From a mural by Jason Mario and Kim Pluskota in Viljandi

THIS HAPPENED TO ME not too long ago, in the winter maybe, when I was coming around the corner at a local shopping center and saw a group of young women coming the other way. There were three or four of them, most of them had blonde hair, which wasn’t unusual, but there was something about their posture, or facial expressions, or hidden vital essence that tipped me off. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “Finns. Soomlased.”

You can imagine my surprise when I heard them speaking Finnish a moment or so later, detectable even from some distance by the intonation, the way they tend to pronounce certain sounds, and how they enunciate loudly, rather than swallowing up all their words in a whisper like the Estonians. I was rather impressed with myself, but also unnerved.

I had really been living here for a long time. Not only had I started eating buckwheat porridge with salt, I had a sense of the neighbors. I could now tell an Estonian from a Finn just on sight.

Estonians think the differences are stark and tangible, but for outsiders, Estonians and Finns don’t actually seem too different from one another. I’ve spent plenty of time on trams in Helsinki doing double takes as some random fellow traveler happens to look like a relative or a friend of mine. “Silver Sepp? Is that you?” “Mitä?” One young woman on a Helsinki tram looked like my child. My own child. Think about that. This is how the Finns and Estonians have become my people.

In my mind, this expanse of our people covers not only Finland and Estonia, but Setomaa too, the Sami in the far north, and the Karelians on the lakes in the east. It’s like some submerged nation, split up by some political borders, divided by official languages, but really a continuum. My roots are not in this place, but I do get the chills when I understand something in Karelian.

How is that possible? How do I know?

While I recognize the Estonians and the Finns as kindred nations, things feel a bit different once you cross the southern border, because it’s there that you start to encounter Latvians, who to someone who is used to the company of Estonians, seem foreign. The terrain of northern Latvia looks familiar enough, all of those pine forests and moss, but soon you are bound to meet someone named Niks or Dace, someone who doesn’t look like an Estonian. They seem strange.

As an American, none of this should faze me. In fact, it bothers me a little that I would have picked up some local prejudices. I should feel just as close to the Latvians as I do to the Estonians. They are all Europeans. Somehow, living here though, I have developed a very deep sense of who is “one of us” and who is a stranger. How? I cannot really say. It’s not in how they look, or how they carry themselves. Yes, the language is different, and looks distinct to eyes accustomed to Estonian. But there is something else there. Something I cannot express in words but just know on sight. Recently, I confessed this deep suspicion to an Estonian friend of mine.

“I know I am not one of you,” I said, “but I just feel more comfortable in Tallinn than in Riga.”

“Of course, of course,” he said, patting me on the back. “They are strangers. Not our people.” Nad on võõrad. Mitte meie omad.

  • This column appears in the summer issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.


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