How Estonia changed my life

Prologue

There was something really wrong with my life.

Back in 2014, I had suffered very dark episodes of anxiety and depression. Now I see how my depression was a way to tell myself that I needed to reevaluate my life deeply. And there were many reasons for that. I had emigrated from Spain to Germany, knowing no one, looking for a brighter future where my computer science knowledge and my other skills would finally shine. And since I had come to Germany, for a long while the fancy job, the very nice salary and the comfort of the lifestyle I had created for myself had replaced the tedious self-investment road. Friends? They would come and go. Girls? The same. Family? My parents and siblings were not there with me — so I would blame them for the lack of connection and for the mistakes made in the past.

And somehow I had a revelation. In 2015, I would meet new people. Make new connections. And I would quit the fancy job where I had been working for a while and become a freelance web developer. I would know how to do the job, plus I would be enjoying the variety of life from meeting new clients, companies and people to network with. I would put aside the comfort and the endless cycle of hiding my misery with a very predictable monthly salary. And I would never be a workaholic again.

However, 2015 wasn’t easy either. When I told the Arbeitsamt (employment building in Germany) that I was quitting, they made me write 2 full pages of why I was quitting, with specific reasons and explanations. I was honest.

Being self-employed and start wandering around, looking for clients, was really hard. Filling the self-employment registration papers took me 10 minutes, yes, but convince all the people who would hit me via LinkedIn, Xing, email or calls that I wanted freelance roles took almost 5 months.

Then, right before Christmas, I signed my first gig.

Freelancing

And then 2016. I worked hard most of the time, even though the work I did seemed pointless, erratic and poorly organised sometimes. I worked for clients I was not exactly a fit, but I needed the money. I worked for clients I was sure from the beginning, right from the first interview with them, that it was going to be tough working for them. But I needed the money.

But I had made my numbers. I had to pay thousands of euros to the Krankenkasse (health insurance in Germany). I never felt that I had the heavy German bureaucracy under control. I had to estimate in advance (!) how much would I earn per year, and I would pay many things depending on the estimation I had written for the year.

So freelancing was, surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges of my life. As I remarked before, I needed to work. And I felt a lot of pressure. It had been a long way until I could achieve this way of life. Long hours, and always fetching deadlines. No matter if my family had problems back in Sevilla, and they affected me from the distance. Or if I had a painful break-up with a woman I loved. Or if I was working for a company where the CTO would shout at me if I didn’t fulfill his unrealistic expectations.

Me, during the long hours of freelancing

I took two months off. I travelled to Croatia. I worked on personal projects. I met new people, and a new special friend.

And the pain was still there. I didn’t feel free. I needed to work again, as soon as possible.

I needed to pay the Krankenkasse every month. 700 euros per month. And I needed to pay them knowing that they wouldn’t cover properly my mental health issues if I had a relapse. And this amount doesn’t count the taxes I had to save to pay them next year.

Then, I would need to get to the amount of money I had estimated. But by German law I was not declaring VAT in my invoices, unless I reached a certain amount. In that case, I’d need to pay VAT. The amount of time I would spend caring about administrative stuff, receiving and sending papers (in the 21st century), and dealing with the bureaucratic architecture was insane. So this stress was part of me in my new life. And somehow I had learned to ignore it. To live with it.

I was going to therapy to overcome this stress, though. The therapy was not covered by the Krankenkasse, of course. If I wanted it to be covered by the insurance, I would need to:

  • Find a therapist by myself who would be in the list of ‘covered by Krankenkasse’
  • Find out if the therapist speaks proper English
  • Get an appointment (on average it takes 3–4 months to get an appointment. Really. I am not making this number up)

The private therapy I had found and paid on my own was working nevertheless, as I could slowly notice. But I would never get rid of this stress.

I wanted to become a freelancer to feel more free, to minimize my attachment to a society that I hardly understood. To decide when and with whom I wanted to work. And somehow I was doing the opposite. I was a slave. I didn’t need Germany that much anymore. I was and still am very grateful for Germany because it gave me the chance to improve my life in that moment. But I really didn’t need to be part of the German system. Half of my clients had been from outside Germany.

