Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tervetuloa Suomeen! (Welcome to Finland)

Wanna hear a funny story?

So I get off the plane in Helsinki at midnight on Friday, and I still have to find my way to Turku, Finland's original capital and my home for the next six weeks.  The way to the baggage claim and the bus stop is clearly marked, and the bus schedule is organized so that new buses meet incoming flights more or less, even those that arrive late at night, and even when there are few passengers. My bus arrives on time, but - get this - I realize I don't have any Euros.  What a bind, right? But the driver accepts credit cards, and I get to Turku right on time.  This is convenient, because somebody from my program was meeting me at the Turku bus station, and didn't have to wait around.

No?  No good?  Alright, alright - try this one.  The next morning, I go to the student housing office with my Finnish teacher to get the key to my room.  Walk in the door, look around - it's clean, and the skylights allow for a huge range of indoor plants.  There's nobody else in the office, but my teacher presses a little button, receives a ticket with a number, and then waits for the number to appear on a little electronic sign before approaching a desk.  So I say to my teacher, "what's the deal with that?"  Right?  There's nobody there, it's perfectly clear that all three employees are available to help a customer.

So it turns out, the office does get busy sometimes, and when it isn't, they still use the machine for statistical purposes.  That is, from the read-out they can see how many customers they get, when the customers tend to come, and then the office can adjust work schedules accordingly.

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It would appear at first glance that the Finns, in their pursuit of Progress, have successfully eradicated the funny from their country.  I know that can't really be the case, but my theory is that the funny must get more concentrated the closer you get to the Russian border.  It's like the radiation - they can't stop it at customs, and they certainly can't stop the Russians from producing it.  I kept my eyes out for it the first day I was here, but all I saw everywhere were healthy people running back and forth in Finland-branded athletic clothes, on the correct side of the fresh paint on the smooth paths, avoiding the hazards marked with bright red and yellow poles, bathed in golden sunlight for the first and last four hours of each day.


There are rows of unlocked bikes outside each building, unlocked cars in the center of the city.  The neighborhood has its own hydroelectric dam, the hydroelectric dam has a fish ladder, and the fish ladder has an informational plaque about how healthy the fish populations are.*


Downstream, more healthy people are fishing in an environmentally responsible manner, bathed in the same golden sunlight for the first and last four hours of each day.  There are no police; rules became obsolete as the Finns lost all cause to break them, and both laws and law enforcement disappeared in tandem.  At this point the street signs don't regulate anything; they just describe what life is like:


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So if you're like me, all of this raises the same question - how can anybody stand to live like this?  I think the problem is economic in nature.  It occurred to me when I noticed something peculiar at the mall, while looking for a prepaid cell phone.  The stores are varied and fully-stocked, such that one might imagine there is trade.  But when I needed help getting a phone out of the locked case, I noticed there were no salespeople.  Then I looked even closer, and realized there were no customers, either.


I think that the economy, like the country, runs so efficiently that people have been rendered superfluous.  Goods move without human mediation, as if in some sort of economic perpetual motion machine.  Flights land, buses move back and forth whether or not there are passengers, offices are empty but you take a number when you walk in, and the machine counts you for statistical purposes. And if you think about it, the machine's ultimate goal is to someday render itself unnecessary.  The Finns don't dry their dishes - they have invented a cupboard with no bottom that sits above the kitchen sink, and the dishes dry of their own accord.



Everything is working, but nobody is doing anything and nothing is happening.  It's a very peculiar place.

My first theory was that Finland had some massive influx of wealth at one point - perhaps the Nokia boom, or phenomenal worldwide sales of those cupboards - and then stopped allowing money out of the country, so that it might be passed around endlessly within Finnish borders.  But any economist would tell you that's impossible, because people drop coins where they can't reach them, or sometimes lose their wallets entirely.  

And what of the Finns themselves?  How do they cope?

