Keeping Track of Finnish Holidays

finland

At some point I lost track of American holidays. Unless something pops up in the news, I forget about them. Keeping track of holidays becomes sort of odd when no one around you celebrates them. No sales or parades of barbecues. The artificiality of it, and how commercial and forced they seem, starts to creep in. They all seem like excuses to buy stuff and/or drink.

The reason I developed an awareness of Finnish holidays was practical: everything is closed. At least, it was. When we first arrived here, all of the stores were closed on Mother’s Day so people could spend time with their families. Stores were only open limited hours on Sunday anyway, if they were open at all. That’s changed; the stores are now open full hours on weekends. We even just got our first 24-hour McDonald’s. This sort of “progress” makes me a little sad.

Many Finnish holidays revolve around the seasons. That’s infinitely practical. Midsummer is the longest day of the year, the sun never completely sets, and Finns wisely want to soak up as much sun as possible while it lasts. The Equinox in September means the darkness is coming, so get prepared. That’s when people start putting up lights, similar to Christmas lights. Christmas is around Midwinter, the shortest day of the year. We party because we’ve made it through the darkest part, although January is still typically the coldest month. There’s a survival aspect to it. Enjoy it while it lasts, be glad these things are temporary.

Another clue that something is going on is if you see the Finnish flag. Unlike the United States, people don’t fly the flag 24/7/365. If there are flags out it’s either a holiday, the birthday of a Finnish cultural hero like Sibelius, Runeberg, or Snellman, or something has happened. It also flies on major European Union and United Nations holidays as well. When I see the flag it prompts me to look up why, so it has educational value. I learn things.

Keeping Track of Finnish Holidays

Once Finnish holidays worked their way into my life organically, I started tracking them. It’s good to be aware when stores will be closed, but also to know when fun stuff is going to happen. A lot of foods are seasonal and holiday-adjacent. You can’t get them all year long, and that makes them special. Not in a forced, overly-marketed way like pumpkin-spiced everything in the United States. More like certain cookies you only bake at Christmas, or strawberries that are better when they’re local and in season. Holidays here are special because they have some meaning to them. They’re temporary, ephemeral joys.

This is a Post About Door Knobs

finland

Today I’m supposed to write about (checks notes) door knobs. They are a rare thing in Finland. It confuses people when I talk about it, but when Americans get here they don’t seem to notice it right away. That lack of door knobs is another one of those subtle indications of deeper differences between Americans and Finns.

When I say door knobs, I’m referring to the roundish things that your grip, twist, and pull or push on to open and close a door. While I am sure they exist here somewhere, probably on order buildings, I cannot recall seeing one in five years. Most exterior doors have a bar running, running horizontally or vertically. Interior doors have handles, which sit horizontally and can be pushed down to unlatch the door. These arrangements not only address accessibility issues, they make it easier in the winter when you’ve got gloves or mittens on. It’s all-around more practical.

The thing that everyone does notice right away, however, is the lack of anything on the outside of apartment doors. Again, I speak to my experience, and the anecdotal evidence shared by friends. I have yet to visit an apartment building anywhere in the country where the door had anything other than a keyhole. No knob, no handle, nothing. You insert the key, twist, and use that to pull the door open.

Not Just Door Knobs – Keys, Too

Finnish keys are a whole other deal. They’re not the simple, flat things with ridges and teeth that Americans are used to. They’re technically cylinders, but squared and have a complex series of notches. In addition to being hard to duplicate, they can open multiple doors. For example, my one key can not only open my apartment door, but the front door to the building, the front door to the building next door (because of the laundry room), and the laundry room. My neighbor across the hall can open their apartment, but not mine, along with all of the things I can open. The people in the next building can get into their apartment, their building, and the laundry room, but not this building (because there are no amenities here they need to access).

The gap in technology blows my mind. It makes so much more sense, is easier to use, and provides far more security. The only reason why the United States hasn’t adopted these standards, I will venture to guess, is cost. I remember spending as little as $10 (€9) for an interior door knob. Around $30 (€27) for an exterior knob with a lock. It cost around $2 (€1,80) to make a duplicate key. Here making a duplicate key alone will run you around €40 ($44). There’s also the fact that the hardware is almost universally utilitarian, and I remember walking through aisles of styles for doorknobs and locks. Americans are about appearances, while Finns seem to prioritize function first.

A Note from Patreon for EU Patrons

finland

This morning I received the following email from Patreon for EU patrons. I want to pass it along with my own comments:

new EU law is going into effect this month that will require Patreon to add an extra security step for EU patrons. This is to reduce fraud for card holders, and all companies with EU customers are required to comply.

As a result, some of your patrons may see a pop-up from their bank when pledging or updating payment methods that requests a username and password, a code sent to email or text, or any other authentication method supported by their bank. If your patrons have any questions or issues with one of these popups, it’s best to suggest that they contact their bank directly, as Patreon does not control the form.

To learn more, check out this article in our help center.

This is something I’m already used to with online purchases. I’d venture to guess that most people in the European Union are as well. I get redirected to my bank’s website and have to log in using the authentication app on my phone. Patreon is based in the United States where people are still getting used to chipped cards and other security measures. Those things have been the standard here for years, but they probably expect push back. A couple of extra steps for the sake of security isn’t really an inconvenience. Even if it is, that’s just how things work now and complaining isn’t going to change it.

