What is it like to live in Tallinn, Estonia? Having been here for over a month, I’ll share six quick observations:
1- ON THE LANGUAGE BARRIER: Almost everyone speaks english very well. It’s impressive. There are no struggles in the daily interactions with stores, public services, etc. However, because the language is so different and distant from my language roots, I never cease to feel like an outsider. When everything you hear and read around you is impossible to decipher, it’s a constant reminder of who you are and who you are not.
2- ON SUNLIGHT: I knew what to expect by coming here during the winter, but it’s still worth mentioning. Sunlight is scarce. Sometimes it’s days and days that you see no sunlight at all. It doesn’t matter how gloomy you are, it eventually gets to you. Skyping with friends in San Francisco or Buenos Aires and seeing their sunlight was tough. My biggest surprise was to hear that even those that have lived here their entire lives are still affected by it. I assumed one eventually gets used to it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
3- ON REACTIVE AND PROACTIVE HOSPITALITY: Estonians are very, very nice people. Wherever you engage with them, they treat you with respect, patience, calmness, and dedication to helping you if they can. When something is wrong, they immediately try to solve it and they want to know that you are not having a bad experience. They are also relatively quiet; I haven’t seen or heard a single person yell or even raise their voice since I’ve been here. Even the city is extremely quiet; I still haven’t heard a car honk or brake. For us loudmouth latinos, that’s a nice change of pace.
The not-so-bright side of Estonians is that they are “reactively hospitable”; they will help you immensely when they know you have a problem (reminds me of arabs, another culture that shines for its hospitality). However, as most cultures that have been marked by long term isolation, they struggle with proactive hospitality: going out of their way to try to provide you the best experience possible.
A good travel experience is not marked only by the efficiency of a city’s systems, but also (and more importantly) by the amount and intensity of its emotional moments. Estonians seem to be very inward-focused and protective of their routines and ways of doing things. This can be a positive thing for them because it allows them to devote themselves to things they care about , but it’s tough for the outsider because you have to do all the social heavy-lifting yourself. This can be exhausting. There’s no need to hide the fact that I’ve felt lonelier here than in any other place I visited.
It’s important to put things into context: having this sort of proactive hospitality is tough to do or even consider when you are a city that doesn’t have too much cultural diversity, or year-long tourism activity. Medellín had a similar problem, where your best chance to engage with the local culture was at bars or clubs (horrible contexts for deep human connection). Here is where I believe Brazilians, Americans, Australians and Argentinians excel: ensuring you go back raving about how it FEELS to visit them.
Note: My business partner Karoli Hindriks is an exception, most likely because she understands how important this is for people wanting to stay.
4- ON THEIR TECHNOLOGY: I’ve talked about this here. – Only thing to add is that there’s a lot that still doesn’t work as everyone hopes it will. That’s the price of pioneering, and it shouldn’t be a deterrent to Estonia to keep pushing the world forward. However, it’s important to be honest about the current state of some of their technological experiments.
5- ON THE COLD: I don’t mind it at all. People have told me that this has been a warm winter, but still, you’re always wearing so much stuff that you never really feel it. And their homes are so well equipped for the cold that you just get a “cozy” vibe when you’re at home.
6- ON ESTONIAN WOMEN: I was warned about how beautiful women were in Estonia, and it still exceeded my expectations. I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life, and Estonia has the most beautiful women I’ve seen (although I’m told I have to go to Netherlands and Russia to make an objective judgment). But there’s something more important to be said about Estonian women: they are very independent, and at the same time very nurturing. They work hard, but maintain their feminine energy in doing it. I’ve met women from many countries and every continent in the world, and this is a rare combination. In my experience, most women (and men) err too much on one side or the other because of how hard it is to balance those attitudes. This is not to put down any female population from any culture, but simply to congratulate Estonian women on achieving what looks like a healthy way of living.
Note: This is true for the women I’ve met so far during normal, daily life. If you go meeting people in clubs and shit, your experience may be different.
Here are some cool facts from this calm, generous, and beautiful-people filled country:
- The joint choir of the Estonian Song Festival, held every five years, is the biggest choir in the world: more than 30,000 singers perform for an audience of 80,000 people.
- Estonia ranks 3rd in the world press freedom index, following Norway and Iceland.
- 51% of engineers and scientists are women (EU average being 29%).
- Estonia has the most spas per capita in the world: more than 40 spas for 1.3 million people.
- Estonia is the least religious country in the world with only 14% of the population claiming any religious beliefs.
- Estonia has the highest number of meteorite craters per land area in the world.
- Estonia has the second highest literacy rate in the world, with 99.8%.
And my favorite: when Estonian chess player Paul Keres died in 1975, over 100,000 people attended his funeral (10% of the country’s entire population).