Not Sweden, the Other One.

A fellow ginger, adopting the Finnish way of life. Conan is my homeboy.

A fellow ginger, adopting the Finnish way of life. Conan is my homeboy.

Yeah, so I haven’t posted in forever, I’m sorry to my two avid* readers (*accidental). Gimme a break, I have a life too you know. Lol, jk, I just developed an addiction to knitting.

So as some of you may know, I’ve been living in Finland for the past few months. I have posted about the mysterious land of the Finns before, but from a visitors perspective. Now, having lived here for some time, I am posting from the perspective of a spy, behind enemy lines. In this scenario, the enemy is a sort of indifferent and mild mannered people with mostly blonde hair and blue eyes who are most definitely not to be confused with the Swedes. Sweden is the one with ABBA and Volvo. Finland is the other one. Not the rich one, that’s Norway. Well, yeah, it’s rich, but not compared to Norway. In Norway everyone gets a Lambourgini and some Chanel booties as a gift from the state. Here, the government just give you baby-stuff. Think Nokia and Angry Birds and Lordi, that angry band who won the Eurovision a few years back.

In this senseless article, I am taking time to analyse and discuss (and shake off writer’s block) some aspects of Finnish culture that often baffle and amuse the foreigners who come here. So lets get down to it:

Dill:

Before I came to Finland, Dill was a character on the Rugrats. Remember Tommy’s little brother? That guy, not the ginger kid. (Chuckie, like us all, was just misunderstood) In Finland, dill is a staple part of one’s diet. I grew up in a garden centre and until I came here, I couldn’t have even told you what it looked like, let alone what to put it with. It’s this mildly flavoured and scented herd, sort of similar to parsley, but more grassy and stringy. So what do you put it with? Everything. You put it with everything. Chips (crisps or taytos if you’re Irish) – what flavors come to mind? Cheese and onion, salt and vinegar, smokey bacon, am I right? Hell no, in Finland you better believe they’re putting dill on them.

General Nudity:

It’s not that they love being naked. They don’t (or at least I think they don’t. I don’t know. That would explain a lot) It’s just that there’s a general acceptance for it. It stems, probably, from the sauna culture, which I’ll talk about later. But Finns are totally cool being naked (and I mean stark naked, as the day they were born) around each other. It’s a part of the culture I have definitely not warmed to. I don’t wanna see that, and I don’t wanna talk about that. I spent 20 years in a Catholic country, and spent my school days forced into a casket of skin-covering tartan, being given a healthy dose of Catholic guilt and shame. So when I walk by the sauna in my building to the laundry and see a completely naked stranger, chatting to his completely naked friend, I get more uncomfortable than a chauvinist at Emma Watson’s house.

Sauna:

Awh yeeeeah. When you speak to a Finn about the famous things I mentioned above, they’ll almost all immediately retort with “We invented the sauna too!” There is usually one in every home, sort of like a kitchen – treated as a necessary part of the home. I honestly don’t get it. I don’t fancy being shut in a wooden box sweating myself to oblivion and then getting into a cold shower/frozen lake for the lols afterwards. Every Finn reading this is like “Oooh but the health benefits/hygienic reasons/relaxation, etc. etc” I’ve heard it all and I am not buying it. They’re very serious about it too. Like, yes, there are electric sauna’s in the home, but it’s not the same heat, you know? Nope, I don’t know. Finns are all about the wood burning saunas at their summer cottages, preferably next to the aforementioned lake where they have a much softer heat. I didn’t know that heat could have a texture. Apparently it most certainly can. Now get in that damn sauna and you better like it! 😀

Finnish stuff:

Pentik, Marimekko, Iittala, Fiskars, Moomin. Anyone who has ever been to Finland will immediately recognise these brands. They are all Finnish concepts, authentically Finnish and more expensive than the rent on a small apartment in Turku. Finns litter their neat homes with all manner of these things, from Pentik candle holders, to Marimekko curtains, Iittala Aalto vases to a collection of Moomin coffee mugs. And of course, a trusty orange scissors from Fiskars. They legit go nuts for it. Recently I was passing by a Marimekko store that had a 20% sale. It was like Black Friday, but with more blonde haired politeness and less yelling. Even though I have grown to love all of this stuff, I can’t really explain the fascination. None of it really has a function. For example, although they make lots of stuff, most of the popular Iittala glassware doesn’t actually do anything. Holding a teelight is not a function, It’s just in a fancy shape, or a fancy colour, but realistically, who needs a curved and mounted glass bowl to put their keys/jewelry/sugar in?** I guess, from the point of view of a Finn, it’s better to have fancy but functionless and overpriced stuff from Finland in your tidy and organised home, rather than fancy but functionless and overpriced stuff from Sweden.

