In this edition of Open Mic, Päivi Pilvepiir, a former contractor for state entrepreneurship funds and a past ERR News contributor, highlights some areas to address, and warns that dramatic irony hangs over some of the achievements Estonia touts as great feats.
1. Make sure street signs and other relatively permanent and expensive infrastructure are in good English before sending them to production. "Museum of Children" in Kadriorg district brings to mind eerie wax statues or worse, a case for the Interpol missing persons office. But there are many, many other examples. If there's ever a country where these grammar vigilantes could operate, it's Estonia.
2. Stop touting free WiFi as if Estonia were the only place in the world that had it. It's not that revolutionary, and besides, practically everyone has cellular capability now. Although the ubiquity of 4G networks has also become a popular slogan, you still hear the free WiFi line. Who in the world other than Estonia is trumpeting free unsecured WiFi? Developing countries like Morocco and Thailand, that's who. Beautiful, world-class destinations, but not Estonia's echelon. Anyway, there's plenty of free WiFi in Helsinki and Stockholm, and there's also Old Town bars in Tallinn that have time limits on free WiFi. Ultimately, free WiFi exists because Estonia's too small to be noticed. Sooner or later, there will be a legal problem, and you know which way the courts will decide: they will hold the cafe owners responsible for content that damaged someone important's reputation. That will basically be the end of free unsecured WiFi.
3. Personable and friendly service may be too broad and ambitious a goal, but here's something for starters: barking a short "Uh?" is not a polite way of saying "Pardon? or "Excuse me, I didn't catch that." It's time to retire this one, and teach children from early on (age 2) that "Huh?" is not a way to ask people to repeat themselves. Not even in Estonian.
4. Ban cars from the Old Town, completely. If you're going to have a medieval theme park, do it right. There weren't that many cars around in the 16th century. The place is crowded as it is, and the sidewalks can be less pleasant to walk on than the cobblestones. Especially in winter. There's nothing more stressful than having to worry constantly about a tipsy Russian Embassy driver coming screeching around the corner. Isn't the new car-free Harju street simply wonderful? I think so. Concrete pigeons are our friends.
5. Don't be so fixated on "highest," "biggest." Sometimes it seems that the focus group for the country's tourist strategy was an elementary school class from Põltsamaa. Brochures tell us about "Saaremaa's Grand Canyon." Vertigo is, or was, a restaurant on, gasp, the ninth floor. The TV Tower, an ordinary high building, has a glass floor and has now started to offer parapet walks. That's pretty cool, but I wouldn't put so much effort into all this. Estonia does not have mountains and real skyscrapers, the view from the highest hill is not worth the 3.5 hour drive, and the TV tower is a nice refit but it's not an absolute must-see. And that's fine. As for the fact that St. Olaf's was once the world's highest building? I'm not so sure it was talked about back when it was.
6. Different types of street food; more good bakeries. Raise your hands if you're tired of sugar-roasted almonds. Time to bring more variety into the mix, and I don't mean different flavors of roasted almonds. How about grilled Batic herring? And more independent certified vendors. How about fresh-baked pastries - everyone loves those. Oh yes, there are a few Uzbek pastry kiosks on the fringes of the old town, of all things, which hints at pluralism and diversity, but it's somehow sketchy, like maybe they're operated by the same people who sell the amber and Russian dolls. It should be possible to buy a classic Estonian meat pie (lihapirukas) on the streets, straight from the deep-fryer. This is something emigres dream of, incidentally - õlis küpsetatud lihapirukad. I remember how five years ago, an Estonian visiting me from Marin County wanted one just like grandma used to make, and finally had to wait in line at a chain cafe to get some kind of stale trans-fat-laden factory-made thing.
7. Ditch the restaurant touts. This isn't some southern European or north African backwater. And if it was, then it would be the real McCoy, a big swarthy guy with chest hair offering to make special fresh fish for you at his family business. But the restaurant greeters who are the nemesis of flaneurs in Tallinn's Old Town often seem to be drawn from the same ill at ease, aloof contingent who hand out free flyers. The whole idea of someone cajoling you to visit a restaurant seems unsavory and exploitative. Tallinn should be classier. If it's such a wired place, then the visitors have presumably scanned a QR code or positioned themselves and checked the reviews for a restaurant and made up their own minds.