Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country


For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

travel, travel companion, HararThis week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.travel companion, travel, HararHere he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Books by Gadling bloggers

books,Gadling bloggers are a busy bunch. When we’re not posting the latest travel news or accounts of our adventures, we’re writing for newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Many of us have written books too.

David Farley takes the prize for weirdest subject matter with An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town. So what’s Catholicism’s strangest relic? Nothing less than the foreskin of Jesus!

Some of us have jobs other than writing and this is reflected in our work. Talented photographer Karen Walrond has published the only photo book so far by a Gadlinger, The Beauty of Different: Observations of a Confident Misfit. Flight attendant Heather Poole is coming out with Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet in March 2012. Foodie Laurel Miller is coauthoring Cheese for Dummies, coming in 2012.

Sean McLachlan will become Gadling’s first novelist when his historical novel set in Civil War Missouri, A Fine Likeness, comes out in October. When he isn’t traveling he’s writing history. His military history books for Osprey Publishing include American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics, Ride Around Missouri: Shelby’s Great Raid 1863, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: the Italian Disaster in Ethiopia, and Medieval Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons. He’s done three books on Missouri: Outlaw Tales of Missouri, Missouri: An Illustrated History, and It Happened in Missouri. He dipped into medieval history with Byzantium: An Illustrated History.

Given that we’re all travel writers, it’s no big shocker that we have a slew of travel guides between us. Andrew Evans wrote the Brandt guides to Iceland and Ukraine. Pam Mandel wrote the Thomas Cook guide HotSpots Hawaii. Matthew Firestone is a Lonely Planet regular. His titles include Costa Rica, and Botswana & Namibia. He’s contributed to several other titles. McLean Robbins contributed to the Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide (Mid Atlantic). Melanie Renzulli shares her love of Italy with The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy: Florence, Rome, Tuscany & Umbria and Frommer’s The Irreverent Guide to Rome. Libby Zay has coauthored three VIVA Travel Guides: Quito, Ecuador; Macchu Picchu & Cusco; and Guatemala.

Don George takes the cake for travel writing. Not only has he given us all some good tips in Lonely planet’s book on Travel Writing, but he’s edited a long list of travel anthologies such as Lonely Planet’s Lights, Camera, Travel!, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, By the Seat of My Pants, Tales from Nowhere, and A House Somewhere. Besides his LP titles, he’s edited Salon.com’s Wanderlust and Travelers’ Tales Japan.

So if you in the mood to read something offscreen, pick up a title from one of these talented authors!

[Image courtesy Yorck Project]

Gadling Q & A with Daniel Edward Craig, author and hotel consultant

Daniel Edward Craig shares a name with the current James Bond, and like 007, he’s a world traveler and a man of many hats. He’s taken a career in hotel management and a keen ear for storytelling and parlayed it into a murder mystery book series, an engaging industry blog, and a hotel and social media consultancy. Here he tells Gadling about his history in the travel world, who’s providing the best social media content for travelers, and what’s next in hotel trends.

Tell me about your history in the hotel and travel business.

I’ve worked in hotels off and on for about twenty years. I started on the front desk at the Delta Chelsea Inn in Toronto and went on to work for a range of hotels, from big-box to boutique, in positions ranging from duty manager to vice president. Most recently, I was vice president and general manager of Opus Hotels in Vancouver and Montreal.

What title do you think best captures your profession these days
?

These days I work as an author and hotel consultant. I left Opus at the end of 2007, shortly after my first novel was published, to complete the second and third novels in the Five-Star Mystery series. Now I am working on a fourth book as well as various consulting projects for the hotel industry, ranging from social media strategy to executive coaching. I also continue to write my blog and articles about the hotel industry. It’s been a rough few years for hotels, and I think we could all use some levity, so in my writing I try to take a lighthearted look at issues.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to managing a hotel?

I hope so. Hotels are my first love; writing is secondary. As a hotel manager, I feel fully engaged and at my best, whereas as a writer all my neurotic tendencies come out. Writing is a solitary profession, and I’m better as part of a team. Once I finish my current book at the end of this year, I’ll decide what’s next, and that could very well involve a return to hotels full-time. I’ll always write, but after a year of 4:00 AM mornings and late nights, I promised myself never to write books and manage a hotel at the same time.

What are you most critical of as a hotel guest?

