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10 reasons why a Spanish Erasmus student loves Estonia

Isabel Fernández Felipe, an Erasmus student from Spain, who took psychology lessons in Tallinn University last year, fell in love with Tallinn and Estonia.

In the beginning I thought Tallinn wouldn’t be the best place to live because of the weather and the different culture that might seem distant. But now, as I am finishing my Erasmus exchange studies, I can fortunately admit I was wrong. To be honest, I fell in love with this city from the beginning. So, ¿por qué? Miks? 

1. A small but a caring nation

Estonian population is a little more than one million and the culture is the main vehicle for the Estonian identity. They have a lot of respect for it; their identity is something very special to them. I’ll always remember the Independence Day celebrations in Toompea Hill, where a lot of people were singing the national song while crying and smiling. So many emotions, flags and beauty! Next to that I was really surprised at the national anthem’s lyrics: they are so beautiful that made me want to sing it fluently myself!

Song Festival

But it is not all about beauty. Estonians have suffered a lot under various occupations. History made Estonians fight, good people have died and people now shed tears just to enjoy their freedom. For a person whose country has enjoyed freedom over centuries, it’s very exciting to sense how important it is for Estonians to be united. I will miss them singing all together, singing so gracefully, just to defend their country and make it proud.

2. No more stereotypes with Estonians, please!

Before coming to Estonia, I was reading that they have a cold personality, they’re serious, they aren’t passionate and they are stressed all the time. Well, it’s true that the first impression can correspond to that stereotype, but I’ve realised that in a broader view, Estonians are not like that.

51hePJ5FkYL._SX385_I think it is just a matter of sun. Estonians are publicly polite and silent because they have to save energy due to the lack of vitamins from the sun. Estonians have energy only for few people and at home. If they have saved enough energy, they are energetic, funny and talkative – as long as you are not together with 100 people and alcohol is involved! They like to have fun and they know how to do it!

I don’t think Estonians are boring. For me, they are adventurous, challenging and they like to do random things at random places. For example, I was at a crazy party inside a Soviet-era prison, where many years ago people were tortured or left dead. I went to see jellyfish in a restricted area of the port. I saw how Estonians can drink at 10 am inside a supermarket. Even if considered shy in one moment, they can wear animal costumes in the university or party 24 hours in an abandoned factory the other. I think Estonians are weird – in a good way!

3. Landscape in Estonia is so plush!

The colours and tastes are impressive here. Almost all of the Estonian land is covered by forests and Estonians are more attached to nature than other nationalities. You can do a lot of activities in the nature like visit wild bogs, go cross-country skiing, pick mushrooms and berries.

Landscape in a room of landscape II

Also, there are beautiful villages and towns in Estonia. Viljandi, Pärnu and Tartu are perfect examples of places where you can discover cute places to relax, handicraft shops and historical places to visit. But if you want to enjoy the nature, you should go to Jägala waterfall, Lahemaa National Park or Saaremaa. Or maybe take a stroll at Rakvere Castle.

4. Good public transport

First of all, in Tallinn, public transport is free for people who are registered to live in the city. Secondly, there are lot of buses and trams running during the day. You don’t have to wait for more than 10 minutes (usually less) if you want to go to the city centre. Less cars, eco-friendly, we all breathe fresher air!

Special tram (originating from 1953) Photo by Terje Lepp

5. Estonia is in a geostrategically important area

Finland’s capital Helsinki is only 88 kilometres away, but Estonia also has good connections with Oslo, Stockholm, Riga, Vilnius and St. Petersburg. So, if you are coming to Estonia, be ready with your backpack and start travelling!

Estonia

6. Ask Estonian about their national food!

It is true that “Estonian food” is not the strongest asset of this country because if you ask about it, people will tell you that the most important Estonian food are potatoes (what the heck?!).

kohuke

But – there are some snacks that I really learned to love in Estonia! Cheesecake kohuke is my favourite candy from Estonia. It’s like a sweet snack made from curd cheese and chocolate. I also love Kalev chocolate, made by the local confectionery maker by the same name. There are lot of types of chocolate: with strawberries, orange, nuts, mint, raspberries and so on. You are obliged to try it if you are coming here!

7. Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world

Only the 14% of the population declare themselves religious. It is a country where religion has never played an important role on the political or ideological battlefield. I respect all of the religions, but I think is important to separate religion from politics and education in order to feel and think free in what you want to believe or what you want to follow without the pressure of the highest authorities. Instead believing in God, Estonians believe more in a natural phenomenon that makes it more fascinating for me – they celebrate the “Tree hugging day”, for example!

