Life

Stories about Estonians

Life in Tokyo: Estonian sumo wrestler Baruto brings a smile to everyone’s face

Liisa Berezkin, having been used to Estonian and Finnish metal culture and festivals, discovers a massive industry of performance-based androgynous rock in Tokyo and learns that for Japanese ears, “Terviseks” sounds like “Terebi (TV) sex”. She cannot escape the fans of Baruto either.

Under the shadow of Japan’s massive industry of performance-based androgynous rock (this genre is generally called Visual Kei), a whole subculture of 1980’s heavy metal and rock followers remain hidden from the public eye. Due to Japanese audience’s general lack of interest towards heavy metal nowadays, the bands following the 1980’s style are mostly limited to underground live-houses, which nevertheless attract a very faithful public.

Like coming home

For me, coming from a personal background of heavy metal nostalgia and having been used to Estonian and Finnish metal culture and festivals, discovering these rock bands was like coming home. Following a line of most unique coincidences, in three days from when I first lost my way into a live-house, I had made friends with a promising young band called The Lex, from which started my adventures in the rock music live houses of Tokyo.

The main influences for the old rock lovers and bands are Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Ratt, Guns N’Roses, Crashdiet etc. – the list goes on. As often happens in Japan, the direct influences are mixed with a unique touch of Japanese visual show culture. Heavy make-up and hairstyle containing one bottle of hairspray are a must. Stage clothes are important. A lot of the clothes are accessories which will never be worn off the stage. Building one’s stage character is a topic of constant devotion to all musicians.

As it often is with Japanese subcultures, deviation from a general  look is not frowned upon, but simply not even thought of. Almost all the musicians have long hair, almost all of them wear bandanas at their belts and studded accessories and the good old cowboy boots are a must-have item.

The live-houses themselves are all small, smoky (there is no ban on inside smoking in Japan), dark – and many of them have a terrible sound, so you really do have to love this music to come there. Once you do though, the general atmosphere is very homely and friendly.

Extraordinary enthusiasm

A live night has a general pattern (this goes for all minor bands’ live performances) – performance time is approximately from 5pm to 10pm and includes about 4-6 bands, all of whom have about 30 minutes to perform. The price is high – about 30 euros for a ticket. Nevertheless, most people who have paid this money, have only come to see one band – being a fan of one band is considered obvious and one’s allegiance is asked at the ticket counter.

The band with most names on its list gets more money, but this does not mean that any of these bands make any money by performing. The live-house is rented out, each band pays their share and depending on the number of people who have come to see them, that number decreases. Considering that an average live-house only accommodates about 50-80 people, to get the whole rent money back is almost impossible. Bands that have gathered more fans can do a one band show and that’s where the money starts coming back.

In the light of all this, playing in a band – indeed a heavy metal band in Japan, requires extraordinary enthusiasm and a strength of spirit. Due to long hair and unstable schedule, all the musicians have generally low-paid jobs comparing to average suit-wearing Japanese. In Japan, your personal life belongs either to you or your company, in the latter case the lack of it is paid off well.

Foreigners are very scarce in this world and gawked at of course, but the general attitude is different from the rest of the society. These people – being themselves bleached, tattooed, pierced and otherwise modified – are in a way themselves outsiders of the Japanese society, which shuns this kind of outrageous individuality. Thus it is easier for them to accept and understand foreigners. This is however true only in the case when the foreigner can speak Japanese, because 99% of these musicians and rock-lovers can’t even speak enough English to save their lives if needed!

The lack of English language skills is true for the Japanese society in general, but you would think that loving foreign bands would make it easier to learn the language. No-one has the faintest idea what the western songs are about and quite frankly – very few care. It’s about the music, the rhythm and the ‘coolness’ of the English lyrics in all of those western rock bands that inspire the Japanese.

Based on this influence, the local bands make their own original music with Japanese lyrics, so it’s like 1980’s heavy metal through Japanese wording which in itself is very exotic. Sometimes cover songs by world famous bands are played, in which case the words are flawlessly remembered, but not understood. Perhaps by this way a non-Japanese person could also understand and appreciate the songs and music played by these Japanese bands?

Baruto is a magic word

Thankfully, I can speak Japanese fluently (I’m a graduate student of a Japanese university). Half of my  own introduction has often been explaining about Estonia. Very few Japanese people actually know that it exists, or where it is located – but there is a magic word that brings an expression of instant understanding onto every Japanese face. It’s indeed Baruto – Estonian sumo wrestler, who is one of the top sumo champions in the world.

From then on I explain the geography, the nature, the culture in a space of few minutes and quite frankly I have often wished that I had just made a pamphlet about all of this, because it’s very tiring to make a speech about my identity all over again and again.

To my great amusement, one Estonian word has spread like a wildfire amongst my musician friends, with very little effort on my part. That word is “Terviseks” which means “Cheers” when you toast someone. To a Japanese ear, this word sounds nothing but “Terebi (TV) sex”.

Actually, it is not the only word that my friends have learned and most people take a great interest in Estonia, asking about music, customs and people. I have also brought about 15 Estonian people to the lives of my Japanese friends in over two years, so it can be safely said that these Japanese rockers have met more Estonian, than English-speaking people, which is a funny fact in itself!

I

Cover: Baruto in Japan.

Gender in Estonia: Observations from a foreign feminist

I came to Estonia as a visiting PhD student, a folklorist, meaning that I was primarily interested in tales and traditions. However, I’m also a feminist and a gender studies scholar, so I couldn’t help but notice some of the gender dynamics around me.

