Ever since the birth of my daughter, I have spent a lot of time in Tallinn and have come to think of Estonia as a second home. The people and the culture are unique and interesting, the history of the land is fascinating and for someone from Canada, places like Old Town are just mind-blowing. I actually find Tallinn to be quite similar to Vancouver in many ways. The climate is comparable and both cities are right on the water. The hipster parts of each town are practically identical.
If you are planning to travel to Estonia, there are many differences you should prepare yourself for, however. The following guide will help you to arrive informed and aware, ready to blend in like a native.
1. Begin Sauna Training. Early.
In Estonia, if you don't go to sauna, you are castigated, reviled, ridiculed and berated without mercy or pity. Oh no, wait, I'm thinking of what happens to people in Canada who say they're not hockey fans. If you don't partake of an offered sauna in Estonia, you will feel the very mild touch of indifferent confusion. Estonians love sauna. And that's how you say it, as well - just "sauna." Not "I want to have a sauna," or "I want to go to a sauna." Just "sauna."
"Do you want to go to sauna?"
"We are doing sauna this evening."
"Huh? Why don't you want to do sauna? What's wrong with you?"
So if you want to feel included and enjoy a more authentic Estonian experience, well then, going to sauna is a must.
Sauna is such an integrated facet of Estonian life that many people have saunas in their homes. Right now there are Estonians reading this, completely baffled by such an obvious statement. This is like a Canadian reading "In strange and foreign Canada, many people install fridges - right in their homes!"
Estonians like their saunas HOT. They have grown up with this sometimes daily ritual, so have built up superhuman tolerances to heat. Sort of like North Americans have built up superhuman tolerances for junk food, daytime talk shows and the Kardashians.
When you enter an Estonian sauna, your first thought will be "Aaaiieeee! This is too hot to live! The air! It burns my nostrils!!!" But once you stay in for awhile...well, it just gets worse. Duh. You don't get cooler the longer you stay in.
It takes a loooong time to get used to scalding, steamy air that is hot enough to cook a ham. This is why I highly recommend starting your "sauna training" early. Oh, and unfortunately, for reasons that I will get into in a bit, your sauna training will include working out. Sorry.
Find a spa facility or a friend's condo that has a sauna and start frequenting the place as much as you can - at least two months before traveling to Estonia. Get used to cooking yourself daily. It will just make things so much easier when you get here, trust me. You will probably also want to start walking around your house in the nude as much as possible as well. Maybe try answering the door naked once or twice. Estonians are total nudists. Surprising, given their reputation for being "cold and aloof," but it's true: they are cold and aloof nudists. DO NOT start going naked to any mixed gender public saunas unless you want to begin "jail training."
Of course, I can already feel the North Americans cringing. This is where the working out comes in, I'm afraid. Estonians have evolved within this crazy sauna culture, so they have pretty much zero body shame. It's strange, many people here still obsess over their appearance and want to lose weight and look better etc. But once that sauna gets warmed up, none of that matters anymore and the clothes just go flyin'. It's like the whole country has just been mass-hypnotized to go nude when they hear the word "sauna" or feel scalding hot air. The fact that Estonians are a very beautiful and fit people certainly helps. But really it's just that they don't give a sh*t.
Canadians and Americans on the other hand..?
You better start jogging hardcore, son.
I think almost every Estonian has an amusing story involving prude-wuss North Americans actively avoiding sauna due to paralyzing shame and fear. They find us pitiable and ridiculous. They are also relentless about getting you to join their "steam-cult." So in order to fit in and be accepted easier, either incorporate a lot of exercise into your sauna training or start dreaming up a LOT of plausible "I'd like to go to sauna but..." excuses. You'll need them to avoid their viking-sauna-heat-cult rituals.
Gah! Their saunas are so hot!
The good news is that there are things that can be done to distract you from the crippling heat: you can have someone beat you mercilessly with juniper branches! Yes, this is a thing in Estonia and many other sauna-crazed Nordic nations. The juniper is supposed to be therapeutic and invigorating for the skin.
The problem many North Americans have is that being roasted alive, naked, while being whipped in a strange land is actually how many of us were taught to envision Hell. No matter how welcoming and benign Estonians are, this is a difficult association to break and I suspect accounts for at least some of our sauna unease. Mostly it's all the nudity, though.
2. Begin Cake Training. Early.
As with sauna, if you want to be sociable in Estonia you better like cake. Lots of cake. Pastries and chocolate too. Estonians are extremely hospitable and always concerned with the comfort of their guests. If you get invited into the home of an Estonian, you will first be offered water, coffee, tea, wine, cider or beer. DO NOT just pull the Canadian polite thing and say "whatever is easier." Estonians will look at you like you've just sprouted a second head. Make a choice and pick something. I've been in many 'sit-com" situations where Canadian politeness and Estonian hospitality collide to create a gravitational black hole of comic misunderstanding.
Once you have your beverage and are able to look around a bit, my guess is that you will see cake and pastries strewn about all over the place. The good news is: Estonia has awesome baked delicacies. I mean, the cakes in Vienna are good, but Estonia might have the Austrians beat.
Now, many North Americans will politely decline cake, because of diets and stuff. This doesn't fly here. Just take the cake. Take it. Enjoy it. Then take it again. Because I can almost guarantee you will be offered a second piece of cake, and then another piece of a different cake, because you just have to try this other delicious cake, and here have some milk.
