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.


Days like these

November in southern Finland is not child’s play, particularly once we set the clocks back that one precious hour and live on ‘winter time’. The nights become unending and the sun — if it appears at all — shines less than brightly. Couple the darkness with a heavy dose of stress and finding any joy at all becomes excessively difficult if not impossible.

But joy can be found even in the darkest of places. At least, that’s the hope we hold on to even on those darkest of days. This week featured an array of stressors and frustrations. Don’t get me wrong: bright spots shone. Yet both of us acutely feel the effects of an entirely overly optimistic and far from restful year as we near our long-awaited and overdue holiday and annual escape to the sun.

Before our escape, we must take whatever opportunities arise to break free from the daily grind. It may be a fully working weekend for us both, but we work just as hard to find time to get out and break free for our peripatetic bonding session before night falls and the darker darkness of winter characteristic of these nights descends. We made our break sometime around 16.00.  And, here’s what we found on this wintry Caturday afternoon/early evening:

  • The street lights were on well before we made it halfway through our walk. We appreciated the light on our return journey home. But, it’s weird and eery to see them turn on well before 16.30 in the afternoon. A month from now, it will be fully dark at this time of day. And, that darkness is intensely black, standing in stark contrast to the dusk that pervades throughout what counts for summer nights. (Need I say, we prefer the darkness of summer.)
  • Despite needing multiple layers on our walk, as we approached the beach nearest our neighbourhood, a lone, brave swimmer made her way from the changing rooms to the pier and finally down into the icy waters. She wore a wool cap, gloves of some sort, slippers of some sort, a bathing suit and was wrapped in a towel. We shivered simply watching her as she submerged into the waters and swam from the pier. As she emerged after her swim, she confessed that the water ‘wasn’t so bad once you got used to it’. We both thought, ‘Better you than us, girlfriend!’ We prefer the warm bath water of the Caribbean, thank you very much.
  • Despite living in Finland for 10 years now, we still don’t understand the weather here. We left under relatively cloudless skies. At least, it looked as though the clouds had moved on to elsewhere. As we stood watching the less-than-sane swimmer [our classification of her mental state, naturally], rather large and cold drops of rain plopped on our heads. Once again, we were stuck far from home without an umbrella.
  • Mosquitoes still survive even now. Surprisingly. As I typed this post, one lone little bugger landed on my hand.

Days like these, I’m happy to be alive.

In the blink of an eye

10 years_2

Arriving in Helsinki from Sheremyetyevo, 21 July 2007

Ten years.

Ten years ago today, we took our three suitcases and Che Fufu carrier (with Che Fufu less-than-pleased to be in it) and made our way to Sheremyetyevo with one-way tickets to a country next door and yet worlds away. Several security checkpoints and an hour-long flight later, we arrived in Helsinki’s very clean and quiet airport.

Ten years. It simultaneously feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago.

There’s still so much of this city and country that remains utterly foreign to us (Finnish language, perhaps?). And, yet, we’ve built a life here. I remember that first summer missing a bus whilst standing at the stop because we didn’t signal as it approached. I remember being in awe at how huge and well-stocked the supermarkets were and how cheap things like clothes were. I remember the novelty and delight of an online journey planner which would tell us how long it would take to walk to the bus stop and what time the bus would arrive at that stop. And, even better, how long to the minute the journey would take. Furthermore, it was typically correct!

After Moscow, this was utterly unbelievable. Much of our new life was. It all seems so normal now, but was completely surreal ten years ago.

Helsinki has been good to us, and it isn’t at all a bad place to live. It’s clean, it’s well-organised and safe. It’s quiet—so quiet that when we first arrived the quiet proved unsettling.

Since we’ve arrived, we’ve celebrated milestones (getting married counts, right?) and birthdays, endured unimaginable uncertainty (residence permit saga anyone?) and come through it all to enjoy a bit of calmness and serenity. The world beyond may be crumbling or chaotic, but our little life here is relatively peaceful and stress-free these days.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine living in Finland. But, here we are. I never imagined marrying a Cuban until I met mine. I’ve no idea how long this glorious-in-summer / abysmal-in-winter land will be home to us, but here’s to ten years and counting. It’s passed in the blink of an eye.

