Claire Millard

Claire Millard is a Brit living in Tallinn, learning to love the language, while bonding with her Estonian friends over a shared passion for moaning about the weather. With ten years of operational and people management in the UK retail sector, she is passionate about helping businesses to deliver excellent customer service. See more at clairemillard.jimdo.com

Estonia’s startup founders: “Employ more entrepreneurs”

Estonia has long produced entrepreneurs. From Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 assertion that there are “at least two” Estonians in every port of the Southern waters, to Mark Andreessen’s 2015 tweet that, at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, a “few factors get us as excited as Estonian founders”, enterprise is in Estonia’s DNA.

When the Estonian Development Fund commissioned a recent report about the state of entrepreneurship in Estonia, the local startup ecosystem ranked well – in the 21st position out of a global index of 120 countries. But the report also highlighted that hatching new companies is not enough. Capitalising on this intrinsic entrepreneurial spirit requires more fledgling Estonian businesses to become large enough to employ others and really contribute to national economic growth.

As local startups get big enough to start recruiting teams, founders move from seeking partners and co-founders to hiring employees. But are these two things really such different beasts? Could employing entrepreneurs be the springboard that sees more Estonian startups rising through the ranks and joining the Estonian Mafia hall of fame?

#estonianmafia wall of fame at Garage48 Hub in Tallinn

CoFounder Magazine, dedicated to the Northern European startup scene, recently asked some successful founders, cofounders and friends of the Estonian startup ecosystem about their thoughts on employing other entrepreneurs in their businesses.

Entrepreneurs create value

So why might hiring an entrepreneur cause sleepless nights? A friend of the Estonian startup ecosystem and founder of gaming company Boomlagoon, Antti Sten, sums it up well:

“I suppose one reaction to this question would be to assume entrepreneurs will never be happy with a ‘normal job’, while the other would be to think that an entrepreneur would have so much experience on things that can’t be taught, that they would be a valuable asset. Both are valid points to consider, but it’s not that black and white.”

So how do our founders decide? Rain Rannu, the founder of the Fortumo mobile payments service, believes that hiring an entrepreneur can kickstart a business as you’re hiring someone who can create products, markets and value from scratch:

“It may sound counterintuitive, but in fact, in a lot of cases, I prefer to employ entrepreneurs. In every company, two kinds of people are needed – the ones who are good at managing existing business and the ones who are able to create new things.”

“While entrepreneurs are not necessarily great for managing day-to-day activities, it is near impossible to launch a new product or business line without an entrepreneur driving it!”

Fortumo

Markus Villig of Taxify agrees that hiring entrepreneurs can help drive the business forward, as long as you embrace and encourage their independence:

“Entrepreneurs are typically independent and not specialists, so they don’t fit into regular organisations for more than a few months. If you are launching a new product where the manager has a lot of freedom, then someone with an entrepreneurial drive is the best bet.”

Taxify_CEO_Markus_Villig

Jevgeni Kabanov, the CEO of Zeroturnaround, says he’s “hired clever folk and let them do their best. Success ensued. Eventually.” And among those clever folk were there some entrepreneurs? You bet.

“Anything in product management or product marketing requires entrepreneurial thinking – being able to understand markets, identify opportunities and bring people together to pursue them.”

Jevgeni Kabanov - ZeroTurnaround

“Certainly anyone who had experience creating and/or running the business brings along some very valuable experience.”

Entrepreneurs understand the difficult decisions

sten_1349567406_73Sten Tamkivi, a co-founder of Teleport, has made a business of helping people move round the world to find rewarding work in a place where they can make more, spend less and live happy. Of the first 11 employees at Teleport, over half had founded companies themselves and had direct experience in building products from scratch. For Tamkivi, this meant that in addition showing their own drive, they have already walked in his shoes:

“No matter if they succeeded or failed before, I know they have a strong internal drive and can self-motivate, but have a lot of humility about how hard it is to do what we do.”

“Entrepreneurs know how to operate with limited resources and make tough prioritisation choices.”

“And even if former founders are in an employee role now, I know that they still have a lot of empathy for some of the hard decisions I need to make as a CEO. It is much easier to have frank conversations on some complex topics.”

Hiring entrepreneurs means hiring partners, not employees

Kristjan Tamm’s Rentmarket is currently riding high at 170% of target funding achieved through Fundwise. On hiring an entrepreneur, he says:

“Hiring an entrepreneur is actually hiring another co-founder, no matter what stage your company is at. Keep this in mind, even when you both try to hide it. An entrepreneur will always be an entrepreneur, but we should embrace that and not be afraid.”

Jüri Kaljundi, a co-founder of an impressive array of enterprises, including most recently the team communication and productivity platform, Weekdone, and the events and co-working space for entrepreneurs, Garage 48, says he aims to hire people who are “one-man startups in themselves”:

“Each of our eight team members is like a mini-entrepreneur in that sense. Be it design, marketing or sales, they all must decide like a founder what are the things that might give the best results, then experiment daily and find things that work.”

“That is very similar to entrepreneurs: having a laser-like focus of doing a few things well. Each of our employees must do that daily as well. Because of that: yes, hiring entrepreneurs is always a great idea. They just get things done on their own.”

