Visitors Guide to Estonians

This article was originally published in the inhouse visitor magazine for AQVA Hotel and & Spa in Rakvere


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My name is Louis Zezeran and I am an Australian Stand Up comedian who lives and works in Estonia. Yup, if I can make it here I can make it anywhere. I have lived here for about 5 years and I run a company called “Comedy Estonia”, we were the first crew to perform real Stand Up Comedy here and now we run everything from small open mics right up to promoting big International stars. Estonians have this self image that they are not funny people but I assure you it isn’t true. I was once complimented on my work by saying “congratulations, you have managed to…” (and I could hear searching for a metaphor to describe something difficult) “errr… you managed to sell ice to Eskimos”. Well.. close.. whatever the opposite of that is, that’s what we have done. Estonians have a dark, sarcastic sense of humor which I love and I am going to give you a few of my best tips about how to interact with Estonian people which I have learned from trying to sell ice to errr.. Eskimos. Eskimos who for some reason didn’t have ice before.

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All these people need ice. Lots and lots of ice.

Estonians are going to ask you why did you come to Estonia. They are so curious! Even if you are just here for a weekend, they are completely mystified why someone would want to come to “such a cold, dark country”. They will say this as they drink a beer and jump over the fire on the endless sunshine of midsummer without a hint of irony. Right after they have looked at you genuinely mystified as to why you would chose to come to the backward Eastern Europe country of Estonia, they will launch into a spiel about how efficient the government is, how the startup culture is world class (pro tip: talk about how great Skype is) and how beautiful their countryside is. Don’t try and point out the inconsistency of their self image here, they won’t be able to see it, just say you came here because you are thinking of working for Skype and they will buy it.

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Whatever you do, don’t take work tips from this bloke

They are more punctual than a German crossed with an atomic clock. If you will be 5 minutes late, best to phone ahead. No wait, don’t phone, send a instant message instead, a phone call is just another time they have to speak to someone. My favorite trick is to stand just around the corner and then pop out just before they arrive, showing that you have a more precisely timed clock than they do.

I read a statistic today that said 33% of Estonians wouldn’t want to live next door to a foreigner. Which does sound kinda weird but you need to remember 99% of Estonian people don’t want to live next door to anybody at all, so their approach is really very tolerant. There is an old saying that “An Estonian’s favorite food is another Estonian”, however I have yet to see “Estonian person” flavored crisps in the store. Maybe the taste is too bitter, not sure.

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Estonian flavored sauerkraut will be next years big hit at Rimi

They are extremely ambitious people. Look how this country has changed in just 23 years from the depths of the Soviet Union to a highlight of Nordic culture and business! They rightly believe they can do anything and its a wonderful spirit to be among but they always have their own unique way of going about it. Once a former Estonian Prime Minister said on national TV that he believes Estonia will soon be one of the five wealthiest nations in Europe. I feel they cut the broadcast too soon as I imagined him going on to say that he hopes to achieve this goal by rearranging Europe so there are only 5 nations left. They get the job done, it just might not be the way you expect.

 

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He is going to make Estonian one of the 5 wealthiest nations in Europe with a trustworthy face like that

It is reasonable easy to talk to an Estonian. Even walking around the old town, most Estonians have prepared themselves that they might get asked by hapless foreigners for directions. How to know if an Estonian will understand your English. Do they look under 50? Then you are pretty much fine. They also pride themselves on being direct and honest with no time for our frivolous western pleasantry of sugar coating conversation. After our third ever comedy show I enthusiastically asked someone from the crowd “What did you think of the show” and without missing a beat “Oh, it wasn’t as good as the first two”. While the uninitiated might be taken back by this you shouldn’t, this means they liked two of the shows!

To me, the best experiences are always when you head outside the big city. I took my Canadian friend to a bakery in a very small town for breakfast which is run by an old lady who looked like she was barely aware Estonia became independent 23 years ago. She had eyes which spoke “In the Soviet Union we had lines for everything! Ha, we even had lines just to get into other lines”. My friend, seemingly protected by a invincibility shield of Canadian happiness, greeted her with the most enthusiastic “HELLO! How are you doing today?” that he could muster. I will never forget the look on this ladies face, to the untrained eye it looked like she didn’t flinch but a few subtle moves of her forehead told me she was clearly moved by this comment. It was like she had not been asked how *she* was in 40 years and her whole world was now crumbling around her. The wrinkles on her forehead shouted at me “He is right, how am I??”. Then as soon as it started, she stiffened up and replied with a strong and decisive… “NO”. When I had stopped laughing on the floor I managed to order our breakfast in Estonian and we could only hope that we left this lady with a good story to tell her friends over a vodka in the evening.

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Welcome to most exciting bakery on planet. See, I even wear party hat for funky funky good times

Estonia is a fantastic place to be. For me it is a great mix of new hip Nordic culture mixed with gorgeous countryside and still a hint of the old days, that not everything has been commercialized and commoditized yet. Enjoy your time here!

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If you want more deep cultural learnings about Estonia, follow the Tim & Louis podcast on Soundcloud or iTunes!