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There’s Something About Finland…

So, there’s this place.

It’s called Finland.

You’ve probably never been there. Maybe you don’t even know where it is. But it’s kinda special. Let me tell you about it.

You know that odd kid in school? Never really talked to anyone, kept to himself, probably had a nose piercing and a tattoo on his leg. And he was always just there in the corner, minding his own business, listening to some strange music, and no one ever really got to know him because you just never knew what he was about. Then one day you got matched up with him on a school project and you were like, oh crap. Not that guy. But after spending a couple of days together you got to know him better, and after a week you were like, dude this guy is so interesting and smart and does so much cool stuff! Everybody would love him if they just got know him better!

That’s Finland.

Let me elaborate…

The People

Photo: photodeus@Flickr

Finnish people are very…odd. But not creepy odd. Interesting odd. Good odd. There’s this rumour out there, that because Finland’s population used to be so small and spread out, they haven’t quite finished evolving into city living yet. So as you walk around Helsinki, you’ll see people with their heads down, expressionless, just kind of pretending nobody else is there. They don’t talk to each other, they don’t smile too much. It’s like the first day of school, lots of nervous energy, just on a bigger scale (as in, an entire country). It’s as if they don’t know how to start a conversation. Even when it’s not really a stranger; it might be a neighbour or classmate or some other familiar face. They won’t say hi. They’ll just ghost right past them. Strange, right? But it’s doubly strange, because…

They’re actually really nice

Super nice. If you stop a Finnish person on the street and ask them a question, they’ll really go out of their way to help you. Well, not right away. First they’ll freeze in shock, a little voice in their head going Oh my goodness, why is somebody talking to me… They might even get a little cold sweat going on the back of their neck. But once they realise you’re just a silly tourist, the shock will subside, and they’re going to be really nice. They’ll stand up straight, like a real estate agent, smile, answer all your questions. It’ll probably feel like you’re talking to customer service.

Which brings me to their next cultural quirk. With everyone being so turtled, and nobody talking to each other, how do they, you know, make friends and stuff?

They drink

And they can seriously drink. If you spend a weekend in Finland, you’ll know exactly what I mean. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where people have been so sober during the week and so rocked on the weekend. And after spending a bit of time in Finland I started to understand why.

I was at a friend’s university initiation, and it was this super elaborate weekend trip where everyone went to an island to play games and get drunk and get to know each other. It wasn’t a fraternity or club or anything. Just a regular faculty of students. And I was telling one of the girls how cool it was, that they put so much effort into planning something like that. I told her we never saw that in New Zealand. She laughed at me. She said they weren’t doing it for fun. They did it because they needed it. Finnish people are so odd at socialising, without this event none of them would ever meet each other. They’d just go to class and go home.

Now you might think, isn’t this kind of unhealthy? A whole country that depends on beer and vodka to make friends and talk to each other? But here’s the interesting thing. In somewhere like New York, people also drink a lot, but they drink all the time. In New Zealand it’s the same – people aren’t only weekend drinking, they’re boozing with lunch and dinner on a Wednesday. In Finland, it’s isolated. They’re all straight ahead during the week, nobody talks to each other, they go to work, go home, go to sleep. Everything’s nice and sober. Then Friday rolls around. Bang. Suddenly they’re all best friends, inhaling vodka by the bucket. It’s like they’re living double lives.

And they’re alcohol smugglers, too

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

This was another funny thing they did. They do alcohol runs. See all that beer on that table up there ^? It’s Estonian beer. Because booze isn’t cheap in Finland, and as you’ve seen, it’s kind of essential to their survival. So even if they live up in Lapland, they’ll drive all the way to Helsinki, get on the ferry to Estonia, and buy a car load of booze. And not just five boxes to stash in the trunk. They’ll literally pack the car full. Full. Under the seat, backseat, three boxes on their lap, and they’ll smuggle it all back across the gulf to Finland. Back in the day, they were probably hunting reindeer all summer and stashing it for the winter. Today they’ve got the same hunter-gatherer instincts, only now it’s with Estonian beer.