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Jakob Saks, a co-founder of several companies – including the dirt bike product manufacturer, Rabaconda, and Tallinn restaurants Foody Allen and Neikid – observes that working with entrepreneurs is a long-term relationship, but it needs to evolve and grow over time:

“Entrepreneurs like to build stuff for themselves. You work together with an entrepreneur as partners. If you complement each other, then even though they have a tendency to leave faster than other employees who might be looking for salary safety, entrepreneurs can be life-long business partners.

“It’s not just about this short term working arrangement, but about future ventures, partnerships and spin-offs.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as “hire more entrepreneurs”. Henri Laupmaa of funding platforms Fundwise and Hooandja says:

“I would hire an entrepreneur if the person is the right type for the organisation. It is very hard to say anything about people just saying they are entrepreneurial, there are lots of characteristics one has to consider beside this.”

Henri Laupmaa

Which brings us neatly back to Antti Sten:

“I think entrepreneurialism is a merit just like any other. Maybe you have three doctorate degrees, maybe you’ve been in the same company for 20 years, maybe you’ve been part of a company that went bankrupt, maybe you’ve made millions from your last company. All these are things that can be seen as ‘worrying’ or ‘positive merits’, depending on what kind of assumptions you make.”

“But instead of making assumptions, ask them. So yes, I would hire an entrepreneur. Not just because they are one, but if that merit combined with their other merits and personality is exactly what we’re looking for.”

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Cover: Estonian entrepreneurs at Latitude59 conference.

Siidrikoda – craft cider from Estonia

Give an Estonian a traditional product, and chances are they will find a way to apply some modern wizardry, give it a revamp and come up with something pretty fine. While craft brewers have already delivered a sucker punch to the weak-and-watery lagers, craft cider makers are now stepping into the fray, with high end ciders that showcase the best of Estonian-grown apples.

Siidrikoda ISiidrikoda, established in 2011 in southern Estonia, crafts high-quality ciders and juices from apples grown in its seven-hectare (17-acre) orchard in Põlvamaa. With its products already available in bars, restaurants and selected stores in Estonia, Siidrikoda is currently raising investment funds through Fundwise to allow it to turn attention to the export market.

In 2004, Siidrikoda founder Sulev Nõmmann decided that after many years working outside of Estonia, he wanted to return and put down roots in the country of his birth. As an ecologist by trade, he decided the natural way to do this was to literally put down roots, buying some land and planting trees that would give him cause to return regularly. With the help of his economist wife, what started out as a late-night bright idea, became a solid plan to create a cider orchard, creating a business plan from their interest in ecology, combined with their passion for good cider.

Nõmmann remembered from his youth that the distinct seasons and favourable growing conditions of southern Estonia were perfect for apple growing, and he set about planting 4,000 carefully selected young trees on his new land. Despite being required in Turku for daily work, he and his family nurtured these trees together during weekends and holidays. They had the expertise they needed thanks to Nõmmann’s childhood memories of pruning and caring for orchards, and loved their land so much they spent their time camping there until they were able to build a cottage.

As the idea began to take shape, Nõmmann attended a year-long beverage making course that gave him the knowledge needed to create his own juices, ciders and calvados from the apples he was growing. With help also from a British cider expert, Andrew Lea, Nõmmann started to experiment with test batch ciders, looking for the perfect recipes to bring out the best from his apples. After testing no less than 200 different ciders at the Tallinn Technical University’s sensory laboratory, over the course of over three years, Nõmmann and his team of seven are now confident that the two ciders and one juice available today through the Siidrikoda brand are perfect.

Siidrikoda V

Snoob is a dry cider, the ironically named Hipster cider is medium dry, and the company’s latest product addition, Äpu, a sparkling fresh apple juice. While these products can already be bought in Estonia, the next step is to tap into the export market, and the team predicts a healthy overseas interest in their craft ciders, as a premium, high end product for cider connoisseurs.

Siidrikoda used the best of modern methods to create a most traditional product, and its approach to raising investment funds is similarly innovative. Currently partnered with Fundwise, Estonia’s first equity-based crowdfunding platform, Siidrikoda has raised close to a quarter of its required funding within a week of the platform’s official launch.

Cider is refreshing, natural, gluten free and often appeals to a different audience than craft beers or wine. With craft cider experiencing massive growth in the US and other European markets, Siidrikoda couldn’t have chosen a more perfect time to start to convert Estonian and international drinkers to the joys of Estonian craft cider.

Learn more about Siidrikoda’s Fundwise campaign.

Five things you need to know if you’re hiring an Estonian

There’s a saying that Southern Europeans are like peaches, whilst us Northern Europeans are like coconuts.

That is to say, that the more expressive Southern nations tend to produce people who are warm and welcoming, and soft on the outside  –  but with a core that is nonetheless difficult at times to penetrate; whilst us introvert Northerners tend to be more like coconuts, pretty tough to crack in the first place, but once you do, there’s no holding back. Whatever you think about the broader brush-stroke stereotyping, this analogy can certainly feel true if you hire or work alongside an Estonian. What do you need to know in advance to make it a match made in heaven?

1. Expect a capacity for language outdone only by C3PO

If you’re hiring an Estonian, the fact is that their English proficiency might well be better than yours. Even if you’re a native English speaker.

Estonians are pretty good at languages. So good, in fact, that Estonia ranks 8th in the global scale of English language proficiency, much higher than most of their local neighbours. But where it gets really fascinating is when you watch an Estonian switch effortlessly between languages, conversing equally happily in Estonian and English, but often also Russian, German or Swedish.

