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Life and times in an Estonian corner of Italy

  • 2001-11-15
  • Stefano Triolo
MILAN - More than 60 years ago, Ernest Hemingway wrote that if you traveled to all the harbors of the world you were sure to find an Estonian sailor.

You may not find any Estonian sailors in Italy today, but according to a survey taken in January 2001, over 200 Estonians call Italy home.

The tight circle of Estonians have formed a group called the Italy-Estonia Friendship Associa-tion in Rome, and there is even a Web site for their little community.

Katrin, a 30-year-old woman from Tallinn, lives in Bologna and works at the universities of Bologna and Rimini as a linguistics tutor. Two years ago she left her home to marry an Italian researcher at the University of Bologna.

With a degree in Scandinavian languages and two books translated from Danish to Estonian under her belt, she is now behind the Estonian-Italian Web-mastering project.

She created and opened this site last year. Since then, the Estonian Embassy in Rome has put a link with the address on its homepage, and this has helped the site gain recognition. "We get e-mail both from Estonians and Italians," she said. "I mail some of the Estonians living in Italy on a regular basis and we get together two or three times a year."

The embassy in Rome said a lot of Estonians in Italy are students or qualified professionals developing their skills abroad. Besides the capital, Bologna, Milan, Florence, Modena, Rimini and Pisa are said to be the most likely places to come across an Estonian or two.

Happy land

Everybody reacts differently to life in a foreign country, and despite the gorgeous weather many still find things to gripe about in the balmy, laid-back atmosphere.

Twenty-three-year-old Birgit from Tallinn works in finance and has just returned home after working in Parma. She said that although she really enjoys the open and flexible attitudes of Italians and finds the casual way of life appealing, it wasn't always to her liking. "Sometimes the Italian mentality is too flexible and can cause chaos, disorganization and a lifestyle with no rules."

She made no complaints about the cuisine, though, and even expressed a keen interest in Italian culture.

"Here we have sun almost all year round, and Italian people are, compared to Estonians, full of joy, tactful and very kind," said Katrin. "I've been living here for over two years, and from what I've seen it seems that Italy is the real 'trade d' union' between Europe, Africa and Asia."

Forty-year-old Kirsten is a graphics designer from Tallinn who also lives and works in Bologna. She left Estonia 11 years ago when it was still part of the Soviet Union to follow her husband, a professional volleyball player who went to Italy to be part of a professional Italian team. Although they are now divorced, she decided to stay in Italy because she has a good job.

"I like Italians for their ability to live their lives happily in spite of everything," Kirsten said. "We Estonians are more gloomy. I adore the Mediterranean cuisine and, of course, Italian wine. I love the majesty of their architecture and am fascinated with the tiny old villages," she said.

"The islands are so charming, like Sardinia and its beautiful sea, as are the landscapes of Umbria and Tuscany."

Toomas, a 25-year-old student from Tartu, has lived in Italy since last June. He left Estonia to study music in Rome, he says, "because Italy is the home of opera and culture. Here I have the opportunity of improving my skills as an opera singer."

He added that because his native country is small, it could not offer him the same opportunities in the music arena that Italy can.

Ulla, a woman in her 30s from Tartu, works for Radio Free Europe, a network that produces daily news programs in Prague and broadcasts them to different Estonian radio stations like Kuku, Vikerradio and Klassikaraadio. She is the Italian correspondent, working mostly from Bologna and sometimes traveling to cover events in other towns.

She agrees that Italians are friendly when you first encounter them, but that it's not so easy for foreigners to make friends with them. "In that sense," she says, "Italians are very closed people."

Sanctuary

Tamara is a lady with a different story. She is neither a student nor qualified worker. Instead she escaped Estonia in 1941, following the Soviet invasion.

"Life was impossible for Estonian people in that period: no work and nothing to eat," she shrugged. "I lived in a refugee camp near Nuremberg in Germany for nine months. My first son was born there. In 1950, after years and years of traveling, I landed in Italy and ended up in Milan. Since that day, my husband and I have been Italy enthusiasts because this is where we spent our life in serenity and happiness."

Often people who live in a foreign country, even when they are happy with their lives, feel nostalgia for their native land. Estonians are no exception. They are bound to their ancestry and the friends and relatives they left behind by a very strong sentiment.

"I miss my mother and my nephews," said Katrin, "and the tastes and smells, the long summer nights and short winter days. The twilight. I even miss speaking Estonian everyday."

Birgit feels torn now between two nations. "During my long stay in Italy I was really homesick," she said. "But now, after only a few days back in Estonia, I already realize how much I miss Italy."

"I miss Tartu very much," Tamara sighs, "and I remember my beautiful wooden house on Ulikooli Street. But I'm sure that today everything is completely different from the city I left in a frantic hurry back in 1941."

One point they all agree on is that they miss Estonian food. "I've always missed some typical Estonian products, like brown bread, sour cream, sour milk, certain kinds of cheese and sheep meat," Tamara said.

Foreign affairs

No matter where these Estonians live, they always follow the latest news in Estonian life, culture and, of course, politics.

Take the recent election of Arnold Ruutel as president of Estonia and the defeat of the ruling right-wing coalition's choice Toomas Savi. In Katrin's opinion, Ruutel is not an "attractive" president, because he doesn't speak any foreign languages and looks like an old man.

"I'm not worried about his past in the Communist Party," she said, shrugging. "But Toomas Savi didn't inspire me either. Truth is, I miss Lennart Meri. He was a symbol of Estonia, and it is going to take a long time to find someone to fit the presidential role after such a strong character."

"We'll never have a president like Meri again," says Ulla. "But it's too early to say if Ruutel is good or bad."

Their future is uncertain, and many feel torn between the prospects of a life in Italy and a life in their homeland. "I don't think I'm going to stay in Estonia for a long time," Birgit commented wistfully. "Maybe I'll move to Italy again someday. The nights were so beautiful."

Ulla is also doubtful about the future. "I'd like to spend some time here and some time in Estonia. I miss my country very much."

The Italy-Estonia Friendship Association is in Rome at Via Tomasetti 16, and the Estonian branch in Tallinn is at Vene 19/7. The Estonian Embassy in Rome is at Viale Liegi 28 (www.consolatoestonia.it), and there are four honorary consulates, in Turin, Milan, Genoa and Florence.