Initially when I arrived in Narva, I was anticipating the cultural differences to be readily apparent and overwhelming to an American who seldom goes abroad such as myself. However, the more time I have spent in Estonia and interacted with the local population, I have started to become more aware that despite vast geographic and linguistic differences, we are fundamentally similar people. Not to say that the differences aren’t there (I haven’t had a glass of ice water since I departed JFK airport. Come on, Europe.) It has also made me realize the true global effects of American culture and worldwide popular culture in general. Regardless of the Russian sphere of influence in Narva and regardless of what a citizen of Narva may or may not think about the American government, from my observation it doesn’t change the fact that they still appreciate and love American culture. To be honest, it leaves me wishing that we could do the same for foreign cultures in America. In Estonia, listening to Aerosmith, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bon Jovi is cool, but in America, listening to Russian rock music like Kino, Zveri, DDT or Aquarium makes you some kind of an offbeat hipster (I’m looking at you, college bro who listens to nothing but Skrillex and Top 40.) I swear, just because you’ve never heard of something doesn’t make you a….
*5 minutes of ranting later*
I have begun to befriend some locals in Narva and spend what little free time I have with them. A particular moment of mutual understanding came when I met a local Russian/Estonian high school student at the Narva Youth Center and our immediate topic of discussion was our mutual appreciation of the band Aerosmith. Here I am, in the former Soviet Union, less than a mile from the Russian border and discussing American rock music with a Russian-speaking teenager. Immediately after, we discussed crazy things we had both seen on Eurovision. Talking about our lives growing up, it seems Estonian students deal with the same teen angst, social drama and school-related stress that us Americans do. Same old drama with crushes, exes, stressing over grades and thinking about college. Sure sounds like American high school to me! I swear, between the social drama and standardized testing, in America or Estonia, it is all a bunch of…
*One drawn out angsty rant about high school later*
*Ahem* The biggest parallel between cultures (in my personal opinion) is one that applies to many countries; that is our love of coffee and caffeinated beverages. Oh yes, thank heavens for caffeine. There is no data on Estonia itself, but according to the magical wealth of information known as the Internet, their neighbors just across the gulf to the north, the Finns, consume an average of 12 kilograms of coffee per person per year. And you thought you were a coffee addict. I’d wager that the average Finn or Estonian could easily outpace your typical American college student, financial worker or police officer in terms of coffee consumption (but surely not Ramen, fancy dinners or donuts, respectively. See, I can stereotype people too!). Speaking of coffee, thank heavens that the college has been providing us with complimentary instant coffee every day and if the snobbish hipster wannabe-European inside of you thinks that isn’t good enough, you can head down to the café in the college building and buy your own freshly brewed coffee, cappuccino or espresso (can more college campuses in America have their own, non-chain coffee shops please? And I swear if you call me a hipster again…) In fact, I’m pretty sure at least 60% of our budget is allocated towards coffee, which is pretty much awesome in every way imaginable. I also apologize for consuming so much and I beg the University of Pittsburg not to cut the coffee funding to any other abroad program. Such an act would be cruelty. Coffee is the great equalizer among cultures. From the Dunkin Donuts on the side of the road on I-95, to the plethora of coffee shops in New York City to the fancy coffee shops of Paris and Western Europe, to the coffee shops at in Narva, Tallinn and Tartu, to whatever lies east or south of here in Africa, Asia and beyond, everybody loves them some coffee and if you don’t, well, this is MY post.
Selfies and duckface are things amongst Estonian youth as well, much to my simultaneous disappointment and amusement. Upon leaving the Narva youth center after practicing our Russian (and embarrassing ourselves at times) with local Narva high school students, one of them wanted to take a selfie. Now my inner hipster (!!!) usually despises selfies, but I figured why not? You can see the result in this post.
Halfway through the program and the mutual understanding, at least among the younger Estonians and Russians, has really helped me overcome the anxiety of speaking to them in Russian. They are also delighted to practice their English with us as we are to practice our Russian with them. Our histories, ancestry, ethnicity and native languages may be different, but man do we love us some coffee, teen angst, selfies and rock n’ roll. To quote Dr. Evil from Austin Powers: “We’re not so different, you and I.”