One Estonia, 98 Nationalities

In celebration of Estonia’s upcoming 98th anniversary as an independent state, news portal Delfi is running a series of short video interviews with people of 98 different nationalities who live in Estonia. The interviewees reveal what they think about the country and what they like here.

Carlos came to Estonia from Guatemala five years ago to study Computer Science at the University of Tartu. Now he runs his own IT company in Tartu. “I think Estonia is a great country in many ways. It’s hard to get to know people, but afterwards they become great friends. I think Estonia has a lot of IT-talent, so it’s easy to work here,” says Carlos.

Kerwin is from the Philippines and came to Estonia in August last year to join a master’s programme in Software Engineering at the University of Tartu. “What I like most about Estonia is the focus on information technology. Estonia was able to build top companies like Skype and TransferWise.”

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Meet Jason, the Debating Origami Artist

Jason DydynskiYou might find American Jason Dydynski authentically weird. No wonder, because Jason can spend nights and days cutting and folding tiny pieces of paper to make spectacular evening dresses and even wearable pants. He admits once being caught folding paper cranes in his sleep. Jason also loves dancing while walking the Tartu streets with his headphones on.

He thinks Estonians are the human version of cats, and he used to speak Estonian with a Korean accent. When Jason does homework and feels bored, he makes random squeaking sounds (just listen to the audio below). Oh, and he studies in the master’s programme in semiotics – is semiotics even a field of study?

Listen to some of the embarrassing stuff that Jason has revealed about himself in an interview with Merilyn Merisalu, Editor-in-chief of the UT magazine.


Jason the origami artist

The town where Jason grew up in Maryland has a large Korean population, so he learned the Korean alphabet to read street and restaurant signs. His interest in Asian cultures led him to origami, which Jason has been doing since middle school. His hobby is origami fashion design – Jason has created outfits and headpieces for fashion magazines and shows in the U.S. The modular origami that Jason is fond of requires a lot of tedious work with small pieces of paper to form bigger patterns. It’s painful.

Origami dress

An origami dress by Jason. Photo from a personal archive

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Your Memory Is Not a Video Camera

Recording the world

Saving memories is unlike recording videos: our brains influence what we perceive and what will be memorized. Image credit: Khánh Hmoong / Creative Commons

“I remember exactly…” – we all know this phrase from various quarrels with friends or spouses, discussing issues like who paid the bill or washed dishes, or whose mother-in-law was the first to act inappropriately. But scientific data from the last three decades show clearly that this half-sentence is misleading — we never remember exactly.

Our memories are not like the recordings of a video camera. What’s stored in memory is never a one-to-one copy of what really happened in the world. The way our brains are built influences what we perceive, and what is perceived biases what will be memorized. The twist is that our brains are  structurally different from each other, and these differences mean that even exactly the same event will be remembered differently by two persons.

In addition, we never memorize everything. Even really important events can slip away unnoticed. A classical experiment by Simons and Levin 1 found that when the participants’ attention was momentarily disrupted, they didn’t notice that the person they were talking to just a moment ago had changed, although the change had been total — it was now a completely different person. Our brains record in a selective manner.

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Notes:

  1. Simons, D. J., & Levin, D. T. (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(4), 644-649.
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No Country Stands Alone – Except Maybe Syria!

On New Year’s Eve, many an Estonian was patiently waiting in front of their screens for one of their most beloved shows, Tujurikkuja (‘Mood Spoiler’). Sketch after sketch the tension rose, until the last song aired on national television. Immediately after, both delighted and infuriated parts of the audience took to social media. National media followed. The Estonian Prime Minister also tweeted in appreciation of the parody.

Some see the song as volume two of the three-year-old parody To be Estonian – it sucks! that famously made fun of the constant moaning and self-pity of Estonians. The new parody tackled intolerant, xenophobic attitudes within Estonian society towards refugees and minority groups. As Mare Ainsaar, Senior Researcher at the UT Institute of Social Studies, put it:

2015 was the year when both Europe and Estonia discussed immigration and refugees. Although a mere 221 refugee applications reached Estonia, the country witnessed a passionate discussion over the possible arrival of thousands. Another litmus test on tolerance was the debate over the Cohabitation Act that would legalise, among other things, same-sex partnerships. The song is about Estonia in 2015.

