Sten Hankewitz

Sten Hankewitz is a lifelong journalist and Deputy Editor at Estonian World. Having lived in Estonia, Spain, the UK and all around the US, he now resides in Chicago, IL. He loves to write and besides working at Estonian World and doing some occasional blogging, he writes books and contributes to other outlets in Estonia, Israel and elsewhere. He has strong convictions and he shows them unashamedly. You can follow him on Twitter, like his page on Facebook or check out his personal blog. You can write to Sten at sten@estonianworld.com.

Estonian-founded GrabCAD sold for around $100M to US-Israeli Stratasys Ltd

Estonian-founded, US-based startup GrabCAD has been acquired by the US-Israeli provider of 3D printing solutions, Stratasys Ltd, for around $100M. It is the second biggest startup exit for an Estonian startup and the biggest for Estonian seed investors.

According to Stratasys, the acquisition is expected to enable the company to provide its customers with enhanced collaboration tools and improved accessibility relating to 3D CAD content. “The addition of GrabCAD Workbench provides Stratasys with an opportunity to drive communication and ease of use throughout the 3D printing process and grow its technology solutions and user communities,” the company announced.

Terms of the transaction were not disclosed, but technology news website Techcrunch claims the deal is worth around USD100 million.

“The addition of GrabCAD provides Stratasys with a leading cloud-based collaboration platform for engineering teams to manage, share and view CAD files,” David Reis, Stratasys’s Chief Executive Officer, said. “By increasing the collaboration and accessibility of 3D CAD files, we believe we can further accelerate the adoption of 3D printing solutions and Stratasys’s product offerings.”

“GrabCAD was founded to bring the world’s engineers together and help them collaborate to bring better products to market faster,” said Hardi Meybaum, Chief Executive Officer of GrabCAD. “By joining forces with Stratasys, a global leader in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, we believe we can extend the reach of one of the most exciting and innovative design collaboration technologies available.”

The transaction is expected to be completed by the end of September and upon completion, GrabCAD will operate as a unit within the Stratasys Global Products and Technology Group.

Meybaum, who is also a co-founder of GrabCAD, will continue to lead GrabCAD within the group.

Founded in 2010, GrabCAD is helping engineers get products to market faster by connecting people, content and technology. GrabCAD offers GrabCAD Workbench, a cloud-based collaboration tool that enables engineers and designers to share, view and manage CAD files and other design data. GrabCAD is also home to a community of more than 1.5 million members from around the world who can access a large public CAD file library as well as connect with other engineers.

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Cover photo: Hardi Meybaum, Chief Executive Officer and cofounder of GrabCAD.

The Red Army entering Estonia in October 1939, effectively occupying the country. Today's Russia behaves frighteningly similarly to the Soviet Union in the thirties.

Sten Hankewitz: Kidnapping of Estonian officer is political – as is everything related to Russia

On 5 September, operatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) illegally entered the territory of the Republic of Estonia, a member of NATO and the European Union, and kidnapped by force an officer of the Internal Security Service (ISS) of Estonia.

The facts we know today tell us the officer was definitely on the Estonian side of the border, and he was waiting for his supposed informant to show up and give him information on a case he was working on. The case had nothing to do with espionage, but was rather about cross-border criminal activity and contraband. Moreover, the ISS is Estonia’s internal security service, which means rather than spying on Russia it deals with issues that threaten Estonian national security inside Estonia’s borders.

Not political? Not provocative?

The Russian authorities, of course, see it differently. They claim the Estonian officer was arrested on the Russian side of the border, and he is suspected of espionage. He was taken to Moscow, charged in court, detained for at least two months, and, if convicted, faces 10-20 years in a Russian jail. And even though Russia’s own laws say that when a foreigner is arrested on Russian soil, the foreigner’s country’s authorities have to be notified within 12 hours, such notice was given to Estonia only on 8 September, and only a day after that was the kidnapped officer finally allowed to meet with Estonian representatives.

In light of all this, I’ve got to ask the political commentators and experts who say that the kidnapping was not politically motivated nor provocative, how can you say that? When the authorities of a country with whom you don’t have the best relations kidnap a security officer on your soil at gunpoint, drag him across the border and charge him with espionage, and then blatantly lie about all the facts surrounding the incident, how is that not political, how is that not provocative?

It’s the Soviet Union, stupid

We’ve got to remember here that we’re not dealing with a normal country in the sense of the Western world. We’re dealing with a dictatorship with a very public expansionist agenda; a leadership that has publicly said its country’s neighbours are in their “sphere of interest”; a country that has, in the recent years, brutally attacked two of its neighbours, occupying considerable portions of their territories and killing thousands of people. We’re dealing with a country that arms thugs and terrorists in Ukraine, and those arms have been used by those same terrorists to shoot down a civilian aircraft, murdering 300 people in cold blood. We are, after all, dealing with the Soviet Union.

The fact is that even though in the beginning of the nineties there might have been signs that the Cold War was over, it actually wasn’t. There might have been a short truce, but Russia’s ambitions didn’t vanish, but grew. By leading the image of a developing democracy, Russia got stronger, Russia got more arrogant, and since the West didn’t want to pay enough attention, Russia again grew into the same dictatorial, murderous monstrosity the Soviet Union was.

Russia is an enemy of the West

Now, being as strong and as arrogant as the Soviet Union was in its heyday, the truce in the Cold War is officially over. The current Soviet Union, in the guise of the Russian Federation, uses the same tricks, the same methods again and again, and lies as blatantly as the Soviet Union in its prime.

Fortunately for Estonia, the one thing that has changed is the fact that Estonia is no longer occupied by the Soviet Union, but a full member of the Western world. Estonia is a member of the European Union and NATO. Estonia has, at least in theory, the Article 5 protection all NATO members have. Estonia is now the West – and that makes Russia also an enemy to Estonia.

We should no longer pretend or hide behind political correctness in this matter. Estonia and Russia are not partners, not peaceful neighbours, not even states that can peacefully coexist. Estonia and Russia, as the entire Western world and Russia, are bitter enemies in the Cold War that Russia has again reinitiated and is fighting on every front.

