I thought I had assembled it all for a final round of sorting, a suitcase was discovered that contained even more clothing! Somehow, I was supposed to dig through it all, excavate the gems, pack away the summer clothes, and find a way of discarding the remnants.

As a person who had little to no interest in clothing design, yet of course appreciates how well they can look and feel, it was truly dull work, so I decided to make a little sport out of it. With a fresh page in my notebook, I began to mark down the nation of origin of each item of clothing I owned. This was in part inspired by a recent documentary I saw, The True Cost, which highlights the uglier aspects of the global “fast fashion” industry, from murderous sweatshop collapses in Bangladesh to carcinogenic pesticides poisoning the minds and bodies of cotton-growing America.

Sure enough, Bangladesh was a popular country of origin for my attire, and so were several other Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia among the most popular. Since most of my clothes were purchased in America, this made me quite curious. Weren’t our airplanes bombing Vietnam and Cambodia just a generation or two ago? And now those people are making our clothes? Well, well. We must have mended ties and become good friends again.

Of course India and China were the two most prolific producers of Justin’s international wardrobe, which makes a strange kind of sense, as they do have the largest populations in the world. Most of my undergarments, including the long underwear I use daily here in snowy Estonia, were made in hot India.  My higher quality clothes — dress shirts, jackets, and ties — were pieced together by the hands of millions of Chinese women who are in general paid about $1.26 a day for their work.

There were some surprises in the mix though. Shirts from Peru, ponchos from Pakistan. I even had a shirt from Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. I had to double check its location. It was all quite exotic. My clothing had been to more places in the world than I had. There were other revelations. My Irish flag t-shirt had been produced in Thailand, not Ireland. My “Jorge Ben Brazilian Beat Box” t-shirt hadn’t been made in Brazil, but in Haiti. Haiti! Of all places! And my ultra-patriotic Captain America t-shirt had been stitched together by Mexican senoritas. My Breton sailor’s shirt was made in France though. That was a relief. My only EU-made item.

Those are just my clothes. I haven’t surveyed my daughters’ clothing, but I know a great deal of it comes from their beloved “Haa ja Emm,” fast fashion supreme. You can imagine how thrilled my girls were when H&M came to Tallinn, and then even more floored when it opened its glass doors in Tartu. Any time any one of these international brands comes to Estonia, they are welcomed like a liberating army. Yet this liberating army of fashion brings with it an unsavory sweatshop supply chain and a consumer junk culture that results in mountains of useless stuff. So, I am still sorting my clothes as I write this. If anyone wants to buy some old crap, you know where to find me.


Some photos from a secondhand store in Tartu. The owner scolded me and asked me why I was taking pictures, as if I was a spy from a rival secondhand operation. “Art,” I told her. She looked confused.

a real finnish party


This column appeared in the Oct. 22 edition of Postimees

HELSINKI, FINLAND, beautiful and baffling. Whenever the hulking ship ports and I wobble off in the direction of Aleksanterinkatu, whenever I hear the words spoken in the tram lines and outside the bars, I get that sensation that perhaps every Estonian knows — How is it possible that there is a country of five million people whose language sounds like some hick South Estonian dialect?

Yet even though they sound like country people, they have built this magnificent city. They have organized the Nordic Business Forum and flown in talent to address thousands of attendees, most of the speakers coming from my country. That’s right, this American traveled to Helsinki to write about other Americans who were flown into Helsinki to speak. Skateboarding godfather Tony Hawk was even in Helsinki. There was a half pipe in the exhibition hall. That’s how impressive Finland is.

After a day working as a reporter at the forum, I met my Estonian friends who invited me out to drinks — at the Estonian House. There we could drink Estonian beverages and listen to a band made up solely of Estonians. When I mentioned this to Niina, a Finnish colleague at the conference, she frowned and said, “That’s right, the Estonians always insist on having their own separate event.”

That depressed me. If there was anything I wanted to do in Finland, it was socialize with the locals. I found something both peculiar and enchanting in their special looks, those beautifully flabby cheeks, the strange slope to their eyes. I loved the lush roll of their ‘r’s. Some were from Helsinki, others from Jyväskylä, others from Vaasa. They were wonderful characters and I wanted to hear their stories. But not the Estonians. Oh no. They wanted to sequester themselves in their own special house!

You know why, don’t you? It’s because the Estonians and Finns are sibling nations, and, like all brothers or sisters, they can put up with each other at family gatherings, but sometimes it’s just more comfortable to sit in opposite corners of the room, ignoring each other. This is what was going on that night in Helsinki. This is what I had stumbled upon. A classic sibling relationship.

If you ask the Estonians, they will tell you that Finland is “boring” for them. This isn’t the case. Siblings are never boring. They are alarming, distressing. They make you feel weird inside. They remind you of private things that you would much rather forget. Better to be among other Estonians in a controlled, safe environment. I was frustrated there in the Estonian House though. I searched the crowd for a familiar face, Juhan Parts perhaps, but he wasn’t there. Then I noticed beautiful people descending from the antique staircase and went up, hoping that there might be something interesting going on, a bordello perhaps, but no, there were just more Estonians drinking. It was like a bad dream.

At last, I left the Estonian party and went out into the streets in search of my real Finnish party. Surely, I would find some pretty Finnish girl named Virpi or Marjukka and tell her my life story. “And it all started here, in Helsinki.” By that time it was 1 AM, and after drinking and dancing with the Estonians all evening, I was too tired for adventures.

I went to my room to sleep instead.