The reaction to the song was painful: a wave of ‘unfriending’ swept through Estonian Facebook, separating those in awe of the parody and those feeling insulted. Did the parody increase or decrease the coherence in society? Is it beneficial in the longer term? Continue reading

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Top 10 Most Read Stories from 2015

Here are our best stories from 2015, based on how much attention they received from our readers. More precisely, these stories had the most eyeballs viewing them throughout the year. Besides that, all stories enjoyed a good amount of attention from readers who spent  4.5 to 8 minutes on a story on average (that is, if you trust Google Analytics, which you can’t always do, but at least you get a reference point and some basis for comparison).

So, technical details aside, here comes our glorious list:

1. 10 Estonian Tongue Twisters for Language Hackers

Are you a language hacker? Try learning 10 difficult but fun Estonian words and phrases. Well, this one ain’t easy even for Estonians:

Võib võid võtta või ei või võid võtta?

2. On the Ethics and Philosophy of Sex

Francesco Orsi writes about his course on the ethics and philosophy of sex. The course contains a bit of everything that is central to doing philosophy. “First, in the course we learn to ask and answer a classical philosophical question since Socrates: “what is the essence of X”? The X in our case is, naturally, sex. A second aspect is the critical analysis of concepts. Two significant examples here are perversion and objectification. Third, in the course we practice ethical argument.

3. How Do Estonian and American Students Differ?

Marika Seigel, a visiting associate professor in the UT Department of English Philology last year, compares her Estonian students to their American peers. “Estonian students get dressed for class! In my experience, they do not come to class in sweatpants, or pajama pants, or pajama pants paired with Uggs, or (as happened to me once early in my teaching career) nothing but a bathrobe and slippers.” Continue reading

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How Sharing a Meal Is About Sharing a Culture

Christmas makes one think about sharing and taking part. Christmastime includes cooking traditional meals and sitting at the same table with family, relatives, and friends. When in the Christmas mood, people make edible gifts both at home and at work and donate food to those who don’t have much on their table. One of the ancient customs over here that is still followed in some places in the countryside is to bring bread to the animals in the barn on Christmas Eve.

A great film for invoking the Christmas feeling is Babette’s Feast. The film tells a story about how food can both enliven relationships and elevate us, making us spiritually better persons. It is a film about the beauty shared between dinner participants of different cultural backgrounds and moral values, as well as about love for one’s neighbour and redemption. Still, food culture has to do with sharing every day, not only at Christmastime or when other festivities are taking place.

Canadian anthropologist Gillian Crowther stresses that commensality — sharing a meal with someone, eating and drinking together behind the same table — is one of the most important manifestations of sociality in all cultures. Eating together confirms the sense of belonging, being part of a community.

Offering food, no matter how plain, to a stranger is part of elementary hospitality in most cultures. Dinners spent together create and recreate families, friendships, and business relations. Assuring social relationships through food can happen both around the dinner table at home and feasts where those who don’t eat together everyday can meet up. Who’s invited? Who sits next to whom? What do the people around the table talk about, and what themes do they avoid? A shared meal is a social event where thoughts, experiences, and emotions are shared. On a more covert level, acceptance or distance towards other is being expressed, as well as respect or disdain.

In Estonia, buffets and banquets where people are mostly standing have taken the place of so-called “long table parties” (sometimes pejoratively referred to as “the jellied meat parties”). Mumbling folksy songs might not be to everyone’s taste, but a meal shared with large company still has its magic, something one doesn’t experience in fragmented plate-in-the-hand conversations.

Estonian ethnologist Reet Ruumann has pointed out that during those “long table parties” traditional meals are definitely important, but even more important is the way in which collective feasts maintain necessary social relationships. The fact that at bigger parties arranged at home the food is often prepared together – helping others out and having fun – isn’t of minor importance either. Continue reading

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Our Basque Director in Viljandi: 100 Days in Office

Iñaki Sandoval
As of 1 September 2015, Iñaki Sandoval has been working as Director of the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy. He met the Academy people for the first time some years ago at a conference in Italy. Later, Iñaki came to visit Viljandi and teach Estonian students. When he was invited to join the Academy’s music department, the director’s position also became vacant. Burning with enthusiasm and abundant ideas, he applied. The rest is history.

Before joining the Academy in Viljandi, Iñaki Sandoval worked at the Liceu Conservatory in Barcelona as head of the jazz department and dean of master’s studies. And last but not least in this brief introduction: Sandoval is one of the leading jazz pianists of the Spanish music scene, as witnessed by his numerous concerts and albums. On 14 January he will perform at the Tartu Jazz Club.

What follows is a sharp and visionary Twitter interview with Iñaki Sandoval on the present and future of the Viljandi Culture Academy, its students, studies, arts, and management. Enjoy!

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