It's hard to say, and this blog will hopefully uncover the truth in time.  One obstacle is that the Finns are famously silent, and will never speak without some sort of external stimulus.  For instance, if a small Finnish town doesn't attract foreign visitors, the lifeline of new words dries up and the entire population falls silent.  If it weren't for tourism in the bigger cities, the Finns would have gone completely mute when the last Russians withdrew in 1948.  I'd be learning a dead language, something like Latin, but for elves.



Now that I think about it, maybe that's how the monetary problem is resolved, too - I had 120 Euros when I got here, and now I only have 30.  Maybe the Finns know what they're doing after all.  This and other questions will be explored as the blog and the summer unfold.

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And so, Finland seems a fascinating place, even if it couldn't generate culture shock with a Finnish-made car battery.  In future entries, I plan to look in depth at the Finnish language, the city of Turku and its surroundings, the sauna, Finland's rambunctious youth, any other destination I reach, and anything else the world needs to know.  I am studying here for ten weeks or so, both in this city and in Oulu, a city in the wild Finnish North.  If you haven't subscribed by email, do so immediately. If, on the other hand, you have subscribed by email but do not want further updates, simply change your email address.




*Update - this paragraph has been challenged by many Finnish readers.  Apparently, they use fancy subtle locks so the bikes can't be ridden away, and I didn't notice them.  Still, in Berkeley those bikes would be on the back of a pickup truck in ten minutes, whether or not the wheels turn.

28 comments:

  1. My subscriber is smarter than your subscriber. I can see you, but you can't see me...

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    1. Joke's on you, Carrie - I don't know what a subscriber is.

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  2. did you take your crock pot with you to finland? that's funny.

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  3. Couldn't have described Scandinavia better myself. Wait until you see all the cool utensils and stuff they have. Their cheese-graters are much better than ours. But there's definitely a seedy underworld to Scandinavia, believe me. You're just not looking hard enough. You may have to go incognito as a fin or something though.

    Also, you're blog has inspired me to start my own blog. Here's the thing thing though: I want to make my blogging activities efficient and centralized so I'm thinking of combining reading your blog and writing my own by writing my blog in the comment section of your blog. I'll even include stuff like my experience of reading your blog in the various places I visit this summer as payment for letting me use the space. I know you are going to get a lot of readers so I figured your comments section would be better than that of one of my married friend's from high school. What do you say?

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    1. If it's efficient and centralized, I'm for it. If you write a blog under my blog, I will gladly pay you 30% of my Google AdSense revenue, so long as you attract more than 60% of the pageviews.

      Matter of fact, I might start a blog under your blog. Basically it'll be my experiences in Finland, plus a little about the experience of reading how you experienced my experiences in Finland.

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    2. I'll expect to be paid a cut for that, though.

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  4. I second the seedy underworld aspect. In particular when it comes to bureaucracy. I waited at immigration for 4 1/2 hours when the wait time sign at the start said 60 minutes. From there it just steadily climbs, in relation to nothing, until the offices close at 12pm and you're locked inside. And then whatever amount of wait minutes there were just sit there unchanged, even though people appear to be getting helped, and you kind of wonder if maybe you died when you walked in the door and you got sent to a very multiethnic part of purgatory as the only American.

    Also, this guy was pissing right outside my local grocery store in broad daylight a couple days ago, and he thought he was real clever turning to face the store to do it, but as with most scandinavian buildings the whole front was made entirely of glass.

    I'm also assuming the Finns have the same showers as we do in Denmark, which is both a shower for you and the entire bathroom, but the joke is that the bathroom takes a lot longer to dry.

    I could go on and on about the things that really don't make any sense, and how I try and justify them through recourse to making up strange laws that don't really exist. Or the metric system. Like why can I only buy milk 1 liter at a time? BECAUSE THEY DON'T KNOW WHAT A GALLON IS. Or hyldebær juice lobbyists. Either way, if it's a big enough city there's domestic abuse, alcoholism, elder neglect, and a load of inefficient public services to be found. Good hunting!

