Finland Diary

Robert G. Kaiser and Lucian Perkins
Washington Post Associate Editor and Post Photographer
Tuesday, June 7, 2005; 1:00 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser and Post staff photographer Lucian Perkins have been touring Finland for the past few weeks. Their goal: to find out why this rarely noticed little country has the world's best educational system, produces talented musicians and architects and has more cell phones per capita than Japan or America. Kaiser and Perkins have been chronicling their trip for in Finland Diary .

Kaiser and Perkins were online live from Finland Tuesday, June 7, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss their trip, what they've learned and answers questions about Finland.


Elmhurst, Ill.: More a comment than question. First, thank you, thank you, thank you for covering another region in a way that penetrates superficial stereotypes.

As for drawing comparisons between the U.S. and Finland. Despite unique differences, every society faces universal questions about economic survival, technology, work, housing, family, marriage, childbearing, childrearing, education, healthcare, care for the aged and disabled, violence, criminal behavior, national defense, pollution, immigration/emigration, etc. It is fascinating to me how different countries confront these issues. Instead of seeing any successful alternatives as a criticism of our American way doing things, why not look at these solutions as a databank of ideas and experiments we could explore to our advantage?

Robert G. Kaiser: Boy do I agree with you! This is a good way to start our chat. Lucian and I are both in our temporary Helsinki home, a flat on Tehtankatu, a very pleasant street in an upper-middle class part of town. Out our window it's after 8; the sun is still pretty high in the sky. In a few weeks it will be light virtually all night.We look out at the sea, down a nice street. Trams rumble past us. It's a great location.

Americans do tend to think they invented the wheel. They didn't, by the way. I knew before we got here, from reading and interviewing in Washington, that we would see that Finns do some things a lot better than we do. One of them is clean the air. There are a couple of gigantic smokestacks above Helsinki's coal-burning power stations that are running all the time, giving us the hottest hot water I have ever experienced. (The city's heat and hot water all comes from central plants.) I have stared and stared at the tops of those smokestacks, but never seen a whisp of smoke. The Finnish clean air requirements apparently make it so clean it's invisible.


Pattijoki, Finland: Are you going to go to a Finnish baseball game? It's our national sport and not really played anywhere else. And it's completely different from American baseball. A lot more tactical and a lot less boring. At least HyvinkÒ.ear Helsinki has a good team.

Lucian Perkins: I did watch and photograph kids playing baseball. They were having a great time. And you are right, it is very different from American baseball. Unfortunately,our schedule never quite fit with the "game time."


St. Augustine, Fla.: Finland is much more gender-equal than the U.S. How does this affect Finnish women? In other words, how are Finnish women different from American women?

Robert G. Kaiser: actually I have concluded that this is not the case. We have pursued the issue, and have concluded that gender equity in Finland still has a way to go. Pay scales are revealing; women earn, on average, about 20 percent less than men in Finland. (They earn less in most places.) We were entertained in four or five Finnish homes, and never saw the man in the kitchen.

I'd say today's Finnish women are in about the same position as the well-educated women in America--my two grown daughters, for example. They do not feel constrained by gender stereotypes, they have career opportunities in many fields that were closed, or nearly so, to their mother, but they also live beneath a glass ceiling that still limits how far they can go--not as individuals, but as a group.


Arlington, Va.: I am a Finn who has lived overseas for the majority of my life, but I still love my country. My question is this: What have you learned about the travel habits of Finns and/or their mobility overseas? Like many other Northern Europeans, many Finns love to travel south on holidays. Also, in the U.S., for example, there are pockets of Finns of various generations, such as in Lake Worth and Lantana, Florida.

Lucian Perkins: Almost everyone we have talked to has traveled to Europe at the very least. What I found interesting was the amount of people, mostly the younger generation in Helsinki, who said that they have not traveled much in their own country. In some ways I suspect it is more exciting for them to jump over to Europe than to travel north.


Hancock, Mich.: Are you going to go back to Finland in December to do more reports for The Post?

