Finland is this small, somewhat Nordic, somewhat Baltic nation in the corner of Europe. Whilst based on a continued conspiracy theory there remains a 50/50 chance that this happiest nation does not exist. Last year however I moved to this hybrid nation of cultural history. To this day I still believe it is real, unless this is some matrix simulation – but now I am digressing. I wrote about my last set of culture shocks earlier, and you can read about them here.
And now, like with many good things in life, there was a request for a comeback tour. So, as I remain in the country that invented wife carrying, I am now here to guide you through this nation like a Guardian Angel. So let us dive right in.
Culture shocks: Finnish food concoctions
I come from an Island whose cuisine typically involves Gordon Ramsay demanding Lamb sauce or Jamie Oliver adding Chilli Jam to something that did not need Chilli Jam while simultaneously ‘wazzing’ something else up. Although being British often does not give me a right to comment on what other people do to food, I think with what Finns do to other cultures cuisine needs to go on a list of human right violations.
For example, let us take the humble croissant (pronunciation here). The French have my respect – they could not get royalty to work, baking they nailed. They took flour and butter and made something I want to fall asleep on. Layers upon layers of butter crust, slightly fermented into the perfect snack to accompany a little chocolate spread, some jam, or for me, plain with coffee.
The Finns took one look at this perfect pastry and went ‘we can make this better’. How, may you ask? By opening it up and stuffing prawns in it. A prawn and mayonnaise croissant is sacrilege. And beside the barbarism to shrimps and croissants aside, the Finnish supermarket chain then looks you dead in the eye and asks 6 euros of your hard-earned money for this monstrosity.
If you thought the Finns stopped there, you would be wrong. Like 18th Century Imperialism, they keep expanding their reach with newfound cuisine to conquer. For example, like the Barbarians that sacked Rome once, the Finns too decided to sack Rome with their concoctions of pizzas.
Granted a nice combination of new toppings is welcomed. For example, my personal favourite is Italian sausage, fig, pear mozzarella and walnuts. Don’t like it, sue me? But I know you have not tried it. The Finnish pizza shop took the bar up a level, firstly sitting in a merger of cuisines instantly because the ever-entrepreneurial Finns have mixed the gastronomy of kebab shops and pizza takeaways in one.
In the mix of two crossroads of culinary excellence there has once again been crafted another Frankensteinian Seafood beast. Purveying my local kebab shops menu is always a joy, however, the pizza that stands out is: Crab, Tuna, Shrimp, Clam, Blue Cheese, Feta Cheese, Garlic, Pineapple. What do you call this? The shop in questions calls it the Finnish Fantasy. Maybe this is your style or maybe this shop speaks for this nation, I don’t know. What I can speak to, is somehow this survives on their menu…
Whilst the eternal debate on whether pineapple belongs on a pizza: Finns have it on everything.
Did you want it on your pizza? No. Have it anyway.
On your burger? No. Have it anyway.
In your salad? No. Have it anyway.
In your dessert? No. Have it anyway.
This reminds me of the how 16th century explorers used to have pineapples on their mantles to symbolise their wealth, Finns too hold pineapple to the highest regards, only beaten by the sauna and silence.
Some food from the Finns still holds from the 16th century. Egg butter for example. This consists of hard-boiled eggs, smashed into butter. Whilst in the brutal winter prior to modern insulation and office-based jobs, the calories this provided would have been vital. But to date, it remains culturally confusing that egg butter is placed onto a rice pudding pie, known as “karelian pie”, karjalanpiirakka. In England, rice pudding is a dessert, in Finland, it is sealed in pastry and called breakfast.
The next and simple question is ‘Does rice grow in Finland?’. The answer is no. Nevertheless, I am proud of the Finns; it reminds me of being English. Like a proud parent watching their child do something you did at school, the Finns have taken something that has nothing to do with your heritage and call it their own.
Culture shocks: Cherished Finnish homeware
But maybe you survive and are brave enough to visit a Finnish home for dinner. I would. Usually there is the most elegant salmon main or something else classically Finnish, for example game meat is often served to guests. When it comes to game, learn the natural fauna. Do not presume that because it has antlers it is the same beast; reindeer, deer and moose are very different. If you do not know the difference, you will be subjected to terrible banter and many youtube videos explaining.
Despite your lack of knowledge on the nuances of antlered beasts which you could tame and ride, there is always amazing food, at least where I have been. To accompany dinner, the beverage of choice is often wine, like most of Europe. You will have a wine glass in front of you. And this is where the difference comes to the rest of Europe.
If, said wine glass, has a sticker on it, do not pull it off. I repeat, do not touch the sticker. This is to show you that they have nice glasses, classically Iittala. Like me, you do not have a clue what significance Iitalla holds to Finnish society, this is the pinnacle of Finnish status. If you are served out of Iittala, you now are an honoured guest.
If I fail my course, I will make a business to print the Iittala stickers and put them on Ikea glasses and sell them to the middle class of Finns. That would be a great business. MBA candidate right there.
Side by side with Iittala is Marimekko. Marimekko is an iconic Finnish brand, worn globally by for example Jackie Kennedy (wife to JFK). The design mandate follows natural patterns, they are floral, animals or polka dots. These polka dot mugs can be found everywhere, and the Finns love them. These make great souvenirs because they aren’t very common elsewhere and they are very nice.