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in July 2011 was just how many pregnant women there seemed to be. There were many women out and about with small children, too. Coming from the United States, where most maternity clothes are meant to hide the pregnant belly for as long as possible, it was a refreshing change to see so many pregnant women out in public life. I subscribe to third-wave feminism, which promotes women having choices regardless of whether women choose traditional things like motherhood or modern, feminist things like having a career (or try to juggle both!).

With birth rates low enough to not replace population decreases due to mortality, it makes sense that Estonia  would have policies encouraging women to give birth. I later learned about Estonia’s progressive maternity leave policies, which I’d heard nicknamed the “baby salary,” whereby women can apply for 12 months’ paid leave during the birth of a child, and men can also apply for parental leave. This is, perhaps surprisingly, better than the situation in the US, where maternity leave is not guaranteed at the federal government level, and most states do not offer job protection or paid leave for women who wish to have children. And paternity leave? Practically unheard of in the US, unfortunately.

Gender_equality

So on the surface, Estonia’s doing pretty good in terms of gender legislation. More options for women – meaning, not having to sacrifice their careers in case they want to have children – generally means more gender equity. It also seems that young people in Estonia receive a good amount of sex education in schools. Having greater access to knowledge about sex and sexuality usually means fewer unplanned teenage pregnancies and less disease transmission which, again, is an issue we’re having trouble with in the US.

However, Estonia also has one of the EU’s largest pay gaps between men’s and women’s wages. Men earn up to 30% more than women – and that’s a lot! Especially in a country where wages are, overall, considered to be on the low side compared to the rest of the EU. Although there is equality legislation in place, it seems that the gender gap is slow to close, in part due to workforce segregation that keeps women in low-paying public service occupations.

This tallies with my experiences exploring Tartu and the rest of Estonia. The store-clerks and secretaries I saw were overwhelmingly female. I also sat in and lectured to graduate seminars that were almost all women. Perhaps this has to do with the military service policy in Estonia affecting the ages and genders of university students, and perhaps it has to do with women seeking higher education in order to escape the low-paying jobs that require little education to obtain. Either way, it seems that the workplace, as with many spheres of Estonian life, is very gender segregated.

gender_equality1

Gender segregation doesn’t automatically mean gender oppression (though it can). For instance, I was delighted to find a very active belly dancing community, wherein women form strong friendships and achieve a high degree of solidarity. I had an especially good time practicing American Tribal Style® with the women of Fakesnake, a Tartu-based troupe that studies the American improvisational style of belly dance that I had also studied in the US. While not all of the members spoke English, we all spoke the same dance language, so we were able to instantly synchronize our movements and perform and play together.

I got the sense that although Estonian heritage has a number of traditional dances to offer, many modern Estonian women prefer the independence of belly dance because they don’t have to wait up for a male dance partner, and could focus instead on dancing as a form of communication with their friends.

I was concerned that in a university town such as Tartu, alternative sexualities seemed invisible. Then again, I’m a native of California and have most recently attended school in Bloomington, Indiana (which is known as the gay capital of the Midwest), so I’m used to quite a lot of counterculture. Estonia does not currently recognize same-sex marriages, but then again, most parts of the US don’t either. Still, I would love to see more tolerance, which could be aided by organizations such as gay-straight alliances.

It seems to me that the general attitude in Estonia toward sex and gender was not overtly oppressive or sexist, but there are still deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that can be harmful. For instance, it seems like Gender Studies as a discipline has yet to take hold, and I met very few Estonians who identified as feminist. The desire to simply not talk about gender seems very strong. This happens in the US too, and is often accompanied by a smug attitude toward the past, acknowledging that feminists helped women get the vote, which is cool, so we don’t need feminism anymore.

We Can Do It Rosie the Riveter

In Estonia, it seems that the reverse is true: women have always been strong and have always had many rights,so why do we need feminism? I’m of the opinion that feminism helps point out inequalities based not only on gender and sex but also on the intersection of race, class, and other identity factors. Feminism also helps us see that narrow gender roles are not just something that negatively affect women, but they can impact men, too. Being forced to conform to damagingly limited stereotypes sucks for everyone.

Overall, my experience in Tartu was wonderful, and I never felt that institutionalised sexism affected me negatively. Then again, I stayed only 10 months, and circulated mostly in university culture, which tends to be more egalitarian. It’s also worth noting that I experienced more sexual harassment in Estonia than I ever did in the US, including incidents where men groped and grabbed me while I was walking in public areas. I felt upset and violated. I wondered how common these events were, and how Estonian women felt about them. I wondered what kinds of life experiences these men had, in order to feel like it was somehow appropriate to molest a stranger in public.

In the end, these are the observations that come from living in a place just long enough to learn my way around, make friends, and start to get a feel for the culture. There are surely aspects of Estonian culture that I don’t yet understand, and this is one of the reasons I’m hoping for a chance to come back. In the meantime, perhaps gender equality will slowly continue to improve, as more people come into contact with global cultures and realize that there’s more than one way to go about these things.

I

This article was first published by the University of Tartu blog. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover picture: a scene from the “Three Kingdoms”, a Sebastian Nübling’s production for the Tallinn-based theatre, NO99.

