I hope you have already listened to episode 329 or read the blog about how to get to Finland for the AIESEP 2024 conference. In it I talk about where I would suggest going if you have a few days to spare on either end of your journey to northern Europe. This episode is more about Finland and what to expect. Not many people fully understand Finland, or its culture and I am not promising that you are going to get some enlightening experience by reading this blog but I will share a little bit about what to expect when coming to Finland.
As a reminder, the reason I am doing this blog/podcast is because I was originally born in Finland and go there every year. I just so happen to also be the secretary general of this organization so in that role, I am in charge of communications. So here I am communicating to you about what to expect for this conference and some things in and around the conference that might be fun to explore.
Let’s cover Helsinki really quickly, so you can consider where to book your hotel if you choose to stay there. I will circle back with more details closer to the conference.
Under no circumstances, unless you are flying out at 5:00 AM should you stay at the airport. In the case of flying out early, they do actually have a fantastic airport hotel that is attached to the terminal. There are actually a few hotels (including Glo hotel) and they are all high quality and great. I have stayed at the Scandic Helsinki Airport (make sure it’s attached in the terminal, there is another one a few km away).
Back to the airport: It is in the middle of nowhere– it was built in the middle of nowhere for a reason –and it’s still in the middle of nowhere. Stay in the city center…anywhere near the train station is great, or close to Eslpanadi or the Harbor Market! Essentially South of the Train Station is perfect. For the last several years my wife and I have always stayed at Scandic Marski It’s a nice modern flagship hotel of that Scandic hotel group and it’s centrally located. There are tons of other options also. The few areas I would avoid are Sörnainen or Kallio. They are a bit on the “hipster side”, so tons of cool bars and up and coming restaurants, but not where I like to sleep at night! I’ll talk more about Helsinki details in a later blog.
I will also note really quickly about the hotels in Jyväskylä. There are tons of options listed on the conference website. I briefly talked about these in the last podcast and blog but here is another overview. Check out the website for the conference discount code, it may save you a little bit of money. If you are looking for kid friendly accommodation, I think the Scandic Laajavuori is the best option, it is about 3 kilometers away from the conference venues so it’s a little bit of a hike to get there but they have pools and a spa and very close by is an adventure park for kids with a bunch of high ropes courses and those kinds of things. Anything in the center of the town is going to be easily accessible to the conference venue. This means about a 15-20min walk from most of the hotels to anywhere you need to be. I’ve stayed in the Scandic City Centre, it’s a perfectly fine hotel but it has not been recently renovated. Scandic Station is right by the train station and newly renovated but farthest away from the conference venue (20min walk). I’ve been told that the Alba is the closest to the venue. Additionally, there are excellent walking and running paths around the lake leading out from this hotel. There are biking routes also right off this hotel and a green area plus a swimming area if you want to brave the cold water in May.
In my preliminary search I have not found a lot of great Airbnb’s but you may check that out as well. I was looking for a bit of a longer stay due to the summer school so maybe there are better options there now. Another option is to look at Forenom. This is a company that rents out fully furnished studios and apartments and they are cheaper than some hotels – but of course you don’t get breakfast included etc. Forenom is also a site that you can book a hostel room through as they run some of them.
On to information about Finland!
Let’s start with the only Finnish word in the English Dictionary. Sauna. It is a big part of Finnish culture and I really hope that you will get to experience it. There are different ways to go about this, and when you arrive in Jyväskylä and check into your hotel it is more than likely that there is a sauna in the bottom floor. Often these are split by gender and the reception will let you know the opening hours. Typically, they close around 9:00 or 10:00 PM and an evening sauna is a must when you are in Finland!
There is also an option if you can gather some colleagues when in Jyväskylä to rent a sauna boat (saunalautta). Yes, you read that right, a boat that has a sauna on it and it leaves right from the harbor of downtown Jyväskylä. I am personally getting a group of colleagues together during the conference one night to rent out a boat. Typically, they fit about 10 to 12 people and have a BBQ and of course the sauna. It is a BYOB meaning bring your own beverages and food that you can barbecue and enjoy while a captain drives the boat around. Some of them also have a Palju which is a Finnish hot tub minus the bubbles. It’s basically just a large wooden cauldron that is heated. Many cities have these sauna boats so if you don’t have time to do it in Jyväskylä you can book one elsewhere. There are a few of these in Jyväskylä and I anticipate that they will probably get booked so go ahead and look for some of them and see if they have openings for you and your friends. For about 40 euro/per person you will get 3 hours of the cruise and sauna fun if you get 12 people on the boat with you. There are plenty of options so do your research.
