Wednesday, June 08, 2011

What I’ll miss about Finland ...

Finland flag by
(An edited version of this post was published in the Helsinki Times on July 7, 2011).
I’ve now less than two weeks left as a resident of Finland and I am starting to take my leave from people and places that have become so familiar over the last four years.

Of course, I am very excited at the prospect of moving back home and being with my family. But I know that there are lots of things I will miss from this country where I have now lived for around a twelfth of my life.

  • Top of the list - people. My friends and colleagues, many now are both. Folk from the Helsinki Social club and the Finn-Brit Players. I’ve added more than 150 Facebook friends since I moved here and I hope that many of them will stay in touch after I leave.
  • Next, Helsinki. I’m not a natural city dweller, but this is the easiest city I can imagine to live in. Extremely cosmopolitan, small enough to feel homely, large enough to have a wide variety of choices of things to do. A largely undiscovered gem, I recommend everybody visit for a long weekend. Though maybe not between November and April unless you really like snow, ice and cold! But right now, it is spectacular. For much of last summer, it was warmer than home.
  • Stuff that works. That means pretty much everything here. Public transport, whether buses, trains, metro, ferries runs pretty much on time regardless of the weather. We had more snow last winter than any while I’ve lived here, but I saw no real disruption. I can send an SMS to order a taxi and it will normally be waiting outside my door by the time I have walked downstairs. And the machinery of the state is well oiled and works well, as long as you follow the correct process.
  • Food – I don’t mean just the great meals we’ve had in more than 50 restaurants, my reviews are still open on But some of the other treats – Fazer chocolate, great rye breads, salmiakki and salmiakki kossu, fabulous fresh strawberries, cherries and peas from street stalls in the summer, pea soup on Thursdays; I could go on, but it’s making me hungry just to write about them. Oh, and don’t forget mämmi at Easter, I think I am one of the few foreigners that likes it.
  • The nature – there is so much of it here, it seems, even in the city. From the majestic silver birch, the national tree, to feeding red squirrels at Seurasaari or picking wild mushrooms, I have enjoyed, as most Finns do, the chance to be “in the nature.”
  • Vantaa airport – which now ranks as my favourite to fly from. Easy to get in and out of and only 30 minutes from home once we’re wheels down. And the amazing experience of landing half an hour before midnight in summer still in total daylight.

I am sure that over the coming months, more will occur to me, but this seems to be a good start. But are there things I won’t miss? Two come to mind.

The first has been spending so much time away from my family. Of course, we’ve had some great times together in Helsinki. But having to say goodbye to them on a Sunday night to fly back to Helsinki has been the hardest thing to do. I’ve missed being there for four years of my daughters’ lives. 

My youngest is now an adult and leaves home in September for university. I’ve joked that we have had more conversations on Facebook than we would have done if we had been living together, but I don’t really think either of us believes it. And my eldest will be married in the same month; though she left home around the same time that I did, I have missed her just as much. I’ve not seen my parents and sister as much as if I had I been living in the UK.

But the hardest has been being apart from my wife. She has been at the heart of my life for almost half of it and we’ll celebrate 21 years of marriage in September. And now we have to learn how to live together again, for the first time as a couple with no kids at home!

And the second thing I won’t miss? The cost of booze. I no longer flinch at being asked to pay more than 6€ for less than a pint of beer. I consider a bottle of wine that costs less than 30€ in a restaurant to be good value. I shall enjoy getting back to going to wine tastings with the Naked Grape and getting change from a fiver for a pint.

I am developing strategies to cope with the things I will miss from Finland. I will reconnect with my old friends in the UK and keep in touch with everyone else through Facebook.  I will visit Helsinki when I can, at least for Vappu. I will try to be patient with the services back home, even though they won’t work quite as well, and reflect that it is, in part, because I am paying less in tax for them. I will import what Finnish delicacies I can. I have two silver birches in my garden and, as we live in the beautiful Hampshire countryside, I will get out into it more often. And I will revisit this blog, to remind me of all of the wonderful new experiences I have had.

So, I continue to prepare to say farewell to Finland on June 17. Because I really don’t think it is goodbye.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Final guests ...

This weekend, my sister-in-law and her husband joined my wife and I for our last sightseeing weekend in Helsinki.

After picking them up from the airport on Friday evening, we walked for drinks to Kappeli on Esplanadi.

