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.


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