The Young: Tartu is a city of young people. I feel that here I have seen many more young people than I have seen anywhere else in Estonia. This mostly is because not only Tartu University is located here, but also Treffneri Gümnaasium is here. Treffneri is a school that is known for the quality of its teachers and for attracting top students from all over Estonia. Treffner used to be for male students only, but now is co-ed. Miina Härma (MH) Gümnaasium is also well known in Tartu for the quality of its education. This high school used to be for female students during the first independence period. Matter of fact my mother went to Miina Härmä and afterwards graduated from Tartu University in Economics in the early 1930’s. Miina Härma Gümnaasium now is co-ed and covers all age groups from elementary school to 12th grade. In addition there are other topnotch high schools as Tamme Gümnaasium and numerous elementary schools in different sections of the city. I was invited to visit Tamme Gümnaasium in the Tammelinn section of Tartu to speak to a group of seniors who will be attending the medical program next year at Tartu University that is a 6-year program. The students need to take a State exam and on the basis of their scores gain acceptance into the program. I was asked to speak to the students about medical education in the United States, as well as Ph.D. studies and my research. It was a group of 35 to 40 students and they seemed interested in learning how different going to college in the US in comparison to Estonia. A big difference is that the government supports tuition for higher education and if you can get in to Tartu University, one does not have to end up with high college loans.
Speaking in generalities, I find that young people at the University seem to be more mature than our US students and more serious in their demeanor. Most people dress well and put emphasis on being well-dressed, especially when they go out, as to the theater and to parties. In terms of the younger set, high school/junior high, I have yet to see any boys wearing pants that just barely stay up or that have to be constantly pulled up. Girls look attractive. A minority of girls and young women have adopted a new look of painting their hair or swatches of it in very bright pink, blue, green, or purple colors. Some have pierced noses, lips… One should say, the “young will be young”.
From previous visits, I had never seen as many young joggers as I have while living here this fall and winter. They are out at all times and in all types of weather. Although when the temperature moved into the minus mid-teens centigrade, only a small number of the really hearty were still out. My daughter was among them when she visited during Christmas.
Tartu I find is a very safe city. I have never felt uneasy walking around, even at late hours. The path along Emajõgi is rather quiet and isolated at night. One passes underneath the bridges to go from one side of the road to another, rather than to cross the highway above. There were never loiterers to be seen, even during the warmer months. There may be men fishing, but not loitering. Alcohol drinking I have heard is a problem in Estonia, but there is a law against public inebriation so I have to say, I did not see anybody “under the influence” – except once. Also there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving. When thing I was surprised by, was that sometimes rather small elementary school children would get on the bus entirely on their own and go to their destinations with no adults accompanying them. I cannot see that happening in the US.
The Older: Tuition at Tartu University is very reasonable and state supported. The low tuition, of course reflects, the low salaries that seem to be the norm at present. This is becoming a problem: Since the borders are now open, young people have the option to move to other European countries, as well as the United States, to work and to enjoy the higher salaries seen in the West. Sometimes I find that people just rattle off numbers of how much more one can make in Finland for doing the same type of work. They seem to forget that much higher taxes are placed on those salaries than currently is the case in Estonia and there is a much higher cost of living in Finland, Scandanavia, and Western Europe. For example, I find cost of food is quite low here. The locals say, however, it has increased over the past years tremendously. Clothing is as expensive or even higher than what we see in the United States. When Juri was looking for a pair of jeans in the fall because he had forgotten his home, he could not find anything that cost less than 100 euros ($125 to $133, depending on the currency exchange rate for the day) and usually it was even more than that.
I remain not always convinced, however, that the other side of the fence is greener. Thus some who have gone West, have come back; but unfortunately, others have not. I was in a conversation with a high level administrator at TÜ that approximately 7% of the University graduates are going outside of Estonia. For a small country this is a large loss of young educated people. Yet, as the top administrator said, how can one curtail it? We are a free country now and freedom is to be cherished. Curtailing movement would be going back to the Soviet days.
Because of higher salaries, many doctors have gone to Finland where there is a doctor shortage. The shortage I was told is because many Finnish doctors have moved to Norway where salaries are even higher. During our stay here, there was a doctor’s strike and salaries are to increase in March. The quality of care at the University Hospital (Kliinikum) we found, however, to be excellent from first-hand experience. So I can attest to the fact that not all good doctors have left. Unfortunately, Juri had a severe bout with bronchitis and was hospitalized. He received excellent care with numerous tests done to be sure he did not have pneumonia. Quite a few tests I noticed were PCR based. X-rays were taken. He ended up staying three to four days. The total cost of his stay was just over 500 euros. I commented on this to Dr. Everaus who heads the Bone-Marrow Transplantation Center. She said the difference in medical costs between our two countries most likely reflect the salaries from the administrators, doctors, nurses, right down to the technicians.
Lastly public school teachers’ salaries are low and ended with a strike last year. Salaries were raised, but they remain low in comparison to the rest of Europe. At the same time, when rebuilding a country, everything cannot happen at once, nor that fast. Today I read the University is raising salaries of its professional staff and especially at a higher rate for junior faculty and lecturers to attract good talented people and to have them stay at the University. Hopefully this works.
The Oldest: Pensioners I am sure with approximately 350 euros per month are having a hard time with the price increases seen in the last years – in food, in rent, everything. At the same time the extended family unit is strong in Estonia with parents, children, and grandchildren not living that far apart and they help each other. Sometimes they live together. I am envious of that because I have two daughters, one in the Seattle area, and the other in Washington DC region. That is life in the US with its great distances.
One person commented to me that pensioners in general are not that poorly off. I do not know whether there is truth to this, as this was an age group that I came in touch with only peripherally. The ones that I met often were working in part time jobs.
I end with optimism. There are many problems facing the country, but yet Estonians are not spending themselves into oblivion. They are thrifty and taking a footstep at a time. People are not completely patient and are frustrated with the government. Many a time this past year, stories of corruption by government officials were in the headlines. What really seems to rankle is that government officials in Toompea in Tallinn keep on raising their own salaries, while the rest of the country gets much less for their labor. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? At least this last time, the US Congress voted down their raises. I am sure they will be compensated in other ways, maybe like insider trading…or is that not allowed anymore? I always wonder why our government officials enter Congress or the Presidency at times, being not that wealthy. When they leave, many are millionaires. I guess there must be many ways to become wealthy in government. Just as students will be students, wherever they may live; politicians will be politicians, wherever they may govern