How I Became a Rahvuskaaslane (2)
By Katariina Jaenes
First, the facts: From 13th to 24th of August, I had the incredible opportunity of participating in the Back to Our Roots Youth Exchange in Estonia, organized by Seiklejate Vennaskond in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Research and the Estonian Youth Work Centre (ENTK). My participation in this trip was possible thanks to Estonian Credit Union and lovely members of the Toronto Estonian Community. The project aimed to bring together 30 Estonians between the age of 18-26. Ten from Estonia, and the others from all corners of the world, including Canada, U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Panama, Chile, and Argentina, to name but a few. No knowledge of Estonian required, just the roots and the willingness to embark on an 11 day journey across the kodumaa.
Not only did I get to meet a fantastic group of new people and become a ‘rahvuskaaslane’ (I was knighted thusly on the very last day), this type of experience was unusual – for on top of providing us with a grand tour of Estonia and its culture (led by our 10 Estonian flatmates), we were also introduced to realistic opportunities for work and study in Estonia.
Among one of these rare opportunities was a visit the Mektory (Modern Estonian Knowledge Transfer Organization foR You), a centre for innovation and business at the Tallinn University of Technology. At Mektory we were shown their studios and prototyping labs (including a ventilation engineering lab decked out with a disco ball and strobe lights) and study rooms designed in the cultural style of their sponsoring country (it is worth noting that the Finnish room is equipped with a fully functioning sauna). On top of informing us about how to pursue studies at the TTÜ, we were also told about workshops and programs available to all age groups, geared towards promoting STEM education and innovation – including national startup competitions for school children.
While in Tallinn, we also got a chance to visit Garage48 at Lift99. Lift99 (formerly Garage48 Hub) is a well-known Startup hub in Estonia with the mandate to ‘lift 99 rockstars off the ground’ by providing a collaborative space for startups and freelancers. Lift99 boasts of their “unshakable WiFi” and their Estonian Mafia wall of fame. To qualify for the #EstonianMafia title, a company must make an annual revenue of at least $500k and/or receive at least $1M in funding. Among the #EstonianMafia was TransferWise – a well established company that facilitates international money transfers.
Visiting TransferWise headquarters was akin to what I imagine visiting the famed Google headquarters would be. The space was a refreshing blend of quirky and functional (there was a ball pit style meeting room called Amazeballs), and the workers were extremely friendly - providing us with many a high five. We were also given the inside info on how to apply for a job at TransferWise, and about the unusual types of questions asked at interviews (a personal favourite involves asking interviewees to solve a problem using a blank piece of paper.)
In Tartu, we got the opportunity to visit the University of Tartu, and to hear about the programs that are available for students. In Tartu, and later at the Estonian Ministry of Science and Education, we learned that tuition for Estonians is, for the most part, free (!). Additionally, we learned about various scholarships, including the possibility of having our living expenses covered if we were to study in Estonian. Of interest to many people in our group were the intensive Estonian language courses that are offered trhough the University of Tartu, some of them even available online.
Another curious thing to witness was the sheer digital efficiency of the country. At the Estonian Parliament, we learned about i-voting (internet voting) – which allows Estonians to vote in elections from the comfort of their home (or technically wherever they have internet connection– which is pretty much everywhere from my experience.) Even more fascinating was learning about the e-Cabinet, or the Information System for Government Sessions. The e-Cabinet renders cabinet meetings essentially paperless – providing information to ministers about weekly agendas, and allowing them to register their opinions and whether they would like to speak on the topic online beforehand. By adopting this system, they were reportedly able to cut down weekly cabinet meetings by 4-5 hours. Additionally, at the Tax and Customs Board we learned about how truly simple it is to file taxes in Estonia, as they are all filed *surprise* digitally. As someone who knows the struggle of filing taxes in Canada, it felt strange to hear that the entire process of filing one’s taxes could take less than 15mins.
Along with the opportunity to explore career options and to witness the modernisation of Estonia, we also had the chance to have a little bit of fun. Not only did we visit some of the more touristy areas of Estonia (which includes a trip to the Old Town, and a hustle up to the top of Oleviste Church), we also had the chance to explore the small-town village of Käsmu – with its gorgeous sea-side, equipped with a Kuradisaar (Devil’s Island). We traveled to the depths of Taevaskoja (Heaven’s Halls) via canoe, and got lost in the forests of Estonia on the way back (an episode in the series that I affectionately call Getting Lost With Estonians in Estonia). In Tartu, we had the opportunity to peek into the newly minted Eesti Rahvamuuseum (ERM), and walk through their high-tech exhibit on the Finno-Ugric peoples. In Kadriorg, we managed to get a glimpse of president Kersti Kaljulaid as she was moving between meetings. At home in our flat in Tallinn, we were tasked with preparing traditional Estonian foods for our friends – my flat decided to make roosa manna (a decision we came to regret as we realised that our apartment lacked whisks)
I left Estonia feeling sad, but extremely grateful – for this opportunity to reconnect with Estonia after being away for 6 years, for my new Estonian family, and ultimately for my community in Toronto. Many of my fellow rahvuskaaslased had never met an Estonian their age before – but I had been privileged to grow up with an entire community of Estonians in Toronto that has supported me and the development of my identity. Ultimately, I somehow managed to emerge from my trip, if possible, even more Estonian.