Growing up, Estonia seemed like a far-off dream; a made-up fairy tale place I could impress fellow kids with in the sandpit. Now I had the chance to truly understand it.
My first impressions set the bar very high - I arrived to warm autumnal weather in Saaremaa to see distant cousins I had never met. Everything from the food, the people, and the temperature of the Baltic Sea (yes, I swam!) impressed me to no end. But the day the program started was when the fun truly began.
The Australians - myself (Silvi), James, Samuel, and Jesse (who you'll meet in the next few paragraphs) immediately bonded, and quickly became the notorious loud-mouths of the exchange group (what can I say, we're an excitable bunch). Amazingly this did not deter the majority of other participants and we all formed a fast, border-defying friendship that remains undying to this day.
Together our multicultural group, led by the wonderful Heleri Alles, saw sights we'd never seen before, climbed the tall trees of Nõmme Adventure Park, braved the fierce sea winds of Käsmu, traipsed over Tallinn's cobblestones, conquered the rivers of Põlva, opened our minds in Tartu, and set our sights on future careers in the formidable offices of Skype and Transferwise. The highlights for me were far and above Tartu's AHAA Science Centre and the newly built national museum.
Though the schedule was jam-packed, I can say without hesitation that it's the best introduction to a country I have ever had the pleasure of being part of. It solidified the wonderful fact that at any point, should I choose to, I can become a citizen of this small but unique land and live and work as a local. Who knows, maybe if I can get my vocabulary and pronunciation down pat, I may just do that one day.
And now for Samuel and Jesse's story...
The space is warm and homely, the raw timber emanating an aesthetic of a time long since passed.
Snow silently falls on the roofs of quaint village houses, a stone's throw away from where I find myself.
Seated behind the room's single desk under the room's single window, the world I see outside appears so juxtaposed to the one in which I sit.
A cup of hot tea at my side. A fire behind me. Spitting, crackling, slowly breathing, the delicate flavours of charred woods and ash waft throughout the room alongside a gentle, radiant heat.
Serenity reigns supreme.
The resonant 'donging' of church bells grabs my attention by the scruff. Soft, low tones are the foundation of this mid-day chorus.
High, piercing 'pings' thrust though that sea of deep reverberations on every other beat.
Minutes pass and the sea calms; only the sharpest of sounds remain. Then, soon after, silence.
Estonia has been my home for little more than three weeks now.
The four most recent days of which were spent in the village of Viljandi, meeting family who share with me not only a great-grandfather but their kindness, love, hospitality and acceptance.
The weeks before, and the reason for my sudden appearance in Eesti, were spent partaking in something very special indeed...
If, a few months ago, you'd told me I would soon be sitting at my computer, writing a reflection of my recent trip to Estonia, I'd not have believed you. Firstly, my chances of being accepted into the Back To Our Roots program were, I thought, slim, and, secondly, I had to battle my own indecisiveness with regards to embarking on such an adventure—into the great unknown. What I can now report is that this trip has resulted in such a great deal of personal growth and development for myself and, I'm sure, for the other participants of the program as well. Lifelong friendships have been forged and unforgettable experiences undergone throughout the course of the exchange, and I have already taken to planning my triumphant return to Estonia.
Unique to this program was its showcasing of so many different aspects of Estonian life. Our group experienced an incredibly varied taste of everything Estonia has to offer, from the well-known and beautifully historic tourist spots in Tallinn's Old Town and the University of Tartu to the wilds of the unique Estonian countryside; the scenic marshlands of Lahemaa National Park, the beautiful wilderness and cliffs in Taevaskoja and the quaint captains' village Käsmu. The program's focus on education and industry provided valuable insight into Estonia's innovative approach to business, technology and government, and in doing so, demonstrated why iconic businesses such as Transferwise, Skype and Playtech choose to operate within Estonia. Our visit to Tartu University and discussion with the Archimedes Foundation regarding scholarships and study opportunities was both exciting and informative, inspiring further research into the kinds of incentives Estonia's government extends to international students.
To select a highlight from the trip is difficult given the lack of a nadir. It's not just been the unforgettable privilege of having become acquainted with a formerly foreign country as intimately as we have in such a short space of time, nor is it the knowledge that I now have several places to crash for a few days the next time I find myself in Europe (many thanks, new friends!). This beautiful little Baltic country tucked away in the farthest reaches of the continent is the first European country I have visited and, although significant, this fact is overshadowed by another: everything I experienced, every adventure had, every indelible memory made, was all the more significant due to the fact that I was, as the program title suggests, returning to my long-lost heritage. Undoubtedly the most powerful moment of the trip for me was waking up early one crisp, chilly morning in Tallinn to visit my ancestral home (now the French Embassy in Estonia due to an inability to provide documentation proving ownership following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s). As I awkwardly asked a local to photograph me in front of it, trying (and failing) to explain its significance to her—imagining my grandfather and his family in situ all those years ago—I was overcome by an immense sense of belonging in what might otherwise have felt like a totally foreign place.
Needless to say, this trip has not only left me with a thirst for further adventure and travel, but a stark wish to improve my understanding of the language (ma ei räägi palju eesti keelt), to explore the possibility of studying in Estonia and to otherwise set aside time for a long-term stay in my new-found home away from home. My thanks and gratitude to Heleri Alles and Seiklejate Vennaskond for organising this truly life-changing experience, and to my fellow participants for being such wonderful friends and for taking this inexperienced young traveller under your wings.
If you are thinking of participating in this program, please visit
http://www.seiklejad.org/rahvuskaaslased.html for more details.
Article written in collaboration by Silvi Vann-Wall, Samuel Pleass, and Jesse Seeberg-Gordon.
|Australian-Estonians go back to their roots The day I got the email to say I had been accepted as a participant in the ‘Back to Our Roots’ youth exchange program was one of the best days of my life. I finally had the chance to see Estonia, the beloved home country of my grandparents.|