Katharina Sowa

Originally from Germany, Katharina Sowa has lived in Tallinn for over two years now after having fallen in love with the country years ago. She has a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Heidelberg and has worked for the Estonian startup, TransferWise, and the Estonian presidency of the Council of the European Union. She is interested in travelling, languages, startups, the digital society, politics and creative writing.

Katharina Sowa: Mina jään – I will stay

Katharina Sowa, a German expat living in Estonia, describes her emotions about the country and the reasons why she wants to stay there longer than she had planned.

It was September 2011 when I first set foot on Estonian ground. I still remember the feeling that filled my soul and heart. It was a feeling of arrival, finding the place that is meant for you, a place you have always been searching for. Right at that moment I knew this was the place where I will always return.

It was August 2015 when I moved to Tallinn for a job in one of the best-known startups of the country. To be honest, it was a rather spontaneous decision, and I had actually never imagined myself moving to Tallinn for real. But so I did, and it was one of the best decisions I had ever made in my life.

In April 2017, I joined the team of the Estonian presidency of the Council of the European Union for the rest of the year. Well, what can I say, working for the presidency was a blast and a great honour. But the presidency ended on 31 December, and I had to think about what will be next.

So now, it is January 2018. I am still here, and I do not want to leave. But why? To get a proper answer to that question, I must reflect and sum up the last two and a half years of my life here.

A country of “firsts”

When thinking about Estonia, for me, it is especially a country of “firsts”.

Estonia is the first foreign country where I have lived and worked. It was Estonia where I dived into the wonderful world of e-state and digital society (not possible in Germany, so far). For the first time, I discovered the mystical secrets of bogs and swamplands. I learned Estonian folk dances. After a childhood trauma, I finally visited a sauna again. And guess what – I love it!

I have gutted fish and smoked them afterwards. I experienced a winter with -20 degrees Celsius and survived. I went to a military parade, something I could have never imagined because it was so strange to me. I built a robot made from Legos and brought it to life. I had the strangest but funniest get-together with a German, a French, two Spaniards and an Iranian at a Ukrainian monastery in Tallinn. Sounds odd, and so it was. And, I was hanging on trees, because yes, why not?

Reflecting all these memories makes me smile because Estonia has offered me a lot of new experiences. The last two and a half years have been intense, in every respect. Two and a half years that have connected me more deeply with this country and have given me the feeling that this is where I belong. Where my heart and soul feel home. I am not saying that I do not belong to my home country anymore, or that I feel less connected with it. It is a feeling of being blessed – because I am home in two different countries.

After a holiday or a visit in Germany, it is a wonderful feeling to arrive back at Tallinn airport. This small and cosy airport has given me so many great emotions because it is my gateway to home. A gateway to a place where I feel free, where I am happy and where I can be and feel myself. And a gateway to very many wonderful people (Estonians and foreigners) who I do not want to miss anymore. People I would never have met if I had not moved to Estonia. People who enrich my life so much.

Mina jään!

But at the end of last year, I had to think about what to do in 2018. The Estonian presidency was over, and I had to think about what will be next. To be frank, I was also thinking about moving back to Germany. But only to give myself some more options. However, I listened to my heart and my inner voice and concluded that I did not want to leave. I will stay. Mina jään! It is not time for me to leave yet, maybe it never will be. Probably because I am much too rooted for that and far too many things keep me away from actually doing it.

Once, another foreigner who is also living and working in Estonia, told me he only wanted to come for a year, maybe two. And now, it has already been seven years for him living here and he does not plan to leave. Maybe this is it. Estonia is probably not the country where you imagine yourself staying for a long time. But then, the country catches you and you prolong your stay. Just a little bit longer. And again, a little bit longer. Until you finally realise you have been here for a long time already and cannot imagine yourself leaving anymore.

“The country catches you and you prolong your stay.”

And moreover, 2018 is a very important year for Estonia. On 24 February, it celebrates its 100th anniversary. One hundred years ago, Estonia proclaimed itself an independent country. A very important milestone in the history of the Estonians, and also for me, this is a very special year. Although I am a foreigner, I feel so deeply connected with this country and I am very excited to celebrate one hundred years of the Republic of Estonia. It would be a very bad decision to leave now, wouldn’t it?

A country on a very good path

Estonia is a wonderful country. Of course, there are still so many things to do and to achieve. Still so many things that could be better. But the country is on a very good path. Estonia deserves to celebrate its 100th anniversary with a lot of pride and self-confidence. The country and its people came a long way to gain their independence; and they made it. And there is still so much we can achieve here. It is a wonderful experience to accompany the country on its way, see its progress, and be part of it.

“Although I am a foreigner, I feel so deeply connected with this country and I am very excited to celebrate one hundred years of the Republic of Estonia.”

