Thursday, 21 June 2007
'Nordic with a Twist'
Owen Powell - 21st June 2007
I’ve done some odd things during this project, but I never thought I’d end up standing inside a fountain with an Estonian helicopter pilot.
His name was Karel, and he’s been in London for three years, since Estonia joined the EU. Three friends of his arrived at roughly the same time, and the Estonian embassy reckons there are now three thousand Estonians in the UK. It’s common, says Karel, for Estonians to live here to save up money, then return a few years later and buy a big house, but that’s not his plan. “I only intended to be here for three months, and even though I’ve been here a lot longer than that I still haven’t saved much. I want to enjoy life now.”
But that enjoyment didn’t initially manifest itself in a job. “Oh god,” says Karel. “I had a job in admin, working for TFL. It was supposed to be temporary, just for four days, but I did it for one and a half years. It was the most boring job ever, and I had lots of creative impulses, so I got out.” Now he’s doing a BA in digital photography, whilst working as a freelance photographer. “Photography has always been my hobby,” he says, “so it’s good to be doing it full time. Ideally, I’d like to be a travel photographer, but most jobs I get are less interesting than that. Portraits, events, things like that.” He takes a photo of me, which is far superior to the one I take of him. It’s a nice sunny day and we’re sitting on the South Bank. We hear the laughs of children playing in a nearby fountain. More of that later.
This is Karel’s second BA, though. The first he took in Estonia, in Aviation Engineering, almost by accident. “I only did the course because I wanted to become a commercial helicopter pilot, but they said that if I did it over four years rather than two, it converted to a degree. I haven’t flown in four years now, and you’re supposed to renew your licence every year, so I guess I’m no longer qualified.”
Maybe I look a bit surprised at how futuristic Estonia sounds (I don’t know how many degree courses in the UK allow you to become a fully qualified helicopter pilot, for instance), but Karel quickly puts me straight. “Estonia is one of the most hi-tech countries in the world. We have 100% wireless broadband coverage, and the people that developed Skype are Estonian. All our banks can do money transfers in seconds. If I’m on the phone to my mum, and ask her to send some money over, I can be online while she does it, and bang, it’s straight into my account. I still can’t get used to British banks – why do they take three days?” Karel does a little smile that suggests he knows exactly why they take three days. “In fact, we’re so hi-tech that we’ve just had the first ever cyber-war.” I sit up. Now, this is futuristic. “We’re pretty independent from Russia now, but there can still be problems. Estonia is one of the major routes for goods to be exported to and from Western Europe from Russia, so they could make things difficult for us by cutting off supplies. About a third of people living in Estonia are actually Russians, so there are frequent riots. After a recent riot, hackers from Russia shut down the entire Estonian computer network. If it had been a real war, it would have been two minutes, then it would have been all over. But it lasted for two weeks, with all our experts trying to fix it. NATO sent people to help, but they mostly just watched and learnt.”
It sounds like there is some residual bad feeling between Estonians and Russians. “Well, don’t forget that we’ve had 800 years of occupation from different sides, being forced to speak different languages. We’ve always considered ourselves Western, like all the Baltic states. In fact, once I went with my family to St Petersburg, and we went to a Russian restaurant. When they found out we were Estonian, we were put in a special room with a TV, as we were used to Western things. Today, Estonia is marketed in Russia as a holiday destination – they say we are ‘Nordic with a twist’. That is the phrase they use.” I look quizzical. “No,” says Karel, “I don’t know what it means either.”
Estonian independence came when Karel was ten. I bet that was exciting, I say. “Everything’s exciting when you’re ten,” Karel quite reasonably replies. He studied Russian at school, but claims not to be able to string a sentence together now. “English is now the most popular foreign language to learn, and in fact Spanish and French are overtaking Russian as well.” One of the biggest changes since independence has been the ease with which Estonians can travel to Western Europe. “I came to London when I was very young, and we came by boat, train, bus. One trip we made, to the south of France, we had to get three different boats, via Finland, on the way back. Now, we just jump on a plane.”
Karel tries to go back twice a year, and his cousins come to see him occasionally. What about his parents? “Oh, they’re more keen to go to the Mediterranean. The climate in London is too similar to Estonia, and they’ve been tourists here before. Even for me, it’s easier to get to Europe than the rest of the UK. I wanted to go to Manchester, but it was nearly fifty pounds on the train, so I paid twenty-six pounds and flew to Vienna instead.”
And is living in London something he would recommend to other Estonians? “Well, I would,” he says, “but there are already too many of them here ... What can I say about London? It’s all right. There are good and bad things, it can get really tiring and it’s hard to have your own moments. But it can be liberating as well – there are so many things to do. I was considering moving to Paris, to learn French, but I’ve recently met someone, and it feels like it might be forever.” I poise my pen over my notebook. Can I put that down, I ask? “You can put that,” says Karel.
Karel used to live in Elephant and Castle, but has recently moved to Old Street. “It’s the nicest place I’ve lived in so far, it doesn’t feel so temporary, and the area is very interesting. Two steps one way, it’s beautiful, two steps the other and you’re in hell. Also, a lot of the people there are wannabees. Everyone tries to look for extreme than everyone else – the visual noise is quite strong.” I ask if he misses Estonian food. Karel looks confused. “Well, what food do you eat? British food? In Talinn we have pizza, pasta, sushi – international food as well. I suppose the only things I bring back with me when I go home are sweets and vodka. Estonian vodka is the strongest in the world – we’re in the Guinness Book of Records for one brand that is 98%.” Have you tried it, I ask? “Are you crazy? No. The strongest you can get in shops is 80%, and that burns. You’re not allowed to take it on planes.”
It’s really sunny now. We wander over to the fountain, and discover it’s actually an installation by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein. It’s called ‘Appearing Rooms’, and is a series of crossing lines on the floor, made up of hundreds of water jets that spray straight up, six foot into the air. The jets in one line turn on and off at random intervals, so individual rooms, with water curtains as walls, keep appearing and disappearing. The idea is that you wait for a wall to disappear, then hop in before it reappears again, then move around inside as the internal walls drop and fire up again. Several children have been trapped inside for about fifteen minutes, as we’ve been watching. I suggest we go in. “Why not?” says Karel.
As the curtain closes behind us, I ask if Karel feels like a Londoner. “Hmmm,” he ponders. “Estonian first.” There is a pause. “European second.” Another, longer pause, as we cross to a new room, looking for an exit. “And that’s it. I’m pretty sure that I’ll go back to Estonia eventually. But London is somewhere I’d like to have one of my three houses in.” At last, one of the exterior walls drops and we hop out, glad not to have been soaked by a stray breeze.