The one question Finns ask when we tell them we are moving to Helsinki: WHY? Why would any sane person move to Finland? Voluntarily even? Here is our take on it. Keep in mind that this is neither a definite list nor a strictly serious meditation on what steered our decision.
1 - The Seasons
Berlin, as one former mayor once said, is “poor but sexy”. In fact, Berlin is so poor that two seasons have been cut for budget reasons decades ago and ever since a grey, mushy, snowless winter transforms directly into a blazingly hot, merciless summer that turns the streets of Berlin into fire pits.
Finland is different - there are four seasons that are clearly distinct from each other. And when you look at the sky at exactly the right moment, you can actually see the seasons change, which is magical.
2 - Water
Finland is proud of it’s 1000 Lakes, naming everything from it’s World Rallye Championship round to groundbreaking metal albums after them. But actually, this is a very humble underexaggeration: Actually, Finland has tens of thousands of lakes.
And where there’s not a lake, the baltic sea or a river is not far. The amount of access to water the country offers is unrivaled. And as every person knows, being close to water is very calming to the human mind and soul.
3 - Reasonably-sized capital region, buzzing tech scene
If, like us, you work in tech and digital, it feels like you are doomed to live in a vast metropolis like Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona, or London, because “that is where the jobs are.”
The exception here is Dublin, where they cordoned off the old harbor area as a tech expat diaspora with no contact to the local populace at all…
Or, of course, you go to Helsinki. 1.3 Million people, arthouse cinemas, an opera house, brilliant restaurants, and the second highest number of startups anywhere in Europe. For us, the choice was easy.
4 - Coffee
Finland is the coffee drinking capital of the world. Finns drink an average of eight to nine cups a day, with some people doing as many as 30. This of course comes with a lot of cultural impact - Coffee comes in a huge variety, from artisan coffee culture, both in coffee shops and at home (with stores carrying Japanese paper coffee filters) towards what many Finns believe is the only true coffee: Bad cheap black coffee that sat on a filling station warming plate for hours, turning it into a pitch black goo that in both look and effect rivals the “Black Oil” from the X-Files. Since we both love coffee (Julia is more into artisan stuff, Philipp more into bad juice from the filling station), we will feel right at home.
The most important artifact of Finnish coffee culture is the Moccamaster coffee maker, which even gets a shout-out in Finnish rap music. Fun fact: Even though ubiquitous across Finland, it actually is a Dutch product.
5 - Weird but charming locals (including a meditation on protestant ethic by Philipp)
The cliché Finn is a man who does not talk much, works hard, has a dry sense of humor, and reserves the showing of any emotions for yearly drunken outbursts during sauna nights with his friends. All of this is true.
All of this also is very much true of the cliché Northern German, as witnessed by radio comedy like “Frieda and Annelise”. The common ground is the good old joylessness of protestant work ethic - both Northern Germans and Finns are raised in the tradition of a deeply fun-loathing god who is most happy when his creations slave away from sunrise to sunset, only stopping to eat (non-tasty) food and to pray.
Closely linked with this is that most Finns are honest to a fault, which is more of an antidote to the American way than wiping your butt with the star-spangled banner before burning it while shouting “kill all infidels”. A Finn sees no reason to call mediocre work “good”, or an annoying person “talkative”. They tell things as they are, in private life as well as in conference calls with American clients.
But if you look closer, the few words protestantism allows actually are a lot warmer than they sound and come straight from the heart. And even if it takes ten cans of Karhu to get these emotions out, they are real.
Add to that the odd hobbies that come with living in forests and snow - from ice bathing and fishing to boating, skiing, rallye driving, and sauna marathons. The combination of living close to nature and using technology to overcome it, have more fun in it, and risk injury and death while under the influence, just makes for amazing pastimes.
6 - Mökki culture, Sauna, and a more quiet life
This all boils down to the same fact - Being in Finland means being close to nature, be it a forest or by a lake. Being in nature means slowing down. There are two brilliant rituals Finns have developed to help you slow down, and help you to like being slow. Both can be combined with coffee and or Karhu, of course: Firstly, the Mökki. It’s an untranslatable word, the German “Wochenendhaus” or “Laube” do not quite fit, and the english “holiday home” is even further off. The Russian Дача (datscha) probably comes closest: Yes, it’s a weekend or holiday home. But at the same time, that classification completely misses the point. Mostly, it’s as barebones as it gets, with an outhouse, no drinking water (tap water comes straight from a lake and is not safe to drink), a living room/kitchen, a bedroom, and most importantly a sauna. The sauna in importance is only beaten by the lake next to the Mökki: You have access to water and because most Finnish lakes’ shorelines are full of curvature, even if you have a neighbor, you don’t have a line of sight. You are all alone with the lake, the rain, the bbq, the sauna, and the mosquitoes. And this is what it is about, not the Mökki itself. The perfection of this explains why so many Finns prefer to spend their whole summer this way, and why “being able to work from the Mökki” is a key driver for remote working in Finland.
Sauna, of course, goes beyond the Mökki. While you can’t say Mökki without sauna, you can say sauna without Mökki. Going to the sauna to sweat, relax, warm up, and drink Karhu, is an integral part of Finnish culture. Also, it is different from German sauna since it’s less about weird rituals and being silent and more about communication and a constant throwing of hot water on the oven. A rant on German sauna culture will follow at a later time.
