What did I learn: FINLAND

Lighthouse Joensuu – Source: Wood Design & Building

So, I’ve spent all of March trying to learn more about Finland – at least the experiences I can get from home! After spending the first few months on countries where I knew nothing when I started, it was very different to instead focus on a country I was somewhat familiar with. There’s also a huge difference in terms of what’s available when you’re reading up on a well-off European country where most people speak some English – there’s no shortage of access for whatever you’re interested in.

So what did I learn about Finland?

Well, this definitely was the most “familiar” country so far – apart from the accessibility mentioned above, there were plenty of things that weren’t too far different from my own everyday life. As a Canadian, of course beautiful snowy woods and hockey are things we share with Finland, but also it feels like we’re both mid-size countries that are punching above our weight on the international stage. We both know we will never be superpowers, but we’re pleased to have a seat at the table.

The other thing that felt very familiar is a lot of the shared Scandinavian experience. My family originally is from Sweden, and there are many aesthetic and cultural overlaps – especially with food. Many of the recipes I looked up had parallel Swedish ones (though Karelian hot pot is a Finnish specialty), and flavours like pickled herring, adding nutmeg to meat, and salted black licorice are all things that are close to home for me.

That being said, the snack selection for Finland was amazing. I’m not sure you’d be able to enjoy all that Finland has to offer if you’re not on the licorice train, but I’m thrilled that I finally got to try tar licorice, as well as spicy pepper licorice!

Learning more about Finnish history was interesting, including the crystallizing of Finnish identity in the late 19th century – and then learning more about Finland’s role in WWII, both the serious and the funny parts. Identity also seems to still weigh heavy, as new immigrants have found.

One of the most illuminating things this month was asking Finns about Finnish “wackiness“. It seems that really unique Finnish things get played up as “gosh those Finns are so weird and different”, often things that aren’t that actually that popular in the country. Most of the Finns that answered had rolled their eyes at it, though there was also a hope that at least a superficial interest might lead someone into a deeper understanding of their country.

Musically, there are a world of great options for Finnish music – I really loved Kaaosradio and yes, I definitely appreciated getting to experience something really new to me – Finnish metal.

FINLAND: Finnish Radio / Podcasts

The Oulu Groke. Source: Atlas Obscura / HRNICK

Once again, took a spin through Radio Garden this month to listen to Finnish radio. Here’s some channels I found myself listening to.

Kaupunki Kanava – Campus radio from Laajasalo College in Helsinki – a mix of music, mainly in Finnish, with some talk interspersed. Listen live here.

Radio Inari – I tried this station at random since it was the furthest north in Finland (on Radio Garden at least). It’s turned out to be a really delightful mix of music, you can’t predict what they’ll play next. Finnish pop songs, Detroit rap, EDM, Top 40, who knows! Listen live here.

Viva Classica – Just a nice, soothing, good quality classical music station. Tends to be light, soothing classical, minimal to no talking. Listen live here.

Kaaosradio 24/7 and Kaaosradio Chillout – A pair of wonderfully weird internet radio stations in Helsinki – they play really wild and trippy mixes, usually experimental house, trance, techno and ambient music. Usually 24/7 is more wild and Chillout is more melodic, but I’ve dipped into both at different hours and got some really different beats. I really dig these. Listen to 24/7 here and Chillout here.

SuomiRäp – You want Finnish rap? 24/7 Finnish rap! Listen live here.

Government Palace, Helsinki – Source: Pixy

As well as radio stations, I poked around for some Finnish podcasts. There’s a narrow band of podcasts from Finland but in English – a lot are either in Finnish or language learning. However, there are a few neat ones in English:

The History of Finland Podcast – First of all, get ready for one of the most soothing podcast voices – the host has soft voice with a strong Finnish accent. It’s almost ASMR and will easily soothe you off to sleep. It’s still in progress, but the podcast follows through Finnish history starting from the Mesolithic onwards, as well as side episodes on Finnish minority groups like the Sami.

All Points North – English language news and culture podcast, produced through the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Usually a few topical subjects a week with a focus on politics and policy – both municipal and national. It strikes a nice balance between not dumbing-down subjects but also clarifies things that would need to be explained to non-Finns.

