‘In Estonia you can walk for hours without seeing anyone’
How does a Dutchman end up in Tallinn in Estonia? Well, Dutchie Martijn Hensen met his fiancée through an exchange project he was working for. After falling madly in love with her and after three years of flying back and forth he decided to quit his job and move to Tallinn to live with his love. He soon found out that the Dutch and the Estonians are quite different: “The Dutch wear their hearts on their sleeve. The Estonians not so much. I really had to get used to them being more closed and quiet.”
Where did you live before you moved to Estonia and what did you do there?
“I lived in Abbekerk in the province of North-Holland, where I was born and raised. I worked as a personal healthcare assistant. The last years before my departure I worked in homecare.”
How did you end up in Estonia?
“In Holland I volunteered at an organization that organized exchanges for teenagers so they could visit another country. When our organization celebrated its 25-year existence we organized a seminar with all the countries that we did an exchange with. People from all the different countries stayed in my hometown and the surrounding villages. In one of the time my fiancée was working for the Estonian exchange organization. We fell in love and after three years of flying back and forth to see each other we decided to start living together.”
“Because the healthcare branch was going through cost reductions, I felt like I couldn’t do my job properly anymore, so we decided to live in Tallinn together. She had a stable job and a house there and I could find a job there. “
How hard was it to leave your life in The Netherlands behind?
“I can’t really say it was that hard to leave everything behind. You know what you’re getting in return: Living with your loved one. Of course it’s difficult to leave your friends and family behind. Luckily my parents noticed early that I would probably emigrate at some point in my life and they are happy when I am happy. Thanks to the technique of this day and age it’s a lot easier to keep in touch and see each other with Skype and Facetime.”
Can you describe what the first period that you were living there was like?
“It was primarily a matter of looking for work and learning the language. I was pretty hard on myself. In the mornings had I studied Estonian and I send out applications and in the afternoon I was ‘professional tourist’, as my fiancée called it. I went to museums, read about Estonia’s history and discovered Tallinn. I accidentally gained interest in being a tour guide and since my fiancée already worked in tourism I soon had my first group of tourists to guide.”
What were some of the additions you had to make living in Estonia?
“I really had to get used to the fact that Estonians aren’t as open as the Dutch. They are more closed and reserved. That has probably something to do the history, during the Soviet period you couldn’t trust anyone. The second thing is that, while Estonia is a little bigger than The Netherlands in surface, there’s only 1,3million people living here, compared to the 17 million in Holland. The odds are a lot bigger that people know each other here, so if you ought to tell a secret, chances are bigger that it comes out.”
You’ve already mentioned you work as a city tour guide. What else are you doing there?
“In Estonia I now work as a healthcare assistant too, but the hours are different than in the Netherlands. I work twenty-four hour shifts, two times a week. That’s something I really had to get used too. In Estonia it’s normal. Another difference is the workload / pressure here. It’s almost non-existent and probably the result of the low wages here. Most of my colleagues aren’t that motivated, because of it.”
“Besides that I still as a tour guide in Dutch and English and I work for a website where I translate and update it in Dutch.”
You already mentioned studying the Estonian language. Do you speak Estonian now and how important is it to do so?
“Yes, I learned Estonian. It is important to that extent that Estonians really appreciate you learning their language. It’s seen as very difficult to learn. I’ve reached the B1 level, which means that if I want to opt for Estonian citizenship, I can.”
“Here’s a funny story. Last summer I was giving a group of forty Dutch tourists a tour through the old city per bus. At the start of the tour I always talk to the bus driver about where the photo stops will be and stuff like that. I do that in Estonian. After our conversation he asked where our group was from and I said ‘The Netherlands’. Then he asked how I had learned Dutch and I replied that I was Dutch myself and he was very surprised. He couldn’t believe I could speak Estonian so perfectly.”
What do you miss most from ‘home’?
“My friends and family obviously, but I also miss some of my stuff that is still stored at my parent’s house, because we didn’t have enough room in our house here. Luckily we were recently permitted to build another store on our house, so we can essentially double the surface of our house.”
What can the Dutch learn from the Estonians and vice versa?
“The Estonians live a lot closer and a lot more with nature. A lot of the things they use on a daily basis come directly from their natural surroundings, mostly season bound stuff. A lot of foods are put in jars and pots during the summertime and saved for the winter, when there are a lot less fresh products available. During the summer there’s an abundance of fresh berries and strawberry’s for example. “
“They also appreciate material things a lot more. In Estonia people tend to repair things, rather than throw it away and buy something new.”
“Another thing is that the Dutch shouldn’t overthink everything so much. Just give things a chance. ”
Did living in Estonia change you as a person?
“I really had to learn to do things more slowly and not try to build everything at once. There’s always tomorrow or the day after tomorrow to finish things. And there’s more in life than work, like meetings friends or just not having to do anything.”
What do you love most about Estonia?
“The nature. You can walk for hours without seeing any other humans. You’ll only see animals. And I’m also intriged by the history of the country, how they free’d themselves from The Soviet oppression. The Estonians are proud people and they show it.”
Do you have any tips for people who are thinking about moving to Estonia?
“Read a lot about what you’ll need and want to know. Check beforehand if you can find a job there and search for Facebook groups for expats in the city and/or country you’re moving to. They can give you lots of information about the job market and new developments.”
“If you are really thinking about living abroad, I can only recommend doing it though. I’ve not regretted it for a second. In fact, I wish I would have done it sooner.”
“If you’re planning on going to Estonia for a holiday, work or for fun, you can always contact me for questions or a tour through Tallinn.”
Photo: Martijn Hensen