On Saturday, we visited the Kauppatori market square and then had sushi in the Wanhan Kauppahalli for lunch. We visited the Russian orthodox and Lutheran cathedrals and then to Stockmann for a little shopping, after which we relaxed on the Koff beer tram, as you can see from the photo. After coffee and cake at Cafe Fazer and a little more rest, we finished the day with dinner at Luomo, our neighbourhood Michelin 1* restaurant, with a 7 course degustation menu.

Sunday began with brunch at the newly re-opened Cafe Engel, then to Seurasaari to feed the squirrels, home for a nap before taking the tram to Sea Horse for the fastest dinner ever, followed by an evening playing Rock Band!

Today concluded the visit, with some more shopping followed by lunch at Lappi, with elk, reindeer and cloudberries all featuring on the menu. Licorice ice cream at Cafe Fazer completed the gourmet experience and we are now back at the apartment, my guests are packing for the airport.

And so, my four year assignment as unofficial tour guide for Helsinki draws to a close. It has been great fun and I am sure we will be back for further visits in the future. Though it won't feel quite the same when I am a tourist too!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ihanaa leijonat, ihanaa ...

For the last 24 hours, I have been living in the capital city of a country that has just won a world championship.  On Sunday night, Finland played Sweden in the final of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Bratislava. Regular readers will know that I am not a sports fan, but it has been fascinating to observe.

Ice Hockey is to Finns what soccer is to the Brits, the most popular sport. And Sweden is the old adversary for the Finns, despite that 6% of its population are native Swedish speakers. As Finland was part of Sweden for several hundred years, before they were sold out to Russia, the Finns have a gentle enmity towards their old colonial power and near neighbour. It's not strong enough to prevent them taking more than a passing interest in what goes on in Sweden; the royal wedding there last year had much of the population here gripped.

But when it comes to sport, then a match against Sweden is viewed in much the same way as an England - Germany fixture in soccer would be back home. So on Sunday night, the prospect of competing with them for the World Championships was a delicious mix of anticipation and anxiety.

Ahead of the 9pm start time, most of the bars were filling up with fans in their blue and white shirts, getting into the appropriate spirit. And the game did not disappoint. The first goal went to Sweden in the first twenty minute period. The equaliser came during the second. But it was the final period of the match that saw the real drama. Finland quickly scored two more goals within the first four minutes and then did not give up. The final score was 6-1 to Finland, with the last coming within minutes of the final klaxon.

The city went wild. As the Helsingin Sanomat reported, "By 1 a.m. on Monday morning, both the Esplanades in downtown Helsinki were packed with jubilant hockey fans, such that the earlier rally of cars hooting their horns and with flags waving from the windows was no longer possible." Many of those cars drove home down my street and I can attest to their enthusiasm. Whoever told me that Finnish men don't show their emotions has never seen them after winning a world championship!

This evening, the team flew back from Bratislava on a Finnair flight (of course). A website that I regularly use to track the progress of my incoming visitors,, was so inundated with hits from Finland that it reported that it was running a temporarily downgraded "high load" version; apparently the picture at one stage looked as though there was only one flight in the air, that of the returning Finnish lions.

Tonight, they made an appearance downtown to receive the adulation of their fans. Regular readers will know that I show the image from a webcam on my blog - this was the image at 21:00 this evening, showing the market square (Kauppatori) packed with people. If anything, it looks busier than at the recent Vappu celebrations.

Since I got home at 21:00, there has also been a steady stream of fans walking home down my street, many cheering "ihanaa leijonat, ihanaa"; roughly "wonderful lions" or "love lions". You can hear the official song featuring this lyric on YouTube. The noise has only dwindled away as I write this, more than two hours later. Helsingin Sanomat estimated that around 50,000 people would turn out this evening, which would not surprise me. That's around 5% of the population of the capital area.

The surprise of the game, though, was the award of the Tournament MVP trophy, decided before the final, to the Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth. He had only let in six goals in six matches, so earned the directorate's vote for the trophy. And then let in six goals all in the same match, the final. Ah well!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A blind date ...

Now, just in case my wife should get worried, this wasn't that kind of a date. I am in Vienna on business this week and last night, our local host took us for a meal with a difference.

We were told we were going to a restaurant for dinner in the dark. When we got to the venue, it was explained that this wasn't going to be a candlelit supper, but one completely in the dark, as a way of experiencing life without one of our most important senses. And as part of the experience, we knew only that there would be four courses and that we could choose meat, fish or vegetarian for our main course.

