Let’s play a guessing game!
Experiences 40% less of a class divide than the United States?
Has only been an independent nation since 1917?
Is the 6th happiest country in the world but also has the 5th highest suicide rate?
Has people who are reserved and don’t particularly enjoy small talk?
Has the 4th most difficult language to learn for native English speakers?
Has 26 lakes for every person?
Consumes on average 2.67 gallons (10.1 litres) of alcohol annually per capita?
Practices official bilingualism?
Has the 6th best education system in the world?
Experiences 18+ hours of darkness per day in the winter (depending on the region)?
Is home to Santa Claus?
Ding, ding, ding… if you guessed Finland, you’re correct! If you guessed anything else than you’re an idiot because the last clue should've totally given it away (not to mention the name of this blog post...).
So as you probably already figured out, Finland is the next country I knocked off my bucket list, after Denmark. I stayed 10 days in a small town an hour north of Helsinki, called Nurmijärvi, with my friend Sanni. Just like Victoria, Sanni was an exchange student in Turin, Italy the same year as me so we became really close and kept in touch :) She actually moved to Italy a year ago to go to university and live with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (who she met 3 years ago when she was an exchange student in Turin, isn't that adorable?!). She only goes back to Finland in the summer to work, visit her family and old friends.
|So excited to see one of my best friends after two and a half years! <3|
Going to Finland was actually a spur-of-the-moment decision. I thought I’d stay in Copenhagen for another week but when Sanni invited me to come visit, there’s no way I could say no! I was greeted at the Helsinki airport back on September 16 by Sanni, her mom and step dad. By the time we got home, it was past midnight so Sanni’s parents went to sleep. I was talking to Sanni while she guided me to her bedroom. As she closed the door she told me to quiet down a little bit because most Finnish people are private and reserved. I was surprised to hear this because Sanni is extremely outgoing and talkative. She explained that she’s not the typical Finnish.
When hanging out with Sanni's friends once, we had plenty of moments, a couple minutes long, of complete silence. At first I thought it was really awkward, aren't these people friends?! Shouldn't they be talking?! But I just realized that no one had anything really important to say. Not by any means do Finns dislike conversation. It's just that they don't beat around the bush. If you ask a Finn how they are, they won't just say "I'm good, how are you" (as most Americans and Italians would), a Finn will say, "I'm okay but my family's not doing well, my mom lost her job". They will tell the truth about everything going on in their life. However, they will only do this with people they're familiar with. They're not going to spill the details of their problems to a random stranger so that's why they tend to come off as closed and reserved to foreigners; they're trapped because they feel it's rude to say "I'm fine" when it's not the truth. Small talk culture simply doesn't exist in Finland, you either tell every detail of the truth or not much at all.
But why is small talk not a part of Finnish culture? I asked Sanni but she said she's not sure, that's just the way they are. Hmm... I'm not convinced, there's got to be a reason.
Maybe it’s because their language is so gosh darn difficult, they don’t even have the patience to speak it themselves! Finnish is an Uralic language, along with Estonian and Hungarian. Finnish words are so confusing and can get crazy long because they string together multiple words into one word. So for example instead of saying "she is on", in Finnish it would be something like "sheison" (at least I think that's how it works). Check out this comparison between how to say "the dog and two dogs" in Finnish, Swedish, German and English to see what I mean... (I found it on a tumblr page called Depressing Finland)
What do you mean Finnish is difficult?
Or maybe it's their history that accounts for their lack of interest in small talk? My first day in Finland, I had lunch at home with Sanni and her family. I was ogling a carton of milk when I realized everything (the nutrition facts, brand label, etc.) was written in Finnish and another language that I didn't recognize. Confused (like usual, what do you expect, I'm American haha), I asked Sanni what the other language was. She explained that Finland is officially bilingual, meaning that everything (ads, signs, documents, etc.) must be written in both Finnish and Swedish. However, just because Finland is officially bilingual doesn't mean everyone actually speaks Swedish. Only 5% of Finns speak Swedish as their mother tongue. Although it's mandatory for all Finnish students to learn Swedish, few become fluent. Helmi, Sanni's older sister, told me that, "Most Finns have something against Swedish so they don't want to learn it, although it's an easy language and kinda useful". Hmmm... resentment over history, perhaps? Finland was a kingdom of Sweden until 1809 when Finland then became the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, under the control of the Russian Empire. Not until 1918 did Finland finally declare independence. Sanni and her family said that bilingualism in Finland is heavily debated and there are often talks of becoming a monolingual country but nothing ever happens because "Finnish people and government are slow in making changes".
|Akseli, Sanni's younger brother (17) and Helmi, Sanni's older sister (22)|
Okay, sorry I just got a little sidetracked... so how could Finnish history play a role in their lack of small talk? Well it can be rooted back to around after the last ice age (9000 BCE). Helmi says that, "Even thousands of years ago it was easy to travel in Europe, from one country to another but if you wanted to come to Finland it was harder because we are isolated so far up north". Thus, the Finnish people never got accustomed to talking to strangers. Even today, the population of Finland is only 5.4 million and 93% are ethnic Finns, meaning that most of the time Finns don't have to make small talk with strangers.
