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Estonian shopping centers, social solariums

By João Lopes Marques (Eesti keeles)

Unfortunately, Demographics is a discipline most people don’t take very seriously. Most of us just occasionally glance at population rankings and birth rates. And that’s all. It’s a pity: Demographics encloses notions of time and sociability that explain our daily life. Existence. Especially in countries like Estonia, where territorial dimension is crucial.

Truth be told, the entire region suffers from a mild or severe land disorder:

• Russia is not only the largest country in the world, and loves to collect territories it is barely able to populate (or administrate), it also ranks 218th in population density (i.e. one of the least densely populated countries in the world) in addition to the fact that its population shrinks by 700,000 individuals per year;
• Finland is also one of the least populated countries on Earth (199th), which triggers an inbreeding and autistic problem that even Estonians mock them about;
• Estonia ranks in the 180th position in terms of population density, in spite of its small size.

In other words, none of these three countries are “normal” according to the global patterns. Yet let’s skip Russia for the time being since it’s a science in itself. Space is a big thing both in Finland and Estonia. It affects almost everything: mating, pace of life, competition, time, tolerance, social cohesion, among many other essential dimensions.

“What do you mean exactly?” Raili once asked me. Well, we had once travelled to Cairo together and she could compare it to Tallinn or Tartu: in the most densely populated capital city of the world nothing is comparable. It’s a different planet. All concepts change. London, Tokyo, São Paulo or New York are not too different. Nor Amsterdam, Berlin or Stockholm. Nor Prague. Nor Riga.

In those cities it is unthinkable not to share a table, for instance. Unlike Tallinn, the Estonian megalopolis par excellence. Why are so many tables left empty because people don’t want — or are not eager — to be seated next to others? It’s always surprising to me: if I am asked if I mind if someone sits at a table adjoining mine, the answer usually takes only 5 seconds. Most locals still hesitate. Other times I even wave in order to announce that the adjoining table is free but people ignore me and go away.

Frustrated, I bet. A meter, a meter and half, is the minimum distance in Estonia. Individualism? Intolerance? Shyness? Fear? Selfishness? Just extreme privacy?

It’s not my business to underline the economic loss it brings to bar and restaurant owners. Must be significant yet culturally tolerated. Understood. Paradoxically, those who are more social tend to stick to the bar: there, everything is allowed; and Estonians, even when 100 percent sober, can boast great communication skills.

Going back to Demographics, I also believe so little people per square meter can trigger severe melancholy. It can be magic, of course, but also quite disturbing when it turns into a daily routine. I think about that especially when I am walking back home late at night: from downtown to my Kalamaja flat I barely meet a single person.

I love Tallinn but sometimes my deepest being screams louder than I expect. That’s absolutely new for me. I can’t even imagine people from Pärnu, or Rakvere, or Rapla, or Haapsalu in a dark-Winter-week... After all, we humans are social animals...

Well, we all develop our own techniques. Survival strategies. Eva, my friend from Viljandi, once explained: “Of course we feel that need! When I’m too melancholic I just jump on a bus that takes me to Tallinn and spend the whole day there. I stroll by Raekoja Plats, Viru Keskus, Kaubamaja and Stockmann. I have dinner in a crowded pizzeria and I feel as if I am in New York! Then I am recharged and I can go back to Viljandi for another month!”

Brilliant! Actually, because of her, I also realized why shopping centers are mushrooming in Estonia. Everywhere, as you may know: what seems like a depressing construction at first becomes an essential means of therapy to keep angst at bay. Countless books have been written on the subject: people need interaction with other people.

Demographics in its purer state.

That’s it: shopping centers can be ugly, but they play a rather Nordic function. It goes much beyond a glassed-modernity flare: like baths in the Roman Empire, they can serve as social solariums.

Once I shared my thesis with Eva and she was pretty sure: “We need these socially agreed places and events in Estonia that gather people. Maybe the most powerful one is the Singing and Dancing party. But in everyday routines: yes, the supermarket it is!”

Are shopping centers and hypermarkets too artificial? Dangerous consuming temples? Doubtlessly. However, and if we skip the agoraphobic patients, most of us need this kind of “light” in our lives.

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