Kristi Roosmaa: “Life is full of inspirations!” Interview with New York-based musical singer & actress

Kristi Roosmaa is an actress and singer of Estonian origin and is the first Estonian musical theatre singer to perform as a soloist at the world renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City. Kristi’s first performance, at the age of 4, paved the way for her career in the arts. Her first leading lady debut, at the age of 16, was in the musical “Wild Swan” performed at the Estonian National Opera House. At 17, she became the voice coach for the Elise Girls Choir and lead singer for the P.P. Dixieland band. After receiving her law degree from the University of Tartu in Estonia, she packed her bags and headed to New York City to pursue her dream. She graduated from the prestigious American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) and the Broadway Dance Center International Dance program. Her favourite credits: Off-Broadway shows “Silk Stockings” & “Roberta,” guest entertainer on Celebrity Cruise Line, Hope in “Anything Goes,” Maria in “The Sound of Music” and witch Louhi in “New York Revels.”

Kristi, you have had quite a rollercoaster ride so far – from finishing a law degree in Estonia to graduating from American Musical and Dramatic Academy and Broadway Dance Center in New York. Don’t you sometimes feel that it has been too much of an effort and hard work, but the rewards are not that easy to come by? How do you keep yourself motivated?

You know, one of the reasons why I’m still in New York is because it’s a challenge and I love being challenged.  New York is so fascinating and exciting that it not only makes me a stronger performer, but also helps me grow as a person. At this point in my life, I don’t feel anxious about the hardships of the business. They’re all part of the profession and something you simply have to accept as an artist sooner or later.  To be honest, the hard work is starting to pay off little by little and that is a rewarding feeling.  The little successes give me the energy to keep going after my dream.  Ultimately, it’s all about the passion and desire to be great that can keep true artists motivated.

I understand that when planning your musical studies, you also researched schools in Austria, Australia and UK, before finally settling for New York. Although you have said that you based your decision purely on potential teaching quality, was there also some kind of ambitious vision for future involved – i.e. first Estonian musical star on Broadway – even just a bit?

Of course it crossed my mind, but Broadway really wasn’t a deciding factor in my decision to study at AMDA (The American Musical and Dramatic Academy). I heavily considered London, but life has its own ways and it just worked out for me to be in The Big Apple.  My logic was that I wanted to be close to the highest quality of musical theatre so I could study with the most experienced people in the industry before I took my chances.

I noted that to be a musical star you also have to be good at dance. What was it like to study at Broadway Dance Center, where artists like Madonna, Britney Spears and Bette Midler have taken a class or rehearsed?

It was fantastic!  Studying at BDC was probably one of the best decisions, in addition to AMDA, I’ve made toward advancing in my profession.  I mean, you really need to be a true triple threat (singer, dancer, actor) or you really limit yourself with getting work.  Dance was my weakest link of the three, and I knew I had to do something about it.  I’m not going to deny that the first month was devastatingly hard even though I studied ballet for six years as a child.  Given the level of talent around me, the first classes felt like I had never stepped foot on a dance floor.  If you see another dancer lifting, not pulling, just simply lifting her leg against her head and you’re only half way there, it’s quite intimidating.  That very same girl may be your competition, so the bar is set extremely high.  I remember when I started the program and we would start with stretching exercises.  In every direction I looked, someone was doing a perfect split and I, through the tears and pain, just couldn’t get to the floor.  Six months later, I was almost down to the floor, and by the end of the program I could do a full split and was dancing with confidence.  Now I take dance classes at every possible chance, usually three times a week, because without practice, you lose it all!

Photography by Katrina Tang

 

You have now studied and lived in New York for many years. Are you satisfied with your life and career – if you can measure it?

I’m happier and more grounded than ever.  I’ve learned to balance my professional and personal life, which is necessary for surviving in New York.  Even though the arts are my passion, it’s not the only love of my life. There’s so much more to enjoy! Since I married my wonderful husband, it has been so much better sharing life’s ups and downs with him rather than taking them on all by myself!

I’ve noticed that you’re also doing some modelling work. Is this just for the purpose of additionally supporting yourself while getting more and more involved in the musical business? Is your ambition still the same – to become a musical star on Broadway? Also, I imagine that there’s quite a bit of drama involved in the musical business – are you becoming stronger as time goes by and your stakes get higher?

Doing print modeling, shoe modelling, commercials or anything along those lines isn’t something you just randomly do.  I have agents who represent me and send me out to the castings.  If I’m lucky enough to book a job then it’s a privilege, not an expectation.  Of course we all need money to manage our lives, but all of the things mentioned above also have a strong PR aspect.  Every newsstand carries New York Weddings Magazine, and if I go into a store and open one, I can see my print work for New York Cruise Line.  This has helped me get noticed for additional work as a print model.  Think of it this way – if you turn on TV and see a commercial with Oprah or if you open a magazine and see Taylor Swift in a Cover Girl ad, they are promoting themselves and getting paid to do it too!  The more my face is out there and the more people see it, the better it is for my career. This business isn’t just about talent – it’s also about networking and creating sound relationships.  Hopefully, one day, all this work will lead to an opportunity where I don’t have to wait in line with 500 hundred other girls in hopes of just being seen.

As for drama, acting and singing are very emotional fields and the theatre industry itself can be quite dramatic—starting with actually getting a job, which leads to the real drama performed on stage.  What most people never see is the drama that can stem from being selected for a role, devoting yourself, and then the production falls through due to lack of funding, etc.  I love drama on stage, but other than that it’s too exhausting and a waste of positive energy. Life is tough enough, why create more?!

Do I want to be on Broadway? Absolutely yes, and I’m working really hard toward that goal.  All of my rehearsing and practice give me more confidence, making me stronger by the day.  I think the fact that I’m still in New York should speak for itself.

