Reelika Virunurm

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

Global Estonians: Maari Ernits, an aspiring opera singer in Amsterdam

Maari Ernits, an Estonian in Amsterdam, invites me to meet her at the Amsterdam Public Library, in a rooftop café which overlooks the whole city. After some twists and turns and trying different things in her life, she has realised her true ambition and is studying to be an opera singer in the Conservatory of Amsterdam. It turns out that we have a few friends in common in Estonia as well. Maari talks to Estonian World about life in Holland and her future plans.

Maari, how did you end up in Amsterdam?

I come from Tartu, and at first I studied law at the University of Tartu. I had been singing in Tartu Women’s choir for years and learned to play the violin at the music school. At some point I noticed that I was getting better and better at music and singing, so I decided to follow my heart and change course in my studies. It’s now my second year in Amsterdam, and I’m studying opera singing in the Conservatory of Amsterdam (also called Amsterdam School of the Arts). I also tried for the Sibelius Academy in Finland and another one in the Netherlands, but since I was among the very few who were accepted here, it was an easy choice. The competition was hard, only nine people out of two hundred got excepted for my study programme.

How do you manage and where do you live?

I organised everything myself, but I did get some financial support from Kultuurkapital (Cultural Endowment of Estonia) as well. My schedule at the university is always busy, so I hardly have time for anything else. In the beginning, I lived in Amsterdam for three months, and then decided to live somewhere more calm with less tourists. I’m currently living in Heemstede, a suburb of Amsterdam about a 20-minute train ride away from the city centre. It is very idyllic there. Before that I lived in Slotervaart, almost 45 minutes away.

What were your first impressions of Holland?

First of all the bureaucracy was a bit intimidating. It took some time to get all my documents “apostilled”, and there were always little surprises like having to apostille and confirm my birth certificate again. One wouldn’t think a birth certificate can expire! I was surprised that it is very hard here to organise things via e-mail. Most things are still being sent via post,- and can take up to three months. The second slightly tiny surprise was that Dutch people really don’t hide anything. It is a common notion that to draw the curtains on your house means there is something to hide. This is due to their Calvinistic background and mentality, and explained to all the tourists as one of the peculiarities of Dutch life. Even in my university, not only the windows, but the walls and doors are made of glass as well. Everything is open and you can see everything what is going on. For a privacy-seeking Estonian this takes some getting used to.

What do you like most about life in Holland?

It really is a very liberal and tolerant society. No one is being discriminated against, no matter what’s their skin colour, sexual or other preferences. Everyone can do what they like. I like the laid-back attitude of the Dutch people the most. You could say that “anything goes”. Personal happiness is important to them.

What is more difficult about living there?

The straightforwardness and directness of the Dutch also takes some getting used to. They tell you everything right away and without inhibitions. Especially professionally, in the music world, the critique can be harsh at times, but you have to learn to handle it, and not take it personally.

What about Estonians in Holland?

To be honest, I haven’t met so many Estonians here yet. One of my best friends is studying in Groningen, a city known for its university. I’m looking forward to celebrating Jaanipäev (Midsummer Night) soon, which the Estonian community is organising here. I know that there was one girl studying to be a flute player a couple of years ago at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, and there are quite a few Estonians working and studying in The Hague as well. I guess that right now my group of friends is more international in general due to my university being very international. I tend to spend my free time with fellow students and musicians, going to the opera together etc.

What are your future plans? Do you see your future in Holland as well?

I have nothing against Holland, but I see my future elsewhere. In my professional life, Holland would offer too little room for development. The country is rather small, and so are the cultural circles. After finishing my studies, I will try my luck in other countries needing good opera singers. Germany would be great, but it’s also difficult in my field as they use other vocal systems and voice types there. I have family/relatives in New York, and as hard as it can be to “make it in New York”, I will definitely give it a try. I understand that there are many mediocre opera singers over there, and less really good ones. This might be my chance.

What about Estonia?

I guess that anything is possible. I’m always open for Estonian projects as well. In general, I am also worried for Estonia.

Why? What would you like to change?

I certainly wish for more tolerance, understanding and seeing things in a broader perspective. Coming out of the closet and breaking taboos in a general sense as well – having enough courage to be who you are and do what you want to do. Living in such a liberal and tolerant society as the Dutch, it seems silly that in Estonia the debate over same-sex civil partnerships, let alone gay marriages, still continues. Similar to the President’s Independence Day speech in February, I wish that Estonians would discriminate less, and care more for each other.

Estonia presents its technological potential at Hannover Trade Fair

For the fifth year in a row, Estonia´s joint stand at the world´s largest trade fair for industry and technology in Hannover, Germany, hosted 11 companies presenting their newest products, applications and services. This year, the Hannover Trade Fair broke its own previous records, attracting 6,550 exhibitors from 62 nations and about 225,000 attendees.

The joint stand of Estonian companies was organised by Enterprise Estonia. Besides Favor AS, the producer of the innovative Exo bike, the businesses taking part in 2013 were: Tallinna Elektrotehnika Tehas “Estel” AS, Ldiamon AS, BLRT Masinaehitus OÜ, Molycorp Silmet AS, Pelltech OÜ, Harju Elekter AS, myLAMP OÜ, Tahe Industries OÜ, Uniflex Systems OÜ, and IMECC – Innovative Manufacturing Engineering Systems Competence Centre.

Joining the Estonian stand in a happy-hour meeting, discovering the clever and innovative solutions and products presented by the Estonian companies, and talking to the representatives of Enterprise Estonia, the importance of Estonia´s participation at Hannover Trade Fair cannot be emphasised enough.