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    1. You do use a shower curtain, and then you have this big squeegee to dry the bathroom floor. Bah, extra steps.

      The upside is that you just cleaned the bathroom. And you can use it to pressure-wash your moped engine, or the kids, or use it for an art project, or anything else you need a space that you can hose down for.

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    2. 1,5 liter milk cartons are widely available.

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  5. I mentioned the bureaucracy, a Finn told me 'yes, it's very bureaucratic. But it works." That's an interesting counterpoint. It does seem to work, even if I had to fill out three forms for each student in my English class, and six for my room.

    The shower is indeed just a open room with the rest of the bathroom, but there is a rail for a curtain - I don't use it, but if I did, perhaps the whole system would make more sense than our equivalent... I think I favor the Scandinavians on that, I was even thinking about the possibility of having such a shower in America.

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  6. The bureaucracy is there to serve the bureaucrats. It wastes incredible amounts of money and time. You'll get more than a little fed up with it if you ever have to work in public office.

    The shower curtain is usually used because it's a cheaper alternative, and easier to clean, just throw it in the washer. But drying the floor is another matter, if the floor has been built correctly, it should dry up pretty fast. You can however speed it up with a squeegee: http://www.sinituote.fi/Suomeksi/Tuotteet/Hakutulokset?itemid=580&showlocation=d2925d17-53d0-4afb-9e12-ffc920f9844c

    Oh and about people not locking their bikes and cars, and not having any need for the police…that's not really realistic apart from the countryside…not sure if even there.
    Unfortunately we have our share of violent crime as well…
    http://yle.fi/uutiset/two_dead_7_injured_in_hyvinkaa_shootings/6136158

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  8. My fellow Finn above speaks wisdom; we are facing an economic ruin due the bloated bureaucracy system. And thanks to socialists, we're (still) not allowed to fix that.

    I give an example from Turku area: In the larger Turku area, there are approximately 120 000+ citizens. Out of this number, roughly 66 000 are in working condition. Now then. Guess how many are in administrative jobs?

    Over 30 000, _which practically means there is almost 1 person extra person per citizen to do unnecessary paper pushing. And as we're not exactly a rich country in economical sense, anyone can understand that's simply just not sustainable.

    Other strange anomalies: I work as an entrepreneur and practically considered a second-rate citizen by the government, including instances working in cooperation with it such as banks. When you put up a company, you "automatically quit" from the social security system. Seriously. Even if you have a small one-man company, you get no benefits or support of any kind, despite of paying multiple amount of taxes. I laugh every time people say how equal life in here is!

    Also, we have an website for finding jobs (mol.fi) which, strangely enough, is not accessible by night. Yep, you heard right, the website's accessibility is restricted to office hours. It blows my mind.

    I could go on, there are good things in here as well but we're on a verge of taking a deep downwards plummet and last 100 years have quite good statistics what that means :(

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    1. Just to nitpick MR's could-be-sarcastic answer, Turku is a city for over 178 000 people. In the larger Turku area there are over 340 000 people. In Turku, the amount of people in administrative jobs is around 6% (~10k).

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    2. 30 000 workers out of 66 000 is the entire public sector, including teachers, nurses, police, firemen etc. They do some things besides pushing paper.

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    3. Damn, you got me :-) However, it's a pity official numbers don't match with the actual unofficial ones; got pretty nasty inside numbers...

      I don't consider teachers, nurses, police of firemen exactly administrative positions :-D But sorry guys, 30k is _not_ the whole public sector even if that's what the official numbers says.

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    4. Yuor statistics, my brother (=MR MAY)- how to express it nicely... you should do your homework first. You'll get more reliability and attention when telling the truth, not pulling the figures out of your torn hat.

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    5. But as this thread proves false numbers get more attention, so your argument is moot :-) Which was the whole point as at least one person noticed.

