Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Estonia Celebrates Lasting Liberty Day

Today is a very special day for Estonia-- on this day, the country's present period of independence will surpass the length of the first period of independence from 1918 to 1940. It has been named Lasting Liberty Day, or Priiuse põlistumise päev in Estonian. The independent Estonian Republic was born on 24 February 1918 with the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia (Estonian Declaration of Independence) issued by the Salvation Committee of Estonia, but the next day Tallinn was conquered by the troops of the German Reich. This marked the beginning of the German occupation during the period of WWI. Thus the first period of independence lasted only for one short day.
long-hermannThe Republic of Estonia has now been free for longer than it was prior to the occupations.From 11 November 1918, when Emperor Wilhelm's Germany collapsed and retreated from Estonia, the Republic of Estonia could fully implement the independence declared in February. The period of this country's actual independence started on 11 November 1918. On this day, the Government of Estonia took office and ministries commenced work. An independent Estonian state had become a reality.
The period of independence that began in 1918 – the Eesti aeg in Estonian– came to an abrupt end after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed and the Soviet Union army occupied Estonia on 17 June 1940. A look at the calendar shows that Estonia had been free for 7889 consecutive days. This year, on 27 March, we will exceed this number. Today 7889 plus 1 day will have passed since 20 August 1991, meaning that the liberty period of the Estonian Republic will have lasted longer than ever before. For Estonia's self-perception, this could be also seen as a turning point: after 27 March 2013, the lengthier period of Estonia's freedom will have elapsed in the re-independent Estonia and not in the pre-war republic. This is an important milepost.
Lasting Liberty Day is a day we can express our gratitude to all those who have sacrificed so that we could live in this free and independent country. Central and local government institutions will hoist flags. All people in Estonia are invited to use the colours of the national flag on this day – either by hosting a national flag, wearing blue-black-white clothes, or wearing a badge on their chest.
People are also being encouraged to complete 7890 metres of any sports activity they like, for example walking, running or skiing. The energy created in the course of the exercise will be dedicated to Estonia. Further information:!/vabakaik?fref=ts

Monday, 25 March 2013

European Easter Traditions

With Easter approaching it's a good time to take a look at some of the interesting and unique Easter traditions that will be practiced across Europe this coming weekend. Whilst we all know that copious amounts of chocolate will be consumed on Sunday - what else is on the agenda? Read on and find out!

Estonia - Eggs, Spring and life are the universal symbols of Easter throughout the world and like most nations, Estonians love to paint eggs! Natural food dyes are very popular - brown onion skins, beetroot juice, spinach or flowers are used to colour eggs before designs are applied.

The 'knocking of eggs' is a popular Estonian tradition during the festive season. Here friends and family are invited to take part in a competition and whoever cracks the opponents egg first without cracking their own is declared the winner!

France - Church bells are silent in France for several days leading up to Easter. Children are told that the bells have gone to Rome to fetch their eggs and when they hear the bell ringing on Easter Sunday they know the eggs have arrived! This creates much excitement and joy for the little ones. One of the games children play in France is tossing an egg up into the air and the first one to land on the ground is the loser.

Germany -  The most beautiful Easter eggs in Germany can be found in the small Sorbian village of Schleife. These colourful eggs can be purchased at the annual Easter markets held in mid March.

In Germany they also have the "Easter Fire" tradition of burning old Christmas trees marking the end of winter and coming of spring.

Poland -  Etching painted eggs is popular in Poland as is the Easter Monday custom of  "Smingus-Dyngus". This usually begin innocently by sprinkling young ladies with a bit of perfumed water then develops into water a fight - it's lots of fun!

Ukraine - People in the Ukraine produce some of the most beautiful Easter eggs in the world by the technique known as "pysanky". This involves creating designs using a special instrument called a "kistka" or "stylus" with melted bees wax.

Greece - It is a common practice to have an outdoor banquet in Greece on Easter Sunday. Popular items on the menu are lamb, eggs, salad and Easter cakes spread on long tables for everyone to enjoy.

Ireland -  No meat is eaten in Ireland on Good Friday, everyone eats fish.

Italy - Pretzels were originally an Easter food in Italy. The twisted shape represented two arms in prayer.

United Kingdon - Hot cross buns are eaten exclusively at Easter. (And in Australia!)

Sweden - It is not the Easter bunny who brings eggs to children in Sweden, rather the "Easter Hare".

Russia - Pussy willow branches are picked in Russia for Easter. People use them to tap each other on the shoulder to wish good luck.

The most expensive Easter eggs of all time are, of course, the Faberge eggs.  They were first created in 1885 when Tzar Alexander III wanted to give his wife a unique gift for Easter. It became a tradition and each year he commissioned a new design for his wife. His son Nicholas II kept up the tradition and did the same for his wife too - how romantic!

This year I will be spending Easter in Prague. It's one of the few places in Europe where anything will be open during the Easter. In the Czech Republic only Easter Monday is a public holiday so it's a good time to visit and perhaps try something new. (I'm going indoor skydiving!)