And when you finish off being impressed by this, try a little Estonian yourself, to really get a feel for your new colleague’s ability. Try saying something simple, like “jäääär” or “kuulilennuteetunneliluuk” (not only a tongue twister, but also a palindrome), and see if you’re not told to stop murdering the beautiful Estonian native language.

2. Don’t even think about cancelling lunch

Sandwich scoffed at the desk? Not in Estonia.

Lunch is an important meal, and must constitute something hot, consumed sitting down. Try to get away with a cold sandwich and a bottle of Coke at the computer at your peril. Better to arrange to introduce your new Estonian team mate to all the local eateries, find some great lunch special deals, and settle into a new  –  and infinitely more productive  – routine of actually leaving the office once a day.

While you’re at it though, expect your attire to be scrutinised. Leaving the office is compulsory, but so is being properly wrapped up. As kids, Estonians might be stopped in the street by a passer by and instructed to fasten their coat, or pull their hat over their ears. And in the often inclement weather, you can see why. It is not unusual, though, to be chastised by Estonian colleagues if you attempt to even quickly nip out of the office without the appropriate combination of outerwear for the weather.

3. No reaction does not (necessarily) equal a bad reaction

My day-job in Estonia occasionally requires public speaking, which is something of a daunting prospect in a country of coconuts. The reality is that a smile, nod or even abject silence in response to the dreaded, ‘Any Questions?” slide at the end of a presentation, is normal. And doesn’t (necessarily) mean you’ve performed terribly and should be waiting for your dismissal notice.

Don’t be fooled by this, though. The relative calm can lead you into a false sense of security with your new Estonian colleague. Be assured, when she has something to say, she will say it. Bluntly, clearly and with no messing. Get used to being asked the question, “What is the point you are trying to make?” if you have a tendency to waffle. It is not rude; it just moves the conversation along, and helps everyone keep to their impressive punctuality.

4. Turn up on time

A ten o’clock meeting will start at ten. Not a moment earlier, and not a moment later. Punctuality is a definite Estonian ‘thing’.

If you have grown up in a country where the busses all run to absolute clockwork-precise time, then it is understandable that this respect for punctuality will become part of the fibre of the being. Expect your Estonian colleague to be both very precise about timings, but with an inbuilt sense of punctuality. Not the anxious turn-up-half-an-hour-early-just-in-case type of punctuality, just an ability to be in the right place at the right time without seeming to make any effort towards that end.

5. Give credit where credit is due

A final observation and a suggestion to make your new hire feel welcome in your team:

Whatever your new Estonian colleague does or delivers, don’t forget to say, “Thank you” and “Well done!” And watch his reaction.

Words are seldom wasted in Estonia, and one of the impacts of this is that praise in the office can sometimes feel like it is in short supply. Make your colleague’s day with a pat on the back, and watch that coconut crack.

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Cover photo is illustrative (courtesy of EAS). This article was first published by Jobbatical, a unique matchmaking platform between employees looking to take a working sabbatical and employers looking for a shot of creative talent for a short-term gig.

Jobbatical – helping businesses win the “war for talent”

The new Estonian startup, Jobbatical, is unique as a marketplace for short-term jobs with life-changing experiences, matchmaking between employees looking to take a working sabbatical and employers looking for a shot of creative talent for a short-term gig.

The world of work is changing, and who else would be at the leading edge but an Estonian start-up. Jobbatical, first highlighted by Estonian World earlier this year, has now launched to the public, supported by €260,000 angel funding from the early stage venture fund, SmartCap, and six angel investors. Jobbatical is unique as a marketplace for short-term jobs with life-changing experiences, matchmaking between employees looking to take a working sabbatical and employers looking for a shot of creative talent for a short-term gig.

Inspiration for the concept comes from personal experience, as Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Jobbatical, explains. Having taken her own sabbatical some years into a successful career as a TV executive, Hindriks quickly found that the prospect of an extended break sipping cocktails on a beach was actually not all that appealing to a young professional used to the stimulus and challenge of working life. And yet, when she searched for interesting and enriching opportunities for short-term work, she found her choices limited to the sort of fruit-picking, pint-pulling jobs more aimed at teenage gap year travellers than young professionals.

Hindriks resolved this challenge by taking herself to Silicon Valley and arranging her own “jobbatical” with a start-up there; an experience which gave her the opportunity to explore a new area and industry, make new friends and contacts, and still return refreshed from the break from her regular job. The experience set her thinking.

Her research proved that she was not alone in her desire for fulfilling work during her sabbatical; and also that employers could benefit hugely from being able to use the new, globally mobile talent pool created by the rise in numbers of professionals taking sabbaticals.

“Four out of ten companies in the UK and close to three out of ten in the US allow sabbatical breaks for their employees, and six out of ten of the people planning to take a career break would like to work on an interesting project. There is an unused pool of talent out there which organisations across the globe could use to bring new ideas and skills on board,” she explains.

Become a Spokesperson for Rhinos in Africa Jobbatical.com Beta

And so, Jobbatical was born with the aim to become the world’s leading professional short-term hiring platform focusing on full on-board experiences.

With opportunities currently being offered including a chance to become a spokesperson for a charitable organisation working to save rhinos in South Africa, become a game animator in Berlin or a developer in Silicon Valley, the value of Jobbatical for professionals seeking a short term gig is obvious.

