1.3 million Estonians and I – Pauline (France)

Tere! I am Pauline from France; I am starting my second year of master at the University of Tartu.

Maybe some of you are familiar with the theory of the “4 stages of living abroad” (honeymoon / frustration/ understanding / acclimation). Well, I think I can say that I am now somewhere between the understanding and the acclimation stage where I sometimes feel myself a bit confused by some Estonian customs but at the same time not take it personally, but for me it remains some very amusing characteristics about Estonian people and I would like to share my experience on this topic with you.

Estonians are shy

Well, I have to say that in general this is true but there are two important exceptions to this point. First, you would notice if you go out in Rüütli Street (the famous street of the pubs in Tartu) during the evening, Estonians become really talkative…when they reach a certain level of alcohol in their blood.

Then, how talkative they can be! It is most of the time very nice because for us foreigners – a bit ashamed by the fact that even after having studied Estonian language for one year we are not able to speak this crazy language- we find there an open window to at last start a conversation with locals in a more comfortable way. It is even sometimes a good occasion for me to practice my poor Estonian without feeling too stupid because hey, your interlocutor is not often very coherent in his words neither and they won’t be too offended to hear a strange French girl destroying their beautiful language. Unfortunately you should not expect too much that your interlocutor would remember you or your conversation the day after…but let’s be honest, who does after a great night in Rüütli?

Then for me, another striking situation where the shyness of Estonians does not seem so strong is…the SAUNA. I know it may sound completely normal for most of you but it is not normal for me and for many French people to get naked and sweaty with strangers in a very hot and small wooden box where people whip themselves with some birch branches. I was quite disturbed at the beginning at the swimming pool to notice that I was the only one keeping my swimming suit or at least my towel in the sauna….

Finally, after some hesitations, my will of integration pushed me to take the plunge and go naked there. A normal thing for Estonians, a big step for me! What an irony when one of my friends then told me “Don’t be so shy Pauline!” …

Estonians are patriotic

Well, I have to advise everybody to go at least once to an Estonian “laulupidu” (or song festival), it is a very great experience, first of all you would certainly never see so many Estonians gathering than during this kind of event. Secondly it is very nice to hear and see so many people singing songs, it gave this kind of shivering that something unique happens and it is one of the best place to observe the Estonian patriotism. You will see Estonian flags everywhere in the crowd, people sometimes dressed in traditional costumes and listen to some songs such as “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (my homeland, my love) that every Estonians know by heart…It is crazy for a French girl to see such a patriotic demonstration when you know that in your own country flags and national anthem would be display only for sport events and special commemorations because such token of patriotism would be often misused or misinterpret and would be more a demonstration of nationalism than patriotism.

Then of course, as we all know, Estonians are proud of their language and they have good reason to be, not because it is a crazy difficult language to learn and remain their “secret language”, but because the Estonian language has succeeded in remaining alive through history despite the numerous invasions and it is one of the most important basis for the Estonian identity.

But here comes one paradox…as you all know, the favorite questions of Estonians to foreigners living in Estonia is always the same: “Why are you in Estonia?” with a certain tone that means more something like “why the hell did you chose to come to this small and useless country?”…it’s even funnier when you answer and also explain how much you find the country and the culture very interesting…they would give you this kind of skeptical look meaning “crazy people they don’t know what they do” and answer “hm yeah maybe”. Then it reaches another step when you tell them “and I am even learning Estonian!”…There is first a smile like “yeah yeah try hard my dear” and then THE question “but why are you learning Estonian?!” sometimes followed by “it is such a difficult and useless language spoken only by 1,3 millions people!”… I got really confused at the beginning by this paradoxical situation towards their country and their language…but well, I am sure that deeply they are happy that we found interest in their country and their language.

And eventually, there is one thing on what they would all agree and tell me “French is a beautiful language, but for singing Estonian remains the most beautiful one”. Fair enough!

Estonians are slow

Once again – I would say yes and no. Should we speak about slowness, nonchalance or chilling way of being?

On the one hand, as a French girl I have to say that sometimes it seems that everything is slowed down in Estonia: the traffic lights, the way people are walking, the way people are driving, the way people are speaking etc. It can sometimes annoy me when I’m in a rush or seeing the numbers of people before me in the queue at the bank and the nonchalance of the bankers…but I have learned to accept it and to appreciate it, even more when you know that Estonians may be slowly but at least they are effective and efficient!

What is the point in being fast if at the end you’re not effective?

Whatever question or paper I ask here, I am sure to get it on time and I must say pretty quickly. In France, at university for example, to get an answer to your email you would wait at least for one week…. to get a paper you will need to send them at least 2 emails and visit the person at the office to be sure he/she has read one of your email and then if you are really lucky you will get the paper someday…maybe! In Estonia and especially at the University of Tartu people would answer you in a day (if not in an hour) and you would get the paper very and all the information you need very quickly. So what can be seen as slowness in Estonian behavior is, in my opinion, only a chilling attitude towards life (and good management of time?) that does not mean inefficiency, quite the opposite I would say.

Estonians have no emotion

I am sorry if I disappoint some of you but Estonians are not some “Vulcan people” living only by reason and logic with no interference from emotion. Of course I won’t deny the fact that at some point during the firs months I really wondered if they had some kind of emotions but heeeeey they are just hiding them, tricky people!

They DO have emotions and they just do NOT show them or rarely, and when you really integrate this you just have to change your way of reading people’s emotions.

For instance, if my Estonian flatmate tells me “it’s good” with his very neutral face speaking about the food I just cooked for him with love, I know it would actually mean “thank you very much Pauline it is so good”. Other example, if your Estonian friend asks you in a very neutral way “when are you coming back to Estonia?” during the summer break, it would mean “I miss you” but of course he/she would never say it like that…because it is “too emotional”. Finally you will feel the great reward of getting a smile or a laugh from Estonian, it may not be so often but it is at least very honest ones.

One of the funniest conversation about “emotions” I had with an Estonian friend, ended up by this fantastic quote that resumes for me quite well the way Estonians experience emotions: “I have emotions, I just don’t show them, if I’m happy I’m smiling…but inside”.

All in all it is just a question of readjustment of our “emotional expression” scale and if you understand that, then nothing provides you from annoying your Estonian friends by showing off your emotions to them!

What I wanted to share with you is the fact that despite some features of Estonian people that could be confusing for you, it always has to be nuanced and not always understood through the lens of your own culture or personality. After one year, I really get to understand that and more than confusing me, for now on it makes me smile tenderly and I confess that it is also what I like about those people and make them so special.

So my last advice would be: go naked to the sauna, talk to people (they are shy not mute), go to a laulupidu with an Estonian flag, take your time and discover the treasures and peculiarities of Estonian culture!

2 responses to “1.3 million Estonians and I – Pauline (France)

  1. Born in Estonia and escaped from Russian invasion when 4yrs old – have been raised in America , however, in Estonian cultural circles. We also find the Estonian habit of not “gushing” over people or events as very different of the American custom of exposing one’s inner most feelings to even strangers and insisting on being that just met strangers be intimates almost instantly. I am still very Estonian inside, but have adopted the more open, constantly smiling façade so as not to make others feel I don’t like them . I am now comfortable with my Esto/American self. In a country [USA] where innumerable cultures bump against each other constantly, this kind of emotional openness does help facilitate all different aspects of life. As a cooler aspect of personality such as Estonian can seem cold to strangers, I know often the American overly “friendly” ways seem insincere and “pushy”. Good to have peoples all over learn to understand each other as the charming young French woman -author of this article- has done. BON , Hasti tehtud I say.


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