For anyone who didn't already know- I went to Eesti (Estonia) last week! It's about a 2.5 hour drive to the border from St. Petersburg, where I'm staying for most of August, so Roman and I decided to go visit his friend who lives in Tartu. Basically, Estonia is a small Baltic nation with a population of 1.3 million. The largest city is the capital, Tallinn, followed by Tartu, then Narva on the Russian border. Throughout the 4 days I was in Estonia I tried to write down notes as my thoughts came to me, so I'm just going to publish all of that. I know it's a little long, but I promise you'll learn something and the end is kind of funny ;)
Having focused on the Russian/Eastern European world for so long in my studies and personal life, it's difficult to put myself in the mindset of the typical American and see their perceptions and stereotypes of this area. To me, "Estonia" brings to mind a pretty varied bundle of ideas, but to an American who has barely heard of the country, the image is probably much more singular. Well, let me try and expand your understandings of this little nugget of a nation.
First of all, it really is tiny. There are about 1.3 million people in the country, and a big chunk of the population isn't even Estonian. In Narva, the third largest city, the majority of the population is Russian and Tartu, the second largest city, is largely international students. Although it's common to hear Russian on the street and many signs are tri-lingually in Estonian, Russian, and English, Estonia is NOT Russia. Estonia is very much more European than Russian, and being here just solidifies my opinion that Russia is not really Europe.
In Estonia: the streets are clean, there are lots of disability-accessible facilities, roads are significantly better than in Russia, people are more open and friendly, architecture is pretty different without Orthodox churches being the dominant feature (Estonia is majority Protestant). Of course, Estonia is part of the European Union and the Eurozone so license plates are European, the currency is Euros, and EU flags pop up here and there.
I think overall I would categorize Estonia as "pleasant". Tartu is a pretty pumping place on a Friday night with so many students and a small, concentrated center, but so much of the country is blink-of-an-eye, 50-home farming villages. It's quaint and quiet and calm. The Russian stereotype of Estonians is that they are slow (owing in part to the language with repeated vowels everywhere and extremely long words), and I think it's a pretty fair description. It almost feels like a near-transparent patch that lets itself be saturated by influence from others. It reflects and absorbs, but I'm still trying to find the authentic, unique Estonia that I'm sure is underneath! **I'll note that I am in Estonia in August, part of a short period of warm weather and sunny skies late into the night, which definitely affects peoples' behavior and my perceptions. **
Seems like all the people here effortlessly and arbitrarily switch between Estonian, English, and Russian. Estonia has a huge Russian population. I just saw my Russian friend speak English to an Estonian waitress!
Traveling makes you more self-aware as much as it makes you more aware of the world. Being in Estonia where so many people speak English (as their second, third, or even fourth language!) has made me more conscious of how my own language sounds coming from others and myself. I've started to pay more attention to the "Americaness" about me as well. Clearly my accent is American, but also the way I dress, walk, wear my hair- even my teeth (or maybe especially my teeth)! I was walking past a group of young Estonian boys and I dropped my sweater but didn't notice. They called after me in English- they may not have known I was American, but they at least suspected I was not Estonian, and either way expected me to understand English.
I'm not sure if it's Russian and Estonian culture or just our choice of restaurants but we are like always alone in restaurants...
There are so many young people in Tartu. I guess because of the university, but I see them staffing the incredibly fun and interesting science center (mom- you've gotta see this place!) and restaurants, playing hacky sack in the park, relaxing on the banks of the (pretty dirty) river, drinking beers and laying on the grass in the city's main square- it's invigorating!
We left Tartu 13 hours ago, waited at the refugee-camp of a border crossing holding station at Piripunkt for 11 hours (with a few trips to McDonalds and the "mall"), and are now finally heading towards the actual border crossing station! I've eaten approximately 30 cherry filled cookies, 2 McDonald's "milk cocktails", a liter of orange juice, listened to what appears to be the same song on repeat on "Europa Plus" radio, just about beat Plants vs Zombies a second time, poured 15 liters of gasoline into our tank with a homemade nozzle (pretty sure my hands will smell like gas forever now), and practiced driving stick shift! What a day...lesson: BOOK YOUR SPOT IN ADVANCE! And even then expect to wait several hours. Or, better yet, cross through Koidula...