No shirt, no shoes, no problem
I’ve noticed something this summer that I didn’t last summer: in Estonia, it’s socially acceptable to walk around sans shirt in the summertime (I’ll assume that it’s socially acceptable in winter, too, but that no one does it because they’d die). I’ve seen it countless times since the sun remembered that Estonia exists sometime in May and decided to reacquaint itself with us: guys, usually beer-in-hand, walking around shirtless in the Old Town and near Viru Keskus. Sometimes they have a shirt tucked into the back of their pants, but many times they have no shirt with them at all – a bold move in the summer, when the weather is more unreliable than a Greek bus schedule.
This “shirts-off” behavior leads to another phenomenon that looks wholly out of place in Estonia: the Baltic sunburn. In a tropical climate, a person can become sunburned in a matter of hours; in Estonia, it takes days of nearly non-stop exposure to the sun. That means a sunburn isn’t the product of a trip to the beach — it’s the product of spending every waking minute of daylight in the sun without a shirt on. Going grocery shopping without a shirt on. Filling up one’s gas tank without a shirt on. Walking the dog without a shirt on. It takes real, concerted effort.
These artificial artifacts of a Nordic climate are the result of some Estonians having hypnotized themselves into thinking that Estonia has a real summer. The opposite happens in warmer climates; in Texas, where I’m from, I’ve seen people climb out of their SUVs (inside which the AC is set to full-blast) wearing The North Face parkas in weather evocative of an urbanized swamp. I think people instinctively believe that whichever season is abbreviated in their geography is more chic than that which they have in abundance. In Estonia, summer is associated with wealthy socialites idling lazily at a resort in South Beach, Miami. In Texas, winter is associated with those same wealthy socialites carving through fresh powder at a chichi resort in the Alps.
The truth is, summer in Estonia, mild as it may be, is better than the alternative. Estonia simply isn’t a “shirts-off” kind of place – and for that, I am grateful. When Estonians conjure up images of a summer paradise – of 40-degree heat and white, sandy beaches – they don’t consider the other side of real life in such a place. Ever sweated through your underwear? Ever gotten sunburned between your toes? Ever had to wrangle with an afro as a white man? These are the real life issues that people who live in hot places have to deal with. It’s not all beaches and margaritas.
And the same can be said for people living near the equator who romanticize snow. I speak from experience: growing up, I dreamt of snow days and white Christmases, having only seen snow in random, pathetic one-hour bursts which shut the city down and on TV. I never considered the downsides of living in a winter wonderland: of having to cover myself in 10 kilos of clothing just to walk to the grocery store. Of walking alongside a wall of snow covered in an ever-increasing layer of dog urine and feces on my way to work every day. Of having to de-frost my beard after fetching the mail. One imagines that snowy winters are all snowmen and cups of cocoa when he lives in a climate where heat warnings are issued on Christmas day.
But pretty soon, the summer illusion will come to an end, and the shirtless über-optimists will begin to layer up. It’s August, and within the next two months, summer will give way to Finter (Fall-Winter; there’s pretty much no Fall in Estonia) and we’ll all be back in our jackets and snow boots. More than likely, I’ll be the first person complaining about how cold it is.