Teacher Nienke and adventures at Estonian High Schools

The past three weeks I’ve participated in a wonderful project called ‘Erasmus in Schools’. Even though I’m not an Erasmus exchange student myself (which was the case in Riga in 2009, now I’m a bilateral exchange student) I managed to join for some fun at five different high schools. The aim of this project is to familiarize high school students with other cultures, opportunities to study abroad and to hear a foreign language spoken by someone else than just their teachers. The Dutch Embassy in Tallinn was so kind to spoil me with a lot of Dutch goodies from wooden shoe key chains to posters and fancy looking magazines about Dutch culture and design. For me they happened to be useful tools to ‘bribe’ the students in getting involved in my interactive teaching method.
The first school I visited was Vanallina Hardiuskolleegium in Old Town. I ended up in an art class with a small group of arty-looking young individuals. Besides the fact they were painting, they also managed to listen carefully and answer my questions. Especially when I started handing out the key chains for good participatory behavior the students got more and more engaged. The teacher offered me a cup of tea and while comfortably sitting in the middle of the class I discussed topics like soft drugs, homosexuality, bikes and the awesomeness and usefulness of studying abroad. After the class most of the students gathered around me to chit chat a little more about a.o. their dreams.
 The art class and their foreign Christmas sweaters wearing guests from the Netherlands and the Czech Republic

Some nice conversations after class. It’s always so much fun to meet inspiring young people! Picture: Triin Laumets.
 Messages from the students, nice for later!
The second school I visited was the Lasnamäe Vene Gümnaasium, a Russian school in a very Russian looking district. During the bus ride with mentor Alexander and Korean student Ji Min we encountered some interesting guys. They were obviously (still) drunk and they were very excited for their second bus ride ever. One of them didn’t have a valid bus ticket and told he’d make a scene as soon as he would get caught. Normally residents of Tallinn can make free use of public transportation within the city by the way. Alexander could communicate with them in Russian and while I was innocently looking out of the window they kept on guessing what my nationality is. They said I’m extremely beautiful. Well, great, was that the alcohol speaking that anyways makes anything beautiful? Time for some more intellectual stuff. The first twenty minutes I spent in a class filled with approx. 40 talkative teens. A hand full of them participated very actively (they all received a key chain for that of course). Now there is such a fuss going on between homosexuality and the Olympic Games which will be held in Russia I felt the need to tackle the topic in class, just to see what would happen. “What if you would see two guys on the streets of Tallinn holding hands and giving each other a kiss?”, was my question. A few guys were pretty straight forward mentioning “All gays should be killed”. Others were more tolorant. I asked the before mentioned blokes a follow up question. “But… what if you would see two beautiful girls walking hand in hand, giving each other a kiss, should they also be killed?”. Then their answer was “Of course not!”. The eyebrow frowning mindset of some young boys… interesting.

The Russian Gymnasium in Lasnamäe. Picture: Ji Min Lee
The second part of that hour I gave the same presentation in another class. Of course it was not only about the homosexuality discussion, but also about typical Dutch topics like bikes and cheese. The students were a lot more calm and participated without any insults. I can understand now how such a delight it must be for a hard working teacher to have a class in front of you that pays attention that well. We even managed to practice some Dutch all together. I especially trained their ‘ggg’ sounds, which they absolutely loved to practice out loud! In the end, satisfied, I left the building armed with some nice gifts from the gymnasium. What an eye opening day once again. I really love motivating people to share their own opinions and moderate little discussions in front of the class. Furthermore, it’s a great experience to stand in front of an audience without feeling nervous about it.

 Unsharp, but certainly the proof I was there! What a lovely class it was. Outside you can see the rather Russian looking living blocs. Picture: Ji Min Lee

We made it! On our way back home with some tasty presents. Picture: Ji Min Lee
Then the third school, Ehte Hümanitaargümnaasium. I went there together with Triin, the project coordinator of Erasmus in Schools and Daniela, a student from Germany. We were ‘kind of’ welcomed by a janitor speaking Russian only. He immediately handed out some blue plastic shoe covers in order to keep the spotlessly clean floor clean. If only he’d know I often wear my shoes in my living room/study room/bedroom without feeling guilty about it… An English teacher eventually showed us the way to the classroom and provided us with strong coffee probably labeled as a ‘keep the teacher awake’ blend. The first presentation scheduled for today was till now the best I had experienced during the entire project. Around 40 students, many of them with smiles upon their faces (quite exceptional!), listening carefully and participating so nicely well. Normally the pupils answer my questions, but in this class I also got a lot of questions in return. They seemed honestly interested in the Netherlands, not only about drugs luckily. Then the school bell rang: it was a popular trance song. A whole new world of creative school bells opened for me this week.
Desperately keeping the floor clean
In the middle Natalia and Vlad, two very kind students which stayed after the lecture for some small talk

“Can we take a stupid face picture together?”. Yes.

