You know the drill: Cram the suitcase extra full, flag a taxi to the airport, and relish a day filled with shoe, belts and sanity removed for scrutiny. We were on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta. The cans of Heineken were free, and so I drank way too many. In other words, in spite of airBaltic on the opening leg, it was routine.
Perhaps an offbeat choice for a trip — neither Cancun nor Disney World, just daily reality in a nation of relatively recent vintage, filled with people who’ve been speaking that “devilishly difficult” language for thousands of years.
“Their biggest problem,” says Mailis Sutiste, “is the letter ‘Õ.'” ” Õ” as in ” Õun” (apple). ” Õ” like “Õde” (sister), or “Õnn” (happiness). In fact, Sutiste’s profession – ” Õpetaja” (teacher) is even a difficulty for her students to pronounce in a way that is mutually understood amon Estonians to be the true “Õ .”Sure her Estonian class at Tallinna Keeltekool can reshape their “O’s” – cut them down, swallow them whole – but they still can’t get that “Õ” sound – though they get very close.
Regardless of the ” “s – for Sutiste, as well as for other teachers of Estonian, the fact that people are trying to learn their language – and not only Russian-speakers studying to pass the state examination to get full citizenship – is a bit flattering. There is an interest in learning Estonian in Estonia that has never really existed before.
The Baltic Germans spoke German, the Soviets Russian. Estonian was always a “native” or “peasant” tongue. Now it stands alone as the official language of Estonia, and that has created an interest in learning it, an interest that Sutiste says is increasing as Estonia gets closer to becoming an official language of Europe – that is, a European Union language.
Never mind that English is the de facto second tongue, and Estonians tend to speak our language better than we do. The history of the country is aptly summarized by these three paragraphs, highlighting Estonians, Baltic Germans, Russians — and now, Europeans.
In 1991, Estonia regained its independence, only to be presented with a thorny problem. Exactly how does one recover from 50 years of Sovietization? In broad terms, Estonia’s answer was avoid shortcuts and endure whatever pain was necessary in the short term in order to gain a long-term objective of inclusion in the European project. Consequently, it took only 13 years to gain membership in the EU.
In contrast, it’s been ten years of recovery in New Albany, and the streets still run one way.
The usual disclaimers apply: But of course Estonia could achieve this. Emerging from communism, the country remained culturally and linguistically homogeneous in spite of an alien (read: Russian) minority. Estonia’s cousins in Finland stood by, ready to invest. It was in the EU’s (and NATO’s) best interest to transform Estonia into a buffer against bordering Russia. And so on.
But the ditches still need to be dug and fiber optic lines buried. Speaking for myself, this American saw something in Estonia rarely witnessed back home: A remote semblance of shared values and purpose. If we’re the most powerful country in the world, can’t we have an encrypted on-line passport?
Perhaps the memory of oppression remains sufficiently fresh, and by oppression I mean the genuine article, not the ludicrous suffocation purely imagined by so many of my fellow white males in the States.
I’m also aware of that 20-odd percent of Estonians who are Russian. It’s sometimes hard to separate national characteristics of Russia from the lives of ordinary Russians, who are warm, passionate and welcoming people. In fact, the same might be said of Americans, which is why I persist in thinking that Russians and Americans have much in common if their governments might only leave the room and allow us to communicate with each other.
In Estonia, it’s more complicated, although arguably less so for the young. In the Estonian context, reasons for Russian immigration differ markedly from those bringing Mexicans to the United States, because the Soviet Union shifted its own people from place to place for cynical political reasons, not in response to market forces.
I’m not sure any of it matters. Whether Russian or Mexican, if you’ve lived in a place long enough to consider it home and follow the rules, isn’t it home?
Yes, I know. The devil resides in the details. It’s why we have barrooms.
Next up for the Confidentials: A touch of Sicily in the fall. Mt. Etna’s on my bucket list, and the eating and drinking …