So suddenly my stress was damaging my relationships. I felt frustrated and angry all the time. Incapable of enjoying life.

I remember one morning in London. I was earning 9K euros per month. I was having a supposedly dream life — choosing my own holidays, taking breaks from time to time, not sticking around a company if I didn’t enjoy being there. When I woke up, a gorgeous woman with whom I shared a true connection was still sleeping. I was in London, staying in an apartment that one of my best friends had let me for a few days since he was on a trip in Israel. I had the whole day ahead for myself. I had the money, the time, and the physical energy to enjoy it. And still, I was depressed. I felt miserable. I finished the day crying for hours.

Before you guess it, I’ll tell you: I was having a relapse.

A crack of light

The death of Leonard Cohen, in Autumn of 2016, affected me severely. He had been one of my favorite composers. His lyrics and poetry were so deep and true that I felt devastated when I found out he was not between us anymore. I had read about his days in Hydra, analysis of his lyrics, listened to Suzanne hundreds of times, read about his chronic depression. But his death was an opportunity for me to know a quote by him I hadn’t heard of before:

Leonard Cohen (Photo: New Yorker)
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

I thought about this couple of phrases for hours. Was it true? Was there a crack in the system? Was there a crack of light for me?

Then I had a revelation, similar to what I had experienced in 2014, during my first period of depression. I would find the crack of light or die trying.

I started to research about how some people would live stress-free. I read about digital nomads. People who quit their job and go travelling around the world. People who has an online business, or released a successful video game, or just know how to enjoy life in a way that’s aligned with their values and aims.

This is going to be disappointing, but I actually don’t remember how I found randomly an article about the main topic of this text.

Estonia.

E-Residency.

Global digital resident.

These concepts came to me after a random wandering around websites, forums and articles.

What did I know about Estonia anyway? I remember, during the Expo’92 Sevilla, that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had recently become independent, and their pavilion had barely a room to put some merchandising about all the 3 countries, when other tiny countries had had massive buildings to show their wonders just for themselves. I liked the flag. I knew that Tallinn has a medieval old town that I always had wanted to visit. What else? Oh yes. Arvo Pärt, the composer of Spiegel im Spiegel. The beautiful Ornella Muti, who is half-Estonian. Valery Karpin, the football player. And I had watched a movie called Names in Marbles.

But all this about the e-residency and Estonia was new for me. I read things about it for hours. Days. There were no reviews titled ‘I am now an e-resident of Estonia’ or similar that I wouldn’t read. I watched the interview with Taavi Rõivas in Trevor Noah’s show, I watched Youtube videos about backpackers visiting Tallinn and Tartu.

And then I discovered the estonia.ee website. It read: Estonia is a place for independent minds. Also, we always find a way. And The easiest communication with the state. And A transparent state infrastructure. And Everyone can live up to their potential.

Half of me was extremely skeptical (this is just empty, cheesy marketing) and the other half was very, almost blindly, hopeful. The most technology advanced country in the world? A digital society?

Is it maybe the crack of light I am looking for? Are they really building the country that is aligned with my values, where I could thrive, evolve, and even better, they are inviting people like me to be part of it?

Everything online? 3 minutes to fill tax declarations? A digital card is enough for everything? An e-resident can have an online business? Well, it seemed to be my solution so many things that were provoking angst in my life.

And Yes. It was too good to be true. But something inside me said that I should try. I have always admired the Nordic countries. Having visited Sweden and Denmark, I like how they represent the future. And Estonia was not far from them. Maybe part of it was true.

The crush

When you’re a teenager, and you have a crush, maybe that tall blonde girl in your class who once (and only once) laughed at your silly joke, who once lent you a pencil gently, or you exchange looks from time to time during endless Language classes, you keep this crush inside of you. The crush is your thing. A private, secret, personal item in your troubled teenage brain.

You don’t want this crush to be jeopardized. And if you just go to her and say: I like you. You are beautiful. Let’s go out, you are frightened with the idea of everything that could go wrong. Maybe she rejects you, or when she starts talking you realize she’s not the person you thought she was. So you prefer to keep this crush safe for a while. And the best way to protect your crush is doing nothing about it.