Riina Leminsky, chief representative of Enterprise Estonia in Germany, states that participation at Hannover Trade Fair is very important to both the Estonian state, as well as the individual companies. Thanks to the support of Enterprise Estonia, a joint Estonian stand in the hall of innovation and technology has been organised for already five years. “The location of the stand enables us to introduce Estonia as an environment suitable for the integration of industry, technology and science; an environment where the conditions of a business environment allow companies, universities, science institutions, manufacturers, and the IT-sector to work well together. Our main goal is to break free of the reputation of being a cheap Eastern European subcontracting country; sadly this is still the image that some Western European countries have. Yet we can already report that there has been a lot of development thanks to the Hannover Trade Fair where people now visit our stand to witness our products and new innovative technological solutions”, explains Leminsky.


Uniflex Systems Ltd. – hoping to take give Siemens a run for their money

Uniflex Systems Ltd., presenting at the fair, is intending to compete against Siemens with their Android-based universal automation controller. Using the UniSCADA – Universal Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition server, the new controller has many advantages compared to traditional controllers from big and well-known manufacturers. The application software running on the phone can be written in any language. The controller can be used for a variety of tasks, for example  traffic lights, street lighting, pumping stations, entrances, surveillance, smart home features, etc. In Estonia, it is already being used for ferry port automated entry systems (Virtsu, Kuivastu, Rohuküla and Heltermaa ports); for control and monitoring of fresh and sewage water pump stations by Haapsalu Vesi, as well as for surveillance and controlling of Mäo crossroads.

Peeter Hagen, Sales Director of Uniflex, and Neeme Takis, Managing Director, explained that their mission is to overthrow the domination of Siemens in the field by offering better and less expensive solutions. They explained that the traditional controllers produced by other companies usually have limited capabilities and are usually much more expensive. Their Android-based automation controller does not need a separate communication device and operator panel which enables to keep the price up to three times lower, while still offering more solutions and flexible applications.

Molycorp Silmet – the only company within the EU producing rare metals

Molycorp Silmet is a company based in Sillamäe, a small industrial town in north-east Estonia. Its history dates back to a time of the first period of Estonian independence and the company has faced difficult times along with the country. Aili Arming, Project Manager at Molycorp Silmet explains that this is their first time to participate at Hannover Trade Fair. She states that they are concentrating more on establishing useful contacts, and less on the actual sales. “We would like to inform people about Estonia as well as our company, and establish contacts and ties to European organisations and science institutions. There are so many tiny components made from our rare metals that people use every day, and they are usually all made in Estonia. In almost every cell phone there is a piece of metal from our production. We are practically the only company within the European Union producing rare metals. In the world market, over 99% of production comes from China, so our portion makes up the 1%.” Molycorp Silmet invests a lot in their research and development, boasting a new laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment. “This also allows us to extend our cooperation opportunities, for example we can offer the use of our laboratory to scientists. We have already had visits by professors from the University of Tartu who were very impressed with the laboratory”.


Pelltech – high quality pellet burners

Moving on, I meet Kadri Liivat, export manager at Pelltech OÜ. Pelltech is an international company operating from the Mõigu technology park close to Tallinn, and also taking part of the fair for the first time. Ms. Liivat explains that their pellet burners just received the necessary approval for the sale in Germany and have already received positive feedback from their German reseller.  Her colleague Aavo Isak lists the main benefits of pellet burners: they are simple to use, save lot of money on heating costs, and can can easily be installed into most boilers using solid or liquid fuels without having to re-built anything. “We export around 90% of our products, and our pellet burners are already known all over the world. They use them in Canada to make maple syrup, in Argentina to bake pizza, in Estonia to heat the NATO Cyber Defence Centre in Tallinn. And in Russia – well, I think they use it for heating the prisons over there. The only continent not using our products (yet) is the Antarctic!”, proclaims Isak.


Carisma Sweden and myLamp – emphasising simplicity, quality and co-operation

Villu Reimann, General Manager at Carisma Sweden/Tahe Industries introduces their main products at the trade – vehicle roof boxes made of high-quality glass fibre or polyethylene, which are basically unbreakable. Carisma Sweden, the brand for vehicle roof boxes and trailer hard top covers is the latest addition to Tahe Outdoor group’s portfolio. Tahe Outdoor Ltd is one of the leading companies in Europe in the field of kayaks and kanoes production, offering products that are light, extremely strong, user-friendly and with an outstanding Scandinavian design to fit every car. Additionally, the product range was also extended last year with adding Carisma Hard Top Trailer Covers to the selection.

Edgar Haavik, CEO and founder of myLAMP, and also the man behind his own inventions reminisces that his idea for his products took root at the Hannover Trade Fair in 2011 (after a couple of beers). His company, myLAMP designs and produces LED-lights for street lights and special applications, mostly designed and patented by himself. “I am an electrical engineer, and fascinated with the world of electric lighting ever since I was as a child. I basically started with the idea of Chinese street lanterns, and though the process of reverse engineering, took away the unnecessary details, creating high quality LED-lights which are simple and resistant, while being able to offer very competitive prices”, explains Haavik. He is also very passionate about Estonia and its future, and says he would like to invest in Estonia more than anything: “I choose all my business partners from Estonia, I believe in trading out know-how as well as service and being able to develop together, not only competing with another. My hobby is also my work and I am very passionate about what I do. I think this is the main key to success.”

Discussing further the subject of co-operation within Estonia, Edgar Haavik emphasises that Estonia is small, but there lies great strength in co-operation. Villu Reimann agrees with him completely: “There is great potential to be found in Estonia, many of my projects have been successful especially thanks to co-operation.” They both agree that in order to succeed, there also has to be more flexibility and simplicity in working together. Villu Reimann also underlines the importance of outstanding design and great development in his company´s products, whereas Edgar Haavik states that the success of myLAMP´s LED lights lies in minimalistic and simple solutions. They both agree that there is a lot of beauty and practicality in Scandinavian or Nordic design, which is represented in many Estonian products.