|Sanni is obsessed with flea markets!|
I don't mean to sound rude but once I got to know some Finns, I felt like they never shut up! If you start asking questions, they don't hold back. But that's perfectly fine with me because I love talking! I would have hour long conversations with Sanni's mom about everything. From her marriage to her family to Finnish economy to her favorite books to her job as a midwife to Finnish geography and history, we touched on many subjects. The same goes for Sanni's friends, they didn't shy away when I asked them about education, taxes, healthcare and work in Finland.
|Outi, Sanni's mom and some cranberry pudding she made!|
|You can tell from her copious book collection that she loves reading!|
So... what did I learn from all of these in-depth conversations?
- Finnish college students have it goooood. Just like in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries, in addition to free education, they get stipends from the state to help with living costs while they study.
- Protests in Finland are rare but one actually happened while I was there because public transportation workers were protesting for higher wages and changes in the sick leave policy.
|The guy on the far left saw that I was taking a picture and waved! There was also some Estonian flags being waved but I'm honestly not sure why.|
- When Sanni's mom's dad was only a baby, him and his family were forced to evacuate their home in the south-eastern region of Karelia due to the Winter War against the Soviet Union (1939-1940). Finland was forced to cede 11% of it's land to the USSR.
- Finnish people love their saunas. Almost every house in Finland has a sauna built into one bathroom (to keep warm during the frigid Finnish winters) and it's customary to go in naked. Sanni said most people sit in a way that covers their body but it's still not unusual at all to see your friends naked in the sauna. She said it's not really a steamy, sexual practice but more of fun, social one. Her and her friends will drink beer in the sauna then get out and jump in the snow outside, then return. I went in the sauna a few times and really liked it and wasn't really fazed by the nakedness but Outi told me that they hosted an Italian boy exchange student for a couple weeks and he was like a little more shy! There's also health benefits of deep sweating like flushing toxins and soothing muscles.
|Long ago, Finns took these birch leaves from outside and smacked each other with them in the sauna, now you can buy them in stores! ahahaha I think it's hilarious!|
- Reindeer is eaten only at special occasions (usually at Christmas along with many different types of vegetable casseroles, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes) because it's so expensive since it has to be imported from the northernmost region of Lapland, where reindeer are plentiful. Reindeer is a very dry red meat so it's cooked with beer and fatty bacon to make it juicier and more flavorful. I was lucky enough to be considered special enough for a nice, delicious reindeer dinner! I thought it was really yummy! :)
|Cooking the reindeer!|
|It's almost like Thanksgiving dinner except reindeer instead of turkey! ;)|
- Sanni and her family (mom, step-dad, sister and brother) have gone on 2 huge Eurail trips. One lasted 2 and a half weeks and the other a whole month! They showed me their impressive digital scrapbooks; they visited Croatia, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and France! I think I might want to do this one day too.. :)
- Although many places around the world have Santa Claus tourist destinations, personally I think that Rovaniemi (located on the Arctic Circle), the capital of Lapland, seems the most authentic with its Santa Claus Village. It's always snowing in Rovaniemi and reindeer roam in the wild plus you can send a letter to Santa's main post office here! I definitely want to come back to Finland someday and visit Lapland!!
- Finns are obsessed with candy. Particularly, gummies and licorice. However, I thought their Karl Fazer chocolate was the absolute best I've ever had in my life.
- Since Finland is such a small country, it is mandatory for every Finnish male to serve 6 months to one year in the military or do 12 months of civil service, after high school. If someone refuses both options, they must go to jail or be on house arrest for up to a year.
|Akseli, Sanni's brother will join the military next year!|
- Just like in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries, T.V. shows and movies aren't dubbed but rather subtitled, contributing to their impressive English skills.
- Sanni is an AFS (American Field Service exchange student program) volunteer and said that almost no exchange students ever learn Finnish because one, it's so difficult and two, almost everyone speaks perfect English. Even Sanni's grandmother could understand me if I spoke slow enough and knew a decent amount of English!
- Finland is the only Nordic country to not allow gay marriage. A law was passed to legalize gay marriage in March 2015 but it won't be active until 2017 because the government must make revisions (Sanni and her family was right, the Finnish government seems slow in making changes).
- Every Finn has a pretty extensive knowledge of native plants and berries. Sanni and I went for a bike/hike through a forest near her house and she could identify which plants were poisonous and which weren't. She said that Finnish children are taught from a young age since berry-picking is so prevalent.
Well that's all for now, stay tuned for my next post about how to smuggle alcohol from Estonia! ;) Here's some pictures from our bike/hike!
|Finns have a lot of campouts and bonfires out in the forest, so cool!|