Finland in Finnish Popular Culture, Part II: The Moomins and Global Popular Culture

Moomin World provides readers the chance to now walk through Moominvalley (image courtesy ).

Moomin World provides readers the chance to now walk through Moominvalley (image courtesy msaari).

One of Finland’s most celebrated contributions to the world is the herd of bleached rhino’s known as the Moomins.  The phenomenally popular Angry Birds have no pretensions to being anything but pure entertainment, and they betray little that is distinctively Finnish, so their entry into global popular culture as an absent-minded leisure and commodity has been without Finnish opposition. In contrast, the Moomins are literary creations that lay a genuine claim to being a work of art as well as demonstrating some distinctive cultural roots, so their potential reduction to saleable products in marketplaces that cannot fathom the Moomins provides slightly more Finnish angst than the global conquest of the battling birds.

The Moomins remain obscure outside American children’s literature circles, but in Finland Moomins have become commodities on a scale rivaled only by Angry Birds.  Moomins have long been reduced to commodities in Finland and at least some international markets, with a universe of oven mitts and tableware decorated with Moomins as well as a theme park and a museum.  Their consumption by an international readership reaching from the UK to Japan to South Africa suggests that the Moomins’ handlers may aspire to conquer the American market.

The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, appeared in 1945.

The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, appeared in 1945.

Characterizing the books’ narrative appeal to children and adults is challenging.  The Moomins series began in 1945, when Tove Jansson published The Moomins and the Great Flood, followed a year later by Comet in Moominland.  Eventually the series included eight novels, one book of short stories, five picture books, a comic series, and a scatter of movies and television shows. Moomin lives are chaotic and fraught with danger and apprehension in the form of floods, comets, dark forests, or the depressed, lonely, and terrifying Groke whose icy touch freezes all it contacts.  The Moomins approach that world with curiosity, optimism, and trust in family and friends.  Moomins hibernate each winter and have a distinctive Nordic connection to nature, facing its undersides and complicated rhythms as they actively explore it.

The narratives unfold unpredictably with fantastic storytelling moments (compare the story profiles on tor.com’s 2010 Moominweek page), and for many young and old readers alike the novel narrative elements weave a compelling reading experience. The text narratives are amplified by Jansson’s distinctively precise artwork that places Moomins in the midst of various crises and providing a strangely comforting presence.  Many of the graphics have little or no background and simply rely on the absurd and sincere expressions of the massive bleached trolls and their universe of creatures, yielding a distinctive and much-imitated Moomin aesthetic.

Moomins grace the exterior of this Finnair plane (image courtesy Antti Havukainen).

Moomins grace the exterior of this Finnair plane (image courtesy Antti Havukainen).

We could ask why these books (or any other cultural product) provide compelling narrative themes; for instance, we might psychologize Jansson’s life, contextualize the historical wartime experience and Finnish sentiments that yielded these stories or, dissect specifically how Moomin stories fabricate a distinctive narrative.  Yet perhaps the deeper question may be why particular works enter the mass popular imagination and enchant people from a very broad range of different backgrounds.  Articulating “enchantment”—an absolutely emotional and instinctive reaction to stories and graphics—is exceptionally difficult if not impossible to do successfully, though.

A Moomin snow sculpture at the Saporro Snow Festival (images courtesy Crowbeak.Sasquatch).

A Moomin snow sculpture at the Sapporo Snow Festival (images courtesy Crowbeak.Sasquatch).

The Moomins perhaps have struggled to secure American audiences because their universe is a very different form of imagination than traditional American children’s literature.  After misidentifying Tove Jansson as male, a 1961 New York Times review of Moominsummer Madness lamented that the story “badly needs a down-to-earth mortal to measure things by,” because “as it is, a bothersome nightmare quality is never quite dispelled.”  In 1968 another reviewer complained in the Times that “the more one reads about Moomins the less one knows about them. … Some vital links have been lost, and these seem to be plot, character, theme and common sense.”  Yet in the wake of these stale judgments, many Americans have flocked to non-conventional narrative and aesthetic oeuvres like anime, even though mass culture ideologues are often reluctant to champion a novel popular form if they are not convinced it can become profitable.  Ultimately, how Moomin commodities and the narrative reach America will have as much to do with decisions made in American marketing board rooms as it has to do with the fundamentally creative and fascinating dimensions of Moomin stories.

This sidewalk plaque using the bohemian Moomins to critique yuppies was found in Sydney Australia (image courtesy mr. lynch),

This sidewalk plaque using the bohemian Moomins to critique yuppies was found in Sydney Australia (image courtesy mr. lynch),

On the one hand, Finns are proud of the Moomins, whose lives in Moominvalley negotiating nature with quirky grace and curiosity provide a flattering reflection of Finns’ own experiences and perhaps their self-perceptions (for instance, Finns routinely identify their favorite Moomin and how that particular Moomin mirrors their essential personality attributes).  On the other hand, though, Americans in particular may not fathom the Finns’ national stewardship over Moomins, since Americans somewhat arrogantly assume that the planet is universally receptive to and eagerly awaiting our popular cultural products.  Where American popular culture mirrors our confident national swagger and powerful international marketing reach, Finland is a much more modest place that has looked beyond its borders somewhat more circumspectly and more protective over its cultural products.

References

Layla AbdelRahim

2010 Geneaologies of Wilderness and Domestication in Children’s Narratives: Understanding Genesis and Genetics in the Untangling of IdentityThe Paulinian Compass 1(4):1-100.

Pamela Marsh

1961 Cheery and Dauntless (Review Moominsummer Madness)New York Times May 14:BRA28.

Cobus van Staden

2010 Mutations in Moominvalley: Globalization, Capitalism and the Cultural Identity of Fiction.  In Imaginary Japan: Japanese Fantasy in Contemporary Popular Culture, edited by Eija Niskanen.  International Institute for Popular Culture, Turku, Finland.

