In “Expats corner” we catch up with foreigners who live or have lived in Estonia, to find out what they really think of the country. Renae Rain, originally from London, the UK, is a singer-songwriter who has lived in Tallinn for a year.
Renae, what brought you to Estonia?
I came for personal reasons and upon arriving also pursued some music contacts that I had here and thus decided to stay in Estonia. As I was continuously invited back to perform locally with my DJ friend Koldun of Original Skillz family, it was apparent that there was a calling and purpose for me here at the time.
Had you heard about Estonia before and what was your preconception about the country?
Ha! Never! I actually had to Google the place, in all honesty, and find out where exactly it was and what was there. I had heard of other Scandinavian countries, but for some reason not Estonia. It was only when I first visited the county that I realised and learned how close it was to Finland – I had heard of Finland at least! My preconceptions were a little jaded – I thought it may have been some kind of war-torn country….
What were your first impressions when settling in?
My first impressions, when seeing Tallinn, were: wow, how different and well-kept city it is; old mixed with new, and the preserved history. It appeared to be a new place to explore and everyone I met or was introduced to were so nice and welcoming I felt it a new place of opportunity for me – different from London, smaller and more compact.
How easy was it to integrate into Estonian society?
Well, pretty easy. I managed to obtain my ID card, a bus card and a bank account within two weeks after arriving and found my own apartment in Tallinn within just a day or two after deciding I would move here to live. I could not believe how quickly things worked here. I mean, it took a little bit of finding places but I somehow adapt well to new challenges and had very little assistance with securing myself here. I basically relied on one or two contacts and one of the local estate agencies was super helpful, attentive and friendly.
Have you learned Estonian?
I have started to learn basic-level Estonian A-1 with a tutor at the European School I am working at, although I must admit it is so difficult to learn. I know the basics and know how to be polite in a store by saying äitah (thank you) and nägemist (goodbye), but I have a way to go yet with making a conversation most of the times. Even when I try to speak Estonian, people speak back to me in English (must be the accent).
Have you found it easy to make friends with Estonians or are you mixing more with other expats?
I would say when I first arrived I did not know that many Estonians, but, as time went on, I started to formulate more Estonian circles of “associates”. Some of them have now become closer friends, but I have always been a person who prefers to mix and not segregate my social circles. I find people interesting and so I would never visit a country and not mix with local people – this is just not my style, but, in the same instance, I would never force myself upon anyone either.
What do you do now and do you feel that it’s a right environment for you, professionally speaking?
Right now I am a music artist that has been pretty much touring the country – so yes, I feel it is a right environment for me professionally as things are taking a steam roller ahead.
I have sung with many different local bands and performed in Võru, Pärnu, Tartu, Hiiumaa, Sillamäe, Narva and of course, Tallinn. I have a residency gig in Tallinn’s restaurants Tai Boh and Manna La Roosa, close to the Old Town, and will be performing at the De Ja Vu, Clazz and Chicago’s clubs in the capital with my own new band, which I am super excited about. Although I have performed many times at Clazz as a guest, performing as a headliner with a live band is a new accomplishment for me.
My band is put together with great musicians, including James Werts of the Werts World Project who I am honoured to have joining me officially as my bass player and second vocalist. We have both performed many times together and have great stage chemistry between us.
I have also performed at many private events lately and my name seems to have gradually spread around in Estonia. I am fortunate to not have to hunt for gigs – most of the time, people contact me directly through my artist page or contact me through email or obtain my number from another venue owner.
I would say that I am quite hard to book these days – my life is full with music here, and for that I am so grateful for it to have happened in such a short space of time. I mean, I have only actually been here for a year and so much has happened.
Recently, I was also asked to be a backing singer for the group Zebra Island, a semi-finalist at the Eesti Laul 2016 (local selection for the Eurovision song contest – editor) – a competition that I had come to learn is a very big deal here in Estonia. This was my first live TV appearance to perform and the reception and the public feedback was amazing and well received, so I truly enjoyed the experience.
