Estonia: Two Days, Two Perspectives

Tallinn's Old Town in Fisheye - Tallinn, Estonia
A fisheye view of Tallinn’s Old Town.

Upon our second visit to Estonia since Audrey concluded her Peace Corps stint in 2000, we wondered what we would find.

On our first day in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, we enjoyed views such as the one above. Though reconstruction and the emergence of hip cafes, restaurants and boutiques continues, Tallinn’s medieval Hanseatic-style old town still feels surprisingly relaxed and does not yet appear to be over-renovated.

Later that day, we hopped on a train to Tapa, a former Soviet military airfield and training base. Guided by persistent impressions of the town as a barren military outpost, our Estonian friends wondered why we would subject ourselves to a visit there.

It just so happens that one of Audrey’s fellow Peace Corps friends, Kevin Hogan, returned to Tapa two years ago to teach English at the Tapa Gumnaasium (the local school which serves about 700 kids from 1st to 12th grades).

Peace Corps Buddies - Tapa, Estonia
Kevin and Audrey meeting again in Estonia after many years.


During our visit yesterday, we spoke to students (in 6th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades) about our experiences traveling through Asia; we shared stories, photos and videos.

Our discussions yielded some interesting perspectives on poverty and stereotypes. “They are poor, but they look happy,” one student revealed after we played a video of people in the Cambodian countryside. This sentiment was echoed in several classes.

The 12th graders, our final class of the day, actually stayed past the bell to ask questions.

Like many of its small-town counterparts, Tapa doesn’t deserve the bad reputation that lingers in the minds of most Estonians. You can still hear gunfire at the military base these days, but it comes from the guns of Estonian NATO troops rather than Soviet ones.

Aside from this, Tapa is a typical small Estonian town whose 7000 inhabitants live in single family homes and Soviet-era block apartment buildings scattered amongst fruit trees, gardens, a Lutheran church, a Russian Orthodox church and a pizzeria named Vesuvio.

And with one-bedroom apartments renting for around $60 per month including high-speed internet and cable, we might just return one day to write our book.

Not to mention that we could enjoy fresh baked goods from this woman every day.

Estonian Bakery - Tapa, Estonia
Friendly baker of Tapa, Estonia.

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Comments

  1. says

    Regarding poverty and stereotypes, Prof. Hans Rosling has a surprising entertaining and TED presentation on the myths vs. realities of the “developing” world.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUwS1uAdUcI

    Regarding Estonia in general, if you aren’t already familiar with his work, check out Estonia native composer Arvo Pärt.

    http://www.last.fm/music/Arvo+P%C3%A4rt

    I’ve had him on heavy rotation while working and I’d highly recommend him to anyone interested in minimalist music.

  2. says

    Audrey and Daniel,
    I am hooked to your site…having just returned from a short trip (my very first) to Asia i am still having all sorts of pictures in my mind…but especially of the people. Through your photos, videos and writings you really manage to present to us, the onlooker, the humanness that is a common thread throughout the world, no matter where you go. Thank you and keep on trekking! you’ve got a fan here in san Francisco.
    (Daniel, thank you for you kind comment on my blog!)

  3. says

    Michael: Thanks for the links. No shortage of prejudices and stereotypes regarding the 3rd world, the other side of the tracks, etc. My first visit to India 10 years ago started to turn the lights on for me and helped me to separate what was real from what I thought I understood. Things become especially interesting when you attempt to comprehend intangibles like happiness and satisfaction. We’ll leave that for another post.

    Arvo Pärt, yes. Pulled him into my classical music rotation when I first visited Estonia. I found it a perfect accompaniment for those winter days when the sun rose at 9AM and set at 3PM.

    Michele: Thank you for the kind comment.

    When people ask us what sets each place apart: the people. When they ask us what makes places similar: the people. When all is said and all is done, it’s about the people. Our most lasting images and memories (of life and our travels) will almost always have people attached to them.

    We are glad to hear that the common thread of humanity and humanness shows through our work.

  4. says

    Steven: Kevin was a great host! We were certainly intrigued by $60/month…but don’t know if I could take Estonian winters again!! Sauna certainly helps though : ) It is getting easier to make Estonian shop-keepers and waiters smile these days…

  5. says

    Some of my fondest memories are of Tallinn. I travelled there with my college choir in the summer of ’94 for the international choral festival. I spent the afternoon of my birthday in the town square with friends at an open air pub and was charmed by the town. BTW, is she seriously using an abacus? I thought Estonia got with the technology years before most former soviet states.

  6. says

    Chip: She is certainly still attached to her abacus. Estonia’s internet infrastructure is pretty remarkable – free wifi in Tallinn (paid for by the city of Tallinn), high-speed internet in remote locations (imagine a connected farmhouse in the middle of nowhere) and ample free wifi opportunities all over the country. Although Tallinn has been spruced up quite a bit from your visit in 1994, it hasn’t lost its charm. Tallinn just has a good feel to it.

  7. says

    Hi, Audrey and Daniel!

    I came across this entry after plugging “tapa, estonia” into search google images. Coincidentally enough, I’ve actually been in contact with Kevin Hogan via email regarding a teaching position in Tapa for next fall! I really appreciate your view of life in that part of the world; it’s really helped it all feel more real to me, and allowed me to actually visualize myself there.

    Up until about a month ago, I had been living on a small organic farm just north of San Francisco, but I’m now looking forward to more overseas adventures. Your stories and photos truly inspire! Thanks for helping to reaffirm my own dreams of travel and discovery.

  8. says

    @Lia: Tere! Such a small world that you’ve been in touch with Kevin – he is a fantastic guy and has done so much for his school. Tapa will never be the same without him :)

    I’m glad our stories help make the idea of living abroad (in Estonia or elsewhere) more real and very possible. The hardest thing is making the decision to leave to live or travel overseas. Once you’re determined, things somehow fall into place. Good luck with your decision and please be in touch if you have other questions about Estonia or anything else.

  9. Karen says

    Greetings from Tapa! Kevin will be missed terribly. It was so nice to see him riding his bike through town and giving a cheerful good morning.

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