I have been living in Estonia for two months. I quickly learned the meaning of «Terviseks», and that Skype was developed in Estonia, but I think that, to become a real Estonian, one must know more and do more. So I accepted a challenge: To dive one weekend deep into Estonia and find out if I can become a real Estonian.
Long underpants, an umbrella, a smartphone and one bottle of Vana Tallinn. I am ready for step one of my challenges: go into the wild. I travel to the Lahemaa nature park. It is difficult to arrange a place to sleep there, but after calling 18 people, I convince an old Estonian man to let me sleep in his house. His name is Päet and he seemed confused when I asked him if I could stay at his place after just three minutes of chatter-- Estonians are not very direct, as I quickly learned. And so I sat in a bus from Tartu to Lahemaa for around six hours. My thoughts, as I arrive in the middle of nowhere: I am going to a man who I don’t know, I haven’t seen any pictures of him, and he said to me: «Maybe we won’t have water, but you can use our frozen lake, we will break some ice for you, so you can wash yourself.» Päet picks me up with his car, we listen to Estonian rock and drive 150 km/h with full beams through a forest, on a road that is not really a street. What the hell am I doing here?
Challenge one: Into the wild
Suddenly it gets brighter. In front of me is a large, frozen lake, the full moon shines brightly, dogs are barking, and far away I hear people shouting and singing: «Tere, Karsten. You are welcome. Today my wife has her birthday, and we have friends over. Join our sauna party!» Half-naked and confused is the best way to describe the whole evening. I eat in the sauna. Estonians immediately start talking with me, and I jump with these friendly strangers into the frozen lake. My Estonian journey starts in the right way. I listen a lot to «Goodbye to Yesterday», this year’s Estonian Eurovision contender, and I learn about e-residency and that Estonia’s highest mountain, Suur Munamägi, is only 318 meters high. It feels crazy that Estonians are loudest in the sauna, a place in Germany where nobody talks to you.
The next step, hiking and hitchhiking: I go to a forest to see frozen bogs, and am amazed. I have never seen nature like this, and have never had a Wi-Fi signal so deep in the countryside. After ten kilometers, I decide to stop a car and to ride to the next village to eat something. The third car picks me up, after 15 minutes, and is driven by an easy-going Estonian. I arrive in Kolga, a village with absolutely nothing in it. Every house seems to be empty. After a few minutes, I see a balloon in the sky. I walk towards it, and stumble across a birthday party. «Excuse me, can you tell me where I can find something to eat?» As usual for this trip, things get crazy. One mother takes me to her home, where I play «hide and seek» with children, and eat cabbage soup with sour cream and homemade black bread. This nature trip gave me the feeling that it is easy to become an Estonian. Now it is time for the next step: Confirm that that food is the fastest way to get to know a nation’s culture.
Challenge two: Cooking Estonian food
Saturday night. I meet Janeli in Tartu. She helps me to cook one national dinner: Rukkileivakattega ahjukael.
Cooking was easy, the food quite similar to German cuisine. To be honest, most of our dinner was prepared by the store, but what matters is the food’s taste.
So, Estonian food is very delicious and easy to cook. I think I am able to cook for my new Estonian friends and if the meal is not perfect, a little Vana Tallinn will rescue me from this situation.
What you have to eat for becoming Estonian:
Rukkileivakattega ahjukael with potatoes and cabbage
Sült with bread
kihiline rukkileiva magustoit
Challenge three: The Language
Having learned a lot about Estonia’s culture, IT-market, food, and nature, my last challenge is to fight with its language. To be honest, this is my most difficult challenge. When I arrived here in Estonia I wanted to start a language class, but after realizing that there are 14 cases in the language, I decided to cancel the class. The language sounds to me like a jawbreaker. But I asked people from Tartu which five sentences are necessary to survive, and tried to pronounce them:
1. Kallis tundmatu, sul on kõige kaunimad silmad, mida olen näinud (Dear stranger, you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen)
2. Üks õlu (One beer)
3. Ma ei räägi eesti keelt (I don't speak Estonian)
4. Vaikus on kuld (Silence is golden)
5. Saame kokku (Let's meet)
Result: Feeling part of the culture
After more than 24 hours trying to become an Estonian, I must say that I got really close to succeeding. The biggest barrier is the language, the most important part of a country’s culture. But the most important thing I learned during my experiment: Never believe that Estonians are cold. If you show them that you want to learn something from their culture, they will open their hearts and the sun will shine — maybe only 15 minutes a day, but that’s better than nothing.