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Estonia is, in effect, two entirely different countries - summer Estonia and winter Estonia. Perhaps inside every Estonian, every citizen of a northern country, there are two different people - a summer one and a winter one.

Summer Estonians ask friends out and laugh merrilySummer Estonians ask friends out and laugh merrilyIn October, the whole of the country plunges into a dank darkness which penetrates to the bone and does not begin to recede till March. In November and December, all hope of light disappears. At midday there is a short period of daylight, but by three o'clock in the afternoon night is once again beginning to draw in.

In summer, things are quite the opposite. From March onwards, daylight increases right up until June when night is almost banished. Dusk slips over into dawn. This descent from light into darkness and the rise back into light continues incessantly. This has no doubt influenced the Estonian language, way of thinking and, through that history, much more than any other factor.

Estonia differs both from Scandinavia and other Baltic countries in that its geographic location means that from the end of April until halfway through August, its territory lies in what is termed a zone of astronomical twilight. No more than a couple of hundred kilometres in breadth, this zone is quite unique in the world as a whole. In practice this means that after sunset it is no longer light, but neither does it become completely dark immediately. This phenomenon is unknown outside the zone of astronomical twilight. It must therefore affect the Estonian spirit in a way that it cannot for those who do not know twilight. It is possible that the basic characteristics of the nation come from the constant oscillation between light and darkness in the surrounding landscape.

One interesting phenomenon is that Estonians are held together more by language and geographical location than by blood. History books confirm that through Estonian veins flows the blood of nearly all the peoples of Europe, since Estonia has known wars, famine and plagues and therefore has relatively frequently lost a large proportion of its population, leaving the country empty for invading peoples, Swedes and Danes, Finns and Germans, Dutch and Scots, Russians and Poles, all of whose descendants constitute the Estonians of today. For this reason, Estonians can look quite varied and there is no dominant colour of eye or hair, shape of head or face. Some have brown eyes, others blue, grey or green, hair can be blond or dark. Estonians can be slow and aloof or fiery and impatient.

Nevertheless, Estonians have several striking and uniting qualities. The first of these is nostalgia. This is a constant theme of Estonian poetry and folk song, literature and journalism. It is possible that the huge upheavals of the 20th century - the Siberian labour camps and German refugee camps have increased the strength of the this feeling. But the roots of this go deeper to the time when the Scottish soldier, the Danish sailor and the Swedish settler ended up in the foreign soil of the far North and who in the twilght of Estonia longed for his distant home.

There is no dominant colour of eye or hair, shape of head or face among EstoniansThere is no dominant colour of eye or hair, shape of head or face among EstoniansAnother quality which unites Estonians is a reverence for science and technology. An Estonian wants everything scientifically confirmed, otherwise he cannot believe in it. On the one hand, Estonians tend to rapidly take on board every innovation, on the other, they find it almost impossible to promote things new and untried until their worth has been scientifically proven. In general, in every Estonian there is a battle between conservatism and a sense of adventure. As with the landscapes of winter and summer. Sometimes one wins, sometimes the other.

The third characteristic of Estonians is a sense of humour, of mockery, irony and self-irony. Estonian humour is blacker than that of the English, and is mostly gallows humour. Behind the brave facade of Estonian irony lurks eternal nostalgia and a tender heart. For generation upon generation, Estonians have learnt to be fighting fit, even in the most hopeless of circumstances.

And it is, incidentally, hope which unites Estonians. They hope to return home, even though home may mean different things to different Estonians.

Written for the MFA by Viivi Luik