Going in, we did not have many expectations, mostly because we weren’t given much information prior to the start of the trip. We were given a short packing list and were told that we would be spending time in Tallinn, Viljandi, and Tartu. This was slightly nerve-wracking at the time, but as soon as we all arrived in Estonia together everything fell into place. Our first impression of the group was that it was a very diverse group of people - all from different backgrounds, different countries, and different experiences as Estonians. But we were all Estonian and had very similar traditions, so it was incredibly easy to warm up to one another, and before we knew it were all very good friends.
What We Did
We started our trip in Tallinn, with a welcome dinner at Kompressor, a famous pancake restaurant. The Pankoogid were delicious. We also learned some Estonian tongue twisters. Such as, Anna õlu üle õla which translates to “pass the beer over the shoulder”. We spent one afternoon in the Nõmme Adventure Park. For those who don’t know, an adventure park is a course build up in the trees. It was very fun, and it rained the whole time.
We had a tour of the bastion passages in Vana Tallinn, which was very cool to see, but part of it was closed because of endangered spiders living inside. We also went to St. Olaf’s church tower and climbed to the top, all 258 steps! We went to Eesti kunstiacadeemia - the Art University EKA. We had a fun tour of most of the rooms, and saw their new renovations, which had just been completed in August. For dinner on that day, we had a challenge to make our own dinners. We were split into three groups – one for appetizer, one for main course, and one for dessert. Natalie was part of the appetizer group and we made two soups. The first was a vegan seljanka supp seenediga, and the second was a frikadeli supp. We also served must leib ja või (black bread with butter). The main course was scalloped potatoes with mushrooms and hapukapsas. Livia was part of the dessert group that made kissel, which is a cranberry compote, served with kohupiimakreem.
Our third day in Tallinn we went to the parliament building, Stenbocki maja government building, and then saw the view of Vana Tallinn from Toompea. We also went to the Presidential Palace.
Still in Tallinn, we went to Garage 48 and Lift 99 – which are companies that help startups do all the things they need to do in order to get going. After this, we got on our bus to Viljandi. We stopped at Soomaa National Park for a small hike through the forest and bog area. We even ate some wild cranberries! After our hike we got back on our bus and proceeded to our accommodations. We stayed at Kivi Turismitalu Viljandimaa. After dinner we had a sauna night and everyone got to try a little sample of Vana Tallinn liqueur.
We were in Viljani for only one full day. We had another Estonian language lesson, learning how to say your birthday, numbers, and colours. We went into Viljandi and divided into 4 groups to complete the scavenger hunt list we were given.
The next day we were leaving Viljandi and headed to Tartu. We boarded the bus with our luggage, and stopped at Taevaskoda for a short walk through the forest. Our next stop before Tartu was a 2 hour canoe trip in Kiidjärve, on a river called Ahja. No one flipped their canoes but the ride was not very smooth and many people had some close calls. After canoeing we boarded the bus again, headed to Tartu.
In Tartu, we had a tour of Tartu Ülikool. We also went to the Tartu Ülikooli botanical garden, which was close to the end of the season but was still very beautiful. We spent the afternoon at the Ahhaa science center.
The next day was our last full day in Tartu. We started off the morning with breakfast at a local’s house making pannkoogid. We went to their house and got to learn about what life in Eesti, and particularly what life in Tartu is like for them. Later we went to the Eesti Rahva Muuseum, where 3 people in the group were interviewed for Estonian TV. After the museum some of us went to Tagurpidi Maja upside down house, which was very fun. We also went to to Korp! Ugala maja for some rahvatants lessons.
Then we headed back to Tallinn for the last few days of the trip. In Tallinn, we visited Transferwise, a startup company from Eesti that is a money transfer company but has much lower fees. We got a tour of the company space because it was a Sunday, so very few people were in the office. The person who gave us the tour was actually on the “Back to our Roots” trip last year, and last January he moved to Tallinn, from Chilé and applied for a job at Transferwise. After this visit we did some closing activities. One of the activities was that we were divided into groups of 6 and we had to make a skit using a list of words that we all learned on this trip. Some of the words included veoautojuht (truck driver), and rinnahoidja (bra). After our skits, we made a plan for our evening activities. After dinner, we put this plan into action. We did some rahvatants in a park, inviting locals to join in on the fun. We also shared some snacks from our home country with each other and locals.
This trip overall was an amazing opportunity for me to see a side of Estonia that I didn’t know I needed. We saw some really amazing places in Tallinn, Viljandi, Tartu, and in between. I met so many amazing people from Eesti and other Estonians from all over the world. I will never forget this trip that has left me with the fondest memories. It was really amazing to see Eesti in this way with other people - some who had been to Estonia before and some who had not. I personally had been to Tallinn once before, for just a few days, but my experience was completely different with this trip.
I have a strong connection to the Toronto Estonian community. I myself am half Estonian on my dad’s side, and participated in lasteaed in Toronto and attended Eesti kool for many years. I went to Jõekääru summer camp for a long time as a camper before working there. And I am now part of Korp! Amicitia in Toronto. I always knew being Estonian was a big part of who I was and I always want to maintain a connection to the Estonian community. But this trip strengthened my connection even further, beyond what I thought was possible. It was truly something I didn’t know I needed, but am so grateful to have the opportunity to have gone on this trip. A personal highlight for me was seeing the presidential palace, and seeing the bog area of Soomaa National Park.
When I first heard about the “Back to Our Roots” exchange I knew I had to go on it. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to discover parts of the country I had never visited before with people in the same situation as me. I was born in Estonia but last lived there long term when I was four years old, and I have taken every chance I have had to go back for a visit.
This visit however proved to be one of the most special of all. Many of the other participants had never been to Estonia before, and it was wonderful getting to see them experience the country for the first time with such an open mind. They were so excited by everything they were learning about the culture and it felt like I was seeing everything in a new light as well.
The highlight of the trip for me was visiting Taevaskoda and canoeing in Ahja River. I had been to most of the main attractions in Tallinn and Tartu already and it was really nice to spend some time exploring Estonian nature and practicing my canoeing skills.
This trip surpassed all expectations I had. What surprised me most about the exchange was how many wonderful people I met and how close we all became by the end of the ten days. Growing up I would often have to explain to people where I came from, so it was nice to be among a group of people who not only understood that situation, but who were involved in Estonian cultural activities as well. I have always been proud of my Estonian heritage and this trip helped me feel even more in touch with my culture.
We urge anyone even slightly interested to apply because we believe this trip will change your life! It was an amazing opportunity that strengthened both of our connections to Estonia in a way we didn’t think was possible.
The application process for Back to Our Roots was pretty straightforward. It consisted of a short Google form where you explained your Estonian heritage and answered some questions about why you wanted to take part in this exchange. Participation in this exchange is completely free - all food and accommodations while in Eesti are covered. They also pay for a portion of your flight from Canada. If you are interested in applying, be sure to check the “Seiklejate Vennaskond” Facebook page as details will be posted there. The exchange has occurred at different times throughout the years and the window to apply is quite small so be sure to check back regularly!
Natalie Vompa and Livia Kelle (2018)