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first published on oilzine.com

First, a couple of misconceptions. Estonia is not, as my doctor believed, in Turkey, but is a small independent country to the far north of the Baltics. The Baltics being a group of three former Soviet states in the north of Europe, and not the scene of recent troubles involving the Serbs and Kosovars. To the north of Estonia lies Finland, to the west Sweden, to the south Latvia, and to the east Russia. The close proximity of these countries has indelibly left its mark on Estonia as a nation. In fact, Estonia has only been an independent country for two short periods in its history, between the First and Second World Wars and since 1992. This being so, it is a testament to the strength of character and resourcefulness of Estonians that it has survived as a country at all.

My experience and love of Estonia came from being an English Language teacher based in Tallinn, the capital, in 1999/2000. My first view of Tallinn came from the air, and a more depressing place I had not seen. It was like something out of Ghorky Park - Stalinesque concrete blocks and grey grass. However, I could not have been more wrong. I admit that the outskirts of the city are like any other former Soviet city, but Vanalinn (the Old Town) is the most beautiful place I have yet seen - medieval towers, turrets and walls, Orthodox cathedrals, and picture-postcard cobbled streets. Real chocolate box stuff. Thankfully, my school was situated in Vanalinn, in a converted 14th Century merchantís house.

A walk around the streets of the Old Town will reveal something of the history of Estonia. Amongst others, the rotund tower Paks Margareeta (Fat Margaret), to the north, demonstrates Tallinnís strategic importance and desirability, as does Pikk Hermann (Tall Herman) which still has 16th Century cannon balls embedded in the walls. Vene Tšnav (Russian street) and the Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral show Estoniaís considerable Russian influence, in fact the spire of Oleviste church (St. Olavís) was used as a communications antennae during the Soviet occupation. Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) and the Raeapteek (Town Chemistís) within the square reveal Estoniaís Germanic past.

The Estonian language also gives us clues to Estoniaís multicultural (or should that be multi-oppressed?) history. Although not part of the Indo-European language family (it is Finno-Ugric, like Finnish and Hungarian), Estonian has, like English, many borrowed words, mainly German. Visitors may find the language strange (more like Latin with inflections and declinations - what are commonly called Cases), but speaking a few words helps to break down barriers, although my experience is that it is very difficult to practise Estonian with Estonians, as they would like to practise their English - cue interesting bi-lingual conversations. Useful words, however, are Tere (hello), Nšgemist (seeya), Palun (please), and Tšnan (thanks). Pronunciation is very simple, with only one exception. All the letters are pronounced like English, but you must pronounce every letter. So Tere is teh-reh, Nšgemist is na-ge-mis-t, etc. The only letter which doesnít have a sound in English is ű, which sounds like ur, but with a smile. This is an important letter/sound as the word for beer is ’lu.

As you might expect, alcohol is a passion in Estonia, where the particular delicacies are Viin (vodka) and Vana Tallinn (Old Tallinn - a sweet, dark liqueur). The locals donít generally drink Vana Tallinn, it is regarded as a touristsí drink, I quite liked it (I suppose I was a tourist), but vodka is the drink of Kings. However, contrary to what you might expect, as I did, bitter is on sale in most bars in Tallinn, I expected lager but "Bishopís Finger"?. This quickly made me feel at home, although the licensing laws didnít (they donít exist). Think Europe. Donít go to bars before 10pm and night-clubs before 2am. The other surprising thing about Estonian bars is that they are all run by Scots. You order a drink in your best Estonian and the answer comes in broad Glaswegian "Thatíll be 25 croons, please". The story goes that they arrived for the Estonia-Scotland football match that never was, and didnít go home (Do yer ken?).

The Scots add colour to life in Tallinn, not that it needs much adding, as the Estonians are a party race. Not quite in the same way as the Brits (they donít invade a country, and then decorate it with verbal and physical waste), they are an altogether quieter nation, very Scandinavian, but need no excuse for a drink and a sing-song. In fact, the independence movement that started in 1988 gained power in 1992 through the Singing Revolution. Many of the folk-singing figures went on to become the leaders of the new independent Estonia. The culture has an overload of patriotic songs and festivals, and for many these are the only reasons they survived so many years in the wilderness. I finished many parties in the woods singing mighty Estonian folk songs (or not singing, because I didnít know the words, and my Estonian wasnít good enough, although I could do a good "Ilklaí Moor Bahítíat", which in itself is a national anthem).

Foreign tourists to Estonia will find it to be a west-ward looking nation, keen to join with its European neighbours, and build a new strong independent future. It is also one of the most beautiful places on Earth.


www.tallinn.ee/english/index.html - official Tallinn homepage
www.scottishfa.co.uk/fixtures/wc98/estonia1.htm - Estonia vs Scotland (the game that Estonia forgot to turn up for)
www.tourism.ee/ - Estonian tourism
www.geocities.com/torpster2000/eesti/index.html - my very own Estonian phrasebook

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