In the Czech Republic their Easter Monday tradition is to tie colourful ribbons on branches and in the morning boys run around tapping girls with the branches and in the afternoon the girls get the boys back by throwing water on them!

Estonia Remembers Soviet Deportation Victims

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Estonia - Life in a Networked Society

Telecommunications giant Ericsson has recently released a documentary style video called "Life in a Networked Society" highlighting the e-services available in Estonia.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Birgit Õigemeel Will Represent Estonia at the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest

The verdict is in. On March 2nd it was announced that the song selected to represent Estonia at Eurovision in Sweden this year will be "Et uus saaks alguse." After two semi finals, the ten best songs battled it out at the Nokia Music Hall in Tallinn seeing Et uss saaks alguse come out ahead of North Tallinn's hit Meil on aega veel which was voted song of the year in 2012.

Eurovision will take place in Malmo, Sweden on the 14th, 16th and 18th May 2013.
The official CD will be released in April and can be purchased online from

Friday, 15 March 2013

Estonia - A Cold Place with a Warm Heart

This is an article I wrote for a magazine recently.

Tucked away in Northern Europe is a country that has really come to life during the past twenty years. Since restoring its independence in 1991 Estonia has emerged as one of the world’s most dynamic and modern free market economies. Estonia’s innovative and efficient government has become a shining example to the world of how a government ought to function.  Its pragmatic approach has enabled important legislative changes to take place without all the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy. The results speak for themselves. Estonia’s economy has markedly outperformed those in all of the other ex-Soviet countries and in 2011 Estonia achieved more economic growth (8%) than any other country in the European Union, coming ahead of economic giants Germany, France and the UK.

     Gone are the days when Estonia was a little known isolated country which people had barely heard of and struggled to locate on a map. Today Estonia is a rising star, a country known for its vision, tech savvy citizens and abundance of natural beauty.  Estonia has one of the highest per capita use of mobile phones in the world which explains why there are no longer any public phone booths in Estonia. They don’t need them. Most people do their banking, voting and even pay for their parking online as Wi-Fi is available in every corner of the country.

     Estonia’s countryside has an enchanting gentleness about it which you fall in love with slowly and imperceptibly.  Two thirds of Estonia is covered in forest, it has over 1500 islands and also boasts a 3,794km long coastline.  In summer it’s quite possible to have an entire beach to yourself.  Winter brings the opportunity to travel across Estonia’s ice roads, an interesting, quick and cheap way to get across to the islands. There are six official ice roads in Estonia connecting the mainland to the islands of Hiiumaa, Vormsi, Muhu and Kihnu across the Baltic Sea. There is also an ice road linking the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.  The longest ice road in Europe links Hiiumaa to the mainland and is some 26.5km long. 

     The tourist stream to Estonia has steadily increased in recent years and people are curious to discover what is so great about this country, the birth place of Skype. When I first visited Estonia in 2003 tourist buses didn’t exist but when I returned in 2006 they had become ubiquitous. Word had obviously spread that Estonia is definitely a place worth visiting.

     Most visitors never get to see the true beauty that is Estonia; they fly in or come over by ferry and spend a few days taking in the sights of Tallinn, rarely venturing out of the capital. Of course visiting Tallinn’s Old Town is a must; the 13th century gothic architecture is UNESCO heritage listed and quite spectacular. If you take the short walk up to Toompea Hill you’ll also discover the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is believed to be the final resting place of Estonian folk hero Kalev.

     The best way to discover Tallinn is by foot. Walking along the cobbled streets, weaving in and out of passageways you’ll find a treasure trove of historic sites.  St. Catherine’s Passage in particular is very interesting. Here you will find what’s left of St. Catherine’s Church and the ancient tombstones which used to line the inside of the sanctuary. Also located here is an Estonian timeline carved onto a long row of stones on the pavement. It’s a great history lesson for anyone wanting to know more about Estonia’s past. It mentions when the Reformation reached Estonia, the country’s early Christianisation and gives the date of the first known book written in the Estonian language. That was in 1525 by the way – a bible.

     It’s also likely you’ll encounter a few interesting characters while in Tallinn. Apart from the flame throwers and people dressed up in medieval costume in the Old Town, I once came across a rather cheeky young Russian beggar who wouldn’t let up until I gave him some money. As I walked along Uus Street looking for the house once occupied by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1849, the young Russian approached me. He appeared a little drunk which might explain why he was so persistent. He followed me down the street, not sure where I was from and rattled off a list of different currencies in the hope to snag one. He made me laugh each time he asked for ‘please, one Euro’, ‘one Pound’, ‘one Kroon’, ‘one dollar’ etc.  I laughed even more when he launched into the Asian currencies, being the white European that I am. He was very entertaining and didn’t look poor to me at all, more likely he had just run out of beer money. I told him he should probably go home and sober up. I’m not sure if he took my advice.

     The only way to truly experience the immense beauty of Estonia is to hire a vehicle and travel around the country for several weeks at a time. I did this during my first visit to the country and it was well worth it. The thrill of hitting the road and venturing into one of Europe’s last wildernesses brings you many unexpected surprises. Estonia is full of impressive old manor houses once owned by the ruling German elite, forests full of edible wild mushrooms and berries and castle ruins lining the coast.  Although rare, you might just be lucky enough to spot the European brown bear in its natural habitat. 