Lucian Perkins: We are very grateful that our paper gave us three weeks here already. However, having said that,I would love to come back here in the winter. Just from a photographic point of view, it would add another dimension to the story of Finland. I might even jump into an ice covered lake--though not until after a very hot sauna


Tampere, Finland: Hi, Some people say that Finland is the most american country in the world.Have you noticed if it is true?

Does Robert G.Kaiser cheer for the Washington Capitals, because I read he has been interested hockey since he was young.

Robert G. Kaiser: No, America is the most American country in the world. But Finns and Americans do have a lot in common.

I confess I am indifferent to the Caps, and really to the NHL. I would rather watch Finland play Sweden or the Czech Republic. Our hockey has too many fights, too little art. I think the northern European version is better. Of course, a lot of the players in both venues are the same.


Espoo, Finland: The reporter's job is to do the topic interesting. Answer please simply: could you think to live let's say in Helsinki for a long period of time and expect a joyful life! (the weather is usually better that you have now experienced)

Robert G. Kaiser: yes!


Charlotte, N.C.: I noticed there were many critical comments and differing opinions in the "comments" sections from Finns or people who have been to Finland, have you red them how have these comments influence you?

I personally thought it was interesting to see a the internal political dialogue going on in Finland and also to see, that things like education and social welfare are actually hotly contested political issues, with the government actually getting rid of some of the things you reported on.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for this question. Yes there are big disagreements here about some issues, but they occur within a remarkably strong political consensus. We have looked for, and not found, a single sober Finn who thought taxes should be cut by a lot, or wanted kids to pay their way to college, or felt the medical system was either no good or too cheap. But of course, Finns are people and they have disagreements.

We have looked at the blog comments, which are fascinating. You've seen that nearly all are from Finns, I think mostly young people. this is great as far as I am concerned. But --as the impression you have gotten from them suggests -- a lot of them are ill informed, or emotional. There have been cuts around the edges of the Finnish welfare state, and there will be more. But it is lavish by our standards, and it will still be lavish after the next round of cuts is made. "Compared to what?" I have learned ovder four decades in journalism, is often the best question. The cuts being made in social programs here are very modest, and will not fundamentally change the system in my view.

None of the basic social benefits here is being "gotten rid of."


Bethesda, Md.: On the other hand, while you were cavorting about in Finland, your newspaper was busy ignoring further evidence (via the Downing St. memo) that our president fixed the Iraq info around his policies. What's up with that?

Robert G. Kaiser: What's up with you? Can you read? Did you read Walter Pincus's excellent journalism on that memo?


Washington, D.C.: There has been a lot of bashing the welfare state in the U.S. media after the French and Dutch referendums. After your trip, do you believe that the welfare state is a good idea?

By the way, today's papers say that every fourth American has mental problems, more than any other nation on the planet. In my mind this is somehow related...

Lucian Perkins: There are trade offs regardless of what system you live under and sometimes the terminology, like the welfare state, mean different things to different countries. The best way I know how to answer this question is to say the the Finnish quality of life is very high. We could learn a lot from it.


Espoo, Finland: Have you experienced the strong anti-American sentiment that we see as Americans living in Finland?

Robert G. Kaiser: No we have not. We have heard a lot of sharp criticism of American government policy, however,


Herndon, Va.: This was a great series of stories! Would it be fair to say that Finland gives an example of a very successful "non-diverse" society?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes it would. I have written a story about exactly this that could run as early as tomorrow, or later in the week. When it runs in the paper it will also appear in the Finland Diary.


Naperville, Ill.: Your article about music and the Finnish spirit/soul were right on the mark. As a music teacher who has visited Finland 10 times (soon 11), I am intrigued by the talent of Finnish musicians. They are a dedicated, creative and precise group, no matter what the genre or style of music. I hope you took the time to listen to recordings (or live performances) of Tapiola Children's Choir, HIM, Nightwish, or some of the many classical, jazz or world music groups that you find in abundance all over Finland. Folk festivals abound, as do jazz festivals (most notably the Pori Jazz Fest in July). Listening to music is a favorite pasttime, but active participation also seems to be big in Finland. Even if it is just a group of Finns standing around the fire, beer ja makkara in hand, singing folk songs of their country, it is music from the heart, soul, and spirit of these fascinating people. It is a soulful music whose power and strength (sisu) also become part of your own heart and spirit.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this good posting. We'll do a little more about music here before the diary is finished, but we could have devoted the whole thing to that rich subject. your post helps. I agree with it entirely.