Social Awkwardness:

If there was a socially awkward world championship, Finland would totally win. (And totally beat Sweden. Finns love beating Sweden.) It’s not a rudeness. It may seem that way to some chatty foreigners, who enjoy nothing more than small talk with complete strangers (like me), but once you get to know the culture a bit better, you realise that it’s just a general unease in social situations. One ought not to be alarmed that the expression on the face of the man from whom you just asked directions never changes the entire time he replies. It is perfectly acceptable to sit next to someone on the train in complete silence for the duration of your journey. Waving at strangers is a no-no. Unless, like me, you enjoy entertaining yourself while you sit in a coffeeshop window, watching the confused expressions on the faces of Finns who awkwardly return your wave. Also, if you have time, and you manage to find an almost empty bus, sit in the seat right next to a Finn, ignoring all the other completely spaced-out and vacant seats. The will, no doubt, get off at the next stop, thinking you’re completely crazy and possibly dangerous. Lol. I have too much time on my hands.

Parenting:

Finns have a great parental system and it’s one of the best places to be a mother in the world. They have great governmental support and a fantastic education system. But what fascinates me most about Finnish parents is twofold, and both points are interrelated. Firstly, parents here are expert wrappers – their babies have more layers than an onion and are more wrapped up than a pass-the-parcel gift. They have baby grows, tops, pants, socks, heavy woolen socks, a sweater, a balaclava, a hat, a sort of padded and waterproof hazmat suit (think Walter White, but a less offensive shade of yellow), mittens and boots. There is not a breeze in the world going to get at that baby. He is zip locked, water tight and vacuum packed. (Perhaps a childhood spent essentially bubble-wrapped from the cold leads to the need to jump naked into a frozen lake) Secondly, with their cosy babies fully element-proofed, what is the best way to put said baby to sleep for his afternoon nap? Why, by bringing him for a nice stroll in the below freezing air. Because nothing sleeps sounder than an insulated baby in the snow.

Equality:

If there’s one thing Finns love more than a cacooned, sleepy baby, dill and a socially awkward sauna all put together, it’s equality. Finns don’t see gender, and I mean that in the most literal sense. In the Finnish language, they don’t have separate words for “he” and “she”. They just have this one encompassing term that can mean either, given the situation. Equality aside, this can give rise to some hilarity in English when your Finnish friend refers to her dad as “she”. Lol. Both parents get parental leave in Finland, all kids go to the same level of schools, with the same prospects, they all get fed the same school lunches and the big box of gifts from the state to every new born are gender neutral. Because Finland is all like “screw you, gender rolls!” A word exists in Finnish and Swedish for a situation where two people live together and are in an unmarried relationship which is totally ok here and has been for some time. (I don’t know it in Finnish, but it’s sambo in Swedish, which also means a “sandwich” where I come from) And just recently, same sex marriages were legalized. Finns are and incredibly equal people and equality can be seen in almost all areas of society here. Politics, education, family life, etc. Maybe just not in the eyes of the Finnish stranger who I sat next to on a Turku bus. She was not feeling the equal need to engage in a conversation about the weather with me. Not at all.

Finns are different to Irish people. They don’t say much at first and they are quite shy and modest. However, once you get to know a Finn, they are likely to be a friend for life and are among the most genuine and honest people I have ever met. Although I find their tendency to shove as many vowels into a word as possible infuriating and can never understand the desire to torture oneself by consuming samiakki licorice, (it’s not candy. Chocolate and wine gums are candy. Salmiakki is were candy goes to die) I am finding myself ever so slightly veering towards Finnishism in my life. I take off my shoes immediately on entrance of a premises, I air dry my dishes, I always have milk with my meal and my dinner is greatly improved by the appearance of some fresh dill. I will draw the line, however, at hopping into a wooden hot box with some buddies to sweat it out. That type of thing is used as a questionable punishment in some countries and something this little ginger is uncomfortable with in about 8 different levels. For now, I’ll stick to the gender equality and a simultaneous and quasi love/hate relationship with Sweden, becoming irritated by their more well-known international status, all the while loving H&M and reasonably priced trips to Stockholm. Conan’s got Finnish lifestyle down.

(**Me. I do. Please buy me one.)

Finland – What I missed.

This is not a travel guide. It is not a blog dedicated to exploring the world and reporting on it, for all those making use of the Internet machine to read. Although if anyone reading this wants to buy me flights around the world so I can transform this into a travel guide, then I am totally cool with that.

I am, however, going to dedicate this post to exploring and my recent international adventure. No America, this time, I’m afraid. So where am I, you ask? Currently, I am North by 59 degrees and 58 minutes and East by 23 degrees and 26 minutes, making it the highest point I have ever been to in the world. Still wondering? I am in a town in Southern Finland, blogging about co-ordinates.

