VICTORIA STOPPIELLO PHOTO
Finland celebrates its centennial this year and, given my Finnish heritage, I’ve received many lists touting Finland as the “first” (to allow women to vote) or “best” as in public education. My strong Finnish identity means I’m biased — if it’s Finnish, it must be good! Our 2015 trip to Finland provided many tangible examples of how we could improve life here at the local level, regardless of the national political climate.
Preparing for that trip, I read the usual tourist promotion literature, but it wasn’t “usual” by American standards. Finland emphasizes two things: Nature and quiet. If you want to calm yourself, Finland is the place to go. In our overly stimulating environment, full of screens and noise, we’d all be healthier with a bit more quiet, and walking in nature is a proven antidepressant.
In Finland, you don’t have to go to a national park or wildlife preserve to encounter nature and quiet. The first hint was landing at the Helsinki airport and using the restroom. Gleaming high-design fixtures — the kind you see in upscale mid-century housing knock-offs here in the U.S. — were accompanied by birdsong. Not Muzak. Not raucous rock, but what came to be (for us) the familiar song of the mustarastas, an otherwise unremarkable blackbird that sang from every grove of deciduous trees in Helsinki. “This is different,” I thought. What American enterprise would use a source of music that cannot be bought, but only needs to be provided habitat? Retailers and public spaces in our area could use the melodious song of the Swainson’s thrush or white crowned sparrow.
Access to nature in Finland is enhanced by “every man’s law,” which assures everyone’s right to walk, gather berries, even camp, on land anywhere in Finland, as long as you do no harm and don’t camp close to a home without getting permission. Merely walking doesn’t count as trespassing.
Other differences that we noticed: No litter on the sidewalks or roadways, 745 miles of bike paths in Helsinki alone, allowing people of all ages and abilities to exercise outdoors safely. Finnish “technology” made systems easy to use, not more complex. Finnish school administrators also teach, and teachers have the same status (and pay) as physicians and attorneys; students spend time outdoors every day regardless of the weather. All these ideas could be implemented on the local level if we put quality ahead of quantity and practiced some self discipline.
Compared to the U.S., Finland has limited natural resources, a difficult climate, and hundreds of years of domination — first by Sweden for 650 years, and then by Russia for roughly 100 years. I’ve often wondered how the Finns transitioned from authoritarian monarchies to a democracy that’s been successful for 100 years. Part of the answer is Lenin, who found sanctuary in Finland during the run-up to the Russian Revolution. Once the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Lenin’s principle — that all people deserve self-determination — led to Finland becoming a sovereign nation almost immediately.
After an early civil war, somehow Finland stayed united, probably in part because the Finns saw themselves as Finns long before the country was recognized. Part of the answer for this “Finnishness” could be the Finnish language that shares no similarity with languages in Sweden or Russia. One interesting peculiarity in Finnish is there is no pronoun for “he” or for “she.” There’s just one word “han” for a human. Given that language has a deep impact on culture, that distinction may explain an attitude that women are automatically as capable as men — and ought to be recognized as such
Women’s suffrage has been part of Finnish life since 1906, the first in the world and before nationhood, and 14 years earlier than in the U.S. With female leadership, the Sami, the indigenous peoples of all the Nordic countries, held their first international conference in Norway in 1917; the modern Norwegian Sami Parliament requires half the members be women. That idea, assuring women to have an equal voice with men within our institutions, could be adopted here. We may not be able to shift the gender balance in Congress or the cabinet, but think how policies might change if school boards and city councils were more gender balanced.
These are things we could do to make life a bit more pleasant right here on the north coast. We only need to muster the courage to educate, innovate, organize, and speak out — and not be afraid of being accused of democratic socialism.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer with deep roots in Ilwaco’s Finnish-American community. For statistics about many aspects of Finnish society, go to tinyurl.com/Finland-Is-Great.