They have a partying uniform

Photo: ESN

All the university students in Finland have this uniform – it’s a pair of overalls. But it’s not a uniform for class, it’s a uniform for partying. Girls don’t even need to think about what they’re going to wear out at night. They just go home and put on their party pyjamas. And it’s not a “some do, some don’t” kind of thing. Everyone wears them. So every night that I went out in Finland (yes, every night) there were all these kids running around in these overalls. And I was like, what the hell is up with everyone in pyjamas out here? And they all have their own colours too – like the law students wear red, and the business students wear yellow, the politics students wear blue (I’m sure I got all those colours wrong but whatever).

Then they have to decorate them too. I went to a party one night and the girl at the door gave me this patch, like I was in the boy scouts. So I figured every time you go to a party you get these patches, and you stick them on your overalls. The more patches you have, the cooler you are. So as you walk around at night, you can pretty much tell a kid’s future just by looking at his partying pyjamas. If he’s in medicine colours, pretty sober, no patches, you could guess he’s really smart and studies way more than he parties. So he’s probably going to invent some famous vaccine, or at least save a few lives one day. On the other hand you might see another kid in art history colours and he’s got patches up to his face, so you know he’ll probably end up an alcoholic school teacher or something. It’s all real serious too, they’ve got special rules for wearing and washing them and what patch goes where.

In my second life, I’m definitely studying in Finland.

It’s beautiful

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

It’s not unusual for sparsely populated countries to be rich in natural beauty, but Finland ranks up there with the best. Not only are their cities clean and well built, but the country is covered in wild lakes and forests, where you can pick blueberries and lingonberries in abundance, sometimes they’re just sitting there on the side of the road. You’ve got reindeers running wild, which is amazing (until they run in front of your car) and there are countless untouched places to fish and forage and camp. In fact, a lot of travellers come up here to get the Bear Grylls out of their system and live off the grid for a while. The wilderness of Finland’s many national parks is the perfect place.

I used to think New Zealand was wild, but Finland is double wild. If you want a romantic date with Mother Nature, this is definitely the place. The Northern Lights come out up here too!

They invented Nokia (And Angry Birds)

Remember all those afternoons you spent playing Snake II under your desk at school? You can thank the Finns for that. They’re proud of it too. Ask a Finn, “Tell me something interesting about Finland” and there’s a 90% chance they’ll say, “Do you know we invented Nokia?” But that’s if they’re over 30. If they’re under 30, they’ll say “Do you know we invented Angry Birds?”

They’re sauna junkies

Photo: [email protected]

Finns don’t just like the sauna. They love it. A lot of people I met use the sauna every day. And since they use it every day, they don’t go down to the gym or the pools, they have them in their houses! There were actually cities I visited where a sauna was standard issue in the apartments there, just like a toilet or a shower. But it’s more than just a pastime, it’s actually an integral part of day-to-day life.

Had a long day at work? Jump in the sauna. Quality time with the family on Sunday? Round up the kids, get in the sauna. Haven’t seen your mates in a while? Beers in the sauna. Hungover? Sauna. Getting ready to hit the clubs? Sauna. Morning? Sauna. Evening? Sauna.

There’s more. You don’t wear clothes in the sauna. Mum, Dad, brothers and sisters, they all get naked and go sit together in the sauna. Five guys with a box of booze? Snuggle up, get drunk, wave your junk around in the sauna. Family reunion? Stories in the sauna. Business meeting? Naked negotiation and handshakes in the sauna. Can you imagine how that Microsoft-Nokia deal went down? “Hey Bill, jump on in here, nice and toasty. C’mon…take those silly boxer shorts off.”

It’s wildly bizarre for a country so socially introverted, but it seems almost sacred here. So if you’re heading to Finland, you can leave the bathing suit at home. Here the sauna is 100% au naturale.

