Estonians are not usually known for being overly effusive in their praise. Where an American would say that something is “awesome,” the best reaction you could hope for from an Estonian was “normaalne” (normal). While it is true that younger Estonians tend to get a little more verbally excited these days, the older generation who grew up inside that Meat Grinder of Human Souls known as the Soviet Union tends to be rather less emotional.
Glimpsed through the looking glass another way, if you lived in a place nicknamed “The Wonderland” (imedemaa) where everything was abnormal – and nothing was ever as it seemed, then normaalne would have been the highest praise possible. Once in a while, you might even hear an Estonian up the ante and respond with a päris normaalne (quite normal), täitsa/täiesti normaalne (completely normal), or a rare väga normaalne (very normal).
And so, whenever I hang out with my Estonian friends, the word normaalne has become one of our “in jokes.” After seeking out the very best that Tallinn has to offer from food to entertainment, someone will inevitably ask the question: “so, what did you think?” In response, someone will inevitably deadpan that “it was normaalne.”
Yet that very word normaalne also serves a much more important purpose. It is a way to confirm – or to affirm – that Estonia has become a normal country. Indeed, some of my friends once expressed their dream for Estonia as follows: “perhaps one day we will become just another boring Nordic country.” Now that is a view of normality that I think most people could get behind.
This new and quite normal Estonia – or E-stonia, as it often likes to refer to itself – is known for developing Skype and various other online systems which are helping the world define the “new normal.” And yet, it’s also clear that there were no Estonians behind the development of FaceBook or even WordPress. If so, I’m confident that the very American “Like!” button would appear instead as a “Normaalne” button. And then perhaps Estonians would feel comfortable clicking on it a little more often to help others redefine their understanding of what is actually normal.
Image: “Estonia Emerging from the Belly of the Soviet Beast” or the “Battle with the Dragon” – a print by Estonia’s favorite artist Jüri Arrak.