Here and There – Finland

In a way I hadn’t anticipated, I found writing about Finland was also an exercise in writing about memory.  I have often wondered if some memories disappear because they are associated with moments we would rather forget.  Not really embarrassing moments, they never disappear!  I was thinking of things which we may not have managed as well as we could have done, suppressing what would otherwise be uncomfortable.  Or is the process far more prosaic, and we forget events that were truly unmemorable, uninteresting or irrelevant?  Perhaps my first visit to Finland, back in the 1970s, offers some insights.  Certainly, the headline moments involve fish, revolving restaurants, disappearing nights and smallpox.  One problem:  there is little else I remember about that visit.  What have I forgotten, and why?

Based in Scotland, I had become interested in the introduction of social science into the medical school curriculum, encouraging doctors in training to understand more of the psychology and sociology of patients and their impact on the course of diseases.  This began with work I undertook at the Edinburgh Medical School, but the issue was hot, and I was commissioned to undertake a review of progress in a number of medical schools, a European Community funded investigation that took me to several countries.

As I was putting together plans to visit universities in Sweden and Finland as part of the project, I decided to combine this with a short holiday with my wife and three children.  We were ready to go when we hit a snag.  There had been a smallpox outbreak in Yugoslavia (this happened in 1972), and, as a result, all travellers to the Continent were required to have a smallpox vaccination.  We rushed off to get our jabs, and then set off for our first stop, Stockholm.  Here is where memory disappears:  I have no idea how we travelled there, but I think we may have driven down to Newcastle and caught the ferry over to Gothenburg.

I do recall being in Stockholm.  We stayed in a hostel, which I had found through the Youth Hostels Association network.  It was central, amazingly so, as the hotel was actually a converted barge, and the Red Boat (Den Röda Båten) was moored on Södermalm, about half a mile from the Royal Palace, and a mile from the Vasa Museum.  However, Sweden can wait for another blog.  After I had met with a professor at the famous Karolinska Institute, a medical university, we left for Finland.  The second part of the trip might have seen us take a second ferry, from Stockholm to Turku, on Finland’s west coast, and from there went on to Helsinki.  My memory only clicks back into gear when we are in Helsinki.

The University of Helsinki is a major tertiary institution, having offered courses since 1640, and today has around 32,000 students and a distinguished pedigree.  The medical school is the leading centre in Finland, with around 3,000 students, and a world recognised faculty.  OK, you’ve got the general idea:  it was, and is, a prestigious and impressive place.  When I arrived there, I was expected, and presumed I would meet with one or two lecturer and possibly one of the administrative staff, who could brief me about the courses they offered and any other relevant information.  However, once inside I was whisked up to the Dean’s office.  I supposed this must be evidence of Finnish politeness.

The Dean asked me about my background and the review I was undertaking. Without remembering the exact words, the next part of the meeting went like this:

‘Where are you based?’

‘At the University of Edinburgh.’

‘Ah, good.  I have many friends among the Scottish people.’

At this point the Dean went over to a filing cabinet, opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle (which I was to discover contained schnapps) and two small glasses.  He filled each glass, handed mine over, remarking, “I hear the Scottish people can hold their drink like us.”  He tossed his drink back in one go, and I managed to do the same.  We did that three more times.

“Good, very good.  Just like us.”  The bottle and glasses disappeared, and I was ushered out.  To this day, I can’t believe I remained upright and sufficiently in command of myself to go on to interview the people who’d been arranged to meet me.  Well, I must have done so, because my report contained the data I collected in Helsinki.  Great introduction to Finland!

I was to go on to two more medical schools in Finland, but we’d decided that the family would stay just north of Helsinki in a lakeside cabin.  I would only be away for a couple of days.  We were in a resort area by a lake (how we got there, I cannot remember!), found our cabin, and the manager pointed out the sauna by the lake.  Enjoy a really hot sauna, and then jump in the freezing water … hmm.  The next morning, I heard something by the front door of the cabin.  Going out to check I found a carrier bag hanging on the handle with two fish inside – still alive!  I could hardly wait to get off to the airport.  I abandoned the family, with what I hoped was adequate food and drink, most of which we’d bought well in advance.