Goose Creek, S.C.: Prior to joining the European Union, Finland was pretty isolated with regards to allowing guest workers, refugees, etc., into Finland. They also held pretty tight reign on their media (TV and Radio were pretty much state operated and the only show in town except for a few small independent stations in Helsinki). How has the Finnish culture changed with the openness of membership in the European Union? Do the Finns think this is good or bad?

An example...there were no McDonalds in Finland in 1983 when I first visited, little Coke/Pepsi/Budweiser, etc., availability. Now it appears that every small town has one or more McDonalds, and American soft drinks, beer, and snack foods have taken over and displaced the local versions. Maybe the French are right?

Robert G. Kaiser: The French are right about some things, but not about others!

Finland is definitely more cosmopolitan and more open than in earlier eras. I hadn't been here since the early '70s; the contrast is dramatic. The Finish Broadcadsting Co. is not a propaganda outfit; it has complete independence, and does a great job I understand. I wish I could understand th enews! And Finland has a great tradition of good newspapers, which are better read here than in any European country, I believe.


Naperville, Ill.: What aspects of the Finnish public schools do you think could be used or adapted to improve the public schools in the United States? During my visits to public elementary schools in Finland, I've found the frequent breaks for outdoor physical activity do not fatigue the students or interrupt their academic studies. Rather it has been apparent to me that these physical activity breaks in the day actually energize the students, causing them to be more alert throughout the day. Also the free lunch for all is an excellent idea!

Lucian Perkins: I met a Finnish H.S. student, who graduated from a U.S. HS in NY and just graduated from a Finnish school. Your point was exactly one he made about frequent breaks and physical activity.

As for the lunches, they are not only free, but very healthy. One comment the student made was his shock at the excessive amounts of soft drinks children drink in American society. He felt he won a small victory we he convinced his host family to cut back on their consumption.


Rauma, Finland: What were the most difficult things for you to adjust to during your travels? What things were you pleasantly surprised about or were things you didn't expect in Finland?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is one of dozens of similar questions we have received for this chat. I won't answer many of them, because I don't think the answers could be sincere or accurate or meaningful. What is the "best" or "worst" doesn't work for me. I am struck by things that are interesting, beautiful, ugly, sad--but comparatives are always difficult, and often just phony.

But I do want to use your question to show Americans and other non-Finns how hungry Finns are for the appraisals of foreigners. We have seen this everywhere we have gone, and in the blog and e-mail comments we have received. It's a cliche about Finns that they are this way. Like many cliches, this one is rooted in some truth.

Perkins' snoring was the hardest thing to adjust to, on the (mercifully rare) occasions we could hear one another at night. The quality of the food, at homes and in restaurants, was higher than I expected, and I don't know what I based my expectation on exactly.


Washington, D.C.: In finnish congress there are memebers of 8 different parties. Comparing our system members comes from either R. or Dem. party mostly.

So could it be that Finnish superior democracy has lead Finland where it is today?

Robert G. Kaiser: No. Finnish democracy is very different than ours. Our Founders designed a system that is based on a pessimistic assumption that holders of power will abuse it unless carefullhy watched and checked and balanced. Early in our history, for mysterious reasons, we divided into two political groupings, and have stayed with them since, more or less.

In Finland all eight parties agree about most issues that are contentious in America. See our interview with Pekka Himanen, the first item in the Finland Diary, for more on this. Finns have a remarkable consensus about public policy, and also about respect for their leaders and their institutions. Neither is related to the number of parties here, I don't think, but both set Finland apart frm the U.S.


Helsinki, Finland: Hello Robert and Lucian,

Thank you for the excellent blog! Here is my question: Do you reckon you could live in Finland?


