The road that winds between Ardu and Mäo in central Estonia must be among the country’s most treacherous. It is snake-like in its ominousness, curving and wriggling off and out in unexpected directions, lined by dark, conspiring trees.
The official speed limit is 90 kilometers per hour, but Estonian traffic tends to dictate a speed of at least 100 km per hour, unless you want to get passed by every other vehicle, even trucks hauling lumber. Sometimes drivers will pass you two or three at a time, even on a curve. At night, when all one can make out it is the white cascading lights from these vehicles and the forest shadows, the road can become quite disorienting.
I was tired last night, and felt comfortable driving BELOW the speed limit at about 80 km per hour on those turns. Occasionally, the car moved a bit too much toward the middle, or toward the edge of the road. When I saw the flashing police car lights, I thought they were after somebody else, maybe one of those other cars that went zooming by at 140 km per hour. Instead, they told me I had an ebaühtlane sõit, which I interpreted as “unusual” or “inconsistent,” though it was the first time I had heard the word ebaühtlane.
What I can tell you next involved the back of a police car, lots of paper work, questions of which I understood maybe 75 percent of the content. “How long have you lived in Estonia?” Good question. I don’t know. I told them I had first come to Estonia 11 years ago but had lived in other places in between. In the end, I was informed that I would not be able to proceed on my way, as my license, from New York State, is not recognized by the Estonian State.
It wasn’t an entire shock. I’d heard recent tale of foreigners being stopped for driving with foreign documentation, and made a mental note to look into it. At the same time, I had no idea of where to begin, or what the laws even were. To what agency should I address my queries? The police in Kükita told me I should go to ARK, the traffic registrar. I did go to ARK, the first thing this morning, but was not provided with a definitive answer of what my fate would be. I could obtain an international driver’s permit, or there may be a driving test in my future. They said that they don’t even know. They need to look into it and get back to me.
It is this ambiguity that had perhaps kept me from looking into the matter further. I had been pulled over before and shown my document with no comment from the officers. I had even gone to ARK with my New York State driver’s license to register a vehicle, and was not informed of any urgent need to acquire new, Estonian documentation.
I have heard some stories about adults with decades of driving experience being obligated to retake driver’s education in Estonia, but again, I wasn’t sure in which circumstances that led to those examinations. Was it just for certain nationalities? According to some information online, licenses issued by EU countries are recognized in Estonia. Which means that the document issued by my state (New York) which has about 18 times as many people as Estonia is not recognized by the Estonian State, but the driving document of, say, Albania, is. Or maybe it isn’t.
Anyway, according to the law, as interpreted by the officers in Kükita at 3.30 am, I did not have the right to drive my automobile any farther than the Kükita Cafe. “Don’t you have any friends who can come and pick you up or drive you home?” I was asked. No, Mr. Officer. I have no friends in Kükita, Estonia. I have no friends in Paide, no friends in Järvamaa, and least none I felt comfortable enough with to call up at 3.30 am and ask for a lift to Viljandi.
Sitting in the parking lot in Kükita, I tried to think of how to get myself, my nine-year-old daughter, and her 15-year-old cousin back to Viljandi. Were there any buses at 4 am? The woman working at the cafe didn’t mention any when I discussed the option. Paide was seven km away, but how was I supposed to get to Paide? Walk? And even if I did hike through the mist to Paide, how did I get my passengers there? I called to a hotel in Paide, but was informed that nobody could come to pick us up as there is no taxi service in Paide. So our only option was to sleep in the car. And then what? It could be hours before anybody would come to pick us up.
The police had meantime convalesced at the Kükita Cafe where they sat in a back room eating an early morning breakfast of potatoes and sauce. I was willing to accept responsibility for my ignorance and stupidity, but the idea that I would be allowed to drive straight home, or even that they suggest some solution to my very big problem, was met with cold stares. My wife tried pleading with them on the phone, but their decision was final. I was not authorized to drive myself and family members home, even though I have been driving since 1995 and have held a full license since 1996, valid in a country that has been a pretty staunch ally of the Republic of Estonia. I had provided that document to a German rental car agency, driven with it on and off the ferry into Finland, and, yes, Estonia, too. But as of that night, or morning, it was entirely useless to me.
The whole scene began to take on a surreal veneer. Here I was, almost 34 years old, stuck in a parking lot of a non-village called Kükita, which translates into English as “Squat.” I was in a country far away from the one of my birth, trying to communicate with officers of the law in a language I have tried to learn for 11 years, but still am pained to understand. I thought of how an Estonian might feel somewhere in the US — say, Alabama — when informed in a thick, Southern drawl that he could not drive himself or his family away from a parking lot at 4 am, and instead was asked by the local police if he had a friend who could come and pick him up, maybe from Tuscaloosa or Bessemer. “Don’t you know anybody around here who can help?”
I won’t comment on how I did get home in the end, but will say that it was one of the worst nights of my life. The best thing that could be done for foreigners like me in Estonia is to make the local rules regarding driving licenses clear, simple, and easily accessible. Perhaps a public information campaign is warranted. Maybe such a booklet could be provided to any foreigner who obtains a residence permit. I am sure I am not the only foreigner who has found himself in a place like Kükita at the mercy of the local traffic police. It would be good if I was one of the last ones to have to go through such an experience.