They’ve got a cool language

I have no idea what this says, but it sounds cool.

Have you heard Finnish people speak? It sounds like they’re singing to you. And despite spending some time in the country I still can’t understand a bit of it. It’s too out there. But often I’d sit there just listening to people talk for entire evenings, admiring how it sounded. It’s wild. Except for hello, for that they just say Hei.

They drink a lot of milk

We were sitting down to eat breakfast, and my buddy pulled out two cartons of milk from the fridge. I asked him why be brought out two, and he said “I’m not sure how much I’m going to drink.”

This guy was ready to put down a litre of milk before lunchtime. They drink a crapload of coffee too.

They have this cool dish rack invention

Finnish genius.

Because I Couchsurfed a lot in Finland, I got to see inside a lot of different Finnish homes, and they all had this special dish rack. It starts with the cupboard above the sink. The shelves are all made of drip-through rails, and you just wash your dishes and put them away, all soaking wet. They just drip dry over the sink. During my trip I kept commenting on how cool it was, and my Finnish friends kept laughing, not understanding what I was talking about. To them it was just a normal dish rack.

I later discovered it’s actually called a “dish draining closet” and was a unique Finnish invention from the 1940’s. It was subsequently coined ‘one of the most important Finnish inventions of the millennium’ (along with Nokia and Angry Birds, obviously). I wonder what the Finns think when they see the stone age “I’ll wash, you dry” thing we do in every other country. And our dish racks! It must be like watching the Flinstones.

They eat well

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

The first thing that tipped me off to their unique food was their bread. They eat these funny hard, flat, rye bread sandwiches, usually in the morning. I think they’re called ruispalat, something like that. And one of my hosts was like, “Oh man, you’re going to love this bread, it’s so soft. It’s sooooo soft.”

So he gives me the bread and I actually think he’s joking, because it’s the complete opposite of soft. It’s hard, like a piece of cardboard. But then he goes, “Nice, right?”, and he’s munching away on it. And I go, “Yeaaah man. So soft.”

But as it turned out, with some cheese and tomato inside it was actually pretty good. So for a good few days, I was just living off ruispalat and tomatoes in the backseat of my rental car, like a true Finn.

Then when I got to Lapland I found out about the reindeer, which is somewhat of a delicacy over there. My host and I tried our hand at cooking up the poronkäristys, a traditional reindeer stew. That stuff is seriously hearty. I used to wonder how they braved the cold winters up there, but if your family is poronkäristys-powered I think you’ll be just fine.

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

Over the remainder of my trip I discovered the Finns ate quite the collection of interesting stuff. Some of them are awesomely awesome, like the perunarieska potato bread, and the little egg pies known as karjalanpiirakka (I told you it was a cool language). But then of course some of them suck too, like the salmiakki. Try it though, you might like it. Tastes like old vomit.

Smile, Finland!

But here’s the sad thing about Finland: They don’t like themselves. Why don’t they like themselves? I have no idea.

I noticed this quite quickly during my visit.

Oh, Finland is so boring. Yeah, we have a good quality of life, but we’re so boring. Oh look, I know that girl. I’m not going to say hi to her. That’s what Finns do. See that? We don’t say hi to each other. Wow you’ve been in Finland for a whole month? Who the hell would come to Finland for a month!? What have you been doing?

I remember asking a friend what medals Finland might win at the Olympics, and she laughed.

“Finland doesn’t win at anything, ever.”

At first, I thought they were just being humble (and the Finns did only end up with one medal that Olympics – maybe she was just being honest). But as this went on during my trip I started to see it more and more. The Finns always spoke poorly of themselves, and their country. I always tried to dig a little deeper and see what the deal was. It wasn’t poverty, or corruption, or money. Their neighbourhoods were safe, kids got good schooling. I couldn’t find it. What was going on? Where was all the negative energy coming from?

I have no idea. You’ll have to ask them. In the meantime, I’ll just blame their crazy winter.