In order to effectively defend themselves, the NATO countries bordering Russia should have permanent NATO presence, both personnel and armoury. Pictured US Air Force V-22 Osprey multi-mission aircraft. Photo: US Air Force, public domain.

Permanent NATO bases, troops on the ground

And now ask yourself – if the special forces of your enemy penetrate your territory and kidnap a police officer of your country, how is that not political? How is that not provocative? And, should we really not be afraid of what might happen next?

Today, the sad fact is, Estonia has to be ready for any scenario. With a powerful enemy just a three-hour drive from Tallinn, Estonia must today do everything it can to prevent further attacks on the country’s sovereignty. And that includes more forcefully demanding permanent NATO personnel and armory on its territory. That includes more forcefully demanding that the rest of the Western world sanctions Russia at every possible angle, even up to the point of completely sealing Russia off and leaving it floating in its own mess.

The Western world is, unfortunately, dealing with an enemy that understands force, and only force. Only a strong military presence in the countries around Russia, especially NATO member states, and only the strongest sanctions against the Russian regime can present such a force.

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Cover photo: The Red Army entering Estonia in October 1939, effectively occupying the country. Today’s Russia behaves frighteningly similarly to the Soviet Union in the thirties. The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Russia kidnapping Estonians is nothing new: 46 of them were abducted in the thirties

In light of the recent kidnapping of an Estonian security police officer by the Russian FSB, it may be worthwhile to take a look in the past. We may be shocked at the course of events in the last few days – and we may be especially astonished at the egregious disregard for a NATO member’s sovereignty – but the fact is, kidnapping Estonian citizens on Estonian soil is nothing new for the Russian authorities. In fact, back in the thirties, Soviet Russia kidnapped altogether 46 Estonian citizens, and brutally murdered border guards who were performing their duties, defending the Estonian border.

Even though the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia had signed a peace treaty in 1920 and, within it, the countries forwent any territorial or other demands to each other, the Soviet Union had always planned to occupy the country, whatever it took. And so, in the thirties, while actively making preparations for occupying Estonia, Soviet border guards started kidnapping Estonian citizens, mostly fishermen working on Lake Peipus and Lake Pihkva. The aim of those crimes was to get as much information on Estonia’s defence capabilities as possible – even though common fishermen might not have known anything.

Kidnappings and interrogations

In August 1936, Soviet border guards kidnapped four Estonian fishermen about a kilometer inside Estonian territory. The men were taken to the Russian side, interrogated for information about Estonian border guard stations and their personnel, Estonians’ general attitude and remuneration, and about the prices of goods in Estonia.

Estonian border marking near Narva. Photo from Wikipedia by Kulmalukko, licensed under Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en), edited for size and format.

A month after that, in September, Russian border guards abducted three Estonian fishermen, again from inside Estonian territory. They were interrogated for information about Estonian border guard stations and police officers.

In December the same year, seven Estonian fishermen were kidnapped, again by the Russian border guards, and again from the Estonian side of the border. They were questioned about the locations of Estonian border guard stations, and whether they had any weaponry.

About a month later, in January 1937, eleven Estonians were abducted from Lake Pihkva, and interrogated about the Estonian Army, the Defence League and border guards. They were also asked about the layout of the villages they lived in, and using the data collected from them, the Russian border guards managed to draw detailed maps of those villages.

Cold-blooded murder

Altogether, between 1936 and 1937, Soviet Russia abducted 46 Estonian citizens who were taken from Estonia to Russia and interrogated about all aspects of life in Estonia, particularly the armed forces and the Estonians’ general attitude. When deported Estonian officers arrived at the Gulag in 1941, after the Soviet Union had already occupied the country and started mass murders and deportations, they found some of the kidnapped Estonian fishermen in the camp.

Unfortunately, the Soviet authorities didn’t stop at kidnapping. In February 1938, two Estonian border guards were kidnapped by force from the Estonian side of the border and taken to Russia. The aim of the abduction was to fake an unauthorised border crossing, and to perpetrate that, the Russian border guards murdered their Estonian counterparts in cold blood.

Estonian border guards near Peipsi in 1938

A month earlier, two Russian border guards crossed the border in an attempt to kidnap yet again Estonian fishermen. Fortunately for the Estonians, at the same time four Estonian border guards were at the same location. The Russians started firing at the Estonians, and in the returned fire, both Russian border guards were killed.

In both these instances, the Soviet state-controlled media blamed the Estonians for crossing into the Russian side, blatantly lying about what really happened. And in a particularly similar way, the Russian state-controlled media now accuses the kidnapped Estonian officer of crossing into Russia where he was supposedly “arrested”. Even though the free media of Estonia has photographic proof that a violent struggle happened on the Estonian side of the border, and the security officer was dragged by force to the Russian side.

Governments change, lies – and methods – stay the same.

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For updates concerning abducted Estonian official, please follow Estonian World‘s or Sten Hankewitz‘s Twitter accounts.

Cover photo: The funeral of Estonian border guards, murdered by Soviet Russia, in 1938. Courtesy of Vaino Kallas.

600 US soldiers to deploy to Poland and Baltics in October

About 600 soldiers from the US Army’s 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division are to deploy to Poland and the Baltic States in October to help reassure the European allies of the United States who feel threatened by Russian military moves.

The brigade will be the next unit to take part in ongoing land forces exercises that fall under the umbrella of Operation Atlantic Resolve, Army Colonel Steven Warren said.

“These units will replace the paratroopers of US Army Europe’s 173rd Airborne Brigade ‘Sky Soldiers’,” Warren said, according to the US Defense Department. The ‘Sky Soldiers’ have since April been participating in multinational training in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

“These land training exercises, which came at the request of host nations, help foster interoperability through small-unit and leader training,” Warren added.

The new rotation will also be bringing in training equipment. According to Warren, the equipment includes “infantry fighting vehicles, cavalry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, M-1 tanks, engineering equipment and other equipment organic to US cavalry units.”

Estonia’s Defence Minister, Sven Mikser, has said that the rotation will exchange the light infantry company, currently stationed in Estonia, for a unit with much heavier armoury. He added that the company will probably be stationed at Tapa garrison.

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Cover photo: U.S. Army soldiers fire the 120mm main gun of an Army M1A2 Abrams tank during live-fire gunnery training at Fort Hood, Texas, on Sept. 24, 2013. The soldiers are assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division.  DoD photo by Sgt. Kim Browne, U.S. Army. 

