Estonia is wherever Estonians and friends of Estonia are
Visiting Estonians in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles
Marin Mõttus, Kadri Linnas
We have long heard grumbling that visits always cover the East Coast – New York and Toronto – but it is much rarer for guests from Estonia to make it to the West Coast. So we – Ambassador at Large for the Diaspora Marin Mõttus and advisers Kadri Linnas and Kaire Cocker (INSA) – added this long-haul trip to our plans. Our aim was to listen to the concerns and proposals of Estonians in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and present new opportunities the Estonian state has created for Estonians living abroad, with special regard for young people and keeping in touch with each other.
30 and 31 October – Vancouver. It warmed our hearts to arrive at the Estonian church, which also houses the Estonian Society founded in 1948, its archives and library, and which had a welcome sign on the door saying ‘Meie kodu’ (Our home). About twenty activists of the Estonian Society gathered around the coffee table to meet us: https://www.vesbc.com/index.php – thank you, President of the Society, Ingrid Soide, and Vice President Thomas Pajur!
Vancouver - „Meie kodu“
The Estonians of Vancouver are keeping Estonian culture alive in various ways: folk dance groups Kiivitajad and Kilplased, the Estonian Cultural Society in Canada, the Läänekaare Postipoiss Magazine (published since 1954, https://www.vesbc.com/index.php/library/postipoiss), the association of Estonian organisations on the West Coast, the Läänetuul mixed choir and the Estonian school were present at the meeting. People said they missed Estonian culture the most, especially theatre, and the topic of learning Estonian was also on their minds. The Estonian community is cooperating with local Lithuanians, and Ukrainians have also been able to organise events in their premises – it is wonderful that Estonians are welcoming both at home and abroad.
Vancouver is also home to two very active honorary consuls of Estonian origin – Evaleen May Jaager Roy and Evi Olga Mustel. The honorary consuls are busy developing business networks, but they also issue around 100 passports a year, which is quite a number, and this way, they have extensive contact with the Estonian community.
1 November – Seattle, where we met with the Estonians of Seattle and Portland. A Sunday school is active in Portland and the folk dancers there are welcomed performers at the parties of other cultural societies. The Estonians of Seattle and Portland are cooperating extensively with each other, and Scandinavian houses and local Latvians. We also spoke about practical issues: the short period of validity of ID cards, the role of honorary consuls, (tele)managing real estate in Estonia, tax systems in different countries etc.
We visited University of Washington in Seattle, where Kalev Sepp, the head of the Estonian Society of Portland and an alumnus of the university, is well-known, as is Caroli Leiman, head of the Estonian Society in Seattle. The university’s Centre for Baltic Studies is headed by Professor Guntis Smidchens, and we took part in his Estonian language lesson: our native language has been taught there since 1994. It was surprising to meet American literature student Ian who has written his master’s thesis on Jaan Oks (!). The university's library had a wonderful collection of Estonian literature that included Tõnu Õnnepalu, Andrus Kivirähk, Mudlum and Kai Aareleid. Estonian music can also be heard at the University of Washington: conductor and music professor Heather MacLaughlin Garbes is the founder of the female ensemble The Mägi Ensemble, inspired by the works of Ester Mägi, and she showed us a catalogue of Estonian music with more than 14 000 notes and recordings in total. By the way, The Mägi Ensemble will perform in Estonia in January!
San Francisco - Consulate General of Estonia
2 November – San Francisco. At the Estonian Consulate General, we had a discussion with the Estonian community to talk about how we can prevent the imminent closing of the consulate general from affecting our cooperation. Closing the mission is a difficult and painful decision but the Estonian community will continue to have the support of the embassy in Washington DC, honorary consuls and the diaspora unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The meaningful – and at times heated – discussion was moderated by the President of the San Francisco Estonian Society Mai-Liis Bartling, who was recently elected Chair of the Estonian American National Council. In San Francisco – and many other parts –, it was notable that there was interest in language classes for adults. We said goodbye with the certain knowledge that just as the Estonian flag has been raised in front of the San Francisco City Hall every 24 February, it will continue in the future.
It should also be noted that San Francisco is where our most famous Consul General in New York Ernst Jaakson began his career.
The Stanford University in San Francisco is a place that should make the heart of every Estonian sing with pride: thanks to the support of the Kistler-Ritso Foundation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Centre for Defence and Security, Estonian researchers can work at Stanford and its students can come for traineeships in Estonia. The archives of the Hoover Institute are also housed with Stanford University, holding a large collection of the Baltic diaspora, including the personal archives of Karl Robert Pusta. It is in Stanford where we should consider in gratitude the contribution of Estonians who were forced to flee their homeland in 1944 to save their lives. The foundation established by Olga Kistler-Ritso is also funding the Vabamu Museum in Tallinn and the work that has been done thanks to this family to present Estonia’s history and society in the world is invaluable.
3 and 4 November – Los Angeles. At the picturesque Estonian house tucked away from mandarin and orange trees, we were welcomed by the longest-serving honorary consul of Estonia Jaak Treiman, who was appointed by the legendary Ernst Jaakson in 1986. We recommend reading Treiman’s recent book Võlulehviku tuules, which is a painful and humorous insight into Estonia in the storm winds of history. You can read about the fascinating history of the Los Angeles Estonian House here: Los Angeles Estonian House celebrates 50th anniversary - Estonian World Review.
Los Angeles - Estonian House
Our meeting with the Estonian Society of Los Angeles, headed by Renee Meriste, was in the form of a picnic, complete with fresh black bread and serious discussions. The topics varied: Los Angeles misses Estonian theatre, young people are interested in meeting our star athletes, there could be cooperation between different cities and young Estonian folk musicians could be brought in to perform. We spoke about preserving Estonian in a multilingual family and there were questions about how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could fund Estonian cultural events abroad. We could assure them that in early 2024, we are announcing a new call for applications for own-initiative projects aimed at exactly this purpose, which has gained additional funding in spite of lean times. Information about the call for proposals will be available right here, on the Global Estonian website.
It was heartwarming that everyone we met and spoke to – whether in Estonian or in English – hold Estonia close to their heart and have a spark in their eye when working for the Estonian cause. It is important for Estonians abroad to feel a connection to Estonia, whether they are the descendants of Estonians who fled in 1944 or have relocated more recently. Estonians are always welcome in Estonia. It is also important that we in Estonia acknowledge the fact that nearly 200 000 people of Estonian origin are living abroad and it is a great force and potential. Estonia is too small to limit itself to geographic boundaries; Estonia is wherever there are Estonians, people who appreciate Estonian culture or speak Estonian, and friends of Estonia.