Finland was great; one of the best trips I'm had. I can totally understand what my fellow conference delegate means when he said "It was very difficult to leave Tampere. In fact, I wanted to stay there for another 4-5 months, to be honest." Me too.
But, mortgages must be paid, bread put on table, cats moulting brushed etc. So last wednesday was a day of four airports, and flights from Lapland to Glasgow via Holland. Since then, have been thinking hard about Finland, and having dreams of endless trees, snows and cooking reindeer steak with a nice bottle of red wine in the middle of a Lapland forest. So here's 20 observations about Finland and the Finns...
- The Finnish education system, and the way it is embedded within society, works. And works damned well - here's the proof. If you want to bring up a well-educated family, you do it in somewhere like Finland. Why? From what I could see, and conversations about attitudes, it is a combination of:
- the sensible and widespread use of technology across all areas of the education system. See the other country which scored very highly in the international test results - South Korea? One big similarity between Finland and South Korea: a massive hi-tec use of information and communication technology in many aspects of life and learning.
- a personal and national desire or determination to better oneself
- a superb and extensive and very well used public and academic library system
- learning, and the pursuit of knowledge, being seen as a good, worthy and essential pursuit
- one standard, well-structured curriculum for all
- even when the country fell into recession in the 1990's, education and research were the areas that did not suffer funding cuts
As a side-point, in those same tests where the Finns wiped the floor with the rest of the world, the UK wasn't counted as the data collection here failed even to meet the test quality standards. Depressing, or what?
- Finnish people are universally polite and considerate - except in queues, where some of the older residents have a tendency to make a rush for the front.
- Finnish men must have small feet. It was maddening to try and purchase outdoor shoes in my size (UK 11 or Euro 46), as most lines only went up to Euro 42 or 44.
- The Finns take good care of themselves. Walking, hiking, skiing, running, doing odd jogging with poles, all ages and demographics are out there doing it. Wheras even in somewhere as pretty as the Outer Hebrides most people move from house to car to shop or office, then back again, rarely stepping outside, Finns seem to have dispensed with the car for all but long distance journeys...
- ...tied in with that: respect for pedestrians. Finns stop at the many pedestrian crossings and don't attempt to "beat the lights" or mow down anyone who dares cross.
- Like the other Nordic countries, the Finns are very good at joined-up thinking. In the same way that British politics is astonishingly bad at. Example. There are lots of long straight roads in rural Finland. There is a need for temporary or emergency airstrips. So, widen some of the roads in places, and you have roads that double as airstrips:
- Sauna is good - and that's from someone who usually detests heat, and is currently finding the Outer Hebrides unbearably hot. If I'm back in Finland in the winter, I might try the full sauna then rolling around in the snow thing. If you do try sauna, try and find one that involves water on hot rocks or coals, rather than the stifling electric ones.
- Guide books get increasingly inaccurate the further north you travel. Once past Oulu, mine was effectively useless. Lapland is a large region, needing a lot of time to get around, so 14 pages out of a guide book of 320 isn't really any good.
- The Finnish are very trendy and well-presented. As well as the many hairdressing boutiques that Alex spotted, there are many good clothes shops. The only scruffy looking people I saw were some people with bad haircuts in tracksuits (I was informed that these were Russian tourists) and probably me.
- Again, gotta agree with Alex; the Finns are indeed purposeful. They are always going somewhere, or doing something, never loitering. Maybe it is because in winter, loitering outside is not a good idea. Maybe it is a national sense of being goal-driven. Maybe it is a keenness to define the person, both individually and nationally, as someone distinct from the two larger and louder neighbours Sweden and Russia. Not sure. Also see point 15.
- The Finns are proud of winning the Eurovision Song Contest. This is partially as it helps show their tenacity, and partially as it gets one over on their neighbours the Swedes ("Do you like Abba?" was perhaps not a good question to ask in the bar). Lordi, the winners, even developed a successful restaurant (I had reindeer sausages, listed on the menu as "Rudolph's last journey") in their home city of Rovaniemi:
- The Finns have a great-looking country, with loads of gorgeous and ever-changing scenery. Rather than tarmac, or concrete, or cover the nicest parts with industrial windfarms or suburbs - like certain countries I could mention - they make a concerted effort to keep it looking good. This is evidenced in the micro level (no litter, no grafitti) and the macro level (a lack of wholesale destructive development under dubious reasons). It is also not the barren wilderness that some books give the impression it is. Urban areas too are quite green as many Finns - once they have graduated to a house with a garden - start planting, cutting and pruning with avengance.
- Lesson from Finland to the UK: Build a public transport infrastructure that is reliable, comfortable, convenient and reasonably priced, and people will largely use it.
- There is a large undercurrent of Finnish independence and national pride. This comes through in positive ways, little comments, smiles when Finland is complimented by a visitor.
- The concepts of sisu and knapsu are evident. There is a determination that once a job or task is decided on, then it is done. Evidence; fishing. Drill a hole in the ice. Sit there, being perfectly still (so the fish do not detect the ice vibrating), in minus-whatever temperatures, until a fish is caught. Do not complain about the cold. Point out that inferior people could not stand the cold, and would choose a knapsu approach such as buying it from a supermarket ("A man, shopping for his dinner. How low has he become?"). Catching the fish is everything:
- The effective use of technology is paramount. When Finland went through a bad recession in the 1990's, the government cut funding on most things except for technology and research. The net result is a society underpinned by technology. Broadband seems to be everywhere. I used countless public PCs over the 12 days I was there, but it only cost me hmmm 6 euro's in total. Just bring a memory stick if you come here; computer not needed.
- Some of the cities are apartment-oriented. These are (from very limited observation) of decent appearance. Like Scandinavia in general, many of the detached houses are attractively constructed of wood and painted in bright colours. As with other trips to Scandinavia, I've stared out of the train window and muttered "Yes, I could live in that house ... or that one ... or that one ..." for hours on end:
- Finnish food and cooking is very good (apart from Snow Crow soup). Sorry Jackie, but you were very wrong, and can keep your pretentious French cooking - I prefer the variety and style of Finnish and Scandinavian cuisine. Lots of fresh meat, fresh fish, more breads than you can count, cheeses galore, interesting things done with berries and so on. Plus the buffet breakfast in Finnish hotels, as for Norwegian and Swedish hotels too, are light years ahead of the stale croissant and overboiled coffee I was given the last time I stayed in an overpriced French hotel.
- The mark of a civilised country is the state of its public libraries. The Finns and the Scandinavians have a respect for their library services, which are a central part of their open information society and culture. I visited 8 public libraries in Finland, and without exception they were all excellent. Cheap coffee in cafe's, free water, free Internet access with no pre-booking, a user clientele that crossed all demographics, different kinds of media for loan, no attempts to ban things such as mobile phone use (this partially helped by the considerate way which the Finns conduct themselves in public).
My favourite library was the one in Oulu. Cheap coffee, water, unlimited net access, overseas newspapers, friendly and helpful staff, a reference section with some interesting stuff worthy of a weekend of browsing. And lots of good publications, the first of which I saw was, unbelievably, the latest issue of EDGE. EDGE is the leading serious video gaming monthly publication in Europe, and is disgracefully not available in most UK public libraries:
- The Finnish sense of humour is dry and ironic (at least when translated into English), but without ego or arrogance. It combines well with their language, and makes a persuasive case for exploring and learning a little more Finnish. And despite learning a few words, I didn't hear any examples of the wonderfully varied list of Finnish profanities and forgot to use any in my presentation.
In summary: I like Finland. And I'll be back, next time for a (lot) longer.