...is what me and my friends back home would ask every single day when coming out in the morning, if we were all living in Helsinki. When I was asked to make a piece as a guest writer for this popular, delicate blog I said “okay.” This is my attempt to illustrate (with words) my impressions on the Finnishism as spotted during my first 2 months at (what I think is) the capital of Newland (Uusimaa). Hopefully, the blog will remain as delicate and as popular as I first found it.
The stereotypical imagery
Firstly, let’s get rid of the stereotypical imagery I possessed: Finland, a place where everything just works, you freeze until you learn what to wear, expensiveness but welfare, restricted physical contact with other human beings until getting to really know them, small talk so small you’ll struggle to see it, blonde people everywhere, people so pale that you’ll feel healthy, robotic-like order and behaviour, and a long etcetera. Done.
I’m glad it only took me a couple of months to debunk some myths: that pale blonde people under those scarfs are human too! I found a few examples of innocent cheating that was somewhat relieving. For example, I heard of someone using their student card to get cheaper lunch. “Are you doing a Master’s?” -I asked- “yes, since 1998” was the reply, accompanied by a lack of embarrassment and a giggle. I’m not usually one for cheating but this felt like camomile for homesickness. This started to confirm my suspicion of all (Western?) cultures being pretty much the same with varying levels of corruption. (And by “corruption" I include any act between not returning 50 cents you got as surplus change, and getting a Ferrari after favouring your new friends so that they would get a public contract for millions.) Another important non-myth: people here speak a lot; you just have to give them the chance. And football supporters are much better than the Spanish: they are proportionally louder and their songs have real lyrics.
Suomen kieli is still an enigma to me. When trying to make sense out of the little Suomi I know, I get slapped in the ear by a storm of longwords and suffixes. I have suffix nightmares: teacher asking for suffixes and me mistakenly bringing only a couple of prefixes. It’s that bad. (Probably some of you know my translation attempt “Appelsiini on uusi musta.”) But you can still lead a normal life. A nicety that needed confirmation: here everybody speaks English. Even the old lady in the forest who wanted to share with me her perspective on those two huge dogs that looked just like donkeys. The dog owner also joined the chit-chat. And none of them were drunk, in case you were wondering. Which takes me to one of the least pleasant things around these parts…
The drunken people
I had the pleasure to share a 20-minute bus ride with a drunk with a job. Came back with him in the afternoon, went back into work with him in the morning. His smell was intact. It made me wonder about his line of work but I didn’t enquire as I believe wine tasting is a scam. He was probably tasting something stronger, and quite competitively. Probably half the times I get into a bus it smells not to alcohol but to drunk. Even in the morning, when seats look fresh. It’s an entity. And it lives in the bus. I’ve been told my sense of smell is especially acute, but he was a drunk too. What I still find puzzling is the number of times the bus smells like soup. Fortunately I don’t go out much at night, otherwise I’d have an extra paragraph.
The means of transportation
Connecting bus, tram and metro seems like a crucial skill in Helsinki: not many people get to work by taking only one transport capsule; know your connections, or you’re lost. Because: why having fewer lines with higher frequency when you can have a million buses every 20-30 minutes and make people risk their (really early) lunch? I have never witnessed such a transportation redundancy. Most likely explanation: the majority of people work at the city centre, and should buses not take them door-to-door to the office, they’d freeze to death. This makes all bus and tram lines to get funnelled into Rautatientori/Elielinaukio making up a significant proportion of the traffic they should be minimising. But I prefer this to seeing a corpse parade during my commuting because people had to walk 1 km to get to their bus stop on horizontal snowfall. What kills me everytime is how early you have to be at the bus stop, as buses do not mind being several minutes early. When I realised my problem was that buses were coming in too early, I realised that means I have no problems at all. After freezing quite a few times I figured out the only way to commute safely is going to Kamppi and get the buses right from the source. Still, it already happened that bus 122 wasn’t there on time (even though their trip starts at Kamppi), some other bus came, people went on, I sceptically stayed out because the number wasn’t right, another bus came along a few minutes later, whose number changed to 122 and a few of us got on while all the others were leaving the 122-wannabe bus to get on this one. We left like 6 minutes late and I was borderline furious. Again: when I realised 6 minutes of lateness was my problem, I realised that means I have no problems at all.