You have just released a jazz track called Special from the musical called Avenue Q. Does that indicate that we will see you becoming more of a recording artist instead? Special also features respected Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, who has also worked with notable jazz artists. What was it like to work with him, and how did you two find each other?

Recording music as an artist is such an important way of introducing your talent to a larger audience and I love doing it.  I will be recording more this fall, but there’s no better place than a LIVE stage, which I will stay true to unless something crazy comes my way.

I have quite a story for you regarding meeting Tim…I’m boarding a flight from New York to Estonia and since I’ve been doing this for years, I have a good idea of the best seats to be in, etc.  I have my own little system: I try to get a window seat that’s not too close to the bathrooms (this tends to become an area where people “hang out” and stand during the flight), put my pillow against the window, lay my head on it, tuck my feet to the front seat pocket and fall asleep.

The day I met Tim was no different, except when I boarded the plane, I saw a middle-aged man in a leather jacket sitting in my seat.  I smiled and politely told him that he was in my seat.  He looked up and asked, “Would you mind switching seats with me?  I broke my toe and I’m afraid someone’s going to step on it.”  I mean, he looked healthy and I figured he just wanted my window seat for an EIGHT HOUR FLIGHT!!  Besides, he wasn’t so tall that his legs would be in someone else’s way!  But, even though his story sounded really bizarre, I didn’t have the heart to say no.  This gentleman totally messed up my “plane-boarding-system”, but I smiled and said “Of course we can swap seats. We don’t want to break your toe again.” Eventually, we started talking and he told me he’s a musician.  Next thing I knew, we’re recording songs in a legendary New York studio and he’s inviting me to Finland to perform with him.  He is very creative, skillful, professional and an unbelievable artist. Working with him was such a treat.

Photography by Katrina Tang

Tim Ries on Kristi: ”I met Kristi Roosmaa in the most unlikely of places and even the most unlikely of circumstances – as Kristi already shed some light into how, I’m not going to describe it again in detail. But obviously while on that flight and after Kristi kindly trusted me with my broken toe, we struck up a conversation and realised that we were both in the arts, in music and the 8 hour flight went by rather quickly. Neither of us slept, mostly because of the enlightened conversation. During the flight I discussed with Kristi my various music projects, played some of the music on my ipod and she also talked passionately about her love of singing and acting and dancing. I was heading to Helsinki to produce and record a CD of music by some incredible Finnish musicians – 2 sisters, Selina and Jemina Sillanpaa.     

When we were both back in NYC, we got together on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to discuss working together in the future. I still had not heard Kristi sing. Those of you who may not know her, she is a beautiful, petite blonde, with a charming smile and the charisma and energy of an eager adolescent but the wit and savvy nature of a lady who has been driven to be a successful performer. Still, I hadn’t heard a note from her charming, witty self. We then went to midtown Manhattan to a rehearsal space to go over some music. When she opened her mouth to begin, I had no idea that much volume and intensity, and in the best possible way, could come out of this delicate creature. Wow. Serious control of her vocal abilities. Obviously well trained and seriously talented. OK, it was clear that we would do something.     

I work with so many musicians all over the world, like my friends in Budapest and Finland, but also, India, Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Japan, and many other locations –and now I had a wonderful partner in Estonia. A really great one. I knew already that there were great musicians from Estonia. I had worked the previous summer with the Absolute Ensemble under the direction of Kristjan Jarvi, and the wonderful Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu was performing with them as well. Both are incredible performers.     

During our time in the rehearsal room I asked her if she had any Estonian folk melodies with her and she did. I love folk music from around the world. I looked at a couple and immediately began arranging 2 of the songs right on the spot. She loved the idea and the direction I was taking. A week later we went in to a studio in NYC and recorded 2 of the folk songs, with my alterations with the chords and the rhythmic ideas and it went really well. Kristi sang beautifully. A few months later I was in Finland performing with the Sillanpaa sisters and I invited Kristi to join us for 2 concerts. 2 wonderful nights and the audience loved her.     

I then had the idea to take more of the folk melodies and perhaps involve the Absolute Ensemble with maestro Kristjan Jarvi. I contacted him and he seemed quite interested in the project. I hope soon this collaboration will take place and we can bring this music to Estonia. I think it would be an amazing musical exploration.”     

Kristi, how do you generally spend your pastime in New York, and do you have time to see musicals and theatre yourself?

Seeing musicals and cultural events is part of my job. I go to the shows – quite often alone, just to keep myself informed about what’s out there.  I get tickets in the orchestra, so I can really observe everything from the choreography to the most minuscule details.  Since weekdays are busy, this leaves my husband and me with time on the weekends to really let go and do whatever our hearts desire.  We live a very healthy and athletic lifestyle and both of us love sports.  Jonathan’s (Kristi’s husband) grandparents have family cabin on a lake in Vermont, so we enjoy driving up there and water skiing, tubing, kayaking, etc.  We love Central Park, the beach, dining out and grilling on our back porch.  Enjoying time with our family and friends is always such a treat because everyone’s lives are becoming more and more hectic.

What about idols in the musical and theatre world and generally in life – do you have mentors or someone who inspires you?

I don’t have one idol, but I admire dedicated performers for so many different reasons.  I am inspired by events that occur outside of the performing arts too. I mean, how inspiring was watching double amputee Oscar Pistorius of South Africa running in the Olympics?!  Family, friends, passion, fierceness, love, children, nature, success, hardship of life, a touching performance – I could keep going forever. Life is full of inspirations!

Yes, I do have mentors: my teachers. I participate regularly in voice and speech classes with Susan Cameron and vocal coaching classes with Stephen Purdy.  They coach and help me choose everything from the right song to which techniques are best to use in my upcoming castings.