But I’ll leave any Finns reading with this:

As a Kiwi who spent almost two months roaming around your cold ass country, surviving on ruispalat and long drinks, and as someone who has visited many countries, yours truly became one of my all time favourites (and it’s way cooler than Sweden). So next time you’re kicking back in your sauna staring at all your naked friends, sipping on Estonian beer and playing Angry Birds while your dishes drip dry in your fancy dish draining closet, just remember to smile. Your country is pretty darn cool.

Bren

Heading to Finland? Here’s a few tips:

  • Accommodation is both expensive and sparse in Finland. To find something affordable, I suggest using Hostelworld, but even then it might be hard to find something. Airbnb is a possiblity but selection is also quite thin. Couchsurfing was a real saviour – the country has many active hosts.
  • I highly recommend purchasing travel insurance, particularly if you plan on partaking in the outdoors or road tripping through the country! The outdoors is not heavily regulated here and you should be prepared for the unexpected. I use World Nomads. They offer awesome coverage with generous limits and it’s super simple – you can literally be covered within two minutes. Click here to get an instant quote.
  • For travelling through the country, you can use Omnibus. The buses are very cheap, clean and on time. I used them often. The train is a little more expensive but is also very good – I took several overnight trains and found them particularly comfortable. You can book your trains at the VR website here.Safe travels!

Photo: edweerdt@Flickr

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33 thoughts on “There’s Something About Finland…

  1. I spent a year in Finland as an exchange student and enjoyed reading your blog. The one thing that I truly appreciated about the Finns is that once they become your friend, they are friends for a life time. I lived there in 1980-1981 and I’m still friends with many of them.

  2. “Love was missing from my life for a long time / then it struck me / I love you”

    As a Finn living abroad I’m reading your blog post with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. Thanks for the beautiful words. It’s a special place – and we needed to hear that from someone (special thank for the “cooler than Sweden” reference).

  3. <3
    I´m a finnish woman and I love to read your words! So true. But I´m behind that talking bad of myself. I am proud beeing a Finn!

  4. I lived in Finland for half a year and this blog just made me remember many great memories. Seeing cars LOADED with beer and alcohol. I also smuggled many bottles of Minttu from Super Alko, asking for directions in the street and having people freeze and see the panic in their faces… first I was confused and the I just started doing it for fun… seeing their reactions was hilarious! Everything you covered here was on point! I love this country and every experience I find online always caughts my eye. It’s fun to see that someone else found these things amazing them just as much as they did to me back then. And finnish friends are the sweetest. They are such a rare kind, the best rare.

  5. I lived 4 (beautiful) years in Finland and no one ever asked me why I had chosen Finland. Nope. Their question always was: so, you have a girlfriend here, right?
    But I had really moved to Finland for Finland, thinking I was going to stay for 2, maybe 3 years. It was so hard to leave I spent 4 years there. I still love the country and its people and try and go spend a week or two there every year.
    By the way, you know they’re going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their independence this year, right? I often travel there in the summer but might do so in December this year.
    Mä rakastan Suomea!

  6. Thanks Bren, well said! But naturally slightly coloured from student life perspective…Your description of the sauna encounters are hilarious!

  7. Loved your blog! But. We Finns do rank number 13 in all time medals in the Olympic summer games. Higher than let’s say Netherlands, Canada or …New Zealand.

    1. Finland only ranks highly due to pre-1950”s medals… before human rights and mainly white european people being the majority of competitors. Finland’s medal talley totally bottoms out over the pass few decades. Fact. Compare the past 40 years and you will see Finland is not achieving like it did at the turn of the century.

  8. To answer that question why do Finns belittle themselves – it is an attitude deeply rooted in the culture. Talking positively about yourself is regarded self-important, pompous, vain – all very bad things if you are a kid growing up in Finland. A good person shuts up about him/herself. This goes so deep you find it difficult to complement a Finn – instead of saying thank you they’ll do the missing belittleing themselves. It is a whole nation in need of therapy. (I should know, I’m one of them ? )

    And oh yes, thank you for those special words about Sweden ? . They always hit the spot ?