Barbara Wersba

1968 Moominlore for Moominlovers. New York Times May 5:BRA43.

Images

Finnair Moomins image courtesy Antti Havukainen

Japanese Moomin Sapporo Snow Festival image courtesy Crowbeak.Sasquatch

Moomin World House image courtesy msaari

Moomins not Yuppies image courtesy mr. lynch

Is Finland in Finnish Popular Culture? Part I

The McDonald's in Oulu hopes to entice consumers with the flavors of America (image by author).

The McDonald’s in Oulu hopes to entice consumers with the flavors of America (image by author).

It initially seems somewhat oxymoronic to suggest that there might be a distinctive Finnish popular culture:  that is, most of the mass cultural products in Finland are the same as those nearly anywhere, with popular cultural staples like Batman, Lady Gaga, and Halo firmly situated in Finnish consciousness.  It is not especially shocking that Finland cannot claim an array of unique popular cultural products, because most popular culture does not have isolated roots in a specific nation or culture;  that is, popular culture emerges from a transnational media and circulates in a widely shared global consumer culture that only strategically identifies its origins (e.g., the transparent nationalistic sales pitch of “Made in the USA”, the anti-consumption politics that cast McDonalds as American, or suggesting that Finlandia captures some “real” essence of Finnish vodka).

Video games, television programs, fast food, movies, clothes, theme parks, and sporting events are all manufactured and marketed by corporate consumer interests committed to profit and the reproduction of power inequalities, and some theorists reduce them simply to economic vessels, mechanisms of oppression, and something “inauthentic.”  Yet those products are the contested ground of popular culture, sources of widely shared desire and pleasure that cannot be reduced simply to ideological incorporation.  Much of the appeal of popular culture is that it can be defined in so many contextually distinctive forms, and when Big Macs, Downton Abbey, and Rihanna arrive in Finland they inevitably are received in a vast range of ways.  Donald Duck (Aku Ankka), for instance, is featured in the most popular weekly publication in Finland, where he enjoys more popularity than he has ever secured in the US and easily outpaces the popularity of Mickey Mouse.  Finnish author Hannu Raittila suggests that Finns glimpse themselves in Donald Duck, who is “forever getting into difficulties or coming under threat from some direction or another. The duck hero has to get himself out of all manner of unexpected and unreasonable scrapes using only his wits and the slim resources he can put his hands on, all of which meshes nicely with the popular image of Finland as driftwood in the crosscurrents of world politics.”  Introduced to Finland in 1951, Donald’s arrival “coincided with Finland’s metamorphosis from an agrarian state to a post-modern, post-industrial one.  Little boys and girls in the rural Finland of the 1950s thirsted for the tales from Duckburg, which contained such modern features as urban life, the spread of the motor car, self-service shopping, large supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and golf.  These were details taken from American culture that have subsequently become part and parcel of the reality of a modernised Finland.”  In 1999 Donald’s Uncle Scrooge even was featured in a comic adaptation The Quest for Kalevala, adapting Finland’s national epic.

Angry Birds' most recent version joins forces with Star Wars (image courtesy Rovio).

Angry Birds’ most recent version joins forces with Star Wars (image courtesy Rovio).

Nevertheless, there are a few prominent Finnish contributions to the global popular cultural landscape.  Few of those products are better-known or compelling than the story of the multi-colored Angry Birds who are seeking the return of their eggs from a herd of green pigs.  There may be nothing particularly Finnish about the Angry Birds game, and in that sense it is actually quite a lot like most popular cultural products; that is, it hides it origins unless they help sell the product by somehow giving it more desirability.  Angry Birds’ makers at Rovio Entertainment continually launch new versions of the game (including a Star Wars themed Angry Birds version in November, 2012), and the game is now a brand that appears in a wide range of commodities.  Angry Birds is the single most profitable iPhone app ever sold in the UK, and Apple indicated that it is the most downloaded paid app ever.

An Angry Birds promotion at a Chinese McDonalds (image courtesy dcmaster).

An Angry Birds promotion at a Chinese McDonalds (image courtesy dcmaster).

The success of Angry Birds has reportedly encouraged more apps developers from Finland, including Clash of Clans’ Helsinki-based developers Supercell, and Fingersoft (based here in Oulu), the producers of Hill Climb Racing.   Angry Birds may owe some debt to Finns’ fervent attachment to mobile phones; the world’s first mass-marketed mobile phone (the Nokia 9000 Communicator) was sold in Finland in 1996, and the country has always been among the world’s most devoted users of cell phones (in 1999, Jukka-Pekka Puro recognized that no other country equaled the 78% of Finnish households already owning a mobile phone, and Finns remain deeply committed to cell phones today).  The international shift to mobile phones and tablets benefitted the gaming industry in Finland while Nokia’s simultaneous contraction reportedly has provided that emergent Finnish gaming industry more skilled engineers.  Supercell’s CEO Ilkaa Paananen suggested that “Helsinki is the best city in the world to build games at the moment.  People understand that it’s possible to become global from Finland.”
The mass success of Angry Birds, though, may have more to do with its aggressive branding and international corporate investment than it has to do with the creative climate in Helsinki, even though government support and groups like Play Finland (which publicizes gaming firms and projects across the country) are certainly important.  In November, Bloomberg reported that Rovio had secured $42 million in venture capital in 2011, and 30% of Rovio’s profits come from branded commodity sales including $400 million in plush toys alone.  Angry Birds soda is selling as profitably as Coke and Pepsi in Finland and is set to soon be sold in New Zealand and Australia; an Angry Birds debit card is coming to the US in early 2013; an Angry Birds cookbook features egg recipes; Finnair has painted some planes with Angry Birds’ motifs; Rovio offers location-based Angry Birds games in 1500 Chinese McDonalds; an Angry Birds Land opened in Sarkanniemi Amusement Park in Tampere in 2012, another opened in Sundown Adventureland in the UK, and the parks are expanding to China.  An unlicensed Angry Birds temporary attraction was opened in September, 2012 in the Window of the World amusement park in Changsha, China as part of its month-long “Stress Reducing Festival,” and in an odd referentiality the attraction sat in the park’s “American Zone, next to a scaled-down replica of Mount Rushmore.”

