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As an immigrant in Estonia

Posted 23/1/2019

No matter what country one is in, perhaps the most important aspects of immigrant life are contacts with local residents.

Pirjo Roponen-Lunnas

Hello! On the five kilometer trip to the store one meets some schoolchildren and mostly elderly ladies on bicycles. One doesn´t meet many people there, but greetings of (and with) strangers are gratifying, they have ‘seen’ you. Does it mean belonging to this landscape and community? I can imagine, also this kind of habit enhances the feelings of neighborhood, familiarity and of being accepted if you are living in Meri-Toppila suburb.


Perhaps the most important aspects of enjoyable life are the contacts with local residents. Social networks help to get advice and assistance in strange environment. Local practices, electricity contracts, registering as a local resident, etc., were very difficult at the very beginning with our Estonian language. Recycling is easy: our friend got rid of his old book shelves, and his old windows offer material for our greenhouse. Our friends have been of great help when we have settled down on Muhu Island – perhaps without them we would not even have stayed here.


During the summer, Muhu is a bustling tourist island. I almost have claustrophobic feelings when busy travelers fill the local store and clog up its aisles. As contrast to summer, winter is a more peaceful time, reminding the hibernation of a bear. Garden rests, trees seem to slumber and wait for spring. Nature seems stagnant. ‘Viduse pidamine’ is an old Muhu dialect phrase relating to the moment during dusk, when you can still see enough to do something before the darkness comes. Women used to have their handicrafts, men smoked pipes and had their own hobby crafts.


To learn Estonian, language related to Finnish, is like a hobby.  To ponder over the roots of the words increases interest in etymology. Learning Estonian is marveling and sampling the taste of words, and root causes of words. However, reading Estonian newspapers and literature is challenging when the contents are often left to guesses. How much easier it is to grab a Finnish newspaper, article or book. Life makes sense when you have your own language, own and understandable. Language is the extension and vastness of existence.


It is not easy to get a handle on the Estonian social debate and politics when one’s background information and knowledge of history is limited or superficial. It is nice to meet local people, without any biases. This can be more difficult in Finland as people already have a premade frame of reference in mind. Here, history has had different paths and national ideology lives on strong. Significance of own culture seems to be at the center of that ideology: song festivals uphold traditions, while theater and movies mirror today’s Estonian mindscapes. Finnish national ideology easily reveals itself as rows of soldiers’ graves and in the ideology of the Finns Party. It brings to my mind a symbolic image of a worn and faded trench coat. Finland seems to express itself as an everyday longing for rye bread. The local rye bread is always sweet.


Connection to Finland is maintained through YLE News and Areena broadcasts. Satellite dishes on balconies in suburbs are a direct umbilical cord to the immigrant’s homeland in Meri-Toppila and other suburbs. We follow the doings of Juha Sipilä more than the statements of the Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. I remember the celebrations of the Somalis in Oulu after Somalia had elected a new president.


I realize, that as a retired Finn, who migrated to Estonia, I represent the elite of immigrants. Migration was voluntary, expanding one’s own territory. I can visit Finland and return to Finland whenever I want.


What if I could not return to Finland? And if I were forced to adjust and find my place in the local society?


Pirjo Roponen-Lunnas