Musings of an American with Estonian roots

Andres Simonson, an Estonian American, writes about the reactions he gets when he talks about Estonia in the United States.

“So, you’re from Boston?”

Over the years, I’ve received many differing reactions from Americans when I tell them that I’m of Estonian descent. Some have been comical, like the person quoted above that thought I was a Bostonian. Or, there was the rather culturally unsophisticated individual that thought I was a custodian. No, I say – I’m not a Red Sox fan (The Boston Red Sox are a professional baseball team based in Boston, Massachusetts – Editor), I don’t have an accent straight from This Old House. Nor were my ancestors toilet bowl sanitisers by nationality. Some may have been custodians by trade, and that’s perfectly okay, but we’re not a nation of maintenance workers with a dust mopping chromosome.

 A conscious effort to preserve culture

For background, I’m a first generation American. My mother was born in Tallinn, Estonia and my father in Tartu, Estonia. I consider myself American, well, because I am. And although I consider myself cosmopolitan, I believe in American exceptionalism. But I have a deep affection for my ancestral land. Maybe it’s the relative uniqueness of the situation. After all, the country’s population is only 1.3 million. Or, maybe it’s the associated hipness factor – it is a land of modern design and European fashion. But most likely, my attachment is a conscious effort to preserve a population and culture that have been historically oppressed by foreign occupiers, most recently and notably the Soviets.

“I have a deep affection for my ancestral land”

Many times the mention of Estonia to someone I’ve recently met induces a deep, blank stare. You can feel the person struggling with the atlas in their mind. Some will pause long enough, allowing me to know they want more information. Others will go for it, blank stare and all, even though they are unsure. With their mind’s atlas clearly turned to the wrong page, they will place the country anywhere from southern Europe to somewhere between North and South Dakota. That’s usually when I call my Senator demanding a budget increase to the national geography education curriculum.

We are a lot like Finns

For those in the categories above, that don’t fully know the Estonian story, here’s the anecdote I tell in some variation: it’s a tiny country just south of Finland. We are a lot like Finns, just a little bit less cold in the winter. We like saunas, so much so that we put one on old tank treads so it can drive around.

“We like saunas, so much so that we put one on old tank treads so it can drive around”

The sun hangs in the sky at 10 p.m. in the summer. The sun barely comes up in the winter. At Christmas we like to eat hog casings stuffed with barley, pork, and animal blood. Sometimes we carry our wives in competitive races that pay the winning contestants in their equivalent weight of beer. You know, we’re just like everybody else.

Other times when I mention my Estonian heritage, I haven’t finished the fourth syllable and the person on the other side of the conversation is smiling broadly. Yeah, I know this person or that person – comes the general reply. They proceed to tell me a story, a remembrance of time spent with the Estonian individual. The memory typically involves some sort of relatively harmless hijinks, partially fed by youthful indiscretion and partially fueled by vodka shots. By the end, I can’t tell whether their impression of Estonians is positive or negative.

I’m happily married now with three wonderful daughters, but the Estonian angle was always a great ice breaker with the ladies (author’s note: I love you Alice, and I’ll understand if you skip this paragraph).

“The Estonian angle was always a great ice breaker with the ladies”

Problem was, it inevitably exposed some of dimmest bulbs on the hardware store shelf. Many couldn’t grasp matters that didn’t relate to the latest edition of their supermarket gossip magazine of choice. Many had very little knowledge of recent history and didn’t realise the extent of the atrocities committed by the Soviets in Eastern Europe during and after World War II. That was usually when I called my Senator demanding a budget increase to the national history education curriculum… and when I usually remained without a dinner date.

Today the Estonians are more widely known

Today though, thanks to the information age and globalisation, the Estonians are more widely known. Some know the Estonians are on the cutting edge of technology as the inventors of Skype and proliferators of universal wifi, internet freedom, e-commerce, and e-voting. Some that have followed the public feud between President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman, know the Estonians weathered the European economic crisis relatively well after instituting flat taxes and austerity measures.

Armed with a smartphone loaded with Google Earth, anyone can instantly zoom into its location. Lucky ones can even find a bottle of Estonian vodka on the store shelf in the States.

So, I will continue to tell my Estonian story to anyone that wants to listen. I will continue to master the vocabulary of a language where I am only but conversational. I will help my wife, a language teacher by trade, to do the same. I will keep enrolling my kids in Estonian School as long as it is available. I will socialise with compatriots at our local clubhouses in Lakewood, New Jersey and New York City. I will visit my extended family in Estonia in the future. And maybe one day, I’ll go and find some Estonians in Boston…

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Cover: One of the many bogs in Estonia (photo by Arne Ader/the image is illustrative.) Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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About the author: Andres Simonson

Andres is first generation American of Estonian descent. An enthusiastic estophile, he is an environmental consultant holding a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in city and regional planning, concentrating in environmental planning. He resides in Red Bank, New Jersey, with his loving wife and three darling daughters.

  • A.K.

    Andres…..somehow when I read your stuff I can be laughing and have tears in my eyes at the same time. take that as a compliment !!!!

  • Alice

    Vaga hea, minu kivi! I guess it’s a good thing that I used my pickup line on you first! (-;

  • Susanne O’Halloran

    Wonderful country, Andres. I feel fortunate to have visited Tallinn. There was such a party atmosphere in the streets and fireworks every night. Great article!

    • Yes, looking forward to heading back… there is a song festival next year.

