Though these qualities are all true, they are often kept as a hidden treasure. In attempt to avoid being seen as obtrusive or aggressive, Estonians (even service staff) keep to themselves and wait for you to make the first move. Once there, you will be greeted with an honest and kind attitude. Compliments given by an Estonian are genuine, handshakes are valid and invitations heartfelt. No wonder many people claim Estonians make the best of friends.
The Estonian sense of humour is dry, sarcastic and quite often politically incorrect. In Europe, it is most similar to the British one – jokes at our own expense are popular, though you are much more likely to get a grin and not open laughter as a response.
When asked to sing out loud, you’re met with shy refusal. Yet, many Estonians have sung in a choir and our National Song and Dance festivals (once every 5 years) are the biggest gatherings in Estonia: hundreds of thousands of Estonians will come together to hear choirs of up to 20,000-strong sing and see thousands of people perform folk dances.
In contrast, the same modern Estonians are the ones behind Skype, mobile parking, e-elections and many of the innovative technologies and solutions. Various e-services like e-banking, online medical and document registries; digital tickets; full wireless connectivity and excellent mobile coverage are considered to be as elementary as air and water by most modern Estonians.
Estonia is one of the most non-religious countries in the world but Estonians value traditions. Often, Christian holidays and rituals are followed or mixed with pagan ones. A good example is All Saints Day on 2nd of November: the day before, many visit churches and graves of the lost family members, and at night, candles are lit on the windows of thousands of Estonian homes to greet the wandering souls.
Traditional handicraft and cooking skills are passed on from one generation to another: each year, from July to the end of September, Estonians are busy picking berries and wild mushrooms. Local homemade jam, pickled vegetables and mushrooms are a real treat! Favourite foods are sauce made of minced meat (“hakklihakaste”), cabbage stews, meat in jelly and oven baked potatoes with pork. Also, poultry and fish (smoked or fresh-salted) are well loved dishes. During summer, grilling and barbecue are an important part of the family gatherings. Be sure to try Estonian beer and the non-alcoholic “kali” (an Estonian style cola) and take home some smoked hams and sausages (deer, wild boar, moose and horse) to your friends!
Estonians love nature and feel part of it: weekends are often spent hiking, camping or just walking in the forests or by the sea – both have played an important role throughout history and Estonians are proud of the wild, clean nature rich in varied, and even rare, flora and fauna. Fishing and sailing are popular here and during winter, cross-country skiing captures the mind of most Estonians.
Most of the country houses (and many private houses and even apartments in cities) have a sauna and heating up before jumping into a lake during summer or rolling in the snow during winter, to cool down, are an important part of our bonding and cleansing rituals. But prepare yourself if you plan to join in: heat is high (80° Celsius is considered to be “warm”) and nudity is normal.
Besides nature, sauna and grilling, photography is probably the most common hobby in Estonia. Another “big thing” are the cars and new technical widgets and gadgets. The number of Hummers per person is the highest in the world and you will probably never meet young Estonian without a mobile phone, laptop (with internet access, of course) and a blog, twitter page or a personal account in one the popular online social networks like Orkut, Facebook or Rate.ee.
Children go to school for 12 years, starting from the age of 7, and even though maths, physics and science are a huge part of the curriculum, they all learn at least 2 other languages. Most commonly, Russian and English are taught at school; French, German and Swedish are popular alternatives.
It is typical for young Estonians to start their careers at an early age, whilst still at university – economy, law and medicine being the most valued areas of study. Tartu University, known for its medical and science fields, is one of the oldest in Europe. The number of people in Estonia with a university degree is proportionally one of the highest in Europe.
Theatre, art and reading are also an important part of Estonian culture: there is a theatre in every city and you might be surprised by the volume of books in Estonian homes. There are numerous art galleries in Estonia – the most famous and largest is the KUMU Modern Art Museum.