Conclusions and feedback from Hannover Trade Fair 2013

Riina Leminsky from Enterprise Estonia confirms that there has been a lot of positive feedback from the companies taking part in the joint stand. Although some of the companies would prefer more specific trade fairs to target individual customers, the overall reputation of Hannover Trade Fair as the biggest industrial fair cannot be overlooked. “The fair is ever-growing (more than 225,000 visitors this year), and the stands are usually booked years in advance. It is rather difficult to even book a place here as a single company, and the smaller stands are often overlooked due to the bigger companies with huge stands. The joint stand allows the Estonian companies to present themselves together and united, and definitely to achieve more attention than alone. Although there has been a discussion in previous years whether the companies offering subcontracting would do better in the specific hall for subcontracting and outsourcing, then the opinion is still that the joint exhibition in the innovation hall gives companies a better opportunity to integrate themselves into the global chain of value.

“Besides the exhibiting companies, the Estonian stand has also proven to be a great meeting place for other visiting Estonian companies who can also organise their appointments at our stand or invite their partners and clients for a visit to introduce Estonia´s business prospects and opportunities more closely. There are also traditional events as our happy-hour reception at the stand, as well as the joint event with the Estonian Embassy (in Berlin) in co-operation with Baden Württemberg International. The delegations of German state Baden-Württemberg and Brandenburg also pay a visit to our stand every year.”

A short conclusion of the Estonian stand is also available:


Photos: Reelika Virunurm & Enterprise Estonia

Meet Exo – electric bike made in Estonia

Estonian company Favor AS has created a unique, efficient and environment-conscious vehicle, an electrical roller called the Exo bike. The premiere of the Exo bike took place last week at the Hannover Trade Fair, world´s leading showcase for industrial technology. In an interview with the Favor team, they explain the innovation and technology behind their creation, unique in its own class, and express their hopes that the Exo will become the best-known vehicle from Estonia.

Favor AS is based in Maardu, the industrial area just a few kilometres from Tallinn and has been providing world-class light sheet metal working solutions longer than the period of Estonian re-independence itself – almost 23 years. According to Marek Tamm, Chairman of the Board (second right on the photo), Favor is also the largest tin sheet metal processing company in the Baltic States. Introducing the Exo bike, he outlines that when for example Germany has many top car brands such as BMW and Audi, then the electrical scooter Exo is the first vehicle made exclusively in Estonia. The research and development process has taken around three and a half years – from the first idea and a rather archaic-looking prototype to the sleek, modern and high-tech final version of the Exo bike.

The Exo bike is a new brand of green electric vehicles, a battery powered innovative light two-wheeler, perfect for urban commuters, fun riders, and everyone caring for the environment. It is very light, weighing only 65 kilograms including the batteries, especially when compared to similar vehicles usually weighing around 80 kilograms. Holger Annus, Key Account Manager of Favor (on the left of the photo) presents the astonishing qualities of the Exo batteries – it costs €0.50 to fully charge the bike, and this will take the driver to a distance of up to 60 kilometres. This is especially practical in the light of another recent development in Estonia – the nationwide electric vehicle fast-charging network, but the batteries can also be recharged almost everywhere using the same power plug as for all other regular appliances.

Riina Truusalu, marketing specialist at Favor (on the right of the Hannover trade fair photo) adds that their main goal is to conquer the European market. Their first step is to concentrate on countries like Germany and Holland where environmental consciousness – “the green way of thinking” is already widespread, but also Southern European countries like Spain or Italy, where the design and compactness of the Exo bike would be excellent for both the road as well as weather conditions. Exo bike produces no pollution or sound to speak of, and is therefore completely environment-neutral.

During the five long days of Hannover Trade Fair, there sure were enough enthusiastic visitors and potential customers surrounding the innovative electrical scooter made in Estonia.

More information, full features and technical details of the Exo bikes:


Photos by Reelika Virunurm and EXO

Bangladeshi CEO: “Estonia could have a huge potential in outsourcing”

Ahmed Nadir, the CEO of Albatross Technologies, tells in an interview with Estonian World that Estonians could use their education, their innovative ideas and available tools to come to the outsourcing market.

I met Mr. Ahmed Nadir, CEO of Albatross Technologies during CeBIT Global Conferences in Hannover. He delivered a speech on business opportunities in Bangladesh, his home country. He has been travelling all around Europe meeting people and expanding his business network. We both happen to be members of Matador Network, a community for people with a passion for travelling, writing and sharing their experiences. Looking at his profile, there it was – Tallinn, Estonia listed as one of his favourite travel destinations. He was curious to find about more about living in Germany, I was curious to find out his story. Besides talking about his travels, meditation, and religion, I questioned him on his Estonian experience and the personal insights he gained there.

Impressions on Estonia – generation gap and atheism

Mr. Nadir visited Estonia in March 2012, and it has remained as one of his favourite countries in Europe. He goes as far as even to state that Estonia and Holland are the places in Europe he felt most welcome, and found the people to be most open and friendly.

“The first impressions were not that welcoming though – I arrived on a cold night in March last year, the airport was empty, and driving to the city center, the streets were empty as well. I thought to myself – there seems to be nobody living here, what kind of a city is it? But afterwards I found a nice bar in the city – the Hookah Palace  and met a lot of young people there. I talked to a lot of people in general in Tallinn, which gave me a better understanding of your small and very special country.”

mr. Ahmed Nadir“One of the main things that I noticed right away was the generation gap. I met some 50-60-year old businessmen who had been through a lot, and they were more disappointed with their home country. The young generation is much more upbeat though. They see both the opportunities you have, as well as the challenges that still lie ahead.”

What comes as a surprise to me is his statement that he really liked the fact that most Estonians are not that religious.

“It is very dangerous to say you are not religious – that you´re an atheist – in Bangladesh. I once escaped being badly beaten for stating that in my home country. In Estonia, you don´t have to state anything to anyone, and people usually mind their own quiet business when it comes to religion.”

After elaborating on the difficult history with religious conquerors in Estonia in the past, and the fact that many Estonians define themselves as being spiritual as well, Mr.Nadir agrees with me. “I don´t like the way religions justify their actions, their fundamentalism. On a deeper level, all religions strive for the same things – love, compassion and unity. However, its their differences, the varying interpretations of their holy books that lead to so much violence and intolerance in the world. I prefer to believe in humanity. I meditate every day to keep my peace of mind and focus better on my goals and what´s important in life.”

