Truths&myths about Finland

Guys! Guess what! My tough little home country celebrates its independence day today, so in celebration for Finland’s 98th birthday I wanted to write a bit about what makes it such a cool country. I did a similar truths&myths post about India a few months ago and it was fun, so I figured Finland surely deserves its own.

With the humble population of some 5,3 million people Finland is a relatively small country. Although  Finns are pretty happy wanderers, with a small population like that it isn’t very common to run into a fellow Finn in hostels. I’ve met many who’ve told me I’m the only Finnish person they know, and because of this they don’t really know much about Finland or have weird ideas about what the country is like. I constantly get asked if we get any kind of summer. To some, Finland portrays itself as this wonderland of free education and pure nature, which it in part is, too, but fail to remember that all countries have their faults. One of the funniest conversations I ever had about my country was with an Irish girl a few years ago as she asked me what we tend to eat for Christmas and I casually mentioned that my family always had delicious reindeer cutlets. She was absolutely horrified. ‘You can’t eat Santa’s pets!’ She made it sound like we were eating cats and dogs. I assured you that there’s enough reindeer in Finland, especially in Lapland, to both have on the table and in the forests. She chuckled a little bit and said, ‘So Lapland is actually real? I always thought it was fictional, like North Pole.’

I am not trying to make you feel stupid for having to look up Finland on the map. Especially if you’re from outside of Europe, what would you need that information for anyway? It is okay if you didn’t even know such a country exists before now, but hopefully after this post you will be a little wiser.

Iisalmi

Myth: Finnish people are rude, swear a lot and never speak.
Truth: As a Finn, I had this same idea for years. I had heard people say that they went to the Nordic countries and met some of the most helpful, genuine people they had known. I could only think of the way I pretended to not see people I sorta-half-knew-maybe on the street, and they treated me equally. Of course over time I realised (with a little help from memes and Best of Tumblr) that this is the case in lots of other countries, not just mine. Where does the myth really originate from then? I gues from the idea that the norm is to be a social butterfly, be like people in foreign movies that chit-chat and small talk with strangers. To break this myth what needs to be understood is that there are different ways to be friendly. It all doesn’t have to be in-your-face smiles and instant emotional proximity. I’ve often heard it be said that once you get to know a Finn, they are the most open and the most crazy people you will ever know. I’m really happy that in general Finns are also known for their honesty (I mean, Finland got nuked in South Park because of their honesty!)

I had also never looked at it from a tourist’s perspective. Finns are, in general, really proud of their country and their culture and will be more than happy to let a visitor in on it. If you’re ever hanging out with a bunch of Finns (or even just one), you could make a drinking game out of how many time sthey will start a sentence with ‘In Finland we have this thing called…”

Oh, but the part about swearing is totally true.

Tampere


Hailuoto

Myth: Finnish people are depressed and alcoholics.
Truth: Sadly, this myth is somewhat true. (Which is strange considering the price of alcohol here.) I have seen a myriad of statistics stating that relative to the population, Finnish people commit some of the most suicides in the world. Maybe it is the darkness, as people often say, that gets people down. Maybe it is the failing economy and competition in the working life or in school. Maybe it is the genes that our forefathers left us. Maybe it’s all of them. What I know is even though you could never say that most Finnish people are depressed, this stereotype doesn’t come from nothing.

Even when calling Finnish people alcoholics is wildly exaggerated, in my experience the drinking culture here is somewhat unhealthy. You don’t see people going out for “just one” that often – and if they do, it can easily turn into an all-nighter. I find that some other countries – Germany and Spain spring to mind but correct me if I’m wrong – you can actually drink in moderation, and you will see a few less blabbering drunks plowing the gutters with their nose. Finnish people are usually great at partying, I just wish it wasn’t always the case with downing beer with both hands.

