When Obama was inaugurated, Tartu blogger Mingus offered hope and couscous at his home -- sort of a gesture of goodwill from one president to another, you might say.
What does Mingus preside over? Well, many things, but chiefly the state of food criticism in Tartu. There are only really about two rites of passage in Estonian culinary life. One is being "outed" by your friends to the magazine Oma Maitse, who send a crack team of writers and photographers to your home to sample your cooking. And for food professionals, there's getting your restaurant or kiosk reviewed in City of Good Food.
Last weekend, I finally had a chance to do the one thing better than accompanying Mingus on his weekly beat, and that was eating couscous (and many other things) in Tartu at Mingus's place with his family. The idea was to incorporate these traditions by reviewing Chez Mingus...au Mingus, except without the photographs. Stay tuned for the result -- on Mingus's blog. All I can say for now is that hope may now be a scarce commodity in January 2010, but if there's one thing that might rekindle it, it could be that lemon and green olive couscous.
While waiting for Obama's big announcement about the iTablet, we recently got a surprise here in Estonia. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik held forth for close to 4,000 words of his own at a media conference. Entitled "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" and taking the form of a dialectic with himself, it had all the trappings of a "legacy" speech, something for the presidential library perhaps, notwithstanding the fact that the president told everyone at the beginning to take the bulk of his comments as those of an ordinary (if slightly more demanding) citizen and media consumer.
The topic was democracy and the free press and trust in democratic institutions, but basically it was a hour-long tongue-lashing of the press for losing sight of what (to Ilves and a posse of media theorists from different eras) should be their proper role. Apparently media should not be absolutely free after all, but should be engaged in an intricate dance with the government with its own ritualistic rules. I've never been fond of such an approach; it seems like statism. For me, the media IS the watchdog. And "who will watch the watchmen?" can ultimately be answered in four words, not 4,000: "You and me both."
In any case, given that Postimees dutifully published Ilves's words unabridged in the opinion section (they spilled over on to the next page, almost bumping the other columnists), I'd say his own institution is safe for now. Whether Ilves's re-election is safe is another story.
But to be fair, you have to read between the president's lines. Somehow, even though all of the local geopolitical winds seem to be blowing in the right direction (the euro, NATO contingency), and even "gas supply and payment problems" have not emerged in the coldest winter in 20 years, there's a sense of danger building. Russia is gearing up for a propaganda offensive. Ukraine has somehow been stolen back, in broad daylight, with none of us even sleeping. It's similar to the way Latvia is still majority Latvian and people there are gloomy about whether the future of the language and the nation is that iron-clad. Although Ilves closed by warning that a homegrown dictator like Päts might take over if the press doesn't get its act together and behave more judiciously -- Päts often seems like the #1 bogeyman -- "Russia resurgent" was never far from his mind. It's like that Siberian high pressure system that has brought a big chill to Estonia for most of this month. No one is quite sure what makes it possible; you can only see a couple days ahead. Nothing is safe, and our own funnymen and critics can be our own downfall.
And after initially put off by the thought of a 4,000-word speech (OK, presentation) I actually found myself liking the fact that we have an eloquent president worthy of Lennart Meri, who is not below quoting Juvenal but is not above explaining what the quotations mean -- in Estonia's case.