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Beyond the digital drivel: Long-term expats sound off about life in Estonia

The Estonian centennial, on Feb. 24, is being celebrated all week by Estonians and Estonian residents alike.
The Estonian centennial, on Feb. 24, is being celebrated all week by Estonians and Estonian residents alike. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

It's the week of the Estonian centennial — why not ask a few foreigners what they think about the place? While this would usually provoke little more than a tired shrug and a yawn, Wednesday's episode of talk show "Suud puhtaks" thankfully insisted on Estonian as the language of the discussion. And this brought together an optimistic and charming bunch of expats.

Wednesday's episode of ETV talk show "Suud puhtaks" (roughly "Speak Your Mind" in English) was an exception to the rule in that, beyond host Urmas Vaino, it didn't feature a single Estonian. All the studio guests were foreigners. They were invited to talk about what brought them to Estonia, what keeps them here, and what they find are the noteworthy things about this country.

Arriving slightly late, I found a group of some 25 people waiting outside the studio in ERR's TV building, all chatting away in Estonian. They turned out to be German, Dutch, Japanese, English, American, Chilean, Argentine, Ukrainian, Finnish... But all of them were conversing in Estonian.

It was immediately obvious that the people assembled here are longtimers among Estonia's expats. To my huge relief, hardly anyone mentioned the e-state and digital Estonia. No mention of perceived terrible service in stores either, or pork roast or bland cheese.

This wasn't your usual expat "whinge-o-rama." Everyone present seemed genuinely happy to live here, and the enthusiasm with which they spoke Estonian despite accents and grammatical slips was extremely impressive.

There are tens of thousands of expatriates in Estonia, yet there is only a very small number that speaks the language fluently and doesn't need to fall back on English or Russian to communicate. Yesterday was the first time I had the chance to join a gathering of so many of them with virtually no newcomers present, which meant that what we ended up talking about was life, not the usual inane cliches and prejudices.

Which isn't to say that the guests aren't critical of some of the things going on here. But Urmas Vaino managed to keep it all positive enough, giving everybody a chance to really say why they decided to stay.

And it turns out that we all tend to agree on a lot. It's about the size of the country: things have human dimensions here. It's about the people who, as it turns out, aren't all that rude and cold, as the cliche would suggest. It's about a sort of specific weirdness of the place that everybody has come to appreciate. And about the wide open sky, the air, Estonia's nature, and the chance to make something of ourselves.

As Felipe, an Argentinian lawyer working at a local law firm, put it: it's about Estonia's high quality of life. Perhaps that's a topic that could replace the usual complaints and all things digital, at least from time to time.

You can rewatch the show, which aired live on Wednesday night, on ETV's website (link and show both in Estonian).


Dario Cavegn is one of two editors running ERR News.

This is an opinion piece, which means any and all of the opinions expressed in it are those of the author. Let us know yours: [email protected]

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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