Partial to Home: Why I love Finland


The Parliament of Finland meets Friday afternoon, June 7, to elect speakers to serve during the term of newly appointed prime minister Antti Rinne.

The Parliament of Finland meets Friday afternoon, June 7, to elect speakers to serve during the term of newly appointed prime minister Antti Rinne. Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff


Birney Imes



HELSINKI, FINLAND -- We took a seat on the ferry to Suomenlinna next to a man eating strawberries. He looked like an athlete, tall, lean with California-surfer good looks. He was dressed in his bicycle garb, helmet at his side. 


Once underway I started reading aloud to Beth from the Lonely Planet guide to Finland.  


"Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women's suffrage in ..."  


The man with the strawberries and I said it at the same time, "1907." 


And that is how we met Pauli Kiuru, former Ironman competitor (three years his finished in the top three in the World Championships, '90, '92 and '93) and now a member of Parliament. 


He offered us strawberries and then, with not much ado, invited us to come and sit in on a session of Parliament the next day. We were scheduled to go kayaking in the Baltic the following day, so we declined. How about Friday? he asked. 


Kiuru, 56, pulled out his cell phone and called his assistant. It took less than a minute. He gave us his card and that of his assistant, Birgitta Myllymaki. 


By this time the ferry had reached the island and we said good-bye to our new friend. Two days later at the appointed time, we met Birgitta, a vibrant red-headed woman who looked to be in her late-40s, at Door A, the entrance reserved for personal guests. 


We were in the middle of a tour of Finland's elegant Parliament building when Pauli joined us. When we expressed appreciation for the invitation, he said people had been good to him when he was in America. He wanted to reciprocate. 


We complimented him on the Oodi, the stunning new library across the way we had visited the day before. That was a gift to our people on the 100th anniversary of our independence, he said. "It cost 98 million euros ($110 million)" 


After a while Pauli excused himself. The country had a new prime minister, and this afternoon Parliament would be electing new speakers. Throughout our tour the only people we saw were legislators and journalists. No lobbyists, protesters (they were out on the front steps). Personal relationships among legislators appeared to be friendly and collegial, regardless of political party. 


"There is no money here in Parliament," Birgitta said in answer to my question about lobbyists. "The money comes from the people."  


After the first speaker was elected (there are three), we thanked Birgitta for hosting us. She invited us to the Parliament cafeteria for coffee on the way out. 


Pauli and Birgitta's kindness was one of many things we loved about this farflung Scandinavian nation. 


The Oodi, the library we praised, is a long rectangular building, a swooping assemblage of metal, glass and wood (Oodi means "ode" in Finnish). Upon entering, it is immediately evident this is no ordinary library. 


There are 3-D printers, tables of sewing and embroidering machines, game rooms, a kitchen, a recording studio, a restaurant and a movie theater (as well as books). We passed a young woman cutting a large banner-like stencil on a laser cutter.  


"Oodi is for all of us," a brochure on the library proclaims.  


"Hanging out at Oodi without a reason is allowed and even recommended. 


"We do not tolerate racism or discrimination. 


"Oodi is our shared living room. 


"We are all responsible for keeping it comfortable." 


There are separate bike/walking lanes throughout the cities and countryside. One of our kayak guides, a transplant from Brazil, said he rode his bike 1-1/2 hours to work. Another kayak guide told me that as a boy he padded four kilometers (about 2-1/2 miles) to the mainland from his island home to go to school every day. 


In early June sunrise comes shortly after 4 a.m.; sunset is about 10:30 p.m. It never got completely dark when we were there. Conversely, in winter there's not much light. 


This time of year the roadsides are covered with lupine, Queen Anne's lace, dandelions, lily of the valley and purple lilac. 


Our kayaker friend Jons (the one who as a child paddled to school) told me, "The strength of Finland is in her forests." The forests are beautiful, tall conifers with bright green ferns covering the forest floor. The Finns' deep reverence for nature is reflected in their music and art.  


The whooper swan is the national bird -- they are everywhere. The brown bear is the national animal -- we didn't see any. For bears, you have to go to Karelia, the region adjoining Russia. 


We saw few trashcans and even less litter. 


We ate a dense sourdough bread made with 100 percent rye flour (Nordic ruis) at a bakery on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, had salted licorice ice cream amid old-world elegance at Karl Frazer Cafe in downtown Helsinki and Baltic herring and mashed potatoes and salmon soup at Salve, a neighborhood restaurant that reminded me of rural America in the 50s. 


Finland's public schools routinely top global rankings. Teachers must have a masters degree, and next to medical doctors, theirs is the most admired job in Finland. 


The theme for the year of celebration (2017) of the country's century of independence was "Together." At two o'clock on Dec. 5, the day before Independence Day, people all over Finland had coffee and cakes together. Pause and think about that a minute, a country having coffee and cake together. And then they give themselves a library. 


One more thing from the library handout: "Central Library Oodi contributes to the realization of Finnish society's most important values, such as freedom of speech, education, equality and openness." 


When was the last time you heard anyone in government say anything like that? 


Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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