Published: February 24th 2007January 11th 2007
I lost count on the times that I have been asked this question. I could almost sense when someone was about to ask it. People asked me, "Why choose to study in FINLAND?" so many times that my travelling partner Joel could not help himself but laugh
everytime someone asked me that question. It was really absurd.
So one would think that after hearing such a question so often that I would have a perfect answer to return immediately. But I did not. Almost every time I was asked "Why Finland?", I would return the very same blank look they gave me and tell them confusingly, "I... don't... know!" And that is what I find so fascinating about this country... WHY the hell would you go there?! Swedes, who live right next door to Finland, didn't understand why I decided to study in Finland. Even Finns themselves were a bit mystified that I came all the way from Australia to study in Finland (I am not joking, this is the extent to which people were surprised at why I came to live in Finland... Finns themselves were baffled).
It is true, I cannot pinpoint the reason why I decided
The is the view from my room's window... breathtaking! Best view in the student village, easily.
to come to a small town called Turku in south-western Finland to study for a year. All I know is that it was one of the best decisions of my life. Forgotten Finland
Finland is a very unique country. It is a nation lost in the northern corner of Europe; tucked away from the world in the netherregions of the Arctic. It is a nation with little known international significance; you don't hear something about Finland or meet a Finn very often at all. Most of the people I have met know very little about Finland. Some of my friends, when I told them I was going to study there for a year, told me that they didn't even know where Finland was! Yet surprisingly there are many common things that are Finnish, no one knows it to be so. The sauna is a uniquely Finnish cultural trait ("sauna" is even a Finnish word), Nokia is a Finnish company, the Santa Claus Village is in Finland, F1 drivers Mikä Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen are Finnish, classical composer Jean Sibelius was Finnish, musical artists Darude, The Rasmus and Bomfunk MCs are Finnish. So now you do know something about
The language is known to be one of the most abstract and difficult languages in existence. E.g orange' is 'appelsini' in Finnish... that HAS to confuse people. It's grammar is the most complex that I have ever come across. The extreme
cold weather is uncomparable to nearly all the world, except those other very few places that share such a high latitude. Finnish food is very simple, so simple that Finnish people don't really even eat it! It has little taste, and I have heard many the joke that the Finnish spices are salt and pepper. However one must try reindeer and Baltic salmon or herring when in Finland - succulent. The Finnish mentality is unique; centred around the love of quietness, serene nature, alcohol, sauna and ice hockey (a national obsession - 10 year old kids are so good that they regularly and easily beat me and my exchange student friends).
The Nature of Finland is also something truly special. Finland may not have the dramatic peaks of the Alps or the plunging fjords of Norway. But Finland is all about subtly and reflection. You cannot help but feel at peace when you stand on an
island in the Turku Archipelago, looking over vast expanses of glistening water, dotted with many more hilly islands. The Sound of Silence. Literally it was just pure, utter Silence. Although sounding so simple, that moment just sticks in my mind - it is probably the only moment when I didn't hear a single sound, and all my other senses took over.
Forest covers almost all of the land mass of Finland. So if you want to escape the cosmopolitan modernity of Europe, take a RyanAir or Blue One flight to Finland and lose yourself amongst the pine trees. Lapland is a region of rolling hills in an exotic Arctic wilderness. The Lakes region is a place of wonder where you find untouched lakes that stretch as far as the eye can see, surrounded by hills and forest. Finland has nearly 200 000 lakes! And let us not also forget how dreamlike Finland becomes in Winter time, when the entire country and its forests, hills, cars and entire cities are blankted in white. Finland's nature is all about quiteness, serenity and reflection. It is a mirror of its people, as you will see below. The People
said when he visited me in Turku, Finnish people are the strangest people [he's] ever met
. Since he is an experienced traveller who has met many other peoples, emphasis is added. But really, what is even stranger than the strangeness of Finnish people is the fact that you cannot actually figure out what is strange about them!
If there is one thing that characterises Finnish people, it is silence
. Despite being kind and friendly people, they are infamously known for their quietness and refinement. They do not speak unless it is worth speaking. Small talk is not something that exists in the Finnish mindset. However, their silence is not a rude silence but is a silence based on reflectment. A conversion with a Finn would often include silent gaps, where the silence is used to think about what the other has said more deeply. Conversations mean more because they occur less
. Some non-conforming Finns heavily criticise this national trait, and consciously aim to be more outgoing (this especially the case with young Finns who have travelled around). But many Finns are just so quiet that you may not even notice them if there were only the two of you
Go You Good Thing
Bruno working his magic with two Finnish girls
in a room. Strange.
Another strange personality trait is their fear of embarrassment, apparently the biggest fear for Finns in general. It even goes as far for some few Finns that they would be reluctant to speak English with me; they seemed so insecure about their English that they feared that they would be embarrassed to screw up in front of a native speaker. Which is ridiculous since it I rarely met a Finn who could not speak perfect English! The embarrassment continues into all other walks of life, like the classroom, where Finns would sit timidly and quietly while the loud Westerners would debate and discuss.
