An Introduction

Even the sights and sounds are different in the modern, New Age Tallinn. Ringing mobile phones, the roar of passenger helicopters, mouse clicks, horns honking at rush hour—all notes of modernity that were virtually unknown in the capital ten years ago. It is all, of course, the buzz of a bustling, economically dynamic nation who’s now in the European Union and NATO.

Old and New

Tallinn has been sacked, pillaged and bombed so many times over the centuries, it's a wonder anything from the past survives at all. First there were the invading Danes, then the Teutonic Knights, the Swedes, the Russians, the Nazis, and the Soviets. But the Estonian capital has in fact retained more remnants of its past, and in a more complete state, than the majority of European cities. Tallinn's charming old town—with its kilometers of winding cobblestone streets and storybook medieval houses—is the most obvious example. Other parts of the city are virtual museums of other eras. The Nõmme suburb is a trip back in time to the 1930s, when Estonia was developing fast during its first period of independence; in Kadriorg, you can almost picture Czarist-era aristocrats strolling through the tree-lined streets and garden parks. A less likely attraction is the vast, ungodly Lasnamäe apartment district, which captures the Soviet version of suburban paradise in all its horrifying glory. As time has passed and as the bitterness about Moscow rule has somewhat subsided, things Soviet—like Lasnamäe—have almost become exotic.
While the city remains a living museum, it has also been modernizing at breakneck speed, urged on by a new moneyed class anxious of Estonia, who, for better or worse, want to leave their own mark for posterity. This is especially evident in the city center, where development has been proceeding at a head-spinning pace. New buildings are going up by the month, and old ones are being gutted and refurbished almost daily. Developers have even begun to reconstruct the few sections of the old city that were bombed by Soviet forces in 1944—the surest sign yet that history is being consigned to the textbooks and that progress is now taking precedence.

Estonians don’t take kindly to their country being described as tiny. They’re fond of pointing out that many nations are smaller. Geographically, Estonia is larger than Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Israel and others.

Estonia is distinguished by its over 1000 islands (the other two Baltics have none) and by its winding coastline—which, with its twists and turns, adds up to a surprising 3,794 kilometers. Estonia also has more marshland per square kilometer than anywhere in Europe; bogs cover some 20 percent of the country. Forests cover nearly 40 percent.

Estonian population: 1.4 million; 65% Estonian, 32% Russian-speaking.
Main religions: Most ethnic Estonians are Lutheran—with a minority of Orthodox (loyal to Constantinople) among them. Most ethnic Russians are Russian Orthodox—loyal to Moscow’s Patriarch.
Tallinn population: 430,000.
Other large cities: Tartu, 105,000; Narva, 80,000; Kohtla-Järve, 70,000; Pärnu, 50,000.
Total territory: 45,227 sq. km, a bit larger than the Netherlands.
Highest Point: Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain) is 318 meters high; this glorified hill in south Estonia is the highest point in the Baltics.
Climate: July is the warmest month, when temperatures hover around 20°C (68°F); in February, temperatures average -5°C (23°F).

Quotables about Tallinn
"The streets of Tallinn are not straight, and are so narrow that cabmen are forced to ride with bells in order not to run into those coming in the opposite direction. An inquisitive gossip can see everything across a street into the room of her neighbor."

- Russian officer Alexander Bestuzhev in 1821, in an account of his trip to Tallinn.

"Tallinn...a town of pewter-colored steeples, red roofs, quaint alleyways, numerous towers like gigantic pepper boxes and a treasure of medieval architecture."
- The Manchester Quarterly, 1933.

"Estonia...the cheapest and most interesting country in Europe."
-From the American travel book, Undiscovered Europe, 1932.

"Tallinn is built on salt."
-A saying in the Middle Ages, referring to riches Tallinn accumulated from East-West trade; salt from Spain to Russia was a main transit item.

Their neighbors tend to view Estonians as overconfident to a fault; one Moscow based Western journalist after interviewing many people here wrote: “Only an Estonian after a lengthy pause could say, ‘I think I know exactly the right answer to that question.” If Estonians tend to be self-confident, they’re usually self-confident quietly. “An Estonian’s motto for behavior,” says Estonian psychiatrist Anti Liiv, “is: May your face be as ice: It’s better not to say anything because, as America’s police say, anything you say can be used against you.” That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s true Estonians aren’t prone to emotional extremes, and can be standoffish. This can be misunderstood: just because they don’t pour praise over you doesn’t mean they don’t like you. If Estonians do say something, it’s usually sincere and direct—to the point of bluntness. Estonians pride themselves on taking a cool, rational approach to problems, so much so that they often go at tasks more with their head than with their heart and soul. This rational streak accounts for a tendency to collective common sense: Estonians often end up doing the right thing—whether they like it or not. While they can be stiff, Estonians aren’t prudes. There’s a strong libertarian strain here: most Estonians believe you ought to be able to do your own thing, soar to new heights or dig your own grave, so long as you don’t infringe on anyone else’s space.

Eesti—which is Estonia in Estonian—seems to be derived from Ęstii, used by a Roman chronicler in 100 B.C. to describe tribes east of the Germans. He didn't have Estonians in mind per se, using the word to describe all peoples in the region. But forms of Ęstii were eventually applied to Estonians only; Latin scholars refer to Hestia and Esthonia.
Tallinn was first referred to in chronicles in 1154 by an Arab, al-Idrisi, who called it Kolõvan. Scandinavians called it Lindanäs. Germans later called it Reval. Tallinn likely derives from the Estonian for Danish city (Taani linn), dating to when Danes ruled here.

Vowel-laden Estonian is Finno-Ugric—closely related to Finnish. It’s notoriously difficult, thanks in no small part to its 14 case ending. English is overtaking Russian as the most widely spoken second language—so the linguistically challenged can virtually always get by with English alone. That said, picking up some phrases can be useful—and is certain to charm and flatter local Estonians.

Teie/You (formal)
Sina/You (informal)
Aitäh or Tänan/Thanks
Nägemist or Head aega/Good-bye
Kas te räägite inglise keelt?/Do you speak English?
Kas teil on...?/Do you have...?
Ma soovin.../I would like...
Kui palju see maksab?/How much does this cost?
Pood or Kauplus/Store
Praed/Main Dishes
Head isu/Bon appetit
Terviseks/ To your health
null/zero üks/one kaks/two kolm/three neli/four viis/five kuus/six seitse/seven kaheksa/eight üheksa/nine kümme/ten sada/100 tuhat/1000


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Kalashnikov shooting in Tallinn Estonia