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his dacha outside Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Sten Hankewitz: Obama’s visit to Estonia doesn’t mean diddly

Dear Estonians, I have some bad news for you. Looking at your euphoria over the visit of President Barack Obama to Estonia in September, I have something to tell you: it doesn’t really mean anything. So you may just as well sit back, relax, and pray the traffic chaos Obama brings along won’t affect you.

Admitted, the euphoria by Estonia’s politicians is understandable. They actually have to say that Obama’s visit strengthens the ties between the two countries or reaffirms America’s commitment to Estonia and NATO and the collective defence article. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing their jobs.

Russia does what it pleases

But when one sees the Average Joe jumping for joy over Obama’s visit, it’s almost funny – if not tragicomical. And when a journalist speculates over whether the president’s visit could be more than a political gesture (Delfi, 14 August), I can only counter-speculate that the journalist is either deliberately trying to mislead people or hasn’t been really following Obama’s governing pattern for the last five and a half years.

Let’s roll back for a moment to the time before Obama’s reelection in 2012. In March of that year, Obama said to the then-Russian president Dmitri Medvedev the words that should have made everyone extremely cautious: “This is my last election … After my election I have more flexibility.” The events that have ensued since speak for themselves:

  • Russia has occupied the Crimean peninsula
  • Russia is de facto controlling Eastern Ukraine
  • Russian-backed terrorists have shot down a civilian aircraft, murdering 300 innocent people
  • Russia is sending tanks and artillery to the separatists, effectively invading Ukraine

Keeping up appearances

One might, of course, ask me, “What the hell are you talking about? What about the US sanctions on Russia?”

Okay. Let’s look at the facts again.

Flight MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine on 17 July. Within days it was certain the culprits were Russian-backed terrorists, and the weapons they used had been brought on Ukrainian soil from the Russian Federation. But when did Obama finally impose sanctions? Over two weeks later, on 29 July, and even then he managed to almost apologetically utter to the media, “It’s not a new Cold War.”

That’s all there is to it – keeping up appearances. Because, let’s be honest, the weak sanctions on Russia haven’t really accomplished anything – the state of events in Ukraine is now even worse. Only last week, the Russian authorities sent a “humanitarian convoy” – escorted by attack helicopters – into Ukraine; at the same time the Ukrainian military engaged a separate Russian armored column that had entered Ukraine. Even Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, confirmed that Russia was continuing to supply the pro-Moscow terrorists with “a continuous flow of weapons and fighters”.

Obama doesn’t have allies

But one of the biggest deceptions by the Obama administration is the illusion some people still have that Obama is supposedly their staunch ally. On what, exactly, are people basing this illusion?

On the fact that another ally of the United States – Israel – is frequently told by administration officials, including President Obama himself, how it shouldn’t defend itself against Hamas terrorists and instead quietly go into the night?

On the fact that Iraq, a country the US committed to help, has been all but neglected – or at least thousands of people have been allowed to be murdered before the Obama administration approved air strikes against the Islamic terrorists of ISIS?

Or, perhaps on the fact that even at home, Obama is playing golf rather than dealing with riots in Ferguson, MO?

The sad fact is, President Obama doesn’t have allies. He has popularity ratings, and not necessarily the ones given by the American people – rather by useful idiots all over the world who are still under the impression that Obama is the messiah who will fix the world, without seeing that during Obama’s reign, the world has started to crumble from every corner and soon enough there may not be much left to fix.

All things considered, it is quite naïve to hope that Obama’s visit to Estonia is anything more than a simple political gesture, designed to boost his approval ratings among Eastern Europeans. Let’s be honest, he would much rather be vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard than taking a long and exhausting cross-Atlantic flight to meet people he doesn’t give a hoot about.

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Cover photo: President Barack Obama meets with Vladimir Putin at his dacha outside Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

President Obama to visit Estonia in September

US President Barack Obama will visit Estonia in September; according to the White House, the visit is designed to “further enhance the strong relations between the two countries and to affirm America’s commitment” to the Baltic states.

In Tallinn, Obama will meet with Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves as well as Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, to discuss bilateral ties, strategic and regional cooperation and “our shared commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership”, the White House said in a statement.

Obama will also meet with presidents Andris Berzinš of Latvia and Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania “to discuss ongoing cooperation on regional security and policies that support economic growth and to discuss collective defence”, according to the White House.

The statement added that “in light of recent developments in Ukraine, the United States has taken steps to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe and this trip is a chance to reaffirm our ironclad commitment to Article V as the foundation of NATO”.

After visiting Estonia, Obama will proceed to Wales to participate in the NATO summit.

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Cover photo: President Barack Obama meeting with Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and presidents Andris Berzinš of Latvia and Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania at the White House in August, 2013.

Adam Cullen – the American who fell in love with Estonia and its literature

How many non-Estonians – especially the ones coming from a global language background – do you know who can speak fluent, or even conversational Estonian? It probably isn’t too easy to come up with even one. Well, let Estonian World fix this and introduce to you Adam Cullen, a 28-year-old Minnesotan who not only speaks and writes Estonian, but also translates prose and poetry from this tiny northern European language into English. His latest translation – Tõnu Õnnepalu’s widely talked about novel, Radio.

Adam grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the US state known for its friendly people and frigid winters, and famous for the classic film (and the more recent TV-series), Fargo. But after having visited Tallinn while studying in St Petersburg, Russia, he fell in love with Estonia and its language: “Something in the lilting, wispy melodies of the Estonian I heard spoken on the street entranced me, was somehow familiar and oddly home-like, and there was no escaping it.”

In Estonia by pure chance

It was a weekend trip to Tallinn from St Petersburg in the rainy and foggy autumn of 2006 that brought Adam to Estonia for the first time – “by pure chance, as these things go,” he recalls. “In a sense, it blind-sided me in the most positive way possible.”

“Maybe the shock of encountering relative normalcy in contrast with life in Russia lobbed me into an altered state of mind, maybe it was destiny, or perhaps it was an odd bottle of Vana Tallinn, tainted with an accidental dose of unsullied Ida-Viru phosphorite – in any case, I can clearly remember standing in front of the window of the Olümpia hotel, looking out over the city (wearing the complimentary bathrobe, holding a stopka of vodka in one hand and zakuski in the other), and saying to my roommate, ‘I feel like I could live here’.”