Angry Birds' Helsinki shop (image courtesy Rovio).

Angry Birds’ Helsinki shop (image courtesy Rovio).

Every staple of popular culture eventually is self-referenced in other popular discourses (as when The Simpsons parody everything from Behind the Music to Rush Limbaugh), and Angry Birds has reached that standing.  Angry Birds’ music was featured in the Israeli comedy Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), and the video Angry Birds Peace Treaty has more than 12.5 million YouTube viewings.  Pinterest has hundreds of Angry Birds’ boards with Angry Bird products and craft ideas, and Rovio has an official Angry Birds Pinterest site.  Angry Birds’ branding of Star Wars pairs two of popular culture’s most prominent symbols; in March, 2012 Angry Birds Space was introduced to the world by astronaut Donald Pettit from aboard the international space station, using the angry birds to demonstrate microgravity patterns employed in the new game; British Prime Minister David Cameron, Salman Rushdie, and Conan O’Brien are all among the fans of Angry Birds; and Angry Birds has been referenced in television shows including 30 Rock, tosh.O, and The Daily Show.  The most interesting popular reference may be from artist Evan Roth, who produced a work called Angry Birds All Levels.  Angry Birds All Levels reveals the 300 exact finger swipes needed to complete the game, underscoring the innocuous hand and finger movements that we use to manipulate knowledge and experience filtered through handheld devices.

The March 2012 debut of Angry Birds Space included its introduction aboard the International Space Station and this bird attached to Seattle's Space Needle (image courtes Rovio).

The March 2012 debut of Angry Birds Space included this bird attached to Seattle’s Space Needle (image courtes Rovio).

It is not clear that any country has a truly “national” popular culture, even the US, which is often blamed for inflicting a wave of questionable products like Jersey Shore, Justin Bieber (technically Canadian, but America’s fault nonetheless), and Thomas Kinkade on the planet.  Mass cultural industries nearly all have a significant presence in the US and aspire to satisfy American consumers’ tastes, acknowledging the wealth and sheer numbers of American shoppers, so inevitably much of global popular culture reflects what marketers are trying to sell to Americans.  Yet ultimately the most lucrative popular cultural products secure international success, which demands being embedded in global networks of venture capital and marketing that reaches beyond any single country’s shores, including Finland.  Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, Finns’ foothold in international popular culture is reflected in the general absence of references to such products as distinctively Finnish, including Angry Birds.

In Part II, we will turn our attention to perhaps the most prominent and culturally distinctive of Finland’s popular cultural products:  the Moomins.

Taina Kinnunen, Tiina Suopajärvi, and Johanna Ylipulli

2011 Connecting People – Renewing Power Relations? A Research Review On The Use Of Mobile Phones. Sociology Compass 5(12):1070-1081. (subscription access)

Jukka-Pekka Puro

2002 Finland: A Mobile Culture.  In Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, edited by James E. Katz, Mark Aakhus, pp.19-29.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

McDonald’s China image courtesy dcmaster

The Idiosyncratic Finnish Travelogue

There are myriad thorough and interesting travel guides to nearly every corner of the globe including Finland, most of which dutifully inventory the standard culinary, historical, cultural, and consumer attractions of a particular place.  The official Visit Finland page, for instance, outlines the nation’s many destinations and instructs the potential visitor in sauna culture, the merits of reindeer (living and broiled), the appeal of snow and cold, and Finnish design.  A few sites less intent on tourism alone counsel potential Finnish visitors on the nation’s more distinctive offerings like the wife-carrying world championship, Santa Claus Village, the mobile phone throwing world championship, and ice swimming.

Anybody’s visit to any place is inevitably idiosyncratic, and different people will find some things appealing that others find mortifying.  With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are a few of the little things that strike me as appealing about Finland.

Safety: While visiting some other city in another country, I was reminded of all the little semi-automatic things many urbanites do: looking ahead to watch the dark spots ahead should somebody want to leap out; locking my office door if I leave for even a few minutes; monitoring whoever is trailing behind me on the sidewalk and making sure my messenger bag is firmly attached to me; looking for well-lit streets; removing my headphones so I can hear the streetscape; and so on.  I have stopped doing nearly all of that stuff in Finland, despite coming from a city in which I feel pretty safe already.

Finnish TV: Because I forgot how ridiculous MacGyver is (e.g., reversing a vacuum cleaner to shoot hot blueberry preserves); how offensive British health nuts and American chefs can be; and that Twin Peaks really doesn’t make any sense.  Sure, they get The Walking Dead, but other than that Finnish TV is rife with some stale American and British fare.

A comet bears down on Moominland.

Moomins: I understand the individual words spoken by these Finnish cartoon characters that resemble adorable bleached hippos, and they’re enchanting in an incomprehensible way, but they often make less sense than Twin Peaks.  Let me summarize the surrealist masterpiece Comet in Moominland (which I cannot do justice to): A melancholy muskrat philosopher divines the end of the earth at the hands of comet raining black soot onto the earth, convincing Moomintroll and his best friend Sniff to go to a nearby observatory and observe the coming doom; during their journey Moomintroll develops a crush on the Snork Maiden; they learn exactly when the comet will strike and they return home as the comet bakes the sea dry and are greeted at home with Moominmamma’s cake (and the music is provided by Bjork).  I fail to do this clever and absurd series much credit, and it is simultaneously dark, funny, peaceful, and optimistic throughout.  Moomins’ stuff is incessantly marketed everywhere, but these books rarely have made much of a dent in the American children’s book market.