Key to the appeal of Jobbatical for recruiting employers is the quality and motivation of the professionals they can access this way for short-term hires. Unlike traditional interim and contract agencies, which tend to operate on a functional level, Jobbatical offers appointments that can be seen as lifestyle choices as much as career opportunities, with significant benefits for the individual in terms of personal development, social life and expanding professional horizons. As such, the talent pool accessible through Jobbatical will naturally include individuals who would not be tempted to look at short term positions through traditional agencies, opening up a different, global pool of top talent for the benefit of employers across the world.

With the “war for talent” raging on, and now fought on a battlefield without national borders, it makes sense that successful organisations need to use all means available to tempt the right people for them – and Jobbatical could be a useful tool in the armoury of any modern recruiter. Sabbaticals are already well established in mainstream employers, and their use set to increase, so the marketplace created and cornered by Jobbatical could well see them become another of the Estonian Mafia’s great successes.

Claire Millard: Customer is king – lessons for the Estonian supermarket sector

Having worked in retail leadership positions in the UK for ten years, Claire Millard is used to helping store colleagues and managers refine their customer service skills. Since arriving in Estonia she has been observing the supermarket sector with interest; and trying to raise a smile from the colleagues on the checkouts.

The other day I popped into a basement supermarket in Tallinn for a few forgotten groceries. I was served by a nameless assistant wearing an õpilane (apprentice) badge. I watched him process the transaction before me, wordlessly, studiously avoiding eye contact with the customer as he threw her purchases down the belt. Intrigued by quite what this õpilane had learned so far about customer service, I pointedly smiled and said “Tere!” as he started to scan my products. He ignored me, preferring to hurl my shopping into the pile being hurriedly collected by the customer before me. The total amount flashed up on the screen. Silence. “Ma maksan kaardiga” (I’m paying by card). Not even a grunt. I paid, a receipt was waved indifferently in my general direction. “Äitah, nägemist!” I said. He had already started to grab the next customer’s goods, still staring into the middle distance.

This was an unusually awful example of customer service, but what intrigued me was the õpilane badge. Firstly, it would appear that nobody had suggested eye contact, or the use of standard pleasantries, during this apprentice’s training. Or at least, if they had, it had been done in such a way that this new trainee decided they were optional extras and not fundamental to the job he was being employed to do. More unsettling still, was the completely stony-faced lack of enthusiasm shown. If this is the best he can muster in the first days or weeks, when the new job ought to remain fresh and interesting, then to what depths would his service sink in the months or years to come.

Realistically, I doubt he intended to be there in months or years to come. And therein lies a problem. The issue I highlight is not about the shop assistants themselves. After ten years working in retail, I know very well that shop assistants have the hardest, poorest rewarded jobs in the business. Customers can be cruel, workload is relentless and the tasks required can become a dull blur of long hours, physical demands and limited appreciation. The issue is not the assistants themselves, but the structures, processes, systems, and – sadly – sometimes, managers under whom they work.

Judging by what I know and what I can see in Estonian retailing, supermarkets can not attract or retain enthusiastic staff. All of the major chains are advertising new jobs on a daily basis, as well as using short term labour through services like Go Work A Bit (a short-term recruitment website) – doubtless some of this is due to successful expansion, but also because of excessive staff turnover.

As can be the case all over the world, retail is often not seen as an aspirational or even interesting place to work. Jobs are taken as a stopgap until something better arises, and the shop is quickly manned by a catastrophic combination of disinterested apprentices, and the battle worn long serving colleagues who have resigned to their fate, but who would rather be anywhere other than work.

Customer is king

Retailers know this is an issue; it is a challenge all over the world and it is difficult to resolve – but does it matter? These days in Estonia, customers perhaps choose their supermarket based on location or the specific offers available that week. This can mean that brand loyalty is limited as customers cut and change between the best deals that week or month. This is not unusual – supermarkets, and retail as a whole, fight on price and promotion. But promotional highs are a drug retailers need and despise in equal measure. A sales spike bought one year through heavy discounting, promotion and investment in marketing spend (the hullud päevad (a short discount rally some stores in Estonia practice) phenomena), only means that next years’ equivalent needs to be bigger, longer, higher volume. Retailers look at year-on-year growth, and growth bought through intense discounting in the short term is paid for in the following year’s balance sheet. In the longer term this is unsustainable.

Although supermarkets do not suffer from the full blown hullud päevad condition, buying volume spikes through flooding the shop with specially bought in products which may entice new customers over the threshold, but risk being brand damagingly low quality; they have the same addiction in a less intense, but more naggingly dangerous way. In the short term, customers may switch shops on occasion to chase great offers. But pricing goods to steal custom as a sole means of growing business, with the razor thin margins of supermarket retail, risks being death by a thousand cuts as tight margins are squeezed even tighter. This is difficult for retailers, and impossible for suppliers, who are squeezed ever harder and would particularly damage low volume, local suppliers – precisely those that Estonian retailers should be supporting and promoting.

Gaining long-term customer loyalty is what will win the war for supermarket market share. The Estonian market is already close to saturation, which will quickly remove the consideration of proximity from customer’s thinking – if you walk or drive past three or four supermarkets on a daily basis (I do), you will vote with your feet. Ranging in all major supermarkets is similar and will evolve to be identical – all stores will stock the same good, better, best selections of core products, with little difference in quality.