      My hat is intact, by the way. As is Iosif's too, I presume.

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  9. I'm a native and I do think you're observations are mostly on mark. If you're staying in Ylioppilaskylä in July, the peak of the summer vacation season, you'll find it a lot more deserted than it is now. There'll be very nearly nothing happening at the universities and the students will be off on their vacations.

    The Citymarket does get crowded. Try it on a Saturday around 3 pm and you'll probably have to stand in a long line to the cashier. And as for the phones, normally those are actually one of the few things that someone is eager to sell you. Not the supermarket people, but the guy at the mobile operator shop-in-a-shop. Trying to get service buying shoes or something can be really tough in comparison.

    Turku is actually the third city by population after Tampere, so be careful when making comments within an earshot of Tampere natives. Of course, if you ask the people of Turku, it's the original capital and therefore the first city.

    The Halistenkoski dam has never had a hydroelectric plant in it. There has been a mill and a textile factory at various points during history (700+ years of it), but now there's only the Turku city waterworks. The dam is used mostly for flood control and the reservoir as the supply for the infamously bad Turku tapwater. It might not seem bad to you, but your should try the tapwater in the parts of Finland where it's good.

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  10. (That's supposed to be "your observations" in the previous comment.)

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  11. Mmmm.. Yes we do know what a gallon is. It's an unstandard amount of liquid that doesn't go with anything and is too cumbersome to carry. It represents chaos. As you can see, a gallon does not fit the picture which has very beautifully and mostly accurately been painted about us in this blog. :)

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  12. I seem to have attracted a large Finnish following. It's good for feedback (I've fixed the 'second city' comment), but bad because I can't make stuff up. Anyway, tervetuloa Suoumalaisille! It's such a different experience, blogging in a country that considers broadband access a universal human right.

    I do respectfully disagree about the bike locks - if any of you Finns need a new bike, I can tell you where to get fifty.

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    1. This was very entertaining to read, I'll definitely follow your future adventures thru this medium. However, the rather confusing debates over RSS and email subscriptions do lead me to just bookmark the address and rely on my memory to come check about new posts. :]

      Also: can…not…resist…small…nitpicking…but…I'll…disguise…it…as…observation:

      suomalaisille

      One U-less and the words about places start with capital letters, words about people don't. I can't seem to decide if that tells something or not about us.

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    2. Oh yeah, not sure where that extra 'u' came from. And everybody, follow this example - bookmarks are back in vogue.

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  13. You know, the digital culture fits us Finns like a glove in a hand, that we seldom utter a word in real life but open up in the realm of the internet :) and use it other ways too before showing up:

    Think for example that me & my buddy used the Meteorological Institute's rain radar in order to avoid going out too early today, when an occasional shower was to hit. So, you won't find many Finns doing wrong things at a wrong time.

    Compared to many cultures, this definitely still is a small, no-nonsense, and happy nation despite having those murkier incidents. Welcome!

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  14. “It would appear at first glance that the Finns, in their pursuit of Progress, have successfully eradicated the funny from their country. I know that can't really be the case, but my theory is that the funny must get more concentrated the closer you get to the Russian border.”

    Having to take a waiting number in any case is somehow a leap to being unfunny, which in turn is produced in Russia? That's an effective generalisation of two cultures at the same time.

    You also arrived to the country's fifth largest city, on its outskirts to a research park, into a mall used by drive-to-work-drive-to-home kind of people, in summer, on a Saturday, and you make the leap that well, the whole country must be this empty then.

    If a blog post about the apparent desolation, decency/adherence to rules (or maybe the blue-white European regulation signs for residential areas [http://bit.ly/LbDWsF] are just scary) and silence in one town being applied to the whole country doesn't tell of a culture shock, I'm not sure what does.

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    1. Hey! How'd you know it was Saturday??

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    2. The flight arrived on Friday, then you wrote "the next morning". I extrapolated.
      And that Citymarket is familiar.

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