I went first to Tampere and was entertained there in one of those revolving restaurants on top of a tall tower.  I thought that was amazing, unique even, except I soon discovered almost every city I went to in Europe had a revolving restaurant on top of a tower.  The architect who came up with that idea must have made a killing.  I left later that day and flew up to Oulu.  Oulu is some 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle.  I arrived around 8 pm, and noticed it was still light, but I didn’t pay much attention.  I was living in Edinburgh, which had late sunsets in the summer.  However, at 11pm, as I was about to go to bed, I noticed it was still light, although all the streetlights were on.  The next day, I was talking to another guest at breakfast who explained that there would be only a couple of hours in the day when the sun was below the horizon, and even then, it didn’t get really get dark.  The streetlights were there for advice, to let you know when it was ‘night-time’!

When I arrived back at our lakeside cabin, my eight-year-old son wanted to talk to me, in private.  Before I had the chance to ask any questions, he took the towel around his shoulders away, and pointed at his arm.  From just above the shoulder joint right down to his elbow, it was covered in blisters.  He was unable to pull it down to his side.  He was in pain, and he was scared, too scared to even tell his mother.  We needed to see a doctor, quickly.

There was a bus stop just outside the tourist park.  We waited – and then realised we were standing on the wrong side of the road to get into the nearby township!  In the town, we looked for a doctor’s surgery.  Have you ever spent time in Finland?  If so, you will know Finnish is challenging.  It is one of the languages in what mis known as the Uralic Group, sharing some characteristics with Estonian, Hungarian, and the local speech of the Karelia region of Russia.   I guess the key point is that unless you are Finnish, or a Hungarian or Estonian speaker, it is totally opaque.  I decided we should look for some kind of medical sign (like a red cross) or a vehicle with emergency markings, like a police car.  Eventually we saw what had to be a local police car, with järjestyspoliisi written on the side.  I was so anxious I didn’t even notice the end of the name included a word like police.

By sign language and pointing, they showed us the location of a medical centre.  Now it had to be easier:  all I had to do was point to the inflamed arm, now held up a chin height, and there’d be action.  We were ushered into a doctor’s surgery, and I said something like ‘Son.  Reaction to smallpox jab’ and pointed.  The doctor smiled, and replied, in perfect English, “Dear me, that look’s most uncomfortable”.  Within a minute I discovered he was a graduate of the Edinburgh Medical School, knew my friend the Dean very well, and would have kept chatting for the next ten minutes were it not for an anxious ‘Dad’ from my son!  It turned out he had experienced a not uncommon side reaction to the vaccine, and with penicillin it would soon be fine, after a round of treatment.  Within a few days, as predicted, the lesions and swelling had all disappeared.

If I hadn’t realised it before, meeting that doctor brought home that the medical profession is a like a huge network, running across countries and continents, and, remarkably, in Europe and North American at least, with English as a common language.  Even if most aspects of living in Finland would be a challenge for English, French, German and other European language speakers, doctors were accessible.  A world within a world.

The visit to Finland was an early example of a lifestyle choice I have made many times since, combining work with some leisure, travelling to countries with my partner, and often with children.  I suppose the truth of the matter is that I had little time outside work, but the family had the opportunity to visit cities, museums, parks and shops, enjoying new cultures.  But having them with me did ensure that I spent some time away from work commitments.  In Sweden we’d all been to the Vasa Museum and it’s salvaged 17th Century warship.  However,  one more recollection from the time Helsinki remains as vivid as it was that day.

For reasons I can’t remember, we went down to the main railway station.  The Helsinki Central Station is a massive art deco building.  Back in the 1970s there were none of the restrictions that exist today, and you could wander along the platforms.  That is what we did and watched the Helsinki-Leningrad express being prepared for its next journey.  This would take you to Russia, pulled by a steam engine (which looked massive), the small number of coaches complemented by what looked like a very posh restaurant car, and several wagons at the back, packed with?  Leningrad is St Petersburg now, and whatever black-market trading took place then would not be so obvious in the 21st Century: certainly, the wagons would be more discreet.  As I looked, travel to Russia by train seemed the epitome of luxury:  if only!

