A tale of two countries
I`m crossing the next border today, from Latvia to Estonia. I have been promised that these two countries are more different from each other than Latvia and Lithuania are. The village of Valka (Latvian) or Valga (Estonian) spreads out on both sides of the border. It `s a nice stopover on the way from Valmiera to Tartu and moreover, it seems like a perfect place to measure the Latvio-Estonian differences.
Alona (22) who is travelling on the bus from Valmiera to Valka has lived in Valka most of her life. She now works in Valmiera but visits her family in Valka regularly. She crosses the border every now and then, but hardly speaks any Estonian. Which seems to be the norm: Latvians don`t speak Estonian, Estonians don`t speak Latvian. Both languages are very different, Latvian belonging to the Baltic languages and Estonian to the Finnish-Hungarian language family. Alona speaks Russian or English when on the other side. Russian to communicate to older people, English when speaking to younger people. Young people first of all don`t like to speak Russian, secondly, the new generation does not learn Russian like previous generations had to.
`We Estonians know that the Latvians think of us as slow`
In Soviet times, Valka and Valga were one single village. After both countries re-established themselves, the border re-appeared and cut the village in two. The border looks like a safety rail along a motorway, or like a small separation in the supermarket. There are two border crossings for cars and a few smaller ones for pedestrians only. Trains terminate on both side of the border and there is no direct passenger Alona used to cross the border every now and then, to visit her friends on the other side or to do some shopping. The choice of clothes is different in Estonia. Price differences are minimal. Latvia used to be cheaper for many products, but prices have risen on that side, making economical shopping only relevant for cigarettes and beer.
Horse heads with six toes
Liene (21) and Ance (22) tell me that there is quite some interaction between the two parts of the city. For young people, Border Rock is the highlight of this partnership. Janis (22) thinks Latvians and Estonians like each other quite a lot, because `Estonia always gives us the best scores in the Eurovision song festival`. According to Janis, it is hard to distinguish between Estonians and Latvians just from the face. He says that there are quite some mixed families in the area, which should also be a sign that the two nationalities have a friendly relation.
The stereotype that Estonians are slow keeps coming up in all of today`s discussions. The Estonians on their side call the Latvians `horse heads` or say that they have six toes. The horse head expression seems to be derived from the shape of Latvia on the map, the six fingers signify that they always want to be special and different from everybody else.
Getting to Estonia
Halfway the afternoon, I leave Latvia. I show my passport at one of the pedestrian border posts and am allowed into Estonia without any questions or difficulties. The EU membership has facilitated border passings a great lot. Between 1990 and 2004, crossing the border involved a lot of paperwork, especially when arriving by car. Anyway, times are different now and within a blink of the eye, I am in Valga instead of Valka.
A talk to Marina (53) and Katrin (23, photo) learns me that Estonians know very well that the Latvians call them slow. But they are proud of thinking before they act. The popular expression `Measure nine times and cut once` perfectly explains the situation. Estonians think of Latvians as more expressive and more passionate. They even tend to call them Italians, whereas they themselves are more easily identified as Nordic. And another piece of good news: Martin (18) tells me that Estonians are better at English, which hopefully will make my stay here easier for the interviews.
To conclude with some personal observations, I can tell that the driving etiquette here is a lot more conservative than in both Latvia and Lithuania. Cars actually stop at zebra crossing, which I have to get used to again after three weeks in the car-wild-west. Some supermarkets already display prices in Euros, so people can get used to those already prior to introduction. Estonians have very long words full of vowels. The longest one I have seen so far is `raamatupidamisteenus`, meaning nothing more than `accounting service`. That`s all from Estonia so far, but there will be more.
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