An American in Tartu: Subtle differences between living in the US and Estonia

Most students in the US don’t travel outside their state when pursuing a master’s degree—much less their country. So, whenever I tell someone what I am doing here in Tartu, I am bombarded with a litany of questions. Being that Estonia is outside the current geopolitical understanding of most Americans (compared to, say, the UK), I must deal with even some very fundamental questions: Where is Estonia? (South of Finland, north of Latvia and Lithuania, west of Russia.) Isn’t that part of Russia? (No.) What language do they speak? (Estonian.)

Estonia (Not Russia). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

But even I—a supposedly informed American—had some questions before I arrived. How do people get around? How do I interact with strangers? Where can I buy [item]? These are more grounded, practical questions, but they are also questions that come up in everyday life. I’ve made a list detailing some of these differences and my thoughts on them.


Walking is the preferred method of transportation. I know that this could be more specific to Tartu, but even in Tallinn and some other European cities I’ve been to it holds true. Everyone knows that us Americans love our cars. The reality is that it’s not so much of a love affair as it is a hostage situation. Especially in the suburbs, every destination is simply too diffuse to get away with not having a car. Even with the help of a bike, oftentimes the distances remain infeasible (not to mention the lack of any sort of bicycle infrastructure).

But in Tartu, everything is within walking distance. Even places you think are outside of walking distance are within walking distance if you’re determined enough. The Police and Border Guard office down Riia is a common destination for students dealing with immigration documents and is oft cited as “out of walking range.” I’ll admit, I took a bus to get there. But I walked home, and it was lovely.

Hustle/bustle in Tallinn. Look at all those walkers! Image credit: Martin Hayford

Even when I lived in Chicago, a city with a relatively developed public transit system, I still found myself hitching rides with friends or taking taxis all the time. If I could, I would take the light-rail. But I hardly ever walked to my destination unless it was just down the street. Everything was just too far away.

Certainly, there are times in Estonia where this is true as well. But in the hierarchy of transportation methods, walking is always the first option.

I’m technically in the city of Chicago. The address indicates I’m about 5 miles away from the city center. Image credit: Martin Hayford


There is a misconception in the US that many Europeans aren’t “friendly.” Even in the literature provided by the University and the Estonian government, there are warnings that Estonians may seem cold or unfriendly to foreigners from more outgoing locales. In a sense, this is true; Estonians will not go out of their way to say hi to you on the street or bus, and they may not help if you look lost or out of place. But many people confuse lack of friendliness to mean lack of care. This is not true.

Estonians are the same as people everywhere else. They are generally kind, caring, and helpful. The culture may not place a lot of emphasis on being outgoing, but I can almost guarantee that if you ask someone for help on the street, they would oblige to the best of their abilities. They may not seem enthusiastic about it, but in Estonia actions carry more weight than words. An “aitäh” or “tere” or “vabandust” can go a long way in an interaction, but no one will be weirded out if you don’t say anything. It is quite freeing as it removes the social pressure of always having something to say that we Americans sometimes feel.

Furthermore, I would disagree with the initial premise that Estonians are not “friendly.” Ok, maybe they are not fast-friends with everyone they meet on the street. But isn’t that a strange expectation to begin with? When you get to know them, they are some of the warmest, most generous people you can meet. Estonians are friendly—with their friends.

Me (right) and a real, live Estonian (left)! (and a real, live Peruvian). Image credit: Martin Hayford


In the US we have a little institution known as Walmart. Inside the walls of this “cathedral of capitalism,” your greatest consumer desires can be satisfied. Do you need a shower curtain? Transmission fluid? Two-and-a-half pounds of ground beef? Sweatpants featuring your favorite cartoon character from size extra-small to extra-extra-large? You can have it all—plus a footlong sub-sandwich on the way out the door. And Walmart is not the only store of this kind. There are upscale versions, ethnic versions, and versions for when you need everything in industrial quantities.

Everything’s bigger in Texas. Except this Walmart is in Connecticut. There are also American flags to remind you what country you’re in. Image credit: JJBers, CC BY 2.0

In Estonia, superstores as such do not really exist. You may have to plan on visiting several different locations to cross all the items off your shopping list. And guess what? You’re probably going to be walking to each one. Of course, there are a preponderance of malls. Malls on every corner! Three malls at one intersection in Tartu! This can solve some of the issues with a more dispersed commerce infrastructure, but sometimes that one thing you need is at yet another mall located 2 kilometers away.

Convenient, yet strange. Image credit: Google Maps, labels: Martin Hayford

The advantages of the Estonian shopping system are twofold. Firstly, there is a higher level of expertise at each shop. Not that I expect retail employees to be subject matter experts, but they can at least direct you to different products with an easy efficiency. In the US you would have to track down an overworked 19 year-old or recently laid off 45 year-old to maybe tell you which of the 30 aisles contains a selection of the finest 80 varieties of peanut butter America has to offer. Speaking of which, the second benefit is a reduction in unbridled consumerist behaviors.

Perhaps my new shoe-string student budget also influences this dimension, but the lack of immediate availability calms the “buy, buy, buy!” part of my brain. I have to actually make an effort to buy some hunk of useless plastic I don’t actually need? Never mind then, I’ll just make do with all the useless hunks of plastic I already have.

Overall, what has surprised me the most about Estonia is how similar it is to the US. Perhaps another way to describe this is that it didn’t take long for me to feel “at home.” In this place that may seem strange on paper from halfway around the world, I feel just as welcome and sure of myself as I do in Chicago. I have formed meaningful relationships with people from vastly different backgrounds. I am pleased to show up to class (most days) and learn about something I have a genuine interest in from excellent professors. There is something new to appreciate with each day that I spend here. I never regret my decision to live as an American in Tartu.

Martin Hayford is a master’s student in the EU—Russia Studies programme at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies.

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