In my life I come into regular contact with three Estonian guys in their 50s — Andres, Tiit, and Toomas. Andres is my father-in-law or my äi, and Tiit and Toomas are my wife’s uncles. Andres and Toomas are in the construction business. Tiit is a composer and musician. Andres dwells in Karksi, Toomas lives in Viljandi, and Tiit is a Tallinlane.
They have some things in common. Each was married at age 21. Each sports facial hair. Of the three, Tiit is the tallest, while it’s a toss up over who is sturdier — Andres or Toomas. They don’t look like triplets, but you can tell they are brothers. And one salient factor that no doubt is the bread and butter of their brotherly relationship is that they all are involved in some serious renovation or remont projects in their homes.
It would be interesting to ask them when the remont will be finished. Because, in all honestly, I don’t think that their work will ever be done. This is because the point of remont is not to finish it, but to keep doing it. This is Estonia, and in Estonia, remont is one of the national pastimes, along with drinking õlut and explaining Estonian history from the 13th century to unsuspecting listeners.
Part of that long history includes an Estonian epoch that ran from the early 1990s to the early 2000s when the Swedish-owned banks ended it by blessing Estonia with generous lending schemes. This period was known as a time of mass Euroremont, when households were cheaply outfitted to look as if they had been renovated, but actually were every bit as fall-apart as before, this time only with a ‘new’ linoleum floor designed to look like genuine mahogany.
The ‘point’ of Euroremont was to make your apartment look like any old apartment in Europe. The problem was that many Estonian apartments were in rambling early 20th century wooden homes or crumbling Soviet-era tenement blocks. Solution? Linoleum disguised to look like wood. Styrofoam paneling designed to look like saw-cut moldings.
While searching for apartments to buy in 2003, the wife and I met many an apartment that looked gorgeous from a distance, but when you touched the paneled wooden ceiling, it gave way to reveal that it was actually styrofoam. That wooden floor was actually just a piece of linoleum cut to fit the room. Often, it wasn’t even glued down.
Beginning somewhere around 2003-2004 a huge wave of genuine remont hit Estonia. Living in Kalamaja, an older section of Tallinn, I could watch as each week a new crew of motivated eestlased would descend upon a ruined old wooden home, perhaps partially burned, with the requisite commune of an extended family of cats living beside it, and within weeks the structure had been salvaged, repainted and was ready for Finnish-manufactured appliances.
This switch to genuine remont came at a time when, encouraged by Estonia’s forthcoming European Union accession, Scandinavian banks felt extra frisky and basically loaned money to anyone with a pulse residing in the territory of Eesti. You’re a drunk with no hope that wants to buy a shiny new apartment? Here, have a bag of money. Construction firms bought old wrecks, made them shiny and new, and sold them to people that — thanks to the happy-go-spendy banks — could ‘afford’ to buy them.
This period sort of coincided with a lot of good feelings in Estonia. Estonia was in the EU, which made it European. Estonia was in NATO, which made it safe. And Estonians — usually young and urban — were moving into genuinely refurbished apartments — the physical proof that communism was crap and capitalism is, as Austin Powers would put it, ‘smashing.’
One lucky building to be washed over by this typhoon of tõeline remont is the Tartu train station, which up until a few years ago looked so condemned that if a person sneezed inside it, the whole rotting shitbox might easily come down. Today, as you can see in the above photo, it’s all coming together, your tax dollars at work.
A side issue that sometimes comes up is that Estonian neighbors who co-own homes cannot decide on what color to paint their house. Sometimes it happens that one extra motivated neighbor decides to paint his ‘half’ of the house, while another, less motivated neighbor, decides to leave his at it is, resulting in houses that are painted yellow on the bottom, and blue on top.
A National Preoccupation
As mentioned earlier, Estonians are pleased as punch to have so much renovation work to do. Even though Estonians never attend church ever, except to perhaps snap a photo of a dead relative, Estonia’s Lutheran churches are still hard at work beaming workaholic impulses to Estonians in a three county radius.
In Tallinn, it is Olaviste Kirik that receives the workaholic impulse from Taara — through its renowned steeple — and then retransmits it to Estonians all over Harjumaa, urging them subconsciously to get back to work. In Tartu, no one can resist the call of the Jaani Kirik, making them pick up another task as soon as the previous one is finished.
Each morning as Estonian men sleep off the previous night’s booze intake, the magic of Lutheran Estonia comes alive, striking them with the urge to cut wood and turn over the earth in the backyard for a new potato patch. Don’t believe me? I drank kurati palju beer with our friend Kaja’s father one night two years ago, followed by endless consumption of Saku gin long drinks.
The next morning the first thing I heard was Kaja’s Issi’s saw. The dude was cutting wood at 8 am in the morning! He couldn’t resist it you see. He was in range of the Ilumäe Kirik and had been awakened to do remont.
The new temples of worship for the remont-obsessed, workaholic Estonians are not Lutheran churches though. Instead they have names like Ehitus Service or Decora or K-Rautakeskus. In Tartu all three of these Home Depot-like stores are within five minutes of one another, and all three are consistently servicing their eager customers, especially on the weekend, which is prime time for remont projects.
Inside you’ll meet fellow remont addicts, many of their partners pregnant, as they mull over which shade of green they want to paint the floor of the esik in their new apartment. Even in Estonia, loading up the shopping cart for future remont projects is an international affair. See the Ukrainian guy trying to explain himself to the Estonian clerk. See the Polish guys loading up their van with wood. See the dumb American guy trying to ask whether or not the paint he is about to buy is oil based.
One often overlooked part of the Ehitus Service experience is the fabulous music they play there. If I only had a kroon for every time I heard Robbie Williams sing ‘She’s Madonna’, I’d take all of you blog readers out there to Hesburger!