What do the fundamental physical forces of attraction have in common with being an Estonian? Every summer, toward the end of July, my family goes camping in the remote woods of Vermont. The lake, upon whose shore we set camp, is cool and refreshing. The birch trees are tall, scaly, and white. The population is sparse. In many ways, it reminds me of Estonia.
Less than 90,000 people reside in the two counties surrounding the lake. For scale, this works out to approximately 65 people per square mile or 26 people per square kilometer – rural by any standard. Of those individuals, there is probably only one Estonian. And we found her. Of course we did.
Students of physics will recall the fundamental forces of attraction – gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Whether we think in terms of Newton’s gravity – derived from the curiosity of an accelerating falling apple – or Einstein’s gravity – conceived from visions of curved space-time – we know objects tug on each other as if connected by invisible strings. The bouncing red needle on a compass alerts us to invisible magnetic attractions. When we touch ordinary matter, we perceive atoms whose nuclei are bound together by incredibly strong attractions.
So goes the same for Estonians.
Estonians abroad and their descendants tend to attract one another. An Estonian with mass will tend to gravitate toward another Estonian of mass. Like a refrigerator magnet hovering near the freezer door, when Estonians are near each other, we somehow close the gap. If there were an element with the symbol EST, its nucleus would consist of a blond-haired proton named Erik and a tall neutron named Sten. This is ancestral physics in action.
In the case of my introductory example, it all started innocently enough several years back while having lunch in town toward the end of a trip. Tired of cooking, we went to a favourite lunch spot serving an eclectic and delicious mix of Argentine empanadas, Greek salad, French pastries and local Vermont craft beer. Conversing with the owner, triggered by the first name of my first daughter, the subject of Estonia came up.
Immediately, the owner flashed a smile and a knowing look. He knew an Estonian. She was his friend. She lived up the hill and frequented his place regularly. She was an artist. To protect her privacy, let’s call her Liia.
Having to pack up and return home the following day, we paid our bill, said thank you and made a mental note of the Estonian on the hill. The following year, however, we were in a different part of Vermont at a local artist’s shop. And there they were – Liia’s artistic wares for sale. Parked outside, my wife noticed a car with the personalised Vermont license plate “Liia.” And then we met – far away from the shores of the Baltic Sea but somehow still within its reach. Since then, we get together yearly to chat about the old country and the new.
Was this encounter pure happenstance and random coincidence? Or is there a fundamental physical force that pulls one Estonian toward another?
The answer is the former, of course. And yet, there is an inverse magnetism that draws like to like. This owes itself to the uniqueness and rarity of inheriting the Estonian condition. Would an Irishman seek out a countryman in the same manner? Would an Italian be surprised to learn of another Italian within a short radius. Similar encounters have happened in the past – and I’m sure the same has happened to you. In school, on the first day of class and upon asking about my name, the teacher would typically reminisce about someone named Jüri or Maarika – because umlauts and double vowels require their tale to be told. Recently riding the train back from New York City, two rows back I heard a couple talking in Estonian and I promptly inserted myself into the conversation. It even happens with inanimate objects. Travelling in Vancouver for our honeymoon, we happened upon a building named the Tallinn.
So, maybe this isn’t thesis material for a doctorate in cultural physics. I doubt I could collect the necessary data and write the equations to prove the existence of an elementary Estonian gravitation. There probably is no Estonian constant to organise an equation of variables of people and places. But, I’m curious, what’s your tale of accidental cultural covalent bonding?
Cover photo courtesy of VisitEstonia.