Like many university students these days, I split my time between studies and work. In my case, however, I study in one city, and live and work in my hometown. And while my job might be more typical on paper, thanks to our location, my regular clientele includes NATO soldiers — the same ones regularly featured in the news. My name is Birgit Kiipus, and I am a server and pizza-maker at Päts Pizza Café in Tapa.
My mornings are completely unremarkable: coffee and a shower. Okay, at least two cups of coffee if I want to really be awake. I sleep well, but I try to be up before 9 to ensure my day is long enough to actually get something done.
From there, the remainder of my day depends on the day of the week. On Wednesdays and Thursdays I drive to class at the Estonian University of Life Sciences in Tartu, where I'll be graduating with a BSc in Forestry next spring. After various classes and seminars, I head back home and am back in Tapa before evening. Once I'm home, I take care of the most important school work and take time to answer emails, and then if I have any energy left I meet up with friends at a café or at the local youth centre. On nights I decide to just stay in instead, I'll watch an episode of Game of Thrones or Grey's Anatomy, and at that point it's time for bed already.
On workdays, however, I am at work at the pizza shop by 10. While not immediately obvious from the outside, Päts' Tapa café is actually located in a very old building — a sauna building that predates the fall of the Russian Empire, built to serve the town's railroaders. The building was expanded multiple times, and now also houses Tapa Bus Station, but when you step inside the café, the thick stone walls you see were the building's original walls. The owner can show you historical photos of both the building and the town, and tell stories about them as well.
Despite what you may imagine when you think of pizza shops, the one where I work is the cosiest place to spend time in Tapa — you feel right at home. The delicious food is an added bonus. My friends and I would spend a lot of time there, which is also how I ended up with a job there as well. One night we were at the café playing a board game when the owner's daughter came up to my friend and me and asked what we were doing the next day, and would we by any chance be interested in coming to work. Said friend and I are both very spontaneous in nature, and so we showed up the next day to work. Sometimes things just happen and opportunities seek you, and so it went with this job. I'm very glad that I ended up part of such a great team, and pretty much by chance like that.
I very much like my job too. Often when you work in customer service, you end up stuck in a routine; I know, because I have previous experience working various jobs on the side of my studies. But I have yet to experience that here. Every day is a little bit different.
I like talking to people, and doing everything I can to ensure that they enjoy themselves and want to come back. For example, when British soldiers from Tapa Army Base come to eat at our café, we always give them something Estonian to try. I recently also returned from a trip to Egypt, and brought back a bunch of Egyptian sweets to offer to our customers. It's these little things that make this job special — when you see someone smile back at you, and see that they are satisfied, then that is a good day in my book. A restaurant doesn't always have to be very fancy to make someone feel special — small, cozy cafés can very much achieve the same thing.
Between two towns
The pizza café is actually my second job in Tapa this year. While I was born and raised here, I attended high school in Tallinn and then went to university in Tartu. Last school year I studied on exchange in Umea, Sweden, and upon my return to Estonia, I moved back home with my parents in Tapa, where I hadn't lived for six years at that point; I had no choice, because before going to Sweden I had given up my rental flat in Tartu. In late June, I began looking for a summer job here in Tapa, to keep me occupied until the beginning of the new school year, and to my surprise I ended up finding one very quickly. Over the summer, I worked at Tapa Sõdurikodu, a café for the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Brigade and NATO troops serving at Tapa Army Base.
At the beginning of September, I began my final year of bachelor's studies in Tartu, and the plan at that point was to find a new flat and new side job in Tartu, but since I ended up getting this job at Päts, I decided to stay here. It's quite a bit of driving back and forth, but I only have class in Tartu two days a week this semester, and the rest of the week I am either at work at the café, enjoying some time off, or working on my bachelor's thesis. We also have a two-year-old dachshund named Lotte at home; she is quite the rascal, but a dear friend nonetheless.
