Stranger in a Small Land - Eric's Impressions of Estonia
This is a tale of two cities. But they are not Tallinn and Tartu- although, I did get to both.
This was my first trip to Estonia and although, I am not Estonian, I was excited to go. I had, of course, heard the amazing story of the country’s tech achievements because that’s the field I work in now. I had heard that it had a very old unspoiled medieval city. But that’s about all I knew.
When I arrived the weather was beautiful, warm days and clear skies. I loved the place. I am told it was really like Estonian summer had come early, so that might have helped my mood.
I stayed at an AirBnB in someone’s apartment in the old city in what used to be a 5-story-high printing plant for centuries, now beautifully refurnished.
But how to describe Tallinn?
First of all, everything is so close together. You can walk most places; getting from one side of the city to another is only 5-10 mins by Bolt (the Estonian-invented version of Uber and a Unicorn - a billion-dollar-valued company and one of 4 in Estonia).
What is a small place has made an outsized impact on the world by being an example of digital that works, but to me it seemed to have lots of contradictions in such a small area.
The people are reserved and polite yet very welcoming and unpretentious. When I visited Tartu, my host didn’t just meet me for lunch as we would do in Canada. He met me right at the delightful little train station, gave me a walking tour of the university and riverside parks, and then insisted we stop for drinks at an outdoor café at 11.00 am. This became lunch with more wine and then, after some hours of this, he went off, in the mid-afternoon, to an event of one of the “corporations” (I took it to be a fraternity organization of some sort) for no doubt more festivities as I poured myself back on to the train.
But, I digress, so back to the contradictions.
Estonia is old and undeveloped, but then again parts are renewed and hip. It’s a digital society yet there is music everywhere - even the street musicians are outstanding. It’s progressive, but now struggling with the very idea of a right wing party as part of the government
You can see left over signs of the Russian era in the old soviet bloc style of architecture and I am sure in people’s minds. But when they gained their independence again in the 90’s, they reinvented themselves and leapfrogged over generations moving straight into digital public services.
My favourite places showed this contrast and recent history. The old city has cobblestone streets, and an intact medieval wall with towers. The streets are walkable and friendly with outdoor cafes. Yet it was the backstreets, still rebuilding and often only partly finished, that show the difficult times and the history, that I found the most appealing like the open air theatre in the old city that looks like it dates to the middle ages and needs lots of work. The next day I went to Telliskivi Creative City, an area that was once warehouses and now is vibrant and alive with startups, shared work spaces, cafes, and restaurants. Then to Kultuurikatel, that once was a power plant and is now is a very hip conference space that housed the impressive Latitude59 tech meeting. It teemed with exhibits, food trucks, panels, pitches, and fascinating tech startups of every possible variety .
So the “two cities” were the old and the new or put more succinctly- history and the future.
How to encapsulate these contradictions and explain the place fully?
My conclusion is that to understand and do the country justice I need to visit it again!