By the way, you could visit some bars in Kallio (where the city sauna was). Just to see the contrast between downtown and Tehtaankatu.

Lucian Perkins: Easily, though we haven't spent the winter here yet. I'm still amazed at how well almost everyone speaks English here. When I first approached people, I would ask them if they spoke English. Soon I quit doing that and just started talking speaking English.


Rauma, Finland: From an American viewpoint and based upon your travels, what do you feel are the weakest points in Finnish society?

Robert G. Kaiser: Easy: the lack of diversity. But, I hasten to add, for many Finns this is also a strength. This is a classic matter of taste at one level. I, a native Washingtonian and patriotic American, can't imagine a country as blonde and physically unvarried as this one. And the issue goes well beyond physical attributes. Here it is hard to be different. It is hard to be rich. It is very difficult to be poor. It is hard not to be a nominal Lutheran, but unlikely that you will be a churghcoing Lutheran. And on and on. Finns are cut from a narrow piece of cloth. It's a nice piece, but it doesn't vary much.


Sipoo, Finland: Just wanted to thank you for doing this Diary. I hope you enjoyed doing this as much as I enjoyed following it.

Marko Luotolinna

Robert G. Kaiser: At least as much! And it will continue until Friday.


Helsinki, Finland: Regarding the question from St. Augustine, Fla.: and your response, Bob, I would like to make a point that a comparison of the gender equality would be more interesting and revealing between Finland and the other Nordic countries on one hand and Russia and other former communist countries on the other hand.

Would you agree?

Robert G. Kaiser: For you, I would agree. For that reader in St. Augustine, I doubt it.


Anonymous: You talk a great deal about Finland's high quality of life and how we can learn something as Americans. I can't help but think that it's a lot easier to accomplish in a homogeneous nation of only five million rather than a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, diversely religious country of more than 280 million, no?

Robert G. Kaiser: You've been asleep at the wheel: we are on the verge of 300 million. Of course you are absolutely right.


Washington, D.C.: In all seriousness, and I mean this sincerely, why are you not in China instead of Finland? When I look ahead to the coming decades, I see China as a profound and far-reaching impact on our future and the world's. Frankly, Finland doesn't even show uyp on the radar screen. Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: Now THAT's a silly attitude. In my opinion.


Bethesda, Md.: Great series of stories especially the photo essays and blog on the Web site. But I'm still puzzled why the newspaper would want to spend so much time studying Finland when there is a war to cover.

Robert G. Kaiser: why don't you do a comparison of the number of words in the Post over the last three weeks about Iraq, and about Finland. If the ratio is less than about 10:1 in Iraq's favor, I will buy you lunch. And dinner.


Lohja, Finland: It would be very intresting, I think, for both the Americans reading your articals as well as the Finns if you made an article on the Swedish speaking minority in Finland. The position the Swedes in Finland have is, I believe, almost unique in the world.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is one of many questions on the Swedish minority in Finland, just more than five percent of the total. For centuries before 1809, Finland was part of Sweden. There has never been a Finnish artistocracy of any kind, but the Swedes had one, and created an economic one here as well. There are still old families with Swedish names -- some Swedish speaking, I am told, some finnish speaking -- who enjoy high status in the society because of their bloodlines. We met some wonderful Swedish Finns. I never saw a compellig story in them, probably my blindness, but also, perhaps, a consequence of the fact that by my American standards, a physically indistinguishable minority that suffers very little prejudice or discimination is not all that striking.


Teaneck, N.J.: An African-American friend of mine lived in Finland for three months and said that Finns are very racist and that he would never go back. Is it true that Finns have problems tolerating people of different backgrounds and especially of different skin color?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes it is -- the subject of my next story for the paper and the diary.


Bethesda, Md.: Dear Robert and Lucian,

Your travel diary is fascinating. My questions:

1. If you compare the educational systems of USA and Finland, which would be the similarities and differences, pros and cons? How the educational system influences in the global competitiveness of the country?