Tree hugging

8. Children mature faster

I was very surprised when I saw really small children in the tram or walking around totally alone. Also, I couldn’t understand why six-year-old children have mobile phones. Well, I was reading about it and I think the education parents give to their kids is really good in terms that they feel independent more early compared with children in other countries.

programming-for-kids

It seems it allows the kids to mature much faster. Also, I think it makes them less anxious and stiffens them up. It’s important for us to know how to live on our own.

9. If you are a music lover, Estonia is your country

There are always lots of music events everywhere and you can choose what is better for your interests. From electronic, disco, pop, rock, rap to salsa, folk, reggae and jazz – you name it.

Also, music festivals are great here. The most common are the Tallinn Music Week Festival, where you can enjoy concerts all the day, everywhere, during a week, and the Viljandi Folk Festival, inspired by traditional elements played by original composers.

Eesti ETNO (Mikk Mihkel Vaabel)

Do not forget to check out the world famous composer, Arvo Pärt, or an indie band like Ewert and the Two Dragons. Maria Minerva can also blow your mind.

10. There is only one thing that sounds better than the rain: the Estonian language

When you listen Estonians talking to each other you may think they are singing. The language is pretty soft, melodic and it has very beautiful sounds. There are some tongue twisters that can make you crazy: “Võib võid võtta või ei või võid võtta?” (May I take some butter or may I not?), for example; or also some weird and funny words as “töööö” or “jäääär”. I tried to learn the language but it’s so difficult (14 cases!), so I would have to try another time because I really love it!

Photo by Ilmar Saabas for Maaleht

I spent 10 months in Estonia and I declare myself an Estonian lover, so I will come back for sure.

Estonia, we will meet again! Nägemist, kullakesed.

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This article was originally published by Erasmus Love website. The cover photo is illustrative: winter walk in Otepää (photo by Jarek Jõepera/courtesy of VisitEstonia).

Estonia seventh smartest country in the world, based on science

Based on the data by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the British edition of the US magazine, Business Insider, ranked the 10 smartest countries in the world when it comes to science, including Estonia in the ranking.

Using data from OECD’s 2015 Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard report, the ranking is based on the percentage of science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degrees awarded per capita.

“If we are to solve the biggest problems of our time – from climate change and food security to – we’re going to need more scientists,” the magazine said.

Estonia earned a respectable seventh position in the ranking, with 26% of its students graduating with a STEM degree.

Business Insider also pointed out that Estonia had one of the highest percentages of female STEM graduates, at 41% in 2012.

10 of the smartest countries in the world, based on science degrees:

10. Portugal

9. Austria

8. Mexico

7. Estonia

6. Greece

5. France

4. Finland

3. Sweden

2. Germany

1. South Korea

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Cover: In 2013, Estonia became the 41st nation to have a man-made object in space, when its first satellite, ESTCube-1, was rocketed off to orbit the Earth. Around 100 students and scientists contributed to creation of the tiny one-kilogram satellite, which was nearly six years in the making. The satelliite was used as the basis for 40 research projects and three doctoral theses. Picture by Taavi Torim (Wikimedia Commons).

Estonia ranks seventh in English Proficiency Index

Estonia ranks seventh in the fifth annual EF English Proficiency Index, the ranking is out of 70 countries worldwide and is classified as a very high proficiency level.

The seventh place this year is one ranking higher than last year, but still lower than the fourth place in 2013. Out of the 27 European countries in the index, Estonia also ranks seventh.

The first in the index is Sweden, followed by the Netherlands and Denmark. Norway ranks fourth, Finland fifth and Slovenia sixth. After the Estonian ranking come Luxembourg, Poland and Austria.

This year’s edition of the EF English Proficiency Index ranks 70 countries and territories based on test data from more than 910,000 adults who took online English tests in 2014.

Two Estonian universities among the world’s best

The University of Tartu (UT) and the Tallinn University of Technology (TUT) are among the 600 best high-level educational institutions in the world, according to latest ranking by the Times Higher Education journal (THE).

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, founded in 2004, provide the definitive list of the world’s best universities, evaluated across teaching, research, international outlook, reputation and more.

Times Higher Education ranking

The ranking is based on three sources: an annual reputation survey, the Elsevier publishing house’s database Scopus, and the data submitted by universities themselves. 13 performance indicators are taken into account in ranking the universities and the indicators describe the learning environment, the scope and influence of published research results, reputation survey results, incomes, and the extent of innovation and internationalisation.