  • There are quite a few Bostonian Estonians. I guess I’m now more of a Philadelphian Estonian, but I grew up outside of Boston. We had Estonian School, church, all the usual stuff, and from what I hear, the group has grown larger once again…

    • Thanks Alvar… I am peripherally familiar with the group. Didn’t doubt for a minute about the existence of Bostonian Estonians – that was just part of my story line. Hey, if nothing else, good excuse to get back to a great city.

  • I loved it when some hayseed from Eastern Kentucky used to say to me: “yeah, I know where that is”. The guy didn’t even know where Louisville was, “somewhere beyond Salyersville” which was in the closest wet county 20 miles away. But that was a long time ago.

    • A long time ago, but you know what they say – the more things change, the more they stay the same

  • Saba Ahang

    I love this country and Im happy that I found it on the map

  • It was enjoyable reading your article and it brought back some memories. When I would mention Estonia some said “Astoria”. No. Estonia and after this one person repeated Astoria, I was getting annoyed and said no, Ethiopia. He had heard of Ethiopia and I went on to explain how we were persecuted by the locals and had to live in the worst of conditions in huts we built up in trees with no bathrooms, etc. Having to constantly leave our tree huts to escape them and running for our lives made life very difficult. He listened with his mouth open and as I continued to reel him in, he believed every word I was saying which continued for awhile. I never told him anything otherwise. True, they don’t teach enough of US nor world geography in the schools.

    • Thanks Maie – appreciate the positive review. And, excellent
      anecdotes to add to the story. Funny stuff, and as you note, sad at the same
      time.

  • Oh, so familiar! My girlfriend Linda solved the problem by carrying a tiny map in her wallet and whipping it out every time someone said “Estonia? Where’s that?” Luckily, I was able to solve the problem by moving to Estonia 20 years ago.

    • Thanks for adding to the story, Juta. When I posted this, I figured there were plenty of parallel stories out there. And, I like your problem solving skills…

  • My dad was from Tallinn and mom was from Tartu! I, too, am 1st gen Estonian-American born in NJ and brought up part of the Lakewood seltskond! My husband and I were very fortunate to spend 2 weeks in Tallinn in 2000 for our honeymoon, and I’m trying to convince him to move there. Difficult, he’s a born and raised New Englander(New Hampshire seacoast) and it would take an act of God to get him to move! I will NEVER stop trying!!!! Enjoyed your article immensely and look forward to more!

    • MaryAnn, thanks for reading and chiming in – glad you enjoyed. Also glad you mentioned Lakewood – will be there this weekend for the Vabariigi Aastapäev ceremony and party. I can sympathize with your husband as I too love New England, especially VT, NH, and ME.

  • Maria

    I am looking to send a suitcase (nothing illegal) with someone who travels from Boston to Estonia. If you know anyone who can help please e-mail me! Thanks 😉

  • H.Pardey

    Both my parents were born in Tallinn. I am first generation Australian.My aunt lived in Sweden and while visiting her, went to Tallinn with my sister (who lives in England) Second journey in 2008 (whirlwind world tour with my husband), Went to Tallinn and retraced the steps of my parents and photographed where they had lived..Generously hosted by the daughter of my mother’s best schoolfriend (who she corressponded with for 50 years). My sister has visited several times and can speak Estonian.I struggle (it was my first language, as my maternal grandmother looked after me before I started school.) Estonian community in Australia quite strong. (has a good site). Most Australians have some idea where the country lies. They know it is part of the Baltic States.Many Australians are good at geography. We are a country of travelers and a community of many nationalities. I am Australian and love living here. (Thanked my parents often for being born here….however there is some spot in my heart that yearns for a Northern place. I like cold, gloomy weather rather than hot, humid heat.I think I share the droll, dry humour of Estonians and Finns.(which you also display in your article.) I love Estonian food. A very enjoyable read. (I was in New Jersey, Maplewood for 4 weeks of December 2012 (Christmas: with daughter, extended family and children. Wonderful white Christmas). Just discovered this site. A lot of interesting reading.

    • Thanks for adding to the story. I’ve been to Australia once – for the ESTO festival in Melbourne in 1988. Wonderful memories. Would go back often to make more memories if it weren’t for that pesky 18 hour flight. Still, would like to visit again someday.

      • H.Pardey

        Having a browse and came across this again. Like all the added comments. The one thing that has not been mentioned is the singing. Great choirs and the festival to celebrate Independence with the mass choirs is truly amazing. I hope I can include one more trip to Estonia from Australia before I find it too difficult.

  • Karin

    Australia? No, Estonia. You don’t have a strong Australian accent. No, Estonia. How do you get on with Kiwis? No, Eeee-stonia!
    I am an Estonian but have been living outside Estonia for the past 10 years and have had to do a lot of explaining about the whereabouts and the language and the history of my country. I don’t mind though, I find it rather amusing. And it’s always very nice when somebody says I am the first Estonian they have ever met once they get it that I am not an Australian 🙂

  • Pille

    Normally i don’t finish long ‘ish articles but this was actually very interesting. I’m not myself and american-estonian but have lived in UK for about 10 years now and every time i mention i’m from Estonia, they go…”oh yeah…Russians,right!”…”eeerm..no!” and then i need to specify exactly where we are situated 😀

  • Angel

    I married into an American-Estonian family. 🙂 My mother in law is second gen american, and she’s very proud of her heritage. I was able to learn some recipes that I love (like kotleteid! YUM) , and I try to learn the language in pieces. My husband doesn’t speak it though, so that’s difficult; Although, he and his siblings have a really basic understanding when it’s spoken to them.