Instead of constantly declining cake - which can get tiring, believe me, especially if you don't speak Estonian - you will just have to find other ways to stay in shape like actually start doing some exercise for once. Otherwise, see the above section concerning body shame. Yeah, I know...it's a vicious and sadistic circle of hideous torment: Estonians expect you to be totally fine with being naked all the time, so you want to be in shape, but then they are constantly shoving cake in your face. Cruel!
Getting into the habit of stuffing your face with lots and lots and lots of cake will eliminate so much social conflict from your life, you have no idea. So start your cake training early and stick with it! Don't give up! You can do it!
3. Play a Lot of Forza
An important tip to remember on your trip to Estonia is that many drivers here are still operating under old Soviet-style traffic attitudes. Which means these drivers are indistinguishable from insane madmen. The main arteries in the cities appear civilized, for the most part, but once you turn off onto the smaller roads - look out. Things instantly turn into the goddamned wild west.
Tires screech around corners and civilized drivers scream and swerve to avoid the oncoming onslaught of lunatics on wheels! If you’re a pedestrian in these areas, your chances of survival are slim. Actually, most crosswalks are death traps no matter where you are here. Better not to try crossing any roads at all.
The highways and freeways? Forget it. What would constitute a horrific, nail-biting near miss when passing on a two-lane in Canada is just a normal, everyday, ho hum game of chicken here. I mean, I’m curled up in the fetal position with my fingernails dug into the plastic of the dashboard and everyone else involved in the near-calamity is just barely awake.
I have seen way too many close calls, close shaves, narrow misses and outright miracles to consider all of this reckless driving accidental. Hell, I’ve seen guys repeatedly swerving back and forth across the centre line like they're avoiding cones at driving school just because they're bored.
So what gives? Do Estonians have death wishes or are they just really bored and in need of thrills? Who knows? Maybe all that relaxing sauna time has an elastic rebound effect on their psyches. It might have something to do with the speed-trap cameras that are placed along the roads ever kilometre. I think drivers here memorize the locations of these cameras and then lose their freakin' minds in the “safe” zones.
Whatever the reason, you better brush up on your aggressive driving skills, your reaction-swerving and your road rage. Forza fits the bill, but you’ll probably want to also log a few dozen hours on GTA V. Just in case.
4. Learn Some Key Phrases
The Estonian language isn't easy to learn, but they sure appreciate it if you try! Why not learn some important and useful phrases to make your visit easier?
Jah, ma sooviksin küll veel üht koogitükki. Tänan.
("Why yes, I'd love another piece of cake, thank you.")
Ma tahaksin küll sauna minna, aga mul on lõhkemata granaat jala sees ja kuumus võib selle plahvatama panna. Pikk jutt, ärge küsige...
("I'd love to go to sauna, but I have an unexploded grenade imbedded in my leg and the heat could make it go off. Long story, don't ask...")
Kas täna õhtul on "Su nägu kõlab tuttavalt"?
("Is the "Face show" on tonight?")
Tänan, aga ma tõesti peaksin piirduma 3 koogitükiga.
("Thanks, but I really should stop at three pieces of cake.")
Ma ei taha kedagi solvata, aga ma tahaksin oma püksid saunas jalga jätta. Ja võib-olla ka selle hommikumantli.
("I don't mean to offend, but I'd like to keep my shorts on for sauna. Oh, and maybe this robe.")
Kas päike tuleb veel kunagi välja?
("Will the sun ever come out again?")
Palun, jumala pärast, laske mind siit saunast välja!
("Please, for the love of God - let me out of this sauna!")
Aaaaaayiiiiiiiiieeeee!!! Ettevaatust, auto!
("Aaaaaayiiiiiiiiieeeee!!! Look out for that car!")
Tänan, ei. Ma ei soovi rohkem kooki, aitäh.
("No thanks, I've had enough cake, thank you.")
5. Ditch Your Maple Syrup
Forget about taking the easy way out at the airport gift shop. Nobody in Estonia uses maple syrup. Here they prefer to use condensed milk or strawberry jam-purée. Which is admittedly delicious and maybe better? Hard for me to say. I might just be sick of syrup, having used it my whole damn life.
Anyway, all Canadians think the world is just waiting to get their hands on our astounding maple syrup and delicious salmon (I'm from Vancouver). I think everyone in Europe is quite sick of this stuff, however, as they receive them as gifts all the time. I discovered this by accident when my parents came to visit and brought pretty much the exact same gifts that I had brought before: maple syrup, maple cookies and salmon. Busted!
Don't wait to shop at the airport. Get some hockey-related hats or something. The next time I traveled from Vancouver back to Tallinn I bought some mugs and coasters from Revolver instead. Much better (I hope).
UPDATE: My wife says she actually really likes maple syrup, maple cookies and salmon, and that Estonians do the exact same thing with Kalev chocolate tins and Vana Tallinn liquor. I guess every culture has their go-to lazy airport buys. Now I don't feel like such a jerk!
SPECIAL BONUS TIP:
If you are planning to visit Estonia in the summer, then start going to bed with all of your outdoor and indoor lights left on. In the summer, the sun never truly sets and 3:00 am feels exactly like 9:00 pm in Canada. This will f**k you up, especially with jet lag. If you are already a night owl like me, forget about ever sleeping again while you are here. Maybe with some sleep training you can get used to it. But I doubt it.
So there ya go. A handy guide to help acclimatize you to living in Estonia. Hopefully by following these tips your stay will be simply fantastiline. Terviseks!