When you hear fighter jets fly overhead or see tanks roll through your small village as you are picking up your child from kindergarten, you might remember that a military exercise is going on in the area today, but your young child or elderly neighbor might be startled or confused. This is where I come in, and not just to explain about us, but also ask you about local life too. My name is Natalya, and I am a corporal in the British Army on a six-month deployment to Estonia.
I normally wake up at around 6 a.m. I like to stay in bed after I wake up, and as a result, I'm typically rushing around getting ready before I go to the gym once I finally do get out of bed. I wouldn't be in such a rush if I just got up sooner, but I enjoy that lie in.
Once I am out the door, I go to the gym. After my morning workout, I normally have pancakes for breakfast, and then head to work.
I am a corporal in the British Army, and am currently living in Tallinn while on a six-month deployment. Back in the U.K., I have a husky-doberman mix puppy named Thor waiting for me to come home, but lately the dogs I've gotten the chance to pet belong to civilians I meet in the course of my job.
I am currently working as a Russian linguist as part of the U.K.-led NATO Battlegroup Estonia's civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) personnel. As the name suggests, CIMIC exists as a link between civilians and the military, serving to foster relations and relay information between — and to the benefit of — the two sides.
In the case of Spring Storm, the 9,000-strong multinational defense exercise led by the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) that is just now wrapping up, part of what CIMIC personnel do is go around surveying and tagging damage caused by participating troops to roads, land and other property to be repaired and compensated for. Unlike in the U.K., Spring Storm is conducted across large swaths of civilian, municipal and private Estonian territory as well, and those tanks and other vehicles are heavy! But another part of what we, and I personally, do is just get out there in person and meet people the old fashioned way — by talking to them, in person!
In my case, over the past week or so, this meant visiting villages and towns primarily in Ida-Viru County, Northeastern Estonia, where much of the action was focused this year. It meant taking photos of farm cats and dogs while talking to local farmers. It meant helping generate coverage of the exercise for social media. It meant playing with and talking to kindergarteners in a small village. It meant explaining a bit more to locals about what the British Army is doing here in Estonia. In short, really getting out there and saying "Hello!" Or in my case, "Здравствуйте!"
This is where a unique aspect of my background comes into play. I was born Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where I lived for the first five years of my life. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, my family moved to Malta, where I lived together with my mother, father and sister for the next five years. At ten years old, I moved to the U.K.
As a result, although I sound perfectly British when speaking English, I am also fluent in Russian. Estonian is of course the official language here in Estonia, but a significant part of the population is Russian-speaking, particularly in the capital city of Tallinn and Ida-Viru County in the northeast, and after decades of Soviet occupation, Russian, alongside English to an increasingly significant degree, remains a widespread second language. So while I don't speak Estonian — at least not yet — I am able to communicate with locals in either of the two most common other languages.
Beyond Spring Storm, on a typical workday, I spend the day trying to organize engagement events. Sometimes I spend the day at an event itself, where I am able to meet and talk to locals and tell them about what we are doing here.
In the run-up to Veterans Day, which is celebrated in April here, many of us took part in Narva's first ever Blue Hepatica Run to benefit Estonian veterans, and we also cooperated with the EDF in organizing several meet-and-greet events in Ida-Viru County, including Sillamäe and Narva. We and our EDF colleagues brought in the big guns, so to speak, including tanks, self-propelled artillery, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and trucks. Kids got to climb into and all over them while parents took pictures, but the events actually attracted people of all ages, including Estonian- and Russian-speakers alike.
Events like these are where I get to put my Russian language skills to work though, as we will have older people come up and talk to us in Russian, sometimes even thanking us for being here, and young children who may turn shy when spoken to by the others in English feel more at ease talking to me as they interact with us and our equipment. Teenagers and young adults throughout Estonia have more likely been exposed to or even speak English already, but for very little kids, it's probably comforting for them to hear their native language spoken by someone in our uniforms.
On that note, this also puts me at a bit of an advantage among my colleagues; while some know a little bit of Russian, many of them are faced with trying to learn two new foreign languages at once while here, since we come in contact with speakers of both. My only challenge, at least in terms of languages, is Estonian.
The past few weeks we were all busy participating in Spring Storm, but we will be back out meeting with civilians again quite soon. Among other plans in the works, you can expect to see British troops participating in the half marathon at the Narva Energy Run in June! We are always trying to come up with more ways to be involved and engage with locals, even out of uniform.
Four years and counting
I have been serving as a soldier in the British Army for four years now. I joined because I wanted adventure in my life — it's not every job that will deploy you across the continent or further for half a year or more at a time!
I actually really enjoyed my initial or basic training too, which was 15 weeks of learning military skills while also meeting friends for life. I was awarded Best Recruit, and was very happy with my achievement.
Of course, my job isn't all perfect; I don't like the early start times, and I find myself wishing I had my own space, as in the military we often have to share rooms. This can even include bunk beds, just like summer camp in the movies. But I really enjoy the exciting opportunities to travel and meet new people. And one great upside to modern technology is the ability it gives us to connect to people online and maintain friendships all over the world.
In my free time, I really enjoy hiking and hill walking. Hill walking is a popular pastime in the U.K. that involves walking in hills and even mountains, but isn't mountaineering. After a week of hill walking in the Dolomites in Northern Italy, I even earned my summer leader qualification. In this regard, Southern Estonia with its hills might be the most appropriate place for me to visit here.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut and explore space! And I would still love to be one. If I could go back and say something to my younger self, I would tell her to not sweat the small stuff, and believe in yourself a bit more; I was very quiet growing up. But I feel like my confidence has grown since joining the forces. On that note, I strongly believe that it doesn't matter what you have, but rather what you do. And that it is important to never stop learning.
Until I get my invite from NASA, though, I'd like to continue my work as a linguist, and hopefully move out to America in a few years. I actually recently traveled to the U.S., where I attended the World Barbecue Championship in Texas — a recent favorite experience of mine, which involved eating a lot of barbecue meats and joining cowboys for some honky-tonk dancing.
Coming back to my current daily life, I relax in the evenings after work by going to the gym and having a swim. After that, I wind down with a good book and some chocolate. And I go to bed cherishing the feeling of absolute freedom that comes with knowing that every day I can wake up and recreate the day and myself as I wish.
Day in the Life is a 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 [email protected].
Editor: Aili Vahtla