Thoughts about Estonia from an Englishman’s perspective

At the forefront of the English persons outlook on life is to wonder what others think about what they do. I wouldn’t say that this is absent from a typical Estonian viewpoint, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be so important. To me this denotes a lack of insecurity, something that the average English male (in particular) has plenty of his fair share of.

The English need to know that what they do is ’normal’. From my experience the average Estonian is not really interested in comparison with others and just gets on with his or her own business with very little concern whether it is of interest to their neighbours.

So does this mean that Estonians are confident people? I suspect that the answer is, not necessarily, but the mere absence of this type of self conscious ’baggage’ in their thoughts probably makes their lives more straightforward.

An interesting example of the differences has to be the attitude towards sauna. Put an Englishman in a room full of native Estonians and mere mention of the word is enough to make the hapless visitor break out in a sweat. The English just don’t do ‘naked’ with others and the thought that they will be coerced into participation against their will and yet at the same time not wanting to offend their hosts is a paradox that creates a great deal of embarrassment all round. And you can see that this is the lack of confidence coming out again.

Estonians just don’t give a fig what others think. They want to have a few drinks, get naked and enjoy themselves. What do any other peoples thoughts have to do with what they themselves are doing?

And then there is the business of massage! This deserves a book in it’s own right. My own experience of this is probably typical and verified by other expatriates experiences. You see, to an Englishman this has certain connotations. If you accept the initial premise that the English lack self confidence, it follows that they are also inhibited. This has brought about a rather peculiar national characteristic when it comes to sex. We think it is somehow illicit and secret, not to be openly discussed. The massage parlour in London was (and to a certain extent still is) a place for naughtiness, not health, and certainly not something you would tell your mother you were visiting.

So the staid visitor comes to Estonia and is asked by his innocent companion if he would like to go for sauna followed by a massage. Hmmm! Maybe is the initial response, followed very quickly by will there be others there? Would it be a woman giving the massage? Will I have to be naked? Lie on my back? Whereabouts on the anatomy does the massage start and finish? How long will I be subjected to this? And all these thoughts are in the context of losing control, being too embarrassed to say no and assuming the worst (or hoping for the best!) outcome.

As a visitor, one of the things you soon notice of course is that Estonians absolutely implicitly understand their visitors shyness and derive great pleasure from the awkwardness this all creates. Yet my Estonian partner informs me that Estonians are reserved. More of a British characteristic, and at first seemingly contradictory. But perhaps not. You keep your thoughts to yourselves and this is something we have in common, as is the delight in watching others embarrassment!

The country run by women

I have visited Estonia on several occasions. It was only recently that something very obvious occurred to me. Virtually every shop and business you encounter is staffed by WOMEN. I bought a small property. Admittedly the developer was a man. But the notary was a woman. I went to pay my electricity bill to a woman. I set up my bank account with a woman. I went to the insurance company and a woman gave me cover.

I decided that as I have adopted Estonia as my second home, I would get an ID card. I went to the local parish offices and a very kind woman registered me. I then went to town, to the government office, to get my card where a whole team of women fussed about me and informed me that the lady in the adjoining parish had made a mistake with my application and I would have to start over again. (In the meantime I was hungry and this same team then fussed and were only interested in where I could get some food).

I think one of the only places that I encountered a man was in the water board where clearly the individual helping me spent most of his life digging up the mains, something as yet men in Estonia are still more suitable for!

Get on with it

In Latvia the drivers are dangerous. I believe that in France a Frenchman thinks it is his national duty to try and run down pedestrians guilty of crossing the road. In Italy a roundabout is a racing track with no concept of stopping. The Germans drive as fast as they can in straight lines and in Spain nobody does anything in the afternoons. But what of the Estonian driver? They just go about their own business (recognise the recurring theme?) and ignore everyone else. They don’t care what lane they are in. They don’t mind other drivers cutting them up. They don’t use their horns, lean out of the windows and hurl abuse at each other. They don’t speed. They just get on with it.

But where else in Europe can you not even cross the road where you want to? In Estonia you can get an on the spot fine for crossing at an inappropriate place! This is a completely alien concept to visitors from Britain and something to be careful of.

Of course in Estonia it is possible to do things that you just cannot do in Britain. To a certain extent we have lost a sense of responsibility for self-preservation, preferring, and often encouraging the populace to blame others for any misfortunes visited upon them by the vicissitudes of daily life. In Estonia for instance, you can enjoy a walk by the sea without the benefit of numerous signs declaring DANGER DEATH BY DROWNING should you be unlucky enough to go into the water having forgotten that you cannot actually swim.