On start-ups and possibilities for outsourcing

“Another question that made me curious in Estonia was that there are so many start-ups, so many brilliant and innovative young entrepreneurs,  but why are there so little people doing outsourcing? I think that Estonia could also have a huge potential in outsourcing. Your location is very strategic and your culture is very European. These are already huge advantages compared to the main outsourcing countries in Asia, like India. Indian people, no matter how much they can learn about it, they could never understand European mentality fully. You should use these advantages within Europe, not necessarily offshore. It would be more near-sourcing than outsourcing really. You tend to speak a lot of European languages, or at least learn them easily, and you know the culture – you have the big European factor, so to say. Poland and Romania have already discovered this potential and are using it, I think that Estonia could do even better.”

“Outsourcing can be done in almost any sector or discipline – programming, accounting, writing, you name it. Outsourcing can be viewed in many categories – Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) – like market research, training, design; Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) like finance and accounting; Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO); IT Outsourcing (ITO) – coding, web design, web development, data mining; Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) and so on. Estonians could use their education, their innovative ideas and available tools to come to the outsourcing market. One needs some training and knowledge, a lot of aspiration and motivation, and one learns a lot during the process as well.”

I continue asking Mr. Nadir on the quality of outsourcing, explaining that Estonians are usually very hard-working, expecting a lot from themselves, including quality of results. “It is similar to all the other experiences – you put in your time and effort, and with time, quality will improve as well. You just have to do your best. We are all beginners when we start something new.”

On Bangladesh and Estonia

Asking him what he likes best about his home country, Bangladesh, Mr. Nadir does not hesitate to say: “The people, of course. Their warmth, friendliness, and openness. No matter how poor they are, they are always willing to help you and welcome you to their home. They are upbeat even when faced with tremendous difficulties.”

In the end, Mr. Nadir once again expresses his amazement, and hopes for a great future for Estonia: “You should be proud of Estonia, and your amazing development. For a newborn, or a re-born country, to be exact, you have advanced so much already. It´s time to utilise it strategically to come ahead economically as well.”

Carpet designer Heleri Alexandra Sits attracts attention in Germany

During the recent international Domotex Trade Fair in Hannover, an Estonian company attracted a lot of attention from visitors and local media alike with their extraordinary and eye-catching hand-tufted carpets. One of the most well-known newspapers in Germany, Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote a short story on the company, praising the uniqueness and quality of their carpet creations, as did the local Fahrgastfernseher, a kind of a TV-programme shown at the local metro.

This is the second year I have been visiting OÜ Valley at Domotex, and besides having a close, hard-working team (and always offering me Kalev candies), they are very proud of their talented young designer, Heleri Alexandra Sits (27). She is the creative brain behind most of their extraordinary products, which are much more than carpets, more like independent pieces of art. Heleri Alexandra talked about her creations with a gleam in her eyes – to be recognised as a sign of someone really passionate about her work.

Could you tell us more about the company and how you ended up working there?

OÜ Valley is an Estonian company located in Vändra which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Right now we export our carpets to 18 countries, among them USA, Canada, Iran, and India, to name but a few. I first did my internship here during my studies, and was actually planning to go to Italy for a while, when they called me and offered me a job. This was 2,5 years ago and I am still very happy that I stayed and took on this opportunity.

Carpet III

Over 18 experienced tufters are employed, as well as the staff in our small office. It feels more like a family since we are all working very close. And as an interesting fact, we can produce around 2000 m2 of carpets every month.

How long have you been attending the Domotex Trade Fair?

We have been taking part in Domotex for three years now,  This is one the biggest trade fairs in our business in Europe. Although the first time we took part was rather difficult, I am happy to say that everything works very well already – we have created a lot of interest this year, and we´ll certainly be coming back next year as well.

IWhere did you study carpet design?

I graduated in June 2012 from Design and Applied Arts/Textile Design in Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA), after doing both my Bachelor and Master in EKA, and most of the carpets seen here are part of my master project. My supervisor was Monika Järg, to whom I am also very grateful for her support.

How did you come up with the ideas and how long did it take?

The whole process took me around 3 years in general – to gather ideas, come up with everything and put them into results. More than everything, it takes a lot of practice, and technical skills, which I have gathered in OÜ Valley. The main idea was to introduce the technical opportunities of hand-tufting. My first idea was to depict people on carpets, which can be very difficult since the technical possibilities are limited in a way. One of my first sketches was an underwear model for example, but it didn´t quite work out. I had an idee fixe – that it has to be eye-catching, but also with a message, to depict the inner world of a human being on the surface of the skin, to let it glow outside. Finally, with the advice of my supervisor, I came up with an idea to do the main design on human face instead of the whole body.

I put together the suitable tones and colours together with tips from my employer in OÜ Valley, Aadu Juhkentaal. Since we were hoping to find customers also outside of Europe and Scandinavia, mostly in Russia, but also in the Asian and Arabic countries, the choice of tones is also more colourful, more exotic and oriental. Another example from my collection is a butterfly with bright colours, in accordance with the general colour theme of my collection.

The carpets employ different layers of yarn, using both wool and viscose, there are a lot of transitions and nuances. It took very meticulous precision at first to draw the designs and follow them exactly while tufting. The tufters were following my designs, but in the endphase I also did some tufting myself. As for my fifteens minutes of fame, the master project was also shown in “Aktuaalne Kaamera” (the local news programme in Estonia) among other EKA final projects as an exhibition.

What are the future plans for both you and the company?

The carpets have aroused a lot of interest in potential Asian and Arabic customers during the Trade Fair, even more than we were hoping for. They are often said to be too beautiful to be lain on the floor, and are being proposed to be hung up in various hotels in Asia as eye-catchers, pieces of art.

