The Life Changing Magic of Living Out of Your Suitcase for Two Months with Your Estonian Friends

I learned a few things from simply having only one hand-carry sized bag to live out of for two months.

The Estonian House in Riverwood, Illinois; picture by Erin Crouch

In May and June this year, I had the amazing opportunity to tour the United States with two of my close Estonian friends, who had never visited before. We were giving stop-motion animation workshops to children of the Estonian-American diaspora, and the funding for the project came from the proposals I’d written to the Estonian Ministry of Culture and the Estonian American National Council.

The funding, however, was barely adequate for the travel expenses, and in order to make it happen, I prevailed upon 15 of my closest friends and family members across the United States to let us stay with them for a few days in each of the cities we visited. (You can read about our workshops on ERR, one of Estonia’s largest news sources, in English here, here, here here and here.)

Luckily for us, I have a lot of really nice friends, and they agreed to host us, feed us and drive us around while we were in the United States. I estimate that we would have spent well over $5,000 in accommodation that was provided free of charge by my friends. We also learned many things on this trip, one of which was that living out of your suitcase for two months is not for the faint of heart. During one particularly difficult night in a set of Airbnb adult single-over-double bunk beds in Brooklyn, we questioned our own judgement in taking the trip at all.

There was, however, the benefit of cultural insights brought about by staying directly with Americans instead of in hotels, like most first-time visitors to the U.S. Some of the Estonians’ insights included:

  • Americans have a lot of hand-painted signs in their kitchen, exhorting families to love themselves or their pets
  • American couches embrace, recline and otherwise envelop a person in a manner unfamiliar to Estonians
  • Water and ice come directly from the doors of enormous refrigerators in the United States, which is exciting
  • Clothes dryers are convenient but worries about fading and shrinkage of clothing keep one as an Estonian from fully enjoying this luxury
  • Light switches are tiny but door handles are big in America
  • Americans keep their spatulas and spoons standing vertically in a jar on the countertop, where Estonians never think to look
  • American houses seem oddly laid out to Estonians, are located in distant suburbs and, of course, “Americans drive too much.”

I had my own observations, too, because with the exception of one or two of these friends, I myself had never stayed at their homes. We had met for coffee, movies, and beers many times and I had been inside some of their houses, but I had never stayed overnight with them. It was oddly gratifying to learn that I am absolutely average in how clean I keep my bathroom and how often my kid picks up his toys. My television is definitely smaller than average. I was shocked at how very, very early my friends leave for work: at least 80% of them left the house by 7:30 a.m. All silverware drawers are basically the same, but every washer and microwave is different. About 20 percent of people have showers that are difficult to understand or mislabeled with hot and cold. More people have wall-to-wall carpeting than I thought.

Beyond the cultural and behavioral specifics of American homes and families, I learned a few things from simply having only one hand-carry sized bag to live out of for two months. I’d always thought that I only wore a fraction of the clothes I owned because I had too many clothes. When I packed for the trip, I took only those clothes I felt sure I’d wear, but I still found myself choosing the same things over and over from my meager selection. By the end of the first month, there was one shirt (out of three) that I’d never worn! Because we did laundry every third day, I preferred the other two and wore them as soon as they were clean. Perhaps there is some biological drive to never wear all of one’s clothes equally, no matter how few they are? Two pairs of shoes turned out to be plenty; five pairs of underwear too few. The weather was much colder than expected in the first three places we stopped, so the skirt and shorts I brought seemed like excess weight, but they were needed later on. I only used my bathing suit once, but I was glad to have it there.

Unsurprisingly, I rarely used the make-up I brought, which I also rarely use at home. I learned that an eye mask and high-quality earplugs are the key to sleeping well in any situation. Most of my friends lived in quiet cul-de-sacs, but some had ungodly street noise (San Francisco, I’m looking at you). I brought some of the delicious Estonian Kalev chocolate bars to give as gifts, and they were not the best choice, as they smashed and melted over the course of the month. I paid $40 for a sim card and a month of service on T-Mobile in our first stop, New York City, which worked reasonably well in five of the seven places we ultimately visited; only in Alaska did I have no internet coverage at all.

I also learned a lot about the Estonian community in the United States, something I never considered before I moved to Estonia. In most of the larger cities in the U.S., there are Estonian settlers, with their own cultural halls, language classes and dance groups. Like Greek or Ukrainian ethnic communities, they have their own cultural days and events. Their smaller numbers and high rate of marrying outside their group, however, make them much lower profile. During this trip, I felt from time to time like I’d joined a secret club hiding in plain view. I attended a BBQ in Seattle, Washington with Estonian grilled meat, mayonnaise-laden salads and tiny blond children shouting “Ema! Ema!” (mother in Estonian) that made me feel like I had never left Tallinn. Cab drivers told us they were married to Estonians and waitresses mentioned that their roommate was an Estonian. Suddenly, when I was looking for them, they were everywhere.

Overall, the experience was unforgettable, both for me and for my Estonian friends. It redeemed my belief in the generosity and good-heartedness of my fellow Americans, at a time when it can feel, from overseas looking back, like our country is completely crazy.

Erin Crouch got into the Russian language for the fame and fortune, but stuck around for the jogging suits and gold chains. She lives in Tallinn, Estonia.

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