My first impressions of Finland started to form quite unintentionally. It was on a ferry from Stockholm to Turku when we met several Finns. They asked us if we can speak Finnish, and after our negative answer, they tried Swedish. I wondered how could they speak this language? The reason came in a few days: learning Swedish is obligatory at elementary and secondary school! You can probably imagine how they love it ;) There are about 6%-minority of Swedish-speaking inhabitants here. It has historical reasons: Finland was part of Sweden between 1323 and 1809. Swedish is the second official language. I could feel it immediately after my getting off the ferry: every official sign or label has to be bilingual.
But I wanted to speak about English. According to my previous experiences in Norway, I expected almost everyone to be fluent. Actually, this was one of the main reasons why I decided to come here. I found that it is more or less true. Of course, if you meet a fifty-year-old workman, it is more probable that he could not speak English. But younger people, most of the secondary-school-graduates and practically all people with university degrees speak English fluently. I was very surprised during seminars from mathematics how everyone can explain his solutions, for example. English is considered as something absolutely ordinary, not as something "extra".
I have heard and read everywhere that Finns are silent. Hmmm! At least during my first month here, I did not realise anything similar. Everyone was talking to us without any problems. But then, I started to observe that there is some truth in that. The students who I was speaking with and those whom an exchange student can come across in the easiest way are not typical Finns. I started to look at ordinary students at lectures, the choir members in our "TYYn kuoro", people on the bus, and so on. And they surely speak less. It is very rare if someone unknown starts to talk to you. No one speaks to his friend during a lecture. Silence is not considered as something weird. Finns are very good listeners; they do not stop you when you are talking in any case. If you meet someone whom you have never seen before in a cloakroom, for example, he will not answer your greeting almost for sure.
On the other hand, Finnish people are pretty polite, and if you ask them for something, they will probably do their best to help you. They use their kiitos very often; even if they actually do not have to. Quite interesting is the fact that even though there exist polite forms of pronouns in written Finnish almost nobody uses them.
People in Finland have a much better attitude to sport than their counterparts in the Czech Republic. It is very common to see women between 19 and 99 walking on pavements, sometimes accompanied by their husbands. It is popular to use poles as well – that kind of exercise is called nordic walking. There are thousands of bikes in Turku – they are popular especially since southern Finland is very flat, and since it is the cheapest and the fastest mean of transport. When I came to the University for the first time, I was amazed at the endless rows of bikes in front of it!
When I write about Finland, I cannot forget to mention ice hockey. It is a true that Czech hockey is one of the best in the world. But it is still nothing compared to Finnish hockey. Shortly after my coming in January, numerous ice rinks appeared throughout the city. It is amazing: the municipalities and various sport clubs maintain the rinks, sweep them almost every day, provide heated cabins as cloakrooms, illuminate them in the evening and above all, it is for free. Could you imagine not to take advantage of that? There are almost all the time several boys skating with their sticks and playing a game with a puck, often from the Czech Republic :)
During my first afternoon in Finland, I was walking home from the city on foot. A quarter an hour from my new home, I came across several dustbins sorting waste. I was wondering how far it would be to reach here, but in half an hour, I realised that there are two similar yards just next to our house. Finns separate waste as an absolutely ordinary thing. It is quite interesting that it is possible to separate organic waste but there are no special dustbins for plastic.
In general, people in Finland are more "environmentally conscious": energy-saving lightbulbs are widespread, houses are well insulated, there are no baths in Finnish bathrooms etc. But there is one exception: the sauna. It is said that there are about two million saunas in Finland. If you consider five million inhabitants, it practically means that there is a sauna in almost every flat. It is a part of the Finnish tradition: it used to be almost only place where it was warm in winter or it was a place to give birth. But nowadays, Finns do not like it. They love it!
As an exchange student everywhere, you will probably go to some party sooner or later. It is quite common to talk with your friends in a pub with one or two or three or four or… ehm, pints of beer. In the Czech Republic. But not in Finland. Finnish style of partying is completely different. And you would probably join them after you pay 15 euros for three beers.
In general, the price of alcohol is high. A shot of strong alcohol costs at least five euros. It is almost impossible to find beer in a pub for less than three and half euros, and beer for five is not an exception. Bottles of the cheapest wines are sold at six euros.
But it is not a whole truth. If you buy more beers together in a supermarket, you can get one third per sixty cents. One half a litre of good Koskenkorva vodka costs about ten euros. These prices holds on land; it is even about 20% cheaper on a ferry.
For these reasons, Finns start to have a party at home. They meet at someone's place, a person who usually provides a little food, but alcohol is brought by everyone (according to his or her taste and capability to buy it cheap;). If the participants want to move to some club in the city, it is usually held after two or three hours of this "pre-party" which means at about 11pm. I thought that midnight partying on the streets is popular in Spain, but in Finland as well: you can meet hundreds of, usually drunk, people in the city centre around midnight!
Even though beer is the most popular alcohol, especially among the young generation, Finns are used to drinking vodka or other strong drinks much more than central or southern Europeans. There are several reasons for that. First, it is almost impossible to grow wine or hops here, and so spirits was almost the only alcohol they could make. Second, there used to be a prohibition earlier, and the stronger the drink was, the easier it was to sell it on the black market. Finns are discovering wine or beer as a drink for food only today. It is said that Finns are used to drinking only on Friday or Saturday, but to collapsing point.
Though a rule that the drivers have to give way to pedestrians on crossings started to hold in the Czech Republic only several years ago, about half of them will really stop. But no one stops here in Turku!
I had a similar weird feeling when I was trying to leave a building or a bus. If you think that you can leave the place first, you will probably bump into the incoming ones or they will at least look at you in very strange way.
I try not to go shopping on Sundays in the Czech Republic. But it is almost impossible here. Only small shops are open; and in fact, there is a rule that only stores of an area smaller than 400 sq. metres can be open. There was an exception before Christmas; but still, I like it very much.
According to statistics, about 84% of people in Finland belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Because of that, Finland is one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe in terms of religion. There are about 1% of Christians in the Orthodox church and ca. 0.15% acknowledge Catholic belief. About 13.5% are not registered in any religious denomination.
Besides the amount of people in the church, there are several other things which seem quite impossible in the Czech Republic. For example, those who are registered with the Evangelical Lutheran Church or the Orthodox Church have to pay special "church tax" which forms from one to two per cent of their income. Cemeteries are owned by the Evangelical church. According to their confession, children have compulsory religious or ethical education during the whole elementary school, but only very few attend the "non-religious" version: the Ethics course.
Quite similar to Czech Republic, very few people go to church on Sundays: about 3.2%. I do not know the exact numbers in the Czech Republic, but it must be between one and three per cent as well. However, the attitude is different; people here have at least considerably greater regard for things related to the church; they consider their own membership important as well as baptisms, weddings, and funerals being held in a church.
It is still not everything that a foreigner can recognise here, but I hope that the most interesting facts are depicted. For sure, Finland is a nice country, and I hope I will come again at least for several weeks in the future.