Before we go any further, I’d like to administer a small test.
Name five facts about the Republic of Estonia.
Really, try it.
If your face showed any signs of contortion, you are 95% of the people I meet.
1-2 facts: You probably came across it accidentally on an episode of Jeopardy or that Simpsons where Bart becomes Mr. Burns’s heir.
3-4: I’ll buy you 3-4 beers.
5: My e-mail address is metsikATyahoo.com
Don't feel bad though if you can't say much about it. The truth is, there really isn't any tangible benefit of knowing about the country.
When I learned I was being sent to Estonia by the Peace Corps, I knew the following: Firstly, It was spelled E-S-T-O-N-I-A. It was on the Baltic Sea and it was a former Soviet Republic. I had also heard of it on that episode of the Simpsons.
I knew even less about teaching. I couldn’t have distinguished a transitive from an intransitive verb anymore than I could speak Estonian.
None of that mattered though. The three months prior to leaving were full of a feeling I’ve never really managed to recapture since: Complete satisfaction and belief that my life had meaning and direction.
Not even a quick jaunt to Mexico to see my sister the week before I left could take my eyes off Estonia. I spent most of the time on the beach drinking umbrellad cocktails and reading Routledge's Colloquiel Estonian.
In the beginning of June, They flew us to Chicago where all the new recruits spent three days holed up in a hotel and going to seminars to learn Peace Corps policies. It also inaugurated a three year period of serious drinking. I can’t remember a single face, name, conversation, or Peace Corps policy from that conference to this day.
After three days there, we all boarded planes to our respective countries. All the volunteers for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania flew to a beach town called Jurmala, about an hour from Riga. Jurmala had once been a hot spot for Soviet Generals on vacation. Now, many of the old houses were left to rot and disappear into memory. The conference lasted four days and I remember thinking it was ridiculous trying to stuff reams of policy into a couple hundred people nursing serious jetlags and cinematic hangovers. At the same time, we were all pumped full of adrenalin and it didn’t take us long to make friends as well as enemies. The days consisted of seminars after lectures but the nights were wine, women and song.
A few days later, we all exchanged e-mail addresses and a lot of promises we'd never keep and parted ways to our respective countries. We were taken northeast, over the border to our training site in the city of Tartu.
Tartu is Estonia’s second largest city and has the country’s chief University. It also has the distinction of being burnt to the ground five times in its history. It modern times, it was simply blown up. It’s a wonder it still exists at all. But there was enough of it left to make a very pleasant training and living environment.
The first thing we had to do upon arrival was meet our host families. Everyone was obviously nervous about this. Gossip and rumors were flying every which way. We were all expecting the worst.
I was led to meet this tall, slender, pointy and elfish woman. She was obviously going to be my host mom. She appeared friendly and polite but she only knew about ten words in English. The ride home was quite uncomfortable as you can imagine. We just smiled nervously at each other and grunted occasionally. It was one of the most cathartic moments of my life when the car pulled in the driveway of a beautiful, modern, five-story home. It was bigger than anything I’d ever lived in. She took me to a newly-built room full of skylights. They also gave me a private bathroom.
There are countless adventures I could tell you about and others that I couldn't about the cultural aspects of training, but since this is a site devoted to ESL, I won’t discuss Estonian White Snake cover bands and leaping over bon-fires on Midsummer’s day. I’ll focus on the ESL aspect of it.
Peace Corps training consists of three main areas: Cultural, Linguistic, and Academic. We went to a school, an actual high school, five days a week. It was just like being in first grade again. My mom woke me up, made me breakfast, drove me to school where I learned how to count and say, "This is an apple." The teacher training classes were in the afternoon.
They told us we were going to be trained by one of the foremost teachers in Estonia. I entered the classroom on the first day carrying that same feeling I'd had since I found out I was leaving and watched it all dashed to pieces within the first ten minutes.
The renowned professor began the class this way. She made us all trace our hands on sheets of white a black paper, cut them out and tape them all over the walls. Afterwards, she gathered us and said,
"The black hands represent the bad negative energy around us. Nobody wants to have a black hand. The white hands are a positive force that we want to cultivate and transfer to our students."
I had heard enough of that BS back in Vermont from the hippies that lived above and on either side of me. She was a sensitive new-age girl.
It never got any better and we spent the subsequent months learning mostly about creating good karma in the classroom. Every sentence she uttered was full of crystals, tarot and raiki. We listened to soothing music and wrote our feelings down and learned how to trust by falling into each others arms backwards.
Within a month, most of us considered it pointless. With about a month to go, they told us training would finish with a two-week model school for local teenagers whose parents had been lured by newspaper advertisements offering professional lessons at a modest price.
It was about this time that I realized if I was going to learn anything about teaching, I'd have to do it myself. Luckily I discovered Keep Talking by Peggy Ur. It taught enough structure, planning and methodology that the two weeks passed relatively easily. For me, it’s The Bible.
It was during the model school that we finally got our teaching assignments for the following two years. They took us into a little room with a big map of the country. One by one, they called our names and announced where we were going. My only hope was to be near the sea.
I was the last to be called.
"YOU ARE GOING TO"
"Did she say Klingon?"
A few days later, the director of the town's high school and an English speaking teacher came to meet me and take me for a weekend there. The director was short and looked like a combination of a troll and Walter Matthau. I spent the next two days in a village of 2,000 people but still one of the larger towns in the area. It was considered wealthy but still bore the visible scars of fifty years of Soviet communism.
But it was there in the village of Kilingi-Nõmme that I spent the next two years of my life, teaching English at the local high school.
It was certainly the most significant two years of my life and the best education I'd ever had and I will discuss it further in the next article. But now, for the record, if anyone asks you for five facts about Estonia, this is all you need to know:
1) Estonians are not Russians.
2) Estonian is not a Slavic language; it's related to Finnish and Hungarian.
3) It’s cold, mother f-ing cold.
4) The women are smoking!
5) It’s perfectly normal and not gay to be whipped with birch and juniper branches by fat sweaty naked guys in a sauna.
By Mike Dunphy
Mike Dunphy was born and bred in Northern Vermont. He joined the Peace Corps and began his teaching career in Estonia. Mike taught for two years at Kilingi-Nomme high school in Estonia, later moving to Prague to deal with businessmen. He has also lived in Italy, and Slovenia where he stayed until this past July. Mike currently resides in Boston, where he is the Director of Studies in a language school. He plans on moving to Istanbul in August.