The atmosphere changed during the second presentation in front of another class. The group was overruled by a group of Russian guys aged around 17/18. Daniela started off with a great presentation about Germany, but after five minutes the guys were already asking why her friend (with which they meant me) didn’t want to talk to them. We explained I’d speak during the second half of the class. Yet, after not even 20 minutes they rudely interrupted Daniela by saying “Ok, well, that’s enough, now we want to hear more about the Netherlands”. The tone was rather painful. Triin and I eventually came up for Daniela by telling the guys how extremely rude they behaved. I guess at that point it would have been good that the teacher also would verbally punish them, but he didn’t. Whereas my previous lecture at this gymnasium went so well, I felt like the upcoming one ended up being the worse. Till now all my presentations about the Netherlands have been fairly the same. One topic which would be almost strange not to mention is the soft drugs policy. I can’t change anything about that stereotype, yet, I can tell the young Estonians that the situation is not as bad as they might think (tolerated – not forbidden to try it – therefore not really exciting – low number of addiction and general usage amongst youngsters).

 Sterile classroom.. I kind of got a hospital feeling here. Picture: Triin Laumets
During the previous class the first question asked was about the Dutch education system, during the second class the first question was how much one gram of stuff costs. I have no idea. Hindsight I should maybe have not communicated with the front row guys that much. Yet, they were the ones in fact participating. The only topics discussed by them however were the awesomeness of soft drugs and the disgustingness of gays. Also here the trap questions worked; no problems with two beautiful women messing around with each other. On the way back Trinn, Daniela and I discussed how much influence classmates can actually have on your willingness to openly particpate in a lecture. Those few guys were so overruling in their own little group, but they probably wouldn’t have had the guts to behave the same way when being completely alone, without the pressure from their friends to act ‘cool’.

 The audience… Picture: Triin Laumets

Dutch-German forces united :-)! Picture: Triin Laumets

The fourth school on my list was Südalinna Kool located a 20-minute walk from my home. The first thing I noticed before entering the school was that there was only one bike parked outside which later on happened to be from the teacher whose class I’d take over that hour. It was certainly the most quite class of the entire week. Even though the students were all aged around 17, they were very shy and an active participation during the class was not in their dictionary for that very morning. At the end of the class, after asking them three times if they had any more questions about the Netherlands, the only question which was asked was if my hair color is my natural hair color. Yes. When the students left the class one girl came towards me to give me a very kind compliment. She told me she lived in Belgium with her family for quite a while and that my way of teaching made her feel very much ‘at home’.

 Busy with my introduction. Telling that ‘Bos’ actually means forest and that it’s easier for Estonians to pronounce my name when it’s written like ‘Niinke’. Picture: Merilin Näär
Then, last but not least, the fifth school I visited was Jüri Gumnaasium, outside the city borders of Tallinn. The school is located in an area with a lot of business opportunities and I was told the houses there are quite fancy. Yes, this school happened to be for the kids from slightly richer Estonian families. Together with two German students and one from Turkey I was guided around all the facilities at the school. When crossing the gym hall Daniela and I shared the same thought: it’s such a delight gym classes are not part of our curriculum anymore! After the classes most students attend ‘hobby school’, also located within the same building. Then, after yet another door, we discovered a huge, good looking swimming pool. Wow, to be honest I didn’t expect all these wonderful facilities here. I actually thought I’d end up at a small wooden school located just outside Tallinn with only the basics offered to the students.

 Sun and snow and ready to go: Jüri Gumnaasium! Picture: Kätlin Oinus
Tropical temperatures inside, snow outside
My lecture went well. It was the same story all over again. The class consisted of 11 students only and they were very, very silent. It took a while to gain their trust but in the end they slowly started to share their opinions. After having experenced different kinds of schools during these weeks I can say that there is a huge difference in interaction. What I personally noticed is that mainly the art students and the Russian speaking students are the most expressive. They are not afraid to let their opinions be heard. From my perspective, the Estonian students needed quite some encouragement before speaking out loud. I’m very thankful that the Dutch Embassy provided me with some fun goodies so I could in this way support the students a bit in their slight fear to speak. I also noticed that Estonian students only talk to the teacher when they stand close to each other so that the conversation stays a bit discrete. This is absolutely not the case in the Netherlands, were students and teachers speak out loud so that others might benefit from the transferred information too. Or, they’re just too lazy to walk towards each other. Same counts for conversations in public transport. Whispering Estonians (and Latvians and Lithuanians too), loud and present Dutchmen. By the way… want to know how my last class ended? One guy came towards me, asking “Do you know the movie New Kids Turbo?”. On which I replied “Oh my goodness, yes junge! How do you know that? I hope it isn’t translated into Estonian!”. He saw the English version. Hm, I wonder how his perception of the Netherlands is.
 At the canteen of Jüri Gumnaasium, awarded with the title ‘Best schoolmeals in Estonia’. I indeed seemed very happy with my meatball. Not so sure about the others though ;-). Picture: Kätlin Oinus
I want to thank Triin Laumets for her efforts to make the Erasmus in Schools project such a great success. Besides her own studies she had lots of work organizing all meetings. Her work surely paid off. Foreign students managed to get a fantastic insight into Estonia’s young people society while the Estonian students gained a lot of extra knowledge on foreign cultures and possibilities for them to study abroad. Two big thumbs up for this wonderful initiative!