Another option is to go to public saunas. A popular one in Helsinki is called Löyly https://www.loylyhelsinki.fi/en It is co-owned by a Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen (he was in The Vikings and a few other movies like Black Klansman)…this place is popular, its hip and has gotten a lot of good press. You can eat, drink, and sauna there. Book online to make sure you have space. Its 23 EUR for 2 hrs comes with a towel rental. Kids under 10 are free.
There are many similar saunas that are less “trendy”, Löyly is just one, here is the list of other public saunas in Helsinki.
In Jyväskylä, there is a similar public sauna and restaurant right in the harbor (which is walking distance from downtown). It’s called Sataman Viilu A two hour sauna pass costs €22 and you have access to a jacuzzi or the lake to swim in. I would think it would be smart to do a reservation especially with close to 600 delegates coming in for the conference.
A quick note on nudity.
If the sauna is single gender (most of them are) it is normal in Finland to get naked, go to the shower and then step into the sauna. Remember to grab a paper to put under your butt. These are provided in most all public and hotel saunas. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Finnish person’s house to sauna then these may be cloth ones. In mixed-gender saunas you should wear a bathing suit. There are typically clear signs in public saunas around bathing suits. It’s actually considered a bit more un-sanitary for you to wear your swimsuit into the sauna. So, if you do go into a sauna with strangers (I hope you do) just don’t stare…it’s not polite.
Once you’re in the sauna – you just hang. There is a bucket with water and a scoop. That’s to throw the water on the rocks. If you are not a sauna aficionado just relax and let the others toss the water. If you do want to toss the water on the rocks, it’s always polite to ask the others if it can be tossed. Since when you toss the water, it gets hot. If it’s too hot for you, drop down one level on the seats.
OK-that’s enough about Saunas.
Here’s what else is amazing about Finland.
Nature and Islands:
Finland is beautiful. It is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe, so it’s easy to find some quiet spaces with very few people around. Jyväskylä is renowned for lakes and four national parks: Leivonmäki, Konnevesi, Pyhä-Häkki, and Salamajärvi. If you have access to a car you could do some great hiking.
Laajavuori (where the Scandic hotel is) has an adventure park nearby, lots of climbing, high ropes courses etc. and it’s only 4km from the Jyväskylä so a good activity to do especially with kids even if you’re staying in the city.
Around Jyväskylä there is a bicycling and walking loop and if the weather is great this could be a great way to see some nature around the conference venue. Remember there will be a lot of light when you are there in May. Specifically, the sun is going to rise at around 4:00 AM and go down around 10:30 PM, that’s a lot of daylight!
Here is a link to a bicycling and walking loops around the city
When it is darker in the fall there is a loop called the “city of lights tour” and it is about 10 kilometers and takes about 3 hours to complete here’s a link to that walk and the destinations around it. This is also a decent walk to do around the city and there’s a mobile app that you can use to guide you through each place. They just won’t be as illuminated because it will seem like daytime almost around the clock.
I guess officially, the area Jyväskylä is in is considered the “Lakeland of Finland”. Here’s a link to learn more about the region
Here is more information specifically about Jyväskylä
Culture and Art:
This region also has a lot to explore if you are interested in architecture. Alvar Aalto Is a bit of a big deal internationally and some of his architecture is on display in the city, even on the campus of the university.
The area has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Petäjävesi Old Church and the Struve Geodetic Arc at Oravuori, which offers stunning views of Lake Päijänne. The church is from the 18th century and is one of the oldest surviving wooden churches in Finland.
If you REALLY want to go down the history rabbit hole you can read Kalevala, that is the Finnish Epic. It starts with how the world was formed and it’s an interesting read (at least was for me).
Innovations and Technology:
Although I just spent time telling you about old wooden churches, bicycling, and unplugging and getting away to nature…Finland is actually a very technology driven country. If you have heard of Nokia, that is a Finnish company, it is also a city near Tampere where the company was based and started making rubber boots a long time ago. If you’re in the market for good rubber boots Nokia makes the best! Also, in the early 2010’s if you caught yourself throwing pigs at birds or birds at pigs I don’t remember which way it went but the company behind Angry Birds is also Finnish. It is called Rovio and they have made a ton of popular video games.
