Love across the Estonian language divide

November 11, 2010 2 comments

Ragne Kabanova is an Estonian who loves to travel. I first ‘met’ Ragne through her blog, Destination Anywhere, and enjoyed her open minded approach to writing about the different countries she encounters. In this interview she tells us about travelling the world, love accross the language divide and what’s so good about life in Estonia.

ragne2

To start, please tell us a bit about your background

I’m from a pretty typical Estonian family. We had a small apartment in the countryside, in a place which was like a big village, where everybody knows each other and spends their time gossiping all day long. My family consisted of me, my brother and my parents.

I spent my summers in my grandmother’s farm, running around in the nearby forests and taking insanely long walk with the dogs; so much so, that upon returning my grandmother was often in tears because she thought I had gotten lost in the woods. I loved spending time alone and you could say that me, myself & I got along quite well.

When I got older, I can’t say I was dying to break free from my parents. My parents had this unique approach to raising kids – it will take considerably less effort raising them if you don’t get in their way. Which meant that when I started living on my own at the ripe age of 17, it wasn’t because I was feeling suppressed, it was just a very logical step for an independent kid.

Life made its twists and turns and I ended up choosing a university quite far from my parents home (as much as something can be “far” in a country which you can cross from side to side within 5 hours). I met my husband soon after, we were both studying on the same course. And few months ago we just celebrated nine years together.

Today we live in a small student town called Tartu. It’s a lovely place, cozy and compact, but it’s also Estonia’s leading development center for world-scale IT and science inventions. Ever heard of Skype? ☺

What languages do you use to communicate? What languages did you learn in school?

Official language in Estonia is of course Estonian. There is a big Russian community here which every once in a while sparks up a discussion to add Russian language also as an official language, but majority of Estonians are so strongly against it that it would be a political suicide to any public figure to start seriously pushing the matter.

When I was in school the most important foreign language was Russian. That was taught already from 3rd grade followed few years later by English or German. Nowadays it’s all changed. Most important is English, which depending on a school can start even from 1st grade already. Some schools teach French, German, Spanish etc, Russian is pushed quite a lot to the background. Sometimes even totally out of the picture.

My husband is Russian and when we met he didn’t speak any Estonian. I do speak Russian, but on lower intermediate level at best, not really fluent enough to discuss anything with big words in it. So when we met, it took us about three minutes to switch to English and it’s been our home language ever since. Some people might think it’s rather uppity of us to speak in English while living in Estonia, but it’s actually a good balance – if we’d speak Russian or Estonian then one of us would have an unfair advantage when it comes to intricate knowledge of the language, wide vocabulary and cultural background. Considering that in the beginning quite a lot of our disagreements and fights were stemming from us being from different backgrounds, I’m quite glad we were accidentally wise enough to take the language barrier out of the equation.

So do Russian speakers and Estonian speakers form separate communities in Estonia?

Here’s a small glimpse of Russian-Estonian history.

Estonians and Russians do not mingle in Estonia. They keep away from each other and avoid interactions as much as they can. There’s a lot of history between the two nations and strong resentment from both sides. The resentment mostly stems from politics and historical events and from the different interpretation of those events. Even today there is so much unnecessary political haze between the two countries that it doesn’t really benefit anybody.

You’re not likely to find big mixed groups of Estonians and Russians rubbing elbows and being good friends. I don’t think it’s because people are nationalists and avoid each other by principle, they just feel more comfortable within their own ethnic group because that’s what they are used to with. Very often there’s also a language barrier which complicates things even further. The cultural background between the two nations is not that different that it would cause insurmountable problems, but there haven’t been really serious and consistent plans to integrate the two communities. Just a few commercial campaigns here and there, effects of which are soon downsized to zero by yet another politician stirring up national issues for cheap popularity either with Russians or Estonians.

There are still quite a few Russian-language based schools in Estonia which produce high-school graduates who don’t actually speak Estonian and therefore find that most local universities are out of reach for them. And that causes even more resentment and creates sort of closed communities where only Russians live. The eastern part of Estonia is a big region where the population is mostly Russians and Estonian isn’t spoken. This region is also the poorest in Estonia and most criminal, an inevitable side effect of an encapsulated community where education is not very propagated. Dislike for Estonia as a country is rather rampant. On the other hand, Estonians themselves are very closed people and are not likely to reach out and compromise with Russians who are often viewed as “occupants”, especially by the older generation. Some of the bad history is still too fresh. I expect it will get better in time, or I hope.

