Monday, October 10, 2011

The little country that could

Hundreds of millions of people have skype accounts  … yet when I mentioned I was going to the country where skype was developed, very few people had heard of it, let alone knew where the hell it was.  Estonia is a tiny country south of Finland, bordering Russia and Latvia.  After explaining the geography and the fact that Estonia was, until 1991, under soviet rule, most of my friends were still puzzled as to why the hell I wanted to go there.   It was for precisely this reason I wanted to go, Estonia was an unknown entity, slightly off the regular tourist trail.

I set out with certain stereotypes in my mind about what I might find in the “east”.  The images I had of these former soviet states conjoured up by  the media over the years were of glum looking old women wearing scarves, rundown depressing-looking soviet style cement buildings and grey skies. 

So when I arrived in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, I was pleasantly surprised to find modern buildings and facilities flanking a beautiful old town, complete with a large town square, large churches (lots of them despite the fact Estonia is considered to be the most atheist country in Europe) and cobblestone streets lined with cosy restaurants and bars.  There were definitely some glum old ladies who seemed to eye the foreigner towing the massive camera with some scepticism.  However, considering Estonia has been conquered and re-conquered by several different nations throughout its history, I could hardly blame them for being a little wary of outsiders.  They also have to deal with the constant influx of unruly English men who flock to the Baltics for stag weekends, a phenomenon that would irritate even the most tolerant of people.  However, most of the locals I encountered, particularly the young people, were friendly and eager to help out a lost tourist with their impeccable English. 

It would be hard not to appreciate the spirit of the Estonians, who in 1989, turned out in their hundreds of thousands to form a human chain stretching across their country, south to Latvia and Lithuania, singing to call for an end to Soviet rule.  It worked too, Estonia declared its independence two years later and now Estonians brag about how they used only the power of their voices to win their freedom.

I was lucky enough to be shown around Tallinn’s bar scene by a “local” expat and his Estonian friend.  They not only introduced me to the many “characters” of Tallinn but a nasty local concoction called a “millimalikus” (or at least that’s its phonetic spelling), which consists of tequila, white sambucca and Tabasco, and burns all the way down! 

A hot (or rather cold) topic of conversation in these bars was the impending winter.  One metre of snow, only hours of daylight and temperatures of minus 30 degrees is what these people have to look forward to in the coming months.  But unlike London, which shuts down entirely at the first flake of snow, the Estonians are troopers and only allow their children to stay home from school when it reaches minus 24 degrees!  Apparently it’s also entirely normal during winter to do a serious injury slipping on black ice.

Even with the biting winters and the fact that only in the last two decades have the Estonians actually been allowed to govern themselves, Estonia is like the little country that could.  It’s got a big brains trust for a country with just over a million people.  It was Estonians who developed Skype and Kazaa, it’s gained European Union membership and has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.  I enjoyed my time in Estonia and imagine that in the very near future when I mention my trip, a lot more people will be able to point to Estonia on a map!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! You're such a good writer, and I am excited to live vicariously through you =)

    -Dasha (I can't seem to comment with my gmail account)