Competing on price will become unsustainable as the market matures. In the UK all of the largest supermarkets “price match”, meaning that customers are refunded the difference if their equivalent shop would have been cheaper elsewhere. Customers “leave price at the door”, and what will dictate where they shop is the in store experience. If I get poor service from the õpilane (trainee – Editor) at the first of the four supermarkets I pass on a daily basis, I will simply shop elsewhere the next time.

So, customer once again becomes king, and service becomes a key factor in who wins business.

Happy colleagues, happy customers

As soon as service is accepted as the swing factor, making a real difference to where we shop, the attention paid to ensuring colleagues are motivated, trained, rewarded and happy must increase. If colleagues are not engaged with their roles, they will not be motivated to deliver on service.

Motivating store colleagues cannot be simply about improving wages. The margins in food retail are too tight to allow meaningful change in basic wages. The bigger motivation is likely to come from better training, support, motivation to increase job satisfaction, and a real view of career progression and a way to increase earnings. Describing retail as a viable career (not a stopgap job), and backing this up with genuine shop floor promotion, will help recruit a new wave of staff who see retail as a career choice and not a desperate gap fill.

Giving colleagues the skills and knowledge they need to be able to confidently talk to customers by keeping them informed about new products and offers will help overcome some of the fears that prevent interaction. As well as delivering an increase in sales, this approach should help those already employed in retail to find greater satisfaction in their roles and perhaps decrease the number of colleagues still at the õpilane stage, and clearly uninspired by the role they have taken on.

I see the Estonian retail market as an interested outsider, after ten years of working in retail operational and people management in the UK. Perhaps supermarket retailers have identified already the inevitable move towards customer experience and therefore loyalty, as an indicator of likely future growth. Maybe there is a robust plan underway, to retrain, recruit and retain customer assistants with the attitudes and aptitudes to deliver, and managers that can lead and inspire them. As a customer I sincerely hope so.

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You can also read this opinion article in Estonian. The opinions in this article are those of the author. The cover photo is illustrative and is not directly related to the content.

Expat in Tallinn: how not to blend in

Summer is about to arrive in Tallinn, and the sudden leap to high season brings thousands of tourists every day to the old town, drinking in its sights, hearing its legends and battling with the capricious weather. Six months after arriving, a British expat Claire Millard occupies a no man’s land between the scratched surface of the tourist visitor, and the through and through, shaped and coloured by the city, of the local – feeling already like an old hand, yet not completely blending in as a local.

It’s the start of the tourist season. The flower stalls are multiplying, dotted around street corners, lining the extremities of Freedom Square, and perched on the unforgiving stone wall by the Viru Gate, where the fur-coated ladies are offering wild garlic and snowdrops – small hints of spring among their usual fare of heavy knitted socks. Bunches of blossoming branches are waved at passing tourists, sold for a few cents as a reminder of the arrival of milder air. Crocuses are starting their show among the box hedges which have been carefully relieved of their fleeces which protected them against the harshness of winter.

A gaggle of teenagers in matching woollen hats, taking part in a school cultural trip mill round in front of McDonalds, warming their hands with paper cups of coffee and clinging to the familiarity of each other and the standard operating procedures of a multinational chain. Periodically one of them breaks from the herd and trips over to the picturesque gate to pose for a hasty picture on their iPhone. Their attention seems more focused on their electronic devices than the striking remnants of the city walls, and the atmospheric ruins of the gate that has welcomed friends and defended against foes for centuries.

A local company, Gourmet Monk, has opened additional, inescapable stalls on every street corner and the air is thick with the sugary scent of overpriced novelty nuts. Bored and uncomfortable looking girls in heavy mock mediaeval garb offer wooden ladlefuls of almonds to groups of passing pedestrians who fish round in their purses, carefully examining the unfamiliar coins before parting with them. Walking on, the experience of Tallinn will last in their memory as a cinnamon-flavoured sugar rush.

The weather hangs heavy still, one of those days when the wet is both falling and rising, mist shrouding the cobbles and low cloud hiding the church towers. In between, there is a damp chill which eventually gnaws through even the thickest of coats. Nonetheless, it is the brief period when optimism and opportunism in the local restaurant owners have triumphed over the just-look-out-of-the-window test, resulting in a border of decking and notably vacant tables edging the town hall square, looking no more enticing in the fug for the sheepskins layered out over the backs of the chairs.

The tour groups have landed. The mixed tones of chattering in a dozen different languages echo softly from the cobbles. Several groups congregate at different corners of the square, as though in tacit agreement that they will not encroach on each other, guides hold umbrellas aloft and, with clear enunciation, retell the time-tested tales of the square.

Curious groups peer into the old apothecary where, according to an Estonian legend, marzipan was invented. A shuffling party of cruise tourists pull tight their jackets and look at their feet, shifting nervously as their guide revels in the gruesome tale of the only public execution to take place – “on this exact spot of the square”. Elsewhere, necks crane upwards to see the weather vane celebrating Old Toomas, the boy who won a prestigious archery competition and then went on to protect the city from siege.

