Baltic Yank: American expat Rachel in Estonia

As a foreigner living with her husband in Tallinn, Estonia, Rachel finds life there to be an enlightening experience. This writer/editor's love for Estonian culture helps her deal with the challenges of adjusting to expat life, which include learning to speak the language and understanding Estonian attitudes and behavior.
Rachel J.K. Grace
Rachel J.K. Grace

-Where were you born?
New York, USA

-In which country and city are you living now?
Tallinn, Estonia

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my husband, who’s also American.

-How long have you been living in Estonia?
Eight months

-What is your age?

-When did you come up with the idea of living Estonia?
My husband lived in many countries as a child, including Estonia, so he seemed comfortable with the idea from the start. In 2005, we spent two months working and enjoying ourselves in Tallinn. I worked for City Paper (an English-language magazine on the Baltics). At the end of our two months, we were sad to leave. That’s when we started to think about moving here after we finished our graduate programs. We have some friends here, my brother-in-law lives here, and I fell in love with Estonian culture. Plus, we knew we didn’t want to stay where we were living in the U.S. and couldn’t agree on another city to move to, other than Tallinn.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
My husband got a working permit quite easily, since his law firm handled the paperwork and application process. They did the same for my living permit (which we expected would be granted based upon my husband’s work permit), but the Migration Board asked for additional paperwork from me. After I filled out those papers and sent them in, it was just a matter of time before they sent my approval notice for a two-year permit and ID card. I think that it made a big difference to have professional help in obtaining a working and living permit here.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
Not at all. It’s actually necessary to have medical insurance before applying for a living permit. Anyone who pays taxes here receives social benefits, including health care. I’m not paying taxes here yet, so I had to go through a private insurance company. I filled out the paperwork, went for a check up, and was insured in no time. Private insurance also costs less here than in the U.S.

-How do you make your living in Estonia? Do you have any type of income generated?
My husband works as a lawyer for a pan-Baltic law firm. He came to Estonia for a week about a year ago and interviewed with several law firms. He received several offers as a result. Most of my writing/editing/web clients are in the U.S., but I’ve gotten a few new clients here as a result of networking. I also write for magazines. All of my work can be done from anywhere in the world.


-Do you speak Estonian and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I don’t speak Estonian or Russian, but I am studying Estonian once a week with a private teacher. My husband speaks Estonian quite well and knows some Russian, too. It isn’t terribly important to be able to speak the language for the purpose of daily living and I know many expats who don’t speak Estonian or Russian. However, it is very helpful to know something of the language. And, long-term, it is important socially. I’m starting to be able to read Estonian, which has had a positive impact on my daily life.

I think it is absolutely important for expats to respect local customs. I don’t think we need to assimilate, and I think it’s important to make contributions from our various cultures, but that doesn’t have to be done at the expense of local culture. And, of course not having a negative impact requires respect. Also, expats (and even tourists) are unofficial ambassadors of our countries, and our actions reflect back on our countries of origin.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Of course I miss my family, but I was used to living far from them already. The United States is a huge country, and my parents, siblings and I all lived in different cities in different states. I still talk with them every week.

Regarding activities, I miss going to poetry and book readings and indie rock concerts. Those types of events (in English) don’t take place in Tallinn very often. But, there are tons of wonderful classical and ethnic music performances to go to, films, good restaurants, saunas/spas, and so on. Tallinn’s also got a number of good clubs and lounges.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
We’ve traveled to Helsinki and Italy recently, and have plans to go to London, Frankfurt, and the U.S. this fall.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
We’re renting a modern flat in a new building in the center of the city from a friend. Most of the single expats live in Old Town while those married with children live further out (because Old Town is expensive). We’re paying about half of what we’d pay in the U.S. for a comparable place. I happen to be a spoiled design snob, or we’d be paying even less (for a less-nice place). The housing market has just gone down, and we expect that decrease to continue. It will be a good time to buy soon.

-What is the cost of living in Estonia?
Food, transit (cabs, busses, and domestic flights), various services, and housing are still significantly less expensive than in the neighboring Nordic countries and the U.S. However, certain products (clothing, house wares, and electronics) are expensive here. Most local products are reasonably priced, and depending on how much you are willing to pay you can find specialty import items from the U.S. and elsewhere.

-What do you think about the Estonians?
Estonians are suspicious of foreigners and tend to seem cold and unfriendly, but once you’ve passed whatever tests they’ve constructed for you, they’re kind and caring in a genuine way. That said, the overall attitude of Estonians toward other people is of a “live and let live” nature. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them (and they aren’t very easily bothered). And they adore people who at least try to speak Estonian. Expect to often be left out of conversations if you’re hanging out with a group of Estonians, because they love their language and prefer not to speak English.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Estonia?
Positives: Life is simpler here than in the West, but Estonia is still a thoroughly modern country. People here are less busy, less rushed, less aggressive. Love of nature is deeply rooted in Estonian culture, and Estonians rush out to the forests every chance they get.

Negatives: I’m very far from my family. The British folks I’ve met here can be home in a few hours, but I’ve got an ocean to cross. I’m also a vegetarian, and though Estonians eat lots of veggies, people who don’t eat meat are rare here (which means finding the ingredients I need can be difficult). The expat community here is quite small, which means there’s essentially no local support system (people who have been through what you’re going through and can provide encouragement) in place when you need it. And as I mentioned, Estonians are not very friendly. That’s something I’m still struggling with after being here for a year.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Estonia?
The winters here are very cold, so prepare accordingly. I think any other advice I might have would apply to living in any country other than your own, and I’d rather leave that to the books.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Estonia?
The Baltic Times
and (sites with events listings)
Tallinn in Your Pocket

Itching for Eestimaa, a blog by an American about Estonia
Nami-Nami, a food blog, in English, by an Estonian

Hey Rachel, Hopefully you

trollc3's picture

Hey Rachel,
Hopefully you will see this despite your post being from several years ago. I visited Estonia once and would love to work there. I am currently, actually, receiving my J.D. and am curious about your husbands job as an attorney. How did he find law firms that were wanting to hire American lawyers? Did he specialize in any certain type of law while in school?

Greetings Rachel, I'm james

James Toler's picture

Greetings Rachel,

I'm james and my Wife Külli just moved back to Estonia as I'm in Afghanistan doing some work. I like your comments on how the Estonian people are, I have been traveling that area for the past 12 years and it is so true.