We are also opening a new salon in February in Tallinn as well, with a ready-made collection of carpets. I am very happy to continue working with my colleagues, we are more like a family, and they let me try out new ideas and be innovative.


Photos: Reelika Virunurm/Heleri Alexandra Sits.

Berlin-based composer Jüri Reinvere: “Only through dialogue can we find out how the others see and understand us, as a person, or as a nation.”

Jüri Reinvere is an Estonian composer living in Berlin. His latest work, the opera “Purge”, based on Sofi Oksanen´s famous novel, premiered in Finnish National Opera in April 2012. He is currently writing his next opera “Peer Gynt” for Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, to premiere in November 2014. Jüri Reinvere unites his Estonian heritage with his cosmopolitan life, having lived in Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Germany; and speaking many different languages every day.

Reelika Virunurm met Jüri Reinvere in Berlin to talk about his experiences, creativity, European culture and Estonian identity.

Where and why did your expat journey start?

On one hand I had a feeling that it kind of runs in my family, that we have restless genes, always going abroad to study and explore, but also returning to Estonia. On the other hand I did not feel like I have to leave Estonia at any cost. The opportunity came after the fall of the Iron Curtain. At the time, I was under great influence of Polish music, it was very, very important to me. So one could say that Szymanowski (Karol Maciej Szymanowski was a Polish composer and pianist – Editor) was really the main reason why I went to study in Poland.

Jüri Reinvere I

Afterwards, I went to Finland in order to earn more money for my studies, planning to stay for 10 months. As  it sometimes happens in life, I stayed for 14 years instead. One of the main reasons that kept me in Finland, were my further studies at the Sibelius Academy. Sibelius Academy was, and still is, simply fantastic. In my opinion it is among the best 10 music academies in the world. During these 14 years I also lived in Stockholm, and had a very strong Finland-Sweden connection in general.

After that, another turning point had come, and I felt the need to move on. I took another year to consider my options – Paris or Berlin for example. I chose Berlin, where I have been living since 2005, and I´m extremely content with my choice. I have always felt a connection with the German culture which was dominant in Estonia for a long time. I think that most Estonians still do. Estonia has a strong connection to Finland through similar language, climate, and cultural values, but one should not underestimate the German values in our culture either.

I had already spent 5-6 months in 2001 in Berlin before, taking part in a project, so I was familiar with its atmosphere, people, and cultural highlights. This was definitely one of the best decisions in my life. Berlin is still the best place for creative, artistic, and progressive people.

How have your experiences influenced your creation ?

I believe there are three main factors that have most influenced my work. Firstly, my Estonian background, and also the Soviet Union background. It was kind of a double trauma for me at that time. Secondly, living in the Finnish countryside, in the middle of most daily and mundane questions. The Finnish society made me contemplate on human and cultural values. Thirdly, my years in Stockholm. This is where I truly felt I´m becoming an artist, developing further and transforming to be one; and finding my personal “art credo”, my personal attitudes towards art and creation.

Do you identify yourself as a cosmopolitan then?

Yes, I´m definitely very proud to be a cosmopolitan with Estonian roots. I have always felt most comfortably when speaking different languages every day. Right now, I switch at least between four languages every day. During the Stockholm period of my life, my friend and mentor Käbi Laretei (Käbi Laretei is an Estonian pianist – Editor) always impressed me by answering her telephone in a different language every time I called her!

“I feel actually very lucky to have lived among different nations”

Jüri Reinvere III feel actually very lucky to have lived among different nations, and having explored them in depth. My mother did her PhD in St. Petersburg, so I have some fond memories of Russia from my childhood as well. Reading Russian literature, I get the feeling that I really know the landscape, its people, their character. In Finland I have truly experienced the Finnish everyday life, its thousand facets and its ordinary people. Similarly, I can also deeply relate to the Polish people. Reading Sofi Oksanen depicting Jyväskylä, or the Polish writer Czesław Miłosz describing the icy roads, small villages and collapsed old houses in the Polish countryside, it is all so familiar to me. I feel lucky to have experienced life in large European cities,  but also in tiny villages.

All in all, I believe that my journeys have given me a lot of material for my creative senses, and a broad background and perspective into the whole European culture. My experiences enable me to develop my characters and understand their motives better, probably more than, say, a librettist who has spent his whole life working in Munich.

According to the Finnish media, the opera “Purge” also started in Berlin? How did you meet Sofi Oksanen?

Well, yes, the Finnish media has made kind of a symbol out of it, they even wanted to know exactly in which café in Berlin Sofi and I were sitting when we came up with the idea. In my mind’s eye, I can see the journalist looking for the same café and sitting there for hours, hoping for a similar kind of inspiration (laughing).

I knew Sofi Oksanen already from my Berlin period. Artists usually get to know each other by first taking an interest in each other´s work, which is then followed by a personal contact.

In your interview to Helsingin Sanomat you also mentioned that writing the opera for “Purge” has transformed you completely?

This is due to many reasons, working on an opera is very demanding, very intensive, very solitary. It always reminds me of climbing a mountain, detaching yourself from the society. Everything is so different and intensive, forcing you to meet yourself all over again. You are not only working on the music, you are also working on yourself the whole time, with your own thoughts. On the one side, you are creating the basics, studying the psychology of characters; and on the other side you are observing yourself in this process. And then it suddenly occurs to you that is a purge, a personal cleaning process of its own. You end the creation, coming out a completely different person.

The idea for the opera came to you while dreaming. What do you think are the main tools for creativity – is inspiration alone enough? 

First of all, one cannot exist as an artist if one has weak techniques and skills. Creating anything at all is similar to an architect´s work – vision and form have to be in accordance. My first relation to a piece of art is always intuitional,  I start working on this intuition. The final parts of any creation, however, are always purely technical, I believe there has to be a balance. The whole process of creation and art is always rather surreal and abstract. Artists work with the vibrations in the air, and they must be able to interpret them and create value.

You are also a poet. Do you alligate your poetry in your other creations?

