|Our daughter Maria (right) and our friend's son Remi: the few, the proud, the babies.|
I owe it all to my sixth grade teacher, of all people. We were assigned to give a report on different countries and I had my fingers crossed for Scotland so that I could write about blood feuds and kilts, but I drew Iceland instead. Oh, Iceland, lovely Iceland, desolate lunar island in the middle of the North Atlantic, glaciers and the stink of sulphur. The project on Iceland sparked my interest in peculiar northern countries, a few twists in the road and I'm here. That was back in 1992, when the population of Iceland was about 260,000. Today, its population is nearly 320,000. That's right. In 20 years, Iceland has gained 60,000 new people.
Why does this interest us? Because in slightly more than half that amount of time, Estonia has lost more than that number. The preliminary census figures released in May showed that there were 1.29 million people resident in the country as of Jan. 1. That's down from 1.34 million in 2000, and 1.56 million way back in 1989. These days people in Estonia keep their fingers crossed for a month when they break even or even register population growth, if only by a few dozen new babies. It's a national preoccupation.
What's going on here? You are not going to convince me that Iceland has better weather, or its more centrally located, or it has a more diverse economy or less tumultuous history. It may have not been ravaged in multiple continental wars, but its population was decimated time and again by famine, volcanic eruptions, and plague. And even during this current Great Recession, where Reykjavik was ground zero, Iceland's population has continued to go up, while the Estonians, who are congratulating themselves for averting the worst of the crisis, continue to see their population decline, albeit at a slower rate than in previous years. "Estonia has proven itself as a country," says Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, except in the bedroom, I would like to add.
How can this be? Someone must be to blame. In Estonia, some blame the women who emigrate in greater numbers compared to the men, the women who settle in foreign lands and work in foreign economies and make foreign babies. Some blame the men who expect the women to make them food and do their laundry, forcing them to seek happiness elsewhere. Still others blame the Soviets for knocking Estonia off course, because Estonia and Finland were on equal footing in 1940, and now Estonia has fallen behind, and its population declines while Finland's continues to grow. Or maybe it is just the hyper-individualistic Estonian attitude, that one must serve his or her own interests before society's. It's every man for himself!
I honestly don't see the population decrease firsthand. I am surrounded by babies. I have a new baby, our neighbor has a new baby, my wife's cousin has a new baby and her stepsister has a new baby. My pal Sven's got five kids under 13. He deserves the Maarjamaa rist! If somebody's to blame for population decline, it's not us. But who is it then? Who is selling Estonia short? And why? There is this feeling in Estonia that we are leaking water, and someone must put a stop to it, before the tünnisaun runs dry.