    1. We actually have a very similar culture here in New Zealand – we call it Tall Poppy Syndrome. It’s never good to be too successful, too wealthy, too ambitious. Better to just fit in with the pack. The only exception is with sports – we love it when our sportspeople do really well 🙂 We could probably both use the same therapy…

  9. Great article, a couple of factual inaccuracies ie. most forest you see here is actually commercial, there are not many national parks here in Finland. Most Finns only go to sauna with the same sex in families or with friends/business, boys and men, girls and women.

  10. So funny to read how someone experiences us❤ …something to do with this ‘low-selfesteem’ or what ever is it?
    My farher says always: i’m proud of you, but do not let that go to your ‘head'(=be humble).
    Somehow i agree.
    But To my daugter I try to say: be proud of yorself. Love yourself. I,m proud of you. Feel it.

  11. Spot on! That was a brilliant piece of writing about Finland and it’s inhabitants ?! Thank you for your kind words! They are well appreciated by humble Finns, especially the top mark about Finland being cooler than Sweden ? We seem to compete all the time, in good spirit though. It doesn’t matter if we lose in the ice hockey championships as long as we beat Sweden.

  12. I am Finnish and my problem is that I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t like bars or crowds so meeting new people is very difficult for me. I think that is one of downsides here, if you don’t like going to bar you are pretty much alone. I am very social though but it’s not very nice being the only sober person around others who are drunk.

    I think the self-esteem issue has deep roots in our history. Like mentioned, we celebrate 100 years of Finnish independence this year. There are still people alive who were raised by parents who were taught to be ashamed of being finns and that shame, feeling that you are less than someone else, it moved from one generation to next and it is still going forward. Or at least that is one of the reasons in my opinion.

    Also violence that war brings, it affects many generations and it shows in violence at home which brings just more guilt and low self-esteem. We have history of violence and booze and people who were taught that you can’t speak about your feelings. That and long winter is a great combination for depression.

    Many of us share the feeling that even if you do something good, we can’t make a big deal out of it. If you show you are proud of what you did, you start feeling guilty for it as you shouldn’t draw that much attention to yourself. It is something I hope will pass, specially since our schooling system is going through some big chances and we are moving forward. As we start to see children more and more as individuals and help them build healthy self-esteem I believe we are going to the right direction.

    But it was really nice to read your thoughts about my beautiful country and the people here. Very good observations. 🙂

    1. Jenny! Thanks so much for the really insightful comments. It all makes a lot of sense and when I think back over my time in Finland I can see pieces of what you are talking about. I feel like Finland is not alone and many young countries share the same traits. The Finnish pride will grow in time, it deserves to!

  13. ‘Love this post Bren!

    I spent just two days in Finland and loved it. I was actually in Estonia when I noticed that Helsinki was just 2 hours away, so I hopped onto the ferry and decided to spend a few days. It’s pretty expensive though and you won’t believe it, but private rooms in hostels were the same price as an art design hotel, so I booked the hotel! Oh, and we found sushi to be the cheapest thing going so we had sushi everyday lol!

    1. Coming from Estonia it’s a huge price shock! We mostly bought stuff from the supermarket and cooked, I was staying with a friend in Kallio. Have you noticed sushi is just super popular everywhere around that region? So strange..haha

  14. Your blog made me laugh so hard! My father is Finnish. He has the typical Finnish personality: painfully shy, brooding, introverted, morose and that sums him up!

    Finns tell me, “You’re far too cheerful to possibly be Finnish.” It makes me laugh each time.

    Finns were subjugated by the Swedes and Russians. Their language, traditional clothing, music, dance and culture was made illegal, nearly wiped out and I guess if you live under a brutal regime you would become pessimistic too. Finns fled Finland to flee the forced draft and crap jobs in the Swedish and Russian military. Only the eldest son inherited the farm, so the younger siblings fled to America, Canada and Australia for more opportunities.

