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Weekly Blog #33 - Suomi - Part I

"Oi maamme, Suomi, synnyinmaa, soi, sana kultainen!"

What country comes to your mind when thinking of typical Scandinavian features like red wooden houses, icy treetops, northern lights, licorice, elks, etc... Sweden? Norway maybe?

But what do you know about Finland? What’s the first thing you can think of? Nokia? Vodka? Sauna? Darkness and long, cold winters? These are probably the most common associations.

With this 2 (or maybe 3) part series I would like to introduce you to a few interesting facts about the country that I’ve learned to love when I first visited it over 15 years ago.


Some Facts...

First of all: Finland is not part of Scandinavia - geographically speaking - even though it’s a “Scandinavian” country and belongs to what is locally called the "Nordic Countries" or "pohjoismaat". There are some stronger and some weaker similarities in terms of culture, food, landscape, weather, etc. between Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland - however, the similarities stop in regards to language.

The name Suomi (Finnish for 'Finland') has uncertain origins, but a candidate for a source is the Proto-Baltic word *źemē, meaning "land". In addition to the close relatives of Finnish (the Finnic languages), this name is also used in the Baltic languages Latvian and Lithuanian.

The earliest written appearance of the name Finland is thought to be on three runestones. Two were found in the Swedish province of Uppland and have the inscription finlonti. The third was found in Gotland. It has the inscription finlandi and dates back to the 13th century. The name can be assumed to be related to the tribe name Finns, which is mentioned at first known time AD 98.

Lying approximately between latitudes 60° and 70° N, and longitudes 20° and 32° E, Finland is one of the world's northernmost countries. Of world capitals, only Reykjavík lies more to the north than Helsinki. The distance from the southernmost point – Hanko in Uusimaa – to the northernmost – Nuorgam in Lapland – is 1,160 kilometers.

In the Köppen climate classification, the whole of Finland lies in the boreal zone, characterized by warm summers and freezing winters. Within the country, the temperateness varies considerably between the southern coastal regions and the extreme north, showing characteristics of both a maritime and a continental climate. Fun fact: on several summer weekends in 2019 Helsinki was the warmest capital in Europe.


About the People...

Let's start this section with a "not-so-fun" fact: Western Europe's last naturally caused famine, the suuret nälkävuodet, ended a bit over 150 years ago in the winter of 1868. In a poor and backward part of the Russian empire called Finland, more than a quarter of a million people - nearly 10 per cent of the population - starved to death.

In 2017, on the centenary of its independence, Finland was ranked, by assorted international indices, the most stable, the safest and the best-governed country in the world. It was also the third wealthiest, the third least corrupt, the second most socially progressive and the third most socially just.

Today, about 5.5 million people live in Finland in an area almost as large as Germany and slightly larger than Poland in regards to total km² - incl. all of the roughly 168.000 lakes and 3 million saunas (yes, 3 million!).

In stark contrast to the fact that Finns love sauna - it is said that a lot of important business and political deals were made while being naked and sweating in a hot sauna - there are a lot of stereotypes and jokes about Finns in regards to their introvert behavior and their nature of "not talking too much" - and some of it is true. A lot of the people I know do not engage in small talk with strangers, which doesn't mean that they are impolite. The reason for not speaking to strangers is in fact the opposite: Finns tend to be very polite and try not interfere with other people's business unless it is absolutely necessary.

Here's an extreme example: Finns usually don't apologize after accidentally bumping into you on the metro or the bus. Why? Because they've already bothered you enough with bumping into you so they'd rather abstain from additionally chewing one's ear off... However, once people get to know each other better the level of communication is quite similar to what I'm used to in Germany.

Finn's first and foremost try to do the best to their abilities in every regard. However, whenever they've achieved something positive, they stay very humble and do not overstate their success. Finns are honest, helpful and open minded. Also, they are very reasonable and realistic discussion partners when it comes to important local and global matters such as climate change, education, politics. But why is that? One undoubtedly influential aspect is the geography - and its consequence: the climate. Tarja Halonen, Finland's president from 2000 to 2012, once stated: "We live in a cold, harsh and remote place. Every person has to work hard for themselves. But that is not always enough. You have to help your neighbors."

In addition to that, Bruce Oreck, who served as US President Barack Obama's ambassador to Helsinki (he liked it so much that he stayed even after his term ended), said this has been "a profound, long-term influence". He also stated: "It's made Finns self-reliant, private, but also dependent on a highly cooperative society where rules matter. It's cultural, but it's become part of the chemistry."

But there's more to it - and it's deeply rooted in Finnish culture. Of all the Finnish words that are hard to translate into English, the one Finns cite most is sisu: a kind of dogged, courageous persistence, regardless of consequence. It is what, in 1939-40, allowed an army of 350,000 men to twice fight off Soviet forces three times their number, and inflict losses five times heavier than those they sustained. But there is another perhaps, more revealing: talkoo. It means "working together, collectively, for a specific good" - i.e. getting the harvest in, stocking wood, raising money. It's about cooperating. Everyone together, equally.

As a consequence and in accordance with the above mentioned assorted international indices, Finland's judicial system is the most independent in the world, its police one of the most trusted, its banks the soundest, its companies the second most ethical, its elections the second freest, and its citizens enjoy the highest levels of personal freedom, choice and well-being. Finland is also the third most gender-equal in the world - with the youngest female prime minister and a cabinet consisting of 50% female and 50% male ministers (with the most important ministries held by women). Therefore, it is no coincidence that even xenophobes like Trump look to Finland when considering how to improve their educational system or how to maintain one’s forests (not by raking by the way...).

There are limits, of course, to the usefulness of these comparisons. No two countries - their circumstances, their histories, their people - can be the same. Learnings may not be transferable. The magic sauce that made Finland would not produce the same results in, say, France... However, considering that it's been such a success story I am still fascinated by the fact how humble, honest, kind and down to earth the Finnish people are (you could walk next to the richest guy in town and you would hardly notice it) - which makes the country and its people all the more likable.



Exhibit I: An old, bearded woman on a snowy path in the forest near Naantali.

Exhibit II: The market place in "Muumimailma" (Moomin World) with typical Finnish wooden houses in Naantali.

Exhibit III: An old bark leaves the harbor of Suomenlinna near Helsinki.

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