|“And the best part is that my wife actually thinks I’m working!”|
Soome. It is the Estonian word for Finland and it is one of my favorite Estonian words. Actually, most of the Estonian words for neighboring countries are fun, because by stressing the second half of the word, you can put the word into the illative case. Usually this is not the case. For most places, you add ‘-sse’ to the ending of the word to indicate going in or into it. Mina lähen Tallinnasse, “I am going to Tallinn.”
Then there are those very fun places where you just add emphasis to the second sound in the word, like Soome, Taani (Denmark), Rootsi (Sweden). Or maybe I’ve got this all wrong. I’m not a linguist. But I usually know what I am doing when I am speaking, and if you just say Soome, it means Finland, but if you stress that second ‘o’ in Soome, it means “to/into Finland.” Minu tütre lasteaia kasvataja kolib Soome, “My daughter’s kindergarten teacher is moving to Finland.”
This was the main message of the most recent parent-teacher meeting at her preschool, her lasteaed. Her husband has been working in Finland for a while it seems. Now they are ready to rent an apartment and the teacher, the kasvataja (literally, “grower,” because it is a garden and she is tending to the children) and her two children will move there next month.
Finland is a long way from Viljandi. It’s a two hour drive to Tallinn. Then you have to take the ferry to Helsinki which, depending on the season, is another hour to two hours. And a lot of Estonians who make the journey don’t stay there at the docks in Helsinki. They leave for work in other parts of the country. Two hours to Tampere. Two hours to Turku. Three hours to Jyvaskylä. This is the distance the Estonians must travel for decent paying jobs.
A lot of people “commute,” meaning that they work in Finland during the week and return home for holidays and weekends with their local families. But others just stay. Our babysitter’s daughter lives in Finland with her husband and children. When I asked if her daughter had married a Finn, not an uncommon occurrence, I was told, “No, she simply lives there.”
Recently a young African immigrant who somehow found himself married to a hairdresser from Mustla, a tiny picturesque village close to Võrtsjärv, the big lake in the middle of south Estonia, complained to local authorities that he had no job. He was shamed in the local newspaper. “People go from the village to the town for work,” the local authorities said, “the town doesn’t come to the village.” And, he followed, “half the village works in Finland anyway!”
It’s normal, you see. Working in Finland is normal. Half of the village does it. The young African should follow the crowd, get a job at a saw mill. Head north, young African, head north. That’s how everybody else copes. Bring your wife and offspring later. There are plenty of heads in Porvoo that need dressing.
I’ve seen quite a few charts comparing Finnish prices and salaries and Estonian prices and salaries. The idea is that the Finns are earning quite a bit more than their Estonian counterparts, but the Estonians are often paying more for the same goods (many of which are produced in Finland or owned by a Finnish parent company). I am not sure of the veracity of these charts or the reason for this phenomenon. All I know is that my brother-in-law has been working in the UK for the past nine years because his local salary would be jama, “bullshit.”
This puts all kinds of pressure on the Estonian families that stay together. I say, “stay together” because a plurality if not majority of the kids I know around here do not live with their fathers, though I think that most of them know the identity of their sirer and spend weekends with him, wherever he may be. I rarely see these fathers, but I am told that they exist.
Often the mothers remarry, but then that new guy’s gone too, off to Oulu or Espoo to do something that pays more than whatever he can find to do in Viljandi. The backbone of this country is strong, independent women. They are raising the children of its absentee fathers, minding its stores. This is not a critique of those fathers like my neighbor who must work abroad. They do what they must do to support their families. It just is how it is. It is normal, and few now manage to see it as abnormal, nor think it will change.
Since I am naive, I still wonder about things. I question the Soome status quo. Why can’t those same Estonians do those same jobs in Viljandi? Sure, Viljandi is rather out of the way, but Tampere isn’t exactly the center of the universe either. Sure there are only 1.3 million Estonians, but there are only 5.2 million Finns. They all need jobs too. So why do they need to vacuum up good Estonian workers to do jobs in Finland that could be done a few kilometers where those good Estonian workers actually live, at least some of the time?
What is it that the Finns are doing right that the Estonians are doing wrong? Is it a question of management, capital, knowhow? Is it a question of infrastructure? For 20 years Estonians have been sold on the idea that the invisible hand of a free market economy will make all right in this land, and that a Nordic welfare state would only cripple the development of the country. And yet this invisible hand has been picking up Estonian guys and chucking them at other countries with big Nordic welfare states, starting with Finland.
This is not to go off on some ideology-poisoned tangent. I have already admitted my ignorance. The purpose of this post is to learn more, not to lecture. And not everybody’s father works in Finland, by the way. My daughter’s classmate’s father is different. He works in Sweden.