Another strange contrast I found was conformity. Many Finns are non-conformist/rebellious. This is clearly exemplified by Finland's infamous reputation as a haven for heavy metal and death metal music. All around town centres, the Goths come out in droves! Black clothing and hair everywhere strikingly contrasting with the white-as-snow Finnish skin. But in contrast to that, Finland is one of the safest countries in the world
. Finland is the least corrupt country in the world
. Though consciously making the effort to be "rebellious" one might say, everyone is so law-abiding! At
traffic lights, people would give me evil and disapproving looks when I ignored the Red Man and j-walked (no joke there).
Note: Finland's crime figures may convey that it is not one of the safest, but about 70%
of crimes are caused under the influence of alcohol
... and usually occur between family and friends - random crime is non-existent.
But despite these characteristics, Finns are pretty friendly. Many times a Finnish person would walk up to me and ask me where I came from, what I was doing there in Turku, and of course eventually they would also ask me "the cursed question". I.e. "Why Finland?". Finns were always very willing to help me when I was lost in and around the town in my first few months, they would invite me to parties despite not knowing me, offer me free beer/vodka, help me with the language (they know it is ridiculously difficult), teach me ice hockey at the local park. My tutor Eeva was an inhumanely busy young lady as President of the law students society, yet she always put the effort into meeting up with me inbetween her schedule regularly for coffee and lunch, and took
me snowboarding. My friend Tim invited for me for a weekend in his country town home 5hrs north of Turku, a typically peaceful Finnish countryside weekend which I was very grateful for.
Underneath all the quietness and reservation, Finns are a very warm people, easy to get along with, intelligent, always interesting. Their love of nature is very admirable and they love nothing than being in the middle of the forest in their cottage. They are very environmentally conscious (Finland is widely regarded as the cleanest country in the world
). And just quickly on things that Finland is Number 1 at, did I mention that Finland has the best school education system in the world? Well, they do.
Finns are strong believers in equality, liberties and freedoms (hence the prosperity of seemingly-outcasts like "Lordi" :P). This is shown by their welfarist State, which taxes its citizens to high heaven but gives them benefits to make the wealthy jealous. Finns also LOVE being naked. Yes you heard that right. Naked
. A Finn would tell you that if they saw a naked person walk down the street, they would exclaim, "I didn't know there was a sauna around here". This
In Sokeri ("Sugar Club")
Finns partying in their Student Overalls. Things got a bit out of hand as some started to strip...
attitude stems from all the weekly hours spent in the sauna with family, where everyone is naked. Rock concerts are almost nude-fests, when the attendees get drunk enough to totally disregard their inhibitions and strut around naked to the music (the craziest festival is apparently Provinci Rock, but Turku's own Ruisrock holds it own madness-wise). Apparently socks are sometimes used. The university swimming pool actually reserves
separate weekly time slots for men and for women, to allow for people who wanted to swim in the pool naked
. Trust me this is just a weird country.
Another strange characteristic about Finns involes this sauna. Let me tell you, you have never been to a sauna unless you have been to a sauna in Finland. Heat takes on a whole new meaning! Their saunas get so hot you struggle to breathe. But it is confusing how Finns can comfortably spend hours in a sweltering 80-100ºC in a small wooden room every week, yet struggle
to cope with a mere 30ºC just outside in the sun.
But not everything about them is rosy. Due to their love of silence, Finns can come across as quite cold and unwelcoming. Yet I think
that this is just a facade - once you get comfortable with them, they open and you realise that they are actually very nice people. But if you're in a rush and don't have the weeks/months/years it takes to get to know a Finnish person, and you want to talk them a lot... chuck in some: Alcohol
Finland is a totally different country when this is thrown into the question. Remember that Finnish Silence? Forget about it for now. Finns are notoriously known for their excessive
drinking. As an Australian I also love to drink and sink a fair few every now and then. Finland is totally different. A Finn told me that the concept of "social drinking" does not really exist in Finland. They just get slaughtered... absolutley slaughtered... all the time! I sometimes exclaimed how I didn't understand why Finns drink so much, and they would reply that Finns don't understand why everyone else drinks so little!
In clubs it is common to see people staggering about cluelessly beer/vodka in hand, young or even old. Once we encountered a Finn, all by himself in the middle of an abandanoned street at 4am, standing in the
A Day In The Life
Yes, that reads "-19.2ºC"
same place screaming out for sex. Once on our way back to the Student Village, we saw someone sitting on the curb of a perfectly empty road, head in his hands, all by himself, at about 3am. One of my friends 100% summed up the scene by saying, "Only in Finland". I once went to an official Law Student's party where the goal of the night was to drink 20 shots of vodka, each shot being only 15 minutes apart... get the picture? At another law party on the wilderness island of Ruissalo off Turku, one of the infamous Party Ferries was going by the coast, and about 20 drunken law students stumbled to the shore, pulled down their pants and mooned the ferry... which is apparently a tradition! At Vappu
, a madness-filled Finnish festival, I would often see people staggering through, throwing up in and urinating in the streets... I had never before seen so many drunk people in one place, not even on Australia Day on the Perth foreshore. We are talking about 20 000 people, all smashed. It was insane.