Being a part, playing a part

But I am not one of the tourist hordes. I share the fascination with the sights and the city, I share a mystification with the Estonian language and the inability to pronounce the simplest of Estonian words without receiving tutting correction; but I consider Tallinn to be home nonetheless. I have my residence card and voting papers for the upcoming election. I know where to get the best pirukad (pastries) and which of the timed road crossings you can get across at sedate pace and which seem designed to make you dash across before the relentless rumble of cars restarts. I even understand the municipally-sponsored game of chicken that is required to board a tram, making firm eye contact with approaching car drivers and walking purposefully into the road to get aboard, however ill-advised and contrary to survival instincts it may seem.

“I share the fascination with the sights and the city, I share a mystification with the Estonian language and the inability to pronounce the simplest of Estonian words without receiving tutting correction; but I consider Tallinn to be home nonetheless.”

And yet, on my daily walk through the town, approximately every ten paces, another caped figure looms towards me and tries to thrust a leaflet advertising a tourist “experience”, a restaurant or a museum. I walk alone. I am not carrying a camera or guide book. I am not shivering, hopelessly underdressed for the rigours of the Baltic spring, trying to trundle a wheeled case over the uncooperative cobbles. I wear the unofficial uniform of padded coat and long leather boots, and the reflectors required by law to protect me in the absolute darkness of night-time outside of the Old Town. Apart from the skill of walking in stilettos over treacherous eight hundred year old stones, which I am afraid I will never acquire, I can see nothing in my outward appearance that screams “tourist”.

As a recent first time expat arrival, the sensation of being neither a tourist nor a local is unsettling. It is important to me to integrate, in whatever way is possible as an interloper. Living abroad, for me, is about immersion, not about viewing a different version of life from a distance, watching a fascinating society from a great height. Being a part, playing a part, is important to my experience of living abroad, even if it is inevitable that I will always have one foot in the UK. And yet, no matter how at home in the city I may feel, I sense already, that I will never really blend in to Tallinn, inhabiting rather a strange no man’s land between the scratched surface of the tourist visitor, and the through and through, shaped and coloured by the city, of the local.

“No matter how at home in the city I may feel, I sense already, that I will never really blend in to Tallinn, inhabiting rather a strange no man’s land between the scratched surface of the tourist visitor, and the through and through, shaped and coloured by the city, of the local.”

Every day I politely refuse the barrage of leaflets waved in my direction, searching the faces of the mock mediaeval characters haunting me, for any sign of how they know. How can they possibly tell, wordlessly and from that distance, that I am an outsider? What is it – in the way I carry myself that betrays my recent arrival. Perhaps I still look suitably awed by the mediaeval architecture. Perhaps I show too much interest in the rhythm of the Old Town as it moves seamlessly from peaceful, sedate low season to the thumping crescendo of the cruise ship invasion. Perhaps it is that my default face setting is still a half smile at the beauty around me.

But then, perhaps the benefit of arriving fresh in a new place is this sense of wonder, the awareness of being privileged to be surrounded by living history, without any of the tarnish of familiarity. I have the curiosity and the sense of urgency of a tourist, but with the confidence and local knowledge of a resident. Declining offered leaflets through gritted teeth, turning down the almonds waved in my direction, resisting the flower sellers pointed advances is a price worth paying to keep my sense of good fortune and wonder at being able to live in a special place.

“I have the curiosity and the sense of urgency of a tourist, but with the confidence and local knowledge of a resident.”

I can already understand the Tallinn residents who stay pointedly away from the Old Town as the season advances, and I suspect I will remain in the group unwilling to pay €6 for a mediocre lager served at Tallinn’s Raekoja Plats. However, I don’t believe I will come to take for granted the opportunity to see the towered skyline shadowed in the burning sunset most evenings, instead of as a treasured photo from a cruise day trip.

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Cover: Tallinn’s Old Town (photo by Rasmus Jurkatam/courtesy of EAS.)

Nature’s silence speaks volumes in Estonia – spring in Soomaa

A Tallinn-based British expat Claire Millard learned to appreciate bogs and boulders in Estonia.

I admit it, I underestimated bogs. When I first researched Estonia I was somewhat taken aback by the tourist information efforts to sell bogs and boulders as highlights of the country. Bogs conjure images of muddy Welshmen snorkelling through drainage ditches as an excuse to start drinking cider before lunchtime, and a “quirky” photo opportunity for the local press. And boulders, well, it makes Estonia sound like a giant rockery. But both have impressed me.

Brutal and mucky nature

In Estonia there is a sort of brutal, mucky nature that England doesn’t have much of. Nature in England, at least in the southeast, is gentle and rolling. Bountiful and green, as long as you can ignore the constant hum of cars from the ever-present motorway network. Nature wasn’t messing about when she dropped a load of rocks as big as houses all over the place here, or made bogs that are impassable except when flooded, and that would suck off your shoes and then break your ankles with twisted tree roots, leaving you to become bear food. Nothing gentle or comforting about that.

What there is here, that simply doesn’t exist in England (although can still be found elsewhere in the UK), is space and silence. Persuade the kids to stop chuntering and all you hear is bird song and the gentle creaking of the ageing pines. Occasionally a woodpecker breaks the silence and we spend the next five minutes craning our necks trying to spot him. Somewhere he’s sniggering hidden away at the top of a tree, watching us desperately trying to find him.

Soomaa 15

Amazing spring in Soomaa

Soomaa in the spring is amazing. The flooding when the snow melts means that you can canoe through dense pine forest, as the run off causes the water level to rise up to five meters, well and truly covering the flood plain and the forest. The bog is impassable so boardwalks have been added, to keep your feet dry and terrify the parents of small children who run enthusiastically towards the next flood markers along the completely authentically Estonian (ie the main health and safety features being that it is only just a little bit wobbly) trail.