Next question: Finland? Why? An equally good question. A year ago, I would have asked myself the same question. But circumstances change (for further information, see my previous posts) and people you never knew existed come into your life and change it so radically, you can hardly believe how life used to be.

When I was in primary school, at the tender age of 12, my teacher assigned us a geography task. We each had to pick a European country and create a project of information on that country. Thankfully my class consisted of 13 kids, so there was plenty of “good countries” to go around. I chose Finland. Why did I choose Finland? Because Santa Clause lives there. Duh. 

This blog post will consist of a number of things my A1 sheet of colourful Finnish facts missed.

The year was 2004. The internet wasn’t what it is now. Researching meant everyone had to stay off the landline and I could go and eat my dinner while our family PC connected to the World Wide Web. I’m putting a lot of the gaps in my Nordic knowledge back in ’04 down to this. The first thing I did, when I chose Finland, the funny shaped country at the top of our old map of Europe (that still contained Yugoslavia and USSR. Bosnia who?) was source my brother’s atlas, the one he got from collecting Wheetabix tokens. In the back of the atlas, was a page containing world flags, which I loved. I mostly loved this page because there were animated Wheetabix people, in various national dresses and the Brazilian Wheetabix lady was pretty colourful. But therein I found the Finnish flag. I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed. I loved to draw and the plain blue cross wouldn’t be much of a challenge. I should have gone for Spain. That coat of arms would have been more fun. But nonetheless, I set myself to work. First things first. Decorate the border of the large white page in Finnish flags. It was extremely artful, trust me. Then I stuck on a larger Finnish flag on the upper righthand corner, raising it up a little from the page, because 3D effect were cool and definitely worthy of a red “go maith” tic from my teacher. Yes. Even at 12, praise from teachers was like crack to me.

Next I resorted to the largest source of information I could lay my hands on. The labyrinth of knowledge and power. Encarta 97. After an epic game of MindMaze I proceeded to “Google”, 2004 style ‘Finland’. The little men in the computer box spun the CD and made sounds like an aeroplane taking off, only to present me with maps, short videos and fun little facts about the Nordic Maiden. Because apparently Finland is shape like a chick. I can’t see it yet, but I am trying.

Added to my large piece of paper was a printed map of Finland, containing several lines and fading colour everywhere North of Oulu. Using coloured card, I created a box of Fun Facts. Population, language, area and currency. Sort of like an ancient form of Wikipedia, and probably just as accurate. On red card, I wrote about Nokia, the cellphone giant of the age and how they were “connecting people” with the 3310 and 3310i, if you were cool. (What’s an iPhone?) This was pasted somewhere near the middle, along with a few paragraphs about Lapland and Santa Clause. Can you tell I love Christmas? There was a 3D Santa Clause featured too. Because I was a goddamn A student. Weirdly, I also wrote about the high suicide rates and tree farming. Not related. I think.

There were various other illustrations and something about copious amounts of snow and how most of the water is frozen in the winter and basically people can’t do anything. I presented it before a largely bored audience of 12 year olds and it was hung on the corridor (the only corridor in the building) for a few weeks until we did our project on American States. I chose Hawaii. There was a 3D Hula dancer incorporated.

So here are some things I missed. Firstly, and most importantly, Finland has two languages. I know, I didn’t know that either. Finnish and Swedish are both official languages. A long history with Sweden left a minority group of Swedish Speaking Finns in Finland and a language that is as alive as Finnish in many parts of the country. Most people speak Finnish, English and some Swedish in this country. I actually know more Swedish Speaking Finns than Finnish Speaking Finns, a fact which is apparently weird considering they only make up 5% of the population.

The languages themselves are vastly different. Finnish is vastly complicated and unlike most languages. But it is by far the most emotive and expressive language I have ever heard. To Finns, words are like gold – to be preserved and used only with genuine desire and intent. If a Finn tells you something – they mean it. No matter what language. Swedish is a vibrant and sensible language, grammatically similar to English, but rich in strange accent and thick pronunciation. Those who have Swedish as their first language are proud of it, proud of their heritage and their culture, proud to be Finnish, proud to speak Swedish. Their language is part of their very beings. One thing I have noticed with Finns, be it Finnish or Swedish speaking, is that they are genuine. They are honest and although they may be cautious of strangers at first, once they have gotten to know a person, they are a source of a true, loving and strong friendship.

The Finns I have met have all been fun and energetic people. Apart from the way that Irish people are overtly talkative and always have something to say, Finns remind me a lot of my own people. And apparently they do just as well in the partying department as their Irish counterparts. They are efficient. Like, seriously efficient. Efficiency that makes you stop and gasp in awe at the sheer sensibility of customs. Think you may have a million euro idea for a simple labour-saving, household gadget? Chances are the Finns have beaten you to it.

