These are the things I think about and notice when I travel. And I travel a lot. Sometimes it’s just for the sake of going somewhere new, but other times, it’s for work. This particular time, in late November/early December I found myself in Helsinki — covering a tech conference called “Slush,” of all things. What kind of idiot leaves California and goes to the Nordic region during the winter? Apparently me, but it’s hard to say no to a free trip.
Helsinki is a fantastic city. With wonderful transit, beautiful old churches, and charming cobblestones, it’s a treat for all your senses. It’s also incredibly cold and dark during the winter. The entire week I was there, the temperature was below freezing. The trickle from water drains becomes solid and so does the puke on the sidewalk outside of bars, which I surprisingly didn’t see too much of –considering how big of a drinking culture Finland has. You’d drink a lot too, if you lived that far north. It’s so cold and dark there in winter that there’s even a word for drinking alone at home in your underwear. It’s called Kalsarikannit. I was taught this by a very lovely Finnish woman before she came back to my hotel room and we drank without any underwear on. God bless Tinder.
If you’re attracted to white people, Finland is a magnificent place to be. There’s a lot of them. And Goddamn, they’re good-looking. Plus — considering the dearth of sunlight — they don’t really seem to age. Finland is quickly becoming more diverse, though. Recent waves of immigrants and refugees have added a bit more color to the traditional Nordic palette. And this has brought about some interesting results.
Finland is an incredibly progressive country, with excellent, free education and free healthcare, but an influx of people searching for work and/or asylum weighs down the social safety net because of the demand on resources. While there are the expected racist right-wingers who want to kick out all non-Finns, an amazing organization called Startup Refugees is instead helping asylum seekers start their own businesses with the skills they came to Finland with. In the one year they’ve been in existence, they’ve helped more than 40 refugee owned-and-operated businesses get off the ground. I literally raised a fist in the air in solidarity with them when I heard their representative, Camilla Nurm, give her presentation during Slush.
One thing I’ve learned is that most Americans who travel internationally are progressive, and most of us have such a huge wound inside of us right now that’s painful to talk about. On two different occasions, I got choked up when discussing the political situation in the United States. One instance was while talking to a group of journalists from around the world about Donald Trump being elected president. Explaining the sorrow, hurt, and fear on the left got me more emotional than I expected. The second time was when I was explaining the horrors of the Prison-Industrial Complex to a couple of Finnish friends. In Finland, prison is actually set up to rehabilitate people, unlike the United States — where private companies make billions of dollars of incarcerating a populace which is mostly poor and/or people of color. When I asked my friend Tuomas if cops in Finland carry guns, he said yes, but they almost never use them; police only fired six bullets in the entirety of 2013. SIX!! (I actually researched this and the Guardian UK substantiated the statistic). America really is #1… just mostly in the wrong things.
In the States I’m considered a radical leftist (well outside of the Bay Area, anyways), but my beliefs are pretty standard in Northern Europe. If nothing else, my trip to Helsinki was proof that my ideals are possible and are working in other countries. Sure, the population of Finland is miniscule compared to the US, but we have enough capital and resources to make up for that. Finland is setting itself up to be the world leader in digital healthcare, and good chunk of startups get seed money from the government, not venture capitalists. Plus, healthcare is free. Their world-renowned free public education system, which already pumps out people fluent in three or more languages, will very shortly be making learning to code compulsory for all students. And, they support the arts! There are museums and galleries everywhere you look in Helsinki.
Of course, there are negatives to the Finnish system, but I’d rather pay more taxes and get more for them, and watch all Americans become better off, than watch as my country horrifically tears itself apart in late-stage capitalism.
Can we make a hat that says “Make America More Finnish?”
I’d rock the hell out of that thing.