Pedestrians need fear nothing in Finnish crosswalks.

Heated floors: Few physical sensations are as pleasant as a warm floor underfoot on a cold day.  Where Americans fry the air in houses warming the ceiling while our ankles freeze, Finns radiate their feet and bodies from the ground level.

Buses: Oulu has predictable public transport.  People with children in strollers ride free, one of the clever little thoughtful things to make life easier for parents and caregivers.

Street crossing: Finns always wait for the walk signal before crossing, and cars seem to universally bear the right-of-way to pedestrians and bikes.  (Indianapolis drivers, in contrast, appear to speed up at intersections.)

Quietude: I was reminded while visiting Prague that the rhythmic background punctuation of emergency vehicles is a constant in most cities.  While places like Helsinki inevitably have some sirens ring through the city and Oulu has genuine emergencies that require sirens, Oulu is very quiet and the strange absence of sirens (strange to this American at least) is an interesting backdrop.

Socks: Finns habitually take their shoes off in private homes and many workplaces as well.  I like working in my office with my shoes off, for some reason.  Now my socks are a fashion garment.

The delights of a Finnish candy aisle.

Candy: Finland is a gold mine of licorice, chocolate, gummy things, and mints.  American candy is fine but pretty boring in comparison.

School lunch: Instead of fast food and microwaved/reheated/processed foods loosely resembling hamburgers and burritos, the University serves a decent meal everyday and I actually leave my desk to eat.  I may be the only person who goes to Finland and gains weight.

Darkness: As I write, the day is about six hours long, and those six hours are really at best a grey chilly drizzle that is only going to get shorter.  On these long, dark days snow provides a pleasant reflected light and muffles the already quiet landscape, which I kind of like.  On the other hand, spending a summer here in the midst of the midnight sun made me feel like Jack Torrance in the midst of brightly lit cabin fever.

Anxiety about Finnish Schools

Viikki Teacher Training School in Helsinki (image courtesy Malene Erkmann).

Finnish schools are routinely heralded as the gold standard for the rest of the world, primarily by self-conscious Americans who persistently troop through Finnish classrooms hoping to find the magic potion.  It is not clear that the American K-12 educational system is failing in all the ways American ideologues transparently lament, but the attention to Finnish schools is perhaps most interesting as an ethnographic question revolving around Americans’ own anxieties about education and American competitiveness.  The Finns certainly seem to do some things quite well and have improved significantly since the 1970s, but their system is radically different: The Finns dismiss American reforms such as testing, private and charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, and suffocating teacher evaluation.  Despite Americans’ fascination with Finland’s high test scores, America may be unwilling if not unable materially, socially, and culturally to make such profound transformations.

Americans’ fascination with Finnish education (and apprehension over our own self-perceived shortcomings) has been most clearly initiated by their stellar test scores and various rankings placing them at or near the world’s best school systems.  The Program for International Student Assessment(PISA) test that compares schools around the world in math, reading, and science has placed Finnish students at or near the top in each of the three studies conducted since 2000, while Americans have limped along well behind the Finns.  In the 2009 PISA test, the Finns placed second (to the Republic of Korea) in both reading and mathematics (the US was 14th and 25th respectively); and the Finns were first in science (the US was 17th).  In 2009 the United Nations Education Index placed Finland in a five-way tie for the world’s best school system (along with Denmark, Cuba, Australia, and New Zealand; the US was 13th).

Arola Elementary School in Ohkola (image courtesy MikeAncient).

For Americans, the Finnish model is puzzling: Finnish schools assign nearly no homework at all, valuing creativity and genuine Socratic conversation.  American students visiting Finland (I have an ethnographic study subject in my own household) are joyful to find that Finnish children spend fewer hours in school than in any school system in the developed world.  Finnish children do not start school until they are seven years old, though nearly all are in preschools, where the focus is on allowing children to play (and they always receive a long recess).  For a system in which children test very well, students are nearly never tested.  In 2008 the Wall Street Journal surveyed these facts and scratched its head in bemusement that “High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7. …. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.”

The Finns long had no concrete goal to produce high test scores; instead, they simply aspired to serving all Finnish children with good, free meals, consistent health care, sound buildings, small class sizes (average size of 20), and respected and well-paid teachers.  In few if any countries in the world are teachers more highly valued and respected than in Finland.  Finnish teachers receive their educations at the cost of the state; all have Master’s degrees; the competition for teaching jobs is significant; they are unionized; most teachers stay with a class group for five years, as opposed to changing teachers every year; and they have considerable freedom to craft lesson plans appropriate to their students and community.

All of this has been dissected by the popular press as it paints a caricature of the American school system that ignores all the complexities of the US and all the successes of American education.  From an ethnographic perspective Americans’ popular vision of education may be most interesting in the recurring American neurosis about universal measures of success like test scores, which misses Finns’ ability to see “success” in much more complex ways that include students’ self-esteem, teachers’ own satisfaction, and an unwillingness to leave behind members of the community who may not have conventional academic skills.

It also conveniently ignores that ours is a system and society characterized by profound disparities.  Visit a range of central Indiana schools—or those in any other relatively diverse metropolitan American city—and you will find some exceptionally beautiful and well-equipped buildings in some zip codes, and other schools in lower tax brackets are poorly outfitted and deteriorating structures.  Comparison of Finnish and American schools is unreasonable if not hypocritical in some ways.  A 2012 study of student poverty by UNICEF found that American kids had the second highest poverty rate in the world at 23.1%, whereas Finns’ 5.3% rate was the second lowest in the world.  Changing that system would not come cheap, and in contemporary Finland–in school and all social services–everybody pays and everybody benefits.  “Success” may have little or nothing to do with Americans’ working harder or teachers developing new classroom practices and much more to do with rethinking some of the fundamental assumptions about what we want out of schools at all.

