On the third Sunday in August 2021, I finished packing my suitcase, slammed the door shut behind me, and went to Copenhagen Airport as I have done so many times before. However, this time was different.
It was time for me to go on exchange, and I was heading to a small country in the Baltics that I hardly knew anything about: Estonia.
“Why Estonia?” you may ask. So did I and everyone I know.
When I could finally reveal where I was going for my exchange, the phrase “Estonia? That sounds… interesting” became the most common response from my family, friends, and colleagues. Like me, most of the people around me had minimal knowledge about this strange, most northern Baltic country.
While this might frighten some, I found myself becoming more and more intrigued to indulge in a new culture that I had absolutely no presumptions about. And so, that Sunday in August, I boarded the plane to Tallinn full of excitement and eagerness for what was to come.
My first encounter with Estonia
Intro week arrived, and there we sat, nearly 70 exchange students from all over the world, attending a seminar on How to Become Estonian. An Estonian comedian appeared in front of us, welcoming us with the words: “Welcome to Estonia, the country that Estonians cannot wait to leave behind.”
Although he was indeed a comedian, we all started glancing at each other, obviously wondering what we had got ourselves into, while at the same time laughing nervously. His joke made me reminisce about my first few days in Tallinn before the intro week began; days that were full of getting to know the Estonian climate and culture.
For the first few days, I must admit that I doubted whether coming here was the right choice. The sky was dangerously grey, and there was an almost constant downpour from the rumbling clouds above me.
My, no longer white, sneakers were soaking wet from going on a short trip to the supermarket down the road, and I quickly learned that waterproof clothing is a wardrobe essential when living in this little corner of the world.
Was this really where I wanted to live for the next six months?
Being Danish, I do appreciate the occasional ray of sunshine to help me cope with the fact that the dark, cold, and wet seasons are just around the corner, but the sun was nowhere to be seen. Looking back at my own reaction to the climate, it suddenly made sense why Estonians would rather live elsewhere.
Another thing that struck me, while promenading the cobbled streets of the Old Town, was the very small number of strangers who smiled back at me. It surprised me.
So much so that when a young woman finally smiled back at me, I was convinced that half of the chocolate ice cream I had just eaten was still daubed around my mouth.
While Danes may be notorious for not wanting to interact with strangers in public, Estonians have definitely taken this practice to a whole other level. As it turns out, Estonians generally do not like wasting their time on emotions and small talk, let alone smiling at strangers.
This became evident at the police’s Service Office, where the sole words of “Passport” and “Mask” were used by the officer to indicate that I was to hand over my passport and pull down my face mask, before I could receive my freshly printed Estonian ID card – luckily for me, you don’t have to be fluent in Estonian behavior and culture to obtain such a card.
Although many Estonians may want to leave this country behind, I am happy to be spending my exchange semester in this lovely seaside town that is Tallinn.
It offers everything from ocean views and historical landmarks to modern shopping malls and cheap Gin & Tonics, and I cannot wait to explore more of Estonia and indulge in Estonian culture.
On a final note, Estonians may not smile much, but this exchange student surely does.