Naked in Tallinn

I travel internationally for work, and there I live life as an alien. I practise few local customs well. I have few local friends. I must observe, think carefully, and adapt. I must ask questions we haven’t asked since we were 5. Which phrase means “Men’s Locker Room”? How do I avoid being fleeced, when the currency is unfamiliar? Why doesn’t my cell phone work?

(Written November 10, 2012.)

Today, I am in Estonia, where the wild people live. Finland is near Estonia. Party-animal Finns weekend in Estonia when they want to drink and party harder. Estonian and Finnish languages are clipped, with punctuated consonants. When two consonants are together, you hit them with a hammer. The Finnish language is precise and angular, like modern art: Rauschenberg, Mondrian, Braque. Mikkolainen, a Finnish last name, is MiK-Ko-lay-naN. Bam! and Done! The Estonian language is like impressionist art: Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh. It is modern, certainly, but with a wild side ready to take you to the forest. Keskküla, an Estonian last name, is KesK-Koo-la. Bam! and then we wander around.

Estonians settle conflict as forest communities might, and there are many conflicts to settle. Prior to 1989, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. The developer workforce is young, and unencumbered by past arbitrary rules. Taxi drivers are old, and as professionals express anger if you try to tip them. Young capitalists stand in awe and appreciation when NATO planes fly overhead. Older Estonians sometimes speak only Russian and often long for the days of the occupation, when their economic future seemed safe. Estonians traditionally bond in saunas. Here, working agreements are established in nakedness.

I went to sleep Friday night at midnight, Estonian time. I dreamed I was walking through a normal work day, going to one meeting after another, and then noticing I forgot to put on clothes. I’ve had variations of this dream a few times before. I often wonder whether it actually happened and no one told me.

I woke up at 6:00am to call Melissa Lunden, because she was having a party (9:00pm California time) to celebrate Barack Obama’s re-election. She mentioned that some estranged friends were conversing. We marveled and pondered. I went back to sleep.

I woke up again at 10:30am. I was out of clean underwear, a result of packing light. But I was hungry, I wanted breakfast. So I dressed commando. Whatever. I was hoping the restaurant was still open.

I walked out to the elevator lobby on the 26th floor, pressed the down button to go to the restaurant and waited. I tapped my foot. I turned around, Just two meters away stood a naked guy. I jumped a bit. I said, “Oh Hi!” He said something unintelligible. I thought it might be Estonian. Maybe he was going to the sauna. I said, “I’m sorry, I only speak English.” He said, “Oh, well, me too!” I noticed he had pressed the up button. A down elevator arrived. Ding! I said, “Bye!” He said, “Bye!”

I walked into the elevator, pressed the 8th floor button, and it wouldn’t light up. The door closed, but the elevator just sat there. If the door re-opened, I would have to figure out something else to say to the naked guy.

Finally, the elevator started going down, but the 8th floor light never lit up. Probably it was called to the front lobby, I thought, The 8th floor restaurant must be closed. But it stopped on the 8th floor.

I walked out. There was no food in the buffet. There was a hostess. She said, “I’m sorry, the restaurant is closed. We can bring you room service breakfast for €6.” I stood there for a second, uncertain what to do. “Would you like to order here and go back to your room?”

Yes, I thought, I need to find an excuse to hang out here until the coast is clear. Otherwise, I will have to think of something to say to the naked guy.

It seems like we should have something to say, when we encounter a naked guy in the elevator lobby. Was he going to a sauna? But the sauna is on the 11th floor, so that didn’t make sense. Was he looking for a romantic partner? Evidence indicated no. Was he sleep-walking through an Ambien-fueled dream, where he was going through his work day naked? Maybe. Was I an uptight prude, who couldn’t simply ask him why he was standing naked in the elevator lobby? Maybe.

“Yes,” I said, “I would like to order breakfast. Omelette with salmon, cheese and tomato; rolls; croissants; coffee. Thanks.”

I rode the elevator back to the 26th floor, found no naked guy waiting for me in the elevator lobby, went to my room, and started writing down this story. I found some underwear. I didn’t have to go commando all day.

I remember thinking at various times that I wanted to be careful not to discuss my experience with the staff, fearing they might sterilize the hotel and make it impossible for naked guys to surprise us in the elevator lobby. I wanted him to have his naked view from the top of the hotel, his pursuit of a partner, his dream of walking through the day, his drunken aftermath.

I liked him for challenging my thinking. I want us to ponder life as different, to imagine how such a life might unfold, and to think about how we might help our naked friends live their lives fulfilled.

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