The Party Ferries are notorious for their drunken revellry. Imagine a 10hr ferry ride from Turku
Sea of Hats at Vappu
20 000 people ready to get inhumanely inebriated at Vappu; a Finnish festival.
to Stockholm on a Friday night, with 2000 Finns and a seemingly unlimited supply of duty free alcohol. Mayhem, pure mayhem. Of course not all of them party, but at least all of them buy alcohol. As soon as the duty free store opens, all hell breaks loose. On these ferries people young and old (yes, even old) actually bring small trolleys to stack multiple packs of alcohol. And after getting smashed in their rooms, people (those same young and old) stumble around the dance floor without any idea what they are doing or where they are or who they are. I personally saw someone throw up while running in the corridor... WHILE RUNNING! Try imagine that. On some corridors you can even smell the urine. A friend told me that he once saw a middle-aged man stumble around the ferry completely naked (remember they love to be naked). I tell you, these people have generally lost the plot.
Yep, weird country. WHY did I go live there? Miscellaneous Memories
Because I cannot help but miss the things that make Finland unique, its interesting people being just one part of it. How beautiful it was to see
"You're Coming With Me"
Morgan found this Finnish guy "irresistable" :P Hehe
an entire town covered in snow; trees, cars, buildings, signs, streets... everything white. Nothing but snow everywhere from mid-December to late March!!! A winter wonderland indeed. Coming from sunburnt Australia, this was memorable in itself.
Another thing, sauna. At times I was going to the sauna twice a week, truly becoming Finnish :P. The tingling feeling of numbness one gets after going in the sauna and then jumping into a hole in the frozen sea (note: frozen sea) is something I will never forget and something I fondly miss. To just relax outside in -5ºC (relatively "warm") after just jumping in the freezing water... oh, the feeling! How many people do you know who have jumped in a hole in the ice? Did I also mentioned that I've walked
on the ocean?
I became addicted to ice hockey, a sport with barely any exposure in Australia (see the video of me skillfully and elegantly going around two players :P). Being so cold, outdoor ice hockey at the local park in the open air was not only possible, but something I was doing AT LEAST three times a week (but despite my rapid progress I was still only good
enough to play with kids... the future of Finnish ice hockey is very bright indeed). I loved this.
The calmly majestic countryside of Finland is something not found in many European countries anymore, as I mentioned before. These are some amongst other things you don't get to do in many countries around the world - things that make Finland so different, so unique and so special. Things You Can Do In Finland
- Spend a weekend in a wilderness cottage, hiking (Turku Archipelago, the Lakes, Lapland)
- Sauna and ice hole swimming
- Visit Lapland in the Winter (reindeer, dog sledding, Sami people)
- Ice hockey
- Pori Jazz festival, World Wife Throwing Championships, World Air Guitar Championships, Ruisrock, Vappu, Midsummer Festival
- Cities: the cosmopolitan chic of Helsinki, the quaint wooden Old Town of Rauma, the castle-between-two-lakes in Savonlinna, Turku (yay!), the beautiful and secluded island of Aland
- Finnish delicacies (e.g. malmi, salmiakki, reindeer, karaliean pastries, Christmas food, Fazer chilli chocolate, Runebarg tart, even Wood Tar!) (I do not joke, Finns eat tar).
- Finnish alcohol (Koskenkorva, Salmiakki)
- Marry a Finnish girl (come on, you know you want to)
I haven't even done
The pristine archipelago layered with snow
all these things myself. I have to leave something for me to do for when I return, right? First thing on the list is marrying a Finnish girl... Why Finland
So you can see why I had such an awesome time here.
If you visit Finland, there will be no significant culture shock. This is not China or India. But what is interesting about Finland is that it seems like a Western country on the outside, but is actually quite different when you spend some time there and dig beneath the surface. Finland will look Western with its sleek modern architecture, cosmopolitan society and white-skinned inhabitants. But talk to the people, get to know their customs and culture and you will realise that this country is pretty different and pretty unique. It is one of the few remaining hidden secrets of Europe.
But a word of warning - to appreciate Finland you must spend time there
. You cannot go to Finland for two days and spend it all in Helsinki after ferrying it over from Tallinn. Then you will be like everyone else who has "been to Finland". The people who only do this never speak
Krista and Leila
Two Finnish girls known for organising cool exchange student parties; this one a Beach Party in the middle of Winter.
highly of it (since Helsinki is not your Rome or Paris). Helsinki is not the only thing in Finland. Instead, come to Finland to experience the People, the Nature and the Winter. For me, it is worth it. How rewarding it was to meet a people totally different to those from my home, and to experience their exotic and abstract language. How rewarding it was see thousands of islands scattered amonst a pristine sea, or see rolling hills of white snow hosting statuesque pine trees cloaked in white. How rewarding it was to take part in a culture so subtly different to that in my home country, and to do things like jumping into a hole in a frozen sea. If you come to Finland for these things, it will take a small but special place in your heart.
So what will my answer be the next time someone asks me, "Why Finland?". Proudly, I will tell them "I don't know... but I'm so glad I did!" Makea Elämä!
There are more photos below