That same year, Adam returned to Tallinn on his own a few times. “I purchased an Estonian-English dictionary and a couple of newspapers, selected a few albums with Estonian artist names and song titles, and got down to learning it.”

Adam Cullen in Noarootsi. The structure in the background is an Estonian plastic sauna.

“Yes. Estonian is difficult.”

Adam says it took him close to a year to reach full conversational fluency in Estonian, and a little over that to begin translating simpler texts, “in exchange for money and/or Saku Tume”, a dunkler bock-style beer produced by the Saku brewery. “One of my methods for honing my skills in languages had been translating in my free time and purely to increase my own proficiency, so it was a relatively smooth transition.”

It’s said – mainly by Estonians themselves, but also by others who have tried to learn it – that Estonian is one of the most difficult languages in the world. Adam agrees: “In technical, linguistic terms, sure. Yes. Estonian is difficult. At the same time, gaining fluency in any language that is not your native tongue is a task, as I see it.”

Adam points out that in his opinion, too many members of larger countries never have the need, the opportunity or the will to expand their linguistic – and by that, he also means cultural – horizons. “I really only take a harsher stance towards expats, who live in smaller countries and around smaller languages, where they can get by using the ‘world language’, and who use it as an excuse to forego showing the respect of learning anything apart from ‘tere’ and ‘kaksteist kuud’,” he says. “Tere”, in Estonian, means “hello”. This being a family-friendly publication, we will not explain the word play around the other expression.

To experience what it means to be an immigrant

Adam by the sea.Adam moved to Estonia in 2007, right after finishing his undergraduate degree. As it happened, his flight left only a day after his last final exam. “I was working at a café at the time and held a degree in liberal arts – with which you can do anything, and which qualifies you to do very little,” he states. “I figured I could continue working at a café, bury myself in loans and aim to attend graduate school; or, I could relocate to another continent, attempt to find a job, experience what it means to be an immigrant, and see whether it is possible to gain fluency in a language through utter immersion (it is). The choice really wasn’t that difficult in the end.”

Adam’s entrance “into the world of literary translations was all thanks to a chance Christmas party and enough blood sausage and chanterelles”, as he puts it. He had been translating as a volunteer for Fenno-Ugria, an organisation dedicated to spreading knowledge of the Finno-Ugric cultures, and was invited to attend its annual Christmas party. “Also invited to the event were Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem from the Estonian Literature Centre, the office of which was in the same building,” Adam recalls. “They soon learned that I dabbled in translation and was interested in broadening that part of my life. Contact information was exchanged, and the rest is the present.”

So far, Radio is the only book he’s translated from Estonian into English that has appeared full-length and in print. “There are several other novels and short stories that I have translated (commissioned by the authors themselves or done out of personal interest) and are available for any interested parties. I have also translated several theatre works, at least one of which is in print, a wide range of poetry, and cultural/Finno-Ugric/architectural/historical texts that are in print. One poetry collection should be published in time for the Baltic States headlining the 2018 London Book Fair.”

“Õnnepalu’s style of writing connects to me”

He admits that one question he is frequently asked is, “Why Estonian literature?” “The English-language market is already gargantuan, and Estonia’s proportional place in the translated-literature market naturally corresponds to the size of its population in comparison with the cultural giants,” Adam explains. “However, Estonians have maintained a ravenous appetite for original Estonian-language books, making it far from difficult to come across works that inarguably deserve translation into the overwhelmingly global English. What remains is just to convince publishers of these works’ potential in a vast market; work that the Estonian Literature Centre has done marvellously.”

So why Radio? The publisher, Dalkey Archive Press, approached Adam about translating the novel, and he was happy to accept the challenge. “Õnnepalu’s permeatingly peaceful and musing, observant style of writing does connect to me on a personal level, and I hope to have the opportunity to translate more of his works in the future,” he says. “I acknowledge that the work can put patience to the test (one review called it ‘plotless’, which I do not agree with and have my own arguments against), the intimate process of translating Radio gave me a much deeper appreciation for its style and Õnnepalu’s writing overall.”

Learning the Sami language

While the Estonian language has only about 1.3 million native speakers worldwide, another language Adam is learning has even less – about 20,000. That other language is Sami, spoken by the people in the northernmost parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. “Similarly to Estonia and Estonian, it just felt right,” Adam explains his interest. “Call it intuition, something deeper in the soul or in blood (I have my suspicions concerning the Swedish side of my heritage); call it an unbridled fascination. It is what it is, and to tell the truth, I haven’t really felt the need to question it. Most of my choices in life have admittedly been based more off of feeling than much else.”

Adam concedes that his grasp of the Sami language is still in its infancy, and hence he’s not translating any works from Sami. But he has also learned Russian – a far larger language than Estonian or Sami – and has translated some texts from it to English. “Unfortunately, I have little time for anything more presently.” Nevertheless, the Russian language is something that intrigues Adam – “because of hazy recollections and awarenesses of the Cold War, the scant direct brushes I had had with Russian culture itself, and the mystification that is Cyrillic. The right instructor and escapades in Ukraine and Russia sealed the deal.”

Adam Cullen.Learning other languages is, as Adam puts it, intimate for him, and not a hobby. “When you really acquire a language, you consciously and subconsciously adopt and meld into yourself inherent pieces of the culture,” he explains. “The outcome is a fluid and ever-expanding identity; something much more considerable than a mere means of communication. I strive to pick up the basics for getting around in a local language when I am travelling or staying short times in another country, but as for speaking, I really only find it humanly possible to focus on a few special ones to the extent I find respectable.”

Translating poetry in rhyme is futile

Adam translates prose and poetry alike, and says they’re entirely different to translate: “The nuances embedded within not only the combination of words and the rhythm, but also the slight tones given by particular and peculiar conjugations, make translating it a lengthy process,” he says of translating poetry.

“As a colleague of mine put it: every translation of a poem is merely the latest draft – days, even years later, a fresh look at the text will draw new dimensions and interpretations to the surface; poetry changes in tandem with the reader.”