Arola School image courtesy MikeAncient

Viikii School image courtesy Malene Erkmann

The Culture of Cold and Contentment

Few descriptions of Finland ignore the impression of the environment on Finnish culture (image from Oulanka National Park courtesy purplespace).

In the wake of World War II Julian Steward led a wave of anthropologists focused on culture as an adaptation to physical and social environments, a body of theory referred to as “cultural ecology.”  Dissatisfied with prevalent explanations of cultural change, Steward coined the term cultural ecology in his 1955 study Theory of Culture Change, arguing that culture and cultural transformation were direct reflections of environmental adaptation.   In 1962 Charles Frake borrowed from biological systems metaphors when he defined cultural ecology as the study of “the role of culture as a dynamic component of any ecosystem.”  Steward and a host of scholars examining the relationship between culture and the environment have emphasized that cultures change in direct response to the possibilities provided by a concrete environmental context, so classic studies have been conducted in arctic and equatorial settings where some cultures have crafted clever responses to challenging environments.

Snow covers much of the landscape for six months in northernmost Finland (image courtesy Markus YK).

Most definitions of Finnish life place the environment in general and cold in particular at the heart of Finnish culture, heritage, and psychology.  Since the ice sheets receded from Finland, the environmental landscape has had a profound impact on cultural adaptations.  For instance, Samuel Vaneeckhout, Jari Okkonen and Andre Costopoulos argue that between 6500 and 4000 years ago postglacial land uplift in northwest coastal Finland reduced the distance between the rivers flowing into the Bothnian Bay, which triggered increased population densities and sedentism among hunter-gatherers living on the coast.  It would be very difficult to examine Finnish heritage and culture and not acknowledge the profound power of nature on Finnish life.  The 1888 John Martin Crawford preface to The Kalevela poetically described the Finns as “a people who live pre-eminently close to nature, and are at home amongst the animals of the wilderness, beasts and birds, winds, and woods, and waters, falling snows, and flying sands, and rolling rocks.”

While a good scholar would consider the full breadth of Finnish environmental conditions—the extended grey rainy Fall, the legion of little lakes and river basins dotting the country, the unyielding summer sunlight, the monochromatic and seemingly infinite flat forest—most of the contemplation of the Finnish environment revolves around cold and snow.  At a latitude of 65 degrees north (Indianapolis is 39.7, Quebec City is 46.8, Rovaniemi is 66.5), Oulu has long winters with a mean temperature in the coldest months of no more than -3C (26.6F), and Atlantic Ocean currents make the far northern climate about 10 degrees C higher than in comparable latitudes in Siberia.  The winter malaise induced by the cold can be compounded by extended darkness in northernmost Finland, where the sun does not rise for 51 days.  In the midst of long nights and cities blanketed in snow, all of the senses are challenged: sounds are distinctively muffled into the snow blanket, colors wash out in the dim reflection of snow, and smells do not seem to drift far from their origins.  All of these factors together can shock even Finns: for instance, a Finn returning to the country after a long-term assignment in Australia admitted that “I felt like an alien in my own country. Surprisingly, I was totally unprepared for the long, harsh, cold, dark Arctic winter.”

Of course there are seasons besides winter in Finland (image from East Uusimaa courtesy Visit Finland).

We might circumspectly ask why people choose to live in such conditions, how it shapes Finnish culture and life, and, in the words of the BBC Travel page, “The obvious question in all this is: what makes Finland – with its near constant cold and long stretches of darkness – such a happy place to live?”  This raises the thorny ontological issue of what constitutes happiness, but by many relatively concrete measures Finland has virtues.  The Nordic countries are routinely placed at the top of lists of “happiest” or even “best” countries in the world, with a 2010 list placing Finland first overall (first in education, fourth in quality of life, fifth in political environment, eighth in economic dynamism, and 17th in health; the US was 11th overall, compare Stephen Colbert’s coverage, which sarcastically but presciently may capture Americans’ amazement).  The environmental realities are pretty objective, yet arrayed against them is the seemingly contradictory mountain of evidence underscoring that Finland is a well-managed state peopled by relatively happy citizens.  In a flood of optimistic data on Finland, the Finns in 2012 have the world’s most press freedom; the world’s best science scores in 2006 (second in reading and second in math); the seventh highest prosperity in 2011 (down from first in 2009); the world’s strongest property rights in 2008;  government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is higher in Finland than any other country in the world, and Finland has the world’s second highest participation in higher education;  and the school system is routinely lauded as one of the world’s finest.  All this made Finland the world’s second happiest country in 2010 (only Denmark was considered happier).

Finnish winter is a complicated interplay of light, snow, and cold (image courtesy speedwaystar).

One explanation for Finns’ seeming “happiness” is that it is explained by the cold and not in spite of it.  For instance, Finns are astoundingly active despite the challenges of the cold, with scores of residents Nordic walking, hiking, riding bikes, jogging through the depths of winter.  That activity may actually be because of those conditions: in bracing cold, moving can be enormously better than simply standing motionless waiting for a bus.  The vaunted school system may have some link to the cold as well: sitting in a well-warmed classroom on a brutally cold albeit gorgeous snowy day does make white collar work and scholarly labor seem more appealing than physical labor.  Regardless of the often unpleasant physical sensation of being in the cold, it is aesthetically pleasing, and Finnish tourist pages devote much of their energy to illuminating the pleasing aesthetics of the Finnish snowfall, northern lights, frosty reindeer, and dew-covered berries.  Flickr is loaded with countless images of Finnish nature, and many appear to be taken by Americans captivated by this environmental aesthetics and the momentary simplicity of living within and not against nature (at least for the week an American urbanite is vacationing in Finland).

