Living on the Top of the World – An Italian in Estonia

For an Italian like me, living at a latitude of 59.4 could feel like living on the top of the world. During my almost 3 year adventure living and working in Estonia, I have mixed feelings. The biggest downside was the lack of light in winter, but despite that, I recommend a visit.

Tallinn is a charming medieval city. Walking in the city centre you feel like you are in a history book. It’s worth a visit for its beauty, but not just for that. I have never seen a cleaner city. Each building has a house manager who regularly cleans the side-walk, even from the snow and leaves. And everyone uses waste bags when walking out their dogs. I don’t know in your country, but in other European cities, believe me, it’s not like that. Brussels, just to name one, is very dirty, in spite of the fact that they clean it everyday.

Seasons in Estonia

I am from Bologna, winters are quite cold there, but living on the top of the world has meant facing even colder winters. My family and I waited with anxiety for the arrival of our first November in town. Estonians had described it as the “frightening” month of the year. In fact, in almost every European country, November brings shorter days and rain, but in Estonia it was as if the light was switched off!

Then December arrived bringing the first cold. My son and I tried bravely to use the public transport – very efficient despite extreme weather conditions and free if you are a resident there – but waiting for the tram in the cold, snow and wind was too much for us. After a while, we stopped and always used the car. That’s one of the challenges of living at the top of the world.

In summer, when the sun shines, it’s pleasant, because it’s never too hot. This is one of the advantages of living at the top of the world. The average temperature is 20° C. Tallinn’s main beach, Pirita, is beautiful and you can go sailing and swimming, although I didn’t dare to put a foot in the sea. It was too cold for me. I sailed though.

Estonians way of life

Estonians love singing: more than a hobby, it’s an obsession! Every town has its own choir. I remember once I was stuck in a long procession with thousands of Estonians dressed in regional costumes, carrying flags and playing brass instruments, all off to gather for their Song Party.

The country’s unspoilt forests and beaches are beautiful. Nature is respected, being actually considered a divinity. To cut down a tree, public consultations are organized if not true petitions. Some of the most serious public censure has been for crime against trees. This leads to peculiar situations like one in the island of Saaremaa where there is a tree right in the middle of a football field. They won the award Tree of the Year 2015. Some friends have seen bears and elks; I was not so lucky.

No Estonian could imagine life without a sauna; some even build them in their apartments or houses. Anything less than a weekly session is unthinkable. This is what I miss the most. Here in Belgium, the quality of swimming pools, Turkish baths, saunas and all related to body care is not even comparable. I have not yet found in Brussels a place that offers those services all together on the same site. In Tallinn, however, it is the norm.

Have you ever experienced anything like living under extreme conditions? Of course, the definition of extreme conditions is very personal!

For more on life as an expat, please listen to Wise & Shine first podcast, where Troy and I talked about our life experiences. You can also visit my blog.

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16 thoughts on “Living on the Top of the World – An Italian in Estonia

  1. Estonia sounds very interesting! I love the seriousness about managing trees- I often wish that we would do the same thing here in the US. We just cut down trees with little thought here- it makes me angry sometimes. The choir in every town is neat too! There was a tradition here we’re many towns would have their own concert band but that tradition has died away and now there are only a few left, but those that remain have a rich history. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. I’m with Todd — Estonians take their trees seriously — I love that – especially the sharing that one was so prized it was kept in middle of a football field. Wow.
    Thanks for a fun post. I now have a massive desire for a ‘good sweat’ in a sauna. It’s chilly here today and that sounds like terrific self-care…if only! 😉

  3. Wow – what an interesting view into life in Estonia, Cristiana! I love the tree in the middle of the football field – such a great story! Lovely post.

  4. thanks, Cristiana!

    I love that part of the world. I lived in nearby Poland for 2.5 years when I was in the Peace Corps. A lot of what Cristiana says about Estonia is true about Rzeczpospolita Polska too.

    One fascinating factoid. On every evening of broadcast news, the reporters spend about a third of the entire newscast reporting on art, music, the literary scene, and such. Can you imagine an American newscast even mentioning these cultural topics in any sort of substantive way? (American media has entire channels that do nothing but financial reporting.)

    Another factoid: Americans love to mow their lawns and really “control” nature in their public spaces. The Poles let nature get very unruly. Two very different views on what to do with the natural world.

    One last factoid: When I was teaching at the university in Poland, I would regularly have class in nearby bars after the students told me that they didn’t want to study in the classroom. (And my boss encouraged me to do this; in fact, all the other academics did this sort of thing too.)

    We often think “our way” is normal. It’s very eye-opening to live in a country where “normal” looks very different.

    1. I did not know that about Poland! Regarding the news, it’s a kind of the same here in Belgium. Therefore I stopped watching the Italian news. It’s not because they report about the financial world, but it’s because they give mainly bad news.

  5. Lovely post Cristina. It’s always interesting to hear about living in other countries. It sounds like Estonians have got their appreciation of nature spot on as a priority.

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