Day 25: Proekt 365 (Here’s to Finland’s Maternity Box)

Day 25: Proekt 365 Here's to Finland the the Maternity Box)

Day 25: Proekt 365
Here’s to Finland’s Maternity Box

Finland’s approach to ensuring its citizens and residents live a quality life and have equitable access to such a life from the youngest of ages impresses me. Today, whilst having lunch with a few expat friends, one of whom has an adorable baby girl who was born here, I was reminded of just how early that focus begins. If you have never heard of the Finland Maternity Box, look it up. I’ve marveled about this briefly before, but today I was particularly impressed with it for whatever reason.

Last year as the world awaited the birth of one prince or princess in particular, news focused briefly on the brilliance of the Maternity Box. For more than 75 years, Finnish mothers-to-be have received these boxes, which contain an impressive collection of clothes, toys, personal hygiene items for baby’s first bath (and for Mom), outerwear and various other necessities for newborn babies. All of the items are packed neatly into a decent-sized cardboard box, which can also be used as a baby bed — the package also includes all of the items for baby’s first bed, including a mattress that ingenuously fits snugly in the box.

Mothers can also opt to get cash. But, the loot which comes in the box far exceeds in value the cash disbursements (€140 as of 2013). So, most of the moms I know opted for the loot. I would! The picture above is an item my friend received in her Maternity Box when she was expecting her daughter. Not only is it as cute as her precious little girl, but her daughter LOVES the little bug and kept herself quite busy playing with it when she wasn’t concentrating so completely on being cute. Who wouldn’t love that bug?!

It’s impressive. Mighty impressive really when you consider the reasons behind and history surrounding the Finnish Maternity Box. Their distribution is designed to give all children born in Finland an equal start in life — regardless of socio-economic background, geographic location, family composition or cultural heritage. Every child born in Finland is entitled to receive the box (or cash equivalent) with just one condition placed on its receipt. Mothers wishing to receive the box must have visited an OB-GYN clinic by the fourth month of her pregnancy. In the late 1930s when the boxes were originally distributed to the poorest families, infant mortality in Finland was quite high (65 per 1000 births). Once the programme was expanded for all women and families in the 1940s and then following reforms to ensure all residents in Finland had equal access to all types of healthcare, infant mortality dropped and fewer complications were reported. Now, infant mortality is negligible.

Infant mortality over time has dropped incredibly in Finland

Infant mortality over time has dropped incredibly in Finland

The contents of the box are brilliant. Items are gender neutral (so that they are suitable for boys and girls) and are now chosen for their sensitivity to the environment. They are also durable and not cheaply made or designed. Many of the items in the box would be prohibitively expensive for the poorest families. Snow suits alone are incredibly pricy despite their necessity given the length and depths of winter we experience here in Finland. The contents even include baby’s first books. Yet, every mother is entitled to the box. And, every child can start life out with the same basic necessities. Well done, Finland. Very well done.

It doesn’t at all surprise me that Finland is ranked top in terms of where its best to be a mother. When you get a box like this to welcome your little bundle of joy, how could it not be pretty fab for moms? It should be. And, I’m delighted to live in a country that takes its newest and youngest residents so seriously, and which helps out its moms in the process.

Misogynist 0; Activist 2

Yes, we are useful.

We’ve recently had incredibly bad luck with our various means of connecting with the rest of the world. In our dealings with customer service representatives and repairmen, we’ve been amazed at just how misogynistic and condescending some of these individuals continue to be.

To be fair, customer service is not exactly understood in precisely the same way here in Finland as it is in the US for example. Almost a year ago, I had an unfortunate experience with one of my formerly favorite local yarn shops when a pair of knitting needles I know to be guaranteed for life had an obvious flaw, rendering their continued use impossible. After exchanging emails with the European headquarters, I received not just one but three replacement sets and the store no longer enjoys my patronage (their loss, given just how much I had previously spent in that particular store). It amazed me at the time, however, how utterly unconcerned the manager was with pleasing a customer and a regular one, and how brazenly she showed her contempt for me as a customer merely wishing to exchange an obviously flawed product.

Perhaps then I shouldn’t have been as surprised by recent experiences with our internet and mobile service provider. I certainly wasn’t expecting outright contempt and disdain. Nor was I expecting to be treated as a technology neophyte who didn’t understand how to turn on a machine let alone discuss the possibilities regarding what had gone wrong in any meaningful and intelligent way. That is, I was expecting to be treated as an equal. Not an idiot.

