Life in Estonia, part 6: What it means to live in a small country


I have mentioned before that a two hour drive brings you halfway across Estonia. When in other parts of the world a place is „only“ an hour away, here, this makes the difference between being in Southern Estonia or in Northern Estonia.

This means, that everybody knows all the places. While I tell people that my parents live „near Munich, south of it“ and everybody understands approximately enough where in Germany that is, it is only about as accurate as telling people that „Tartu is not that far from Viljandi“. Sure, but, come on... Well, my dad lives in a mid-size village of almost 2600 inhabitants. Not even everybody in the county knows the place. Tõrva, on the other hand, is a real town, and everybody in Estonia knows where it is located and has some idea of what it looks like (the arch bridge, that random chimney in the center!), and it has a similar population size.

Tõrva uuendatud keskväljak Foto Urmas Saard
Tõrva central square. photo: Urmas Saard, kü

So you’ve got the geographical smallness. There are two major cities – Tallinn, the capital, and Tartu, the student town. While nowadays both cities have a number of universities, Tartu is still considered the place to go to study. For many specialties, like medicine, or veterinary medicine, it is the only choice you have in Estonia. So while veterinarians of a country always tend to know each other, in Estonia this is even more true. They have all graduated from the same school, probably lived in the same dorm.

But what really gives you the feeling of living in a small country is the overall population. There are around 1.3 million people in Estonia. In some way, everybody knows each other. And I mean it.

They say that you know you are Estonian when your best friend’s girlfriend is your English teacher’s daughter and they live next door to your grandparents, who were colleagues with your advisor.

The first time I hitchhiked with my best friend in Estonia, we ended up in a car of his colleague and another one where the driver’s son had gone to the same school as my friend.

I have mentioned Tõrva before... when I talked to one of the vets I worked for about my adventures, he asked: „Are you talking about Madis?“ How did he know that? He was his brother’s classmate.

My German friend here is working for my boss’ ex-wife. I didn’t know that when I started working here. The thing with exes takes a whole new dimension here. Imagine you break up with your partner in New York City or Berlin – you’ll probably never see them again. In Estonia, you are more than likely to run into them at least every couple of months (or maybe only once or twice a year if you move to another city after the breakup), even if you switch to another gym and find a new favorite restaurant. So you better be careful how you break up. To be honest, chances are, someone you know will end up with your ex. Or maybe your girlfriend’s ex is now dating your ex and you happen to meet them in a bar some Friday night. I’m serious, these things are not unusual in Estonia.

Song Festival 2019

You can’t escape people. Being polite and nice to everyone is also important in that context that you can be quite sure you will meet any person you have talked to again. Madis always keeps this in mind when he interviews politicians – he know he will probably interview just this one again at some point. But it is true for everyone else. Even if you never go to the place where you met them, you will run into the person again. Maybe you are visiting a friend in Tallinn and someone you once talked to at an exhibition in Tartu happens to work at exactly that café where you are going. Or someone you met at a party but whose name you forgot just moved in down the street. Whenever you have the feeling that “I have seen you before” in Estonia, you can be sure you are right.

Mutual friends. After living in Estonia for a year or so, try finding an Estonian on Facebook you do not have mutual friend with. It is impossible. You will have mutual friends with your professor, with the bartender, your dance instructor, your doctor,… also celebrities (see below). But these people actually have met, it’s not a Facebook phenomenon. When I met my friend Taavi last year we had been talking for an hour when I mentioned that one of my friends was currently in Australia. “Oh really, so is my best friend!” said Taavi. Of course, it turned out that we were talking about the same person.

So yes, all in all, that joke above is true. My former roommate from the dorm is now living next door to my friend, whose parents live across the street from Madis’ previous apartment, and I recently made a new friend because we kept running into each other and finally figured out that we are not just almost neighbors but had also met before, three years ago.

Celebrities have a different status than in other countries, too. When I very excitedly told a group of people that I had just sat directly behind Villu Talsi, the mandolinist of the famous band Curly Strings, one of the girls just shrugged and said: “I have been to sauna with him”. (And yes, Talsi and I have mutual friends on Facebook). When the pop singer Karl-Erik Taukar was in the TV studio for an interview, he walked up to a journalist who wasn’t even working on that show, and asked: “You must be Linda, you probably know where I can get coffee around here?”

Most celebrities are not afraid to post pictures with their children on Instagram. They have met all their followers in person anyway. There are no paparazzi in Estonia. What for?

Also, well… while there are actual famous singers, bands, actors, photographers, writers and so on… Almost every public figure is most famous for something, has won an important prize and everybody has heard their name. Instead of standing in a line for an autograph after the concert, you can just walk up to them and have a chat.

By the way, also every tiny place is most famous for something. I can’t recall another country that had so many signs for places of interest. Some famous poet was born in this village, lived in that and died in a third. This tree is special. This rock was thrown here by the epic hero Kalvipoeg. Every village has a museum. And an õppematkarada – an educational hiking trail. I think this is why there are exactly two kinds of travel guides for Estonia: the 70 page “Tallinn, Tartu, four minor cities, two big and some smaller islands, Sooma and Laheemaa national parks” on the one hand, and 500 pages “on the right side of that gravel road after the big oak tree you will see a stone where Lydia Koidula once sat to take a break”.


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