Adam does occasionally translate poems in rhyme, but as he admits, “doing so is somewhat a futile endeavour. Brilliant translations that preserve and reformulate both the rhyme and the meaning can certainly be done, but other times, so much of the original dissipates and the end project is so utterly original in and of itself that it is more an inspiration of the first, not a translation of it. Poetry often celebrates and revels in the original language; its harmony can be solely dependent upon it.”

At the moment, Adam is working on yet another translation of a novel – the latest by Mihkel Mutt, titled The Cavemen Go Down in History (in Estonian, Kooparahvas läheb ajalukku). He has also signed contracts for a collection of short stories, as well as a poetry anthology. “Naturally, I also have my eye on a number of other works that interest me!”

“It’s not impossible to encounter warm friendliness in Estonians”

Coming back to Adam’s life in Estonia, one question that comes to mind is, how easy or hard is it for a man from the American Midwest – one of the friendliest places in the whole wide world – to get used to the somewhat cold, sometimes even unfriendly attitude of Estonians? “Settling into life in Estonia and Estonian life means confronting some stark differences,” Adam grants, adding that “‘Minnesota nice’ is an incontestable fact”. “However, it is not impossible to encounter warm friendliness in Estonians, especially among those who are more travelled.”

“One main obstacle to this remains the manner in which many Estonians seem to develop their circle of friends – in my experience, many ‘complete’ the process after they make their pinginaabrid (grade-school ‘bench-mates’), and check it off their list of things to do in life,” he explains. “This is especially aggravating for a newcomer to the country (as I’ve experienced it both in Tallinn and small-town Estonia), especially when proficiency in Estonian is not an issue. Paradoxically, it is almost harder to make close friends when you do know the language.”

Adam Cullen. Photo by Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc.

On the language front, however, Adam believes native-speaking Estonians should be harder on foreigners and foreign spouses to at least progress to the point of basic communication. “A culture is only worth the value its holder places upon it. It does take effort on both sides, that of the native and of the newcomer.”

Estonia needs “a sprinkling of ‘Minnesota nice’”

Adam also adds he doesn’t believe foreigners in Estonia should be more accommodated than they already are. “Far too many new establishments bear English-language names, far too many signs and advertisements do the same. It bleaches away the experience of being abroad from your homeland, of travelling an essentially foreign country – if anything, foreigners should be more flexible and open to taking in the incredible culture and language of the land they are visiting.”

But, “a little sprinkling of ‘Minnesota nice’ in Eesti would not be the worst thing. A deep care for community (which is indeed growing in certain neighbourhoods) and being pleasant by default would be welcomed.”

And what could Minnesotans learn from Estonians? “Minnesotans could pick up a bit of Estonians’ appreciation and reverence for nature; their penchant for ‘returning to the wild’ (although we Minnesotans certainly take full advantage of our lakes and the North Woods, Arctic weather permitting) and especially the no-nonsense, DIY attitude.”

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Cover photo by Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc.

Bill Rebane (second from left) at the set of The Giant Spider Invasion.

Bill Rebane – the maker of horror films who’s “never been a fan of horror”

The Estonian-American film producer and director, Bill Rebane, has certainly had an interesting life. Born in Latvia, schooled in Germany and worked in the United States, he’s one of the few people of Estonian heritage who have made a difference in the arts of motion pictures. And yet, after a lifetime of making horror films, some of them rather intriguingly titled as The Giant Spider Invasion, Monster A Go-Go and Blood Harvest, Rebane admits that he’s never been a fan of horror. Interestingly though, even at the age of 77, he’s in the process of producing a musical based on one of his earlier movies, and he has put his heart into restoring an Estonian church in the village of Gleason, Wisconsin, some 300 miles north from Chicago.

Escape from the war

Bill Rebane (second from left) at the set of The Giant Spider Invasion.Bill hasn’t always been Bill. When he was born in Riga, the capital of Latvia, in 1937, he was named Ito by his Latvian mother and Estonian father. Being an international man from an early age – “I was shuttled around between Reval and Riga for the first few years” – the fate of many of his contemporaries caught up with Bill and his family, forcing them to leave the countries they held dear and being evacuated to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in Prussia.

“I assume the move to Prussia was to get the family out of harms way,” Bill recalls now. His father – a boxer with the Tartu boxing team – was drafted into the German army, and when the bombing of Königsberg began, he wasn’t there. Rebane, with his mother and grandmother and thousands of other people, escaped the war once again – by horse and wagon – first to Poland and then to Germany. Fortunately for the Rebane family, after arriving in the outskirts of Berlin during the fall of the city, they didn’t stay in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany but escaped further west, finally settling in the Hamburg area.

More Estonian/American than anything else

Along the way from Berlin to Hamburg, Bill says a small miracle occurred. “My father found us among the thousands of escaping refugees,” he says. “He had been wounded and shipped to an army hospital in Berlin, prior to the fall of the city.”

Bill remembers his father as “very nationalistic”. “He only spoke Estonian, even in Germany,” Bill notes. “My mother spoke six languages, and I favoured German in all communication.”

So who does such an international man himself consider to be – Estonian, Latvian, American? “More Estonian/American than anything else,” Bill says. Quite understandable, too – a father who only spoke Estonian, and Bill himself living in the United States the best part of his life.

The first taste of art

After Germany had capitulated to the Allies in 1945, Bill says he went to public and private schools until the age of 14. “I participated in school plays, played the accordion and the violin,” he recalls, adding that he “hated the violin”.

“When movie theatres opened, I was riveted to them.” At the same time, he dug into hundreds of novels in German – but interestingly, most of them were American westerns.

In 1952, he got his first-hand experience of America – albeit not exactly a western. Having moved to the American Midwest, at the age of 17 he started working at Chicago’s WGN Television – a channel that to this day is one of the primary local TV stations for Chicagoans. “It was a most rewarding experience,” Bill says. “The opportunities there were great. I moved from Assistant Director to Assistant and Executive Producer roles at WGN.”

At the same time, Bill was taking daily dancing and singing lessons – “prompted and encouraged by my mother”. These lessons came in very handy – he appeared in the courtroom drama series called They Stand Accused, and the musical series, The International Café.