Photography by Katrina Tang

 

How much has the multicultural atmosphere in New York influenced your thinking or approach generally?

One hundred percent.  From a business standpoint, I arrived here without realising what the performing arts are all about.  Now I have a much better understanding of how auditions, the casting process and productions work on a larger stage, such as New York.  From a personal aspect, I’ve learned to be so much more tolerant, open minded, positive and appreciative, because when you meet someone, “you never know” who they are or how they may be able to help you in the future.

What about your future plans?

I’m in the middle of two recording projects and lining up my next performance.  One of the studio projects will be with Tim Ries and I have a few modelling jobs I’ve been booked for in near future. Plus, auditioning season starts up again in the fall, so cross your fingers for me!

I

Kristi’s single “Special” is out now: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/special-single/id548688506

www.kristiroosmaa.com

Ideas for an ideal London city break

While ago I had my family and family friends coming over to visit me and my boyfriend in London. So not to be greedy I decided to share of what we did on these two and a half days, to give ideas to others of how to plan their city break in London.

For the background information, my family have visited me several times in London already before, and our friends had been here once as well. So there was no major need to go and see every single sight that is famous and recommended (we had done that already – Tower of London, London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the change of guards, etc.) That said, my brother has made a picture with Big Ben in the background probably every single time that he has been in London – and most likely will continue doing it in the future as well…

For a long weekend, when coming from Estonia it is best to use an Estonian Air flight that arrives Thursday evening and returns on Sunday at 18.00. This makes probably the best use of time – just one day off but plenty of time to enjoy this exciting city. My recommendation is that you should not try to cram in as much as you can. Make a choice and leave plenty of time for just wondering around, sitting in the cafes, watching people and really getting a feel of the city.

Transport wise, I love walking and encourage to walk as much as you can. The distances are not that huge really and you see so much more and get a good hang of the city.  For the daring ones bicycle is a great way to get around the city (Barclays Cycle Hire). This is what I prefer and use the most, probably. It might seem crazy at first glance, but it is much safer than it seems. The next choice would be a bus. And lastly I would not recommend using tube – but only when you need to travel longer distances. Taxi is always very convenient, but quite expensive as well.

Thursday evening

As the plane arrives only in the evening, we have usually gone to the hotel, put down our stuff and headed off for a dinner.

There is this really exciting place in Soho (another branch is near St James Park), where we usually take people  visiting the first time. It is called Inamo and they serve Oriental cuisine. The food is excellent and surely everybody can find something they like. The service has been very good most of the times. The concept they use however is why we take people in there. They use an interactive ordering system. Diners place orders from an illustrated food and drinks menu projected on to their table surface. One can set the mood, discover the local neighborhood, play games and even order a taxi home. It is lots of fun and just something different from your usual average dining experience. Make sure to book the table in advance though.

For the hotel, there is one main thing we always look at – the location. If the hotel is located centrally it saves so much time and hassle and makes everything a lot easier (transport). Near Oxford Street, Soho and Covent Garden is always good. We have usually booked the hotel through www.booking.com, where you can be sure to get a good deal (the earlier you book the better as always :). If you are booking well in advance it could be useful to check out www.onefinestay.com as well, specially if a bigger group of people is coming. They have some brilliant housing around London.

 

Friday

A nice English breakfast in the hotel or a quick Starbucks on the go. Whatever you prefer.

Last time we started the morning with a visit to National Gallery by the Trafalgar Sq., definitely one of the most famous of the London’s many museums. The great thing is that it is for free, like most museums in London, and even if you are not the biggest art fan, it’s always nice to see Trafalgar square with its famous lion sculptures and fountains – and take some mandatory photos while posing between them and Olympic clock. The gallery building itself is grand and it would be worth even taking just a quick glance at that.

Just next to the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery, which is not that well known, but really really interesting. In fact, I prefer it over its more famous peer. Then of course, you have Tate and Tate Modern, Design Museum, Natural History Museum, London Transport Museum etc. There choice is yours whichever you prefer, and if at all. Mornings are nice for sleepy walks in museums, as it is still a bit quieter.

So after a good cultural start, allow yourself a nice little relax again. A nice walk around the Piccadilly and Regent Street, and the afternoon spent shopping around Oxford street. I do find it a good place for shopping. First it is THE OXFORD STREET, that everybody has heard of and wants to see. It is packed with people but I guess that’s the part of it – you can find all the brands close by.

Topshop is just by the corner of Oxford circus with H&M across the road. Primark – the super cheap brand is in the end of the Oxford Street towards the Hyde Park. Selfridges – the posh opposite is just near Bond street station on Oxford street, half way to the Hyde Park.

After the exhausting shopping it is good idea to comfort oneself in traditional English way with a traditional English afternoon tea. It truly is brilliant. A place I can definitely recommend is Sanderson Hotel near Oxford street, where the afternoon tea is taking place in a lovely inner courtyard. Guest are invited to ‘tumble down the rabbit hole’ to enjoy a traditional British Afternoon tea in the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme with an ‘Eat me’ cake and ‘Drink me’ dessert and some more. It is quite filling and utterly nice together with a glass of bubbly.

We just sat and enjoyed the atmosphere and the food and drinks for quite some time before some of us wanted to head back to the hotel and rest for a bit, and others fancied some more shopping before going to see the musical in the evening.

