A South African couple shares their tips on moving to Estonia

Rüdiger and Antonel Roach, South African expats, living in Tallinn.

A South African couple, Rüdiger and Antonel Roach, packed up their things and moved to Estonia in March 2017; now that they’ve settled in, they’re happy to share their experience and tips on moving to a strange country.

This article is commercial content, paid for by the European Social Fund and the Estonian ministry of the interior.

Estonia’s welcoming programme for current and future expats is an action plan supporting the adaptation of newly arrived people; the programme contains one-day thematic trainings and an Estonian language course for beginners.

Estonian World met Rüdiger and Antonel Roach – a couple from Pretoria, South Africa, who moved to Estonia in March 2017. For them, it is the first time to be living outside of their home country. From the many courses offered, they took advantage of the language lessons of the welcoming programme – and are happy to share their personal experience and tips for anyone deciding to live in Estonia.

Coming to Estonia

“It all started with us simply deciding to move and live outside of South Africa, so the first step was to start job-hunting online and looking through many postings,” Rüdiger explains. “We found the Estonian company, Jobbatical, that helped us a lot – many other companies abroad were not very keen on having the first job interview via Skype, but in Estonia it did not seem to be a big issue at all.”

He recalls that the whole application process was definitely an upgrade from South Africa and although it was the first time they both ever heard about Estonia, they did some quick search about statistics, safety and other facts about the country and were just as quickly convinced. Antonel adds that the whole process of searching for positions, sending out their applications and actually moving to Estonia was “ridiculously fast”.

The only stumbling stone for the couple was that South Africa does not have an Estonian embassy yet, so they reached out to other embassies in different countries and told their story. “Finally, there was a positive reply about a working visa from India – so we took off and stayed there for three weeks until all the paperwork was done by the local Estonian embassy.”

Settling in Tallinn

After asking what their first impressions were upon arriving to Estonia, Rüdiger exclaims that the thing they first noticed – and are still enjoying every day most of all – was the level of safety. He explains that the first six months felt like being on holiday for them, since the lifestyle in Tallinn feels very calm, secure and relaxing. “Coming from South Africa, this was a very big thing for us!“

The snowy and muddy weather in late winter was still a shock to them, however. “We felt like we had not done enough research about the weather! It did get better though and most of the time we are really enjoying the four seasons here.“

Other things that, they are enjoying about the life in Tallinn are the public transport and the fact that many places are from a walking distance. There is a tram stop right outside their house which makes it very easy to get anywhere in the city fast. “We do have a car, but we only use it for special occasions and bigger purchases,” Rüdiger says. “You don’t really need a car here unless you live in the outskirts. In Pretoria, I commuted to work over 35 kilometres and back every day, but here my office is one kilometre from home and I usually walk there every day.”

They both agree that Estonia really grows on them and have come to appreciate the lush, clean, green nature very much – it is very different from South Africa. (This is where the conversation turns into a long discussion about the perks of Tallinn’s green areas, such as Paljassaare, Pääsküla bog, Schnelli and Kalamaja parks etc.)

And what about surprises?

“Definitely the sauna culture!“ Rüdiger brings up the memory of his first sauna experience in Saaremaa island – a real smoke sauna. “Basically, it was just like a warm summer day in South Africa! Another experience we had was renting a sauna and a cottage just across the border in Latvia. It was the New Year’s Eve and it was very cold. We chiselled a hole in the ice and dipped ourselves in. Your whole body shouts and the skin starts tingling but you feel great afterwards – very crazy!“

Comparing the Estonian and South African working culture

Both Rüdiger and Antonel currently work at a company called Synctuition, an Estonian startup developing and offering binaural audio technology, which has been developed in cooperation with psychologists, neurologists, musicians, sound engineers and meditation experts.

They agree that it is hard to compare the both countries’ working culture. “In Estonia, we only have experienced the entrepreneurial side and startup companies whereas in South Africa, I was working for big corporations only, so the experience is very different. I think we were not so prepared for the Estonian working culture which, a lot of the time, is openly bossless,” Rüdiger notes. “Nobody tells you to sit and do what you are told; everyone works in teams for the common goals and discusses things in a team. Talking everything through, working together, making an impact all in all, I find this type of working culture very positive. I have been promoting this and telling people back home about it.”

Rüdiger recalls that he first started out at another startup, Shipitwise, and then moved over to Synctuition. “Both Estonian companies have made me feel very welcome, and it is natural for Estonians to switch to English as soon as one non-Estonian person is present.”

Antonel had a little different experience to begin with. As a qualified interior designer, it was not so easy to find a suitable position and the company she worked for had a harder time including her in terms of day to day office culture. “It was challenging to do what you know in a language you know nothing about.”

The welcoming programme and learning experiences

“From the courses offered at the welcoming programme, we took the language course first and although it was tough, we at least got a feel for the Estonian language – just enough to start learning and get our feet wet,” Antonel recalls their decision. “Our Estonian teacher, Evelin, was wonderful and very passionate – we were really sad to leave her class! It was so much fun to have a classroom full of people who were just as confused as we were. For every time you got something right, there were so many exceptions to the rule – hilarious!“

“A lot of the other courses in the programme teach you a lot – everything that is useful to know about life in Estonia. We are planning to attend a few more, but I guess they are most useful when you have just arrived,” Rüdiger adds. They both agree it is also a great way to meet new friends and still see some of them regularly.

Rüdiger and Antonel Roach.

Advice from Rüdiger and Antonel for anyone moving to Estonia

  • Take every day as it comes, it is a rollercoaster! Everything is changing fast in Estonia.
  • Don’t take things personally and don’t be offended. Estonia will probably be so much different from our own country anyway, so just keep an open mind. Always remember the way you grew up is not the only way or the right way.
  • Remember how small Estonia is. The connections you make really matter. Take care of your social circle, friends and acquaintances. In case you need a new apartment, new job, some advice, anything, your friends can probably help you.
  • When you go to another country, you have to adapt and not just stay in your own bubble. We have tried to be as Estonian as possible from the beginning and to assimilate to the culture, we tried the sauna and all the different local foods. It makes the experience so much more interesting, no matter which country you go to.
  • Last, but not least – they both agree that one thing that Estonia could improve upon is the availability of English translations. On many websites, the information is only in Estonian and Russian, for example. Considering the amount of expats moving here each year, the situation should definitely improve still.

The couple agrees that what helped them most of all was keeping an open mind – they did not leave South Africa with a lot of preconceptions and prejudices which made the whole process psychologically a lot easier. Rüdiger still emphasises the fact of having a back-up plan. “The easiest approach is that nothing really can go wrong though – the worst that can happen is that you simply have to go back to your home country.”

The welcoming programme is funded by the European Social Fund and by the Estonian ministry of the interior. You can read more and sign up for free courses on the Settle in Estonia website or keep yourself updated with latest information on Facebook.

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Cover: Rüdiger and Antonel Roach in the Old Town of Tallinn. Read also: Moving to Estonia? Here’s why your decision to do so has just been made even easier.

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About the author: Reelika Virunurm

Reelika spent over four years living in Germany, which she considers her second home country. Back in Estonia, she is working in communications, writing in her free time, and also showing tourists how to eat blueberries in the forest. She is trying to travel as much as possible and learn a new language whenever possible.