2. How did you experience the people's attitude to nature and environmetal protection?

Regards, Jouni Eerikainen

Lucian Perkins: Bob has written a lot on question number one and I suspect he will elaborate again somewhere here tonight. As for number 2, the importance and concern of the environment extends from the man on the street to big business and the government here. We have seen businesses and the local governments cooperate much more than in our country to ensure a healthy environment. And for the average person their are a lot of societal no, nos. I've never seen anyone litter here and seen very little evidence that people do.


Helsinki, Finland: Hi! Two questions:

1. Do you think that less ignorance about well working social models, such as the one in Finland, could change attitudes in the U.S. towards state inveolvement in things like education and social security? I mean, do Americans know that there are countries with high tax rates ets (welfare model) which are growing quite fast, which have only little bureaucracy, where people work less because they choose to and which are even more free, secure and democratic than the U.S.?

2. If you see that the Finnish current system works well, how much do you personally feel its thank to the fact that the people homogenous here, unlike in the U.S.? Or do you think this model could work (even better?) with more immigrants?

Robert G. Kaiser: Two good questions. Americans have long has caricatured views, if that's how you spell it, about other countries on all sorts of issues, including the welfare state. I'm sure lots of Americans would be deeply impressed if they had seen what we saw here in schools, health care centers and hospitals, homes for the aged and infirm and universities. All those things are financed by the Finns' very high taxes, and the people here seem, with very few exceptions, to think this is a good deal.

But Americans are ornery and opinionated and don't all share the same values. That's where homogeneity becomes important. Finns do share the same values: Lutheran respect for hard work; egalitarianism; fairness; a high regard for nature's works; a high value on directness and fulfilling one's responsibilties, on and on. This, I think, is a key reason why Finland works as well as it does.


Helsinki, Finland: I understand what people are saying when they say that implementing the Finnish system in the U.S. would be impossible due to the size, multiculture, etc., of the U.S. but since you are such a wealthy country I refuse to be so pessimistic! Why couldn't i.e. a universal healthcare system be set up in the U.S.?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the post. Personally I expect my daughters to live to see the day when America has a national health care system that works. We do already have the best medical care anywhere, for those who can get it.

But we spend 14% of GNP on healthcare. The Finns get better results (longer life expectancy, much lower infant mortality) and spend 7 percent of GNP on healthcare. Eventually, practical, sensible Americans are going to see that our system is just too expensive. It is already killing some important American companies (GM, Ford?) and this will only get worse. This is my reporter's judgement, not a recommendation or ideological position.


New York, NY: What food items did you miss or do you think the Finns might like from America? For me, it was iced tea and also oat bars.

Robert G. Kaiser: I haven't thought about ice tea in three weeks. I never thought about oat bars in my life. I missed the morning paper. That would be The Washington Post. I don't think of anything else.


Naperville, Ill.: Thanks (kiitos paljon) for enlightening so many on the wonders of Finland. What aspects of Finland -- nature, culture, people -- surprised you? What was very different from the stereotypes you had heard were "typically Finnish."

Lucian Perkins: First of all I love the sound of the word "kittos," (which means thank you for our non-Finish speakers, and that includes me with the exception of a very few words). I can't say really that I've been "surprised" (well except for Nordic skiing) about much, but a better word would be "impressed." I've been very impressed with the high level of education of almost everyone here. I've also very impress with the artistic talent here--across the board. i suspect that we will be seeing more international recognition of Finnish artists in the coming years.


Arnold, Md.: I have enjoyed of this diary and all what it has offered for people to read about my country. I'm a Finn living in USA for 1-1/2 years now and I've been schoked how little people here know about the world that is surrounding them. One certain thing that has puzzled me is that some people don't even know if I say that I'm from Finland whether it's a country or state. Why is that? Other thing I've been waiting for you to visit our beautiful city Tampere, are going to do that at all?

Robert G. Kaiser: We are sympathetic. American ignorance about the world, though far from universal, is certainly humiliating. We wish it were not so!

We loved Tampere, and went to church there in the Cathedral. We have not been able to write about every place and every meeting. Just too much.