The University of Tartu was ranked among 351-400 and the Tallinn University of Technology among 501-600 best universities in the world.

Erik Riikoja

Both universities have for long been considered the leading academic institutions in Estonia. The University of Tartu has previously made it to the top one per cent of the world’s most highly cited science institutions in ten fields out of 22, and the Tallinn University of Technology includes alumni of notable Estonian tech entrepreneurs, such as Taavet Hinrikus (TransferWise), Hardi Meybaum (GrabCAD), Kris Hiiemaa (ERPLY), Vladimir Funtikov (Creative Mobile), and others.

The top ten is still dominated by Anglo-American institutions, with the California Institute of Technology (US), the University of Oxford (UK), Stanford University (US), the University of Cambridge (UK) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) taking the first five spots.

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Cover: University of Tartu.

A fossil bone in Estonia led to the discovery of the origins of sex

A single fossil bone that was kept in Estonia and accidentally discovered by an Australian scientist led to the discovery of the origins of sexual intercourse.

John Long, a palaeontology professor at Flinders University in Australia, discovered the fossil bone from the collections of the Tallinn University of Technology where he was handed a box of bones by chance. Among these there was a plate with a strange, grooved bone. After studying the bone more closely, Long discovered it to be a sex organ, the oldest and the most primitive one found on Earth.

A computer-generated simulation of placoderms having sex. Source: Flinders University/YouTube.

According to the research, the fossil bone belongs to a tiny fish called placoderm. The first sexual intercourse was, according to the professor, done “sideways, square dance style”. The male placoderm had bony, L-shaped genital limbs to transfer sperm to females, and the females had small paired bones to lock the male organs in place for mating. Measuring about 8 cm long, placoderms called Microbrachius dicki lived in ancient lake habitats in Scotland, as well as parts of Estonia and China.

It is thought the first sexual intercourse took place about 385 million years ago in Scotland.

The findings were recently published in the Nature journal.

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Cover photo: Microbrachius dicki.

Tartu University opens its new, modern physics building

On 25 August, the University of Tartu opened its new modern building of the Institute of Physics, called Physicum, situated at the university’s Maarjamõisa science campus. The building of approximately 13,000 square metres provides contemporary facilities for research in physics, materials science and nanotechnology.

“The new building of the Institute of Physics brings under one roof the teaching and research activities that were so far scattered between different buildings,” emphasised Jaak Kikas, Director of the Institute of Physics.

The new physics building will house four Estonian centres of excellence and 14 physics laboratories, the experiments of which will, among other places, reach MAX-lab, the Swedish national centre of synchrotron light source. Students of physics, materials science, computer engineering, etc can make use of modern facilities for studies and conducting experiments. In addition to the spacious lecture halls, teaching activities can be conducted in eight study laboratories equipped with all necessary fittings for practical lectures.

The most expensive and the newest piece of scientific equipment at the new physics building is the transmission electron microscope (TEM) that cost €2 million. The new Physicum also has a scanning electron microscope (FIB-SEM), allowing to investigate the inner structure of materials. It also enables to cut nano-thin pieces of materials and create a 3D image of the researched object on a nanoscopic scale.

The building includes two large conference rooms that accommodate 300 people in total. The rooms are equipped with state-of-the-art multimedia solutions allowing cross-use, meaning that one conference can be simultaneously held and followed in both rooms.

The construction of the physics building cost more than €16 million, €13.5 million of which was covered by the resources of the European Regional Development Fund via the Archimedes Foundation.

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Cover photo: The University of Tartu’s brand new “Physicum”.

TEDxTallinn 2014 – five talks that speak the world about Estonians

TEDxTallinn is an inspirational conference, which presents exceptional speakers from different fields of life: fanatical devotees, thinkers, creators, executors – people with ideas that are worth sharing. Henrik Ehte, the Editor-in-Chief of The Baltic Scene, attended the 2014 conference and shares his impressions.

I started preparing for an inspiring day at TEDxTallinn by not having a decent meal or morning coffee. Instead I biked frantically to the location at KUMU – Estonia’s preeminent art museum situated right next to the president’s residence. Fortunately I was welcomed by smoothies and veggie meals at the meet’n’greet where you could see cool gadgets, enjoy “useful coffee-breaks” and seize the moment.

My motivations to visit the conference were strongly connected to an ambitious notion: to see the future. I wanted to know what the specialists of the fields like maths, biology, ecology, design, arts, culture, literature, etymology, economy, sociology and politics were predicting. TEDxTallinn – an independently organised event creating TED-like experience – had invited Estonians on top of their game to share their insights.

