10 Things I Hate About You

A while back I made a list of ten things Estonia does better than Germany, such as trains that are always on time, digitalization and talent over titles. (click here) Since then, I have noticed a few more things that make me happy every day that I chose this country over every other - like the speed of vaccination against Covid-19. Germany is now catching up finally, but still. Yes, it’s going slow, there just isn’t enough of the agent, but it’s still much better organized and thus going faster than in Germany. As of today, 37% of Estonian residents have been fully vaccinated, and everything is according to plan (source). In Germany, almost 20% of the population have received both shots (source: RKI) (numbers as of June 3, 2021).

I cannot get over how simple the health system here is. All the information is on the ID card. I can access all my records, make appointments and check on prescriptions online – using the same login as for online banking, my car registration (yes, registering a car happens from home within three minutes), and many other things. By the way, online banking here is not just safe and simple at the same time – it’s also super fast. „Sent the money just now“, I text my landlady. „Yes, I saw it“, she immediately text back. If the person has an account at another bank, however, it may take a few minutes. So I could by now probably write “Ten more things I love about Estonia”, but let’s keep our feet on the ground. I have previously had to explain that Estonia is not a rich country (see here), apparently at a time when this blog was still only in German!

But not having grown up here, there are some things that I just can’t talk about, they are not my own experiences. The drunk people, the poor people, the low salaries – these are things I hear about, and sometimes even see, but I don’t know much about them. So I have been wanting to write about things that I personally don’t like about Estonia; that make me crazy. And, well… I could not come up with ten of them.

So here are 10 Things I Will Never Get Used To In Estonia (and some things I hate). Or let’s call it: 

Ten times I had a culture shock in Estonia

1.       Getting started.

Before receiving the magical ID card, many things are out of your reach. You can’t open a bank account. You can’t log into any e-services like your traffic data (accidents, car registration, driver’s license), health records, and for many contracts you need at least your personal ID-code (insurances, for example). At least you get that “isikukood” immediately when registering as a resident, but first there is a lot of paperwork to be done, the homepage states to bring a photo, but once you get to the office, you need to get your picture taken there, and it takes a few weeks until you finally receive the ID-card. Then you need a computer with a reader for the ID-card and the PIN-codes that come with it. Two trips to the police station to get it all done. This is the time that stresses out all newcomers to Estonia. But once you went through it, you can do anything. Like have all your customer cards saved on the ID.

2.       Warm or pretty.

When deciding which apartment to move in, there re of course the same factors as in every place in the world- which part of the city? How far from work? Parking spots available? Furnished or not? But in Estonian cities, in the end it tends to come down to the basic question: Do I want a pretty house or a warm one? Let’s not talk about the new buildings that regular people can’t afford. Then there are two types of accommodation: The beautiful wooden buildings that we know from the travel guides and documentaries, and the big soviet apartment blocks. The first ones look beautiful, they are small, charming, and re in the prettier parts of the cities. But they are old, and thus, they don’t have central heating. Some have floor heating in the bathroom, but you will most definitely have to heat with fire. It takes time. It means going to the shed to get more wood when you’re cold. Some of these apartments even still have a fire stove. Charming yes, but a lot of work, and a lot of cold evenings in the winters when you just came home from work. The other type of apartment means living in a block where all houses look the same, finding your entrance that says “62-80” above the door, and up to the fifth floor on stairs or to the 9th with an elevator, living in an apartment that has, at best “Soviet charm” and looks exactly like all other apartments in this part of the city. The good thing: it’s cheap and comes with central heating. But remember: central heating can actually mean central – so in October, they will turn on the heating for the house, and then it’s on until March. Too hot? Open a window. Too cold? Put on a warmer sweater. You can’t adjust the temperature on your radiator.

3.       Leaves in plastic bags.

I have only seen it in Tartu, but from what I hear, it’s a problem all over. Leaves falling from the trees “litter” the sidewalks and backyards, so people gather them up – and put them into big plastic trash bags. We wouldn’t want the kids playing in the orange beauty of fall, would we? And we wouldn’t want to use them on our compost either. So we put these big black bags on the sidewalk and wait for the trash company to pick them up. I will never understand this.

4.       The gutter solution.

I understand that we need the gutters keeping the rain and melting snow from dripping all over – but seriously, Estonia, THIS is your solution? Having the pipe ending on the side of the house, spilling all the water onto the sidewalk in one spot that will freeze over and turn the sidewalk into a death trap? Really?