 Applause for the girl on the left! Thanks Triin 🙂

Soviet Statue Graveyard Tallinn

Did you ever wonder what happened with all the Sovietic statues once the Baltic countries regained their independence? Well, in Lithuania there is Grutas park showing a nice collection of them. But what about Estonia? I heard some are getting dusty in the basement of the occupation museum. Furthermore, one Lenin statue is hiding in Narva, close to the Russian border. Yet, there are a lot more to be spotted not even that far from Tallinn’s Old Town. You just have to know where to search for them. 
Let’s first have a look at some of my findings:
It was not really my intention to smile so happily on this picture, yet, these drunk Finns I met were very funny and very friendly too. Here we stand next to Lenin.
The Finns eventually left. What an atmosphere; it was a very interesting experience to be the only one there, walking around all these once powerful looking statues. Now, not much of the grandeur is left actually. Here my camera’s self timer shot me looking at Stalin.
A serious look deep into Lenin’s eyes
The most colorful artwork just laying around like it has been dumped there
 This headless guy is laying next to Stalin
And another Lenin…
 The overview might look rather boring, but as you can see on the pictures above each piece has its own special impact.
Curious where to find this place? This uncommon graveyard can be found on the backside of Maarjamäe Palace (Estonian History Museum) in Tallinn, located in the Pirita district. In case you’re interested in taking the bus, it would be easiest to get out at Maarjamägi. On the map below you can see where exactly to find the statues. Furthermore, it’s free of charge.

Estonia welcoming Mr. Ban Ki-moon with open arms

Today I had the honor to join a lecture given by H.E. Mr Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. This joyful event took place at Tallinn University and the lecture hall was completely filled with around 300 participants. Most of them were students, but apparently the guy who sat next to me knew all the Ambassadors sitting front row as well. At least the ones from Canada, Poland, Latvia, Germany and the Netherlands were present. Besides such an event itself I’m personally always quite curious about the whole organization slightly behind the scenes. Police officers were present on the streets surrounding the university while some well armed policemen calmly sat in a solid looking Mercedes trying not to attract attention. Mr. Ban Ki-moon himself had quite a lot of bodyguards with him, but as soon as he took place in front of the audience the whole circus vaporized and all that was left was a lovely devoted man with passion for his occupations. Sweet also, how he recognized some fellow South-Koreans in the audience and greeted them with kindness.
Before the lecture he had obviously spoken with some of Estonia’s most important leaders. I was very impressed by his detailed knowledge on what’s going on in my host country and I guess his supportive words must have felt especially well for young Estonians, mainly the ones involved in technological developments. Mr. Ban Ki-moon emphasized once again that every person on earth should be aware of the fact that we only have one planet to live on, while most behave like we have a spare one. “This planet is our plan A. We don’t have a plan B in this case!”, as he mentioned. The UN’s main points to achieve by 2015 were repeated which were a.o. about climate change and the eradication of diseases like polio and malaria. Furthermore the importance of science was mentioned once again, accompanied by a personal story of a visit earlier that morning at a technical university where students presented their ideas and showed their capabilities which one day could positively change the world. 
Mr. Ban Ki-moon concluded with a concrete example on how successful change can be achieved. He told the story of a Brazilian inventor who drills holes in roofs and sticks plastic bottles through them filled with water and a tiny amount of bleach, in this way creating a lamp. The sunlight eventually generates a light strenght that can be compared with a 40-60 Watt lamp. In this way children can do their homework in a lighted home without sitting on a filthy street. “He gave his idea to the world without getting rich from it. Yet, he is so rich in wisdom, innovation and compassion”, as was concluded by today’s very special guest.

The renewed Lielvarde belt and that one symbol…

Lielvarde is a small town located about 50 km southeast of Riga, Latvia. It is from this very place that the well known Lielvarde belt originates. This woven belt in red and white depicts 22 different ancient symbols and was worn by both men and woman during festive events. Certain patterns can even be found back on Latvia’s banknotes which however in two months will be replaced by Euro bills. 