We have this sweet tradition of going to see a musical every time my family come for a visit. Always an enjoyable experience. I have usually bought the tickets in advance (definitely do that), either from the theatre itself or from www.ticketmaster.co.uk. Our favorites thus far have been Mamma Mia, Lion King, Thriller and Phantom of the Opera. We were slightly disappointed only once – when seeing Chicago, otherwise we have always left with a good feeling and smile on our faces and seen brilliant acting, dancing and singing. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

Saturday

A delicious fresh Saturday breakfast in the Borough market is the best start for the day. You can find all the delicacies there you would ever want. Fresh oysters and Prosecco for breakfast? Why not 🙂

From there on it is a nice walk by the river to the Tower Bridge, where it is possible to hop on a boat and have a nice stroll along the Thames back to the city centre. Hop off in Westminster and take pictures of the Big Ben and see the architectural masterpiece with your own eyes. Why not to take a ride on London Eye, if you have not done it before. The waiting line can be quite long, so be patient.

Covent Garden is a perfect place for lunch in London. You can walk around the little streets and enjoy street artists, listen to some fantastic singing from opera numbers to well-known guitar covers, while having a coffee or enjoying a glass of wine. There is also a branch of Jamie’s Italian near by (yes, the Jamie Oliver’s restaurant), which I can highly recommend. Also loads of sweet shops and cafes. So take your time and enjoy the busy ambience.

Another option would be to go to Notting Hill, to see the world-famous Portobello road market with your owneyes and have a nice stroll along the streets where Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant once captured the essence of this part of London in the famous namesake movie. You could easily spend hours there, wondering through different antique stalls, cafes and boutiques selling pretty much everything you can imagine. Saturday is the liveliest day for visiting, but it also means that it’s very crowded, be warned (They start packing togethertheir goods around 4-5pm).

When coming to London, it is always good to check whether there are any concerts taking place that would interest you – it is highly possible. However, if you cannot find what you’re looking for, there are plenty of places to go to enjoy live music in the evening, from jazz to rock and electro.

We have been to Pigalle club, which is a jazz club, where you can enjoy listening to great jazz music, dance or watch others dance and also have a dinner. In Soho there are plenty of live music places that host gigs on weekends and are always good fun. If you prefer clubbing, the choice is as big 🙂

Sunday

On Sunday, especially in a sunny weather, it might be interesting to go to Knightsbridge. For contemporary art fans Saatchi gallery is a must, otherwise it is just a very beautiful area to have a walk, stop for a coffee and buy a little something you can afford from Harrods, enjoy the nice architecture, cars, shop windows and people 🙂 The morning will probably pass quicker than one would like and it is already time to catch the plane….

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Pictures from: Picture pictures www.pictures.com

Edward Lucas: “Estonia is now an insider, not an outsider anymore.” Interview with The Economist’s senior editor

Edward Lucas is the International Editor of The Economist, the London based global weekly news magazine, and also oversees the paper’s political coverage of Central and Eastern Europe. He has been covering the region of Europe since 1986, and was the Economist’s Moscow bureau chief from 1998-2002. Lucas has been visiting Estonia on numerous occasions, and for many years has been a strong advocate for Estonia’s economic and political affairs on the international stage. He has also been highly critical of the current Russian regime for many years, and has written many books about the subject.

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Edward Lucas, how did your love affair with Estonia start?

My interest started in my childhood, looking at the various maps of Europe from different eras, and trying to figure out why the countries which had previously existed, had disappeared – it looked mysterious to me. Coming from Britain which has had the same shape since the last Ice Age, and England that has been roughly the same country for 1000 years, the idea that a country could just disappear from the map so easily, was very puzzling – and I became very interested about the fate of the three Baltic states.

Later on, I remember reading The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz and I was very pleased when at his Nobel Literature Prize lecture I heard him mentioning the fate of the three Baltic states. As time went by, I gradually met many anti-Soviet campaigners in the 1980’s. In 1989, when I was in Prague, I noticed a couple of young men on a tram reading Homeland, a pro-independence English-language paper from Estonia and we started talking – it turned out that they were a couple of engineering students from Estonia. We had a long and interesting conversation about the history of Estonia and her on-going struggle against tyranny. In early 1990 I visited Estonia for the very first time and met many people who at the time were involved with the Estonian independence movement – like Trivimi Velliste for example, and found it very engaging. I decided to visit again soon and started making many friends – and I’ve been going back ever since.

Since you went to Estonia right at the beginning after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Estonia regaining her independence, you have obviously seen a huge change in Estonia’s progress and outlook. How do you rate it?

Yes, I think that the change has obviously happened on many different levels. Some things never change in Estonia – like brief summer nights and a tradition of celebrating Jaanipäev for example (St John’s Eve and St John’s Day are the most important days in the Estonian calendar, apart from Christmas. The short summer seasons with long days and brief nights hold special significance for Estonians. Jaanipäev is celebrated during the night between June 23 and 24, a few days after the summer solstice, when night seems to be non-existent – Editor).  I think that a huge difference in Estonia compared to 20 years ago is its openness. My Estonian was never good but I rarely get to use it now, because everybody speaks English in Estonia, even in remote locations. I think that Estonians are naturally very open and integrated people, and luckily the country itself is now open, democratic, and integrated as well. I also think that not only Estonia looks open externally, but the Estonian people themselves have managed to lose their fear of old Soviet style oppression and are truly feeling free.