Tampere



Myth: You can see ‘Europe’s Big Five’ in Finland
Truth: I read this on an article that Lonely Planet had on their Facebook page a while back, and I wanted to write about this especially since nature is the first thing that springs to mind when people think of Finland.* By the European Big Five they refer to bears, wolverine, wolves, lynx and moose.

Even though all of the aforementioned animals do live in Finland, spotting them is not as easy as someone might think. (Reindeer also don’t run around in the central market of Helsinki. Sorry.) They are shy animals, and you would have to be well into the wilderness in specific regions of the country to spot them. I am pretty sure there are tours for this, which might help you see some of these animals, but you won’t just randomly come across them. C’mon, Finland isn’t that much of a forest. I’ve never seen any of the beasts with my own eyes except than in an animal park, so if you’re not willing to take a tedious trip into the wilderness that will probably leave you staring at moss and squirrels for hours, I’d recommend those for you, too. Even the moose, which are the easier ones to see, will hopefully not get on your way. During 22 years I’ve seen a moose two times and both happened in a car. The other time I was driving and could see it from a distance so I was able to let it cross safely (I thought it was a kangaroo – I had returned from Australia like a week before), and the other time my mum was driving and I was on the back seat, maybe twelve years old or something. The road was icy and when she swerved around the thing, we ended up spinning a bit and sliding into a ditch. The moose passed my window so close that I could’ve touched it. Stuck to my mind, for some reason. (Don’t worry – everyone in the car was all right.)

*Just to get over and done with this myth, yes it is true, Finland is the promised land of pristine nature. There’s lakes and forests everywhere. I live only about eight kilometres from the city centre in a suburban area – ten minutes on the bus, or an eternity if it’s winter and it gets stuck on that god damn hill again – and there is a full-blown net of hiking trails about three minute’s walk from my apartment. Oh, and a skiing slope, too. An Australian friend visited me a few years ago and the first thing he exclaimed as he stepped out of the bus was: ‘You said you lived in a city, not in the middle of a black forest!’

Hailuoto
Tampere
Tampere


Myth: Eskimos live in Finland. (Seriously though, does someone still think like this?)
Truth: This is like the age-old myth about eskimos and polar bears and the land of eternal snow. Is this something people think, or just what they think others think?

Personally, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone ask me about this myth as it is, but often people who have never been to Finland wonder if it really is that cold. For many foreigners, pictures from deep in the nature in Lapland are their image of Finland, so I can’t really blame them. And yes, it does get cold. My home town where my parents live is only somewhere in the middle of the country, and when I still lived here January and February always had a few weeks when the temperatures would drop to -35 to -40 C. In the north it can get even colder. However, where I live now is pretty mild for what I’m used to, and I don’t think it usually drops below -20 C even on the worst days. We also get a bit more snow than Helsinki since the city’s not located right by the sea. When I moved here two years ago, though, the winter was really warm and we experienced maybe a collective two weeks of sorta-anow. So you can actually go to Finland and not even have snow in the winter.

I have also been asked if there’s any kind of summer at all. With relatively cool autumns and springs, the “real” summer usually starts around late May and if we’re lucky, continues well into August. It is a game of luck, though. Last summer was horrible. It rained all the time, and even when it didn’t it was too chilly to not wear a jacket. I believe I wore shorts about five times last summer. There were a lot of memes around Facebook saying “Finnish summer is my favourite day of the year”, and even though last summer that was relatively accurate, the Finnish summer – when it occurs – is amazingly beautiful.

Tampere


Tampere


Myth: Finland’s only gift to the world is Nokia.
Truth: To be honest, even when a lot of people know that Nokia comes from Finland, I have heard as many people say they thought it was Japanese, Swedish or something alike. Many things have changed since Nokia came about. It was THE Finnish success story, and they say that in the 90s it was the biggest one thing that kept Finland afloat from the depression. I’m sad to see the company hasn’t done as well with the latest one. Once known as the producer of the best cheap cell phones, the company has been struggling to keep up with the latest technology and is (as I understand it as a technologically challenged person) proving worse than its competitors. The company was recently sold to Microsoft, which also left thousands unemployed. I hear they still have a considerable market in the third world, though.