Kakkamaki, Finland: If you had to choose just one aspect of Finland to bring back to the U.S. and incorporate into American life, what would it be?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'll give you a quick answer, reserving the right to reconsider later: The helsinki trams. I grew up with, and loved, the Washington streetcars. They efficient, quiet, clean, fun to ride, admirable in all respects. I wish we still had them in my home town.


Espoo, Finland: Your report on Finland's educational system has given the impression that there is little testing, and that lukio = high school, which is not the case. Students must test into lukio and test out of it. The grade and test pressure on 7-9th graders and lukio students is severe. The system is very unforgiving in this regard. Many young people either finish school after 9th grade or go into the excellent vocational education system that exists in parallel to the lukio system. So any calculations of percentage of students going on to higher education must take this into account.

Robert G. Kaiser: you need to check out an American school system. Yes there are tough exams here, but they are written, essay-question exams that seem genuinely to measure skill and knowledge. I have heard no one question their legitimacy. The multiple-choice tests that have taken over American education are much more problematic, and they are given repeatedly during every school year in public schools now. There is really no comparison.


Washington, D.C.: Were you sorry to be out of the country (and The Post newsroom) when the Deep Throat news broke?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sure. But it was great fun to read all the stories on line, and to share the excitement by e-mail with some colleagues in the office.


Helsinki, Finland: During your visit, has there been any "What the ..." moments? I mean, something that has been so profoundly weird or different that you have needed the help of "locals" to figure it out?

Robert G. Kaiser: Just once, in Kuopio, our second stop, when i saw a photographer's shop whose window was full of young people of both genders wearing a white hat that reminded me of the U.S. Navy. What is that hat?

We now know, of course, that it is the symbol of an educated person, given to every graduate of an academic high school on the last day of th eyear--which this year was on Saturday. We wrote about it at length, and now Lucian's personal archive is full of the same sort of strange pictures!


Falls Church, Va.: Great articles about your travel and very open and enlightened view of differences in Finnish and American culture.

Just wondering about some of the comments about why is The Post discussing Finland. First in tech, education, and standard of living seems like three good reasons to me. But, more improtantly it is good to explore other cultures if for nothing else but to learn to appreciate our own culture.

While near Turku, you may want to visit Naantali and Rauma.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I of course agree with you.

We spent two nights witha wonderful family in Naantali. Great town.


Washington, D.C.: Bob, it is said that when one travels, one adjusts the view of one's own country. Having lived in a country which is comparatively more liberal than the U.S., are there any issues in American policies that you have now changed your mind on?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not yet. Still thinking about it. too many new impressions in my head at the moment.


Washington, D.C.: Hey Lucian, great job with the audio recordings to accompany your photos!


Lucian Perkins: Thanks, I'm starting to get the hang of it.


Espoo, Finland: Have you used the public transportation system in Finland and if so, can you comment on your experience?

Lucian Perkins: We have (mostly in Helsinki) and find it very convenient, clean, and easy to use. On our first subway trip I was surprised to learn that you don't actually need a ticket to get into the subway, tram, or bus. There is not gate to stop you from entering the subway for example. Ticketing is based largely on the honor system, though they do have people that occasionally check the buses and subways to make sure that you bought a ticket. By the way, you can also buy your ticket using your cell phone. If an inspector stops you, your just show them a text message (as I understand it) on your phone.


Southfield, Mich.: Have you learned the word and Finnish "trait" called SISU? You might find it interesting to ask some Finns how they would interpret it. There are many different interpretations -- guts, stubborness, intestinal fortitude; but no matter what the interpretation, Finns are said to possess this sometimes good and sometimes not so good trait -- and it carries on in the American Finns also.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think Sisu is very important. Sisu helped the Finns beat the Russians in World War II. It has helped them reinvent their country twice since then. And a lot of Americans, not just Finns, have something very like sisu.


Helsinki, Finland: Have you heard anybody to praise Finnish people, that we are honest and have high moral. And there is very litle corruption. And that is explanation, why we are a good place to make business, although we have high taxes.