The work life
Starting with the bottomline: offices here could use more shoulder-punching. Helloes and goodbyes are not abundant, and everyone’s secondary goal is not to disturb their colleagues. The primary goal is to get things done. I was surprised when I went to work after cutting my hair really short after a few weeks of full-hedgehog, afro-like hairiness and no one said a word. In Barcelona they would’ve almost declared it a bank holiday. That’s good. Going for lunch is also much more efficient and less social: instead of interrupting everyone and making lunch a 1-hour affair, people get up, look around, ask “lunch?” and as soon as they get one companion, they depart. We get to the cafeteria, eat, talk, and come back when food is finished. Lingering a couple of minutes after the last chew is starting to feel cheeky now. This, however, I like. No one wastes more than 40-45 minutes off their workday, and we all leave happily around 5. Worked longer the day before? Leave at 4.30, no questions asked. Everyone’s assumed to be a responsible adult fully in control of their behaviour and schedules. You can always get a drink after work, there’s no need to take 3-4 breaks (plus lunch) as I saw in Barcelona. At least in my field, work quality depends on inspiration and continuity, which you spoil by taking a break every time you feel like changing positions on your seat. To wrap it up, at work here in Finland I don’t have to put up with: (a) colleagues frequently, harshly rearranging their underwear or surrounding area, (b) colleagues with strong alcohol breath every Monday morning and some Fridays, (c) spicy body odour, (d) accountants that need my help to calculate my own salary, (e) unpaid salaries, (f) justification of bad work because Twitter sucked when they started. True stories.
The trust and the private space
The matter of “no questions asked” is a big deal here, I sense, and makes some matters so much easier than in countries like Argentina. Paradigmatic example: when you start a new job, in Argentina you’re required to pass the “pre-occupational tests”, which are medical and psychological: pee, blood, chest x-ray, butterflies and umbrellas drawings, and you’re either unemployed again or good to go. The reason why they check your chest and head is that those are the most visible parts behind a desk, which is usually good enough. These tests and their results take a couple of weeks, with all their associated bureaucracy: taking appointments for different matters: fortunately, you hand out your pee and blood in the same place, but the x-ray and the drawings are two extra events, magnifying the time-wasting. Here in Finland my contract reads something along the lines of “I am healthy enough to do my work.” You sign below and that’s it. No butterflies, no umbrellas, no jokingly telling the old lady queueing in front of you (when she feels embarrassed and apologises to the nurse because her pee-cup is so empty) that you could lend her some (as yours is full.) In the same no-questions-asked vein I could imagine that anyone could walk in the streets wearing whatever they like, even naked, and people wouldn’t even stare as they would all think “s/he must have a very good reason to go out like this.” This, I like.
The sports (actually, the bets)
I was always surprised to notice how closely the average Finn follows sports. It took me over 10 short visits to Helsinki and a couple of months living here to realise why: the bets. It’s a nice solution: makes you feel the adrenaline without having to go outside, because it’s freezing or windy with gentle water droplets magically floating in the air, waiting for your face to get self-splashed. I was watching HJK's last game of the season and at some point the stadium screen was showing the number “20.20”. I asked if there was something special about number 20, maybe some old player or the number of sunny days in the year, and I was told it was the payout ratio for those who bet the current score. Then the score got ridiculous (0-3, the (home) champions down) and the payout was over 100. I’m quite sure at that point no one was paying any attention to the game.
This is what I admire and enjoy the most: the omnipresent bathroom hose, the drying rack above the kitchen sink, the leaving shoes outside, the winter clothes, the paying with card everywhere, the children in tracksuits that make them both survive and look like tiny car mechanics for everyone’s enjoyment, the buildings front door keypads, the opening-towards-the-outside doors, the master keys (I can open my building front and back doors, my flat door and the sauna door, all with the same key - delightful), the phones flat rates, the good cheap Internet, the invariably delicious expensive food, the scarf on top of the jacket, and a few other things I didn’t manage to take notes of.
I hope you've enjoyed this furious account on my first impressions about living in Helsinki. Don't forget this is an isolated post and you'll be back to enjoying the usual stories written by the bloghost in no time. Loppu!