Finland actually has some seasons and color besides winter and white (image courtesy -zelig-)

Yet much of the American fascination with such world rankings of countries and our obsession on where we sit on such inventories of joy may reside with our own commitment to happiness.  The Daily Beast and Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss each hypothesize that the chill and dark may have a significant influence on Finland’s happiness, but it may also lie in how Americans define happiness, which goes well beyond the measured contentment Finns find in everyday life.  Americans arrogantly wrote the “pursuit of happiness” into our founding document despite subsequently assembling a diverse and unequal state society covering numerous environmental zones.  Weiner questions why Americans consciously commit so much energy to actually thinking about securing happiness:  “I’ve spent most of my life trying to think my way to happiness, and my failure to achieve that goal only proves, in my mind, that I am not a good enough thinker. It never occurred to me that the source of my unhappiness is not flawed thinking but thinking itself.”  This suggests that much of outsiders’ inability to understand Finnish contentment—or secure their own–may revolve around our inability to understand some people seek meaningfulness that may not necessarily be “happy” in a hackneyed American definition of the term.  What it means to be happy or content is inevitably local and highly contextual and certainly culturally specific, and there is certainly a link between the unavoidable Nordic environment and Finnish cultural definitions of contentment, but the relationship between happiness and culture in Finland and America reaches well beyond the mercury and depth of snow each winter.

Reindeer are sufficiently supportive of the Finnish economy to make regular appearances for winter tourists (image courtesy solitaryleprechaun).

Finns do in fact spend much of their time cautioning visitors that winter will be a six-month experience, but they seem to have a certain shared sobriety about the realities of the weather and simply do not commit much of their thought to it except when addressing a visitor.   Americans, in contrast, always imagine new possibilities, which can often be our greatest quality but also tends to make us unsettled with what we have in hand: for every American who celebrates the Lapland wilderness, another wonders how we might turn it into a more profitable and easily accessible space with creature comforts.  This restless imagination of Americans was recognized in 1835 by Alexis de Toqueville, who noted in the classic Democracy in America that “At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. … The recollection of the brevity of life is a constant spur to him.  Besides the good things which he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others which death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode. … It may readily be conceived that if men, passionately bent upon physical gratifications, desire eagerly, they are also easily discouraged: as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach that object must be prompt and easy, or the trouble of acquiring the gratification would be greater than the gratification itself. Their prevailing frame of mind then is at once ardent and relaxed, violent and enervated.”

Charles O. Frake

1962 Cultural Ecology and EthnographyAmerican Anthropologist 64(1):53-59. (subscription access)

Hal B. Gregersen and Linda K. Stroh

1997 Coming Home to the Arctic Cold: Antecedents to Finnish Expatriate and Spouse Repatriation AdjustmentPersonnel Psychology 50: 635–654. (subscription access)

Karoliina Periäinen

2006 The summer cottage : a dream in the Finnish forest.  In Multiple dwelling and tourism: Negotiating place, home and identity, eds. McIntyre, N., Williams, D., & McHugh, K. pp.103-114.  Cambridge, MA.

Alexis de Tocqueville

1838 Democracy in America.  Translated by Henry Reeve, George Deerborn and Son, New York.

Samuel Vaneeckhout, Jari Okkonen, Andre Costopoulos

2012 Paleoshorelines and prehistory on the eastern Bothnian Bay coast (Finland): local environmental variability as a trigger for social changePolar Geography 35(1):51-63. (subscription access)

Oulanka National Park image courtesy purplespace

Winter image courtesy Markus YK

Cycling image courtesy Visit Finland

Reindeer image courtesy solitaryleprechaun

Finnish countryside image courtesy -zelig-

Street scene image courtesy speedwaystar

The Distorted Mirror of America: Imagining the US on Finnish Television

Image courtesy Rupert Brun

Popular culture is an uncanny mirror of society, but it is always a distorted mirror that reflects who we are in our most spectacular and hyperbolic dimensions:  for instance, science fiction projects contemporary social apprehensions into futures and fantasy worlds; sports provide a clarity of rules and resolution we rarely secure in our everyday lives; and Lady Gaga funnels myriad discourses invoking gender, sexuality, and commercialism that we all recognize in prosaic everyday forms.

Few popular cultural discourses have more influence on how we see the world than television.  The reflection of America as seen in the mirror of Finnish television is, at best, disorienting and maybe a little demoralizing.  A media economics scholar could explain the marketing reasons for why a specific range of American television shows have made their way to Finland, and the perpetual repeats of Criminal Minds, Alien versus Predator, and Storage Wars hopefully has little to do with Finnish culture.  Yet the array of television shows appearing in Finland cannot be entirely arbitrary, and it certainly provides a distinctive picture of America and perhaps even Finland.

Finns watch an average of three hours of television each day (Americans watch roughly 34 hours each week), and of course much of it is in Finnish, but Finns watch quite a lot of English language programming.  More than 70% of YLE TV1 programming (23.3% share) is documentaries, news, or educational programs; MTV3  (21.8% share) and YLE TV2 (16.9% share) show a slightly broader range of entertainment shows that include Finnish and English-language shows.  But the range of other Finnish channels like Fox, Jim, Sub, and TV5 show many English-language shows including lots of American programs bearing the heavy burden of introducing Finns to America.

Finland’s primer on America comes from an incessant stream of reality shows in situations that do not have any easy analogy to Finland.  Storage Wars, for instance, chronicles people who wander around California purchasing the unknown contents of storage lockers.  In this oddly American treasure hunt people buy piles of things that somebody else couldn’t fit in their house, so they placed it in storage only to abandon the locker or simply find themselves unable to pay for it; the unlikeable Storage War stars then swoop in to claim it. Some of the American offerings are fascinating in an odd way like Doomsday Preppers that shares with our Scandinavian allies the anxieties of those Americans awaiting an electromagnetic pulse, earthquake, or inevitable rioting following Obamacare.

