Disclaimer: there will be more personal and less travel observations in the long post below!
It is now exactly a year since we returned to Europe from 18 months in Dubai. 10 years ago yesterday David became my boyfriend. How time flies!
A difficult start
The return to Estonia did not go smoothly and caused us some major headaches last spring. We bought an apartment in the hipster neighbourhood of Kalamaja in Tallinn. Kalamaja literally means ‘fish house’ and probably gets its name from houses belonging to fishermen back in the day. Our apartment is in an old factory complex, which was a secluded area only accessible with special permits in the Soviet times. There is construction going on around us 24/7 and the sound of drilling has become a part of our soundtrack to life.
The Baltic sea is about 300 m from us, but there is no beautiful beach of promenade to go to to admire the cold waters….yet. A wonderful Dubai-style marina is planned in due course. We do like to take Oskar for walks by the seaside, which means trudging the edge of a ship building factory, past a museum for old ships, through an old prison (where my grandfather was sentenced for hoisting an Estonian flag at his school at the age of 15 and where our wedding guests went for a rave 7 years ago).
None of the banks would give us a mortgage, because we were both employed abroad at the time and received our salaries in GBP and AED. Thus we were not the standard easy customers, who are easy to do checks on. We spoke with every bank in the country and they all came to the same conclusion: come back in 6 months when you have worked in Estonia for a while. At the same time the awful property developer was threatening to keep our down payment as a ‘fine’ should we not hand them all the money by a certain point. In a miraculous way we finally got a mortgage through connections. Quanxi is not only a Chinese thing. That must have been the most stress I have ever experienced in my life.
We got our keys in March and moved in in May. From January to May I stayed with my mum in Võru and as David was still working in the UK, he stayed with dear friends, the Barwicks, who have been simply amazingly welcoming, warm and exceptional every time we go to the UK. Oskar and I spent almost a month there in March, enjoying the daffodils and greenery for a nice change from cold in Estonia.
A very British experience
I had the most British experience while in the UK. Susie, our Zimbabwean mum in Bourne End (small town by the Thames, close to London), does flower arranging. She also did the flowers for our wedding in the UK, which were the national flower of Zimbabwe: flame lilies.
Flower arrangers have what they call ‘demonstrations’. When I first heard Susie talk about these demonstrations I thought she was such an active social citizen, always demonstrating about something and voicing her opinion in public. Then I realised that a demonstration in the world of flower arranging means making a flower arrangement live on stage and telling a story to go with the arrangement, while other ladies watch you. Oskar and I went along with Susie to a demonstration she did in Amersham (I think – can’t remember exactly as it was a year ago). The venue was a local town hall. Upon entry we were greeted by a friendly lady with a magnificent perm, who was selling the tickets, which she kept in an old biscuit tin. The carpeted floor had probably seen numerous weddings, flower arranging demonstrations and village parties. Portraits of the young Queen and Prince Philip were hung on either side of the stage and the seats were filled with ladies (and some gentlemen) chatting excitedly.
As soon as we sat down, Oskar received a lot of love and smiles from everyone around us. Susie was already on stage cracking jokes about her gardener back in Zimbabwe, who could not grasp the idea of planting inedible flowers in your garden.
She made three very different and very beautiful arrangements, of which I have no photos sadly. Towards the end of her demonstration, I heard the kettle boil in the adjoined kitchen and plates of biscuits started appearing on the table on the side of the room. It must be utterly inconceivable to have an event without tea and biscuits in Britain. A tradition I love. I grabbed some biscuits and tried to balance a cup of tea and a baby in my arms while scoffing custard creams. Could not have been the most elegant of looks. I introduced Oskar to some of the ladies, who must have found me very exotic with my accent. Hopefully my ginger baby balanced the foreignness a bit.
I lived in England for 7 years, but have never been to a more English event during my whole time there. It would make a perfect setting for an episode of Midsomer Murders. It was like going back in time to 1950s, when strong communities existed in every village and where people still had time and willingness to come together and support each other, to just have a chat and exchange ideas over tea and biscuits (must never forget the tea and biscuits). The room, the atmosphere, even the language used made time travel possible for that one afternoon in a small town in England.
While staying in Bourne End, we made a trip to London to meet some friends, who now have a baby of their own, who has already been to Estonia. Joshua, your first mention on my blog – a day to remember.
We mostly spent our time in England walking around the beautiful green fields that surround the friends’ house we stayed at, and venturing to small villages around to sample their cakes and coffee. I still find it extremely strange how British babies almost never wear hats and gloves while their parents do. Explain please! Are your babies not cold? Or are our babies overdressed? As you see, I think of some of the greatest conundrums in life these days.
Our long-distance marriage lasted for almost five months. We managed to see each other every month, sometimes even more often. David came to Estonia quite a few times. We spent a small fortune on flights, but it was important for Oskar to see David and vice versa.