I had my crush on the idea of having a business in Estonia.

I started to fantasize everyday about it. I had been a freelancer, but having my own company? Being a citizen of the world? I felt like Estonia was embracing the future, and I wanted to be part of it.

And paradoxically, I was very scared to meet this goal.

I have always been an entrepreneur by heart. When I was 11 I ran a newspaper (our readers were our parents, classmates and teachers basically) and I convinced 8 of my classmates to help me. For a year we successfully launched 7 issues, and we actually had a profit! (The price for the copy was 75 pesetas, 0,45 euros).

So, what was I waiting for? I started to move. I wrote to Saskia Vola, who was a German resident and freelancer like me and she had recently become an e-resident, and we exchanged ideas and support for a while. I wrote to Adam Rang, who seemed to have many connections among e-residents, and he asked me to tell him when I went to Tallinn. I read about Kaspar Korjus, the Managing Director of the e-residency programme, who had given an interview in a Spanish well-known digital magazine. I wrote to the people from LeapIn, who would take care of my taxes and administrative stuff when having the business in Estonia.

In Christmas, after trying to soften the relapse of my depression by having a sailing course and warm stay in the coast of Montenegro, and helping my best friend from London to move to Brussels, I went to Sevilla, my beloved hometown in Spain.

They were worried to see me so depressed and tired. But I had decided two things: first, to treat my depression by a Spanish doctor. Of course it wouldn’t be covered by the insurance in Germany. I didn’t care anymore. And second, before going back to Germany from Spain, I would visit Estonia (and before that, I would become an e-resident).

I decided to talk about my goal to my family, including grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. They didn’t understand what I was talking about. Most of them wouldn’t be able to point Estonia in a map. Some of my relatives asked me often, as a joke: “Ok, so when are you going to visit your starling friends?” (Because starling, the bird, in Spanish is estornino, which reads very similarly to Estonia).

They didn’t understand it. But they supported me. And encouraged me to do it. And they knew that, given my situation, every little effort was hard for me. But they wanted to track my progress. From my parents and siblings to an uncle I hadn’t seen in two years, everyone was pushing me to do it with kindness and trust.

Also my friends. I reconnected with some friends that I had left behind when I went to Germany. They all knew about my Estonian thing. I thought that, as I was not really reliable in committing to my goals, to share it with the right people would be a way to force myself to do it. Because I knew that it was good for me.

I spent almost two months in Sevilla. Two months full of support, love and with Estonia in my mind. My crush.

I used this photo as a wallpaper in my laptop to help me with my goal (Photo: Lonely Planet)

In the meantime I had applied for the e-residency and it was granted. So when I was able to pick it up from the closer embassy of Estonia (in my case, the one in Madrid) and my treatment was over and I felt a significant improvement in my depressive status, my mood and my energies, I went to Madrid, stayed with an old friend I had met when in Berlin, and tried to prepare myself mentally.

I was approaching my crush, and asking her to go out with me. I was going to the embassy.

Getting real

The moment of picking up the card was not epic. They were not waiting for me, nor with a red carpet. But it was fast. Efficient. And it served as a perfect introduction of what I would get in Estonia.

I celebrated having the card, being an e-resident and had the whole day for me in Madrid, in the company of a close friend and his girlfriend. So we went to a restaurant, talked for hours, hunted alternative bookshops and museums, and I had the perfect celebration day for a very important milestone in my goal.

My e-residency card and the estonia.ee website in the background

And then… Tallinn. I took a flight from Madrid-Barajas at 6am, stopped in Frankfurt am Main for 4 hours. And I arrived to Tallinn at 4pm.

Knowing no one in the city (or the country), I had chosen to stay in a lively-party hostel in the center of Tallinn called Red Emperor.

I got there easily. There is Uber in Estonia, so when I arrived to the, I have to say, wonderful and cozy airport of Tallinn, and I saw the snow, it was a no-brainer to take an Uber and get quickly to the hostel and have a rest.

Red Emperor was easy to find, and I dropped my luggage and tried to sleep. I hadn’t slept at all during the night, had I talked with my friend until 4am and then went to the airport. But I couldn’t sleep at all. I was thinking: I am in Tallinn! Finally!