Take for example, drying dishes. You didn’t even think it was an action that needed simplifying. But there, above every Finnish sink, craftily disguised as just a regular cabinet lies an Astiankuivauskaappi (I can’t pronounce this one, but I do a mean job of saying it in broken Swedish – I just have no idea how to spell it) Google it. And make sure you’re sitting down. This dish drying cabinet will blow your mind with it’s simplistic genius. I’m almost a little offended that the European stereotype for efficiency is Germany. Shoes are to be removed at the door of Finnish homes. In my country, asking this might be treated with contempt – but think about it: You’ve been outside, walking around. Perhaps in the snow. Your shoes are dirty. You take them off to keep the place clean. Not only do you feel more at home, you’re also maintaining a clean floor! It gets better – Bottles and aluminium cans all have a price written on them; 0,15€, 0,20€ etc. Recycling them will result in reimbursement for the amount you have collected. Effectively, the government pay you to recycle, at the same time as paying you for keeping streets clean. What is this witchcraft!? 

By far the most underrated aspect of my 6th class project, however, was the complete lack of notice paid to the beauty of the country itself. I did quite a bit of sightseeing in my 11 days here, all in the southern part of the country. I am aware that this means I have about 70% of the country left to explore, but this leaves me only with excitement for what is to come. I saw the beautiful and scenic old town of Ekenäs, the soft pastel coloured houses with crisp white shutters dripping of old European beauty. I toured Turku, its idilic clock tower church towering over the city’s cobbles and calm streets. I climbed to Turku’s observatory and looked out over the city, Åbo Akademi University buildings inconspicuously dotted about the colourful buildings, the bustling cafe’s lining the river in the shade of beautifully green trees.

Helsinki was altogether unexpected. I am, by my nature, not a city girl, but Helsinki surprised me. The city centre is full of detailed architecture and it is bursting full of history. From the titanic Parliament building, its great pillars looking out over the capital’s people, to Senate Square, full of tourist and Finns alike, eating lunch on the steps of the white Lutheran Cathedral, to the many old buildings, which thankfully survived wartime, Helsinki is like no other European city I have been to. It is a mixture of everything and nothing, a bustling hive of activity and commuting, and grossly under marketed as a city-break destination in Europe. The city’s parks mean that despite the thriving hub of movement, there is always somewhere to escape, somewhere to get away.

Helsinki offers ferries (for €2.20 – might I add, this is the price of a cup of tea on Irish Rail. A cup of tea.) to many of the beautiful islands in the archipelago in the harbour. I strolled around Suomenlinna with my two favourite people, eating rye bread and yoghurt, drinking in the sea breeze, the stone caverns and the rich history. Finland’s long, yet altogether recent history was more than present in the Sea Fort Island’s museums and cultural centres.

Porvoo – my favourite place in Finland, so far. It is a beautiful city in southern Finland, where the old town resembles streets of painted doll houses, all similar, but each with its own charming character and uniqueness. The old cobbled hill to the church provides a fabulous view of the winding streets, the decorative craft shops and the lazy, meandering river. I stood there, atop the hill at Porvoo’s stone church as the sun began to set, on a warm Friday evening and fell in love with Finland.

I took an unexpected stroll around the hidden wonder of Fiskars – a town famous in Finland for scissors and knives – but famous in my heart for its romantic captivity. A small stream, clutching ducks and swans, runs through the village, hugged by picturesque wooden bridges. A fantastic chocolate shop is nestled in the row of redbricked handcraft stores. There I discovered another new love of mine – Kinuski. A sort of fudgey, chocolatey caramel. Not quite ganache, not quite toffee, but something of an heavenly mixture, enveloping my senses and tasting like more.

I went to the Southernmost town in Finland, Hanko, where one can almost see Estonia and the memory of Russian occupation is evident in the trees, no more than 70 years old and the rocky forests. I stood on the beach, in front of the infamous restaurant and function house, Casino and watched they giant cargo ships head for Poland, Stockholm and Tallinn as the sea air brushed my face and the sand caressed my toes… I love Finnish water, I love the trees, I love the weather, the landscape, the food, the fish and the culture. I love Finland and I love its people. I can say, not just with hope of conditional certainty, but with actual knowledge and fact, that I will return to the Finnish Maiden, and that my return shall not be the last of such.

In hindsight, 21 year old Gearóidín is struggling to put into words they majesty of Finland. I have not done the country justice. But I don’t think there are words – not in the English language, anyway. I’m not sure if 12 year old me would have done a much better job, even with all this experience, all this excitement and all this love.