Fulbright in Finland Part 2: A Minnesota Swede in Väinämöinen’s Realm

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WESSWeb > WESS Newsletter > Fall 2012 > Fulbright in Finland Part 2: A Minnesota Swede in Väinämöinen’s Realm



Fulbright in Finland Part 2: A Minnesota Swede in Väinämöinen’s Realm
(See Fulbright in Finland for the first part of this research journey)

Both culturally and geographically, Finland represented a mix of the novel and the familiar for me as a Minnesotan. But it never disappointed! Think Rovio, Nokia, Linux, Marimekko and Iittala.

In the strictest sense Finland is considered a Nordic country rather than one of the Scandinavian countries, which, in addition to cultural heritage, share ethnic heritage and related languages. The Finnish language is distinct from the Scandinavian languages, instead being most closely related to Estonian and more distantly to Hungarian. This fact meant that I had next to no hook on which to hang my hat linguistically, which was an entirely new situation. Fortunately, I was able to get by most of the time with English and Swedish (the latter especially in the grocery store thanks to multilingual labeling), but I also took a class and learned the more important words and phrases necessary to day-to-day life, such as yliopisto (university), korvapuusti (cinnamon roll) and ilmaveivi (hockey: air hook shot).[1]

Officially, Finland is a bilingual country, despite the fact that Swedish is the native tongue to only 5-6% of the population, based mostly on the southwestern coast. I heard people on the street speaking Swedish only once with the notable exception of the St. Lucia Day celebration at Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square.

Lucia Procession 2011, Helsinki Cathedral

In Helsinki, a dialect exists called Stadin Slangi (literally “city slang”), which is a mix of mostly Swedish (but also German, Russian, and English) vocabulary with mostly Finnish grammar.[2] Thus Helsinki Regional Transport’s Journey Planner is available in Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian – and Slangi.[3]


Finland is currently home to 5.4 million people, most of whom are concentrated in the southern reaches. Its area is the eighth largest in Europe; it is also the least densely populated country in the EU. Finland’s vacant forest-and-lake landscape (down to the pine-and-birch composition of the forest) and rustic mökki (lake cabin) getaways are reminiscent of the Minnesota Northwoods. Finland joined the EU in 1995 and was a founding member of the Eurozone. It remains the only Nordic country to use the Euro.

At 1.1 million people, the greater Helsinki area – including Helsinki, Espoo (where Otaniemi is located) and Vantaa – represents the largest center of population and business, followed by Tampere and Turku.[4] Helsinki is located on the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea. Both Tallinn and St. Petersburg, which are across and at the end of the Gulf respectively, are within easy reach by ferry. Though situated on the southern coast, Helsinki is further north than either Oslo or Stockholm; indeed it is the northernmost urban center of over a million inhabitants in the world. The reality of its location was clear to me in December when the sun rose around 9:30am, giving us only about six hours of daylight.[5]

Dealing with the dark and cold in the winter is one way in which Finns display sisu, the national trait, which roughly translates as “guts”. Perhaps the Finns’ most epic sisu moment was during the Winter War of 1939/1940, when the Finnish army held its ground against the invading Soviets – who had three times the men, thirty times the aircraft and one hundred times the tanks – much longer than could have been realistically hoped.[6] We Minnesotans are similarly affected by what I call “winter sisu”. Now that I am back in the U.S., however, I can admit that the Finns have us beat on the point of darkness. They also have us beat on the ways they deal with it, infusing soft, warm light into their buildings and living spaces and spending the dark hours with close friends and family.

One of the things I noticed immediately about Finland was a deep-rooted culture of reading and the high value placed on libraries. The latter is reflected, for instance, in the beautiful, functional space they inhabit and offer to users. The Finnish library system is considered one of the best in the world. Finns are avid consumers of library services at 19 loans and 20 library visits (ten physical and ten virtual) per capita annually. Around 80% are regular library users.[7] The Ministry of Education and Culture is clearly proud of national achievements in this area: “Finland is known for its comprehensive library network, high user and lending rates and effective use of technology and information networks in libraries.”[8]

Otaniemi Campus Library, Aalto University, designed by Alvar Aalto


It comes as no surprise, then, that the Finnish educational system is also considered one of the best in the world. In education, as in most areas, Finland seems content to go its own way. Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg expressed this tendency in a recent interview with The New York Times: “Education policies here [in the U.S.] are always written to be ‘the best’ or ‘the top’ this or that. …We’re not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us.”[9]

Sahlberg’s comment becomes more understandable when one considers the diverse forces that have shaped Finland. It was ruled by Sweden for almost 600 years until 1809, when it became an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. The Republic of Finland was only minted in December 1917, when the Finns, who had experienced a national (re)awakening akin to those sweeping many European countries in the 19th century, took the opportunity to declare their independence in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.[10] Finland remained largely agrarian into the 1950s and then industrialized rapidly. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, it held a delicate political and economic balance between East and West.

