What were we getting ourselves into?  For years we have played “where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” about our families travel adventures, particularly Tammy’s far flung and frequent business trips.  I had certainly travelled extensively both for work as well as personally, including extended stays in Manila, Tel Aviv, and Cork.  But to actually MOVE!?!  Well, this was an entirely new vedenkeitin kaloja (kettle of fish 😉 )…

I guess I’ll start at a very high level overview of the country itself.  In fact, this is so high level as to have been inspired by the Finnair in-flight magazine, BlueWings.  I’m completely enamored with this graphic, and spend many minutes staring at it each and every time I’m on a Finnair leg. I’ve snipped a version from a recent issue to share with you here…

You can find it and peruse it online here. (Scroll to almost the last page)

Finland is considered a Nordic nation, not a part of the subset known as Scandinavia. The full set of Nordic countries, ‘Pohjoismaat’ Suomeksi (in Finnish), are Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, including their associated territories of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands. Scandinavia is the portion of this larger group containing just Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Is that an important distinction? yep. From geography to language to governance to culture there are differences. You can simplify by using the term “The Nordics” for the whole group of countries. Just don’t call Finns Scandinavians.

Finland is physically slightly smaller than the state of California, but with only 14% of its population (talk about physical distancing!?!). It’s ‘nose’ is basically a peninsula into the Baltic Sea, surrounded by the Gulf of Bothnia on the west and the Gulf of Finland on the SouthEast. The arctic circle runs through the northern portion of the country, roughly dividing Sápmi (Lapland), the home of the Sámi, their reindeers, and the best Aurora Borealis sighting locations, from the rest of the country to the ‘south’. It reminds me so much of the gorgeously rugged Canadian shield areas in Manitoba and Ontario! Its boggy just like in Nopiming Park, and here the locals also forage for seasonal edible wild mushrooms, blueberries and ligonberries throughout the forests, and fish for pike, zander and trout in the lakes and rivers.

A topic that I expect to revisit is how unique Finland is, and on how many “edges” it comfortably and successfully exists. It is adjacent to Scandinavia, adjacent to Russia, and across the water from one of the very few other countries that share its Finno-Ugric language root, Estonia (Hungary and the region formerly known as Ingria are two others), a Baltic country. One might assume that Finland has absorbed or become a kind of amalgam of these adjacent cultures, and I’m certain there has been some blending over the centuries. But proudly and stubbornly, Finland is a country of Finns. These are a people that have been “managed” by Swedish colonizers for ~650 years, followed by a stint as a Grand Duchy of Russia for another ~100 years. Do they speak Swedish or Russian (or eat like or act like…?) not really. Swedish is indeed the official 2nd language of Finland but is spoken by only ~250k of the 5.5M (<5%!). Of those, a full 10% live in the Åland Islands… off the Finland mainland toward Sweden. Finns have kept their culture, their language, their folklore, and their foods through all of the historical “management” experiments they’ve been subjected to. It’s really quite incredible.

Simplistically, proud Finnish-ness has been preserved and persists due to their national personality characteristic: Sisu! I honestly can’t even type it without an exclamation point.

How cool must it be to be a Finn!

When my friend and former colleague, Lisa LeVasseur came to Finland with her Mom, Marilyn, for a conference last September, we had a fantastic time! Turns out they have Finnish heritage and were investigating family tree tendrils that are still identifiable in various parts of the country, including in the Oulu area. Marilyn was so tickled to be in her ‘homeland’, once dormant language skills materialized throughout the week, and she would gleefully blurt out “I’m in Finland!” or “Sisu!” as we toured the streets of Helsinki. Her Finnish pride was contagious.

I hope this begins to provide glimpses of the country and its character. There is so so much to learn and attempt to understand as a foreigner living here. One thing is already abundantly clear: Finland is an incredibly beautiful, complex country enjoying unparalleled successes in its educational model, environmental protections, and social infrastructure in spite of its many historic challenges.

What a fantastic kettle of fish to land in…

5 Replies to “Finland-at-a-glance”

  1. I love you and your blog! And if course Estonia is another one of my favorite places – talk about Sisu. These folks have really survived and thrived since their independence. I also thought Hungarian is also Finno Ugric but maybe not. You are such a good writer!

    1. Hungarian is from the same root, but way less recognizable as related as is Estonian. And I’ve learned from Ron that “the Ingrians speak a Finnic language somewhere between Finnish and Estonian. Ingria was turned into Russian St. Petersburg province. I’ve added this as a topic for a future post!

    1. Who doesn’t love a good Karjalanriispiirakka! I like to warm them slightly, spread on the munavoi and then sprinkle a bit of suola. But must use ruisjauho (rye flour). but I dunno, sounds like a Finnic-Brazilian hybrid could be very interesting too. maybe make it an open face rice & meat pie ala feijoada in a karelian crust? 🙂

  2. We have a lot of Finn immigrants up here in the Copper Country. So many that, while I have no genetic Finnish heritage, I do have a cultural heritage… and I can swear very fluently in Finn. Sisu is a word we use locally to encourage people to carry on. “Your basement is full of dirt and water because of a flood? Sisu, man, we’re here to help.” And 100 volunteers show up with buckets and shovels and power washers and food and 8 hours later you’re in shock because there is no more mud in your basement. One of the recent posters that has shown up with the Coronavirus is “Keep Calm and Sisu.”

    Many of the towns have signs in English and Finnish. I may not know what the word means, but I can pronounce it. And local food favorites include Kaloma mojakka, and joulutorttu and Ruisleipä and juusto (my friend Mrs Keranen makes the best).

    Until about 3 years ago, the longest running local program was Suomi Kutsuu, hosted by Carl Pelonpaa which was a Finnish language and culture program on Sunday mornings. We watched it often because my grandmother loved the music, even tho she did not speak Finn. There was much sadness when Carl retired and they cancelled the show (probably because they couldn’t find anyone who spoke Finn locally anymore.)
    We also have Finlandia University (previously known as Suomi College). They have an entire degree on Finland. We have a Suomi Fest in the summer. And have hosted the Finnish-American Cultural Festival several times.

    Have fun… and come visit when you get back, it’ll feel like Finland with a weird twist.

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