"Finland! Why Finland?" That was the typical reaction from friends and colleagues when they found out that reporter Bob Kaiser and I were planning to spend three weeks there filing entries for a daily diary for washingtonpost.com and producing half a dozen stories for our paper. We had already completed a number of similar diaries in the past - the first being the Siberian Diary back in 2001. That was our initial attempt to use the Internet to allow our readers to join us as we explored an exotic part of the world. The diary format provided them with a way to interact with us during our trip and share their questions as well as their experiences about Siberia. Some gave us very good suggestions about places to go and people to meet. We were pleasantly surprised by the success of our first venture. Even today schools and institutions use that diary as an educational tool about Siberia and Russia.
For Kaiser, Finland had been in the back of his mind since he first traveled there 40 years ago as a college student, and again in the early '70s, when Helsinki was a pleasant retreat from the then-dreary Moscow where he was based as a correspondent for the Washington Post. Although Finland was a bit of a "backwater" then, it exhibited some potential. For example, it had a relatively good health care system. Bob went there for dental care and liked the results. In the decades since, Finland had transformed itself. Thanks to Nokia, it had become a technological powerhouse. The Finns had developed a terrific educational system too. When he proposed this trip to our editors, Kaiser wrote: "The Finns appear to have the best educational system in the world. All younger Finns speak and read English. Finland has more students in post-secondary education than any other country in Europe, per capita, by a margin of 12 percent. And they are clever. Linus Torvalds, who invented Linux, is Finnish. Nokia of course is Finnish, too - and one of the most interesting companies anywhere.
"Which country has won the most Olympic medals, per capita? Not the U.S. (ranks 16th with 8.3 Olympic medals per million residents). Not the Swedes (number two, 56.3 per million). Yes, the Finns-106 Olympic medals per million residents, summer and winter games, throughout modern Olympic history.
"Which country trains the most musicians? Again on a per capita basis, Finland, by far. The conductors of the symphony orchestras of Los Angeles and Toronto are Finns. Music is a central part of the curriculum for all young Finns. The Finns are also gifted architects (the Saarinens) and designers (Marimekko).
"And life in Finland is good, except for the climate. Helsinki is the second-safest city in Europe (after Luxembourg). Health care is excellent, and the number of physicians in the country has doubled in the last 20 years. Finns visit their libraries more than any other people. They love nature, and by law, can hike or walk on anyone's land in the country. They love the tango, and the sauna-there are more saunas in Finland than cars."
That memo persuaded both me and our editors to do the Finland diary. We took what we had learned from our previous diaries and - with terrific support from washingtonpost.com-designed this one to be more interactive and multimedia-based. Our colleagues at washingtonpost.com proposed that we use new blogging software so readers could make their own observations as well and generate further discussions on the topics we wrote about and photographed.
During our travels, which lasted for three weeks, I was impressed by the progress the Finns had made in areas that we are still struggling with: education, the environment, and health care. It reminded me of what I had learned during my previous travels in other countries: Americans don't necessarily have as good a quality of life as many of us are led to believe. In Finland, for example, employees have from a month to six weeks of vacation every year; health care and education are more accessible to everyone and very cheap (though taxes are high); environmental safeguards are practiced by everyone, from the man in the street to big business and the government. All of this provides a very healthy environment for most Finns. No doubt Finland has its own set of problems, but I left feeling convinced that we could benefit greatly by exploring their successes.
On a personal note, I left Finland with many cherished memories. The saunas I had and wrote about were not just fun; they were a way of life for Finns that I was able to encounter firsthand. I fondly remember some magical walks, for example in the city of Kuopio, which is almost surrounded by a lake. Along the city's edge I took in the majestic view of the lake and scenery, breathing the fresh air, and watching the couples and families enjoy every minute of the long-lasting sunset that edged on until 10:30p.m. And then there was the performance put on for us in the small town of Kuhmo by five teenagers in the most beautiful concert hall I had ever seen built from local pine trees.
A comment we heard often was, why would the Washington Post devote so much of its resources to a place like Finland when we have bigger, more immediate problems, such as the war in Iraq? It's a fair question, and one that I appreciate since I had been to Iraq. But in my mind these are two separate but important issues. Places like Finland may not be immediately as important as the war in Iraq, but our media and we as a people would be foolish to disregard the successes of other countries around the world. Those successes may not always provide the answer for ways to improve our society, but an awareness of them can act as a catalyst, and open doors to ways we may not have even thought of. What I fear is that if we don't investigate other options we may find ourselves left behind merely by our sheer ignorance of what is happening beyond our borders.
Please take a look at our Finland Diary at blogs.washingtonpost.com/finlanddiary/ and enjoy the trip with us.
© Lucian Perkins
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