I have mainly used my own poetry as a part of my musical creations. Not in the form of direct singing, it is not very common in classical music. My poetry is usually being read out loud in my creations, using many different styles, most of them modern. I am also interested in so-called border areas, changing genres, art to documentary for example. I have used documentary sounds in “Purge” as well – the recorded sounds of cars or radios from that time. But also borders between literature and music. I am not a visual artist, it is not one of my strengths, but I also wish this would simply remain one area of art where I´m not a professional.

It is not very common, but in both operas – “Purge”, and “Peer Gynt”, which I am writing for the Norwegian National Opera, I am both the librettist as well as the composer. There are already difficult assignments enough.

What do you think is the central theme of “Purge”? Why has it become so popular in Europe?

I think it brings out the question of how long are we as Europeans interested in our own history. In my opinion, “Purge” brings back the very important question of World War II to the European literature scene. It reminds us of the price all nations had to pay for this, even more the nations in periphery. “Purge” has a great role in reminding us that all over again.

Nevertheless, it has been harder to convince the Western European media at times that the characters in “Purge” are not only fictional, but that these questions and problems within the book still exist.

What is your opinion on the critique towards “Purge”, for example from Estonian journalist Piret Tali or writer Jaan Kaplinski – that life in the Soviet Union was not only terror and violence?

I think that it is kind of a new situation for Estonians – being confronted with their image. Nobody has ever told us before, this is what the outside world thinks of Estonia. The larger countries and cultures are very well aware of it. Living in Poland for example, it was very common that an American, a Swede or an Englishman arrived and had a very strong image, an opinion about Poland. It does not have to be the same opinion the Polish have themselves, but every opinion has its own background and basis.

“Only through dialogue can we find out how the others see and understand us, as a person, or as a nation. I think that Estonians have until now kind of missed out on the truth about ourselves, about ourselves as a nation. Our opinion about ourselves has always been more of a monologue than dialogue”

In micropsychology, the way one views itself as a person, is different from how others see us. Only through dialogue we can find out how the others see and understand us, as a person, or as a nation. I think that Estonians have until now kind of missed out on the truth about ourselves, about ourselves as a nation. Our opinion about ourselves has always been more of a monologue than dialogue. Even our language and culture are so different, so difficult, it is very hard for a foreigner to really “enter” and understand it, if possible at all. It can not be a true encounter, only a neutral one, where both parts speak English for example, and are able to co-exist.

What does this mean for Estonia and Estonians?

I think that Estonians are going through an identity crisis. Estonians have not yet detangled their traumatic history and the inflicted wounds. The genre of memoirs is strong and popular in Estonia, but it has not lead to healing. I think none of the post-soviet communities have really been through healing and purging.

Estonians have a strong self-preservation instinct, and fear of the unknown. This can be seen particularly clearly through the Estonian media – they are engaged only in themselves, and part of outside news and reportage is scarce. It can probably noticed more from abroad, and in comparison with the foreign media.

What would be your advice on this matter?

Jüri Reinvere IIIThe source of our identity can only lie in being honest with ourselves. We should not try to deny our history and heritage, or say we are something else than we are. This does not solve the problem. But an identity crisis as a process, as a quest for identity can be very fruitful. I think we are also lucky in this matter – the Finnish do not have such a painful process of finding their identity as the Estonians. I believe this quest for identity is only good for a nation, for a country. We should take in all the facets of our history and culture – the strong Russian and German influences, the similarities and differences with other Baltic countries. We might have had a rough history, but we have to make the best of it and acknowledge it as a strength.

I have always been proud of my Estonian heritage, and the Estonian musicians are well-known in the world. I have never had to answer ignorant questions, but if I did, I would simply tell them more about the beauty of Estonia, and explain that no, we do not use the Cyrillic alphabet.

Where do you think Europe in general is going?

This is definitely a tough time for Europe – in general as well as in cultural life. In many countries people are trying to survive right now instead of being able to enjoy culture or learning new things. Sadly, there are also a lot of stereotypes in Europe, even between Estonians and Finnish people. In my opinion, the ordinary Finnish people are not at all like they are usually being depicted in Estonia, and vice versa, how we are being depicted across the Gulf of Finland.

“Stereotypes are becoming too common in Europe, and most of the time, they are completely off. They do have their foundations, but they make people blind to all the other qualities, and this blindness is the worst consequence of believing in stereotypes.”

Stereotypes are becoming too common in Europe, and most of the time, they are completely off. They do have their foundations, but they make people blind to all the other qualities, and this blindness is the worst consequence of believing in stereotypes.

Germany in general still has a strong industry, it is still safe and stable to live here, but the general situation in cultural life in Europe is slowly becoming catastrophic as well. They are closing concert halls all over Europe, whereas, for example, they are always opening more of them in China.  Nevertheless, on the cultural part, Berlin is still one of the best places in Europe, it is an opera on its own. The culture here is still thriving – there are huge number of people in Berlin who do not want to spend their time watching TV, they do not want culture to be fed to them with a spoon. They demand for old European culture, for concerts, operas and events.

In general, there are definitely an upheaval in European culture, also in literature for example. For every departing reader, there are not enough future readers in this generation. A similar upheaval in music already happened during the 80s, music has been kind of forerunner in this case.

Last question – how many languages do you speak?

Estonian, Finnish, English, Swedish, German, Polish, Russian. I am not very strong in Romance languages, I speak some of them a little. Learning Hebrew was very surprising – it is one of the most logical and easiest languages to learn. Greek on the other hand is a nightmare… And Hungarian also managed to surprise me, I took some lessons a long time ago in Budapest. It had a strange effect –  seemed very difficult at first, compared to learning Finnish, which is much nearer to Estonian. But after the first lesson I already noticed that the language structure is exactly like in Estonian. A linguist would probably say I´m exaggerating, but I remember this sensation very well.