The job hunt proved rather difficult for David, but he finally managed to find one and on the 22nd of May we moved into our flat. We lived without a kitchen for four months, without a sofa for a month and are still without a bed. Yet we had and have everything we need and while it was uncomfortable at time, in hindsight it all just seems ridiculous and funny.
Tallinn + Helsinki = Talsinki
Unfortunately, but also luckily, David’s Estonian job did not work out. It was a sales job, and he is an engineer to the bone. Very soon, an opportunity for a dream job in Helsinki presented itself. Airbus was looking for someone exactly like David. It is a match made in heaven and every evening David tells me what a great day he had and how exciting it is to do something he loves here. Here means there in Finland. He goes on Monday morning and comes back Friday afternoon. Helsinki is only 2 hours away on a boat and the port is about 5 minute drive from our home. However, the creator of Angry Birds, Peter Vesterbacka, is planning to build a tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn, which would render the journey time to 20 minutes. Ideal! Please get it done fast, Peter.
I like to say that we are now a traditional Estonian family, with the dad working in Finland. We call these people Kalevipoeg, after the hero of our national epic, because he too went to Finland. Estonian builders, doctors, bus drivers, dentists etc flock to Finland in huge numbers for their higher salaries and perceived better quality of life. Finland to Estonians has always been like the more advanced, more secure (alas not a NATO member) and more ‘Western’ brother. Finland celebrated its 100 years of independence last year and we will celebrate ours on the 24th February this year. The languages are very similar. The big difference in economic development was created by the fact that Estonia was a part of the USSR and Finland was not. The Finnish people I have met have been warm, friendly and welcoming and nothing like the stereotype that claims Finns are cold and distant.
We are planning a trip to Northern Finland next summer, so we are mentally preparing to fight millions of mosquitoes.
Life in Tallinn
I love Tallinn. I really do. So many (Estonian) people have asked me why. After living in China, Dubai and London, Tallinn is like a small village, which offers everything that these big towns did, apart from stressful traffic and pollution. I step out of my building and can walk anywhere I need to go. True, some places might be difficult to maneuver with a pram, but there are no obstacles that a bit of muscle power can’t tackle. I have found that service in cafes and restaurants is really good and friendly, which is not the experience many others speak of. True, the service at some of the government instances is cold and distant, but I do those things online, so I never have to go and confront a sulky underpaid official. I realise that by virtue of doing things online I might be robbing said official of his or her job.
Tallinn is so baby friendly. Every restaurant and café has multiple high chairs, and the few that do not, will apologise profusely and will have one by the next time I visit. Apart from a Korean restaurant, which we tried to visit and were swiftly kicked out of for it is actually a brothel run by a Korean guy, who has been pimping women and making kimchi in the heart of Tallinn for decades.
Many of the restaurants offer baby food, almost all have changing facilities and some have playrooms for kids. There are plays and concerts for babies, swimming lessons, yoga, pram friendly hiking trails and even baby opera.
In the winter, you will find prams parked under café windows with babies happily sleeping while mums are inside enjoying a coffee and pastry. If a baby wakes up, passers by would help them or let the mum know if she hasn’t seen it herself yet. I may still have my rose tinted glasses on, but my day-to-day experience out and about in Tallinn with a baby is great.
Oskar has now started day care part time, which is why I actually have time to write this blog. His day care is in our building, so all I need to do is to get in the lift and push a button and we are there. It is bilingual – German and Estonian, so maybe Oskar will be tri-lingual, who knows! His current repertoire includes emme (mummy), dada, and kaka. The essentials.
The Kalamaja neighbourhood used to be very downtrodden and poor not so long ago. Then, artists started to move here and it became the ‘bohemian’ neighbourhood. And then developers realized the potential of the neighbourhood and a lot of young families moved in. The pram traffic is just as heavy as the car traffic on the roads. Estonians are rather shy, so the mums sometimes slyly smile to each other recognising their similar circumstances. Oh, did I mention that maternity leave is for 3 years, and 18 months of it you get full time pay? Yes, everyone move here.
So it has been a great few months getting to know our new neighborhood, meeting new people and catching up with old ones. We celebrated Oskar’s birthday in November and have already had a lot of visitors, including David’s cousin and his wife from Scotland.
Winter distribution 2.0
David’s parents made the move to Portugal last September and are now living in a small town of Miranda do Corvo near Coimbra in Northern Portugal. They have a beautiful house, which we are yet to visit.
Laurie, the Winter brother who found me, is enjoying life in Dubai. This is him on his surfboard below. What’s not to love? Line up ladies, get in touch for his details.And we are here, in Winter wonderland. Commuting between countries, as you do, and having our ears slowly destroyed.
We hope to see many more of you this year and you are welcome to visit us in Tallinn any time (excursion to Helsinki included :))