Saturday, May 24, 2008


The old cliché is that you cannot really understand a country until you have lived there. This is true, of course, and understanding the culture, values, and societal underpinnings of a nation is very important. But this statement is also true in a far more trivial sense. Each country has its idiosyncrasies that are second nature to the natives but can cause great confusion to the visitor or immigrant. Here are some of the things you do NOT read about in the travel brochures about Estonia:

  1. When buying with money, one never hands the bills to the cashier, but places the bills on a glass tray set between the cashier and the customer. The cashier in turn puts the change in the same tray from which you then take it. I have more than once extended my empty palm towards the befuddled cashier, only to sheepishly withdraw it.
  2. The rear wheels of the carts in the grocery stores spin. Now you might think this is a minor difference, but these carts behaves irratically. They do not always go in straight lines and can turn every which way, even sideways. Not being aware of this can lead to some embarrassing collisions.
  3. The road signs are all European, and once you break the code, they are pretty easy to understand. But what the tourist books don’t tell you is that in Europe the road signs indicate what you are allowed to do, not what you are NOT allowed to do. For example, a white arrow on a blue background at an intersection tells you that you may proceed straight through the intersection. No left, right, or U-turns allowed. In America, we put up signs that tell the motorist what they cannot do, so there might be a no left turn sign, or a no U-turn sign. In Europe, if the white arrow does not show it, it is not allowed.
  4. Packaging for many items in the grocery store is of little help in identifying the product, especially if it’s not a staple. For example, Libby spent several days looking for baking power and baking soda. They are packaged differently than in the USA, and the writing is only in Estonian (and often Latvian and Lithuanian, as if these were of any use!)
  5. It is very difficult to swear in Estonian. There just are no words that have been reserved as swear words. Most bodily function, body parts, and bodily excretions which serve as ready source of swear words in America are simply not available. So most Estonians have adopted English swear words, and these seem to function just as well when the occasion demands. So don't expect to get any swear words here. You'll just have to bring them with you.
  6. Fried black bread with garlic is heavenly. It is the best thing on the menu. You rub the crisp fried bread with the clove of garlic and enjoy. Why do the guide books not tell you that?
  7. English is spoken widely in Tallinn by the educated and those whose job it is to sell things. But you have to be prepared to encounter people who know absolutely no English. And if you drive out of Tallinn the chances of finding English speaking people will be minimal.
  8. If you take mass transit (which is excellent, by the way) you have to be aware that having a ticket is not enough. You have to validate it using a little punch or electric stamp on the bus. Also, most bus drivers do not want to waste time selling you a ticket. If you don’t have one, they will just tell you to forget it. This is well and good unless you get caught by the transit police. Best to get a ticket at any kiosk.
  9. There are no six-packs of beer. This is very surprising for a country that prides itself on producing good beer and consuming it at an impressive rate. At the grocery store you buy all bottles separately, or in cases of 24. Come to think of it, maybe it’s a 24-bottle six-pack!
  10. It may have been invented in America, but the Estonians have taken the notion of the backyard barbecue to its logical conclusion. It’s called a “grill” in Estonian, and it involves a whole evening of outside eating, drinking, and camaraderie. The favorite meat is something called Šešlock, which is pork marinated in various solvents such as yogurt or wine sauce. To be invited to a “grill” during the long summer evenings is as nice as it gets.
-- Aarne

1 comment:

Triin said...

Hey, just wait until the beach season starts and you'll be able to report back many more idiosyncrasies. It's an entirely different story whether someone interprets these as pleasant or... At any rate, in the USA the police would show up in about 5 minutes if someone was seen naked on a public beach. Here, however, there is an entire section for nude bathers, and it's not all that uncommon to see folks topless (the females, I mean) among the "regular" sunbathers.

Aren't you now glad that you are only some 200 meters from the beach ? :-P

To carry on about the beach, I guess you arrived somewhat post-season to spot any winter bathing enthusiasts, but that's quite sight in itself. Folks swimming free-willingly in near 0-degree Centigrade water. Brrrrr!