Just this past week I caught up with a buddy of mine back home, and the first thing he asked me was “What’s the weirdest thing about Helsinki?”
I was stumped for a moment, because as a foreigner, there are a lot of weird things about Helsinki that it was hard to narrow in on just one. That got me thinking, the weird things about the foreign places you visit are arguably the most fun part about travelling. So here is a non-exhaustive list of all the weird, interesting, confusing, and sometimes just obscure things I’ve discovered about Helsinki and Finland in my first few weeks here.
This is the easiest answer to the question: Finnish is weird. Sometimes I wonder if everyone is just making it up as they go along and I’m the only one not in on the joke. It has front, back, and center vowels and they don’t play well together. It has long and short vowels, which apparently need to be pronounced differently but I can’t hear the difference. They entirely ignored the Gregorian calendar and named all their months after moons. They don’t even use prepositions; instead they just tack on extra letters on the end of a word to add spatial relation. It’s a daily struggle.
So far the most logical part of the language is their counting system. I can count to 100! It’s all about the small victories.
This is something I can get behind. Finns love their personal space. Living in a climate like this breeds some very solitary people. You may have seen this picture making the rounds a few weeks ago during a blizzard here in Helsinki. It may seem like a joke, but this is the real deal. Unless it is literally the last option, Finns aren’t going to sit next to you on the train or the bus, they won’t stand very close to you in a queue or at a bar, they’ll even stand at an awkward distance from you while having a normal conversation. Arms length at all times, guys; back it up.
I knew this was going to be different when I got here but not in the ways it actually is. I didn’t expect to see too many North American brands, but there are a few. I also didn’t expect to be able to tell the difference between a lot of products, and while that’s true for things like meats and bread, it is a bit more straightforward for other things. Google Translate was definitely a lifesaver the first few weeks. The glaringly strange things about grocery stores here is the fact that you have to weigh your own produce when you buy it with a high-tech little barcode sticker-printing machine which makes the grocery clerks job pretty posh.
Peanut butter is also weirdly uncommon and stupidly expensive. I’m talking $12 for a small jar of peanut butter, if you can find it.
There is a lot of cheese. So much cheese. All of the cheese. Similarly there is a lot of variety in meat, which made shopping for it very difficult since I don’t understand any of the labels and all ground meat or poultry looks very similar in a package. I really hope I haven’t been eating goose and horsemeat for the past few weeks.
Burger King is everywhere over here, arguably more common than McDonalds, and it’s kind of weird. It’s not the greasy low brow fast food establishment I recognize it as back home, it’s moderately upscale. All the locations I’ve seen so far have been very modern and the customer base is really varied. I’ve even noticed it seems to be a “cool” thing among teenagers, we saw a group of teenage girls proudly sporting paper Burger King crowns on the train, which I don’t think would ever happen back home.
They also give you one of those vibrating pagers when you order and it goes off when your food is ready. What kind of fast food place is this?
I know bidets are a commonly European thing, so that doesn’t surprise me too much. What does surprise me is the hand bidet or “Bum Gun” system Finland uses in literally all of its bathrooms. For the first few weeks we were determined to convince ourselves that wasn’t what these little handheld nozzles next to the toilets were for, that maybe it was some sort of cleaning apparatus for spraying down the floors or something (since all the floors have drains in them too). They’re definitely for cleaning, just not the floors. They’re also not just an at home thing either. They’re everywhere; in public washrooms, at school, and right here in our apartment. Weird.
There are a bunch of other little things, like Finns purportedly drinking the most coffee per capita than any other country in the world and yet their coffee serving sizes are so ridiculously small.
Traffic lights turn yellow before they turn green, which I think greatly helps reduce the number of spinouts on icy roads. They use blowtorches on the tram tracks when they ice over on colder days.
Finland is definitely a cool place, but it doesn’t get a pass on its “weird” aspects. Nowhere in the world does, but I guess that’s all just a matter of perspective.
James is a recent graduate of the Marketing Communications program at BCIT, and is extending his time at the institute to earn his BBA. He currently lives in Helsinki, Finland where he is studying for a semester at the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.