Happy Finland

What does it mean to be happy? How do we measure it? Ask any one individual or ten random folks, and most likely they’ll have very different notions of how they define happiness.

Finland, in an annual publication from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked first amongst nations on the happiness index. The Guardian perhaps put it best with this:

The UN placing is the latest accolade for Finland, a country of 5.5 million people that only 150 years ago suffered Europe’s last naturally caused famine. The country has been ranked the most stable, the safest and best governed country in the world. It is also among the least corrupt and the most socially progressive. Its police are the world’s most trusted and its banks the soundest.

Not at all a bad place to call home.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation about striving for happiness, that nebulous, elusive ephemeral existence we seek but rarely if ever define for ourselves. The notion of happiness then returned a day later in an entirely separate discussion, again wondering what it actually means to be ‘happy’. And, now, Finland tops the ranking in this year’s World Happiness Report.

Unsurprisingly, the concept—the meaning of happiness—is now foremost in my thoughts.

Beyond any real quantifiable measures and based on a rather subjective comparison of countries and places I’ve called home, Finland by far offers the calmest environment in which to simply be. Life isn’t all rainbows and kittens, naturally. Anyone with whom I’ve had more than a 10-minute conversation about Finland knows that I bitch about lament Helsinki’s weather more than just about anything.

Still, life and living our life centres less on concerns related to meeting our basic needs such as housing, food, etc. than anywhere we’ve resided for any amount of time at all. Our life here remains relatively free from the stress caused by the system in which we live, particularly compared to our lives in Russia, the US and Cuba, respectively. In other words, most of the stress we experience stems from the stuff we have more control over than on anything related to Finland per se.

Finland may not have been on our radar as a potential place to call home, but it certainly has offered us a home and a life in relative calm. And, regardless of how we define happiness or how that definition changes and shifts as we change, we as residents and immigrants face far fewer stresses related to simply living than we have anywhere else.

More than anything, I’m grateful to this quiet calmness in which we exist. And, I’m immensely grateful to Finland for providing it to us. Perhaps more than any other time in our lives, this feels like happiness, in that I feel content.

Thank you, Finland. And, congratulations on yet another milestone.

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Solidarity

I’m of the mind that educational institutions should be palaces — and those who educate should be paid more than just about any other profession. To me, investing in education, particularly through public support to universities and research institutions, helps all of us within and across societies. When we know how to process information and distinguish fact from fiction, we can discuss issues which affect us all through informed debate, and shift our thinking as new information and evidence comes available.

Society at large in my mind should reward the many, many, many individuals who ceaselessly and unrelentingly dedicate their lives to educating others. It simply makes sense to me, as an individual, as a member of society and as an extended member of the University of Helsinki staff and faculty.

As further cuts to education and research are discussed and pushed forward as sound policy, I am appalled. I may not be a member of a particular union at the university; but I unequivocally support the unions and their members as they strike today. All those who work at and with the university to make it one of the best in the world deserve better. This collective of amazing, talented and indefatigably dedicated individuals should certainly be valued rather than continuously and rather callously put under increasing pressure to do more with stagnant (if not falling) wages and with the added understanding that their jobs and vocations may be but fleetingly secure.

Academic life is no joke. Nor is it particularly lucrative for the vast majority of us who have chosen it. And, most academics do not expect outrageously generous salaries or benefits. However, most of us understand that continual cuts result in increasing burdens on the entire system. Certainly, as employees, we suffer. But, more importantly, those seeking an education and knowledge suffer more.

If I were a member of one of the university unions, I would be striking today. Proudly. And resolutely.

Solidarity, my comrades! Your worth is immeasurable!

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Suomi 100 and counting

Independence Day for us Americans is a day of over-the-top patriotism and fireworks displays beyond anything reasonable. Our celebrations, to my mind, mimic the stereotypes most other inhabitants of the world have about us Americans as people—loud, bordering if not completely obnoxious and at times rather unnecessarily boisterous.

Finland’s Independence Day falls on 6 December each year. This year, Finland turned 100, an incredible milestone particularly given that she gained independence from a far larger and more powerful Russia. All of Finland and Finns everywhere have been looking forward to this centennial celebration — Suomi 100 — since last year. Quite rightly. But, the celebrations are still incredibly subdued and rather restrained by comparison to my American garish experiences.