Horror movies were not in the agenda

Bill’s nights in the Windy City were filled with going to the cinema. “I was thrilled with the business of entertainment,” he admits – but “performances rather than production”. And when he got an art scholarship for the Art Institute, he decided to go to the Goodman Theatre to study drama instead.

He created, produced and directed two musical short subjects, Twist Craze and Dance Craze that were both very successful productions. “I was most proud of Dance Craze,” Bill declares, adding that after it had premiered at the Oriental Theater for six weeks, it was sold for considerable profit to American International Pictures. “For its time, the idea and execution was good and I surprised myself.”

“Horror movies were not in the agenda,” Bill states. “It was not until I learned about the business of film while travelling to Germany and Hollywood, that I decided to get into theatrical production.”

The first film made entirely in Chicago since the 1930ies

So if horror films were not in the agenda, how did it happen that this is the main reason of Bill’s fame? “One had to do something that was timely and edgy for cash flow purposes,” he admits. “Sci-fi and horror were a good venue for drive-in cinemas and neighbourhood theatres. That was the reason for making Terror at Halfday, aka Monster A Go-Go.”

The 1965 production of Monster A Go-Go is actually a historic film. “It’s the first feature film made entirely in Chicago after the Charlie Chaplin studios closed there in the 1930ies,” Bill points out. “But that’s a story of its own.”

One of the most well known productions Bill’s directed is The Giant Spider Invasion. The 1975 movie about giant spiders that terrorise the town of Merrill, Wisconsin, was made, according to Bill, as a “commercial and playable money-making picture”. He adds, “Artistic statements were tougher to sell and to get financed.”

A production shot of The Giant Spider Invasion.

The Giant Spider Invasion made Bill the producer/director of one of the fifty top-grossing films in 1975 – the movie made 23 million dollars gross that year, making Bill one of the most successful film directors with Estonian roots – if not the most.

But The Giant Spider Invasion is not only a successful film. In 2011, Bill started to work on a musical version of it. “Production plans are in negotiating stages,” he says, but “the soundtrack CD of this is doing quite well”.

It’s the escapism and entertainment

Even though Bill is a successful horror film director, he maintains he’s “never been a fan of horror, especially not of graphic horror”. “Edgar Allan Poe is more my style, and the paranormal. The material must be story and character-driven.”

“I’m still trying to figure out if I really made ‘horror’ films,” Bill contemplates. “For some strange reason, the word ‘horror’ still bugs me. Maybe it’s because I’ve written so much against the violence and graphic horror that comes out of Hollywood.”

He says he doesn’t know what appeals to people about horror movies. “I assume it’s the escapism and entertainment for some.” Does he have a favourite horror movie? “The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the original Frankenstein.”

What about the films Bill himself has made? “The feature film I’m the most proud of is The Alpha Incident,” he’s certain. The 1978 production about a deadly organism that can destroy all life on Earth does indeed sound intriguing.

Estonian filmmakers should take advantage of the US

To this day, at the age of 77, Bill is still active in writing and producing. “I’m mostly writing screenplays and working on my third novel. And I recently sold a screenplay for a Shirley MacLaine picture to a Hollywood production company, Enderby Entertainment.”

Bill says he’s seen quite a few short films and promotional pieces from Estonian filmmakers. “I’ve been amazed by the technical quality and performances given,” he says. “I would like to see more. Would help me learn to speak Estonian again.”

What kind of advice does the legendary director have for today’s filmmakers of Estonia? “For feature films, I would suggest they subtitle or shoot English versions to take advantage of the North American market,” he suggests. “I would welcome submissions for representation, especially for feature films.”

Bill as an actor in Terror at Halfday, aka Monster A Go-Go.

Not only a movie producer

Many stars of the American film industry have become fed up with Hollywood and moved to the life of politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California for eight years. Decades earlier, Ronald Reagan filled the same seat for another eight years and later became President of the United States.

And while Bill is not fed up with the life of a filmmaker, he too has tried his hand in politics. “Politics and government interest me,” he admits. “Especially when I’m affected by political idiocy.”

Thus he twice has run for Governor of Wisconsin, the first time in 1979 and then in 2002, as the American Reform Party candidate. “The 2002 run was very serious. I rebel against bad politicians and bad leaders. My sitting opponent was bad for our state.”

Even though he didn’t win, Bill can still say he made his mark. “I’ve been a victim of governmental blunders and corruption. To make a difference, one must get involved.”

Restoring the first Estonian church in North America

One of the things Bill’s taken into heart, besides filmmaking and politics, is a small Estonian church in Gleason, Wisconsin. Years ago, Bill himself lived in Gleason, and now he’s tirelessly working on restoring the old house of worship – the first Estonian church in North America.

“When I moved to Gleason in 1966, I had no idea I was moving into an Estonian settlement,” Bill confesses. “I visited Albert Sommi, one of the original founders of the church, in the early seventies. His last and biggest wish was that the church would remain as a reminder to all Estonians of the early Estonian immigrants to America.” So, in 1994, Bill Rebane reinstated the 1907-established church in its original founded name – the Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church.

Estonian church II

Unfortunately, there aren’t many Estonians left in Gleason area to be interested in the restoration of the church. “More Americans find this to be a good cause,” Bill admits. “Which is sad. I read that Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world. They will have to understand that this is more than a church – irrespective of religious preferences, it is a monument to freedom and the Republic of Estonia as a whole.”

“Our President, Toomas Ilves, knows about the church. It would be nice if he could come and see it personally,” Bill says hopefully.

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Cover photo: Bill Rebane (second from left) at the set of The Giant Spider Invasion. From Bill’s private collection.

Book review: When Russia invaded Estonia – and Jack Ryan saved it

The time is “present day”. Russia’s president is a former KGB officer who uses phrases like “The fall of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest tragedies of the last century”. The modern reincarnation of the KGB – the FSB – is all-powerful in Russia. Businesses are “nationalised” – which is “new-speak” for stealing – and their stolen wealth is for some peculiar reason handled by Russia’s national natural gas company Gazprom.

Indeed, that is a pretty accurate description of today’s Russia, which in recent years has come more and more to resemble its predecessor, the Soviet Union. The country is run by a czar who says there is a “special democracy” which exists in Russia; and when the czar decides to extend the country’s sphere of influence beyond its borders, the rest of the world just watches without having the cojones to do anything about it.