But regardless of all the nasty history between Russians and Estonians and apart from politics meddling in, we’re not at all that different and we are quite capable of peacefully co-existing. Sometimes I’d like to think that me and my husband are giving a small contribution to Estonian-Russian integration, because not only did our families have to deal with their issues about us two getting married, but we also have now a wide and rich group of friends from both nationalities. Sadly, Estonian-Russian couples are quite rare.

How did your love of travel begin?

My first proper foreign trip was to Saint Petersburg in Russia. But since at that time me and my husband were seriously poor students who actually hitch-hiked half of the way, were accommodated on the place by kind relatives and were bringing contraband cigarettes back with us to make some money off them, I don’t count that as a serious travel yet. But the trip that really made me take a moment and think about what kind of travels I would like for future was our vacation in Santorini island (Greece) in the summer 2006. I decided right there and then that package trips just weren’t for me. I felt such an incredible itch to get around on our own, spend every single second away from the hotel and definitely avoid the hotel pool 100%.

I’m not saying that sun vacations by the pool are any bad, but I do feel the nasty grin coming on my face when people who take those vacations talk about experiencing the local culture afterwards. While I’m not a person who feels the need to hike the jungles, teach something profound in Africa or live for a month with Mongolian yak herders to get to the root of things, I do think you can’t experience much by being satisfied with what you’re being fed by your hotel’s organized tours and pool menu. Throw the guide book out the window and go and wing it. You might just like it! I know I do! ☺

By now I’ve been to more than 20 countries and I strongly prefer the ones without euro or dollar as a currency. I figure I have plenty of time to make culture trips in Europe when I’m older and calmed down, until then I’ll backpack and feed my curiosity with exciting places like Cuba, Syria, China …

Would you like to live abroad, or do you always like to go home at the end of a trip?

I think I would really much like to live abroad, maybe even for a longer period of time, but at the moment I can’t really imagine moving away for good. But then again, I’ve always been very bad at long term planning ☺. I do know that every time I visit a new country, I find something new to appreciate about Estonia and while coming back is sometimes a drag, it’s usually because of the weather not because everywhere else is better. I’ve understood that Estonia has amazing nature and while we do not have mountains or waterfalls, the snowy forest in the winter can take your breath away!

Estonia is also very comfortable to live in. You can do anything over internet – organize your finances in the bank, file tax returns, vote for your favorite politician during elections, study in university, create your own firm within 15 minutes, sign contracts by using digital signature, deal with the bureaucratic machine and so on. And all that while sipping coffee in your favorite café and using the free wireless internet available almost everywhere. Or you can use your mobile phone for various services like paying for taxi or food in the grocery shop, parking, bus tickets etc. You can even order a real Christmas tree via mobile phone! Estonia is pretty high tech and I like it. It’s also very compact which means that changes can be implemented here fairly quickly. For example, for a long time we had an issue of negative population: more people died than were born. Now there’s a “parental salary” which pays you for 18 months your average wage, just so you can have a child and stay home without worrying about finances. And our population is slowly growing, not dying away. So yes, I want to come back home, I just wish there’s be better weather to greet me.

What’s your favourite place in Estonia?

Well, here comes the rather embarrassing part about me – I can’t say I’ve really extensively traveled in Estonia. Yes, I’ve been here and there, camping a bit and various daytrips, but I’ve never taken time off and just gone exploring around. Maybe it’s because traveling in Estonia requires a car. To see the nature and get off the beaten path, you can’t really rely on public transportation. And since I don’t have a car or a driving licence, I’ve had to make do with biking. Actually just a few days ago I thought we should go couchsurfing through Estonia, this could be very much fun.

But to anybody out there reading this article and thinking of visiting Estonia – do not limit yourself with just the capital Tallinn. Every city in Estonia is different and villages can be pretty cool as well!

Ragne describes herself as ‘a friend, wife, traveler, backpacker, couchsurfer, but most of all a photography aficionado’ Traveling is her passion and travel photography an ultimate high. Read more from Ragne on her blog Destination Anywhere.

More stories of love in a different language:
Who is Elvis? Cultural references in Ghana
A Spanglish couple in Mexico
Knowing when no means no… in Italiano

About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
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2 Comments

  • Very good interview. I learned a lot about Russian-Estonian relations…previously I knew nothing. I think Ragne should see some more of Estonia with her husband and show others that it’s OK for Estonians and Russians to mingle with one another.
    Jason

  • Glad you enjoyed it Jason. I learnt a lot too. I think Ragne should write more about Estonia on PocketCultures :-)

    Thanks for commenting.