Photo, Volunteers of TedxTallinn'14, Credits Sten Roosvald

What I found out was that these people weren’t looking into the future as much as inventing it. Giving rise to new stories, concepts and tools, they help find solutions to problems before and after they have arisen. Before these people could to lay their mack down, a musical act kicked off the day.

I have to hand it to Juhan Aru, who married the seemingly ludicrous concept of “Structure of Randomness” to the probability distribution of bus waiting times in ‘90s Mexico; Anne Kahru – one of the most cited scientists working on the frontier of ecotoxicological research in Estonia; Indrek Park for saving the indigenous languages of North-America as well as Valdur Mikita, whose semiotic stand-up act revealed that Väinamöinen (the central character in the Finnish folkflore – editor) is the prototype for Gandalf.

While all of the performers provided hefty brain food, I chose to highlight five speakers. Continue along the pages below to get an insight into talks by: Eiko Ojala, Kaupo Kikkas, Merle Maigre, Jaan Aru, Eva Koff.

Cover illustration by Eiko Ojala.

Cracking the code – learning Estonian in Estonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

University of Tartu launches an innovative social media hub

The University of Tartu’s social media hub is an innovation in Estonia as well as abroad as it allows following the university’s events via its posts in social media. Created on the example of US universities MIT, Hamilton and Harvard, the environment currently brings together around 100 social media accounts linked to the university.

“By implementing a social media hub we make information more compact and accessible to some very important target groups of the university – current and future students and the university’s collective who use social media on daily basis and follow our news through these channels,” said Illari Lään, the Head of the UT’s Communication Unit. According to him, an estimated 100,000 users currently follow the university’s social media accounts.

The social media hub, unique in the European context, represents UT’s versatility through its Estonian, Russian and English language accounts. According to the Senior Specialist for International Communication, Inga Külmoja, the new web environment reflects on the ongoing events in the university as a uniform whole: “While some Facebook account posts reach the users’ information feeds selectively, the information will not be lost in the university’s social media hub. The hub also features a search that helps find UT’s social media accounts of interest and to follow them.”

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“The posts from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs will be displayed as a uniform information feed in the hub. About one half of the pages linked to the hub are the Facebook pages of different university units and programmes,” Külmoja explained.

The social media hub is constantly renewed. All users are welcome to add any known social media accounts related to the university via the web form. Among other things, the social media hub allows to highlight the content created by users. For example, the English-language page of the hub currently highlights the freshest Instagram photos tagged with #unitartu. Similarly, it is possible, for example, to highlight the tweets made by people in the University of Tartu in Twitter or tweets related to a certain conference on the basis of a given hashtag.

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Cover photo: University of Tartu (Tiit Mõtus for VisitEstonia).

Performance of Estonian students among world’s best – PISA study

The scholastic performance of Estonian 15-year-old students is among the best in the world and Europe, results of the international worldwide study Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show.

In science Estonia shares the first and second place in Europe with Finland, and among the 65 countries surveyed around the world, Estonian students placed between four and seven with Japan, Finland and South Korea, spokespeople for the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research said. In reading and mathematics Estonia placed 11th in the world and between places three and six in Europe.

According to the Estonian Minister of Education and Research, Jaak Aaviksoo, it is hard to overestimate the importance of PISA in executing smart educational policy.

“PISA is like a big mirror which shows the advancement of our education compared with other countries and nations. It is good that we have been demanding when it comes to our education – this is what enables us to be happy today for what we have achieved,” Aaviksoo said. He added that the survey also pointed out areas that needed to be improved – the reading skills of boys lagged behind the corresponding skills of girls and differences between schools were still too big.

Photo by Erik RiikojaThe performance of Estonia’s Russian-speaking students has made a noteworthy leap in six years – their results have improved twice as fast as the results of Estonian-speaking students and the earlier gap between these two groups has decreased considerably.

Other positive observations can be gathered from the study’s results; for instance, Estonia has the smallest amount of students with poor skills in Europe and the fifth smallest amount in the world. In addition, Estonia has very little educational stratification compared with other countries because Estonian primary schools are able to relieve the lagging among students due to their social background and the lack of support from home.

More than half a million 15-year-old students from 65 countries took part in the 2013 study. Knowledge in three areas was measured – in mathematics, reading and science. In Europe the top three was made up of Estonia, Finland and Poland, and in the world Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore were among the top three.

In Estonia the PISA study was carried out by the Ministry of Education and Research and the INNOVE foundation.

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Photos courtesy of VisitEstonia.

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