So I went out. It was Sunday. It was 7pm. So everything, or almost everything was closed. It was dark. It was snowing. And cold. Really cold. Freezing.

So after having a walk for 30 minutes and exploring the old town, I thought: What the fuck have I done?

I went back to the hostel, watched a movie and finally slept.

Things changed when I woke up the next day. I woke up at 8am, had a long shower, and had breakfast in Popular Café in old town. Delicious breakfast. Then I stayed in front of the laptop for one hour, looking where the bank was, where the people in LeapIn were located and what to see in the old town, now in the daylight.

I went to the bank, LHV, and is for sure the best experience I have ever had in a bank. For me, banks have been always the enemy. I am used to be abused by banks, with the crazy fees, the heavy bureaucracy and the absolute lack of flexibility. But imagine my surprise when I go to the front desk, it takes 1 minute to check my e-residency card and my passport, and I am told to wait in the waiting room. The waiting room had: coffee, cold water, great books in the bookshelf (I started reading Originals, by Adam Grant, in English!) and wi-fi. And of course, a sofa. Ten minutes later, I was called to meet one of the agents, and it took 5 minutes to get everything done.

After leaving the bank, the whole city of Tallinn was white and grey. And still, I was smiling. Probably anyone who had seen me in the street that day would think I was the happiest person in Tallinn.

Then I went to LeapIn headquarters, where everything got done in the same level of efficiency, speed and having a good time in between. I was welcomed by everyone in the team, and Chatlin answered my questions for almost one hour. Sadly, I couldn’t meet Merit, the woman who handled for months my questions, my fears and my hesitations, in person.

After a few hours, my company (Blua Balono OÜ) had been created. It was 2pm. It was time for a well deserved rest.

But the best thing of the day was about to come. I was invited by Adam Rang to have a dinner in his apartment. He asked me to come around and enjoy a sauna as a typical Estonian experience. I confessed that I had never been in a sauna in my life. My hometown is a sauna itself during the summer. He laughed and wrote: No problem.

So I went there with an open mind, and I spent a wonderful evening with him and his friends discussing the good and the bad things about Estonia, enjoying the sauna and then run outside in the snow to compensate the temperature, and watching the Estonian contributions to Eurovision in the past years (they seemed really proud about it!). In exchange, I showed them the (embarrassing) most famous contributions to music from my hometown: Aserejé and Macarena.

Me, left, posing proudly with my e-residency card and Adam Rang, right. Behind us is Telliskivi, a creative center and startup hub.

Back in the hostel, when I told the staff that I had been invited to a sauna by an Estonian, they told me: That’s incredible! In my experience, it takes at least one year for an expat to be invited like that. When they do that, it means you are one of them.

The following day, Adam invited me to meet Kaspar Korjus himself. I had the chance to greet him for a few minutes after his lecture, and thanked him for the positive impact he had done in my life. He reacted with emotion to my little story, and we are now keeping in touch.

The last day, snowing and -15 degrees outside, I wanted to see the Baltic sea. So after convincing the driver from Taxify (the Estonian Uber) to drive me to Linnahall (are you crazy?, he asked me in a cheerful way), I told him to wait for a few minutes. I stood there for ten minutes and I could hardly see the sea behind the fog and the snow.

But I did. And I smiled.

I smiled with pride and satisfaction. I had found my crack of light.

Epilogue

Since I don’t feel the pressure anymore, I decided to reconnect with a previous client of mine who I really enjoy working with. Happily, I have work at least until June, and I will be contributing to the growth of a company whose CEO is a lovely person, and whose CTO is the most approachable, friendly and communicative boss I’ve ever had. And now they will let me work in back-end development for the first time in my life, yay!

After that, I am planning to spend the summer in Tallinn for a few months, and also looking forward to get my first Estonian client. I am a skilled, dedicated and experienced web developer and you can check my website luisfer.me. If you feel like we can work together, my email is bluabalonoee@gmail.com.

I listened to Spiegel im Spiegel, by Arvo Pärt while writing this.

Related links

· Freelancing and depression, by Shayna Hodkin

· What is Estonian e-residency and how to take advantage of it?, by LeapIn.