What brought me to Estonia was pigheadedness, plain and simple. It was the same pigheadedness that moved me to choose a college in Minnesota 1,400 miles from my home in Massachusetts, where, as my parents were fond of mentioning, there were plenty of perfectly fine colleges.
That adventure over, I looked around for another one (even though, of course, there were plenty of perfectly fine adventures nearer by). I had studied Russian in college. Russia, therefore, was too obvious a destination. (I was that sort of kid.) I wish I could say my choice was more thoughtful, that I had some deeper affinity or knowledge before I arrived in Estonia. But the truth is my connection was extraordinarily shallow: People in Moscow used to chide me for my ‘pribaltiyskiy aktsent’. And I like cold weather. So, Estonia.
This was 1995. I marvel now that I arrived less than four years after the Soviet Union disintegrated. But I was young and four years seemed to be most of a lifetime. And, already, old Baltic hands were talking about how all the interesting changes had happened years ago.
Applying to Tartu University’s Baltic Studies program, which is now as easy as filling in a web form, was a decidedly post-Soviet and pre-Internet experience. Web sites and email were hardly universal. Intercontinental phone calls were expensive and the quality was poor. I spent many nights in an office on my own college campus shouting, “Faks! Faks!” into the phone. I had to do this during Estonian business hours because someone on the receiving end had to be there to flip a switch from the phone to the fax function. (Thank goodness somebody finally invented Skype.)
My U.S. fellowship program required that I take a test in the language of the country where I would be studying — not that I pass the test, necessarily, just that I take it. So, I needed to find a native Estonian speaker nearby who would simply attest to the fact that I spoke no Estonian. As luck would have it, one Professor Olav Must, a väliseestlane, taught at a college near mine.
He was charmed by any interest in his home country and generous with his time, so he started with a two-hour history lesson before turning his attention to the language form. I laughed and said I could say just two things: See habemega mees on vist Georg and Taksopeatus on sadama ees (bizarrely, the first two sentences in an Estonian textbook I had found). And, dear Professor Must smiled and placed an X next to “Can speak in simple sentences.” I’m pretty sure I have him to thank for a lifelong love for the Baltics.
I arrived when Tartu was at its best, in the golden autumn, just before Toomemägi turned into a snow globe of yellow leaves and filtered sunlight, and I instantly felt at home.
I’ve heard that the old dorms have been renovated — or perhaps knocked down and replaced. Either way, I’m sure students today wouldn’t recognize the old Narva mnt. 25. Foreign students lived together on a locked floor, with põdrad chalked on the door. That fall, we were Finns, Americans, Latvians, a Bulgarian and a Dutch man. A Spaniard arrived and charmed everyone with his Andalusian ‘th’s, but he didn’t last long.
It was, despite an obviously fresh coat of paint, a flimsy place, a little dirty, poorly lit and barely heated. In the winter, a sheet of ice crept from the corners to the center of my window, meeting itself coming the other direction. On the inside of the pane. One January week, when the temperature inside the dorm hovered at 45˚F (7˚C) and the hot water was turned off — which meant we couldn’t ever get our communal dishes fully clean — every single man and woman came down with a brutal flu.
God, I loved that place. I had my own bright room overlooking the Emajõgi, one that would have housed three students on the other floors, the ones for local students. There was always someone frying potatoes in the kitchen, always someone in the lounge looking for company, someone headed to or coming home from Zavood, someone willing to explain an expression in Postimees or on Vikerraadio, or to smooth out my rough Estonian diction and grammar.
Because the English-language Baltic Studies classes — history and literature, Kristjan Jaak Peterson and Lydia Koidula — I had planned to take were inexplicably delayed until spring (this information came when I stepped in the Välistudengite osakond the first time), I signed up for 20 hours a week of Estonian lessons that first fall. Such a luxury, I realized even then and know for certain now, to immerse myself in learning that was truly for learning’s sake. It won’t surprise anyone that I’ve never used my knowledge of Estonian or Jaan Kaplinski in the United States (well, there was that one time I overheard an older couple arguing about the cheese in our grocery store). But I’ve never regretted a minute of it.
There are other, as my parents might point out, other perfectly fine languages out there to learn. But there really isn’t anywhere quite like Narva mnt. 25 or the University of Tartu.
Tricia Cornell went on to write for The Baltic Times and Vilnius in Your Pocket and to co-found Tallinn in Your Pocket. She’s now a writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Because she is a creature of habit, she still listens to Vikerraadio and reads Postimees, even though she no longer has a dorm full of linguists to help.
The University of Tartu celebrates twenty years of English-language studies this autumn.