Written after a two-week stay in Helsinki in March 2019. Here we are, a year on and the world has drastically changed.
Many parts of Finnish life have been well-documented in the media in recent years: its fantastic education system; the happiness of its inhabitants; how its gaming sector played a key part in its tech renaissance. However, one aspect which has received little attention is something so basic and simple: life in Finland.
The thermometer contradicts the vast blue sky, as springtime temperatures of minus 10 means that the glistening ice hangs on for another few weeks yet. Every winter in Finland is a long winter — you can almost count daylight hours on one hand in the deepest depths of talvi. Those coming from choked-up, contaminated cities such as Madrid, Beijing or London will savour every breath of the crisp Finnish air, each inhalation like an instant booster shot to one’s immune system, each blast filling you with life.
Not your obvious choice
Helsinki is not an exotic weekend break destination like Barcelona, Paris or Milan — nor does it ever desire to be. Helsinki’s charm lies in its people, the daily interaction, its nature, and a variety of things to do and places to see to satisfy most. One could argue that there is no better destination to practice the current trending tourist concept of “living like a local” than Helsinki. With each passing year the desire to bustle and navigate through the masses, in order to capture a selfie with the Eiffel Tower or a Venetian gondola for our Instagram followers to see, is on the wane.
A 48-hour visitor could easily view Helsinki as unspectacular and well below the lofty standards set by its more glamorous Nordic neighbours. Sure, it lacks the colour and attractive architectural designs of Stockholm and Copenhagen and the streets may appear curiously empty, eve during usual peak foot traffic hours. But, it has something and that something can only be revealed by spending time in the Finnish capital, interacting with the locals, returning in the future to reacquaint with your new Finnish friends. It is often said that the Finns are distant and have little time for small talk — not true. Granted, you may take tram line 6 from Hietalahti to Kaisaniemenkatu (the street names are impressively long) without hearing a word, but the Finns are polite, not rude. They respect a person’s right to travel on public transport in peace, rather than sharing a phone conversation with the world, as is commonplace in most trams or metros around the world.
If you do come to Helsinki and live like a local, you will be treated accordingly. The Finnish genuinely appreciate when people take an interest in the country, and one of the first things you will notice after spending a couple of weeks in Helsinki is the idea of equality. There is no rich upper-east side like in New York or leafy, well-to-do southern suburbs like London. Propped up at any local bar, you could be sitting beside the most respected professor in the country or a shop assistant, and be unable to differentiate between the two. This may all sound cliché but it’s true. It really hits home when you are sat across from the CEO from one of the most successful gaming companies in the world who, like the rest of the workplace is shoe-less (this is very common in Finnish workplaces) and wearing a casual tshirt, greets you like a friend and remarks how “I would say that Finland is a place with a very inclusive and equalitarian culture; this is something that is very important to us. This goes back to the idea of safety: all of the neighbourhoods are equally safe here which derives from our mindset of everyone being in the same boat.”
The idea of safety and trust are fundamental to what is great about life in Helsinki. You will see children less than ten years old using public transport, alone, to go to school — something genuinely unthinkable in the vast majority of major capital cities around the globe. Nor should you be surprised to see a child of a similar age be sent to the local supermarket or convenience store to buy bread and fruit, and pay with plastic — yes, I did actually witness that during my stay.
The Finns are cool, not cold
The quality of life here is extremely high and this has been facilitated by a pretty even mix of common sense and pragmatism. Finland as a nation knows who it is and has zero ambition to yell from the rooftops about how pleasant a society it has — that is not the Finnish way. Visitors will almost never have to queue for an hour to access an attraction; traffic-induced panic to catch a flight simply do not happen, and the streets of Helsinki are almost too open and spacious — quite the change of setting from La Rambla or the claustrophobic alleyways and bridges of Venice.
Finns love to learn and do not stop upon graduation from higher education, a quick visit to the visually stunning Oodi library will reveal a world where young and old converge to converse and to learn, to enjoy a coffee (they drink a lot of coffee) and catch up with friends a family. The public library is still an incredibly powerful institution in Finnish society.
Finland is a place to visit and enjoy, to make friends and return, a place to become your getaway from the grind, for you and your family to enjoy the perks of city life while being literally ten minutes from pure nature.