I really, really loved Helsinki. We had a very comfortable AirBnB, great summer weather, and we got to see so many friends. The city is small and very walkable – you can basically get from one end to the other in about 30 minutes, and it really never feels too crowded. Now if they could just do something about the 8 months of winter, I’d be tempted to move there…
You can tell everything is designed for intensely cold temperatures and lots of snow. All apartments have double-paned windows, the front door is also doubled, and balconies are glassed in. All houses have boot brushes out front and heated towel racks in the bathroom. You typically take your shoes off whenever you go inside someone’s home or office, and I suspect that’s more to avoid tracking wet snow inside than to keep things from being dirty.
Heavy metal music is incredibly popular here, and as a friend said, its likely because of “The cold. The darkness. The isolation.” (Incidentally, the largest annual heavy metal festival was happening while we were in Helsinki. Its called “Tuska”, which in English means “Agony”.) While the summer nights are incredibly long, your only chance to see sun in the winter is during lunch.
There are also some unique Finnish words to express how people feel. For example, “Kalsarikänni” means “sitting by yourself in your underwear in front of a tv or laptop and getting drunk”. So that should set your expectations for what winter is like…
… which is why we came in the summer. Everyone is outside and happy and having fun – it was a really fantastic way to experience Helsinki for the first time.
I think seeing so many people we know really helped encourage my crush on Helsinki. We both know quite a number of people from our days at Apple. (Helsinki is home to a ton of mobile game development studios.) Unlike the US, where everything is very competitive, the various Finnish companies are all friendly – they freely share information with each other, are happy to help make valuable connections for one another, and often get their companies together just to socialize. The perspective seems to be that there’s room for everyone to be successful… I really wish more people shared this spirit (and not just about app development).
I’m really impressed with how passionate people are about their work, and also how much they do in their off time. There’s strong value placed on work/life balance.
One friend recently spent a couple weeks taking refugees to various national parks. Its a program designed to help them feel more comfortable in Finland and have an opprtunity to have fun and build confidence in themselves. How great is that?
We also got a quick visit in with an old Apple colleague who was over from London with his wife and new baby. His father lives outside of Helsinki and is full of non-stop stories, ponderings about life, and hilarious mottos like “ I don’t mind that I make mistakes as I learn from every one one of them… and that’s why I plan to keep on making them!” He had us laughing the entire time.
I also had a chance to see my old pal Sami. He’s originally from Helsinki, though we went to school together in England in 1990. This was my first chance to see him in his “natural habitat”, and I think I understand him a bit more now.
We wound up in some kind of heavy metal nightclub, which had impressive decor. This mural was just one of the features:
Summer holidays are a big deal in Finland. Many companies shut down for the month of July. Even if the company can’t let everyone take time off at once, people generally take turns taking a couple weeks off to go to their summer houses, be with family, and take advantage of the warm weather.
This time is sacred and project schedules are built around it. I often wished Apple provided a company-wide summer holiday along those lines. Christmas is the only holiday where the email stopped and you felt like you could really disconnect and recharge.
And new parent leave in Finland is essentially 2 years, which can be shared by both parents. (I’ll spare you more details as it will likely make my US friends who are parents cry.)
Helsinki Pride was the same weekend as the aforementioned Agony festival (who is a huge supporter of the Pride events). I was excited to see it, probably because I was hoping it would feel a little bit like SF. The “parade” felt more like a protest, but it all ended in an event space that felt very familiar – music, eating, drinking, and speeches. Not nearly as many festive outfits as you’d expect in SF, but still a good showing of people having fun and generally being supportive and joyous.
As we were heading toward the Pride epicenter, our friend’s young son wondered why people were “fighting for rights” (something he overheard from the parade), which triggered a very interesting dialogue… in Finland I believe there are equal rights regardless of sexual orientation/gender, so we talked about awareness, bullying, predjudice, etc. I loved how easy it was to have an honest conversation, and how much his father encouraged it.
A few other random thoughts on Helsinki:
Tar is both a cleaning product and a drink here. (WTF?) There’s even a saying “If vodka, tar, or sauna doesn’t cure you – its fatal.” My theory is that drinking tar would be fatal, but they assure me its not.
Helsinki has some really great cocktail bars, including a true speakeasy where we genuinely had a tough time finding the door. (Sadly, photos were forbidden.) Gin & tonics are an art form here, so factor in some time to sample them if you’re in the area. In addition to the speakeasy, I also highly recommend A21, Liberty or Death and Steam.
Every house has this geniusly-designed dish rack built into the cupboards over the sink. Why has no one else thought of this? It’s brilliant! The water runs right into the sink and you don’t have to waste counter space with a drying rack. Everyone should steal this idea!
So all in all, I’m a big fan of Helsinki and Finland in general… I suspect this won’t be my last visit.