Permanent Outsider

finland

There’s something no one ever tells you about being a long-term expat or an immigrant. On some level, you become a permanent outsider. As much as you try to assimilate into your host culture, you’re bringing years of lived experience with you. When you interact with “your” culture, you have a new set of filters that you run everything through. You are neither wholly one nor the other anymore, so you no longer quite fit in either place.

When I’m chatting with people online, and writing blog posts like this one, I can edit myself. In “real life”, Katie and I tend to speak Finglish, a mixture of Finnish and English. We use Finnish place names, for example. I say keskustassa, apteekki, and pesula instead of downtown, the pharmacy, or the laundry room. It’s makes it easier to communicate with people, and it helps us to use and reinforce the amount of the language we actually know.

Because we’ve had many friends from the UK, or are around people whose English is more British-centric, we’ve also fallen into using British English terms. We’ll say flat and lift instead of apartment or elevator (although I’m more inclined to say hissi for the latter, because, well, it’s fun to say HEES-see). For loan words, I’ve taken to pronouncing them the Finnish way. Instead of pronouncing tortilla “tor-TEE-ya” I say “TOR-teel-lah” (with a rolled R) because that’s how it’s pronounced in Finland.

More than Language

All of which gets us strange looks from visiting Americans. We’re not affecting an accent, or trying to be pretentious. We’re trying to transition into using Finnish as much as possible, in spite of gaps in our vocabulary and grammar. It’s a matter of wanting to be understood when we come across Finns whose English is about on par with our Finnish. We spend a lot more time in that situation than we do interacting with people from the United States.

This seems like a superficial overview of why I feel like an outsider, but there’s more to it. A lot of it is uncomfortable to talk about, or at least go into in any sort of detail. When you meet people and they find out you’re from the U.S., and the first question they ask you is how you feel about the current political administration, it’s weird. You don’t know what side they’re on, whether they’re testing you, or if you’re about to get knifed if you give the wrong answer. Not from Finns so much as people from other places, whose relationship with the United States is, and historically has been… complicated.

The hardest part for me is when I have to hear “that would never work” in regards to some social, cultural, or political idea. Most of the time it’s things that some Americans want to reject out of hand, that Finland and Europe have been successfully doing for decades. Once in a while it’s an American concept that is roundly rejected for ideological reasons by Europeans, even if it has a proven record of positive results.

Permanent Outsider

There is an expectation among Americans that I will be either an expert on Finland, a perfect ambassador for the United States, or both. I’m neither. I’m Berin. Finns are more grounded and realistic, for the most part. But they want me to be an expert on American culture and politics, which I am not. They want me to love all of the things about Finland that they love, and be critical of all of the things about Finland that they’re critical of, and a lot of the time I’m just sadly uninformed about whatever it is they’re referring to.

The thing that makes me feel like an outsider is that my status as an expat/immigrant causes people to project things onto me. They have expectations about who I am, what my values are, and even how I will behave. I can’t live up to (or down to) that. I won’t conform to that. At the end of the day I’m just me, a guy from one place that now lives in another place, and no longer quite fits anyplace.

The Laundry Room

finland

This may sound like a mundane and boring topic, but I propose that the laundry room illustrates important fundamental differences between the Finnish and American cultures. It is a small thing, but it serves as a microcosm for a mindset. Allow me to explain.

Laundry rooms in most* Finnish apartment complexes are free. It is a standard amenity included in the rent. There are no coin-operated machines. You go to your complex’s website, log in, and book the use of the machines. In some places they don’t have a website yet, and use a sign up sheet on a clip board, but the principle is the same. You need to bring your own detergent and such, but you don’t have to make sure you have an ample supply of quarters like you do in America.

What does this demonstrate? Finland, unlike the United States, does not try to monetize every little thing. It is not a normal, ordinary thought to look at something and wonder how you could possibly make a little bit of extra money off of it. There are heavy-duty washers and dryers, and drying room (a heated room with clothes lines, for you to hang things to dry, a totally alien concept to Americans) placed there for the use of tenants. There are no vending machines, nor are there ads on the walls.

The Significance of the Laundry Room

After five years here this still amazes me. Then again, I come from places where every flat surface was covered with ads. Every wall, every bench, and billboards along every road and on top of every building with a proper sight line. Here there are a few ads in bus shelters, and on the sides of buses, but it’s not every centimeter of the shelter. It isn’t every possible area of the bus inside and out. Billboards exist, but I’ve only ever seen them on highways, not within cities. They tend to tout local attractions rather than random consumer goods or entertainment products.

It took a while for Katie and I to notice it, after we first got here. We felt a lot calmer. Walking to the shopping center, to the university, downtown, it seemed more peaceful. It finally clicked that we weren’t constantly having advertising shoved in out faces. That doesn’t mean that marketing doesn’t exist, or that this isn’t a consumerist/capitalist society. It’s just one that still seems to have a sense of where the line is.


*By most, I mean every person I have spoken to from Helsinki in the south to Rovaniemi above the Arctic circle. From Turku to Kuopio, Tampere to Oulu, everyone has told me it is that same there. I am not counting that inevitable Finn who pops up, nearly every time I say something like this. They point out that things are different where they live in Ivalo or the Åland Islands or some tiny and remote place.