7 things that surprised me about living in Estonia
When I lived in London, I had no expectations. Honestly, I had no particular interest in living in London or the UK, but my reasoning was as follows:
- They speak English
- I speak English
- I can get a working holiday visa
- The UK is close to the rest of Europe
Language speaking ability + Legal working rights + In Europe = why not?
Throughout the 18 months I spent in London (December 2007 to May 2009… which is so long ago it’s making me feel old), the UK was just a base for exploring the rest of Europe. As such, I wasn’t that invested in the London-ness or UK-ness of it all, had few expectations and didn’t encounter surprises as a result.
When it came to living in Paris (mid-2010 to mid-2011), I’d been to Paris before, and had been in love with the idea of France for years. France did have a reputation for ridiculous bureaucracy and interesting attitudes to work, but they were all part of it’s charm for me.
Tallinn has been different.
Why? Simply because there was so much build up – Drew originally suggested moving here in June of 2017. I came over at the end of August, and he joined me at the end of October. This meant plenty of time for research and expectation-building.
And when you have expectations, it’s surprising when the reality doesn’t line up.
So, here are 7 surprises I encountered upon moving to Estonia.
1. There’s no free wifi!
Estonia is supposed to be home to the second-best public wifi in the world, and our research before moving here led us to believe that there was free wifi everywhere – that the locals even expected to have internet access in the forest.
This is not the case. There is free wifi, but only in the usual areas you’d expect – shopping centres, some cafes and some offices. Probably libraries too, but I haven’t been to any libraries yet. There doesn’t appear to be any city-wide public wifi, unless I’ve somehow missed it every time I’ve been into the city and have searched for free wifi.
The good thing is that mobile data is quite cheap, so I just use that when I’m out and about.
2. Ridiculously complicated digital processes
Estonian is supposed to be the world’s most digital country. Everything can be done online – banking, shopping, voting, updating population data, registering with a GP…
The challenge is getting online.
Settle in Estonia, Work in Estonia, Study in Estonia – all of these websites targeted at getting new people to move here make it sound so easy. Well I’m here to tell you it’s all propaganda – I’ve never had to deal with such complicated bureaucratic processes in my life (and I lived in France!).
Here’s a snapshot of what’s required to become a true digital citizen:
- Your ID code
- Your ID card/residence permit
- The Smart ID app
- The Mobiil ID app
- The DigiDoc software on your computer (I now have 5 separate DigiDoc-related thumbnails on my desktop and have no idea what each of them are for)
- A smart card reader
And this is just what I’ve encountered to date – I’m sure I’ve missed something.
In any case, while things might be digital (and simple) once all of this is set up, as someone who’s still in the throes of getting set up, it is nowhere near as easy as they say.
3. Online shopping takes FOREVER!
Continuing on with the not-so-digital theme, let’s discuss online shopping. While the shopping part doesn’t take that long, but deliveries are very slow.
In fact, it’s not unusual for things to take longer to reach Estonia than they would have taken to reach Australia!
I waited for over a month for an order from amazon.de, and over two weeks for an order from Book Depository. Both of these would have travelled from Europe to Australia within two weeks.
Additionally, everything that comes from amazon.de appears to be delivered by courier, which means they need someone at home to sign for it. But usually they don’t say anything about this until the courier gives you a call when he’s 15 minutes away. Could they let you know the day before, so you could organise to work from home? Of course not! Can they leave a note telling you to collect it at the post office? Don’t be silly!
Instead, the only option is to ask them to deliver it to the office instead, at which point I get the joyful experience of taking the box back home with me.
(Though now I have a house husband who’s very good at signing for packages in his bed hair and underwear.)
4. Where can I buy…?
Why am I shopping online in the first place? Because it’s surprisingly difficult to find everyday items, which means the internet is the only option.
Take SIM cards – when I was looking into how to get a new SIM for my phone, the advice I found was that they were everywhere. ‘Go to any Rimi or R-Kiosk and you’ll be able to buy one.’
Well I went to several Rimis (a local supermarket chain). I also went to several R-Kiosks (a convenience store/kiosk chain – some are complete stores, while others are hole-in-the-wall kiosks) and couldn’t find any.
Now perhaps this is one of those things where I needed to ask someone and they would pull out their secret stash of SIMs from behind the counter, but I’d only been in the country for a couple of days at this stage and I was still feeling embarrassed about speaking English, so I didn’t ask.
