Expat problems: 'Does anybody know where I can find Pho Bo in Estonia?'

Dennis Peld.
Dennis Peld. Source: Personal collection.

For many foreigners/expats/immigrants, call them what you will, living in Estonia, particuarly if they don't speak Estonian well, can be frustrating. Knowing where to find an English-speaking doctor or dentist when they are sick, or where to find a good lawyer, plumber or electrician, how the public transport system works – even such esoteric worries as where the best Vietnamese Pho Bo is to be had in town, can be far from clear. Fortunately Dennis Peld, himself formerly an expat who was living in Berlin, and a native of Estonia, has set up a helpful website which can answer all these questions and more. We asked Dennis about the site, his motivation for setting it up and how he sees it developing in the future.

Dennis runs his own small business here and thinks Estonia is an excellent environment for those who want to do same. But upon returning to Tallinn just a month ago, after seven years in the German capital, he noticed a paucity of info available to non-Estonian speakers in particular on how to go about that, and many other things, including those who have moved here from elsewhere.

''You know what they say, help yourself before you help others. I was simply looking for a recommendation of a removal service, a company, that could help me move my personal belongings and furniture from Berlin to Tallinn, and by coincidence I stumbled upon one of the posts in an expat Facebook group [of which there are several – ed.], where a person was asking exactly the same question,'' says Dennis of the genesis of his website.

''The feedback that the person got on the group was so detailed and valuable, since others shared their own experiences, that I simply saved it in my notes,'' he goes on.

Is there really a need for a website?

But surely the answer is right there – expats, as well even some locals, can find the answer to those types of questions on the Facebook groups simply by posting?

''Well I realised later on that many expats ask the same questions over and over again, since the way those groups work is that the questions and their answers tend to get buried, making Facebook not the most comfortable platform to find what you want,'' he explains.

Even Google or another search engine is not always ideal, Dennis finds; googling a topic might give much the same results as his site, but with the key difference that it lacks the personalised touch, and the positive recommendations about this or that barbershop, or gym, or estate agent. Naturally if a place or service is to be avoided, it doesn't make it on to Dennis' site, but at the same time, unlike some review-aggregation sites, the recommendations are up-to-date, usually comprise several opinions, and are less likely to be open to manipulation.

How Dennis compiles the site

''Anyway, I simply wrote down the recurring questions and their answers. And that's how it all started,'' he says.

It was a lot of work in the beginning, he says, just to get through all the legacy questions on the groups, going back as far as possible and even to the date of the creation of a group, as well as wading through those less useful posts and comments threads.

''However, nowadays it doesn't require much time, and I add fresh tips when I feel like it, normally once every three weeks or so,'' he adds.

The feedback Dennis has been getting about the project has been incredible so far: ''People have been sending me positive messages, which motivates me to keep managing the list of tips. This only makes me love doing it even more, because I see that even local Estonians find the site useful, not only expats,'' he says, revealing one of the more surprising outcomes of the endeavour.

''People also like the site because I don't monetise it or carry ads. It was strictly created as a 'self-help' thing but turned out to be something of a semi-altruistic site,'' he goes on.

Aggregation of wisdom

The site also has the advantage of bringing together the best wisdom from at least two online expat groups.

''I don't understand why there are two of them, one is twice as big as the other, and most of the time the questions are duplicated in both groups, but hey, it is what it is, and I find these groups very helpful for everybody who wants to find information or ask for advice about anything in Estonia,'' he goes on.

The reasons for the proliferation of expat English-language Facebook groups (at least half a dozen at last count) seem primarily to be due to a lack of awareness of other groups, which were founded by different people at different times, and at the other extreme, disagreements and dissatisfaction with how existing groups were run or moderated, leading to breakaway pages springing up. There are also one or two more specialised forums of a more light-hearted nature or even focussed on one specific gender or interest; in any case the groups vary as to whether they are open to the public, closed, secret etc.

Unexpected requests

As noted Dennis' site covers a broad range of topics, some of them arising from quite unexpected questions.

''Once someone asked where you can go sliding or snowtubing in winter, which was something I would have never even thought, because the last time I went snowtubing was probably more than 20 years ago, as a child!'' he recounts.

''Another interesting question which popped up was where to attend a church service in English. I was surprised seeing so many foreigners aware of and even attending church services. Estonians being mostly self-declared agnostics or atheists, you mightn't expect those facts to be so widely-known,'' he goes on.

Not uncontroversial issues

Dennis himself posted a question about where people could volunteer to help refugees, which also provoked a surprising response, he says, though not only due to the positive advice given, but also some negative comments from people who themselves are immigrants to the country.

''I wanted to point that those people are foreigners themselves and holding such anti-refugee views or rhetoric sounds to me like they're almost betraying their own DNA,'' he says.

Speaking of negatives, Dennis also noticed the recurring theme of 'bad service' in the comments, something that he has noticed himself after several years in Germany.

''Most people who work in restaurants, cafés and especially grocery shops are extremely rude and with such an attitude, as if your presence made them suffer somehow. I got culture shock seeing that every day again after being away, so I'm sure expats do too,'' he continues.

Future of the site, not to mention of expats in Estonia

Since Dennis' site is regularly updated, it is naturally going to continue to grow organically. He doesn't go on a search for specific topics, but at the same time he would like people to ask more cultural-related questions, events, galleries, exhibitions, theatres, etc.as well those as of a more personable nature.

''Currently, it looks more like 'here it is, the list of tips for you to survive Estonia', but I would like to grow a community, where people not only give each other recommendations, but experience new things together as a whole,'' he says, talking about his vision for the future of the site.

In fact, with the large number of questions that get asked, is it the case that the expat community could constitute a marketplace for services and goods of its own, and not have to rely on local providers so much (another regular complaint on the groups is of being charged or treated unfairly, having consumer rights trampled on, or even being downright cheated in extreme cases, specifically in the fields of apartment rentals, used cars and electronics stores, amongst others)?

''Yes, I believe a sustainable expat community might be able to subsist nowadays. Seven years ago when I left the country, I hadn't heard that there were any 'expats' in Estonia, let alone Facebook groups. Foreign students, yes, but expats? No way. Now, however, I see many foreigners moving to Estonia and it makes me happy. I like a multicultural society. This is not nearly as big here as that of Berlin or London, but considering the size of the country, it is big enough and is still growing,'' he says, reflecting on the changes that he perceives in just a few years.

''After all, aren't we the only Baltic country with a positive immigration rate,'' he says, making a comparison with Latvia and Lithuania, whose populations have both plummeted since EU accession.

What if I want to contribute to the site?

So what if I have an idea for an addition, or recommendation? How do I get in contact with Dennis and have something added to the site?

''I personally don't answer questions I don't know anything about,'' he explains, emphasising that the site is a communal effort.

''I would recommend you join one or two of the expat Facebook groups and ask the question there, and I will be sure to notice it and make the addition later. At the same time, you can contact me via my website if you have a recommendation, or with anything else''.

Dennis Peld's site 'Expats in Estonia: Tips and Advice from Expats and Locals' is here.

As to the best Pho Bo in town, it turns out a long-standing and well-known sports bar may be one place which can offer something similar...

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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