Estonia through Belgian eyes
Behind a glass of wine comes the idea: ‘What if you write a post to give your point of view on Estonia?’ Instantly, the proposal is inviting, thrill rises, thoughts jostle, decor sets in …. and then comes the descent, the distress of the white page syndrome, the hesitation which angle to address. And here I am 10.000 meters above the ground, flying back to Belgium typing my account of Estonia – not the activities and places that we had the chance to browse, but rather my opinion on what makes this country so unique.
If you are Estonian yourself, you will surely find yourself a bit in here, if you are not so lucky, here is what to expect if you have one day the opportunity to visit the most Scandinavian of the Baltic countries or the most Baltic of the almost-Scandinavian country.
– 10° when we exit the plane, 5 centimetres of ice on the roads, the personal space which instantly increases by 5 meters, 2 huge dogs who jump on you on when your first foot reaches the ground exiting the car … yup, we are back in Estonia.
To get to Kristi’s parents, we have to cross the town of Võru and this is the first thing that should surprise you. Indeed: the notions of agglomerations totally change in Estonia, although having some ‘big’ cities like Tallinn or Tartu, the majority of their cities look like big villages, where the traditional wooden houses generally keep a spacious garden. More or less a dozen houses in the middle of nowhere forms a village and the rest … well … is forest. But Estonians still stay really proud of what is a city and what’s not, don’t assume too fast that you’re in a village or you may not hear the end of it. Ever.
Speaking of forests, a thousand and one things will catch your eye in the relationship between Estonia and its forests, but here are probably the two most striking ones:
Firstly, Estonians respect their forests intensely. Although sometimes occupied by the Germans, sometimes the Russians, sometimes Swedes and converted by force to the different religions of them, they have always pretended to follow their tendencies and continued in their corner their little pagan thing. Good luck trying to force an Estonian to do something they don’t want to. Even today, a majority of the population, while essentially defining themselves as atheists, views nature as sacred and trees as living creatures.
Then, as paradoxical as it may seem, forests are a social place for Estonians. Usually, they will avoid as long as possible to speak to strangers. You can find yourself staring intensely in the street, no words will be exchanged until you cross and continue your way. You will try to have the most isolated place in a bus or a cafe and will never go to ask some salt from your neighbour. First of all it’s probably 15 km away, secondly it will be unnecessary socialising. On the contrary, during their walks in the forests, it becomes essential to greet each person you meet, to exchange a big smile and ‘Tere!’. You can’t imagine how rude it would be to disrespect this elementary courtesy.
As we are in the social norm, with the Estonians it’s all or nothing and here follow some of amusing situation that you’ll encounter in Estonia.
In Belgium, unless a really formal meeting, we greet each other by kissing on the cheeks and I know that is already strange for a majority of cultures, especially for Estonians who will avoid as much as possible the slightest contact with another individual. Unless it’s a loved one and they take you in for one of the most vigorous hugs in your life as a foreigner, you’ll have hard time realising when you should do it or not. Small tip, don’t do it to a man if you’re another one, believe me it is as funny as to greet an American by kissing him on the cheeks.
Most of countries probably have the equivalent of ‘What’s up ?, Ça va? Que tal?’ in your own language. This sentence which the etiquette expects a short and positive response, rather than a complete and detailed answer of how your life is going and the last vicissitudes that have happened to you. In Estonia, before pronouncing the well-known ‘Kuidas sul laheb?’, be certain to have the time and a real interest in the answer. Indeed, you have opened the Pandora’s Box of Estonian giving you a monologue and here you are transported in every nook and cranny of their lives.
Finally there is the sauna, you now know how the Estonians are distant and modest. This is true unless you are locked in a tight and intensely heated room. Indeed, once in their sauna, all are found naked or equipped with a towel to easily sweat in a group, then run outside (yes, also in -10 °) to cool your body. Always a great time to make new friend.
Although, once used to this distance that shouldn’t never be seen as rudeness, Estonians make one of the most honest and lovable counterparts.
This honesty is also an amazing characteristic of them. You don’t need to wonder if you’re doing something well or not, or not efficiently enough : they will say it right away. But also you’ll have to master the passby of words and get that this ‘it’s … interesting’ (‘See on huvitav’), means that you definitely should reconsider your way of doing it. A thing that you’ll never be able to understand hearing the Estonian language.
The language itself sounds like a song – almost no harsh consonants and a flow which seems to follow the calm temper of its people. But oh God… probably one of the weirdest and hardest ones to learn. Their sounds just don’t make sense: they have a plethora vowels which individually are pronounced differently but in word sound exactly similar.
So on, you’ll find yourself repeating the same word in the exact same way but your Estonian interlocutor will hear two totally different ones. And be ready to look like a Neanderthal when you’ll try your best to say their long “eu”(öö, which means night) with your jaw lowered by 5 centimeters and pushed a bit front and actually saying: ‘Euuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu …’.
And to make it easier, they love small words, so be ready to find an impressive amount of 3 or 4 letters words. When changing just 1 or 2 letters, they have a totally different meaning though. So if you’re saying to someone ‘Võta minu õlu.’ (take my beer), don’t be surprise of the weird looks because probably you proudly expressed in your broken Estonian that they should take your life (võta minu elu).
The best for last, it will not be complete without a look at the Estonian gastronomy. So my first question is easy: How did this country survive before the potatoes were brought from South-America? Honestly it’s the main dish in there – in the oven, in salad, grilled. Even vodka, you know, also vodka can be produced of potatoes. Basically Estonians are made of potatoes.
Besides that, the food is amazing and the prices relatively low, so you’ll be filled with pickles, salads, fish, and a lot of different kinds of smoked dishes of which a lot of having the particularity to be made specially in smoked sauna! No way of coming back from Estonia and not rolling out of the plane.
Of course, this blog post refers only to my personal feelings and does not portray either the entirety or the most loyal descriptions of this incredible country that surprises me continually every day of my travels, and behind a veil of humility offers a myriad of sensations and wonders to discover. Spared by the masses of tourists, Estonia is a country which stays authentic and humble, where people are proud to share their knowledge in the most genuinely nice and charming way.