Instead, I went directly to the source – network stores. Telia and Elisa are the biggest ones here, and they each had a store at Viru Keskus, a shopping centre not far from my Airbnb. I chose Elisa because I passed their store first, and the young man at the front desk organised a prepaid SIM card for me and even set it up on my phone, making sure the language was set to English.
I’ve had other moments like this – I mentioned our struggle to locate a smart card reader in electronics stores, only to discover they were behind the counter.
I’ve noticed the same thing with reflectors, which are little reflective pendants you need to hang from your person when you go outside as the days get shorter and darker (there’s actually a law on this, established in 2011). With sunset currently at 3:45pm, and another month until the darkest day of the year, we definitely need them! However, for something so prevalent (everyone is wearing them at night, now), the only place where I’ve seen these for sale is behind the counter at R-Kiosks, and at the check out at our supermarket – along with all the lollies and gum and all the last-minute things supermarkets want you to spend extra money on.
5. Scale and perspective
Drew’s already discussed this at length, with lots of helpful maps to illustrate.
Admittedly, the scale of Estonia wasn’t really a surprise – we knew before coming here that Estonia was about the size of Tasmania, and that the population of Tallinn is 1/10th the size of Melbourne’s. But it’s different actually experiencing it.
Back home, my commute involved driving to the train station, get a train to the city and walk to the office. Door to door, that commute was about an hour and 15 minutes.
Here, I leave my apartment and walk to the office in 30 minutes. If the weather’s bad or I’m feeling lazy, I can get a 15 minute bus (which ends up being 20-25 minutes door to door).
Back home, I went to gymnastics classes twice a week, which were a 40 minute drive each way. I would regularly drive 15-30 minutes to get to business events in my area. If I went to events in the city, the same hour or so commute would still apply.
Here, I think the longest Taxify trip I’ve ever taken is 15 minutes, and that was to go to the airport to pick up Drew. I walk to most places and, when I get a Taxify, it usually comes to under €4.
This also means my perception of what is near and far has changed. You know those adult gymnastics classes I mentioned? I found some here that are on the opposite side of the city to where I live, and a 10 minute drive from work. But I’ve never been because it feels too far away.
6. Post office opening hours
This is a great one – during the week, the post office near me is open until 8pm, which means it’s easy to get things done after work (unlike back home, where you need to battle the lunchtime queues or sneak out during the day). And it’s open on Saturday from 10am to 5pm!
It’s just a shame Amazon doesn’t send my packages there for pick up…
7. The cost of living is so much lower
Given that Sydney and Melbourne are two of the most expensive cities in the world, moving pretty much anywhere else would mean there was a lower cost of living.
However, during our pre-departure research, we found some Facebook discussions that said otherwise – that Tallinn wasn’t that cheap after all, and was on par with other European cities. Add that to the fact that salaries are significantly lower than back home (I’m earning slightly over what I’d expect to be paid for an equivalent role in Melbourne), and that Drew is still a gentleman of leisure, and we were a little worried.
Three months in and I’ve realised there’s nothing to worry about – even since Drew started mooching off me a month ago. We’ll do an in-depth cost of living comparison at some point, but my expenses to date have included:
- Rent: €700 a month (two bedroom apartment in Kristiine)
- Bills: €150 a month (these go up in winter due to heating costs, so should be lower in summer)
- Phone: €5 a month (I’m still on the same €10 of prepaid credit I bought two months ago)
- Gym: €6 a month (after my employer contributes €33, which is part of our benefits package)
- Lunch (from supermarket salad bar): €4 – €6
- Lunch/dinner (eating out): €7 – €9 (€12 including a drink)
- Taxify: €4 – €6
- Public transport: €1 per trip using QR ticket (note that I technically should have free public transport, but this is all tied up in my ‘becoming a digital citizen’ debacle)
- Event tickets: €20 – €35
- Movie tickets: €7 – €10
- Museum tickets: €2 – €6
All in all, it means that even on a lower salary, I still have plenty left at the end of the month – usually enough for a more expensive splurge.
What counts as a splurge? Last month I went to Stockholm for a weekend, which came to a couple of hundred euros, and this weekend we’re heading to Helsinki. Tonight I’m also going on a mission to buy a proper winter jacket as the temperature falls below 0 degrees Celsius.
Note that obviously the cost of living won’t seem that low for someone who hasn’t come here from one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I’ve been told that the cost of living has gone up in the last couple of years, but after some of the dire warnings we received, we’re pretty chuffed.