A lookout tower on the northern shore of Võrtsjärv. The miniature house-like buildings in lifeless landscapes add a layer of additional emptiness to the already deserted winterscape. The warmth pours into you by just standing and watching this silence.

Another thing that surprised and excited me was the opportunity to see the countryside in Estonia. Out driving one day on my first visit here, we came across a large and very tall wooden tower. To my surprise this had been built for visitors, not only that, but it had been left unguarded and open to any suicidal individual to climb unassisted to the top. Moreover once at the top it became very obvious to me that, should I have chosen to, I could have done a base jump or thrown myself without the aid of wings into the void. Not even a sign reminding me DEATH BY GRAVITY should I have been remiss enough to have tried some bungee jumping minus the rope…

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The cover image is illustrative (Johann Kööp). Images by Visit Estonia, Otepää Sauna Marathon, Let’s Do It World! and Tõnu Runnel. This article was slightly amended on 26 October 2017.

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About the author: David Foreman

David Foreman works at London Southbank University as a Senior Project Manager. He has an Estonian partner, visits Estonia regularly and intends to partially retire there in the next few years to split his time between London and Pärnu.

  • Michael

    Great one, can’t wait for the second part! By the way, those signs in the UK are pretty ridiculous, aren’t they? Mind the gap! Danger of drowning! (no shit?) Do not… blah blah blah…

  • Klaabu

    Great article. I myself am an Estonian currently studying in England and oh… I sure miss the absence of all these “caution death by drowning”, “we’re watching (out for) you”, “going outside at your own risk”, and whatnot signs.

  • Edmund

    I also visit Parnu several times a year from the UK and sometimes meet up with other Englishmen there. Perhaps we could meet up for a beer sometime…

  • Edmund

    …in other words you, me and Robbie (just like last summer)!!!

  • Sandra

    A very nicely written and entertaining artice, at the same time filled with true facts! I must say, I did wonder when visiting London, why people need to be warned about the obvious so much. Seems that even people from London wonder about the same thing 🙂

  • Train Boy

    I was very happy thinking I was the ‘only Englishman in Pärnu’.

    • Richard

      well i have been living just outside pärnu for 4 years

      • Train Boy

        I take some comfort from the ‘just outside’ 🙂

      • Train Boy

        I take some comfort from the ‘just outside’ 🙂

      • Stefan Hasso

        Seems like an “English Expat Club in Pärnu” is on the cards… 🙂

        • Richard

          i also no 2 others who have a flat there who visit often

  • Ep

    In Estonia’s defense about the crossing of roads and fining- the cars are required to stop at an unregulated pedestrian crossing and let a person cross the road (whereas in rest of the Europe you just have to run for your life and hope you’ll make it across before the car – no slowing down there). In that light, I think it makes sense that crossing in a wrong place means you can get a fine. A safe place to cross is created for you – the knowledge that you can be fined for crossing in a wrong place keeps the safe system working 🙂

  • Karola

    The traffic part is SO true … Here in Scotland, the Estonian students are the only idiots waiting for the light to go green (even if there are no cars). There was an incident were me and my friends were thinking of crossing the street before the light went green and then we saw policemen walking on the street and instantly went back to waiting .. only for the officers to cross the street from a totally random place with the red light still on, diagonally across the street! It was like being in a zoo 😀

  • Mare

    A lot of generalizations here, as there are many classes of Brits, and a few classes of Estos too. As for laughing at the foreigner’s embarrassment in a sauna, I don’t think a genteel estonian would do that. I know that for the Brits, gentility and civility or simply good manners requires that you put the other person at ease. As for those signs cautioning us on this and that, that is very Brit- Canadian (which is easily accepted from the newcomers from semi totalitarian nations) , and irksome. Possibly as Estonia keeps playing catch up with other bigger Western nations that kind of additional concern for safety will affect them too putting unnecessary restrictions on the majority’s freedom. Estonian educators are already doing things like visiting Canada and praising our school system based on tours they took. In actual fact the do-as-you-are-told approach and blind application of rules with no thought of their purpose is what we get in Canadian education system — with little emphasis on creativity and reasoning. Possibly it’s best if Estonia avoids imitating too much of what we call social engineering here. But I do caution against too many comparisons that might just apply to the individuals or classes of people you are comparing and not their ethnic stripes.

