janice and linden viinalass from canada and usa
Bringing "a little piece
of America" to Estonia
Twenty years ago last August, Janice and Linden Viinalass moved from the US to Estonia to teach English with plans to stay here for just one year. Now they and four of their five children still consider Estonia home and are proud of the successes their family has had, and the challenges they have overcome.

In 1997, Janice, originally from Ohio, USA, and Linden Viinalass, born in Canada, moved to Estonia with their five children (3, 5, 8, 12 and 13 at the time) for just one learn about the grandfather's homeland, and get a great cultural experience. Now, twenty years, and various challenges and successes later, Janice, Linden and their children still call Estonia home. Janice points out that "Four out of five kids are in relationships or married with Estonians and so our grandchildren are Estonian really. Our lives get more and more entwined socially and economically." However when asked directly if they could call themselves 'Estonian' the answer was a clear no. While Linden maintained that they identify strongly with Estonian culture and the people here, Janice commented "I think we've brought a little piece of America here."
Returning home

Janice met Linden when she visited Canada. Linden recalled jokingly: "I was an innocent kid in the north woods and then one good day a wily woman from Ohio came up there and staked me right about there (points to his heart) and next thing I knew I was married and living in Ohio." Linden's father, who was among many Estonians to flee to Canada in 1944, had a significant influence in the couple's decision to come to Estonia. For several years after fleeing Estonia, Linden's father had no way to contact relatives remaining in Estonia. Linden shared: "We were aware of our Estonian family and made reference to them frequently, but we had few pictures and it was only just before I was born that my father was able to get in touch with his family back here to let them know that he was alive." Since regaining contact, Linden's father made several trips back home to support the development of the seminary in Annelinn, Tartu. Janice had visited only once before deciding to come back to live for a year.
Well, there wasn't much visiting involved. It was during the communist times when we came in 1989 and it was very scary.
If it was just based on that then I would have never come back here!

Neither Janice nor Linden, despite his heritage, had experienced much of Estonian Culture prior to moving here. "But of Estonian traditions, I have to say that we maintained very little. Well yeah, we celebrated Christmas on Christmas eve frequently, although that was because my father worked in the mines and was more likely to be gone on Christmas day." Linden's father, like many Estonians who fled the Soviet Union, never imagined that Estonia would become a free country. Thus, he never spoke Estonian at home in Canada with his children. "It was a mistake!" Linden exclaimed, "even without the prospect of Reagan winning the cold war and the Soviet Union collapsing, we should have spoken it!" It was when Linden's father died and the couple was visiting Canada for the funeral that Janice found a fateful advertisement from the Estonian Ministry of Education seeking English teachers in Estonia. Linden remembers how "she circled that advertisement and left it on the table. When I saw that it was just a very clear direction from God almighty, 'you get over there and carry on this work' which my father had already started in the seminary." Even though Janice and Linden both viewed their year as an adventure, it wasn't an easy one for all five of their children.
The twelve year old had a really hard time. If you bring them younger, they just kind of assimilate and it's not really a problem.
It was not an easy decision for the whole family
to stay longer than the planned year

Janice shared her very personal experience with depression and acceptance of a new, long term life in Estonia. "It was very difficult for me to accept it. I had come here as a missionary, a good person but I just wanted to send the kids to school and hide under the blankets." When asked what made the transition so difficult, Janice explained: "It was a combination I think. Of course language, not being able to speak to people, because I love people! But I'm also a person who loves to make a home and invite people into my home. We lived in a two bedroom apartment with seven people at the time so I couldn't invite people in. I couldn't do what my talent was, be who I was." For Linden and at least four of the kids, the transition was much easier. Linden recollected that for him the time was "such a good adventure that the material hardships and all of the societal changes were not much of consequence." The kids, with the exception of their oldest daughter, "were getting along fine at school, they had friends and that was no problem."

Now, after twenty years, Janis and Linden's family has had a great deal of success in Estonia. Janice and Linden both have their own non-profit projects: "Light in the City", a support service for young women and "Light in the Forrest", a Christian family camp and event center near Elva. Both they, and all of their children speak Estonian. Two of their sons are part of the well-known Daniel Levi Band.

When asked what advise they would give to foreigners visiting Estonia, Linden pleaded that 'folks' coming here keep the promises they made to locals. "A lot of times visitors make well-intentioned promises but they go back to America and get back into their busy routines and their promises go by the wayside. Don't make promises you can't keep!"

As I was leaving, I asked one last question (although I had so many more) as Linden was escorting me to the door. "How long ago did you move into this house?" Linden told me how they moved in on Christmas Eve in 1999 and said, "There wasn't much under the tree that year, but there was a lot around the tree" referring to his whole family and the happiness and excitement of their warm new home just outside of Tartu.
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