Helsinki is known for its modern architecture, but I was struck by the dearth of older buildings. The oldest stone building in Helsinki dates to 1757, and the oldest wooden building to 1818.[11]

Burgher’s House, Helsinki

Helsinki was founded relatively late (1550) as an economic rival to Hanseatic Reval (Tallinn) and did not become the capital until 1812.[12] A visit to the Finnish Architecture Museum informed me that much of the city’s housing was built to accommodate workers coming in from the countryside and refugees forced to flee areas ceded to the Soviet Union, including most of Karelia, in the middle decades of the 20th century.


Further manifestations of sisu were apparent when it came to coffee and salmiakki (salty black licorice) consumption, in which I participated eagerly.[13] Finns consume the most coffee in the world at over 12kg annually per capita.[14] After four months working with the Semantic Computing Research Group at Aalto University, I am thoroughly convinced of the necessity of an industrial-strength espresso machine in the workplace. Among other customs and practices cum habits I picked up in Finland are sauna (of course) and keppijumppa, a stretching and exercise routine originally developed for weightlifting training that was found to also benefit those of us who work long hours at computers. We now have an active keppijumppa group going in the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries. I am also hooked on suomirock, or Finnish gloom rock, which my coworkers are learning to enjoy during keppijumppa.

Living in Finland clearly broadened my horizons, enriched my understanding of the place I grew up, and continues to influence my day-to-day life. Both personally and professionally, it was a unique and rewarding experience!

Thea Lindquist
Associate Faculty Director for Collections Services, R&I
History and Germanic Language and Literature Librarian
University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries
Thea.Lindquist@colorado.edu

  1. For an example of a well-known ilmaveivi, and the impenetrability of the Finnish language for a visitor, watch this video.
  2. Petri Kallio, “How Uralic is Stadin Slangi?”, in Language and Identity in the Finno-Ugric World, eds. Rogier Blokland and Cornelius Hasselblatt (Maastricht: Shaker, 2007), 176-191.
  3. See http://www.reittiopas.fi/fi/.
  4. Finland, Demographic Information System, Population of Communities in Alphabetical Order, 31 January 2012, accessed 2 April 2012: http://vrk.fi/default.aspx?docid=5919&site=3&id=0.
  5. Finnish Meteorological Institute, Daylight in Finland throughout the Year, accessed 2 April 2012: http://en.ilmatieteenlaitos.fi/length-of-day.
  6. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_War. Different sources offer different figures, and these are conservative compared to some; but all highlight the Finns’ fierce resistance in the face of superior Soviet numbers and equipment. An interesting movie about the Winter War is “Talvisota” (1989): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098437/.
  7. Barbro Wigell-Ryynänen, “Finland’s Public Libraries: Visited and Valued”, Information Today Europe, 25 February 2011, accessed 2 April 2012: http://www.infotoday.eu/Articles/Editorial/Featured-Articles/Finlands-public-libraries---visited-and-valued-74017.aspx.
  8. Ministry of Education and Culture, Libraries, accessed 16 April 2012: http://www.minedu.fi/OPM/Kirjastot/?lang=en.
  9. Jenny Anderson, “From Finland, An Intriguing School-Reform Model”, New York Times (12 December 2011), accessed 2 April 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/from-finland-an-intriguing-school-reform-model.html?pagewanted=all. As a side note, the Finns’ ambition was satisfied in an important arena last year when Finland annihilated Sweden 6-1 to win gold in the World Hockey Championships (Dan Barnes, “Finland crushes Sweden for World Gold” National Post 15 May 2011, accessed 2 April 2012: http://sports.nationalpost.com/2011/05/15/finland-crushes-sweden-for-world-gold/).
  10. Reflected in the national epic, the Kalevala (first published 1835), compiled by Elias Lönnrot from oral folklore. Väinämöinen is the central character.
  11. Both are now branches of the City Museum of Helsinki, see Sederholm House http://www.hel.fi/hki/museo/en/Museums+-+Exhibitions/Sederholm+House and Burgher’s House http://www.hel.fi/hki/museo/en/Museums+-+Exhibitions/Burgher_s+House respectively.
  12. Czar Alexander I moved the capitol from Turku to Helsinki to minimize Swedish influence in the new Grand Duchy.
  13. Not everyone is a fan; see: http://www.salmiyuck.com/. Thanks to my Swedish relatives for priming me for the experience.
  14. International Coffee Organization, Country Datasheets, Finland, 2010, accessed 16 April 2012: http://www.ico.org/countries/finland.pdf.

WESSWeb > WESS Newsletter > Fall 2012 > Fulbright in Finland Part 2: A Minnesota Swede in Väinämöinen’s Realm


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