There were 16 of us in the party and we were ushered through a curtain to a holding area in two groups. I joined the second group and, once through the curtain, our waiter Mahendra instructed us to take the hand or shoulder of the person in front and then walked us 30 paces or so to our table, in pitch darkness. We had already been told to turn off our phones, so that the light from the screens would not be any help to us, so when he told us to stop, turn to our right and find our seats, we had to do so completely by feel.

We sat, having worked out that we were on the opposite side of a single, long table from the first group, who were already seated and whose voices helped us to orientate.

First, our waiters (Kristijan on the other side of the table) took our drinks orders. I opted for a beer. "Would you like a glass with that?" was answered in the negative, as I was sure that was a recipe for a damp lap at least.

After drinks were served came our appetiser. Our waiters handed us the plates and we placed them on the table in front of us. By this stage I had already felt on the table and found two forks to my left, two knives and a soup spoon on top of my napkin to the right and a dessert spoon and fork above. There was also a pen and a sheet of paper, more of which later. The starter, as I felt carefully, was a small salad, with two bowls of dip and a couple of pieces of bread. Using knife and fork in the dark was difficult, though the bread and dips were easier. I managed to finish the course with relatively clean fingers and felt proud of passing the first test. We all commented on how rich the flavours of the food seemed.

Next, the soup course. You can imagine that when our waiters told us to be careful and that the soup was hot, the idea of being handed the bowl was challenging. Fortunately, the soup bowl was also on another plate and so it arrived on the table without a spill. A pleasant minestrone, I did find that when blowing on a spoonful to cool it down, I could hear some falling back into the bowl as I blew too hard.

Between the soup and main course, we were given three objects to guess what they were. One was a model of a cobra, the second an elephant and the third, I am sure, a camel. Examining them, I found myself really noticing the texture and temperature, as well as just the shape.

Then the main course arrived. I felt a wooden skewer running through the meat and then felt saute potatoes. It was easy enough to eat the meat straight from skewer - after all, who was going to comment on my table manners? But there was a vegetable mix which was rather wet to the touch and so needed the fork. And my hands needed a wash in the finger bowl we had by now found on the table.

After clearing the plates, our waiters invited to follow their voices to join them at the bar, where they offered us a glass of grappa or Jaegermeister. I have never been known to turn down grappa and so inched my way towards them.

We were then told to find out seats again. By now, a little more confident, we worked as a team to do so. Dessert followed, apfelstrudel and vanilla ice cream (the bowl felt cold to the touch, so easy to work out what that was). One more wash of the fingers and we were asked how many for coffee. We couldn't raise our hands, so worked out that we need to call out "one", "two", "three" and so on. I was number six and we were served in the order that we called. A small plate, with a black coffee, pot of cream, packets of sugar and a glass of water. That was easy.

After another sensory exercise, which involved sniffing the contents of three screw-top containers (star anise, cloves and tea) we found our way to the exit and were shown what had been on our plates. All fine!

We also finally got to meet our waiters, both of whom were blind and so no more disadvantaged in the darkened room that they were in daylight. Mahendra, my waiter, had been in Vienna for 20 years - he came as a student, met a girl, fell in love ... well, you can guess the rest! We had a good chat; when I told him I worked for Nokia he told me how he used our products - he is a particular fan of Nokia Maps and uses the pedestrian navigation with voice guidance to help him find his way around the city.

We also got to compare notes, literally. We had been asked to write a message, do a drawing, write down the names of the objects, etc. The good news is that my handwriting is no worse when done in the dark than it is in full daylight. But that isn't saying too much.

For the group, it was a great way to experience the world of the 10% or so of the world's 40 million blind people who have no light perception at all. Or to put it another way, around the same number of people as the adult population of Finland. A good reason why those of us in the industry need to think about the accessibility of our products. It certainly opened my eyes.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Colonel in Chief ...

I have been ruminating on the culinary contributions of two Colonels over the last few days, both men of history but from opposite sides of the Atlantic.

The first will be known to most in the western world, Colonel Sanders. He was the entrepreneur who, at the age of 65 was faced with the failure of his restaurant due to new interstate taking business away. He went looking for franchisees and the business became Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC), which he sold in 1964 for USD 2 million. So, his culinary contribution is a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and a business which now feeds millions of people every day. Oh, and though he started in the US military, his title was an honorary one, bestowed by the governor of Kentucky in 1950.