Through Nokia, and the buildup of wireless services in Finland, the country has benefited from really inexpensive cellular communication and large coverage areas. You can be in the middle of a lake somewhere and have full signal. High speed Internet is common all throughout the country. When I get to Finland I always activate a SIM card on a prepaid account and use that there for Internet surfing and navigation etc. Phone companies = Telia, DNA, & Elisa. You can find SIM cards at local kiosks.
Finland is also known for its education system. I highly suggest that you sign up for the pre-conference session about the Finnish education system on May 13th. This is a session to learn more about the Finnish education system. Finland exploded onto the international education scene with high PISA scores in the early 2000s. People from all around the world flocked to Finland to figure out what they were doing right. If you listen to the current conversation and politics now… considering those scores have dropped, even in this last recent publication just a few months ago… Some Finnish experts will say they don’t know what actually caused the scores to go up and now they don’t know why they are going down. Theories on the decline are the use of screens and the digitalization of everything, the increasing diversity in schools and teachers not being able to keep up etc.
With that said, Finland has a very rigorous process to become a teacher. All teachers have masters degrees and only the top 10% of applicants even make it to a teacher education program. Teachers also get paid well. Jyväskylä is one of only two places that produce physical education teachers in all of Finland. It is the largest program in the nation and pretty much most every physical education teacher that has a license to teach in Finland to teach PE went through that university. The number of students admitted is based on the expectation of how many teachers they expect to retire or leave the system.
Other things that have contributed to the guess of why Finland was doing so well in the early 2000s in those scores are that there are very few standardized tests, there is very little high stakes examination before 9th grade, and the basis of the education system is rooted in equality. There are no private schools in Finland- well not really, I guess every major city in the world has the American school or the English school but overall, there is not a private school system like there is in the vast majority of other countries. There are also traditionally, and this has been changing a little bit, no gifted and talented programs either. Some people argue that this is holding certain students back, but it fits into this idea of equality.
I am not boasting to be an expert in the Finnish education system – that’s why there is a pre-conference session where you will get to visit some schools on the 13th of May so I hope you check that out. We are also working to get access to visit schools on the morning of Tuesday the 14th as the conference starts in the afternoon.
Climate in Spring:
You will be going to Finland in May. To be honest the weather is going to be a crapshoot. The highs in Fahrenheit are around 60°F and lows are 40° so you are looking at about a high of 15 Celsius and a low of four. It may rain so bring your rain jacket. But remember there is a common Finnish saying… there is no bad weather there are just poor clothing choices. So, embrace the culture and embrace the weather and you will have fun if you go at it with the right equipment and positive attitude. Since the city is very walkable, perhaps it’s smart to bring a pair of water resistant shoes that you can walk back and forth from the venue. No one likes soggy shoes all day.
OK let’s talk about food. Karelian pastries are from the region I am from, you will see them at your hotel breakfast most likely. They are boat shaped pastries that are made of rye and the stuffing inside is either potato or rice. You will see an egg colored butter dish next to it – that is egg butter. Put it on top and enjoy! Finns also eat a lot of salmon, and you will see that in the form of grav lox often. Rye bread is really popular and almost always an option at buffets and other meals. Most Finnish people in America ask guests coming from Finland to bring them rye bread. There is nothing like it that you can find anywhere else. I stand by that. Oh, and pea soup. People just love pea soup. It’s usually served on Thursdays so let’s see if Thursday is Pea soup day at the conference!
Coffee! If you are a lover of coffee, you will love Finland. Most work contracts have two coffee breaks and a lunch written into them. You get one at about 10:30 or 11:00 and then another one at around two or three and Finnish people drink a lot of coffee. Not necessarily in one sitting but often. For reference let me tell you when my dad drinks coffee, he has it when he wakes up, then he has it at 10 and he has it after lunch at around noon and he has it around two and then when the day is done he’ll have it at about 5:00 or six and if he’s out to dinner and somebody offers him a coffee at eight he will also have it. It is completely OK for you to say that you prefer not to have any more coffee because you are about to shake out of your body… but just remember Finnish people drink the most coffee per capita in the world. And of course, with a coffee you have to have a pastry. There are tons of great pastries and you will see them in numerous coffee shops in any city you find yourself in.
