As you may have noticed, I have changed the subtitle of my blog to remind readers that Itching for Eestimaa is about "the world's only post-communist Nordic country." I thought about what exactly that means and why I chose to pay homage to a speech by foreign Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves from 1999, and it came back to the dilemma that Ilves and I, both - at least at one point - Americans, have found ourselves having to do. Explaining to others what exactly Estonia is if it is not just another Slavic country in East Europe, like most of the other countries that end in "ia" - Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, etc. etc.
The first comparison most reach for is Finland. Most people have heard of Finland. They are aware that it is cold there and that it snows a lot and that the people like skiing and taking saunas and are quite often blonde. And that's not a bad way to get people started on understanding a peculiar mostly unknown nationality.
In the global media though, and in most International Affairs curriculi, and in Estonia as well, Estonia is known as a Baltic country or state, or sometimes even republic. This is frequently confused with Balkan - which is very different but similar sounding. Baltic means some basic things to people - formerly Soviet, small, on the border of Russia, on the Baltic sea. For the history buffs they might know something of the Teutonic knights, or the Baltic German manor houses that once dotted the land. But while this appelation helps describe geopolitical location and common history, it doesn't really say much about the Estonians as a people.
And what can be said about them? They are on the quiet side, on the blue eyed sandy haired side. They like to drink - they drink beer and vodka and both. They eat a lot of fish and potatoes and use the Internet like it was some third undiscovered side of their brain. They like berry picking and hiking through bogs and their folklore is filled with menacing woodland trolls and centers around the distressing and violent tale of an Estonian guy named Kalevipoeg. They have names like Signe and Hannes and Heiki and Tuuli and Juhan. And before you know it, you aren't discussing Estonians anymore. It seems like you are talking about Icelanders or the Faroese or Finns. You are talking about a Nordic people - and that's when they ask you.
"Are Estonians Scandinavians?" You would like to say yes, because that would be so easy to file away these people in a well-known drawer of humanity. But you can't, because the Latvians will tell you that the Estonians should get back in line and remember that Riga is the capital of the Baltics, and the Lithuanians will accuse then of thinking too high of themselves, and the Finns will look down their noses and snicker at the concept that their backward cousin wants to join the Arctic Circle club, and the Swedes - well, we won't even go there.
But regardless of what others think, you are still at a loss to describe the basic culture of Estonians. And that's where the N word comes in, Nordic, because you really can't think of a better word to describe them. It leaves enough wiggle room to make sure you won't insult Scandinavian pride, but it also allows you to easily characterize a people for those who wouldn't know Tallinn from T'bilisi.
What better way to describe the absurd and slightly disturbing cartoons of Priit Pärn, or the heavy morality of Tammsaare, or the forbidding poetry of Gustav Suits. How better can you explain why the characters in Õnne 13 rarely smile then ask someone if they've ever seen an Aki Kaurismäki film? It's just too easy to reach for the magic 'N' word and wave all the questions away.
And because this blog deals greatly with what exactly Estonia is and what is going on there, I too couldn't find a better way to sum the country up for others. I hope you don't mind.