Do you agree, or was it too short time to say anything such. (Personally I think, that things have gone to worse direction lately in this respect, while Finland has changed to more urban and multicultural country...)

Lucian Perkins: We have heard that and haven't found much to dispute that.


Norristown, Pa.: Did you have any problems with the language, or do most people there speak English?

Robert G. Kaiser: Finnish language skills are remarkable. I went to a concert last night with a young woman who speaks excellent English, beautiful French, German, Swedish to her Swedish-speaking boyfriend, and some vietnamese, from her five months as a student in Hanoi. She is 26. I know no American 26-year-old with comparable language skills.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kaiser, asking why you are not in China instead of Finland is not "a silly attitude," as you put it. A good part of my family lineage comes from Scandanavia, including Finland. But even with family pride in my roots, I'm not silly enough to think its quaint culture unlike China's, will be a driving global force.

Robert G. Kaiser: who said it would be a driving global force? who said that is the only criterion that makes another society interesting?


Goose Creek, S.C.: What is your impression about Finnish youth and how they deal with drugs, safe sex, peer pressure, etc.? Do they face the same magitude/types of problems our youth do?

Robert G. Kaiser: good question. We wrote about the fact that condoms were being given out in great quanties at a rock concert in a downtown park here on Saturday. We asked a lot of kids about drugs, and got the impression that there aren't many drugs in Finland. There is alot of beer in Finland, and there are a lot of kids drinking too much of it.

I don't think i could compare the pressures on Finnish and american youth. But I have been deeply impressed by Finnish respect fo ryoung kids, and a desire to let childhood be childish. Finns start first grade at age 7. This seemed quite brilliant to me.


St. Augustine, Fla: I disagree completely on the gender-equality question -- lengthy, paid maternity leaves, job security during a maternity leave, free childcare, etc. -- affect Finnish women's lives in ways American women can only dream about.

And on a larger level, you can't really argue that the U.S. is ready for a female president, let alone for a divorced, single mother president, as Tarja Halonen is.

Lucian Perkins: We found that in some respects the gender equality issue wasn't quite what was advertised. But having said that you are right on every point you raise. The care that the Finns give to their mothers and children is admirable and something we should take notice of. And from what we have heard about Finland's "divorced, single mother president," she is very well liked and appreciated here.


Rapid City, S.D.: I wondered about the impression you gave that universal education in Finland is a relatively recent event. My father, who grew up on a farm in southeastern Finland, went to grammar school in the 1890s -- then to high school in town and to a business college in Helsinki. He came to the U.S. about 1914, unable to speak English. He married my mother whose parents were immigrants. Their three children and six grandchildren all have graduate degrees, including three doctor's degrees. I have always credited their commitent to education to their Finnish roots. I can also remember that Helsinki for many years had the world's largest book store and Finland had the world's highest literacy rate... and this was long before the 1970s.

Thank you VERY MUCH for this informative series!

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks. No, universal no-fee education is a very recent development in Finland, since the '70s.


Alexandria, Va.: It's impressive -- in a sad way -- that, 40 minutes into this chat, you appear to have received more questions and comments from Finns than from Americans. It'd be interesting to know how many Post readers have been following your articles.

As for me, I've enjoyed the series and learned a lot from it. Most interesting detail: the box of baby items sent to new parents. Such a gesture couldn't help but convey that new babies are valued by all members of society, and that all members of society are concerned about the well-being of new babies.

Wish I could point to some evidence of such concern for infants and new parents in the U.S.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the Post. If you look at the blog on the Finland Diary, you'll see how intensely interested some Finns have been in what we are doing. They have asked more questions than Amerians in this chat. We have touched a nerve over here.

But we've heard from lots of American readers, today and earlier.


Arlington, Va.: I suspect that if you traveled to cities and regions within the U.S. (mostly the Midwest, i.e. parts of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa) that have descended from all the Scandinavian countries, social and cultural attitudes would be very similar to modern-day Finland. Work ethic, Lutheran traditions, ethnic homogeneity -- these indeed HAVE been transplanted to the U.S., albeit on a regional scale. There's a Scandidiaspora in the U.S if you look for it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting point. Thanks.