 The traditional Lielvarde belt, an important part of Latvia’s traditional identity

A company called Biksem recently produced some nicely colored belts decorated with patterns also used on the original Lielvare belt. Their products are the modern version of this traditional object, perfectly fitting to jeans instead of traditional costumes. Since I’ve been wearing my leather Esprit belt for at least the past five years I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to maybe look for a new fresh piece once again. Latvia has a special place in my heart so the Lielvarde pattern would complement my identity as a modest explorer of the Baltic States. Yet, I stumbled upon something which made me doubt…

 The modern belts offered at http://www.biksem.lv looking nicely classy
 The purple belt from another angle. Hey, what’s that on the left?
Let it be clear that I’m aware of the fact that this symbol is in essence purely innocent. Back in the days it was used with a different meaning than the one it’s notorious for now. Let me illustrate that with a chart explaining a few Latvian symbols.
‘The fire cross’
As stated here, the fire cross symbolizes the energy of the sun while attracting happiness and energy. It repels evil and assists in battles. Aha. When the same symbol is mirrored it is also known as a thunder cross, connected to Perkons, the god of thunder and justice. Most Europeans would connect this symbol with Hitler’s Nazi Party. Yet, especially Buddhists and Hindus and as seen also Latvians themselves traditionally see the swastika as a well intended symbol of something good. 
My fear however when wearing this belt in the Netherlands would be the reaction of the many people who don’t know about this innocence and would instantly call me a Nazi, something I’d not be too happy with of course. On the other hand we might also argue to leave the past behind (but most certainly not forgotten) and try to spice up the badly damaged image of the swastika. I’m however not sure if the right time for that has come already, it could well be to early now, but better possible in fifty years. Even though I really like Biksem’s Lielvarde belts, the swastika’s are the reason I’d not buy one for myself. The critique I’d receive, even though it would be undeserved, would restrain me from wearing this nice belt with 100% comfort. Call it weakness, call it understandable…

The Pet Shop Boys and the Finland Station

When browsing through some golden oldies I stumbled upon one of my many favorite 80s songs, namely West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys. The touch of synthesizer in this piece highly attracts me. It’s a mysterious song with a large story behind its on first sight easy looking lyrics. In shame I have to admit that I always somehow thought they were singing ‘From Lithuania to the Finland Station’, but further research in any random lyrics database shows it’s ‘From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station’. Oops. I was quite curious why the scene of the song was suddenly moved from the West and East End districts of London to these two diverse places in Switzerland and Russia. Indeed, the Finland Station is not located in the country about which I dedicated so many lovable blog posts. I’m not trying to explain the entire context of West End Girls here, I’d just briefly like to share the story behind the line I misapprehended. Lenin was forced to leave Russia in 1914. He decided to move to Switzerland, where he lived in Bern and Zürich. He also spent time in a little chalet at Lake Geneva. Then, during April 1917, he managed to find his way back to Russia by travelling there in a sealed train compartment crossing a.o. Germany and Sweden. His notorious arrival was at the Finland Station in what’s now called St. Petersburg.

You know what… After this tiny investigation I just realized how incredibly much I still have to learn about the ins and outs of Russian history. It’s a complicated matter and even after having spent so many years close to the source I’m still often surprised by remarkable findings. 
The connection of this line with the rest of the song is topic for a a philosophical eve with some liquor. Let’s stick to this light story for now. Nevertheless, I’d like to mention that even though I’ve never been in Switzerland, I did actually visit the Finland Station in St. Petersburg. I was fascinated by this place when I strolled around there during the first few freezing cold January days of 2010, three days after my 20th birthday. I dived into my picture archive and these are a few pictures which will give you a clearer insight on how the Finland Station looks like (during winter time).
 The impressive Finland Station in St. Petersburg. It’s rebuilded and therefore not the exact same as the one where Lenin arrived.
Typical Russian hats and a lady selling lottery tickets.
Huge Sovietic art work impossible to miss when entering the Finland Station.
 Lenin once again, now down at the metro stop.
Just overwhelming
And you thought you saw enough Lenins already? Well, there used to be one standing there, but…
… in April 2009 his ass was blown up, so at the time I was there the little man was away for some repairments (source of this picture unfortunately unknown, sorry for that).
And this is how you start off with 80s music and the Pet Shop Boys in order to end up through a rather unusual way at an assless leader.

To conclude this post a rather random ending. I just discovered another piece of lyrics I misheard for ages. It’s about ‘Weekend’ from Earth and Fire (with Jerney Kaagman). I somehow always thought she sang ‘I wanted a proposal, and not a fart’, while it should have been ‘I wanna have a whole, and not a part’. Oops once again…