Comedian Stewart Johnson from Wisconsin has been living in Estonia since 1998.
CNN  — 

He hadn’t traveled any further than Canada before he was 20, but Stewart Johnson says he knew from early on that he “didn’t really want to live in the States.”

The stand-up comedian, originally from Wisconsin, explains that he felt as though he’d “already seen” America, and was keen to explore more of the world as quickly as he could.

“I wanted to see new stuff,” Johnson tells CNN Travel. “And apart from geography, there’s not really that much unique about the States if you’ve already grown up there.”

While he could never have predicted where he’d end up living, Johnson has a vivid memory of watching Estonia, once part of the Soviet Union, declare formal independence back in 1991.

Early travel dreams

“A friend said, ‘Where in the world is this?’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, that’s Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

“He (his friend) goes, ‘How the hell do you know that?’”

A few years later, Johnson happened to find himself working with an Estonian at a summer camp in the US and the pair formed a firm friendship.

In 1996, Johnson traveled to Europe to study and his summer camp friend invited him to Estonia the following year.

“I just took an overnight train to Estonia,” he says. “And all of my German friends at the time said, ‘Don’t go, you’re not going to come back.’ And they were right.”

Johnson explains that his friends were worried that he’d “be kidnapped or murdered or something” – organized crime was a problem in the Northern European  country between the 1990s and 2000s.

“I eventually didn’t come back because I liked it,” adds Johnson. “That’s the irony of it.”

Johnson felt an affinity with Estonians from the get go, explaining that he found their honesty wonderfully refreshing.

“The thing that I really liked about Estonians, and Estonians have never believed me when I say this, but I liked how friendly they were,” he says.

“Because Estonians consider themselves to be very closed and cold people. But I actually kind of liked that. And I liked the honesty that Estonians have.”

After spending a week in the country, Johnson returned to the US to finish his studies with the aim of entering the Foreign Service.

However, he decided to head back to Estonia “to get to know the place a little bit better” instead.

In 1998, Johnson arrived back in the country with just “two suitcases and a book bag” and ended up staying for good.

Building a life

Johnson says he learned Estonian by watching American TV shows and reading the subtitles.

“I just kind of started building a life here,” he says.

Johnson initially lived in Tartu, the country’s second largest city, and says he settled in very quickly.

Reflecting on his first years in Estonia, Johnson notes that things were very different to how they are now.

“The place was pretty poor back then,” he says. “It was hard to find things like chicken breasts or minced meat.

“You could only get minced pork – and even that was frozen. So cooking was a bit of a challenge. But I enjoyed it. I’ve never been one to shy from a challenge.”

Although he didn’t speak the language at all, Johnson says he was able to pick it up by watching American TV shows and reading the Estonian subtitles.

“Quite often, people don’t really believe that that’s possible,” he says. “Because Estonian is considered one of the, if not the most difficult language for native English speakers to learn.

“But that also explains why I have a funny accent. Because I learned by reading, not by speaking.”

Johnson initially arrived in Estonia on “a regular tourist visa” before acquiring a student visa.

He went on to marry an Estonian and his two children, ages 16 and 19, were born in the country.

“I have a family here,” he says, before explaining that he became a permanent resident after his marriage. “That’s mainly why I’ve stuck around.”

Johnson, who is now divorced, says he’s thankful that his children grew up in Estonia as he feels that there’s “a lot less bullying than in the States.”

“They don’t really have team sports at schools here like they do in the States,” adds Johnson.

“So you don’t have the problem of jocks and cheerleaders, and things like that. People seem to be much more supportive of each other.”

Comedy career

In 2010, Johnson co-founded a comedy group, Comedy Estonia, and began touring the country as a stand up comedian.

“My very first joke, I told them that I forgot my first two jokes,” he recounts. “And I was telling the truth… I just froze when I got up there.”

“They thought it was hilarious and started clapping. And then I actually did remember my jokes, and it was a smashing huge success.”

While he’s no longer a part of the group, Johnson holds private comedy shows occasionally, and has also made a film “The Chuck Band Show,” which is loosely based on his story.

Johnson, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer a few years ago, says that his experiences with the country’s health care system, which is based on compulsory solidarity-based health insurance, helped to inspire the movie.

“My final bill for three months of treatment and 15 or 16 days in the hospital getting chemo was 5 euros,” he says – little more than $5. “And it would probably have been half a million dollars had I been in the States.”

When it comes to the general cost of living in Estonia, Johnson says he’s noticed a significant increase in recent years, particularly with regards to property prices and groceries.

“I would say that the cost of living has become higher in Estonia,” he says, noting that property prices are “basically the same price as American properties,” but salaries are “so much lower.”

Johnson has written a book, 'Tales from Estonia,' about his experiences living in the country.

“Especially with the inflation of the last few years. But that’s offset, because if you live in the city, you don’t need a car. You can take free public transport for city residents – it’s all free.”

Johnson returns to the US “every few years” and admits to being disappointed by how “commercial” things have become.

“Everywhere you go, it’s buy two and get one free,” he says. “And you have to have some membership card, or just some crap that you just don’t want to have to deal with.

“And every time I go to a shop, they want to know my zip code. Even if I’m paying in cash. And I’m like, ‘I don’t live in the States.’”

After spending so many years living outside of the US, Johnson says he’s noticed a difference in the way people respond to each other over there.

“People are really uptight in the States these days,” he says. “It wasn’t like that when I lived there in the ’90s.

“People were just relaxed, but now they’re all up in arms. They will confront you in a shop if they don’t like something that you’re doing.”

Temperate climate

Johnson lived in the city of Tartu when he first moved to Estonia, but is now based in Tallinn, pictured.

Although his day to day life may be very different in Estonia, Johnson feels that things aren’t very different scenery wise.

“It looks exactly the same as Wisconsin,” says Johnson, who has also released a book, “Tales from Estonia,” about his experiences in the country. “Except they have a few more swamps and bogs here.

“It’s flat on one side of the country and hilly and forested on the other, just like my home state.”

However, he stresses that Estonia is “not nearly as cold as Wisconsin.”

“Now things are getting even warmer,” he adds. “We have very little snow that stays in the winter now.

“It’s just a lot of ice. Because of climate change, most people are really complaining about the winters here.

“Because this far north, we only get six hours of sunlight on the shortest day of the year. And the sun is never really that high above the horizon.”

Johnson explains that things are the “exact opposite” during summer time.

“You get six hours of sundown, but it never really gets completely dark,” he says, adding that you can “always see a purple sunset color throughout half of the sky.”

“I’ve always loved it. I never get tired of that.”

When asked what advice he’d give to Americans hoping to move to a country like Estonia, Johnson jokes that they should just “stay in America.”

“There are too many of us who have already left,” he quips. “We don’t need more Yankees outside of that country.”

On a more serious note, Johnson suggests that Americans relocating to another country should try not to “cluster with other Americans.”

“Just integrate, let it happen,” he says. “Not everything is going to be the same. Just take your finger out and relax, enjoy the new culture.

“Your country is not going to change because one person has left it. It’s not that you have to maintain your culture.

“Just learn something new. You’re not going to regret it.”

One of the things Johnson loves most about living in Estonia is its modernity – Estonia was the first country where the parliament was elected online, and he’s been hugely impressed by its transformation during the 25 or so years since he moved there.

“Every year something new gets built, or there’s a new system,” he adds. “What I’ve always learned is that, if Estonians decide to do something, they do it.

“And they decided to become a very modern country…  Really, it’s been the experience of a lifetime, being able to watch this kind of transformation over a quarter of a century.”