Luckily Finns are an inventive bunch and have been coming up with new international bestsellers. Finnish literature is still quite popular in Europe – especially in Germany – and there are many successful Finnish people working abroad. Finnish designs are still surprisingly popular (I got so excited when I saw the classic Marimekko design on pillows in a bar in Melbourne!). A few Finnish TV series have been sold to the US to be remade in English, and one thing that Finns can really pride themselves in – Angry Birds. No one even seems to know it is from Finland, yet everybody knows it. Well done *pats Finland on the shoulder*

(Still waiting for some other great Finnish inventions to make it out of the country, though. Rest of the world, when will you start using cheese slicers and drying cabinets for dishes?)

Iisalmi


Myth: Finland’s education system is on top of the world.
Truth: Umm, yes and no. Finland has traditionally been known as one of the countries with the best education system in the world, and there might have been a time when this was true. Alarmingly though, test scores haven’t been as compatible in international comparison as they have before. Of course tests don’t measure everything, and when we consider that we have some countries that over-challenge their students (take Japan for example) on the top of the list, it definitely shouldn’t be the only way of judging how Finnish students are doing.

However, as I’ve understood it the Finnish education system has kind of got stuck in snow. I have been out of school for a few years now (university doesn’t count as school, right?) but all twelve years that I did stay in the basic school system, I don’t think the teaching style changed much. I’ve been flabbergasted to hear how Ben teaches his students – group discussions, causes and effects, tasks according to the level the student is on… Sure, back in the day we had possibilities to go on field trips and even had an occasional guest speaker, but mainly it was the good old system of teacher asking questions and only some of the front-row kids raising their hand, and copying notes from powerpoints – or, even worse, from the teacher’s speech. I have learned this way all my life so at first I thought it would be strange to do anyhow else, but I’m starting to think that maybe some changes are in place.

Of course there are plenty of good things about the education system in Finland that many other countries could learn from, first of all the utmost respect for education. Being a teacher is a rather highly respected profession, and most university students end up getting both Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. It doesn’t hurt that all education is free.

By the way – where did the “no homework in Finland” myth come from? I’ve seen it in a few places and let me tell you, I have had homework since the 1st grade. Maybe it is because we don’t hand our homework out like the British kids do with their books, but we do still need to have it done. Sorry, 10-year-olds that were dreaming of moving to Finland.

Tampere

What kind of myths have you heard about Finland?

ps. Finland is totally not part of Scandinavia, either.

How to see all sides of Finland in two days

The original plan was to take five days to drive to the Arctic Sea and back, but my lovely travel companion and best friend Katri had to work for most of the week so suddenly we were down to two days. A smarter girl might’ve called it fair game and decided to turn the ambitious roadtrip plans into a shopping spree in a city an hour away, but because we both are more ambitious than smart, we chose to just slightly adjust the plan. Epic (and probably uncomfortable and very, very wet) camping trip to the far North turned into a two-day car extravaganza to a hotel night in Santa’s city. Approximately a thousand kilometres and so much food later I strongly think this two-day getaway was the best thing ever. So here’s to you, whose excuse to not travel is lack of time,

Exiting Hailuoto
Manamansalo
The road never ends. Somewhere south of Lapland.
The plan was as much as to drive up to Rovaniemi and then back to Iisalmi. Our ride was my trusted Ferrari, which, as the pictures deceptively let on, looks a lot like a regular Toyota Corolla. (If a car’s red and low, what else are you gonna call it though if not Ferrari?) The plans what to see on the way were pretty much put together in an hour, on Facebook chat, at least half of the party hungover. Considering… No, actually, I’m not gonna say ‘considering’ because without considering anything, the trip was great. However… I have never driven that much in two days in my entire life. Now, I am a decent driver (despite once having driven my car into a ditch but that’s not relevant to the story so yeah) and I enjoy being behind the wheel, but I just kept having these really vivid scenes in my head where I’d splatter a reindeer and us on the road in a head-on collision at 100 km/h, or where we’d run out of gas in the middle of the sticks and have to walk somewhere to ask for help and be kidnapped by that guy in Human Centipede, or where I’d be stuck on a highway behind a tractor doing 40 and I’d have to – gasp! – pass it!
We were set for catastrophe.
On a car ferry from Manamansalo
Rovaniemi

