Interview | American student on swapping Virginia for Estonia

Curiosity and part-Estonian heritage were the key reasons Kirsten, a 21-year-old American studying international business management at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) decided to come to Estonia, even as the dark fall days and a far more reserved populace sometimes make this a challenge, she tells state integration program New in Estonia.

While Kirsten says she loves many things about Estonia, reaching out and having genuine contact with people here can be tricky, she says, and has caused her to struggle a bit.

During the she has year spent here, Kirsten has in fact made friends with foreigner nationals more than Estonians, whose trust she says is harder to win than she imagined.

From sunny Virginia to the dark Estonian autumn

Kirsten hails from Virginia and says the impeccable reputation of Estonian higher education was not the only motivating factor that brought her to Estonia and to TalTech, where she studies at the faculty of economics.

Her family roots also drew her here. 

"My mother was born here and lived in Estonia until she was 21," Kirsten says.

"Then she moved to America, where she met my father." Kirsten says she has learned a thing or two about Estonia from those of her relatives who have stayed here, while she also visited her mother's homeland a few times with the family when she was a child.

"Despite that, I felt that my Estonian roots remained more of a mystery to me, and I didn't quite understand what kind of country it was," Kirsten says.

However, when it was time to choose a university, Kirsten says she was convinced she wanted to study in here, not least because quality higher education was cheap in comparison with the US, along with the motivation to reconnect with family.

"I have always thought I would like to live in Estonia for a while," she says.

"I have a family here, about whom I knew very little, and people speak here a language that I have had little contact with, but which still interests me."

Getting here turned out to be easier than expected, and Kirsten commends the national immigration services and communication. "Estonia is many times more web-based than many US states, and all kinds of information are freely available on various websites," she says.

"A surprisingly large number of helpful websites and informational materials are available in English, and I also managed to transfer many documents digitally."

The New In Estonia website was and is a great help to her. "Oh, I love this page. "Why don't we have something like this in America?"

"I got a lot of practical help from the page, even before I came here. It gives a pretty accurate overview of Estonian culture, what a foreigner moving here has to take into account, and what to expect." When Kirsten had health problems at the beginning of the year, for instance, she got help from the same page.

Free public transport and walks in nature

Kirsten's eyes light up the most when she talks about public transportation in Tallinn and in Estonia. "In America, I'm used to driving everywhere by car. Here, public transport is free for students (and, in Tallinn, for all residents of the capital – ed.), buses run on time and according to the schedule and there are stops almost everywhere," she goes on.

Coming from Virginia, with lying on the 37th parallel and with a humid, subtropical climate, to Tallinn, at 59 degrees north, Kirsten has so far been perhaps unsurprisingly less passionate about the dark and cold Nordic winters.

While she says she had hoped to adapt quickly, the process turned out to be mentally and physically more difficult than expected. Adaptation was also made more difficult by a perception of many Estonians as being distant.

"I have made excellent international friends here, but I consider the Estonians I know as more like acquaintances. They are very introverted, and it takes a long time to gain their trust; as a result, I'm very grateful that my family is close by."

Kirsten adds that she has even had several unfriendly experiences while in Tallinn, solely because she is a foreigner.

She puts these down to the country's complex history, a history which has seen more than a fair share of foreign occupations, by several different powers.

"I understand that this can have the effect of making people more distrustful of foreigners," Kirsten says.

At the same time, there have been moments when she has thought, with more than a little sadness, that she would not be able to find her real place in Estonia, or that she is somehow not suited to living here. Fortunately, those moments have only been passing.

"Tallinn is a beautiful city," she says, quickly flipping the conversation to a happier topic. Overall, there are neither more positive sides nor negative sides to her current hometown in comparison with her original one, while the experience of being here depends on the goals and wishes of anyone who has relocated here from elsewhere, she adds.

"If you are in Estonia just to party, you may find that you have ended up in the wrong place. But if you're looking for a place where you can get in touch with yourself better and enjoy some quiet time, I think you'll feel at home here," she goes on.

Kirsten says she thinks Estonians are very resourceful, if quiet, and know how to appreciate the smaller moments. "It seems to me that Estonians are afraid of change. If so, this is probably because they already have close relationships, excellent career opportunities, and enough opportunities to make it on their own and pursue the interests and hobbies they like."

In Kirsten's opinion, nature, too, is essential to Estonian society and to public life.

She, too, enjoys spending time in natural environments. "My favorite pastime is walking. I walk on the beach, in the forest, and search out for well-trodden trails. Estonia has impressed me for many reasons, but its nature impresses me the most. It's hard even to describe."

The foregoing piece was created in conjunction with the implementation of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund application round project "E-training 2021-2022 for citizens of third countries who arrived in Estonia with a long-term visa".

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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