Further things you would find in a Finnish household is Moomin merchandise. The full set. It is like the right of passage as a Finn when you move into your house. Someone brings the Moomin mugs, someone the Marimekko and someone the Iittala. If you walk into a house in Finland, and these are not here, simply walk out. Would I accept walking into an English household WITHOUT tea, a portrait of the Queen over the fireplace and a red phone box to make calls? No. Don’t accept these things in a Finnish household, demand better.
Culture shocks: Geographical essence of Finland
One dinner conversation that all Finns hold proud is the level of forestry and percentage of the trees that cover Finland. You will be faced often with ‘how much of YOUR country is forested?’. Like understanding fauna, also understand some of Finnish flora. The country’s economy was built of shipbuilding, the paper industry and logging for many years. Likely due to the 75% of forest which covers the land of 188 000 lakes.
To me it shows a hole in the Finnish educational system during basic geography or the oddest flex of a country ever. To compare, the UK has never had more than around 10% forested area consistently for over 1000 years. Nonetheless, be prepared to know the geographical history of your country and be proud to show it off at the Finnish dinner table.
Harkening back to a time I was once sat on a lake in a Finnish forest during a fishing trip, alongside a good friend and his daughter and me. I was saying what I think of Finland, and how you can boil it to three things: rocks, trees, and water. To my surprise a 10-year-old girl replies ‘What is England?’. Well to answer her question: the queen, tea, and rain. Simply.
However, the centre of the Finnish universe can be boiled down to those three things. Taking for example, the Sauna, the centre of Finnish culture revolves on these things. You burn trees, to heat rocks, to throw water at them.
Aside from this, Finland is magical. There is something special about Finland where sure there are some “big” cities, but you are always reminded, even 30 minutes out of the city, that it is a country of nature and not of metropolitan suburbs. I was highlighted this when visiting what I called the north (because it was further north than the top of Scotland) yet the Finns call it ‘Keski-Suomi’ (Middle Finland).
Culture shocks: Change of season
After summer, it is disappointing to see the Finns return to work and the traffic starts to pick up. Not only does that mean it is back to university, but it means that winter is coming.
During my stay in Middle Finland, I felt like a hobbit leaving the shire and exploring the rest of Middle Earth. I was highlighted why the Finns worship their summer holiday and the summer cottage culture. This is something I have not experienced before; I arrived late last year and did not get to enjoy this sensational season. Summer in the UK is nice, but Finnish summer makes the Mediterranean look bad.
My favourite part is the long days. It takes some time to getting used to but once you are, watching the sun never set but just hide behind the horizon is magical. After a long evening watching Eurovision, I walked backed with the sunset at 2am, which is something I haven’t experienced. I was very confused why it was so light so early (or late). Since this was the first time I had experienced this much wildlife since Australia, I did think I was being attacked by bats.
Now with winter drawing in, the fond memory of Summer begins to fade away. I already look forward to the summer though. Have you ever wanted to witness nearly 24 hours of sunlight? Wow it is amazing.
Culture shocks: The Finnish system
Throughout the year, whether Summer or Winter, accidents happen. I personally fell off my racing bike 6 times over summer. Once, semi seriously with a slight health scare. Thinking like the Brit I am, I thought ‘here we go, 2 years of waiting and clueless doctors.’ To my absolute surprise, not one bit.
I walked in on the Sunday. (You heard it. People work on Sundays.) Monday, I saw a Nurse, Thursday a doctor and then two weeks later I was with the specialist. But I also received a call to apologies for the delay.
In the UK, because of BREXIT, people are swapping fuel for doctors’ appointments, and I am here (with fuel) but having an apology for taking more than a week. I am still in shock, and this was 3 months ago.
The healthcare is amazing, but I must say the reliance on things working in Finland runs to the cultural roots. Buses, Trains, Healthcare, Education, everything works, and everyone follows the rules because that is why the system works.
Take for example, one thing that every self-respecting Finns follows: pedestrian traffic lights. I, for many years, have treated these as ornamental. Are there no cars? Then lets cross. No. The Finns wait. They trust in the guiding light of the green person like they trust in their social security. The green person is worshipped in the Finnish culture like Summer. So how do you stand out as a foreigner? You do not obey the green person.
Finland overall – round II
So, whether you want to brave the pizza toppings, weird ice-cream flavours and croissant fillings. Or perhaps you want to trade off fantastic public infrastructure for a cult that worships the green person? Whatever your reason, Finland takes the bar to another level when it comes down to student destinations.
Winter begins now. For the new students with the changing of the leaves and them beginning to fall, a new time arrives. With a new season begins a new time to understand where you are but also brings you something to look forward to.
I reiterate my previous point in this blog and the last. Finland is unique and amazing in all its quirks. It has many things that shock foreigners but so does every country, come to England and deal with their lack of a second language.
Finland gives you the ability to leave the town centres and be dropped into the wilderness. You can explore different landscapes that you will never find elsewhere. Short trees in the north, the archipelago, which is split culturally right down the middle, rolling hills towards Russia.
It brings about the development of a true metropolitan country and makes the US pale in comparison but brings with it this rugged beauty from the rocks, trees, and water.
It brings about the opportunity to find yourself lost in the sheer wonder of every national park and all the routes within. You take a step into these and find yourself in pure silence. You can be alone in your thoughts and begin to respect that you are part of nature, whether in the parks or not.
Finland will give you a part of your personality to match the landscape, rugged and adaptable. People say if you make it in New York, you make it anywhere. If you can survive your time in Finland, you will make it anywhere.
The writer, Alexander Spicer, is an #utuambassador and a student in the Master’s Degree Programme in Biomedical Sciences: Drug Discovery and Development track. See all international degree programmes at the University of Turku!
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