Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Finnish Love

There is an old saying here that only on two occasions will a Finnish husband and wife actually say aloud the words “Minä rakastan sinua”. (“I love you”). One is on their wedding day. The other is on their deathbed.  

Okay, it’s a joke. I think. It does illustrate, though, how Finns are not widely considered to be the most expressive people in the world, even when it comes to matters of the heart. It’s not that Finns aren’t romantic, in their own way. It’s more that they don’t make a big deal about it. Or a public spectacle. This isn’t Paris, after all.

It's not as if here, like anywhere else, love isn't the most consuming human emotion there is. The airwaves (or, more likely nowadays, the broadband streams) are full of a never-ending string of romantic pop songs. A current Finnish favorite is titled “Kolme pientä sanaa” (“Three Little Words”). No prize for guessing what those three little words are. No, it’s not “Missä on olutta?” (“Where’s the beer?”). 

Another well-worn Finnish joke marries romance with a certain politician’s awkwardness with the English language. Supposedly, Ahti Karjalainen, foreign minister back in the 60s and 70s, became smitten, so the joke goes, with an English girl he met in London. On a romantic evening out, he was leading her gracefully around the dance floor when he mustered up the courage to glaze into her eyes and tell her in his uncomfortable English, “I love you.”

Without hesitation, the girl softly whispered, “I love you, too.”

Ahti, not to be outdone, excitedly blurted out, “I love you three!”

Maybe it’s folk humor like that that makes Finns keep their more amorous feelings to themselves.

Kidding aside, Finns really do do some things differently. That was impressed upon me a few years ago when I had a minor cross-cultural insight at the big transnational company where I worked. For years, I had been the only American in a team of eight or so colleagues, mostly Finnish. My “sole Yank” status changed, however, when we got a new boss, a fellow American, and I was reminded how free Americans can be with the L-word.

Rooted all day in our tight cluster of cubicles tucked away in one corner of the office, we couldn’t help overhearing each other’s various phone conversations, including personal calls with husbands, wives, and kids.

What I noticed very quickly after our new American boss arrived was how he ended his brief phone calls with family members in a way that no one else in our team ever did. He always signed off with a “Love you”. Every single time, no matter how mundane the call.

I’d forgotten how very typical this is in the States, and it made me realize how assimilated to Finnish customs I’ve apparently become, in one small way at least. Or maybe I’m by nature just a hopeless unromantic. In any case, I have probably never finished a call to my wife with a “Love you”. Not even once.

It’s not that I don’t love my wife, but it’s not something she would expect me to remind her of after discussing which one of us was picking up the kids from daycare or whether we still had milk at home. It’s not how they do it here.

In fact, I’m sure that if I ever did end one of our phone calls with the words “I love you”, my very Finnish wife would think something was very wrong indeed. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gun Culture

When I was in high school, I spent a part of every summer backpacking with my brother and our friends on trips of up a week in length. Often we hiked on the Appalachian Trail, the famous footpath that snakes its way some 3500 kilometers (2200 miles) from up near the Canadian border in Maine southward to a mountaintop deep in Dixie (in fact on the edge of my home county in Georgia).

I remember on one such trip meeting a solitary hiker as we approached Tesnatee Gap, a shallow pass where the AT dips down to a scenic two-lane highway crossing the Blue Ridge mountains of Georgia. The hiker we met was from New Jersey, probably a “through hiker”, those hardy souls who hike the entire length of the AT, usually from north to south. I still remember this encounter decades later mainly because this hiker from the Garden State was a little rattled by something he had seen just before we met him.

He explained that in the little parking lot back at Tesnatee Gap there had been someone in a pickup truck – with two rifles prominently displayed in a gun-rack inside the cab’s rear window. The presence of the guns had clearly unnerved him. As I recall, upon hearing the “Yankee” hiker’s concerns, most of my hiking companions, all local Georgians, just shrugged our shoulders.

Typical pro-gun Facebook photo.
We couldn’t see what the big deal was. As Southerners, we were fairly used to having guns around, and hunting rifles in a gun-rack in a pickup truck, well, it’s practically a fashion statement in some places, though nowadays it might be more of a political statement.

That short chat with a stranger randomly met on a ribbon of worn dirt, almost swallowed in the lush vegetation of summer and stretching all the way back to Maine, was perhaps my first inkling that, when it comes to guns, the South is different.

At least, it used to be different from much of the rest of the US. Maybe it was just ahead of its time. And that, in my mind, is not something to be proud of.

America as a whole has always had some kind of gun culture, born as the nation was out of armed revolt against Britain and the violent conquest of Native Americans. Though I’m no authority on other parts of the US, the “culture” of guns has always seemed to run deeper in the South, where the history of armed revolt didn’t stop with the Revolutionary War and the tradition of hunting seems more ingrained than in other, less rural and impoverished, regions of the US.

Many Southerners like to hunt. And they like guns. They, in a sense, have a close personal relationship with them.

I recall hearing how during the Vietnam War commanders would often tap a platoon’s ever-present Southerner to be the “point man” when going out on patrol, because they were supposed to be better hunters and shooters. Maybe that’s a myth, though it’s one happily fostered by Hollywood in such movies as “Saving Private Ryan”, where the expert sniper in the band of brothers led by Tom Hanks was an unmistakable Southerner.

While the shooting skills of Southerners wasn’t enough to ultimately give them in the upper hand in the Civil War – since they lost – they were presumably better than those of the other side. An army commander from New York was so dismayed by the poor marksmanship of the Union infantry, which managed to hit only one Confederate soldier out of 1000 shots fired, that after the war he helped create an organization to improve the aim of Americans. That group, the National Rifle Association, nowadays seems dedicated more to ensuring that disgruntled secessionists can fight against the United States.