FINLAND: “Wackiness”

Ice Floating in Lapland – Source: Velvet Escape / Keith Jenkins

As I look up new stuff to learn about Finland, I’ve been noticing a bit of a common theme. A lot of articles or videos in English, both by Finns and non-Finns, seem to really play up the “Finland is so wacky and different” angle – where they take things that are unique to Finland and really ham it up. I wanted to see how people in Finland saw this – was it seen as a way to share their country and culture, or does it feel like stereotyping or ignoring real life in Finland? I posed the question to the Finland subreddit and here’s a sampling of some of the answers I got:

“…it gets somewhat tiring to read about heavy metal knitting, mobile phone throwing contest and hobby horse racing as if anyone does those things.”

“I think every country likes to emphasise their uniqueness, even if those specialties are in fact shared with others (eg. saunas of different forms are actually part of other cultures too). As for Finland, for me it depends on what the “wacky” thing is.

I like seeing folks try our foods and sauna. Personally I’d like to see more people try out kalakukko and Karelian stew, but I understand those can’t really be exported without spoiling. I also like when visitors showcase our nature, though again I wish swamp tours with their own natural features would be more common. Many of our national parks have swamp routes that are safe and they are even in our name (swamp = suo, Finland = SUOmi, though it’s just a coincidence AFAIK).

What I don’t like are the alcoholic stereotypes. I have grown to hate the overused pic of the shirtless guy waving our flag obviously drunk, that is often used to imply celebration. I also dislike the lazy swear words that everyone learns and overuses online. Great, you know ‘perkele’ and ‘vittu’, you are a genius language learner, yey /s. But do you know even what those words mean?

Also as has been discussed in this sub recently, it feels like some stuff is more commonly brought up online than among Finns themselves. Like the glorification of sisu or the epic sniper Häyhä. We don’t really emphasise them, though of course we appreciate them.

So to sum up, it depends. We Finns sometimes care overmuch what others think about us, but it’s nice that others are interested in how we live. Even if it’s just to make a youtube video of grimacingly trying out salmiakki for clicks.”

“They’re something anyone could remark about if you said you’re Finnish, and I personally prefer clear, humorous stereotypes to being completely unknown. It’s also a great feeling for most foreigners to be able to show that ”Hey, I know that place! (somewhat)”

It’s just a thing folk can say when they see something related to Finland and they recognize it. People want to belong and flaunt whatever, whenever on the internet, and showcasing the fact that they know stuff (even stereotypes or very simple surface level linguistics) about a relatively weird country to them is probably a really cool thing to showcase.

That’s why I personally don’t mind but I do see how people might be growing tired of it of course.”

“Each of the singular things gets really tiring after a while. The general ‘Look, these guys are weird’ also gets tiring after a bit of a longer while, after you have rotated through many enough of the singular cases, which also got tiring in a shorter while, as I said.

However, the laws of human behaviour and laws of media probably dictate that we’re stuck with this bullshit, so you just need to do your best to avoid it.

If it can be the catalyst of someone learning things they didn’t know about Finland, I mean learning those things properly and not some scandal-laden entertainment, that is definitely good, nonetheless. Same is true if someone gets genuinely interested in Finland because of that – such interest must not be shunned for extraneous reasons. What I’m saying is kind of like an ‘Accept good gifts given even for wrong reasons’ mindset.”

“Foreign media reports on Finland are usually very generous. I think from the Finnish side there’s someone feeding these stories to internationals news outlets. I’ve noticed that Finns are very very sensitive to perceived criticism of Finland – so as long as there is no critical content then Finns will be o.k with the stories”

I know that several things I’ve touched on this month – free buckets, 40 year old graffiti, the WWII solider on meth definitely end up in “Wacky Finland” type lists. However, I hope I’ve also been able to get a bit deeper than that superficial level this month.

It’s really interesting to hear from folks from Finland on how they navigate these kinds of questions, and a big thank you to everyone on the subreddit that answered!

FINLAND: Moomin tea

Couldn’t do a month on Finland without Moomins! They have, of course, become a marketing sensation and are particularly popular in Japan. Finnish companies have licensed Moomins on everything, and I’m particularly charmed by these two tea samplers (I got them at FinnGoods). One box is different flavours of rooibos, the other different black teas.