And of course, there’s no doubt that economically and politically speaking, Estonia has taken a huge step in 20 years. Estonia’s position has never been stronger. It has almost the fastest growing economy in the European Union, the lowest debt and the most vigorous entrepreneurial culture. The business environment is clean and friendly. However, until quite recently Estonia was still an outsider trying to get in. There were other countries – bigger, older, and better-connected – that set the rules. I noticed the first hint of a change at a NATO conference in Oslo, where a Norwegian diplomat was listening with interest to an Estonian official explaining the complexities of EU security policy. That struck a new chord: Norway, by its own choice on the outside of the EU, was listening to a member state on the inside. I noticed a similar conversation in Brussels: an Estonian was chatting about NATO to an attentive Swedish official. Again, it was the same story: Estonia on the inside, Sweden, normally so self-assured, on the outside. Estonia is the only country in Europe that is a member of both the Eurozone and NATO, and obeys the rules of both clubs. It easily meets the debt and deficit criteria for the Eurozone. It is one of the very few countries in NATO that comes even close to spending 2% of GDP on defence.

Estonia, once such an outsider that it was not even on the map of the world, has become the quintessential European insider. At a time when other countries are breaking the rules, Estonia has shown it is possible to keep them – and prosper. Oh, and by the way – the taste of a local beer in Estonia has also improved immensely!

What are the future challenges for Estonia in your opinion?

There’s a lot to do. The challenge is to catch up with Western style living standards, but to do it in a way that reaches not just the income levels but also the quality of life on many different levels. For example, I feel horrified to read about the opening of a new golf course on the beautiful island of Muhu. Countryside is very precious and once you destroy that, you will never get it back. There are also many ugly buildings erected during the early stages of the transition period from communism to capitalism – near the old town of Tallinn, for example. These remind me of concrete buildings built in Britain during the 1960’s – and in Britain we are gradually tearing them down. I think that the green growth is very important.

Like most countries in Europe, you will also face the question of allowing more immigrants into the country. It is important to manage this in a way that preserves economic dynamism without making Estonians feel threatened again. The memory of forced Soviet-era migration is still painful. The best way to increase public confidence in future migration will be to press ahead with an active integration strategy for the existing non-citizens and residents of Estonia who are not fluent in the language or do not feel part of the society.

There’s also a growing debate in Estonia about which economic model is more suitable – liberal versus social democratic one, Swedish model versus US model, if you like. As you know, for the most part since regaining independence, Estonia has followed the liberal one. What’s your view on this?

I think that this is a perception – as a percentage of Estonian GDP, the tax levels are quite high. It’s just that the income tax is low, but the level of social insurance tax is quite high. I think that the current system of flat income tax is very good, but Estonia could look into making more of the land tax system, which would be progressive and fair.

There is room for making public services more efficient and better. People sometimes forget that it’s a part of being globally competitive to have really high quality public services. Sweden is a very interesting country – economically it has got a liberal model in terms of starting companies and hiring and firing staff. Trade unions do not interfere when it’s clear that the company is not viable anymore and therefore needs to fire its employees. But as a counterpart to this, there are good unemployment insurance and re-training programmes in place. The downside of capitalism is the uncertainty that it brings. You’ve got to make sure that people accept uncertainty in life in order to keep the economy flexible and innovative (see Schumpeter’s creative destruction), but you must not make people feel as if they are bearing all the burden and face life-changing catastrophe, if something goes wrong. You have to be ready to cushion the people during economic shocks, to make people feel that they can take risks.

Estonia’s model has worked very well, but in my opinion you have to look at what public services you have to improve to be globally competitive. For example, you would need to have a better (English language) school system for foreigners. If you want serious foreign talent to come to live and work in Tallinn, they must be able to educate their children with high quality education in English. Same goes for universities – if Estonia wants to attract global talent, it should make itself an educational hub of the local region.

Do you think that Estonia’s system of flat rate of income tax should be implemented in the UK, as recently considered by the British chancellor?

That would be a brilliant idea in my opinion. Thanks to the simple tax system, Estonia spends much less in collecting its taxes than Britain, so I think that it’s a huge disadvantage not to have the same system in the UK.

Finally – from your experience, how well do you think the Russian minority in Estonia have been integrated in the local society?

I think that the integration has been a success, compared to what some people were predicting 20 years ago, from the stories of Narva (town on the border of Estonia and Russia) separating from the country – to a civil war. All these ignorant left-wing Western advisers have been proved wrong. What is a central for me in this context is that Estonia is not a country based on ethnicity – it’s a country based on a constitution. You can become a citizen if you learn Estonian (that is, broadly, the constitutional requirement).  Estonia doesn’t have enough people to waste them, so it is therefore important to make sure that the quality of Estonian language education in local Russian schools be absolutely excellent – because all the studies show that if people have excellent written and spoken (Estonian) language skills, they don’t face any obstacles on the job market, regardless of their ethnic origin.

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Cover photo by Tiit Blaat/Delfi. Note that on 1 December 2014, Edward Lucas became Estonia’s first e-resident.

Hey Liis, how’s Santiago?

Last winter designer and start-up entrepreneur Liis Peetermann spent 6 months in Chilean capital Santiago, taking part of Start-Up Chile program, which is an initiative of the Chilean Government to attract foreign entrepreneurial talent into their country. This was Liis’s first impression of Santiago at the time:

It’s warm. +30C during the day, only because it’s summer. At the same time it’s a winter in Estonia and the pipes are freezing over there – I miss everything else, but I am glad to skip this fun…

It’s noisy. There are around 6 million people living in this city. So it’s kinda like New York. It means noise.

It’s smoky. Everybody is smoking. I just can’t believe how many people can smoke in here. From a teenager to a grandma.