When I was growing up, we always had guns in the house, since my father was a serious hunter. He hunted everything from grouse to rabbits to squirrels to, later in life, turkeys. But his big passion was deer hunting, and I still have fond memories of being with him on some ridge top watching the sun rise on a cold winter day, staying deadly quiet so we could hear any tiny sound of a deer approaching through the woods.

Another photo proudly shared on Facebook.
If I remember correctly, we had at least three deer rifles, a couple of smaller-caliber rifles, at least one shotgun, and a revolver. We had a gun rack in our truck. My father often carried .22 shells around in his pocket, just out of habit. Guns were just a fixture in the house. And, all of our guns, except the revolver, were strictly for hunting. I don’t recall my father ever explicitly mentioning self-defense as a reason to have any of our guns, though maybe that just went without saying.

So, I do understand how “normal” it feels for many Americans to have guns. I understand the “benign” use of guns by hunters, though I long ago stopped hunting myself and have no plans to start again. I understand that some people want guns for personal security, though I think that's often exaggerated. I might even understand shooting for sport, especially if it’s for target practice and not just for the “thrill” of it.

What I don’t understand is the fetishism surrounding guns, or the pervasive fear of “tyrannical” governments that apparently grips so many supporters of “gun rights”. Many gun advocates say that guns are merely “tools”, but it seems to me that for far too many of them, guns have become more than that. Guns have almost taken on a mystical quality, becoming practically an object of worship for some people.

If that sounds like I’m going too far, then you can’t deny that some people have ascribed guns with an importance that goes far beyond their actual use in everyday life (which hopefully is rare). They have become emotionally invested in guns in a way that to me seems irrational, or unhealthy, or just silly. Why else would anyone dream up a new holiday, “Gun Appreciation Day” (which happens to be today) if they weren’t, um, a little too attached to their firearms?

The same goes for the delusional notion that privately held guns are all that’s holding back  those menacing black helicopters full of “jack-booted government thugs” (to use the elegant phrasing of Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA) that are ready to swoop in and oppress Constitution-loving Americans. That is a long way from shooting contests or rabbit hunting. It’s a long way down into one very strange rabbit-hole.

Finland itself is a country with a strong hunting culture and one of the highest levels of gun ownership of any nation in Europe (reportedly something like 32 to 45 guns per 100 people, compared to America’s 86). But I know no one here who obsesses over firearms the way I see many Americans doing. None of my Finnish friends ever shares gun-related memes on Facebook (it’s not a political issue here). And I can’t imagine anyone here posting a video on Youtube openly threatening a killing spree if even the smallest measures are taken to restrict access to guns.

In short, Finland doesn’t have “gun culture”, and I wish America didn’t either. I for one won’t be wishing anyone a Happy Gun Day today.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Back in 1986, after living in Finland for four years, I returned to the States to study journalism at the University of Georgia. One of the courses I took on my way to a non-existent future job in the Fourth Estate was “International Communications”, a course that surveyed what passes for journalism in different corners of the globe.

Part of the coursework for this class involved each student giving a presentation about the media of some foreign country. Naturally, I chose Finland.

Luckily, I happened to have a prop I could use for my presentation, an actual copy of a Finnish newspaper, in fact the country’s premier paper, the Helsingin Sanomat.

Hesari, as Finns like to call it, is something of an institution here, a 124-year-old broadsheet that is practically revered by a nation that is one of the most voraciously literate in the world. Looking at it in an American context, Hesari enjoys the gravitas and pedigree of The New York Times, but with 15 times the readership on a per capita basis).

The paper is said to have the biggest circulation of any in the Nordic countries, amazing when you consider that, population-wise, Finland is smaller than Denmark and roughly half the size of Nordic heavyweight Sweden. Another way to look at it is that Hesari enjoys a near-monopoly status not matched by say, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s biggest broadsheet daily.

In Finland, some 400,000 (or 8% of the population) subscribe to Hesari, which supposedly reaches 75% of households in the home market of Greater Helsinki. That’s something I’m sure the Times could never even aspire to. In short, it’s damn near ubiquitous.   

So, it’s no surprise that it was a big deal this week when the Helsingin Sanomat switched from a broadsheet format to tabloid size. I’m sure there was some trepidation about what the change would mean for this icon of Finnish media. TV news crews were on hand at the factory as the last broadsheet copies came off the presses, and the nation had to wait a full day without Hesari in any format before it, reborn as a not-so-broadsheet, again hit the streets early Tuesday morning.

From what I’ve heard, mostly second-hand, the Finnish public has adjusted well enough to having its printed news squeezed into a narrower space. I haven’t seen the new version myself, since we took the opportunity to move completely from paper to an on-line subscription (with the bonus of giving us an excuse to finally buy an iPad).

Even with its new size, Hesari still follows a policy that's unique when it comes to deciding what goes the front page. Basically, it comes down to money. Page One content is always determined by who’s willing to pay for it.

I still remember how, when I made my little presentation in Athens almost thirty years ago, even the professor was somewhat surprised when I held up my copy of Hesari. The reason is that the front page was covered with nothing but advertisements (and costly ones, too). That’s how Hesari does it. Journalistic content starts only on page two, making this paper probably the only national daily anywhere to take this, um, “up front” approach to advertizing.

And so, in keeping with this tradition, the front page of the very last broadsheet edition, issued on Sunday, featured an appropriately traditional ad, one for an 80-year-old brand of cheese called “Koskenlaskija” (which translates roughly as “rapids skier”).

The full-page ad, with its vintage graphic of a rather determined-looking blond-headed log driver navigating through whitewater rapids, seems like a perfect way to evoke the long history of a venerable newspaper willing to rock the boat a little by making a big change -- and sell a little cheese at the same time.