Helsinki, Finland: An Egalitarian Oasis

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Next stop on my cruise of the Baltic Sea aboard the Nautica was Helsinki, Finland. Situated on a peninsula on the southern coast, overlooking the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. Helsinki has a natural seaport, and is kept open year-round thanks to powerful icebreakers. Interestingly, icebreakers are one of Finland’s major manufactured products, providing 60% of the world’s total. In the “heat” of summer, there were no icebreakers visible today.

Finnish ice breaker, Polaris

Although I would only have one day to explore the city of 1 ½ million people, I was excited to at least get a glimpse of all it had to offer. As an educator for many years, the education system in Finland is always touted as the best in the world. During my tour of the city, perhaps I could get a brief indication of why this is so.

We sailed by night the short distance (300 km) from St. Petersburg to Helsinki. The two countries have a long and contested border with each other, but their cultural heritage is starkly different. Russia is a huge, land-based country with an entrenched system of hierarchy and authority among the ruling elite. Finland has a Nordic history and culture defined by its boreal forests, thousands of lakes, frigid weather, and access to the sea that has contributed to an egalitarian spirit in which the community must bond together for survival.  

Sami indigenous people of Finland, date around 1900

My first choice as far as an excursion was concerned was to visit the Sámi people in the northern part of Finland, often called Lapland. The area defies national boundaries, and also encompasses the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, and northwestern Russia. The Sámi are indigenous people numbering between 80,000 and 100,000 who live by fishing, fur trapping, sheep herding, and most famously, nomadic reindeer herding. Although only about 10% of the Sámi are reindeer herders, it provides them with meat, fur, and transportation. But alas, no such excursion to visit the Sámi people was available, or even considered, so I set my sights on a “Highlights of Helsinki” tour, which also allowed time for me to do some roaming.

Sami with domesticated reindeer, photo around 1900

I quickly finished my breakfast and downed the same outfit I wore for the last six days. Our luggage, lost somewhere in the Scandinavian region of Europe, at least it wasn’t the whole European land mass, had yet to be located. At least, the Nautica concierge was kind enough to provide my companion, Susan, and I with free laundry service, so the garments, although far from cruise-ship stylish, were at least clean and pressed. My warm jacket packed in my luggage would have been welcomed today, it was breezy and cloudy. So, I layered what I had: two T-shirts, a light-weight sweater, and my thin sweatshirt, set off by a colorful turquoise bandana. I had the turquoise bandana wrapped around my camera for protection, but I quickly added it as a colorful accessory. One always has to be creative when accessorizing in a pinch.

Main building of University of Helsinki in Senate Square, photo Denise Ames

Enough thinking about luggage, I was in Helsinki for the day! I made my way to the queue of buses waiting to take passengers on a variety of tours. Since I was an “assistant” to the tour guide—part of my cruise ship lecturer duties—I helped count the passengers and then settled back for the guide to start. I immediately noticed a big contrast between the St. Petersburg guides and our Helsinki guide. The St. Petersburg guides, although competent, had regurgitated a litany of facts and information about our sights but failed to give personal stories that made it more meaningful. They were guarded as far as answering my stream of questions, and gave pat answers or ignored them completely. Our Helsinki guide was just the opposite. Although he had information to convey, he was warm, open, and willing to answer even the most convoluted or probing questions. I knew I would get a good sense of what Helsinki was like from his remarks.

I was excited to see the city!

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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