The story behind “Kati and me” – adventure, friendship and meeting Canadian Estonians

Reelika Virunurm explores the story behind “Kati and me” – how an Estonian girl called “Kati” prompted a Canadian couple to visit Estonia, fall in love with the country, and make a short film about it – the film which has become an internet sensation in last few weeks.

It all started with Estonian World sharing the short film “Kati and me” – surprisingly the only film ever submitted to the Estonian film festival “EstDocs” in Toronto by two people of non-Estonian heritage. From EW it was picked up by Edward Lucas, who is known for his affinity towards Estonia, with president Toomas Hendrik Ilves and the Estonian, Canadian and Baltic media following. The film clip has already been viewed more than 50,000 times on YouTube. As one of Kati´s Canadian friends wrote to her after the tweet from the president: “Are there only like 30 people living in Estonia, or how does that happen? Seems suspicious…”

The Canadian couple Mike Dell and Kimberly Bagayawa, authors of the humorous short film, put together most of it just within five days. The idea had taken root when Kati was about to leave Canada, so they were determined to visit the country themselves. Since the video has gone viral, a lot of people have also been contacting them asking how Kati is doing and whether they are still friends. Since I´m lucky enough to know all the accomplices personally, I decided to tell their story. What lies behind this tale of Estonian-Canadian friendship? Who is Kati and what did she do to make her Canadian flatmates not only to fly thousands of kilometres to visit Estonia (and granny´s farmhouse), but also to make a film about their experience?


“We were like peas in a pod… or raisins in a loaf of kringel”

Like many adventures, this one started at the airport. We picked Kati up, and we admit to having been nervous as we wanted her to feel comfortable in Toronto, and in our apartment, being so far away from home. We had already exchanged a lot of e-mails, and she seemed very easy-going and friendly.

Mike: Kati still claims she gave us a hug right away at the airport, but I remember it was a handshake!

Kim: It did become comfortable with her living here in a very short time. Her first Friday night in Toronto she joined us for a dinner party with friends, which turned into an all-weekend spontaneous trip to Niagara Falls! The first weekend was already crazy, we even went gambling there, it was her first time ever in a casino. I guess it was kind of an initiation ritual and she passed. That´s when we realised that she´s not shy at all, and that if she can do this spontaneous stuff with us, she must be pretty open-minded.

Mike: And luckily she didn´t get addicted to gambling…

“Over morning coffee, we´d learn all about granny, the farmhouse, long summer days in June and Estonian history”

At first it was just like we said in the film – fun and relaxed conversations over morning coffee. (And evening wine). In Canada there are so many different nationalities living together, but we didn´t know anything about Estonia really, so we asked Kati a lot of questions. And we heard about granny a lot!

We watched the film about the Singing Revolution together, which gave us a very good overview on the hardships Estonia went through, and the love of Estonians for their country. “Suvi” was a bit lighter to watch after that, but Mike did fell asleep.

Mike: Around Christmas, Kati tried to make mulled wine at home, but kept telling us “this is not quite what it´s supposed to taste like”. Then we went to the local Swedish Christmas market, ate a lot of gingerbread cookies and savoured the mulled wine there.

When and how did you get the idea for the film?

Mike and Kim: Just a few days before Kati was leaving at the end of February, we went to the opening of the exhibition she had helped to organise, called “Am I Estonian?” After the opening, everybody had delicious kringel and coffee, and flyers about the EstDocs Festival were being passed around. We asked if we can also make a film even if were not Estonians, and they said the festival is open for everyone.

Kim: Afterwards we realised that we should have taken more videos when she was here. But it was not until July that we decided to take the trip to Estonia.

Mike: After visiting Estonia (and also Hannover where Kati is currently living), we had very little time to put it all together. We were discussing it on the flight home, and decided the movie had to be on Estonian spirit. We came up with everything on the plane actually! We put together the videos and the photos, and I added the music. It was pretty much done in five days, and we submitted it only a few hours before the deadline.

Kim: When I went to deliver the DVD, the lady receiving it cast me a very funny look at first, like I was lost. Apparently we were the first non-Estonians to submit a video to this festival.

“In order to really grasp the spirit of Estonia… we needed to see Estonia for ourselves”

Kim: I remember driving to Kati´s house, it was late at night, with all the winding roads and the dark forest all around. I had a very surreal feeling when we finally arrived. We had only seen granny´s house on Google maps, and after actually seeing it for real, I couldn´t believe that we had really travelled all this way!

Mike: We wanted to meet Kati´s family most of all of course. There was a huge supper waiting for us and everybody was so nice and hospitable. And we had heard so much about everyone, so it felt like we knew them right away. It felt really special.

“We drove for miles and miles into the Estonian countryside, stopping at manors, castles and taverns along the way”

Mike: We saw a lot in five days, but most of all just tried to grasp the spirit of the people. And I guess everyone is saying that Tallinn´s Old Town is amazing?

I know what I found to be really special – all the manors and castles we went to, always had a piano. In Canada we have pianos all over the place as well, but always locked up, forbidden to touch. There they even kindly asked me to play everywhere we went to! It was like living history, one of the pianos was quite ancient and had belonged to a famous Russian composer. They would never let you lay a finger on it in Canada, they would have armed guards and snipers on the roof guarding it. 

“No wait, that´s Madonna. She´s not Estonian”

Kim: And then there was the night in Püssirohukelder in Tartu…

Mike: Well, I learned some important things there. I ordered a half-liter beer, looked around and realised that only women were drinking half-liter beers! All the men had one-liter beer mugs. So I had to blend in. After that, everything got kind of fuzzy really fast… But the karaoke part was great though.

“It´s the feeling that seems to hold everything together, the spirit. Its what bridges the new and the old, the city and the rolling countryside, the medieval and modern, singing to Skype, granny to granddaughter…”

Kim: There was one very magical night called Muinastulede öö (night of the ancient bonfires). We were told that it is a tradition in the Nordic countries to light bonfires on the last weekend of August on the seaside. Kati took us to Viimsi, one of the seaside parts of Tallinn, we had dinner at the restaurant “Paat”, and afterwards everyone went to the sea and lighted up some small lanterns and released them all together into the night sky. It was very magical. This proved us again how the Estonians still value their old traditions, and mix them with all the cool innovative stuff they have come up with.

