I miss the anonymity of China. Not a day goes by in Tartu without seeing someone I know or recognise. This is mostly nice and helps me realise I am back home, but gets strange at times I can’t remember the person’s name or how I know them. Also, there is nothing more average in Estonia than being blonde, so I suppose I don’t feel so special anymore. I have not yet gathered the courage to venture into one of the many Chinese/Asian restaurants in Tartu, but I have looked at some menus, all of which sound even stranger than the supposedly Chinese places in the UK. Estonians’ love for potatoes gets in the way of everything.
David and I have both just finished two weeks at our new jobs. David’s company is very young and fast-paced whereas mine is one of the oldest universities in Europe, very majestic and time-honoured. We have both enjoyed our transition to the Estonian life. I can’t speak for David, of course, but if you leave aside the recent cold wave and snow, he seems to have adapted quite quickly and has picked up a lot of Estonian in a very short time.
Things I’ve discovered about Estonians
I left Estonia when I was 19 and haven’t lived here again before now. I find myself noticing things I would never have seen when I was younger. It seems to me that behind the stern exterior and tough ‘Eastern man’ reputation (to you, foreigners), the Estonian men are actually some of the most polite I have seen and known. Opening doors, buying flowers and most importantly, always agreeing. David has also come a long way since I first introduced him to the first world and replaced the loin cloth with trousers.
I noticed that Estonian women, young and old, are very lady-like at all times. Even university students wear leather boots, fitted jackets and keep the tracksuit bottoms strictly for the gym. Italian women have something called ‘bella figura’, which is almost like a life philosophy by which one must always look and act in the best way possible. I believe this also exists in Estonia, but we don’t do it consciously.
Things David has discovered that I already knew and didn’t tell him, because they are not so nice
A lot of the older generation in Estonia are quite racist. The fact that a vast majority of them have never encountered a person of a different race does not stop them from associating negative thoughts with people who are not white. There are quite a lot of Romani gypsies in Estonia, who have a reputation of being the worse of the worst. They are thought of as thieves and liars, which I cannot confirm nor deny as I haven’t had nearly any contact with them. I believe such thoughts are the reason why this community is so segregated from Estonians and so both of us continue happily living with our prejudice and stereotypes.
There are two types of Estonians: Estonian Estonians and Russian Estonians. Try as we might, our relationship is not great. We blame history and culture for our differences. Due to Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, the tensions are currently running higher, but I do hope that David will soon find some Russian friends, so he can understand that the difference is not as huge as we like to make up. While I am on this note, a lot of very scared Estonians think Russia is going to invade us again under the pretext of protecting its citizens, who are being persecuted in Estonia (according to one Mr. Putin). So as always, grandmothers are causing panic and gathering goods for the imminent war.
David has found out that there are a lot of broken families in Estonia and a lot of kids my age (I am a kid) have divorced parents or know quite a few people whose parents are divorced. If you look at statistics, though, the divorce rate is quite small, but that is because the marriage rate is quite small, too. Based on my observations I would say getting married is not as important step in Estonia as it is in say China or the UK. Children and buying a house often come before marriage. The current (my) generation may have been put off marriage due to their parents’ high divorce rate.
Things I’ve rediscovered
The cakes and desserts here are just on a different level. No Italian tiramisu, American pie, English pudding or French crème brûlée can match our creamy, berry, chocolatey cakes, pies and desserts. There is simply no comparison for me. I realise that I am probably bias, but I’m not! The expert opinion of a great Zimbabwean dessert connoisseur agrees with me a 100% and that is not because he has learned to agree with everything like the Estonian men. There is a café across the road from the university, which we frequent for cakes, tea and coffee. They are open till 1am, so even midnight cake cravings shall be satisfied.
As some of you may know, there is no life in Estonia without sauna. I go to sauna after the gym nearly every day and it is glorious. Even the gym saunas here are properly hot and you can throw the leil (the process of throwing water on the hot stones after which the sauna gets extra hot due to the created vapour) and nobody is scared to get naked. Sauna is also a place where families and friends get together at the weekends. It’s a very social activity and people spend hours on the process of going to sauna. Eating, drinking, chatting, whipping yourself with some branches and various beauty procedures from lathering yourself with honey to scrubbing each other’s backs are all parts of the procedure.
Estonian food is actually really nice. We have started to visit the local farmer’s market every Saturday. Sauna smoked ham, pickled vegetables, fresh herring and tens of dairy products are on offer amongst other things. We get a lot of our food from my grandma, too. I now know what it would have been like had I gone to university in Estonia – endless supplies of potatoes, jam, pickles and various jarred goods from sourkraut to borscht.
Some places, people, things in Tartu