All Things Fun are Good for Your Tummy (flavoured rooibos)

  • Me too – Strawberry milkshake rooibos, though the flavouring is very mild, it’s mainly rooibos with a slight hint of strawberry.
  • Ready to go? – Banana and vanilla – there’s a whiff of artificial banana but it’s not overpowering, goes nicely with vanilla and rooibos.
  • You’ll see – It’s flavoured like chocolate cake but it actually captures the …cake part? Like it’s not just chocolate flavoured. And it’s also not cloying – very tasty.
  • Tangy trick – The box says cheesecake, the bag says banana cheesecake – it’s not distinctly banana like the other one, it’s more of a slightly creamy cake flavour.

Best Moment of the Day (flavoured black tea)

  • Sweetheart – Wild strawberry black tea, has a very fresh flavour, almost like the green tops of strawberries.
  • I Should Know! – Black tea flavoured with lemon – the lemon is very subtle, more subtle than actual lemon in your tea, but it’s nice.
  • Go for It! – Blueberry muffin black tea – this seems the least flavourful of them all, there’s a bit of a nutty taste but otherwise nothing really blueberry or muffin.
  • Momminmamma’s Magic Potion – Not just strawberry, but strawberry and rhubarb. There’s a nice tart scent of the dried tea, but it’s more sweet strawberry flavour when brewed. Its nice but not dramatically different from the strawberry one.

Also, look how cute the packaging is!

FINLAND: Aimo Koivunen’s terrible adventure

There are many really wild stories that come out of wartime, but the story of Aimo Koivunen, the Finnish WWII soldier who accidentally took a bottle’s worth of meth pills, is an astounding one. It can be read as an incredible real life tale of survival, a criticism of the use of “pep” pills during the war, or as an over-the-top binge story. Koivunen not only survived, but lived to old age, so please enjoy this irreverent retelling of his story:

FINLAND: Snacks galore!

This is the fourth (!) post of Finnish candy I’ve got to try this month (the first, second, and third are here). This is the second half of my order from FinnGoods – a Vancouver-based Finnish snack store.

Terva Leijona – Literally “Tar Lion” – the infamous pine tar licorice! Starts off minty, then a smokey pine flavour. Doesn’t really register as licorice to me, but I am loving the pine tar – it’s like pine needle tea meets lapsang souchong! Strong menthol flavour overall, breath ends up campfire+mint. These are great.

MakuLaku soft licorice – Comes in many flavours, I ordered strawberry and mint. The strawberry has the flavouring on the outside of the licorice, and is firm with a strong artificial strawberry flavour – similar to licorice Allsorts. The mint one is soft licorice on the outside and mint cream on the inside – the mint dominates the licorice almost totally.

Pihlaja Kettu Rävar – These marmalade-flavoured fox candies are apparently Fazer’s oldest product that’s still available – they started selling them in 1895. Very chewy, slightly tart, and with a very unique berry-and-citrus flavour.

Pätkis – A soft chocolate truffle bar with a hint of mint. Kind of like a more chocolatey After Eight, and quite rich.

Pax – I absolutely love the packaging design on these pastilles. They were introduced post-war in 1947 as a herbal-and-licorice breath freshener. They’re slightly minty, with a firm chewy licorice base and some green herbal notes.

FINLAND: Pesäpallo

Pesäpallo is a Finnish variant of baseball, and it’s incredibly unique – the bases are on an asymmetrical zigzag and the ball is pitched straight in the air. In terms of play, it’s only vaguely like baseball and very strategic – hitting the ball out of the park is foul, not a home run, so you need to be able to target exactly where you want to ball to go – and also decide if you want to run at all. I watched the below video on the rules, then re-read through the Wikipedia article, and while I wouldn’t count myself as being able to completely follow, I think I have a rough idea how it works.

There’s a few full games posted online, though they’re all in Finnish – however, once you stop thinking of it as “different baseball” and think of it as its own sport, it gets a bit easier to follow. Here’s a little compilation for flavour:

That all being said, how popular is pesäpallo in Finland? It’s alleged to be the national sport, since it’s a truly Finnish creation – it was created in the 20s in the wake of Finnish independence with an eye to keep young men fit and active and thinking strategically for military duty. There’s a really interesting article on the creation and history of the spot at Virtually Nordic – it also touches on the small but dedicated following pesäpallo has in India, of all places.

However, currently pesäpallo seems to have the same kind of status in Finland that lacrosse has here in Canada – it’s the “national sport”, but as explained below, nobody swims in a fountain when you win the championships.