By Alex Davies
Alex Davies, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Tartu, moved to the city from London in 2012.
Before I arrived I was not acquainted with any of the cultural differences between the UK and Estonia. It takes time to realise they exist (in part because people will not comment explicitly on you breaking social norms), and patience and humility in your dealings with others — something I am still working on.
An example: in the UK, it is not unusual to hold a door for a second if someone is right behind you, or for that person to acknowledge the gesture (a quiet “thanks”, a smile, a nod). This custom is not nearly so widespread here: often people will not hold a door open or thank someone else for doing so. I have even witnessed a slightly aghast widening of the eyes — which can easily be misinterpreted as rudeness.
These little things might lead you to adopt the stereotype — something I learnt in my first language textbook — of an Estonian as a quiet, modest, inexpressive person who thinks small talk is a waste of time. There is some truth in this, but live here a while and experience will tend to overturn it.
In her memoir, philanthropist Sigrid Rausing, who as an anthropology student visited early post-Soviet Estonia in 1993-94, recalls her shock when a neighbour, who had appeared indifferent to her presence throughout her stay, burst into tears on her departure.
Tartu is second in size in Estonia only to Tallinn. Compared with the fast-paced, business-focused capital, however, Tartu is bohemian and laid back. Nonetheless, the enterprising frame of mind so common among Estonians is as much on show in Tartu as it is in Tallinn.
The city centre — neoclassical in style following its reconstruction after the Great Fire of 1775 — hosts many theatre, film and other cultural events, with at least three film festivals a year, including the outdoor Tartuff festival. I like swing dancing — a new scene in Tartu — and that has been a great way to get to know people outside work.
There are a few bars, such as Barlova and Genialistide Klubi, where live music sometimes overflows into the street. Jazz is popular, including concerts, perhaps unexpectedly, at the Estonian National Museum. For those in search of bigger musical names, Tallinn is a few hours away by train and Helsinki is less than an hour by plane.
In summer I like to cycle in the countryside and swim in Lake Vasula, a 25-minute ride from the city centre. Estonians often go swimming in the winter too, though usually to cool down after a sauna. I find going to the sauna naked with friends and colleagues beyond what I am comfortable with, though most foreigners come to love it.
Services in Tartu are often not widely advertised. To find a room in London, for example, you can use a website such as Gumtree. Here, though, finding a room, as opposed to an apartment, is more difficult; you really need to be hooked into the city’s social networks — something that applies in many areas of life here.
Fortunately, apartments are very cheap to rent compared with London (and, increasingly, Tallinn). You can get a decent place for €350 a month, although I have never paid more than €260 for a two-room apartment (plus bathroom and kitchen). But while a smaller proportion of your income will go on rent here compared with London, incomes in Estonia are significantly lower than in the UK. Heating can also be costly in winter, with temperatures dropping to around -20C.
I have always lived in a hruštšovka (the apartment blocks named after former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev). In many ways these are convenient, but their walls can be undesirably thin: overhearing arguing couples or a neighbour’s television set that is never turned off is common.
What do you wish you had known before you moved?
How to speak Estonian. Learning it has been a humiliating experience. Not only is it very difficult to learn, but so many Estonians in Tartu speak English very well, and most will jump into English at the smallest mistake. Yet mastering the language is central to developing a decent social life beyond those Estonians who regularly interact with foreigners.
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Photographs: Getty Images/iStockphoto; Alamy