Command Authority book cover.
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Fortunately, this is not the case in Tom Clancy’s latest and last novel, Command Authority. Clancy, who in October last year sadly died, didn’t believe in appeasement and rightly so. And that is what makes his last novel so enjoyable.

Using historical facts and situations that have happened in the recent years in and around the Russian Federation, Command Authority paints a grim picture for Estonia. The tiny Nordic country is invaded by Russian forces, retaliating for “terrorist acts” against its eastern neighbour, and despite it being a NATO member, the alliance hasn’t seemingly come to Estonia’s defence. Clancy’s description of the brief war, including a map of the town of Põlva in south-eastern Estonia, titled “The Battle for Põlva”, sends shivers across one’s back, especially when one has a connection with the country – mainly because the action is so incredibly realistic that one could actually imagine it all happening.

I guess part of the reason why it seems so real is the fact that Russia has indeed constantly threatened its neighbours when they don’t comply with its demands. Look at Georgia – the country lost part of its territory in a brief but bloody war, just because the Kremlin decided to teach its southern neighbour a lesson. Who is there to say the same thing couldn’t happen to Estonia?

Another part, though, that makes it seem too real, is the fact that Tom Clancy is revered as a kind of prophet. The author did somewhat predict the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although in Debt of Honor, it was a Japanese pilot who flew his plane into the US Congress. In a way, he also predicted the Russian-Georgian war, and the capture of Osama bin Laden. As a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, “I would be worried when living in Põlva”.

Fortunately for Estonia, the president of the United States in Command Authority is not a communist-leaning appeaser as it is the case in the real world. President Jack Ryan – yes, the same CIA analyst played by Harrison Ford in the films – does send troops to help Estonians to defend their country. And moreover, when the action moves south to Ukraine, he makes sure that the Americans do their best to help the country – where the Russian nation did indeed spring from – at least get a fighting chance.

But that is not the gist of the novel, not to worry; nor is it a spoiler. Command Authority has so many twists and turns you wouldn’t believe. Of course, this is something a reader Tom Clancy’s work is accustomed to. And even though the novel is written together with Mark Greaney, it does have Clancy written all over it. One would assume that this Greaney character only helped finalise the book due to Clancy’s untimely death. And even if that is not the case, we’re certainly looking at a world-class thriller with lessons to learn.

Yes, I think there are lessons to learn from the novel. Considering the documentalist nature of the book, the incredible similarities the book bears to the real-life events and the entirely similar characteristics to how today’s Russia operates, I think the more people read this book, the more people will become aware of what today’s Russia really entails. There are still so many people around the globe who think that Russia is a normal, democratic country and the people and nations that don’t see this are just bullying it. What we have to actually see is how Russia itself is bullying everyone around it. As the famous fictional British spy James Bond said in the 1995 film GoldenEye, “Governments change, the lies stay the same.” This is very much the case with Russia, now, 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union more so than ever.

One thing is certain though. In a few weeks, thousands of Estonians will be glued to their TV screens, under the naïve illusion that if an Estonian cross-country skier does well in Sochi, it’ll bring unimaginable amounts of fame and glory to the tiny nation. Trust me, it doesn’t. But a great novel from a renowned author can at least make people around the globe acknowledge there is such a country as Estonia. And that is a good thing.

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Cover photo is illustrative. Courtesy of Feng Zhu Design blog.

Helen with one of the first books she wrote, "Pasodoble".

Andalusian-Estonian author Helen Eelrand: Living in Spain has opened me up

Over four years ago, in March 2009, then an author-to-be Helen Eelrand decided to make a major life change. After having worked a lifetime in the Estonian media, she took her husband and two daughters (her adult son decided to remain in Estonia) and moved to Spain.

Let’s be honest, not many people are capable of just packing up their belongings and driving 2,700 miles to a strange country, completely different from their own. A different language, different climate, different culture and, most importantly, a completely different people. However, all that is why Helen had decided that Spain – or actually Andalusia – was her corner of the world, the place on earth she never wants to leave.

Helen holding one of her books about Spain, "Why Do You Giggle All the Time?"She had realised that a year before. “After a trip to the Cadiz area – where we later moved to – I just had the feeling: ‘How come I didn’t live there already?’ When we arrived back to Estonia, I was so homesick for Spain that all I did was sleep and I lost half of my hair. I believe everyone has their corner of the world that they recognise with their heart. And I’m very glad that for many, this corner is Estonia. But Andalusia is so ‘mine’ – everything feels right, logical, in its place. Completely different from Estonia, but still (or more so) ‘mine’. I love this country, people and language with the same passion Andalusians have.”

Feeling of peace and happiness

Helen was passionate about and fond of Spain long before she moved there. As she puts it, when she arrived in Spain, she arrived at home, and now, living there, she says that outside Spain she always lacks confidence. “When I visit Portugal and come back, on the border of the two countries I encounter this incomprehensible peace of mind, happiness and sense of safety,” she explains. “Once when I was on my way back from Estonia, I fell asleep in Barcelona airport just because I heard people speaking Spanish around me and the loudspeakers were playing a local radio station.” And even abroad – or, well, abroad for her – “In Tallinn I sometimes go to the Old Town to listen to Spanish tourists, just to make sure everything is all right.”

Indeed, hearing Spanish gives Helen the reassurance that everything is all right. “I have a special and unexplainable connection to this language. That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about Estonian. Languages interest me and give me something to think about. When I hear someone speaking Estonian incorrectly and at the same time calling themselves patriots, I get very upset.”

By the time Helen and her family moved to Spain, she had been studying the language and culture for three years. So she had no trouble settling in as she could already interact with everyone around her. “When the locals see my quite Nordic appearance they’re very surprised when I open my beak. ‘You speak so well!’ I know that there’s room for improvement and sometimes I’m even too demanding about myself – I don’t want to make mistakes or have an accent and because of that I’d rather not say some things.”

Helen with her daughters Bianka (left) and Agnetha (middle) in Cullera, Andalusia.
Helen with her daughters Bianka (left) and Agnetha (middle) in Cullera, Valencia.

