A short walk through Tallinn’s Old Town or a visit to its fairytale-like villages should put all doubts to rest. Estonia is renowned for its small wooden houses, its forests and green spaces common even through its cities, colorful swamps and breathtaking fortifications.
At the beginning though, a different kind of facts will help you with your transition. First of all, this is the country of e-governance. Wi-Fi is available in public spaces (there’s this myth running around that free Wi-Fi is a basic human right in Estonia) and your ID card is provided with your digital signature. When you’re trying to get settled, it’s very useful to be able to do everything online.
Second of all, Estonia thinks of itself as a Nordic country. Actually, its educational system is being topped in Europe only by Finland’s. What’s in it for you? Well, most of the people can speak good English. I was actually surprised to find in Palivere, a small city of 1000 people at best, an 11-year old kid who was fluent in English! And though you might believe nobody comes to Estonia, Tallinn’s Old Town is swarmed with tourists even in its cold season.
Thirdly, I hardly remember ever encountering so many helpful people. Even those that do not speak English went most of the time out of their way to help me or other friends of mine with whatever they were asking, so don’t believe the stereotypes!
Another essential aspect that needs to be mentioned: you might have heard Estonia is the least religious country in Europe. It is in no way disconnected though from its traditions. In fact, it has one of the largest collections of folk dances. This becomes apparent in everyday life. At the center for intellectually-disabled people where I’m volunteering, the clients have textiles or design workshops where they do crafts and arts. The results are astonishing and it is a great opportunity to learn from the workers’ activities. By simple directions, they are trying to get disabled people to channel their imagination into creating cultural products.
This was for me the beginning of an interesting intercultural dialogue. My role here is to provide some entertaining activities for the clients, out of which a considerable part concerns crafts. The clients are always eager to understand more about the place where I’m from and why we do certain things (why do we use red and white in Mărțișor, for instance). The language barrier might be frustrating at first, but I would describe it rather as fun. I started giving to the clients lessons in English. The result, after a month, was that I would have them starting a sentence in English, finishing it in Estonian, with some Russian words mixed in.
Besides crafts and English lessons, the disabled people need some help in what concerns their daily activities. The social pedagogues and the volunteers at the center are trying to teach them how to cook, how to properly set the table and watch over the way they clean the dishes or their working space. Attributions, of course, may vary. I am still allowed to try new things at work, such as making a webpage for them or switching between different groups of people. This is, from my point of view, one of the greatest advantages of EVS: you get to play with your strong points and experiment without having the same degree of responsibility as a normal job would require.
Written by Oana - Maria Cernăuț, EVS volunteer in Estonia