Golden, Colo.: Enjoyed every article... learned a lot, although I have studied history and read some of the classic novels in translation in my attempt to "know" the land of my Mohter's parents... going back for my third vist with family (discovered four years ago) in December, so see how the "dark time" is!

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks. it will be dark.


Long Beach, Calif.: About five years ago there was concern in Finland about a growing drug abuse problem. Have any of the Finns you interviewed addressed this issue or expressed concerns about it?

Lucian Perkins: The biggest concern raised to us was drinking. We talked to a number of high school kids who said that their peers rarely use drugs, but they drank a lot. But our trip was too short to really explore this issue.


Helsinki, Finland: Hey Bob and Lucian, what's your take on how "sellable" Finland is to Americans -- would you think that Americans visited Finland more if advertized the right way? Or do you think that the Finnish way of life is boring or unattractive per se? We really don't have any wonders of the world or huge attractions, like in Paris, Rome, London etc.

Great series of articles! A friend of mine living in Portland, Maine, arrives in Helsinki tomorrow and says that he can't wait to get here after reading your articles.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. I think the combination of very good food, interesting cities, wonderful music from rock to opera and classical, and friendly (if reserved!) people who speak English constitute a very sellable tourist destination. However, this is not my specialty.


Minneapolis, Minn.: What would you like an average reader of The Post to take away from the series of articles about Finland and the Finnish people?

Robert G. Kaiser: The fact that other people do things that we do very differently than we do them, and sometimes extremely well.


Helsinki, Finland: One story I'd like to see: the (conscript) army. Six to 12 months of the great outdoors -- paid handsomely, too (round $4 a day).

Robert G. Kaiser: This is an important topic that we have failed to get to. I have been impressed by the fondness with which Finnish mean of all kinds recall their mandatory military service. I sense this is a source of great strength in Finnish society--that men of all kinds and backgrounds spend 6-12 months in intimate circumstances and create bonds that long outlive their tours of duty. I wish we had learned more about it, and visited a basic training facility or the like.


Washington, D.C.: Finland? Please! Doesn't The Post have anything better to do than to send a top reporter and photographer on a three week trip to Finland? Maybe figure out how everyone missed the story on WMDs?

Lucian Perkins: We thought maybe they would be here.


Lake Worth, Fla.: I want to thank you for this wonderful Finland Diary! I have followed your story with a bittersweet home sickness here in my Florida home. We also have a small piece of Finland here in Lake Worth, the Finnish-American Rest Home with 90 residents of Finnish decsent with Finnish food, culture and traditions. That means 90 interesting stories of immigration, hard work, raising children and chicken, plenty of "blood, sweat and tears" before peaceful retirement in the largest ethnic Finnish concentration outside Finland.

You are warmly welcome to pay a visit, we will offer you "kahvi and pulla" with interesting stories!

P.S. We also have a sauna -- of course...

Pirjo-Leena Koskinen, Rest Home Manager

Robert G. Kaiser: Now this sounds like an intriguing rest home! Thanks for the message.


Stroudsburg, Pa.: Did you try the Finnish candy called Salmiakki -- it's a sort of fiery licorice?

Also, did you try potato pies? (Karjalan piirakka.)

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes and yes. Both edible.


Los Angeles, Calif.: As you say good bye to Finland what will be your single best memory of this little country of my ancestors? Thank you so much for your wonderful coverage.

Lucian Perkins: There were a lot of memorable moments. My two saunas are great examples. Our private concert, so speak, in Kuhmo. I loved a three hour walk I had around Kuopio on a lovely evening where the light was magical (especially for photography). That city is almost surrounded by lakes and everyone was out to enjoy the moment and weather. That was when I really appreciated Finland and its love for its land and environment.


Robert G. Kaiser: Out of time, and more importantly, out of gas after a long day. It's 9 p.m. here. Thank you thank you for a really lively chat, and for all the comments on the blog and in e-mail. The diary continues through Friday.


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