You may not have heard much about Estonia, one of the countries on the Baltic Sea that only regained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. "Another one of those birch tree countries with old wooden farms and glum looking people eating potatoes in the freezing cold," you think. Yes, the potato is practically worshipped there and the countryside is still fairly pristine forests. And it can get to about -20 degrees Celsius in winter. But glum? No.
This unpretentious democratic country has quietly and energetically got on with the job of developing it's economy (it recently became part of the euro zone) and becoming open to the world while proudly showing off it's own rich history going back some 11,000 years.
The Capital City
Tallinn, the capital, was chosen as the 2011 European City of Culture. It's a thriving metropolis (just over 400,000 pop) with a very beautiful medieval old town full of historic buildings, churches and cobbled streets. Whether visiting the Kalamaja (Fish house), the Kadriorg (Katherine's Valley) or the mall, everything is in close proximity by foot, bicycle, taxi or tram. Tartu is the next biggest town (pop 100,000) whose University of Tartu (1632) is one of the oldest in Northern Europe and whose large student population has a more bohemian vibe.
Estonia wants international students and in its universities you can choose to study in more than 100 degree programs that are taught in English. One of those courses is Aviation Engineering at the Aviation Academy in Tartu, the only place in Estonia where pilots are educated and an institution of which the people are very proud. I spoke to Mari Allik, a 22 year old Estonian currently studying there, about the college and its mix of students.
"You don't need Estonian language for The Aviation Academy you just have to have math and physics to get in there. We have international students from many different countries such as from Holland, Chile, and Germany. Some courses are in English but they're mainly in 3 or 4th year but don't worry as they prepare special Estonian language programs for international students. And at Tartu University you will get English translations of the lectures and on the internet usually the texts are in English too. You won't be in a position where you won't know what they're talking about."
Insider Tips for Estonia
- Prepare for the weather beforehand: 'It depends on the season but you have to have warm clothes. The summers are very warm and the winters are very, very cold. So you have to be prepared with the right clothes and you can't always get exactly what you want at the shops here. Read about Estonia before you come so you know a little of what to expect.'
- Socialise: 'Join in on the student days in spring and in autumn. They have games, singing parties. Students sing almost the whole night and it's special. We have many international students and they are made to feel welcome in Tartu. You can't go to university in Estonia without speaking English so almost every Estonian young person speaks English. It's also good to find someone you can rent a flat with. Student accommodation is usually more expensive than living in your own flat. Student accommodation is good but usually kind of strict, ie if you have visitors they ask for their passport and some places need to be renovated.'
- See the countryside: About half of Estonia is covered with forests and 1/5 in mires. It also has nearly 1500 islands. Nowhere else in Europe can you find so much wildlife in such a small area: 600 bears, over 150 wolves, 800 lynxes, plus 36 different orchids and enormous bogs. The list goes on. Estonia is a place where you can really indulge your desires for outdoor activities such as fishing, birdwatching, bogwalking, horseriding, skiing, canoeing, cycling along the flat roads. Just watch the crazy drivers!
- A word of advice: A recent independent study (May 2011) concluded that difficulties obtaining residence permits have been a large obstacle for international students wishing to study in Estonia. But don't let that put you off. It's a great place.