Soomaa I

Bogland in springtime is alive – just try to arrive after the flooding but before the mosquitoes. At one point on our walk we stopped to try to identify the noise that was disturbing the usual birdsong theme of the forest. Machinery, perhaps, or vehicles. It was loud, anyway, and close by. And then we realised, the entire surface area of the fairly substantial pond next to us was heaving, writhing with the movement of frogs. The noise was the chorus of a thousand Estonian frogs, reverberating in the still warm air and amplified by the banks of the pond.

Once you focus, you realise that the dark mass that looked like leaves or pond weed, is in fact frogs under the surface, observing the day. One of their number sauntered nonchalantly past us, to the children’s delight, adding squeals of delight to punctuate the drone. Later a confident frog swam along with us up the ditch to the side of the track we had taken, gliding gracefully through the water and looking to be enjoying the spring sunshine just as much as we were.

Somewhat less subtle were the beavers – with a trail of destruction along the river marking their presence. Abandoned lodges and gnawed trees, but no sign of the beavers themselves. If they’re clever enough to figure out how to protect themselves by damming the river, they’re probably smart enough to know that keeping their heads down when there are humans about is a good plan.

Luckily the storks are not so worried. Some of them even seemed to think then were sheep, milling about in fields picking aimlessly at the grass. Perched on their impressively designed but impractically located nests, they’re imposing creatures, but presumably not the brightest as they have chosen high voltage cabling as a design feature.

Soomaa IX

Mainly, I learned that, to properly appreciate the bog, you have to stop and look, and be still. At first glance the sides of the track we were walking on seemed to be little more than muddy puddles. Then you tune in to the life there – frogspawn and tadpoles, snails swimming in the shallows, bubbles showing creatures hidden under the surface and insects skimming gently along the top. There’s a whole soap opera happening down there but you wouldn’t know it unless you were still and silent. How very Estonian.

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Cover: Karuskose in Soomaa (Pictures courtesy of Soomaa).

Prince Harry visits Tallinn: a British view

The Brits have an ambivalent relationship with their royals. Reasonably normal activities – like getting married, having babies, sustaining minor injuries and such – prompts 24-hour rolling news coverage of closed hospital doors, inactive churches and air headed interviews with people with the most tenuous connections to the actual events. If you search online for “Prince Harry” today, the vast majority of the news results describe that Harry “sent his first tweet” recently. Why the fact that a “bloke learns how to use Twitter”, or even that a “famous bloke realises he should employ someone to use Twitter for him” should be news is beyond me.

But then, we did have two years on the bounce with extra bank holidays because of a jubilee and a royal wedding, which did a lot to persuade doubters of the value of the royals. And everyone secretly likes the (sadly not totally accurate) idea that Kate Middleton was just a “normal” girl who grew up to be a princess.

Not that there aren’t detractors. There is certainly an anti-monarchy presence at most royal gigs, reminding us the cost to the taxpayer of each family member. This split of opinion is one of the reasons why I’ve never bothered to venture to any royal events in London – I wouldn’t be sure where to put myself between the detractors and the hordes of teenagers wearing “Marry Me, Harry” T-shirts. Harry, being, after all, recently on the market again following his split from his girlfriend. Sadly for him, I’m deliriously happily married already. But, seeing as he has made it all the way to Estonia, we thought we would go to see what people here make of the spectacle.

A royal appearance in the UK would have enthusiasts camping out from the night before in the hope of getting the best view, waving banners and flags, providing lots of illustrative news footage and leaving the rest of us wondering what they told their bosses when they called in sick that day. For Harry’s appearance here, the instruction was simply to arrive 15 minute or so before the prince was expected. Being fashionably late simply is not the done thing, but equally, no need to bunk off work for it.

So, we duly arrived with time to spare. I had passed Vabaduse väljak earlier, and there was no sign of any unusual activity. The flower ladies were there, the odd wandering tourist, a scattering of people outside Wabaduse Café. A large Tallinn city flag on the front of the building and a flower creation in similar blue and white were the only giveaways to the anticipated visit. By the time we got there, however, there was a crowd. Several hundred people milled about. Dignitaries loitered stiffly on the steps. The sun came out and went in. Jumpers were removed and replaced. A couple of bewildered looking joggers passed through, trying to keep a low profile. Every now and again an onlooker would sneak onto the café seating for a rest. A disproportionately large number of Union flags proliferated through the crowd.

Sporadic bursts of drumming from the Corp of Drums of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment got the crowd buzzing, then the spectacle faded and the milling of the crowd restarted. There was a security presence, but the square felt far from locked down.

When the prince arrived, it was surprisingly clinical. A security chap did a quick sweep looking over the steps and then several low key cars arrived, with Harry and other dignitaries appearing. A wreath was laid. And the circus of anticipation ended. The bugle played a mournful tune, the prince marched forward and the party saluted. For long enough to remember what this ceremony is really all about. It felt a sincere tribute to the fallen, a military party saluting the valour of their brethren in arms, not a titled Brit symbolically dipping into the country. I found myself surprisingly touched.