Finland’s celebrations have been rather admirably and typically Finnish—quietly and rather free-from-boastingly proud. More than anything, a quiet pride pervades the atmosphere and celebrations, and it’s really quite moving.

Just about every Finnish company and business has created special items for Suomi 100, particularly the many design companies throughout Finland. Commemorative items to marking this milestone have been advertised and offered. Buildings and landmarks across Finland were lit in Finnish blue beginning on Tuesday evening. That same day, 100 Finnish flags were erected in the Market Square near one of Helsinki’s harbours and many of the landmark buildings. A massive (for Finland) fireworks display closed the festivities yesterday evening. Interestingly, as we walked through our neighbourhood yesterday evening, we glimpsed just about every Finnish television tuned into the traditional Presidential Independence Day reception, broadcast and showing various individuals shaking hands with the President of Finland.

It’s really quite lovely. And, yet, sedate. Much like Finland.

Finns are incredibly proud of their 100-year independence, and well they should be. We’re rather proud to be immigrants to this fine country. To confirm this pride, every single Finnish phone number received a birthday text message yesterday. Rather impressively, the message was distributed in Finnish, Swedish (the two national languages) and English (at least on our phones). What did this message say?

Today Finland celebrates 100 years of independence – Happy birthday everybody!

It’s rather odd to see a message pop up from ‘Suomi 100’. But, it was also incredibly sweet.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to wish Finns and Finland a happy Independence Day in Finnish (Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!). But, it is an absolute honour to be a resident and extended member of Finnish society.

Congratulations, Finland. Onnea Suomi!

#TBT thankfulness

Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November in the United States, has always been my favourite holiday. I love the gluttony of eating heaps of food which never really feature on menus at other times of year (cranberry sauce, anyone), which inevitably lead to the most interesting leftovers (turkey, mashed potato and cranberry sauce sandwiches on homemade rolls FTW).

But, more than anything, I love the opportunity to spend a day eating, drinking (whether alcoholic or not), being merry and giving thanks to whatever we have for which we are truly grateful.

There’s something simplistically magical about a day devoted to just simply enjoying and reflecting upon the many riches we all possess but typically disregard as unimportant the other 364 days of the year. Annually, the day leaves me more than full regardless of how much I actually eat.

This  year, once again, it’s just a typical cold and grey Thursday in November, as I spend yet another expat’s Thanksgiving far from my home in the United States. This year is just another working day for me, with no real plans to eat turkey or any of the other Thanksgiving-like trimmings. Yet, I’m perhaps more grateful than ever and dare I say rather more emotional this year compared to others. This week and month have provided ample and stark reminders of just how different our fortunes are from a mere five years ago.

In short, despite the absence of a feast, my cup and plate runneth over.

Earlier this month, we had to reapply for permanent residence in Finland. Within two weeks, both of us had our reissued cards, valid for another five years. And, both of us  breathed incredibly loud sighs of relief.

In the moments between receiving our new cards and sending off the old, we both were amazed at how far we’ve come from that hellish time not that long ago. Looking at the photos which identify us as the owners of those cards, our journeys show. We can see how much happier we are. We can see how much less stressed and fearful we both are. We can see how much healthier we both are.

The journey has been hard. It has been heartbreaking and spirit destroying at various moments, and it has challenged us and our resolve at times.

But, we’re here, and we’re both grateful. Enormously, tremendously and inexpressibly grateful.

So, as many friends I miss desperately and family I love dearly sit down with others to eat, drink and be merry, here’s my #ThrowBackThursday of thankfulness. It seems only fitting to share it all with all of you since you’ve helped make it a reality. May I never forget the journey itself or how far I’ve come. May I continue to enjoy this journey through life for years to come, even in the face of obstacles and detours along the way. And, may I continue to be surrounded by insanely supportive folk who help me get from there to here regardless of the starting position or finish line.

Always grateful…

 

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If this is how it affects me…

A little over five years ago, my husband and I endured what seemed like an impossible task at the time. It felt never-ending. Because of a set of circumstances we could not predict, we found ourselves applying for permanent residence in Finland on grounds then called ‘humanitarian reasons‘.

What strikes me as odd now is how that one event—an event stretching out to nearly a full year—continues to haunt me today.

