Location: Northern Europe
Capital City: Helsinki
Population: 5.4 million
Government: Parliamentary Democracy. Republic with President as Head of State.
Main Language: Finnish
Main Religions: Christianity (Evangelical Lutheran), Judaism, Islam.
Finland is one of the world’s northernmost countries, bordered by Sweden and Russia. The capital Helsinki lies on the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland and is the most densely populated area, with 1.4 million inhabitants. The Finnish landscape is made up of thousands of lakes and islands and the geography and climate, with continuous daylight in summer and darkness in winter, creates a unique way of life for residents. The symbolic power of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) (LINK http://www.visitfinland.com/article/doze-off-under-the-northern-lights/) and Midnight Sun is entrenched in Finnish folklore, tradition and culture. Despite a somewhat turbulent history under Russian influence, Finland is staunchly proud of its place in the European Union and is so far the only country in the Nordic group (Denmark, Sweden, Norway) to have adopted the Euro.
Finnish culture shares many similarities with other Nordic countries, with a commitment to equality, liberalism and the creation of a highly-functioning society. Finns enjoy excellent living standards and are highly educated, thanks to heavy investment in free education for all. Finns are proud of their rich cultural heritage and folklore but Finland is also an ultra-modern nation with a flair for digital technology (Nokia is a Finnish company – despite most people thinking it is Japanese) and a long held reputation for advancements in scientific research. Culturally, Finnish people are known for being taciturn and having a ‘less is more’ approach to life, where honesty and diligence are held in the utmost importance. One Finnish proverb aptly describes this attitude: “Take a man by his words and a bull by its horns.”
Finns love being outdoors and many leisure activities are dictated by the extreme weather conditions. Popular pursuits include skiing, hiking, ice hockey, swimming (in icy lakes) (LINK http://www.visitfinland.com/article/a-refreshing-dip-icy-waters/) ice skating and fishing. However, a national obsession with the sauna tops the list of leisure activities. There are over three million saunas in Finland, and many homes have their own private equipment. The sauna is a major facet of Finnish identity and its health benefits are considered sacred (until recently, many women gave birth in the sauna). Newcomers to Finland should familiarise themselves with the rules governing sauna etiquette (LINK http://www.visitfinland.com/article/10-sauna-tips-for-beginners/) before stepping in.
Food and drink
Finnish cuisine is heavily influenced by neighbouring Sweden and Russia. Staples include rye bread - a favourite in Scandinavia – potatoes, meat and fish. Finland’s verdant pastures, coastline and lakes offer up some of the freshest produce in Europe and the national diet is considered to be very healthy.
Popular dishes include silakka (pickled, smoked or marinated herring), and a type of heavy meat stew called a karjalanpaisti. Dairy forms a large part of the Finnish diet and comprises many varieties of yoghurt and homegrown cheeses, like the blue-veined aurajuusto. An abundance of homegrown berries – such as lingonberries and cloudberries – are also used to make soups, jams, chutneys and juices.
Vodka is the national beverage of Finland and famous brands include Finlandia and Kossu. There is also a wide choice of mild Finnish lagers and beers to choose from. Strict laws govern the purchase of alcohol in Finland and it is very expensive – in a Helsinki bar, you will pay around €7 (£6.05) for a small beer.
The two official languages are Finnish (Suomi) and Swedish, with Russian the third most widely spoken. Finland also has a number of minority languages which include Sami (spoken by the 1,500 Sami peoples), Romani and Karelian. English is taught from preschool onwards and is widely spoken, particularly in academic settings - many Finnish degree courses are now taught entirely in English.
Accents and dialects
Differences in accents and dialects are divided between the east and west of the country. Additionally, the Finland-based Swedish population speak a variety of Swedish dialects known as suomenruotsi as their first language. Despite differences in accent and influences from Russian and Swedish, most Finns speak a range of foreign languages and have a high level of English, which is helpful for new expats, as Finnish can be a rather difficult language to learn.
The Finnish climate is characterised by mild summers and intensely cold winters. Temperatures average around 13°C to 18°C in summer and can drop to as much as -30°C to -50°C in the coldest month of February. The extreme climate influences life and culture in Finland, with very heavy snowfall, continuous darkness in winter and continuous light in summer. New expats not used to these conditions may find them strange at first, however, the Finns take the weather in their stride and celebrate their unique relationship with the sun with numerous festivals, midnight BBQs and parties.
Safety and security
On the whole Finland is a safe country with very low crime rates, although alcohol-related crime is notably higher than in other Nordic countries. However, most international visitors to Finland will feel comfortable walking around cities, although it is advisable to stay with a group in the more raucous parts of Helsinki.