10 Things I Learned in Finland

HELSINKI –

1 – Finns are cute, and their names are cuter. Among the people I met were a Matti, an Aino, a Paivi, a Hennu and a, uh, Patrick.

2 – My friends in Helsinki say that they have never spoken with their neighbors. Yet throughout my visit, people literally went out of their way to help me. No pretense, no hesitation, just genuine good-heartedness, and I never heard the word “no.” Service is the “devote-all-your-attention-to-one-customer-at-a-time” variety, which is regal if you’re that customer and exasperating if you’re next in line.

3 – The Finns invented Scandinavian design; the Swedes made money off of it. This means that you can buy a stool by Alvar Aalto, Finland’s design demigod, for about $75 in a specialty shop in Helsinki, while IKEA sells a tweaked version in massive volume for around $13.

4 – Finns love to get naked in public. Helsinki’s main pool – with sauna, naturally – is a 1928 classical gem, and swimming there alternates days by gender. The website says “Customers may swim with or without a bathing suit,” but I didn’t see anyone in the water wearing more than floaties.

5 – The Finnish language is like a secret shared by 5.25 million people. It’s alien to just about every other language on earth, except Hungarian and Estonian. Finnish, too, is cute. It sounds like everyone’s running around saying “singala sangala tally valley kingala rongala.” Here’s a Pig Latin version if you want to try sounding Finnish: roll every “r,” add an “ii” (pronounced “ee”) after any T or K, and an “ala” after every second or third word: “Herrrre’s a Pigala Latiin versionala…”

6 – Finnish has no pronouns for “he” and “she,” so pronoun confusion is endemic. Probably has something to do with names like Aino. If someone refers to you as “it,” it’s generally not meant to offend. Think of how much trouble you got into with le and la in French class.

7 – The salmon alone is worth the trip. It’s as common in Finland as rice is in Japan, served with sprigs of dill, whole red peppercorns or lemon, smoked, baked, in cream soup, etc. Finnish breads are also fantastic, dark, grainy and full of flavor. The elk and reindeer in Finland were way better than in Norway. And as we were informed at dinner one night, a hunter sandwich has no actual hunter in it.

8 – Funniest thing you see in the street: people swinging ski poles when walking. It’s called Nordic walking. It may be good exercise, but is it worth being ridiculed in a blog? At least I didn’t see anyone trying to street slalom. Second funniest thing you see in the street: dogs wearing tiny leather booties.

9 – Least funny thing you see in the street: people passed out drunk and/or driving the porcelain bus without using any actual porcelain. This happens with amazing regularity. Encouraging mitigating factor: their friends look after them with great care and patience.

10 – The name of Helsinki’s airport, Vantaa, looks a lot like the Swedish word for “wait” (vänta), which you see on signs all over the airport, as in “I can’t wait to go back.”

Read more:
Helsinki article from LA Times
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Helsinki hotels from LA Times.
Helsinki photo gallery from LA Times.
Interview with Helsinki fashion designer Annika Rantala, SilverKris Magazine (Singapore Airlines).

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