Chapter 1: Finland
‘’Did you know that the Finnish people come from a different planet?’’
While writing this I’m already at the other side of the Baltic Sea. I’m sitting at the Sea Promenade at Tallinn looking back to Helsinki and Turku (see picture for the amazing view over the sea). My first week has ended, so time to close the first chapter of my trip, Finland. Unfortunately it is the only Scandinavian country I’ll be visiting and it definitely deserves to come back to. I could not have had a better start of my trip, with many Finnish experiences and insights into the Finnish history and culture. Though the Finnish relate more to Scandinavia, mostly Sweden, I do have to say that it is also very connected to Estonia. For example, both hate it when you call them Eastern Europe as they relate as Northern states. But also because the ferry goes every hour and their modern history relates in many ways. I have to conclude that I have chosen the right spot to write to you about Finland!
Russia, Sweden and the Climate Change
When I arrived in Helsinki I did not yet have a clear idea on what I was expecting to find there and how I felt about the Finnish people. Before I left I made an appointment with Emilia Palonen, professor at the Helsinki University in Political science. I couldn’t arrive there unprepared, so I went to the National History museum for some background on the Finnish culture and politics. Soon it became clear to me that the Finnish have a good relation with their Swedish background and the shared past. This can’t be said about their relation with the Soviet past, the other former conquerors. This difference in relationship with both their conquerors is very visible not only in the political situation at the moment but also in culture. While the Swedish heritage is accepted and in some cases embraced, their Russian heritage is in many situations being placed in the background, but visible. And though Helsinki does have architecture that reminds of the Soviet period, it also has many Scandinavian and West European influences.
My conversation with Emilia Palonen was in many ways the right start of my trip. First of all it provided me with the opportunity to test my ideas about the current state of Europe and the EU. She also gave me many new insights which I needed in order to put my thoughts into order and words. Our conversation fitted with my thoughts after going to the Forum on European culture back in Amsterdam. The result of that you can read in my previous article.
But she also pointed my attention to some specific Finnish perspectives. As a borderland in the North, their experience with the climate change is definitely different from my experience. Already in the National History Museum I noticed that they have a chapter on the climate change and the problems it is causing for Finland. Every spring new records are broken as the warmest months ever. This knowledge combined with the Finnish relation to the nature, results in many more initiatives for technology to reduce the effects of the climate change. But as Emilia Palonen explained to me, the climate change also provides Finland with new opportunities. As the ice in northern Finland is melting, new railroads are constructed in order to transport the new products found in the ground. This means that there are people and companies who profit from the melting ice and therefore have a stake in not stopping the climate change. This is a problematic development as the railroad in not only controversial because of the climate change, but also because some parts of the road will go through Sami land. In many ways they Railroad will disturb their hearding of raindeer. This new development resonates with the newly emerged discussion on the question of the treatment of these Sami people in Lapland over the past decades.
Dancing at the lake
With this in mind I went to Turku where I booked a cottage in the garden of Mervi, the best host I could have wished for. They live just a few kilometres outside of Turku nearby the forest and a beautiful lake. We met at a local cafeteria at Turku where she picked me up. After showing me around in the neighbourhood by car, we went back home to make a real Finnish meal. Actually not so different as what we know as a Dutch meal, potatoes, harring and butter. Though I must say, much better than in Amsterdam. After the meal she sent me to the Sauna at the lake, see picture to get a slight idea of how amazing this was. At some point I was sitting in the sauna surrounded by 15 Fins, and no the Sauna was not big. Everyone was talking and making jokes, swimming, relaxing and enjoying the most beautiful view over the lake. I couldn’t believe that I actually ended up in this magical place.
After the sauna I went on my bike and stumbled into my third experience. As Finnish have a tradition of style dancing at the lake, I accidentally biked past such a place. A club at the lake, where people come together to dance different dances on live music. I decided to check it out, not realizing that it would mean that you also have to participate. A young lady started talking to me and explained how it all went down. After seeing my hesitation to dance, she offered that her husband could learn me how to dance. And so I learned my first Finnish Tango at a lake.
Later I found out that dancing is a huge part of the Finnish culture, and especially when there is a lake involved. My second dancing experience was the next day when I came across a music festival...at a lake. As a ticket costed 50 euros many people stayed along the lake looking over the fences. Also these 5 women who were dancing at the scaffolding on the music of Juha Tapio. He is a Finnish hero for women around the 60 and you actually can listen to it at Spotify, take for example ‘Kuka Nakee Sut’. These women were so polite to learn me the Swedish Punk, the dance suitable for his music.
On the border
I would suggest to grab Spotify again and look up Nightwish. Either number will do, but I prefer ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. This genre is pretty big in Northern Europe (and the rest of the world), But very unknown in the Netherlands, funny because the singer from band is a very talented Dutch woman.
The two days I spent at Mervi we talked a lot. She and her husband were very open to me and answered all the questions I fired at them. I learned that in Finland they have a mandatory military service for men and women have the option. They get a training for a couple of months and after they can either make career in the army, as Mervi’s husband did in the Navy, or be placed as reserves. The main task of the army is to protect the border, train with the NATO (which they are not part of) and go to peacekeeping missions. They told me that this does not perse lead to a strong anti-russian feeling or strong cultural nationalism, but is focused on keeping Finland sovereign.
Squeezed between Russia and Sweden the Finnish army has a special role. For Sweden they function as a buffer zone and towards Russia, they always have to keep in pace. After 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the Finnish position changed. As their political relationship with Russia was on friendly level, after 2014 they reconsidered and tightened their relationship with the NATO. As a reaction Putin spoke out, while visiting Finland, that if they would do so, Russia would respond. It is for all of these reasons that Finland’s army is of great value, not only for Finland's own sovereignty, but also for the safety of the Baltic states, Scandinavia and the EU. When I asked if Mervi and her husband expected that if time comes the EU would actually help, they showed their sincere doubts about that. The Swedish on the other hand will come to help, but as they have less incentives to have a strong army, according to my hosts, it would not help much. When are we going to organize solidarity within the EU also when it comes to border politics. Isn’t it true that now with the integrated market, politics, borders etc. the borders of Finland and the Baltic states, are also the borders of the rest of the Europeans. Some solidarity with our border countries and have a strong EU army (which is not dependent on the US) wouldn’t be to strange of an idea by now.
All the people that I have talked to in Finland acknowledged to feel a certain form of European identity. Emilia Palonen described it as multilevel identity. One identity does not have to be more present than another, and actually, one identity can grow out of another. The national identity does not have to stand across the European identity, but they can be integrated. Mervi on the other hand answered to feel firstly Finnish, but next to that European as well. From my point of view the Finnish are a perfect example of the integration of European culture without losing the national identity. Even after decades of occupation, the Finnish kept believing in their sovereignty.
Let me end with one of the best things that I have heard in Finland. Mervi told me that she has a theory that the Finnish people actually come from a different planet. And as bizarre as that sounds, she made a strong point. First of all they have a language that does not only sound strange, but also has no language family on our planet. And second of all, she pointed out that Finnish have very strange habits, like dancing at the lake, all different kind of sports that you could find nowhere else, or like this one day in the year that everyone buys something that floats and then they go to the river and drink beer while floating….I had no choice but agree with her that Finnish people actually do come from a different planet, a really nice and friendly planet where everyone can have privacy but you can also make friends anytime of the day.