It’s trashy. Well ok, I haven’t been to other Latin American countries, but if in some countries trash is in some ways a part of the natural habitat, then in here it’s a part of a pure laziness. How lazy can you possibly be that you spend the whole afternoon lying in the park and are too tired to throw all the garbage to the trash bin after? Makes no sense, right – because someone will come and pick it up in the morning anyway…

It’s full of abandoned dogs. They’re everywhere – sleeping on the street, hanging in the parks, barking all night long. And of course jumping on top of me every time I do my exercises in the park. They’re mostly friendly, but for me it says a lot about the community if these things are considered normal. Or maybe they’ve always been here and it IS normal? How come the city isn’t yet drown in dogs then?

It’s surrounded by mountains. Extremely nice. Especially in the sunset.

It’s like a real summer. For example, I have a pool on my rooftop – how much more summer can it get?

It’s unhealthy. People eat a lot of crap – fast food, street food, white bread etc. They also don’t exercise much and are in a quite bad shape in general.
Pisco sour tastes good. Pisco is a grape brandy, the most popular drink in here. Strong but good.

It’s green. Soooo many parks and trees everywhere.

It’s full of taxis. And the taxi is cheap.

It’s soooo slow. People walk slowly. The food is served slowly. Everything goes slowly. Like slowly, just slowly. Extremely annoying.

And the people are friendly. Especially the locals when you say you don’t understand much in Spanish.

So don’t get me wrong. I really like Santiago and I enjoy my time in here. But guess I’m just a bit “spoiled” with the crazily busy New York, plus well-structured and hard-working tiny Estonia…

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How our age defines where we like to live: 25 – New York, 35 – London, 45 – Zürich

From time to time a magazine or a think tank publishes a study or survey, comparing the cost of living for different cities. In recent years, Zürich has come up on the number one spot invariably, and as more expensive than for example London or New York. Consequently, I have been getting questions from various parts of the world in a line of “Can you afford to take public transport anymore or do you have to walk to work?” and “Would I need a second mortgage to be able to eat at restaurants there?” I would like to address these concerns and explain why Zürich is expensive and why it is a good thing – and finally also put the discussion of New York vs London vs Zürich in bed once and for all.

Why is Zürich so expensive?

London commuters fear strain on the trains

Zürich is expensive for one simple reason – labour and service here is expensive, because people get paid a lot. In fact, another survey shows that the highest salaries in the world also happen to be in Zürich. Now, because almost every product or service we see around us is touched by human labour at one point or another – whether explicitly as in taxis in the form of cab driver pay, or implicitly in groceries in the form of transportation costs and check out girl salaries – everything you can buy, costs more money here. The good news is that the extras seem to be going to service staff, and everyone seems to be happy.

To illustrate this story, I recall one of the first occasions when my wife and I visited Zürich and ate at a small restaurant in downtown near Münsterbrücke. We could not help but to notice that the entire floor of about 10 tables was serviced by only one guy, who was not only taking orders and cleaning the tables, but also processing the payments. I finally pointed out to him that in New York or London there would be probably five people doing his job. He replied that it is only him here, but luckily he also gets paid five times as much. That is probably true, as people immigrating to mega-cities are willing to work for almost nothing and sometimes tend to feed themselves only by looking at the incredible skylines those cities have to offer.

Expensive is good – optimising on constraints and valuing time

One of the least recognised benefits of expensive cities is that they teach you how to optimise both time and money (which often amount to the same thing). When things are expensive, you begin questioning if you really need them, and as a result you notice collecting and consuming less “rubbish”, which in itself is a good thing -one could argue.

Because time is expensive in expensive cities, people do not hang around or loiter there aimlessly and idly on the streets. They are also more punctual, as they begin valuing not only their own time, but also that of the others. Then it should come as no surprise that when they measured the speed of postal clerks or the punctuality of trains in a study quoted by the book A Geography Of Time: On Tempo, Culture, And The Pace Of Life, Zürich postal clerks and trains easily came up on top.

Consequences of expensive cities – skinny people in large spaces

One of the consequences of living in expensive cities is that people find it too expensive and tend to stay away from them. As a result, there seems to be a lot of space – for instance, real estate here is less expensive than in many densely over populated mega-cities like New York, London or Hong Kong – but on the other hand food is expensive. One of the clear consequences of this for example is that people in Zürich tend to eat less and are skinnier but live in bigger spaces, whereas people in hyper-cities like London tend to be fatter and live in smaller spaces. A casual visit and a glance at the street picture of these two cities will certainly confirm this observation.

Where should I live then? 25 – New York, 35 – London, 45 – Zürich

A natural question arises that if some cities are more expensive than others, where should one live if you are an expat and if you can choose where in the world to live? The answer is that it depends on your values, which in turn depend mostly on you age.

To add a bit of colour to this argument, an older British gentleman living in Zürich once made an observation that your value system and your preferences for certain cities will change over time. He summarised it with a simple expression: 25 – New York, 35 – London and 45 – Zürich, which I thought is quite catchy and quotable.

The reasoning is that in your twenties you want to be in a place like New York, which resembles a giant night club, thronging young people who live and party as though Friday is the last day of their life, and on Mondays begin working like it is the first day of their life.  As you grow a bit older, you realise that there are other things besides living in a compact grid and being able to attend multiple gallery openings in a single night and so you move to London which is a bit more serious place. Finally, as you graduate to the later part of your youth in your forties, you want to live in a place where you can also raise a family, have a lake view, be close to nature and have a bit of breathing space.

There are many expats that have certainly followed this path.

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Cover photo: Zürich.

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

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