I’m extremely service oriented. I’ll cut a property a lot of slack if it isn’t my style or if facilities are limited, but bad service can ruin my trip. In particular, I dislike overly scripted, apathetic service. I love a hotel with originality and a lot of life in the lobby. And I look for soul, a combination of design, culture, clientele and spirit, that intangible feeling that I’m in the right place. That’s why I prefer independent boutique hotels – it’s easier for them to do these things well.

What’s your favorite hotel?

Don’t make me choose! It depends on my mood and the nature of travel. I was just in Chicago and was blown away by the new Elysian Hotel. If I’m relaxing or working, I like the Four Seasons. I can’t always afford to stay in them, but I will splurge on a drink in the lounge and will hang around until I’m asked to leave. My favorite is the Four Seasons Georges V in Paris. But I also love contemporary boutique hotels. I’m a city boy, and when I feel like socializing I want to stay in a hotel with a scene, like the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, the Mondrian in Los Angeles, and the Clift in San Francisco. XV Beacon in Boston is also one of my faves.

Given the many social media experts today, how do you stand apart?

I’d never call myself a social media expert. Who can keep up? I’m a hotelier first, who happens to know a lot about social media and reputation management. Social media allows me to combine my two professions as a hotelier and an author, because essentially it’s about storytelling. Social media touches every department in a hotel, and as a former general manager I understand the interplay and interdependence involved, and to rise above individual departmental interests to develop a strategy that benefits the hotel as a whole.

What hotels/travel companies do you think are doing social media “well”?

I think there are a number of hotel companies that do certain aspects of social media well, but nobody is doing anything particularly innovative. HKHotels in New York are doing a great job of reputation management. Best Western runs a good Facebook page. InterContinental Hotel Group makes great concierge videos. The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee manages Twitter well. Red Carnation Hotels in London and Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver have good blogs. Joie de Vivre Hotels does great contests.

Hoteliers are great storytellers, and with all the comings and goings of guests we have a rich resource of content to draw from, and yet this isn’t translating to social media. A lot of hotel content is trite and uninspiring, and most of the voices sound the same: perky and vaguely annoying. Hotels can learn a lot from online reviewers, who spin the best stories, with strong points of view, hooks, humor, trivia and facts. I think there are huge opportunities for the hotel industry, and I’d love to help a hotel become the social media hotel in a given destination.

What made you start writing murder mysteries?

I always wanted to write, and naively thought that writing a mystery would be fun and easy. They say write what you know, and at the time I was working as a duty manager, so I set it in a hotel. Ten years later, Murder at the Universe was published. For me it was a one-off, but my publisher liked the idea of a hotel manager who writes mysteries set in hotels, so they contracted me to develop it into a series. Since then I’ve published Murder at Hotel Cinema and Murder at Graverly Manor.

After three novels, I started to get bored with my protagonist, the hapless hotelier Trevor Lambert, and all that whining. And there could only be so many murders in his hotels before people started suspecting him. The book I’m finishing up now is non-fiction, an irreverent insider’s look at hotels, written for travelers.

What do you see as the next big trends in hotels?

Mobile is huge. Increasingly, people are researching, booking and recommending travel via smart phones. Social media will grow as people continue to bypass travel journalists and hotels for travel information in favor of travelers, friends and social networks, all from the palm of the hand. When it comes down to it, however, above all hotel guests still want comfort, convenience and value. They just have much larger audiences to air their grievances to when they don’t get what they want.

What’s next for you?

After I finish the book, I’ll put book writing on hold for now and will continue to work on hotel projects, to blog, and to write articles. I’m starting to book quite a few speaking engagements in 2011. My platform as an author and hotelier is quite unique, and social media reputation management are hot topics. If I find a good job with a progressive hotel company, great, but until then I have no shortage of things to keep me occupied.

Read all about Daniel Edward Craig, his books, and his blog at his website, www.danieledwardcraig.com

John Updike: One of America’s most beloved authors dies of cancer

One of the most revered American writers passed on yesterday from a long battle with lung cancer.

I have long been a fan of John Updike, as he is truly a master of the written word and wrote evocative complex stories about America that nearly every willing reader could enjoy. His Rabbit series and short stories like “A & P” spoke to a whole generation of people from small town, middle America. He also selected the Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Updike has been an inspiration to both writers and readers alike, as he was one of the few writers in America who could cross genres between novel, short story, poem, and essay seamlessly and effortlessly, but also touch the heartstrings of readers by bringing to life even the most mundane characters. His final novel, Terrorist, published in 2006, was an opus that set in motion his views of the September 11 attacks.