For her daughters settling in was almost as easy as for Helen: “The girls went to school and on the first day they made new friends. Within a month they were speaking Spanish and by now they’re so bilingual that the younger one even thinks in Spanish.”

For Helen’s husband Tom the process of learning was a bit longer. “He didn’t speak Spanish for three years, just listened and learned. Then one day he decided to start talking. By now he manages some things – like talking on the phone – better than me and when we visit Estonia, he’s even more homesick than I am!”

“If you can speak Spanish, the locals regard you very highly. I’ve never encountered xenophobia,” Helen explains. “Spaniards aren’t prejudiced. In Chinese bars I see Spaniards giving candy to the children of Chinese families – a child is a child for Spaniards, the race or the ethnicity have no importance. And, they adopt quite many children from other races. I don’t know which is the cause and which is the result, but generally there have been no immigrants’ riots in Spain.”

Becoming a full-time author under the Andalusian sun

Back in Estonia, Helen was a journalist, writing about social services and welfare. She has loved writing since she was a child: “Since as a child I got a lot of attention, I knew letters already by the time I was 18 months old,” Helen says. “So quite logically I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was six. It bore a rather high-toned title, “Composed Songs and Stories”. Sounds like ‘greatest hits’ or something.” In school she also wrote quite often: “By hand, of course, and as I was a good drawer, I illustrated my ‘books’ myself. And since during that time there weren’t many novels for young people, mine were quite popular among other kids my age.”

Helen with her husband Toomas enjoying the Spanish sun.
Helen with her husband Toomas enjoying the Spanish sun.

Helen says she has always known she wants to write, and she’s always enjoyed the process of writing. By now she has written six published books and that is partly thanks to living in Spain: “I have opened up here,” she says. “I am not ashamed to express myself fearing what other people might think.”

Helen likes to write in her thoughts when she walks. “I put my headphones on, listen to the music, walk around and when I get back home, any piece of copy is just a matter of writing it down. The ocean is a spectacularly good supporter for this. When I was writing my last book, I didn’t even notice how or when I got back home – I was so deep in my text that I didn’t even realise I had taken a walk.”

Helen’s next book, “We’ll Meet Again” (“Me veel näeme”) will be published by the end of 2013. The book was awarded third place at a novel contest by Tänapäev publishing house in Estonia and is about a seven-year-old girl who gets hit by a car and falls into a coma. “At the time when she learns her lessons, hanging between the two worlds and talking to spirits, her parents’ marriage falls into a crisis because of the accident,” Helen describes her newest work. “Everybody will have to learn something from such a high price paid, and they do. And, of course, there’s a Spanish touch in the book – the action will move to Jerez and one of the main characters is a flamenco dancer.”

Naturally, the fact that her work has received such a high award at a literary contest makes Helen very happy. “This is the work I am very proud and glad of! And people have said the book is very coherent, fluent and passionate. It’s great to hear this!”

From Andalusia to Valencia

When Helen and her family moved to Spain in 2009, they settled in El Puerto de Santa Maria, a small town in the province of Cadiz, right by the Atlantic ocean on the southwestern corner of Spain. In July 2013, however, they decided to move again, but this time within the borders of Spain – to Valencia, a vibrant city on the southeastern corner of the country. “We left Andalusia behind to learn more about other parts of Spain,” she explains. Having moved to the very centre of Valencia – the local “Soho” called Ruzafa – she can now say that life is completely different there than what she was used to in El Puerto. “I’m still getting used to the fact that people are more nervous and busy. In Andalusia everyone was smiling all the time – a non-stop ¡fiesta! and ¡ole!”

Under a Valencian highway: (from left) Bianka, Agnetha, Helen and Toomas.
Under a Valencian highway: (from left) Agnetha, Bianka, Helen and Toomas.

However, even though she has decided to live the life of a city girl for now, she does miss Andalusia. “We were so spoiled in this most traditional place in Spain and I do identify myself as an Andalusian. Spain – and Andalusia specifically – have taught me gratitude. I know that I can’t take anything for granted, not this wonderful country, the opportunity to live here nor the people who live around me.”

On the other hand, when in El Puerto they met only one local Estonian – in Valencia the social life of the local Estonian community is much more active. “There are a lot of us and from all areas of life. It’s a really exciting and colourful community, but in my opinion, the one thing that unites us all is an untraditional warmth and companionship. I think Spain has educated us well. It’s so wonderful to be part of this community.”

“Estonians make their lives difficult for themselves”

Although Helen profoundly enjoys the company of Valencia’s Estonians, she doesn’t even want to think about having to live in Estonia – or anywhere else for that matter. “Of course you can’t rule it out that at one point one might be forced to move. But that would make me very sad. Every time I go to Tallinn, I step off the plane excitedly and happily, and I leave with a confused and ill-at-ease feeling that everything wasn’t as I had hoped.”

Helen with books that she's written and with some that she's edited.
Helen with books that she’s written and with some that she’s edited.

So how exactly does Estonia look like from Spain? “Small, homely, mystical, quiet, green, quickly developing, self-biting, sincere, inconstant, proud and distrustful,” Helen responds. “It’s a funny and sweet combination really. It’s just sometimes it’s sad that people voluntarily, sometimes even diligently make their lives difficult. Where do they get that life has to be hard? That’s one thing they should learn from Spaniards – living in the moment and being happy about it. The glass is half-full, not half-empty.”

Another thing that Helen is passionate about when comparing Spain and Estonia is solidarity. “It’s more comfortable in Spain, knowing that you won’t be left in trouble or alone. It’s especially about taking care of the weak – children, the elderly and the ill. If people don’t learn to do this – and I’m not talking about the state, but the individuals – the country and nation are eating themselves. Where does this emotional stinginess come from? Or is it cowardice? Being helpful doesn’t take anything away from one, it rather gives something.”

And what could Spaniards learn from Estonians? “First and foremost, keeping promises and being organised,” Helen asserts. “Also, looking at this utter candour I’ve started to respect introverts more as they’re rather scarce here. Many of these people who live on the inside have some sort of an enchanting deepness. They love and care, but they can’t really show it.”

Cover photo: Helen Eelrand with one of the first books she wrote, “Pasodoble”.

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