This is not a timed post so I guess it’s clear that we didn’t die. We never even swerved off the road or hit a forest animal! Aren’t you proud of me now, mum? To be honest, we never had any trouble with anything I thought we might do. For the next (and hopefully longer) roadtrip though I would like to list a few key things to take into account. Take this as a note to self.

Get a second driver. Katri is the best travel companion in the history of travel companions, and she even brings food with her! The only fault is that she doesn’t drive. Had the trip been any longer, I would not have been able to recover from hours of staring at an empty road and they would’ve had to put me there where they keep Joker.
Make sure your music works. You’d think I would’ve learnt, right? I’ve done a month-long roadtrip with only five different CDs in the car, so I thought this time I wouldn’t make the same mistake and I would have all the music. Only if I had checked beforehand that my mp3 is compatible with the car radio! Optionally, you can occupy the shotgun seat with someone who doesn’t have the magical talent to always tune in on a radio station as the commercials start.
Get maps. Like, physical maps. When you’re out in the woods and your Google Maps stops working, you may regret laughing my advice off. Also, while we’re at it, make sure you travel with someone who is good at reading maps especially if you are me and would accidentally end up in Greenland if someone wasn’t there to tell me which exit to take at the traffic circle.
(We actually had physical maps with you so this is just a reminder to do that again.)
Know your car. I spend the morning before our departure studying all the street signs and dashboard lights, you know, just to be sure I knew them. It’s also good to have an idea what sort of noises are normal for your car and which are not, and also to keep an eye out for the gas tank so you don’t get hysterical when the light signifying that gas is low suddenly pops up.
Reserve more time for stuff. Stuff is cool and stuff is important, especially if you’re taking on 500 kilometres to see stuff. Of course this is a stupid piece of advice when the whole point of this post is to show how little time you actually need for a getaway, but I’m just saying that there would’ve been things on the way that we were talking about seeing but then just didn’t. So maybe next time leave a bit earlier or something? Finland is the perfect country for roadtripping in a sense that in the summer it doesn’t get dark, really.

Hailuoto
Hailuoto
Hailuoto

So, what did we actually see? We saw a baby reindeer and it’s mother. We caught a car ferry to Hailuoto, an island populated by odd 1,000 people, and for the first time all summer walked barefoot on the sand. We drove on roads surrounded by fir trees and birches and swamps. We stepped on it on the motorway and slowed it down on the gravel roads on the countryside. We drove on pretty much all kinds of roads imaginable and sang along to songs we only knew two lines from. We talked about relationships and shouted at people on the radio that knew nothing. We had dinner with a sea view and a breakfast so big that we left behind an amount of dishes that a small family might’ve used.

Manamansalo
Hailuoto
Manamansalo

We visited Hailuoto in the north, near Oulu, and Manamansalo in the middle, near Kajaani. Both are stunning places with tons of natural beauty and nice beaches, although they might be too cold for swimming. Next time I would like to take a bit more time on the western route to the north and venture a bit further from Rovaniemi (did you know the Arctic circle runs through the city and Santa lives there? If that’s not cool then I don’t know what is). Finland really is such a stunning country, but it is easy to forget as I travel to all these amazing places around the world, and it shouldn’t be so. In the future I will definitely try and get to see more of this beautiful country.

Hailuoto

Oh. And since it’s already past midnight, it means I’m travelling to India tomorrow. Tomorrow! That is so insane. The blog will most likely be mostly quiet until the end of August, but endure with me because I will be coming back with some awesome stories to tell!