The scene is Tallinn airport. On Thursday evening I was changing a few Estonian crowns back into either euros or sterling – whatever, I said to the woman in the currency bureau, was easier.
"Oh, have euros," she said with a grin. "Much better."
But this is not a bleat about the collapse of sterling, dire though it has become. Rather it is a celebration of the competence and delight of Estonians. There is something wonderful about small states, and Estonia with its 1.4 million population has had to make being small an advantage. The former prime minister, Mart Laar, told us that one key factor enabling the country to make its successful transition from a centrally planned economy to a market one was that the government had no money. So it had to figure out ways of doing things on the cheap.
I asked the head of one of its best schools, the Tallinn English College, what was the single greatest advantage they'd had. (Estonia scores very near the top of the OECD study of the ability of 16-year-olds, and quite a bit ahead of us.) His reply : "Limited resources."
Mart Laar even argued that laziness could be a virtue : the reason his government had put all public documents online was that he got fed up carrying around bundles of papers.
Another moral : if you are going to change things, I was told by a top official in the Ministry of Education, choose the right models. For education they were lucky : Finland is just across the water and seems to have the best secondary education in the world. The result is the most technically savvy of any of the new EU member states. Example : their ID cards have a chip which they can use for banking, renewing a driving licence, even paying income tax. It is voluntary – having the card, not paying the tax – but young people at least want one because it is so useful.
So lots of lessons for larger countries, including this one. But the lesson I liked most came from a teacher at that school. I asked her what she felt was the most important message Estonians had for the world. Her reply: "Keep dreaming."