7 - "Socialism"
Let’s face it: We won’t get away from neoliberal re-structuring of society, which treats “the free market” as god-given, not a human construct, and lets “the economy” define the boundaries of political decisions, not the other way round. The combined power of a few people with a lot of money will make sure it will reach every corner of the earth.
But for now, Finland is what Americans call “socialism”, or what we in Europe used to call a “welfare state”. This means not only that basics like unemployment benefits or universal healthcare are there, but also that they are not gutted like Germany’s Hartz IV, or plain stupid like Germany’s two-tier healthcare system.
It also means that people value their work-life balance more, with the regular work week being 37.5 hours, and even startup workers, according to a 2018 Danske Bank survey, only work an average of 42 hours a week, which is a far cry from the 50+ weekly hours seen as the normal contribution at Zalando or any other Berlin startup. Maybe one of the reasons why people not only say they want this, but can actually live like this, is the very high level of unionization: Over 75% of Finns are union members. Finns also enjoyed remote working more before the pandemic, and half of Finns are expected to not return to their offices full-time (see above: “Mökki”).
And what’s best is that most Finns love their welfare state, with generous unemployment benefits and a strong healthcare system being fondly remembered as cornerstones of getting Finland out of a crippling economic crisis in the early 90s. Until the welfare state came in, mass unemployment was so bad that it led to record high levels (even by Nordic standards) of alcoholism and suicide especially among young men. In fact, visiting the Finnish National Museum, the narrative of Finland’s history is “how we mastered a series of economic crises and downturns through a strong welfare state, sauna, and sisu.” This is a far cry from the German point of view, where economic growth is seen as the god-given standard and any year of even below-average growth numbers instills fear in people’s hearts.
Again, all this will probably not save us from neoliberal change - but it will easily buy us 15 to 20 years compared to Germany.
8 - Metal Music (incl. Keyboards)
That Finland has a lot of metal bands is one of the truisms that everybody seems to know about, with “53 metal bands per 100.000 people” being one often-quoted number without any source for it ever given. But there is more than sheer numbers to this story.
Firstly, there’s the fact that Hard Rock and the more traditional Metal of the 80s (think Iron Maiden, but also Thrasher-era Metallica) is not subcultural music, but part of the mainstream, with no less than three national radio stations playing predominantly metal music. This of course is important considering the crap quality of mainstream pop receiving airplay elsewhere.
Second, on a more music nerd level, there is the contribution of Finland to the evolution of Metal as a genre. The most important thing here probably is the omnipresence of keyboards across all sub-genres of Metal. While of course being part of bombastic metal since the 70s, and having been introduced into Black Metal as early as 1994 by Emperor, the way bands like Amorpis put keyboards front and center is something very special and uniquely Finnish.
But the contributions go further. While Norway contributed greatly to Black Metal and Sweden’s Gothenburg scene was absolutely genre-defining in the re-invention of Death Metal by giving it a more melodic twist in the early 2000s, Finland contributed to many genres to an important degree, and continues to do so: Bands like Nightwish and Sinergy put female vocals back to center stage outside the goth realm for the first time since 1980’s Warlock. Alexi Laiho’s Children of Bodom set a new standard for melody, pace, and mass appeal in Death Metal. Amorphis managed the impossible and married Pink Floyd style 70s psychedelica with Finnish mythology inspired Death Metal. And last not least, groups like Paara prove that indeed Black Metal and Finnish language are an amazing combination.
9 - Moomins
The Moomins are a family magical troll creatures created by Swedish-speaking Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson in the 1940s. They live in a dreamy blue tower house in the moominvalley and go on amazing adventures with their numerous friends. In Finland they are an omnipresent phenomenon - beloved by children and adults alike. You can visit the Moomin Museum in Tampere, explore Moomin World in Turku and by all kinds of merchandise, ranging from tableware, to clothing as well as branded foods and cosmetics. They even influenced Finnish idioms and we were surprised to learn that a Finn who doesn’t have all their marbles actually doesn’t have all moomins in the valley or that our friends didn’t have mozzarella for lunch - their were digging into some moomin meat.
For me - Julia - it was a shock that not all children in Germany grew up with the Moomins. In fact, most of my peers never even heard of them or commit to blasphemies like calling them “Happy Hippos” or weird ghost creatures. A grown up friend of ours even admits to being scared of them (at age 43 that is).
I don’t know how my grandmother found them, but there were printed versions of Tove Jansons books in Germany in the late 80s and early 90s as well as short lived TV presence and I just couldn’t get enough of them. The magical stories where different from what I was used to read, a bit darker, different in tone and style but they struck a nerve with me that never left me. I can’t wait to explore Moomin Troll’s home country and of course - to decorate our Helsinki apartment with Moomin-everything.
10 - Mayonnaise all the things
OK, this probably is not a reason to move to Finland, but more of a condition for being able to live in Finland. Finns love mayonnaise and put it on everything in generous amounts. This is most evident in Hesburger, the nation’s dominant fast food chain (Finland is one of the few countries where the largest fast food chain is not McDonald’s King). Hesburger, by the way, is named after it’s founder Heikki Salmela, so eventhough it’s a common joke there’s no connection to the arch-Nazi of similar name.
Anyways, back to mayonnaise. Hesburger’s flagship burger is the Megahampurilainen (“Mega Hamburger”), which is basically a Big Mac with all sauces and ketchup being wholesale replaced by an otherworldly amount of mayo, which of course will squish and drip out of the burger on all sides the second you try to bite on it. It’s tasty, some say even tastier than a Big Mac. But it certainly only works if you like mayo enough...