5.       The lonely stroller.

The first time I saw my neighbor’s baby stroller standing next to the shed, I thought maybe she was bringing the groceries inside before getting the stroller or something. It happened almost every day in the winter and I never thought much of that lonely stroller outside in the cold – until I heard the baby. She had just left the baby in the stroller outside for an hour. Aren’t you supposed to walk it? Yeah, you’ll get cold hands and so on, but isn’t the baby also cold? It’s just hanging out in the cold alone? Apparently yes. This seems to be common practice in Estonia. The baby gets fresh air, and what could possibly happen? They have a baby monitor in the stroller, so they will hear from the peace and warmth of the house if it starts crying, it’s all wrapped up in hat, gloves and blankets, can’t run away, it’s safe. And it gives the parents a break. Now I know that everyone does it, but it still makes me a little anxious.

6.       No address.

I am right now living in a house that has a name. It is located in a village – the typical Estonian village where the next neighbor lives one or two kilometers away, that doesn’t have a store (the next is 23 km away), but the internet is still better than in any German town. This house has no address. When I want to find it on Google maps, I type in the village, or the part of the village – more or less every house has a bus stop nearby in these parts of the country. Then I call the farmers to get the directions for the rest of the way: “After the lake follow the gravel road leading more to the left… then comes this modern house, just go on from there, and our house is after a right curve…” or something like that. The postman knows where they live and who lives there. No need to number the house and name the street here.

7.       The bathrooms.

Maybe I have gotten used to it, sometimes it feels like that. But when I get back to my renovated apartment (“normal” Western bathroom, but still heating with fire and double windows that let the cold wind through), I realize that I may not have and might never. The Estonian bathrooms are just different from those in the West. The first time I was in an Estonian apartment I ran around looking for the sink. There was one tiny room with a toilet. There was one tiny room with a shower. But there was no sink. I finally washed my hands at the kitchen sink and saw that that’s where the toothbrushes were also stored. There are many apartments that have only one sink. In the kitchen. This is where you wash your hands, brush your teeth, shave your beard, and clean the dishes. This culture leads to the interesting habit of some Estonians brushing their teeth in the kitchen, even when they have a sink in the bathroom, or washing their hands in the kitchen when they come home, even if the bathroom sink is closer to the entrance. The other possibility is of course that you are living in the country side and there is no proper pipe to the general waste water. So these houses very often have a tank for the waste water buried in the backyard, and every few months, a big truck comes to empty it. Consequently, some households may ask you to put the toilet paper into the trash bin instead of flushing it down. Some of these houses may have a dry toilet outside –I am currently living in a house that offers both of these solutions. Plot twist: As we have no warm water in the kitchen, we wash the dishes in the bathroom!

8.       The mosquitoes.

Yes, Estonia is a Nordic country. And while for most people this means: long, very cold winters with very few daylight, short summers with almost no night, and awesome nature, it also means: what we know as lots of mosquitoes in Central or Southern Europe is a joke. Here, walking to the shed and back will get you covered in bug bites. You will see a black cloud above your head, and before you can ask yourself what this might be, the mosquitoes have attacked. Does anybody ever get used to this?

You see beauty, I see bug bites. Photo: Sven Zacek

9.       You are never done building.

Life in the country side is something else. Building and maintaining a home there is endless work. You need to do everything by yourself or with the help of neighbors and friends. You don’t have the money to hire contractors, plumbers or electricians, and there are also one around. But you have work to do as well, so it will take ages until everything is done. People have lived in their houses for ten years and still only have a ladder leading to the second floor instead of stairs. Clothes are on a pile, because there is no wardrobe. One room is unfinished. One has no door. The balcony has no railing. “First we need to set up a new dry toilet near the stable, then we will get the boiler in the kitchen. Ah, and we need to repair the bathroom door, so we can get rid of the curtain, and then we can finally get to the stairs”, but until then, you will probably run out of money again and have to wait, or a more urgent project needs to be squeezed in. And some houses still only have one sink, a toilet in the backyard, and a sauna instead of a shower. There will always be work. There will always be stuff to repair, and you will probably never be done. To me, who is new to this, this is one of the main messages of the Estonian literature classic “Truth and Justice” –a man spend his entire life building a farm and home. Having more children means more people who can help, but they also mean more mouths to feed, clothes to mend, beds to build…

10.   Tomorrow.

Is it my German genes? Or is it a personal problem? I heard from another foreigner that Estonians are such punctual people. I do not agree. I get anxious waiting. I get angry waiting. And I hope one day I can set my clock to Estonian time. When they say “homseni” – “see you tomorrow”, they don’t always mean the actual tomorrow. It can also just mean “see you”. When my statistics professor says “I hope I will give you the results on Thursday”, he doesn’t mean the day after tomorrow, it means a Thursday next month. When an Estonian teacher says “tomorrow”, she means “soon, like, next week or so”. When an Estonian says to me “let’s go!”, I know I have about ten to twenty minutes until I actually need to start putting on my shoes. And my inner German Karen hates this. 



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