    • Belglane Eestis

      You seem to be a bit confused. Estonia has regained independence 21 years ago, so if it is Estonia you are referring to as “semi-totalitarian nation” and playing catchup, then you do need to catch up with reality yourself.

      Estonia’s education system is something I can’t grasp. Looking at results, they are among the top countries in the world regarding literacy, math, languages etc (just below the Asian smarties and Finland). I have no clue how they achieve that and I’ll explain using my experience from Belgium (where I grew up) and Estonia (where I now live):
      – In Belgium, the results of these kinds of international tests have been very good as well, but in my opinion this is because children have very little place for being creative and choose their own favorite topics. So because all children have to learn all this stuff they don’t actually want to, they get good results on tests that measure exactly these things.
      – In Estonia however, the results are even better than in Belgium, despite teachers earning a ridiculously low amount of money and students having quite a lot of freedom to study what they want even in early age. Creativity is very much stimulated and they only have to go to school from 8:30 to 14:30.

      I hope Estonia won’t be imitating those other systems too much, because I feel the current education system is the reason why there is so much culture and creativity here at the moment.

      As for the main article, it makes me dreamy because the people you describe are the type of Estonians I would want every Estonian to be. But sadly there are plenty of greedy businessmen, corrupt politicians and middle-aged people with 5 loans on their backs who only think about consuming and have to spend all their time working and stressing out because of that. I especially feel bad for the last kind.

      To finish off, I’d like to say that Estonian for me still is a fairytale. For other people it won’t be perhaps, but you see what you want to see and you do what you want to do, so I do things that make me feel like I’m living in the fairytale and try to stay true to it :).

      • I don’t quite know what Estonian schools you have been introduced to. I used to be at school from 8am to 4pm-4.30pm often! I wouldn’t say there was much choice in subjects either – most schools study ALL possible subjects from grade 1 through 12..

    • Max Boyle

      November 17, 2014 sees the first anniversary of the publication of my The Indrawn Heart, a work of travel literature which incorporates an enquiry into the Estonian national character. Those interested in such ‘ethnic stripes’ might find the book stimulating. The Indrawn Heart is available at http://www.lakeshorepressbooks.com and Amazon websites. A review can be seen at http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/34040/.

  • john

    a young Englishman had a good laugh once. he was walking around Tartu with his Estonian companion. he asked his companion to translate a sign on a window that had a familiar looking word in it. it stated “Meie teine traditsiooniline väljasõit Peipsile toimub … mingil kuupäeval”. it translates into “Our second traditional field trip to lake Peipus takes place on … “. second traditional. just saying …

  • wow! this article made me think as of a better person again:) I really travel a lot and can´t answer all these questions- like-why are you still standing?-there are no cars:) But really- I sometimes admire the Estonian people myself ( being an Estonian myself)- when moving around with foreigners and answering the questions about “strange” but safe behavior of MY PEOPLE… And the situation with the watching towers so familiar- I have unfortunatelly been asked why there was no guardian or at least 3-meter-high fence up there. I answered- there are much easier ways to kill yourself:)))))))))))
    And again-thanks for seeing positive things in us:))))

  • Eric

    Grreat to read about your adventures and insights in Estonia, beautiful nature country and people, thanks Eric

  • Anita

    Hahaa…well done!

  • Steve

    I never gave a second thought to stripping off and getting in the Sauna (with Beer in hand) with my Estonian friends, Driving rules of the road, as in parking and changing lanes only apply to non BMW/Audi owners.

  • Ingrid

    “The English just don’t do ‘naked’ with others”
    I have always been wondering what makes drunk English lads to flash their bare bums and girls their boobs. Just the English seem to have that irresistible desire. Being naked in sauna at least makes sense 🙂

  • estonian man

    When i visited outskirts of London, it was really funny to see signs like “Lammas court” on a small piece of grass. Why label 3×5 meters of grass? And yes, i don’t really care that someone named a tiny piece of grassland. I really liked the way your bus drivers drive, fast and dangerous, I got to see places quicker than usual. And your country is beautiful and organised for sure, proud citizens and healthy English humor. Bacon and eggs in the morning, splendid!

  • R U Real?

    As a Welshman, this guy knows nothing about our nation and does not speak for Wales when he uses the term Britain.

    – Signs in the UK are pretty much there for Tourists.
    – Drivers here are nowhere near as bad as Macedonia, but drivers in Wales are safer.
    – Welsh people do not care what you think of them, thats an English thing.

    Rest of this is true.

    Source: Welshman with Estonian GF living in Parnu and Rapla, just moved here after 6 years in Macedonia