But many more are absolutely banal:  Pawn Stars features a stream of people desperate for money (or deluded that their things are valuable) aspiring to sell stuff to a pawn shop; America’s Toughest Collectors are a couple overbearing guys who just storm into people’s homes to purchase their things; Shark Tank witnesses the persistent stream of Americans who think their entrepreneurial inspiration should be supported by a bunch of rich guys; Paris Hilton’s World has already bored America; and Inked aspires to weave a narrative around the flood of Americans who want butterflies inked onto their hips.  The picture painted in these shows is of a monotonous America peopled by overblown and largely unsympathetic personalities committed to wealth.

The British programmers do their best to match America’s offerings to Finland with the likes of Embarrassing Bodies, which features an array of festering privates, swollen scrotums, and startling disfigurements; and the digestively detailed You Are What You Eat.  Australia adds their creativity with their version of Beauty and the Geek, in which beautiful airhead women and uber-nerds are thrown into the same whirpool.  Like many American reality shows focused on crime and the seamy underside of life, Finns have Poliisit (i.e., Cops), and Finnish Customs, The Border Wars,and Australia Border detail the amazing number of people who try to pass through customs with 10 pounds of cured meat or packages of swallowed drugs.  Air Crash Investigation makes a weekly case for taking the train; competitive chefs face off in Master Chef Australia and Master Chef Finland, with the wrinkle of Junior Master Chef;  and many more cooking shows include Home Cooking Rachael Ray’s Way, Single Dinner, and the world’s most overbearing culinary ethnographer, Anthony Bourdain in the World.  It goes without saying that there is a flood of dance and talent shows and the ever-present Big Brother, which has its own Finnish version that appears to be as reflective as its American peer.

Zygmunt Bauman has argued that it is too easy to simply blame TV for providing such fare, suggesting that “there is little point … in asking whether the presence of television makes the world better or worse.”  Instead, the “astonishing headway” made by TV “would be unthinkable if the world were not ready to absorb it.”  In the classic study Television Culture, John Fiske argues that “Television does not `cause’ identifiable effects in individuals; it does, however, work ideologically to promote and prefer certain meanings of the world, to circulate some meanings rather than others, and to serve some social interests better than others.”  The enormously boring TV offerings in Finland perhaps seem monotonous only because I anticipated some quite different media and popular cultural discourses and instead found the familiarity of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, South Park, and Finnish advertisements aspiring to resolve irregularity.

We could conclude that Finns see this TV and use it to form a picture of American society, and that is a reasonable conclusion.  Indeed, it may actually be the truth that the odd stereotypes in reality TV are in fact sensitive portrayals of Americans in all our genuine monotony, brashness, and weirdness.  Yet perhaps the more interesting implication is that even though the reality is that Americans are much more complex than these stereotypes, those overblown representations of the US may be precisely what Finns expect to see as America; that is, perhaps the ridiculous stereotypes in American TV have assumed reality in the minds of many audiences, including Americans.  We have perhaps watched enough reality crime show that we now have been socialized to believe this is a dimension of who Americans are, even if we always seek to distinguish ourselves individually from those caricatures.  I now feel self-conscious when I pass through airport customs; I am grateful the plane did not go down; I fancy myself capable of evaluating good entrepreneurial proposals and assessing how much collectibles are worth; and I have learned all the dangers of nuclear fallout.  So perhaps I have imagined America is all I see on Finnish TV.

Zygmunt Bauman

2000 As Seen on TVEthical Perspectives 7(2-3):107.122.

John Fiske

2011 Television Culture.  2nd ed.  Routledge, New York.

Statue watching TV Helsinki image courtesy Rupert Brun

The Idiosyncracies of Finnish Buildings

The Alvar Aalto-designed Finlandia Hall in Helsinki is one of the nation’s best-known examples of modernist architecture (Image courtesy lwsdm).

Finland is justifiably heralded as the home to some of the world’s finest examples of modernist architecture.  The country has some wonderful medieval and post-medieval architecture including sites such as Keminmaa Old Church (circa 1519), the National Library in Helsinki (1840-1845), Petäjävesi Old Church (built 1763-1765), Helsinki Central Railway Station (opened in 1919), the Oulu Castle (most of the current structure post-dates the late 18th century and was built on a 14th century site), and the exceptionally well-preserved town of Torneo (Swedish Tornea), where late-17th and 18th century structures survive today.  However, nearly 90% of the country’s standing buildings were constructed after 1920—some of this relates to the post-war reconstruction of the country (for instance, 90% of Rovaniemi was burnt to the ground by fleeing Nazi’s in 1944), some of it reflects that much of Finnish architecture was done in wood and prone (especially in northern towns) to fires–, and when scholars and tourism advocates discuss Finnish architecture they typically refer to that modernist architecture and architects like Alvar Aalto.  Finns also can point to international architects like Eero Saarinen, whose family migrated from Finland to America when he was 13, and over his prolific career he designed a vast range of the world’s best-known modernist structures including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center in New York.

Yet all of this seems largely lost on me on an everyday basis.  Like most people, my experience of moving across the landscape is utterly idiosyncratic and does not include much time contemplating architectural style.  Like most folks living in a new place, I’ve dutifully made trips to some of the country’s famous spaces and tourist magnets, but at the same time the material details that we notice are often strangely idiosyncratic sensory factors and perhaps not especially rational: odor, weight, temperature, sound, and color make for a distinctive architectural experience in and around Finnish buildings.  Many of the details of moving through the Finnish built landscape reflect modest but meaningful distinctions in Finnish design and culture.

