THE car park at the Great Northern Hotel just opposite Peterborough railway station on the East Coast mainline is normally packed to the rafters with fancy cars and 4x4s, left each day by commuters who chose to park here because it is closer to the station entrance. In normal times this extended parking lot is a money spinner for the hotel owners.
Today, on a fine late September morning in 2020 during the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic, it is barely a quarter full and I have the choice of a any number of prime parking spots immediately adjacent to the hotel itself.
The railway station itself is also unusually quiet, just a couple of black cabs wait in the ranks and there seems to be only a handful of commuters and day trippers. None of the normal hustle and bustle.
My East Coast train is one of the latest Azuma models, sleek and lightweight, cutting the non-stop journey time to London Kings Cross to around 40 minutes on a fast run. This morning there are only two other passengers in the first class carriage, another rarity.
Heading from Peterborough towards Huntingdon, the countryside is generally flat and largely uninteresting with a few gently rolling hills, if you could even call them that, on the distant horizon. Pockets of trees, a lonesome church standing on a mound not far from the track like some spiritual railway sentry, and small farmsteads scattered around seemingly at random punctuate the view.
I am on my way to the Estonian Embassy in London to collect my personal e-Residency digital ID card which has been waiting for me since the beginning of March shortly before the initial Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and national lockdown kicked in.
From Kings Cross station the embassy is a walk of up about an hour so I’d already dismissed this option as my intention was not to spend too long in the capital city on this time. I didn’t fancy the tube train either in the pandemic situation so I stepped across the road to the iconic St Pancras Hotel, used the facilities there and hopped into a waiting taxi at the main entrance.
The roads were busy but still unusually quiet for London and the cab driver told me his fare takings was eighty percent down on what he would normally expect for the time of year. As a result we arrived outside the embassy in Queens Gate Terrace in seemingly next to no time.
There was time to kill before my appointment slot so I walked down past the attractive and well-kept Georgian buildings to the end of the street, and then up and down the short high street of Gloucester Road South a couple of times looking for a cafe in which to have a coffee.
Jakobs, a small Mediterranean-style cafe called just off Queens Gate Terrace, looked perfect for my short pit stop. A little rustic but all the more endearing for that, it looked to be owned by a second generation Greek family making a steady living, at least in normal times.
There were several small round wooden tables on the pavement edge outside and though there was a little sun around I decided to step inside. It was casual bistro style, with a long glass fronted counter to the right leading through to the back.
At the end of the counter the passageway opened into a square room, populated with assorted dining tables and chairs, and in one corner a battered old upright piano. It was quite dark but homely and friendly.
The walls were adorned with old family photos and other personal treasures, some of them distinctly religious. There was what looked like a picture of Jesus on the side wall leading to some steep steps down to the basement, and on the end of the counter was a faded photo frame containing the printed out words of the Lord’s prayer.
Behind this middle room and through a wide archway was another more open space. A sloping, glazed roof made the area light and welcoming, and gave it the feel of a conservatory. The walls were rough plastered, some exposed to the brick and a mixture of paint colours.
There were bench seats on three sides, each with a small dark-wood table set with a knife and fork wrapped in a white serviette. The place was immediately endearing and friendly, and it seemed like I has stepped back to a different age. Though, of course, there was the obligatory wifi connection.
Thirty minutes later it was raining when I walked back to the Estonian Embassy. Outside a ‘payments and documents’ sign indicated I should descend an outside staircase to a basement office, so down I went. Impressively, the door swung open automatically before I had chance to work out what to do.
I stepped inside and walked along a short corridor with a natural wildlife scene depicted in a giant mural along the wall. A smartly dressed receptionist with long, blond hair sat behind a desk and perspex screen like a bank teller, and was wearing thin safety gloves, the sort a doctor might put on to examine something personal and intimate. It was a sign of the times.
I sat down and handed over my passport and she efficiently retrieved a small packet from a grey office filing cabinet behind. Accompanying paperwork was passed to me and I had to sign a receipt. We laughed a little as I hesitated with the date, suddenly distracted by the unexpected sound of birdsong which was playing the background from an unseen speaker.
Estonia, a former Soviet Republic on the edge of the Baltic Sea, is now the most advanced digital society in the world. Estonians use their digital ID cards to access all government services, including health, as well as many private ones.
The e-Residency card for non-nationals is an electronic form of identification allowing the holder to log into online services in Estonia such as government portals and online banks. And whilst it does not give the right of physical residence in Estonia its business benefits are attracting people from across the world in many fields.
It can also be used to legally sign documents electronically within the EU and as an online identification in all EU countries and it offers the chance for non-residents to run and operate an EU based, online business.
After the final day of 2020, now rapidly approaching, my own British passport will become significantly devalued, removing many benefits, including the previously unrestricted right to live, work and study in across Europe.
For those in the UK, working and doing business in the EU and wanting to continue as a freelance like myself, the Estonian e-Residency scheme is an imaginative and small step in the right direction.