I am also a teaching assistant, supply teacher and an after-care teacher at the European School in Tallinn. Since my degree is in education studies, I used this skill and qualification to obtain a stable work when I first arrived in Tallinn. The school has such a warm, open and friendly staff who truly as a team support me in my music career as well. I have even been able to combine the school and music, since I and a few colleagues of mine have formed a band and will enter the local Rock Café Battle of the Bands this March.
What do you like the most about the country so far?
I like the Tallinn Old Town as, for me, it keeps the heart of the capital alive. I like the restaurants here. I also like that the country has good technology source. Estonia feels like an island – it is so easy to get around and you always meet people who know someone who know someone. So you know – it has a pretty small feel in comparison with London. I love the forests here and the nature and I like that the general system feels simpler in many ways.
Is there something that really bothers you while living here?
Yes! The ignorance of many who believe that purism is the only way and still live with the mentality that their race is the only race that should exist. And while they say this openly, they will also deny the very fact that this is their idea when confronted about it when it is plain sighted in your face, particularly lately. I find that Estonia has much to develop in voluminous ways.
Many educated people have come to Estonia from abroad for the sole reason that as soon as you enter the Tallinn airport, there are adverts telling you to move here and that there are so many jobs. The problem is not with the “immigrants”, the problem starts in the back yard as I would say; the divide between coexisting nationalities that, for centuries, have been fighting.
I have faced a lot of racism here – more than ever in my travels and to me that is very disappointing. Thankfully though, I have had the support of many, on both the Russian and Estonian side – not just from locals, but from the governing bodies also who have zero tolerance on burning issues like these.
I feel grateful that through my music and my voice, many people have been wowed and won over, and realised that actually I am no more a threat than they are to me. The only difference is that I don’t sit around moaning and let life pass me by – I go out and about and go for what I want, and also give back to society by helping educate children.
The recent intolerance towards black people in this country, or anywhere for that matter, does bother me, however – especially if you consider that we are a tiny minority compared with the 1.3 million people who live in Estonia.
“I have faced a lot of racism here – more than ever in my travels and to me that is very disappointing. I feel grateful that through my music and my voice, many people have been wowed and won over, and realised that actually I am no more a threat than they are to me.”
For example, the other day I was sitting on the tram, headphones on and listening to music, minding my own. A man came on the tram and sat opposite me, staring. He then reached in his pocket and took out a golden bullet, held it up to me, pointing with his finger at my head as if it were meant for me. He also made the crucifix sign while another person looked right at me. Now, perhaps they were not well, but while it might have been intimidating to some, I just felt pity for that person – all that hate and for what? Where is his own life and how do I affect it?
I actually have the philosophy that the entire world is my home – that I do not belong in any particular place, but where I choose to settle. It should be no one else’s choice or business but my own. Thankfully, I was not brought up with this mentality that seems to have gained ground in Estonia recently.
When you are telling about Estonia to a complete stranger, who has not heard anything about it in your country or region, what are the things you point out, or the story you tell them?
I point out that people here are much more reserved; that the capital city is quite built up with modern buildings and good stores for shopping; the Tallinn Old Town is beautiful and an easy-going place – not too busy or over-populated. That it can be quite easy to settle here and the life here is straightforward and cheaper in some ways, but not the clothes!! Clothes are expensive, whether designer or not!
How should Estonia be seen around the world, in your opinion?
Hmm, a country that likes to stay true to itself. A country that has been invaded one too many times and thus would like to keep as much of its own heritage as possible without heavy influence of foreigners. There are many natural resources here that people take pride in, and lots of traditions, too.
If you could encourage Estonians to do one thing, what would it be?
Those who have not – please, please travel outside of Estonia, see the world! Then you will understand the benefits of doing that. I have seen a difference in those who have – their attitude and tolerance changes for better in a very positive way!
Pictures courtesy of Renae Rain. Cover by Andrés Machara Chomiak (A.M.C. photography)