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.
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.
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.
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!’
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.
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?)
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.
What kind of myths have you heard about Finland?
ps. Finland is totally not part of Scandinavia, either.