When I started telling people I was going on an exchange to Estonia, I faced mixed reactions. Overall, people were surprised and puzzled by my choice. However, I was not startled to hear so since such a choice was not particularly thoughtful. Against all odds, as I did not expect anything from it, my satisfaction was tenfold.
Estonia is a state which I consider contradictory. One can look at one side and see a world totally different than the one someone could see looking from the other side. This country has indeed not gone through the same history as the country where I grew up, France. Conquered by the Scandinavian powers, invaded by Germany and taken over by the U.S.S.R, it has passed through several hands and therefore multiple influences. Still now, one can feel all of them. As I disembark the ferry from Helsinki, I find myself in a country where I fear the tension arising from the current political situation. As Estonia is located next to the Russian Federation, the on-going war against Ukraine is inevitably at its doorstep and cannot be ignored.
Picture taken by Alodia Heijmans
As I take my first steps on this new land, I start looking around. My instinct, and the people close to me, guide me through the old town, where charming mediaeval buildings surround me and make me feel as if I was going back in time. Indeed, as it is pretty touristic, the inner city is full of people dressing as knights in the Middle Ages, selling roasted almonds and singing old lyrical songs. The city is quite hilly and paved which makes me feel as if I were part of an adventure where I am constantly blown away by pastel-colored buildings, hidden gems, soviet architecture, churches of different faiths and a ton of places to have a cup of mulled wine, or a Vana Tallinn coffee, made with the local liquor. In all of this, I discover that tasting a reindeer steak is also an option here. But this is only the old town, Tallinn has much more to offer.
Stepping away from this part of the capital, I find myself in the very different worlds that also shape Estonia. Westwards, the city centre of Tallinn takes place, being where citizens live and where I realise how little had I been exposed to such modern environments . Skyscrapers, luxury cars, doors that open automatically in any shop or restaurant, and robots which go by themselves delivering food in the streets –a concept which was invented in Estonia but is now all the rage in the United States. And surprises are not over yet. Going eastwards now, I find myself in a hipster area, comparable to some neighbourhoods of Berlin, where street art, strangeness, techno bars, and thrift stores are in the picture. However, although these three main parts of Tallinn are undeniably different from each other they have one common trait: they are all rather wealthy areas.
This is not representative of the whole country, since a few steps away from the centre, poverty becomes a shred of evidence looking like it had been taken out from the Soviet period. Between elderly women begging in the street and old dilapidated Soviet monuments, one sees that wealth and prosperity have not reached the whole population. This feeling is accentuated as soon as one goes outside of Tallinn where half of Estonia's population live, finding out that there is genuinely not much life. There, railways and roads are still in construction and the cold can be felt both through the air and on most people’s faces.
Estonia symbolises a mix of multiple influences . The Nordic one is felt through the high modernity of certain areas, while the soviet influence remains present in its architecture as well as in the country’s mores, since half of the people use Russian to communicate with one another. This draws us back to the ongoing war in Ukraine, a latent reality that cannot be overlooked among Estonia's Russian and Ukrainian citizens who share the same country.
Although the current atmosphere can be heavy sometimes, Estonia is a well-integrated country into the European Union which allows it to feel rather secure in light of the present regional insecurity. One can deeply feel it due to the number of European flags hanging on the building’s institutions. Yet, it is to be noted that this sense of belonging goes beyond flags as the EU is present in other evident ways such as providing funds to multiple infrastructure and construction projects all over the country. Overall, because of various pulls, Estonia’s fracture can be seen both through its socioeconomic circumstances as well as its demographic appearance. The on-going conflict between Russia and Ukraine emphasises Estonia's inner cleavage even more as this state represents a major actor in the war, due to its important stance. It is a hard country to figure out, that is for sure, however, it has much more to teach than what one can expect.