Humanitarian reasons, or protections, as the Migration service refers to them now, are no longer accepted as justification for residence applicants. Thankfully, that classification no longer applies to us since we now hold permanent residence. I cannot imagine if we had not had that as a valid reason for submitting applications at the time. As an American with that all-important blue passport, I still find it weird that I personally fell into that category at all. Still, then, our only reason for meeting the conditions related to our mutual passports and an odd convergence of circumstances which meant we fit no other viable category.

Today, we will make our way to a Finnish Migration Service (or Migri) service point in Helsinki to renew our permanent residence cards, cards which arrived and filled us with the most immense relief I’ve ever known or am likely to ever feel. Months of waiting in a near-panic state, months of uncertainty and tidal waves of what-ifs should either or both of us be denied residence, months of simply putting everything in our life on hold until we knew what was possible. When those cards dropped to the floor as we ripped the envelope open, we didn’t merely cry, we sobbed and choked and laughed and hugged and cried some more. A period marred more as a form of psychological torture came to an abrupt and welcome end. That torment still awakens me in a cold sweat five-plus years later.

Today’s trip is already so vastly different to that hellish submission process in 2012. Then, we were armed with a bundle of paperwork (which were supplemented by three more bundles in the months that followed). Today, we need only bring our passports, our residence permit cards, and new passport photos. Then we waited hours to be seen in a numbered queue system. Today, we have an appointment.

Yet, the anxiety and worry persists despite the vastly different circumstances. Last night, I awoke in a cold sweat after having a nightmare about my handbag being nicked. What was I most concerned with? My precious residence card being amongst the items stolen and our appointment at Migri. This is not the first anxiety dream; I expect it won’t be the last.

Despite the lingering memory of that time, I know how fortunate we are, particularly compared to others who have endured far worse journeys to Finland and infinitely more stressful circumstances surrounding their own applications and long waits. If this is how this process affects me—the privileged, middle-class, white girl from the suburbs of Middle America—how does it affect those fleeing real humanitarian crises? How long do their nightmares last? And, how deep is the despair for those denied a peaceful life in this at times overly quiet country after surviving the most hellish conditions?

You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is ‘illegal’. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal? — Elie Wiesel

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The first snow

As soon as I learned that snow was set to arrive in southern Finland this week, that little-kid excitement took over. Anticipation. Wonder. More anticipation. Awaiting snow’s arrival takes me back to those moments as a kid, waiting to see if we’d have snow, how much would eventually fall and if school would be cancelled. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to go to school; but, rather, I wanted to run around in the freshly fallen fluff until my outdoor gear was soaking wet and I was exhausted.

Today’s snow isn’t all that fluffy. It’s weighty and wet and quickly melting rather than piling high. School won’t be cancelled for me today (because I didn’t have any classes scheduled) nor is snow ever likely to cancel classes in Finland. But, I’m still excited.

Unlike most days when I’m not in class, I needed to be somewhere this morning. After bundling up and donning the boots which I’ll likely wear through April, I found myself bracing against the icy grains of snow and smiling. I really do love snow, particularly as it falls and particularly as it changes everything it piles upon into something other worldly. No two snowfalls are alike, just as no two snowflakes are identical.

Today, the sound that accompanies snowfall struck me once again. Everything is muffled, and somehow more gentle. More muted. More peaceful. A few birds tweeted either their delight or disdain, breaking my own snow-induced trance. Perhaps those tweets were more distinct because all other sounds were muffled by the snow.

As I walked to and fro, I continued smiling as I walked in the first snow.

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(Re)orientation

This semester, this month, this week, stress abounds. (Largely, I’ve created this stress for and all by myself.)

As I hurried to deliver a seminar on a topic I felt less than prepared for, cursing the construction which put me a bit further behind schedule than I was comfortable with, I passed by one of the most iconic spots in Helsinki — Senate Square.

I pass this particular spot often when I teach / lecture at the main campus at the University of Helsinki. And, the view never fails to ground and reorient me beyond whatever nonsense surrounds me. This spot reminds me of how insanely fortunate I am to live this life. A life I never imagined possible and one for which I am extremely grateful.

And, just like that, nothing seemed quite so awful or stressful any longer.

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