The Estonian nation branding viewed by a French Erasmus student
In 1991, Estonia was restored as a sovereign Republic. For the past few years the country has been trying its best to promote Estonian culture and way of life. As an Erasmus student there, I will take you with me to Estonia to learn a little more about it.
End of January 2021. I finally arrived in Estonia for my Erasmus at Tartu University. It was just the beginning of a 6 months adventure in the country. Estonia tends to be unknown to most of my compatriots. This Eastern European country had been occupied by the Soviets for about 50 years before taking back its sovereignty with the fall of the USSR. Since 1991, this little State has evolved a lot. It has been part of the European Union (EU) for 13 years now, a stable democracy with women as President and Prime Minister and it hosts an impressive number of start-ups. Yet many French friends seemed puzzled regarding my choice of Estonia for Erasmus. Little did they know how much Estonia is actively putting forward some cultural elements and the quality of life to attract foreigners, and be recognized on an international level. Let's have a look.
No one can live in Estonia without acknowledging the importance of the national flag. As it had been hidden from the Soviets for decades, Estonians now put it everywhere. It is the first thing I saw leaving the airport of Tallinn, the capital, and I am sure it is the last thing I will see when leaving. Unlike France or Germany, it is far from being only hung on official buildings. When travelling through Estonia, from Happsalu to Valga or Viljandi, I would say almost one out of two houses had the Estonian flag hoisted in the garden. In my own building, the Estonian and the city flags were in the basement to be hoisted on the 24th of February, the Estonian National Day. Most of the supermarkets also sell some souvenirs with the Estonian flag on it. And it is so important that there is the eesti lipu päev too, the Estonian Flag Day. It reflects Estonian patriotism and nationalism in general. This can be explained by centuries of occupation by the Danes, the Germans, the Swedish kingdom, the Russian Empire, the Nazis and the USSR. If us, French, always tend to complain about everything, from our politicians to the names of our favorite pastries, overall, Estonian people seem proud of their country.
Estonian national-branding also focuses on the digital world : the State is well known for welcoming entrepreneurs, being one of the best top countries in Europe to create your start-up. Receiving my tote bag from Tartu University, one webcam cover was offered to me on the behalf of the Republic of Estonia E-Residency. The caption was clear about Estonian's ambition in the computer science sector: "Join the digital nation. We've got you covered". And this is how, after a few weeks adopting the Estonian way of life, I expected to find wifi everywhere, even in the middle of the forest.
Well, when I was in Nina, a tiny village next to Peipsi Lake, I was quite disappointed to notice I could not even check my Instagram ! Estonia is full of surprises after all. When I talked to an Estonian student on my flight to Tallinn, she directly told me how advanced her country was in terms of technology. Also it is constantly reminded to us that Skype was created in Tartu University. To live in Estonia, better create your Estonian ID card, functioning with a code that will be useful for everything. From e-voting to your health datas, everything is here. The French administration with those dozens of papers we have to fill in every year was suddenly very far away. To go ask for my drugs at the pharmacy, only my Estonian ID is needed. I almost miss my old French prescriptions on a paper version !
Estonia tries to project a positive image showcasing the importance of nature. Indeed, it is very accurate that nature has a special place in Estonians' lives. Talking to two Estonian young women while hiking in Taevaskoja, they told us Estonians tend to worship their forest and have a lot of legends related to it. When we went to Hiiumaa, the second biggest Estonian island, we lit a campfire and slept in a tent. This is very common in the country, where numerous campsites are set up. Nature does not belong to anyone and in return, everyone can technically enjoy it. It implies a notion of respect that is also well known in Finland, as both countries have similarities. Having a discussion with an Estonian woman who is now a mum, I understood how this perception of nature was prevalent from a very young age. She wanted to take her children to the same places next to the sea or the forest she went to, when she was a child herself. Estonians also enjoy picking mushrooms and wild berries in the forest. It is almost like a national sport. Sport is very related to nature and the way Estonians take care of their body.
A lot of them have walks along the Emajogi river in Tartu, go for a run, and do some canoeing during summer time. Going to the sauna and then swimming in the iced water is also an option. For the more courageous ones, it is also possible to participate in the Tartu ski marathon, taking place once a year in the winter. Because Estonia has no mountains, cross-country skiing is very popular. With my roommate, I had the chance to try once. I quickly realised Estonians were experts and children aged eight had a better level than us. Older Estonians were looking at us in a strange way, as we were desperately trying to move forward without falling on the snow. Well, everybody has their own personal skills I guess. Almost half of the territory is covered by woodland. We can also find many swamps and it is definitely a great experience to discover the bogs in one of the several national parks, such as Lahemaa, near the capital. If you are an animal lover, you will be surprised by the high number of birds flying over Estonia. We also almost got our car hit by an elk, which is not recommended. Estonia is a paradise for many species and contrary to the wifi everywhere, this is not a myth.
The State is doing its best to emphasize Estonian assets, notably its culture, landscapes and its special place in the digital world. But for a person like me who had the chance to discover many parts of Estonia and Estonian culture, it is more than this. It is a mix of little specificities that makes Estonia worth it. Lugging during winter just next to the University, trying to eat kama, meeting old Estonians and explaining to them in Estonian that you are vegetarian and you don't want fish in your sandwich, watching the Estonian candidate at the Eurovision, walking along the Baltic Sea, forgetting your reflector at home during winter…
Do you want me to tell you more ?
" Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm,
kui kaunis oled sa ! " (national anthem)
Article by Luna Perez, Exchange Student in Tartu Ülikool, Estonia