Why do those few key moments remain so clear:  the visit to the lakeside resort; the schnapps with the Dean of the Helsinki Medical School; the dinner in the revolving restaurant in Tampere; the lights in the ’daylight’ late at night in Oulu; taking my son to the Edinburgh-educated doctor; and the visit to the Helsinki railway station?  Not especially memorable, but they all made a clear impression on me.  Why those particular interactions in the midst of travelling through Finland, among all the other things I saw and did?

One thing is quite clear.  We are more likely to remember an event as a function of its emotional impact.  In meeting the Dean at the University of Helsinki Medical School, I suspect what has made that brief drinking session stick in my mind I shamefacedly admit was almost certainly pride!  I managed to drink four small glasses of Schnapps on an empty stomach and survived, more than survived but continued on well enough to meet people, ask questions and take notes.  I can’t remember any of that, but I can still taste that schnapps.  As for meeting that doctor with my son, it wasn’t the facts of his past, but the emotional seesaw, from being really worried to a sense of relief in just a minute.  I can’t remember if I met up with the Edinburgh dean on my return and told him about my meeting with the doctor.

There have been some astonishing scenes in recent weeks.  We have seen bombs exploding in Ukrainian cities, Russian tanks in city streets, bodies left outside, and stream of refugees flooding over the border with Poland.  Of all the horrific and frightening sights, one image that sticks in my mind was of a Polish reception centre where refugees arrived from the war.  What I saw was dozens of people offering help, what I described as ‘a million small acts of kindness’.  The sight of ‘ordinary’ people on hand to offer food, clothing, transport, toys, anything to help desperate people, that had more emotional impact on me than most of the news items, together with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying,“You are told that these flames will bring freedom to Ukraine. But the people of Ukraine are already free.” He added, “In attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”  The compassion of people for one another, and the courage of a man we’d all like to be.  These are two images will remain in my memory for a long time, rather than televised scenes of explosions.

Here in Australia, we specialise in humour as the emotion to make points that matter.  There were a series of floods along the east coast recently, with several deaths and thousands of houses and shops destroyed.  Taking place as the prospect of a federal election was looming, the government was out to capitalise on its actions to help address the disaster, and, with consummate skill, managed to bungle much of their response, particularly in emphasising this was unanticipated.  Here’s the Aussie way to deal with that:

‘Politicians and media have labelled the devastating floods in Queensland and NSW a once-in-one-hundred year natural disaster, the eighteenth once-in-one-hundred year natural disaster in the past year!  NSW resident Helen McMannis said she would be telling the grandkids about the once-in-a-lifetime floods of 2022, after she’d finished telling them about the once-in-a-lifetime floods of 2021, the once-in-a-lifetime bushfires of 2020 and the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic of the past two years. “And then I’ll tell them about the once-in-a-generation dust storm, mice plague and smoke fog,” she said.  “I remember the last once-in-a-hundred year event like it was just last year. You won’t see something as bad as this again, until something worse comes along in a few months,” she said.’ [From The Nation, 2 March 2022.]

Well said, Helen McMannis.  We can contrast her words with those of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, claiming there was no way anyone could have predicted the latest floods. “It’s unprecedented. If only there had been some sort of body of scientific research that had pointed to more extreme weather, then we could actually do something about it”.  Surprised? You need to know that Scott Morrison is still reluctant to even admit there is such a thing as climate change, let alone recognise its consequences or address what Australia needs to do to minimise it.  His comments will soon disappear from my recollections of the early part of 2022, but those of Helen McMannis will remain much longer.

In some respects, Finland could not be more different from Australia.  It is a country of lakes, forests, a cool climate marked by a long cold winter.  Its land mass is 130,000 square miles, just 4% that of Australia; its population of 5.5m is one-fifth that of Australia.  Finland is a country of manufacturing, electronics and other goods, as well as forestry products, compared to Australia, which relies on the service sector, tourism and education, together with exporting natural resources and agricultural products.  Finland is a leader in innovation (5th on the Global Innovation Index, Australia is at 25th).  Similarities and differences, schnapps and whisky!  One very important comparison is that both are on the margins of geo-politics … little outposts of what the world could be like.  However, within these comparisons, there is one huge difference.  Finland has recognised that it must take determined action now to create a sustainable future.  If only Australia would realise it has to do the same.