This blog post was written by Marina Loch. Marina originally came to Estonia for the Erasmus exchange semester during her undergrad studies, but loved it so much that she is now doing Veterinary Medicine PhD at Estonian University of Life Sciences.
Where are you from? How did you end up in Estonia? How do you like it here?
If you have been living here for a few weeks, you surely have answered these questions countless times. If you’re not here yet, brace yourself. Estonia is a small country with a long winter and a difficult language – so Estonians often seem surprised that so many people choose to move here, and they are curious as to why.
There are so many reasons, of course, but how we experience Estonia depends on our individual background – and on the culture we grew up in. So, Estonians may be especially surprised when we decide to move here from a country with higher living standards, higher salaries, and no tuition fees.
Due to the history that connects our nations, I often feel uneasy when I answer, “I’m from Germany“. However, Estonians don’t see me as a Baltic German, an oppressor, or a descendant of nazis. They wonder why I would choose their little country with lower salaries over richer and more influential Germany. And I try to explain, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense. When I meet other Germans, it’s clear: Of course we would rather live in Estonia than in Germany. There is just something in the air.
It is easy for Germans to integrate into Estonian life: Our EU passport makes coming and staying here very easy, we don’t look any different, so aren’t usually at risk of experiencing racism, and the pronunciation of German and Estonian are similar, so we can read everything and have some advantages when learning the language (hello, ä, ö, and ü!). Many Estonians grew up with German TV and learned the language in school, so we encounter many Estonians who speak our mother tongue. On the other hand, we might feel guilt for our ancestors’ actions, might be shocked by the conservative politics of Estonia, and how hard it is to get close to the Estonians. Germans like to complain, that’s for sure, but, as one German living in Estonia said “life is good in Germany”. So, why are there so many Germans in Estonia? And if you’re German and considering to come here, why would we all recommend it to you?
There are about 2700 German citizens registered as Estonian residents in 2023, but it seems like more, Germans seem to be everywhere. What is it that brings and keeps us here? I asked around.
About one third of the respondents have been living in Estonia for more than five years, one third between one and five years, and one third for only half a year – Germans love to come to Estonia for an exchange semester with ERASMUS+! I’m not the only one who started out like this, but decided to stay, or come back, that’s a classic story (and not only for Germans). More than 40% of people who answered the questionnaire had originally planned to stay in Estonia for a short time only, but couldn’t resist Estonia in the end. While many Germans relocate to Estonia because of the person they love or their work, the majority comes to study in Estonia – like you, I assume.
For me, the feeling that life is somehow easier in Estonia than in Germany, may come from the less strict hierarchies, more focus on actual skills than on certificates and degrees, and just how much simpler everything bureaucratic is here. That’s what others tell me too: Bureaucracy, taxation, and IT services – it’s so much easier than in Germany. Added bonus: Estonian trains are actually on time!
While of course you can’t just simply compare two countries, 43% of people I asked did say that they prefer living in Estonia over living in Germany, and only 13% prefer Germany.
What do Germans miss in Estonia?
Their friends and family (and the village societies that most Germans grow up with – Estonian villages have that, too, but how do you get in there as a foreigner?), cheap wine, certain foods (including affordable organic groceries and especially street food like “Currywurst” and kebab), and bakeries. It’s all about food for us Germans! Of course, the climate makes it easier to grow fruits and vegetables in Germany than in Estonia, and import of such foods is also cheaper than all the way to Estonia. But what’s that thing about bakeries? Germany is known for the big selection of breads, especially whole grain breads, crispy bread rolls and buns, and other baked goods. And we don’t get them from the supermarket, we go to bakeries of course! We go there at seven in the morning, stand in line, to get it all while it’s still warm. I get it. I love Estonian rye bread, baked by a friend’s mom, or from Muhu Pagar, but it’s not quite the same as German bakery culture.
What do Germans love about Estonia?
The digitalization! You don’t have to carry a folder full of documents everywhere you go, you don’t have to physically mail your documents, and there is internet access almost everywhere. And while it takes a while to get close to the Estonians (see here for the previous three blog posts about that: Things I've Learned From Hanging Out With Estonians; The Estonian Coconut Hunt; Nobody Wants To Be a Stereotype), Germans love Estonians! Estonian cities are green, small, calm, you walk past cute wooden houses and almost never have to wait in a line or a traffic jam – who wouldn’t love that? Let’s not even start about Estonian nature, everybody is in love with that. It’s cozy in Estonia, life seems less complicated, and education seems to work better in Estonia – smaller classrooms, less strict hierarchies: these things make learning at universities a lot easier than a German auditorium filled with 300 students where you are afraid to ask a question from the “Mrs. Professor Doktor Huber”.
What about the history?
Other Germans agree, nobody is blaming us for what Germans did over a hundred years ago. Estonians receive today’s Germans with open arms (and some Germans agree with me that this can feel a bit wrong), and Germans tend to feel at home here very quickly. The cultural differences are not too big, they become apparent in the little daily things, such as going to the supermarket on a Sunday evening at half past eight, or the fact that Estonian potato salad has much smaller pieces and more ingredients than the German one.
Photo credit: Näljane Nelik
When I decided to write about the German experience in Estonia, I was afraid I would be alone with my views – but the answers I received from other Germans built a clear consensus: Estonians speak better English, digitalization makes life easier (less bureaucracy, easier payments, less appointments, etc.), the closeness to nature, that winter is still winter with actual snow, and the lack of hierarchy: these are definitely benefits of moving to Estonia.
I often hear people say “in my country…”, and I’ve always wondered about that. Why not just say the name of the country? Does it have something to do with a feeling of identification? I don’t have any desire to refer to Germany as “my country”, and seeing some answers in the questionnaire, I’m not alone in that either. Germans enjoy being in an environment without any other Germans, speaking English all day. And the Estonian patriotism might just be the biggest culture shock for us Germans. Due to German history, raising a German flag or singing the national anthem at any other time than the soccer world cup seems inappropriate.
Photo credit: Jaanus Ree
Yet Estonians can do that, and with pride! Estonians are happy to be Estonian, to sing patriotic songs, to show their flag. That can be intimidating for us at first, because in Germany, if we ended up in such a situation, we would be surrounded by people we’d rather not be near to. In Estonia, however, it gives a warm feeling.
It takes time to get to know Estonia and Estonians. I highly recommend taking that time. And while I do miss my parents and grandparents, and they send me food every once in a while, I don’t think I’ll be moving away from Estonia anytime soon!
First aid kit for homesick Germans:
- The bigger supermarkets (Rimi, coop/Konsum) have a fresh bread section. Go before midday to get fresh and good bread, and although the selection is smaller than in your local German bakery, there are some good choices
- Second Hand culture: try Facebook, honestly, everything is there. Groups for buying clothes, furniture, books, toys, anything second hand, you can swap stuff, or even get it for free! Here are some examples for Facebook Groups: “Teise ringi riided/jalanõud jne/mööbel ost-müük”, “Uuskasutus Tartus”, “Taaskasutus Tartus”, “Ikea Eesti ostu- ja müügiturg”, “Prügi aardeks taaskasutus”
- Immigration info for Germans
- Useful links provided by the German embassy in Tallinn
- Facebook groups: “Deutsche in Estland” (private group), “Deutsche in Tartu“ (official FB group of the society with the same name)
Read more blog posts:
- Studying in Estonia: Frequently Asked Questions
Find YOUR study programme from Study in Estonia programme's page.