Friendly and Sustainable Society:
Finnish people overall are very nice. Most people are just genuinely nice human beings, but you wouldn’t know it based on a traditional Finnish person. Most Finnish people through their culture, especially the older generation, are much more introverted. If you have ever met me in person I am the opposite of a Finnish introverted person. I confuse Finnish people because I talk too much. Maybe that is why I host a podcast. In Finland, Finnish people don’t understand Americans who love small talk. Don’t get me wrong, Finnish people will talk to you but a greeting that is not common in Finland is “Hey! how are you” and then you walk away. Once you get to know Finnish people, you will see that they are really genuinely curious and intelligent people. Just traditionally, they are not going to say hi to strangers and ask how their day is going when they don’t really care. Also, most Finns are really eco conscious. There are a lot of sustainability measures happening everywhere and every trash can has like four different containers. Recycling and composting are taken seriously there, you separate plastics, cardboard, food, batteries etc. And if you stay in an Airbnb and the throw the refuse in the wrong bin, people will probably shame you!
Finnish is probably one of the hardest languages to learn in the world. However, if you want to give it a shot and get some phrases and words ready there are hours of free lessons on DuoLingo which is a language learning app. You can pay for this app or use the free version with commercials. But you don’t have to know Finnish to have a full and complete enjoyable vacation there. Almost all Finnish people speak some English, and this is especially true for the younger generation who speak it very well. Currently if you’re in first grade in a normal Finnish elementary school 30% of the instruction is in English. In northern European countries only the children’s movies are dubbed so they listen to all the movies and TV shows after about their elementary school experience in English and read the text and Finnish. Most restaurants have an English language menu and are happy to serve you in English. If you’re at a grocery store and the person gives you the total and Finnish you can just say “excuse me do you speak English?” and they will almost always switch right over. Interestingly in major cities like Helsinki many of the restaurants serve only in English. So, the person who is waiting tables or bartending does not even speak Finnish and the Finnish person living in Helsinki has to order in English if they want to be served.
But as always, it’s nice to try and say a few words in Finnish because people respect your effort.
The most popular sport in Finland is probably ice hockey. The Finnish men’s hockey team particularly has had a lot of success winning World Championships and bringing home medals in the Olympics. It is always a big thing when they are successful. Soccer is also a popular sport among youth, but the Finnish national game is pesäpallo. Here are the rules in a short video.
I am still waiting for the season schedule to be launched but there are professional teams in Jyväskylä and I am going to see if there is a chance to organize a group to go watch. It’s an entertaining fast-paced game and I think as sports and physical activity enthusiasts you all will find it entertaining.
There are also other notable contests and physical activities that the wild Finnish people have conjured up during the long months of winter darkness. Wife carrying is one, and the winner wins their wife’s weight in beer. You also have mobile phone throwing. Which I am pretty sure started from the great crash of Nokia and ensuring that people who paid good money for phones found them obsolete and wanted to throw them as far as possible. Closely related (as you remember that Nokia started as a rubber boot making company), there the sport of Finnish boot throwing. Mölkky is another one and a really great lawn game that I hope we get to showcase in Finland. Basically there are 12 pieces of wood and you throw one larger piece of wood at those 12 pieces… that’s all I’m going to explain about it so just let your imagination run wild. Finns are also really into disc golf and excited about swimming in the coldest possible water available to them, which in the winter is conveniently located under ice. These are just a few examples of wild and crazy games Finnish people come up with. Oh, I almost forgot to list Swamp Soccer (also invented in Finland) and it’s exactly that, people playing soccer in a swamp. Here’s a video.
– Queuing practices: Finnish people are unusually polite but don’t cut them off in line. We wait in line for everything, and it is an organized single file line, just don’t mess with it.
– If you learn one Finnish word, make it “No niin” Ismo Leikola – (the world’s funniest man ) has done a lot of great comedy sketches and now tours in English. I am actually going to see his standup here in Washington D.C. next month!
I want to thank the local organizing committee for getting me started on writing this blog. I hope this has been helpful! The next blog will talk about the different neighborhoods in Helsinki and what to do there. I will also ask the Finnish faculty at Jyväskylä to list some of their favorite coffee shops, restaurants and bars and report back!
See you in Finland!
Secretary General AIESEP