The second Colonel is a little more obscure, at least to those outside of Finland and Sweden. Johan August Sandels died almost 60 years before Harland Sanders was born, yet his legacy also lives on to this day.

A Swedish soldier and politician, Colonel Sandels led the Swedish troops to victory over the Russians in the Finnish war of 1808-9 (when Finland was still part of Sweden). His exploits were recorded by Finnish national poet JL Runerberg and, according to Wikipedia, "Runeberg's poem tells a story of Sandels having a feast while the enemy mounts a premature attack. Sandels continues his meal and is accused of cowardice, after which he raises and rides to the battle, drives back the enemy and is praised by his men." It reminds me a little of the story of Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before attacking the Spanish Armada. 140 years after his death, the Finnish brewery Olvi started brewing Sandels, which has become my favourite mass market Finnish beer. On the back of the cans are inspiring tales of his courage.

So, which one should be the Colonel in Chief? Well, for me, it would have to be the real war hero who inspired a beer. But it would be interesting to enjoy both of the Colonels' products together. But I've not yet seen a KFC yet in Helsinki!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Fame and fortune ...

Well, perhaps fortunate is the more accurate word, but makes for a less appealing headline.  Last Saturday I was fortunate to be part of the group of performers in a staged reading of a new play, as I reported in December, playing Man in Jakob Holder's "The Open Circuit", directed by the playwright himself and presented by the Finn-Brit players.

It was my first serious role, playing the rather unaware partner of a woman facing traumatic changes in her life, forced to decide whose side he was on. My wife was among the audience, a rather larger crowd than we were expecting, and was kind enought to say that she could tell the difference between the real me and my on-stage persona. Though clearly I was not convincing enough in telling my much younger leading lady that I loved her to cause any marital disharmony.

The play was also my first rehearsed reading. It's a little more than just reading the play as a group, as we were in costume, with props and using a staged area to perform before an audience. But we were still relying on scripts, as we had only four rehearsals before the big night. So, we had time to explore our characters, something we don't do in pantomime, to really get into the roles but without the stress of learning all the lines.

All in all, I think we did well. It was a fortunate distraction for me too, as this is normally the busiest time of our working year, leading up to a global trade show and associated announcements in Barcelona. I could not have committed to the rehearsals for the spring production of "Waiting for Godot", though I am looking forward to seeing my friends here in it. But this was a great way to whet my appetitite and a great idea to bring to our TOADS group back home. I'm hoping to be part of the next staged reading, Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party", in March.

Oh, and the fame? Tonight I was hosting the monthly pub quiz organized by IESAF at Molly Malone's. One of the participants walked over and said "Hi, I saw you in the play on Saturday. You were really good." Modest though I am, I have to admit I enjoyed the moment. Famous in Helsinki? Well, it's a start.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What's in a name?

Image from Helsinki Times
This weekend's issue of the Helsinki Times, the weekly English language newspaper here, reports on the most common surnames in use in Finland.

The most popular overall is Korhonen, though more men have the surname Virtanen. One of the rarest, according to the paper, is Sirjala, with only 11 people currently using it.

The report also shows a trend consistent with other countries, with around a quarter of women keeping their name after marriage in 2009, three times the number in 1986. Almost 7% took a hyphenated name, though their children are not permitted, under Finnish law, to continue the hyphenation. In 3 out of 200 marriages, the husband gave up his surname and took his wife's. I had a former colleague in the UK who insisted her future spouse did the same, for though his surname rhymed with "strike" when spoken, written down it was Prick, not a name which looks good with either Mr. or Mrs. before it, I suppose.

It is possible to change your surname in Finland, though apparently not as easily as in the UK, where a "deed of change of name" or "deed poll" can be used and choices are unrestricted. In Finland, it seems, there are more restrictions. You can reclaim a name used in your own family within the last five generations, or you can choose a new one, but in that case it may not already be in use in Finland. A colleague chose her surname, Merestö, and I believe, is the only one using it. Finally, and particularly for the 10-20 foreigners a month who apply to change a name that is difficult to spell or pronounce, the Association of Finnish Culture & Identity has a list of"free" names whih can be applied for.

So, having already adopted the Finnish first name of Markku, I wonder what my options would be if I chose a Finn-ished last name?