Tapa and the soldiers
Since the allied soldiers began arriving here, Tapa has been undergoing quite the transformation — it's like the town has come alive. Roads are in good shape, and buildings are being repaired. Even our café is open longer in the evenings than it otherwise would be, because the soldiers can be out off-base until 11 at night.
On that note, you see the British troops in particular around town on a daily basis. The Danes unfortunately seem to keep to themselves more, and they visit our café less often as well. Even when they do, they tend to order ahead and pick up their pizzas for takeaway. They spend less time here as well, but that might be because their food at the base is so good that they see no reason to spend money on eating out.
Over the past five months, I have been able to see first-hand the integration between the Brits and the Estonians, which has been surprising and special to witness. The brigade café where I worked as a server over the summer served an average of 1,200 customers per day, the majority of which were Brits, and now they very frequently visit the pizza café as well. I hadn't ever noticed before that the Estonians and the British would talk to each other, but now, thanks to my job, I see this happening on a daily basis. Just the other day, three Estonian men invited two Brits to come chat at their table and they got on very well. It was a very moving sight. If people were more open and spoke with one another more often, we would all have lovelier lives.
On that note, although I was born in the mid-1990s already, I am so glad that I had a smartphone-free childhood. It is unbelievable how much the tech world has developed, and to be honest, I kind of miss those days when everyone wasn't in such a hurry all the time, and they actually took the time to get together with people and talk for hours in a cute café somewhere without once staring at their phones. I do wish people were more empathetic, thankful and more courageous, and people would open themselves up more.
The café has one special set of customers that doesn't have this problem, however — Päts has a couple of café dogs that stop by on a regular basis. Some of the British soldiers have said that they have dogs back home that they really miss, and so they really appreciate the opportunity to pet the dogs, which include one dog that is looking for her forever home and Roosi, a coworker's dog. They've said it helps ease their homesickness a bit. The kids love the dogs too, and some even take them out for walks, which is a win for everyone involved.
On my days off from school and the pizza place, depending on what I have on my plate, I do whatever I have to get done during the day if possible, so that my nights are free and I can either spend them with friends or do something interesting. My days vary a lot in that regard, as I am spontaneous and always up for an adventure. In that regard, over the years, I have become more confident, more open in conversation, and more cheerful in general. I have gotten used to living one day at a time and don't want to waste so much time worrying about the future or living in the past. I've certainly experienced moments that I could regret, but why regret them? You can only learn from them, and learn not to make those mistakes again in the future. We only live once, and you have to take advantage of everything life has to offer you. Even your most boring day ever still has something new to teach you, and you need to be prepared to take risks if you want to achieve anything at all. I think if my childhood self and I were to meet today, we'd thank each other for living our life as though each day were our last.
On top of being content with what you have, however, I also think it's important to dream, because sooner or later, those dreams of yours will start to come true. Currently I'm doing everything I can to ensure that I graduate next spring. But after that, I'm gonna take a little break, and then I'm considering taking some time to go explore the world for a bit… A longer-term dream of mine is to buy a farmhouse in Southern Estonia, where I could then live out the rest of my fulfilling life.
My wanting to move to the countryside eventually shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me, though, as my favourite thing to do in my free time is spend time out in nature. Nature is like music to me; it has never let me down. I usually take Lotte out for walks, but I don't turn down the opportunity to go for a run either. My friends and I have even been known to drive out to a bog just to watch the sun rise. I was part of the environment- and economics-track class at the 32nd High School in Tallinn, and I myself grew up in the countryside and surrounded by nature. Even my mother before me majored in environmental protection and got her master's degree in ecotourism. My own choice of major, forestry, was sort of a logical extension of this love of nature that was instilled in me at a young age.
The only other such constant in my life has been music. I listen to it whenever possible, including in the car or on the train, while going for walks, while working out, at work, and so on. I also make a point every year to attend various music-related events, such as Viljandi and Seto Folk, Tallinn Music Week, and Intsikurmu Festival. Without music, life wouldn't be complete.
On that note, music is also what I end my day with — I listen to Ben Howard's "Conrad," which makes me feel good.
Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.