Mike: A strange coincidence also occurred. On our last day in Tallinn we were walking in Kadriorg and noticed two girls shooting a dance video. Back home, we got a message on YouTube from someone who had enjoyed the film. When we checked her channel, she was the author of the same dance video they had shot in Kadriorg! Now I believe everybody knows everyone somehow in Estonia!

Afterwards, I´m meeting Kati – or Katre Viilvere, as she is otherwise known – the star of the film, at a cafe in Hannover, Germany, where we both currently live. We have been very good friends for over three years. As two Estonians living abroad, not only did we offer mutual support to each other during our master studies at the Hannover University, we also share the pain of missing black bread and sour cream; and have watched together the whole series of “Tuulepealne Maa”.

Although being blond and speaking German without an accent often results in Kati being mistaken to be a German, she is in fact very proud to be Estonian. So when she had to choose topic for her master thesis, she decided to associate it with her semester abroad and do research on the young Canadian-born Estonians living in Toronto, one of the largest Estonian communities outside of Estonia.

Kati, why did you decide to go to Canada in the first place?

I was really hoping to do my internship somewhere Estonian-related and maybe even use it for my thesis later on. At first I contacted some Estonian embassies abroad, and the Embassy of Ottawa sent me the contacts of Piret Noorhani, coordinator at the VEMU Estonian Studies Centre in Toronto. I did not have a specific topic for my research at first, but arriving in Canada and talking to the Estonians there helped to get things rolling.

Mike and Kim made me feel at home right away – it is amazing how fast some people can become your good friends. After having lived there for a month, we all felt like it has been a year at least.

What is your secret – how did you get Mike and Kim so interested in our small country and its  culture?

I have been living abroad for some time and always telling people more about Estonia comes naturally to me. It´s harder coming from a small country I guess. But Kim and Mike were also very open-minded and curious. I showed them a lot of photos and played Estonian music. We also went to eat at the cafe at the Estonian House. I think we had some cabbage rolls, stroganov and stritsel. Mike wasn´t convinced he should try the blood sausage though…

Arriving in Canada

Coincidentally, almost the first thing I did after arriving in Toronto in October 2011 was going to the EstDocs festival. There were so many Estonians, I ate a lot of kringel and heard everyone speaking Estonian. Seemed surreal at first, being so far away from home. Later I noticed there really was kringel at every Estonian event I went to!

The Canadian Estonian community there is very active, it amazed me how many opportunities they have to be socially active – Estonian School, many organizations, choirs, summer camps for the children. I was gradually introduced to all of it after starting my internship at VEMU Estonian Studies Centre and interviewing Estonians of different generations for my research.

Meeting Canadian-born Estonians

Meeting a lot of people from the first generation of Estonians who had emigrated to Canada during or after the World War II was very special. Although they had been living there for over half a century, most of them spoke Estonian without an accent! It felt like home, talking to them, they were very sweet and not at all different from my own grandparents in Estonia.

Until now, the Estonian community has been very strong thanks to the older generation who have kind of built and maintained it, but things are about to change. The third generation is also taking a strong interest in being Estonian, and keeping their Estonian heritage alive.The young Canadian-born Estonians realise that it is their responsibility after their parents and grandparents. They are prepared to fight for it.

During my interviews, most of the young Estonians who are born in Canada, acknowledged that one of the modern “dangers” is that they have very many interests due to growing up in a multicultural society, and also due to globalisation. This is kind of the downside to globalisation – having too many opportunities and trying to conform them with your heritage. They have so many opportunities that it is getting harder to also find time to concentrate on just one thing. Most of the young Canadian-born are also learning and using Estonian, but English is still dominant and the daily language.

Still, there is also a positive side to globalisation – it is much easier for Canadian-born Estonians to maintain contact with Estonia, and their friends and relatives there (especially compared to the Soviet times). Travelling is easier and many young people own a double citizenship, allowing them to go study or work in Estonia, and Europe in general. The social media – Skype, Facebook – also play a great role, their grandparents had very few means of keeping in touch with Estonia.

Third-generation Estonians and their secret language

It did surprise me a little that the young people of the third generation still strongly believe in maintaining a strong Estonian community in Canada. The Estonian language is very important to them – it is something special, like a secret language among themselves! The summer camps Jõekääru, Seedrioru and Kotkajärve carry a very special meaning as well. Talking Estonian is not a must there though, everyone has an equal opportunity to take part and form friendships. They value their friendship with other Estonians, as something more special than with other Canadians.

The younger generation would like to have more diverse events to preserve the interest and the feeling of being Estonian – besides old traditions like singing in a choir and folk dance, they wish for more modern events. Some of the ideas offered were an Estonian theatre group, or even a special youth house for spending time together, as not everyone attends the Estonian School.

“Am I Estonian?” exhibition

My wonderful coordinator in VEMU, Piret Noorhani, came up with the idea to organise an exhibition based on my research on the Estonian third generation in Canada. We started putting it together in December last year and the opening was in February, on my last night in Canada. I also received a lot of help from Kirsten Dobbin and Kerly Ilves. We put together photos, quotes from the interviews, and a lot of personal objects, symbolising what being Estonian meant for them – books, dolls, flags, beermugs and handcrafts. On the opening night we had over 100 visitors and a two-hour culture program. The exhibition itself was sent further to Tartu Kirjandusmuuseum.

Let´s end this with a cliché  –  and what does it mean for you to be Estonian?

Speaking our unique language and celebrating all the special traditions. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had – to go to university abroad, live in different countries and travel a lot. I´m not quite sure about my future plans right now, but I will most definitely always be Estonian.  Living abroad has taught me to appreciate and notice everything special about Estonia – let it be either granny´s farmhouse or Estonian pure nature and countryside.


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