Tallinn welcomes me with subzero temperatures and the kind of dense darkness that only comes with long subarctic nights. After the colorful art nouveau architecture of Riga, the brown-stone medieval streets of the Estonian capital seem especially moody.
My many years away from the region have made me forget how dark the winters really are here. Six hours of daylight is all Estonians get in winter. I am determined to make the most of it. Before daylight breaks, I am already on my feet and heading to Vana Tallinn, the fabled old town district with a moat and hilltop castle just a stone throw away from the city’s modern center.
Passing by the barren trees in the wide Harjumägi Park, I watch for street signs: “Wismari,” “Toompea,” “Falgi tee.” Words that had been dormant for nearly two decades in my mind come rushing back.
Tere tulemast Eestisse. Welcome to Estonia.
For my early morning coffee fix, I stop by the Maiasmokk (Sweet Tooth) Cafe on Pikk Street, a cobblestone lane with facades and storefronts that may have come straight from the pages of “Gulliver’s Travels.” A piece of history, the cafe has been operating from this very corner since at least 1864. Remembering that Maiasmokk pastries used to be excellent, I order a layered Black Forest cherry torte and a minute later confirm — they still are. The cafe is alive with the crowd, young and old. The commotion creates a stark contrast to the emptier streets of Riga.
Indeed, Estonia has been spared from the economic woes that plague neighboring Latvia and Lithuania. Strong trade partnerships with Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Germany have insulated the country from the impact of Russian sanctions, while a budding hi-tech industry has spearheaded the process of rebuilding the nation. When the Soviet Union fell, Estonia inherited a crumbling infrastructure and a few, barely functioning industries. That’s when the country’s leaders made the decision to throw away what has been termed as “the Soviet Legacy” and start anew, arguably setting the best course for recovery among all former Soviet republics.
Fast forward a decade, and the “Silicon Valley with a moat” has yielded the startup that later created Skype, free wi-fi across the country, as well as the world’s first forward-thinking e-government, which gives citizen the option to vote, file taxes, buy bus tickets, and register businesses entirely online.
Making leaps of progress in its economic and civic development, Estonia remains a conservative society when it comes to progressive values. Talking to residents, I spot the signs of a populist movement in today’s Estonia, as it rides the wave of anti-immigration tendencies that have swept through most European countries in recent years. Some of this mood can be explained by Estonia’s grievous legacy.
Although the history of the country dates back to the first century, it is a young nation state. For most of the millennium, present day Estonia has been a battleground for the other European countries. Who controlled this tiny — but strategically important — piece of land depended on the ruler of the day and the long line of ownership included the Dutch, the German, the Swedish, the Polish, and the Russians.
It is hardly a surprise that the young state is extremely proud of — and adamant to preserve — its national heritage. Among many ongoing efforts to do so, Estonia has been conducting an annual Laulupidu, a summertime singing festival and one of the largest amateur choral events in the world, gathering tens of thousands of people from across the nation to Tallinn to do nothing but sing and dance traditional folklore for an entire week.
As I walk by the Pikk Hermann watchtower that sits above the medieval moat, I am transported back to the summer of 1994, when I spent three happy days performing at my first Laulupidu. The thrill of joining voices with thousands other residents of a nation is a sensation that is tough to find elsewhere and one that I often miss.
In Tallinn, the ghost of a little girl that used to play in the streets lingers on every corner. Going back to where my journey began feels cathartic, a physical attestation to the quiet and permanent changes that occurred in me during these decades away.
As my old friends greet me at Pööbel, a trendy beer and wine cellar just outside the old town, I smile. No longer the shy little girl, I embrace the idea of being called “the American” — the loud, smiling with and without reason, open-minded, well-traveled American.
Traveling has enabled me to experience a multitude of cultures and ways of life and I have always approached this diversity with humility and an eagerness to learn. Still, I have yet to find another country in the world where pluralism of opinions, ethnicities, and identities is as pronounced and welcomed as it is in the United States. There used to be a time when I scoffed at what America stood for, but now I embrace — and defend — these values wherever I go. Coming back home, I realize, has finally helped me claim my American-ness.