    My own family members were imprisoned, put into forced labor camps, put into gulogs and murdered by the Russians. I’m surprised no one told you about the deep seated hatred we feel for the Swedes and Russians. The only thing we care about in the Olympics is that we beat Sweden and Russia. That has the most meaning to us. It’s especially important when it comes to ice hockey!!!! Once Finland loses at ice hockey there is no point in watching anymore Olympic events.

    The sauna is where you bathe. You can’t bathe if you have clothes on! I grew up in America in a clothing optional home. My conservative classmates found it very peculiar that I swam in my pool nude and laid out topless. It’s not a big deal in my culture.

    The sauna isn’t just for bathing! It’s where the best gossip is found! It’s where you socialize. It’s much more than bathing.

    Sauna bathing: steam to open pores, wash with soap, loofa, rinse off, roll around in the snow or do a cold dip in the lake. The cold closes the pores, shocks the heart (makes the heart pound, makes the heart stronger), wakes you up, invigorates you and works more effectively than coffee to lift the energy. Don’t put your head under water in the winter time because you can get brain damage (only go in up to your neck if the lake is frozen and you cut a hole in the ice). Without the cold dip you don’t wake up, get energy and feel invigorated. The sauna alone is relaxing. The cold dip gives you energy.

    The sauna with the cold dip means you feel zoomy with energy. It’s hard for me to settle down, so I clean the house to burn off the energy.

    btw – sauna is usually said incorrectly in English. It’s pronounced SOW-nuh. Accent on first syllable. A pig is a sow is the first part. Nuh, as in “nuh, I’m not doing that!” is the second part. It’s the shortest word you can find in the Finnish language and people don’t say it right which I find very confusing. I can’t understand people when they say it wrong and have to ask them to spell the word because it sounds like gibberish to me.

    You forgot to mention Sisu! Sisu is central to our identity and character. There’s no direct translation to English, but loosely translated means guts, courage, fortitude in the face of great adversity. In other words don’t be a quitter, wimp or pussy out. Be courageous. Go forward. Keep trying and don’t give up. It makes us persistent, determined and stubborn. I’m not giving up!

    Finns are cool if you leave us alone, but F*ck with us, threaten us, come for us? We will lose our temper in a spectacular, scary, intimidating fashion. I can make a grow man cry simply by explaining to him what I will do to him if he doesn’t leave me alone! I will end you! I’m prepared to go to prison for your murder if you don’t get out of my face right now! Leave me alone!

    Europeans understand that we are not to be messed with. When a European finds out I’m Finnish and Scottish they leave me alone. It’s a wicked combo. I’m easygoing as long as I’m left alone, but F*ck with me and you don’t want to see the result of that. Just saying.

    Finns do complain more than Americans. In America we complain about our government and politicians for sport. We don’t like, approve or think they’re any good. Each politician is worse than the last one in a race to the bottom. Just when we think it can’t possibly get any worse? It gets worse. Political party has nothing to do with it because anyone who seeks office wants to be in charge and push everyone else around. It’s about power, money, influence, prestige and grabbing what you can get for yourself and your cronies (which crosses party lines). Now the Finnish-American community takes complaining to a whole other level. They just amplify the complaining. My dad calls and writes to his representatives to bitch and moan about everything and nothing. My brother called our dad “a professional crank” and that’s accurate. He holds the record for the most letters to the editor of the local newspaper. He’s proud of his accomplishment, the rest of the family cringes with embarrassment. In other words my dad is a pain in the ass who loves to roll around in pessimism, depression, anxiety and complain. He wears his depression, anxiety and pessimism like an old, comfortable coat that he refuses to take off. I’m serious and not joking. This is why I refuse to date or marry a Finn. It’s too much negativity for me to handle.

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