It is only a slight hyperbole to argue that most of Finnish life, culture, and materiality seems to begin and end with the environment, especially cold and snow, but also the notion of being embedded in nature.  On a year-round basis much of the experience of Finnish architecture in particular and space in general is shaped by the environmental demands of Nordic life: the average mean temperature in the subarctic Oulu is 2 °C (36 °F), with an average high in January and February of -7 °C (19.4 °F).   The city has an average of 106 days each year with snowfall; on average 187 days each year have snow cover; the average snow cover depth is 50 centimeters (20 inches); and in February 2012 an exceptional cold wave wreaked a low temperature of -38.6 °F in eastern Finland.  The demands of cold weather and the need to heat buildings efficiently contribute to the nation’s commitment to sustainability, which is supported by a strong sense of environmental stewardship and legislative green building codes.  And, of course, Finland has had a rich and conscious commitment to style and design since the late 19th century.

All of these factors shape the typical Finnish building and create a distinctive architectural experience that has more to do with small details than over-arching architectural style or practice.  One of those Finnish architectural details is the enormous range of hermetically sealed interior spaces that shape sound, odor, and temperature.  For good reason, exceptionally heavy doors patrol building entrances, and doors that are nearly as heavy often separate buildings internally, such as the passageways within University of Oulu structures that are networked to each other.  In stairwells and smaller spaces, these heavy doors with perfect seals create a constant background weight of air forcing its way into hallways, offices, and stairwells.  In a light shirt (and since wearing layers is advisable, people often wear thin base layers inside), there is a genuine perceptible sensation of air pushing behind whenever a door closes in a confined space.  American doors, in contrast, tend to be comparably flimsy creations with spaces that imperceptibly leak air and rarely produce the hermetic seals typical in most Finnish buildings.

A typical University interior (image courtesy IK’s World Trip).

This maze of tight doors traps air in distinctive vacuums within sections of buildings, and smells linger with no possible escape.  The first floor of my building has a cafeteria, and the lingering scent of lasagna, fish, and various soups form a permanent wall at the ground floor that seems unlikely to ever dissipate.  The odor triggered some primal scent memories in me of my elementary school “cafetorium,” in which the scent of vegetable soup, macaroni and cheese, and pizza hung heavy in a tiled room and seem to have permeated the linoleum.  The offerings of the Oulu cafeteria are certainly vastly more attractive than American elementary schools provided in the 1970’s (Finnish schools are vaunted for their fabulous lunches, even part of a Museum of Modern Art exhibit), but the odor of institutional food appears to be universal.

Like my elementary school that was constantly showered with spills, the Oulu buildings are tiled for good functional reasons.  In Finland this is simply a necessity because a constant stream of rain water, mud, snow, and sidewalk debris tracked in from nature requires dense surfaces if there is any hope of cleaning the floors.  The unexpected effect of that is that the dense tiled surfaces seem to resist odors and blow them back up to every passer-by’s nose.

It also means that all sounds reverberate well beyond the point where they begin: somebody chatting down the hallway can be heard very clearly in every office, which explains in part why so many faculty and graduate students keep their doors closed and/or wear headphones at their desk.  In my home department in the states my door and those of most of my colleagues are always open, and while we have office hours they are more of a formality for most students, who accept the open door as an open ticket to descend for advising, consultation, or analysis of the previous night’s episode of The Simpsons.  To some extent the closed doors may be a functional mechanism to hold warm air in offices (or, alternatively, keep cool hallway breezes out), but most buildings are pretty warm.  Finnish office doors are not usually entirely closed: the occupants will leave a very thin space exposed, and in a Finnish university office this appears to be the same invitation as my completely open doorway.  Wearing headphones in the office is somewhat more uncommon in the states (though I admit I stream music in my Indianapolis office since I am directly beside mailboxes and a printer that are impromptu social gathering points); however, Finns tend to respect each others’ privacy and space and do not look on headphones as a “rude” self-isolating mechanism.

Anybody who adores wrapping their toes in warm shag carpets is not likely to find much of it anywhere in Finland because it is simply not practical.  The building surfaces’ aesthetics are inevitably shaped by their exposure to nature: Even the finest Finnish floor coverings inevitably get a weathered look induced by the constant flow of nature deposited by boot and shoe treads. Finns all seem to have fabulous vacuums, a fleet of brooms, and an array of mops to address the unavoidable deposits covering Finnish floors, but even with constant vacuuming and mopping it is a difficult if not losing battle to return it to its freshest colors.

There is a whole set of unspoken codes about shoe wear meant to decrease such weathering but also to simply increase the comfort of wet and cold feet.  Many Finns keep a second pair of shoes in their offices or carry along a pair of more stylish shoes, and some wander about the offices in their socks, something that has never happened in my department in the states.  In private homes, people take their shoes off immediately up on entering, which was one of the most difficult codes for me to accept.  In my corner of the world, I associate being in my socks with a sort of unspoken familiarity if not intimacy, but it is simply a practical reality here that shoes will otherwise track persistent Nordic nature into peoples’ homes if your shoes remain on.

At noon in December, this is what the University of Oulu courtyard looks like.

Much of the year this far north involves either long spans of light or equally long periods of darkness.  On December 1st the day is 46 minutes long at Sondakyla in Lapland north of Oulu, yet in June the sun does not go down at all for a month, so the Nordic experience of light shapes experiences in buildings just as it does outside.  Unlike my brutal modernist office building in Indianapolis—in which many of my colleagues have no windows whatsoever and little or no natural light—Finnish buildings are generally well lit with sunshine, when the sun rears its head.  But when the sun is not out for extended periods the Oulu offices have the same problem as my Indianapolis office, which is lit by obnoxiously bright, headache-inducing overhead lights that compel most office inhabitants to bring in lamps.  So the Oulu hallways in late November and early December are nearly closed doors through which the diffuse glow of desk lamps unevenly stream into the hallway, with reverberating hallway conversations and the remote tinny sound of headphone music in the background.

Of course much of this experience of Finnish architecture is thoughtfully planned, and some of these things likely do not strike many Finns or for that matter visitors.  But the ethnographic experience of being in a new place inevitably extends to how we experience spaces and materiality.

Finlandia Hall image courtesy lwsdm.

University interior image courtesy IK’s World trip