Prince Harry in Estonia

Of course, I knew Harry’s visit had a serious purpose. Afterwards, he met MPs at the Riigikogu, and (I suspect, the part closest to his heart), met wounded Estonian veterans who will be taking part in the Invictus Games in London this September. I’m not sure the episode has cleared my overall view of the monarchy in my mind, but as a vignette of one country showing a sincere support to another, I hope it felt as genuine to the Estonian crowd as it did to me.

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Cover photo: Prince Harry at Tallinn Freedom Square. Courtesy of Prince Henry of Wales.

Cracking the code – learning Estonian in Estonia

As a teenager I travelled and lived abroad with nothing more than a fifty-five-litre backpack and the invincible confidence of youth. The desire to explore and experience never left, and when, fifteen years, one husband and two kids later, the opportunity to live abroad suddenly arose again – this time for my husband’s dream job in Tallinn – I was delighted.

Cue some research about Estonia – our basic requisites being that we move to a country interesting enough to pack our time there with learning about the region, but not so insurmountably alien that it might terrify the nascent traveller-explorer in our children. A cursory check of our no-go list – even my impetuous self would struggle with living somewhere with wildly different ideas about women’s rights, for example, or a crime rate that makes the eyes water; and the decision was made.

We arrived in Tallinn just in time for the winter solstice; dark days, roaring fires and the magical Christmas market gave way to the riotous celebrations of New Year (I have never before heard a seven-year-old ask for permission to go to bed because the fireworks were going on too long); and I set about my first mission. Learn Estonian – it can’t be that difficult, can it?

The forecast high for the day is minus fourteen degrees Celsius (7°F). There has been little snow for a few days, and the tramping of weary feet has turned ungritted pavements in the capital to passable cross country ski runs. I sit in a bare, modern classroom at the prestigious Tallinn University, surrounded by the circumstantially obligated and the academically masochistic, attempting to grasp one of the worlds most difficult, and perhaps least useful languages. To ensure our focus, the teacher leaves the windows wide open.

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question.”

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question. Of my classmates some have straight forward answers; the romantic (the Brazilian archaeologist who fell in love with an Estonian in the Amazon and followed him here); the pragmatic (the businessman hoping to pass the government-mandated language tests to secure better tax breaks for his company); those moving towards something (the Dutch guy finally reunited with his Estonian girlfriend after years of cross border commuting), and those moving away (the Russian couple who curl their lips at the mention of their country’s politics). Some are slightly more off the wall – the Japanese classmate following her beloved Baruto-san, the Estonian champion sumo wrestler, only to find that he is retiring from the sport and returning to Estonia to his family farm.

And me. I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics, wearing the ill-advised love child of a duvet and a onesie and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies (the axis powers being convinced it was code. Or perhaps elvish). But here I am. When the suggestion arose that we move the family here, the permanently invincible teenager in me clearly answered. Possibly before looking the Baltics up on a map.

“I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies”

My motley crew of classmates and I make up the beginners class in Estonian at the Tallinn University Winter School; a three week long series of short courses demonstrating the university facilities, expertise and range of courses, this season ranging from Estonian and Russian language classes to “experimental interaction” and “ways of seeing the past”. The school is a big draw to lecturers and foreign students alike, with some students deciding to stay on afterwards. The Winter School is the little sister to the more established Summer School, for those who prefer the white nights of midsummer to the delights of the northern winter.

Estonian sits in the Finno-Ugric family of languages, intelligible only to those over the water in Finland (and historically related also to Hungarian, although these days the languages have diverged somewhat). It is the official language for the population of 1.3 million in Estonia, although a large number of Estonian Russians don’t use it.

For Estonia, language, as a marker of nationhood, is sacred. The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians (the older generations having learned Russian under the Soviet system and Finnish from the TV broadcasts beamed over from Helsinki); but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.

“The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians; but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.”

Dissuading foreigners to try isn’t hard. Estonian has fourteen cases, no gender, three forms of every single word and no specific future tenses. As my Estonian teacher cheerfully recounts, “this is Estonia – no sex, no future”.

After a week of learning vocabulary I have a list of words as long as my arm and I’m starting to understand odd bits of billboard (bizarrely mainly the public service announcements suggesting people lay off the vodka and so on). We then turn, with typical Estonian gallows humour, to grammar. A week of slaving over cases and tense, results in the conclusion “some of this stuff, you just have to learn”; like why you go “into” some towns, but “onto” others. About this point the temperature really plummets, and whether the cause is this or the grammar, half the class disappears. One classmate – an eccentric Frenchman of the type that creates the impression that a mastery of French relies on exaggerated hand gestures and the word “boff!” – has to attend an emergency in Malawi. Others are not so creative.

After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka. Talking in any useful fashion has been slower progress, but I have made some friends and swapped some tales and will continue to work on the application of my language skills.

“After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka.”

In the real world, I have been trying to practise my budding skills. In the newsagents I top up my bus card, “Palun, viis päeva”. The assistant, who has served me several times before, and knows I am studying, humours me. Then he opens fire with a barrage of Estonian I am pretty sure he knew I could not understand. My eyes betray me. He smiles the smile of a man who has seen many before me, have a bash, but ultimately submit to the complexities of his native tongue. We complete the conversation in fluent, chirpy, Americanised English, and I return to my study guide.

 

* Adapted from the article first published in the Young and Global magazine. Cover photo by Ilmar Saabas (Maaleht). Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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