There are so many expats who acknowledge all this. Many foreigners who made their way to Estonia, everyone with their own personal story and their own reasons. Many foreigners who came to Estonia and who feel the spirit of this country. A spirit that makes them stay. A spirit that makes them feel connected and home. A spirit that can connect and link all of us, Estonians and expats, to strive for the same goal: a free and independent, tolerant, caring and prosperous Estonia.

Palju õnne, Eesti! Congratulations, Estonia!

I

The cover image is illustrative (photo by Stina Kase). Images courtesy of Katharina Sowa, Tõnu Runnel and Estonian World.

An etude to Tallinn

Katharina Sowa from Germany fell in love with Tallinn and Estonia few years ago. Nowhere in the world around can ever such a place be found, she says now.

I have always tried to escape my homeland and I have got fulfilment in travelling. Being of Polish descent and having a mum who lived and worked in Bulgaria for some years, I quickly found myself belonging to Eastern Europe. Always on the move. Restless. Searching for that place to be called home. And finally arrived. In Tallinn. In Estonia.

Falling in love with a city, a country? Sounds a bit odd, I know. But yes, it’s possible.

It was in 2011 when I first visited Estonia. I still remember that feeling I had, when I arrived in the capital, Tallinn. It was just midnight. I arrived at the bus station, dismounted and took a taxi to get to my hostel. Although it was night and dark and it wasn’t possible to see everything, I was really impressed and overwhelmed.

It wasn’t just a feeling of arriving in another country where you want to stay for your holidays – it was a feeling of arrival, in the sense of coming home, finally finding the place that is meant for you.

The taxi ride took about ten minutes. I was silent and soaked up the impressions I perceived. From that moment on I knew this was the place I had searched for and where I would return again and yet again, even though I hadn’t seen a lot of the city or even got in touch with the locals.

It is the spirit that radiates from Tallinn, and Estonia as a whole. Something you cannot really describe because you have to feel and experience it by yourself.

If you ever have the chance to take part in a traditional parade or especially the traditional song festival, you will get the feeling of what it means to be Estonian. You find yourself in the middle of a sea of blue-black-white flags, in a huge crowd of probably the proudest people in the world you’ve ever met, singing along their anthem and songs with the greatest passion. You cannot escape from this deeply moving patriotic scene. It touches your heart and moves you to tears in a positive way.

As a native German, it might be strange to witness such a scene and see so many people being proud of their country and roots, exclaiming with pride “Elagu Eesti!” (“long live Estonia”). Germans are always very cautious with their national pride, particularly in showing it. I always missed that communal spirit and the feeling of being proud of my country and belonging to it. In Estonia I found it. Maybe that is one of the reasons why I feel so attracted by this beautiful country.

So I found myself in this country, the northernmost of the Baltic states. Far away from my home. Fascinated by its beauty, culture, food, people and language.

It is not a big country and neither is Tallinn a big city. But it is cosy. Tallinn radiates its medieval charm but is on the brink of the future at the same time. It bethinks of its traditions but is in touch with the modern era.

It seems as if a touch of magic exceeds this city. Timeless but characterised by the times. Modern and classic. Open-minded about new things and adherent to traditions.

Without doubt Estonia deserves its nickname e-Estonia. The digital society. If you ever had prejudice against Estonia as a backward post-Soviet state, I have to disappoint you. Estonia is one of the most advanced e-societies in the world. That means free wi-fi almost everywhere, even in places you never would expect it, and a wide range of e-solutions. Almost everything can be done over the internet – something non-Estonians can only dream about. I always feel like entering paradise when returning to Estonia.

There is no doubt: I’ve lost my heart to this wonderful place. Nowhere in the world around can ever such a place be found.

To the beautiful old town of Tallinn with its winding alleys which lead you to places full of magic and take you on a journey through time. Where you feel the spirit of medieval times and smell the scent of sweet chestnuts and garlic capturing the whole old town. Rest for a minute at Raekoja plats (the town hall square) to watch the frenzy of activity or catch a glimpse over the old town and the city centre from the viewing platform on Toompea. Or go for a walk at the promenade along the seaside.

Tallinn Sunset

I’ve never felt as free and unworried as when going for a run along the seaside, watching the sun set into the sea, seeing the town’s silhouette in the distance, breathing the salt-breeze. The view across the bay makes you dream. Dreaming of a better world. Here, it seems to be possible. The city arouses longings and can fulfil them.

It is a city for those who are searching for that kind of special something, a subtle charm.

If you are, take a trip to Tallinn and experience it for yourself. I promise, Tallinn will never disappoint you!

For now, I have to go. But I will return. Over and over again. This is a promise!

I

Cover photo: Kadriorg Park in Tallinn. Photo by Mari Kadanik. This article was lightly edited on 3 October 2019.

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