     Estonia consists of fifteen counties, each unique in their own way but there is one community that sets itself apart from all the others.  This region is Setomaa, a portion of Estonia’s southernmost county Võrumaa.  The Seto people actually comprise a culture within a culture. They have their own language which is very similar to Estonian but different enough to be considered a separate language.  There are approximately 12,500 Setos who live in closed cluster villages and have very little contact with foreigners.

     Setomaa is not one of those places you visit by accident; it’s one of the least accessible parts of Estonia with only one or two roads which lead there. Since most Seto people don’t come into contact with foreigners often, you must be mindful not to be disrespectful and launch straight into English when wanting to communicate with someone. Whilst many Estonians in Tallinn can speak English, there’s little use for it in Setomaa. At best people might be able to communicate with you in Russian, perhaps German as those are the only other languages they have been exposed to.  When I last visited Setomaa my communication skills were put to the test when I ate at a little café near a petrol station.  I quickly realised there was no common language between me and the cashier so I had to rely on what little Estonian and Russian I knew as well use a lot of sign and body language to place my order.  Setos like other Estonians are very polite and helpful people and always appreciate your effort to engage with them in their language.

     The festival season is a major highlight on every Seto’s calendar. Singing in particular is a big part of their culture and is used to keep their traditions and identity alive in the younger generations. The Setos have a very unique style of singing known as “Leelo” where a soloist sings a verse which is then repeated polyphonically by the entire choir.  The most revered of all the singers are the Seto “song mothers” who have learned many thousands of verses.  They are the most important keepers of the Setos’ traditions.  In 1986 a statue was unveiled, honouring the memories of some of the earlier song mothers and many singing gatherings take place around the statue. 

     The Estonian national costume varies between regions but in Setomaa it is particularly distinct.  The women wear very large and decorative headdresses and large silver breast plates around their necks.  Traditionally festive costumes were often handed down from generation to generation and depending upon whether you are married, single, or widowed would determine how you wear certain garments. A girl for example, would never wear an apron or cover her head in summer or partly even in winter, she would use only a ribbon or garland to decorate her hair. A married woman on the other hand, had to cover her hair and wear an apron. It was believed that an apronless woman of the farm would damage the fertility of the fields. A pregnant girl also had to wear an apron.

     National pride is strong in Estonia. After centuries of foreign occupation and repression it was the Estonians’ relentless desire to preserve their language and culture that saw them through their dark past. Estonians are resilient people and If you call an Estonian stubborn it will always be taken a as compliment.  Although it’s engrained in the Estonian psyche to be wary of strangers and they may initially appear reserved, once they get to know you, you’ll discover they are an immensely warm, helpful and sincere people.

     Estonia is a cold place with a warm heart and once you experience it for yourself you’ll probably want to go back. There is no better time to visit Estonia than now. 2013 marks the 95th birthday of the Estonian nation and celebrations will take place throughout the year. There is no doubt that this year you will see Estonia at its best.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Translating Old Estonian Documents

I have been researching my family history for many years now and as wonderful it is to receive information that you were unaware of, it can often be frustrating trying to make legible some of the handwriting. Many of the documents found in the Estonian archives are not only written in the Estonian language but Russian and German too.  The old German style of handwriting known as "Sutterlin"is particularly difficult to read unless you have a trained eye.  If you are getting stuck with this like I have, here's a solution. I have found a website that translates documents for free and they usually have the translation complete in six weeks. For more information,  please refer to their website -

Monday, 4 March 2013

Estonian Film Festival 2013 (Munich)

The Estonian Film Festival kicks off in a few weeks time in Munich. From the 14th - 17th March 2013 you will be able to see the best of current Estonian films which will be screened at Munich's Central Library in Rosenheimer Str. 5. The festival program includes the acclaimed film "Mushrooming" and celebrates 100 years of Estonian cinema.

More information can be found  at -

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Twenty Estonian Proverbs

I'm quite fond of proverbs and inspirational quotes. Here are twenty Estonian proverbs you may or may not have heard of.

1. The roots of an old tree are always strong.

2. Beauty does not fill your tummy.

3. Who does not thank for a little will not thank for a lot.

4. A poor beggar is the one who begs without a bag.

5. He who takes pains will get things done.

6. Sometimes silence is the proper answer.

7. There is no room for two kings in one castle.

8. Wasting time is stealing from oneself.

9. Who cannot be trusted with small things cannot be trusted with big things.

10. Earth is more precious than gold.

11. May your face be as ice.

12. Who works hard will feel no hunger.

13. Who is burnt once is afraid of fire.

14. Patience makes all hardships light.

15. Barking dogs don't catch hares.

16. Who asks a lot will get wiser.

17. Make fun of the man, not of his hat.

18. The mouth is the interpreter of the heart.

19. Who does not jump into water will not learn to swim.

20. Age comes from yourself.