First, our normally insanely fast cable internet failed us miserable over a one-week period. This is virtually unheard of in Finland, a country which considers access to broadband connections a fundamental human right. In the various calls I made to our provider, I was told it was a) a building-wide problem; b) a network issue that had been sorted; c) they had no idea but would send a repairman anyway; and d) all of the above.

My patience wore out completely when, during our fourth for fifth consecutive call, the unhelpful twit at the other end of the line told me to simply reset the modem, and then proceeded to explain to me what a modem was. (At that point, my husband sensing I was about to go postal took the phone and explained to said twit that we are not neophytes to technology, thank you very much.)

The first of two repairmen arrived, tested the modem, the wall fitting and the cables, and came up with the explanation that it was a problem with the splitter. Fine. But, why the smirk and smugness? He then said a previous technician misspoke and there had not been building-wide problem. It was only a problem in our flat. That evening, our internet connection was lost again.

Given how reliant we both our on our internet service for, you know, our work and livelihoods, this gave us serious reason to consider switching providers. Our next phone call was not to technical support but to customer service. For the first time in this ordeal, we received ‘customer service’. Another repairman arrived, carefully checked everything, told us that the previous repairman had been out of line and explained what and why he was doing everything. He did not speak to either of us as if we were beneath him, but as if we were equals and partners. In other words, we felt he was concerned for our experience and that he wanted nothing more than to help fix the problem. He also reassured us that he would check various things out for the building, since obviously nothing was awry in our flat. Since then, our internet connection has been stable.

Fast forward to yesterday.

Our mobile phone service is provided by the same company as our internet service, although the accounts are separate. For the most part, we’ve had very little to complain about in relation to 3G services. The only thing better than internet connections in Finland is the mobile phone service. Data transfer is free and unlimited, our monthly service fees are a pittance, and coverage is available everywhere. It’s incredible really. (I’ll refrain from mentioning roaming fees; they suck for everyone in the EU.)

That said, I’ve been having issues with a connector cable for my lovely Samsung Galaxy S III, which is a relatively recent addition to my gadget collection. If the cable isn’t positioned just so, it won’t charge. Not exactly a great thing to have go wrong with your phone. I suspect it is a problem with the cable’s connector, and just need a replacement.

Armed with my phone, cable, the original box and receipt, I visited one the many sales and service points for my mobile service provider. I’ve been to this shop on several occasions, and whilst it is normally quite busy given it’s location, the staff are generally quite friendly and helpful. Not yesterday. Not at all.

First, Snarky Boy, as he is now known, told me that the cable wouldn’t work when connected to a computer since there wasn’t enough ‘power’. (Then, why did it work just fine up until a week or so ago? And, why does it not work any better when plugged into the wall?) Then, he tried to tell me that it wouldn’t charge now because it was completely charged. (Really? Then, why when we got to settings and to the battery settings in particular does it show the charge at 65%?) Upon learning that the phone would then need to go to repair (‘even though there is nothing wrong with it’), I asked about what I would do for a phone whilst mine was in repair. ‘Well, I don’t know what you will do while your phone in is for repair,’ in a voice which was dripping with disdain, contempt and a ‘not my problem’ attitude. (I learned later from a friend and via the company’s website that if your phone requires service, the company gives you a loaner until you get your phone back. This was never mentioned at all by Snarky Boy.)

What was even more disconcerting given this entire experience was the attitude not just of Snarky Boy, but of his colleague. The two exchanged several glances during the above exchange and, at one point, the other employee laughed. He sat in his chair with another customer and laughed.

Utterly pissed off and fed up, I asked for Snarky Boy’s name, packed up and left. His parting question was, ‘Don’t you want your phone to go for repair?’ My response was simply, ‘I’m not dealing with you nor this store. I will call customer service to explain to them a) what has happened here and b) what the issue is to get it sorted.’

Customer service again came through. Perhaps it was speaking with another woman, but…she was helpful, kind, apologetic, and interested in solving my particular problem with a minimum of fuss and hassle. She took the time to make note of Snarky Boy’s name, the store I visited and the approximate time events occurred, and reassured me that some sort of reprimand would be issued. She also checked with her supervisor to make sure she knew how it would be handled before ending our call. My confidence in my provider was restored, needless to say.

Will it make a difference? Probably not. But, maybe it will. And, maybe, if more people would stand up to this sort of behavior, things would change. Ultimately, if we all want a world free of misogyny, then we must take a stand, confront it as it occurs, and demand better treatment, whether it is directed at us or at those around us.

One thing is certain: if we remain silent, the misogynist wins.