Oh misery me

3 December 2014 | Non-fiction, Tales of a journalist

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

The Finnish media never pass up an opportunity to post articles on our favourite miseries, says columnist Jyrki Lehtola: Finns are great at wallowing in self-denigration, so it sells well. And life is always better somewhere else, isn’t it? At least in ‘Europe’ it is

They should never have let us Finns into Europe. Or North America, South America, Australia, Africa, Asia.

Another Nordic country might perhaps suit us, or Albania or Russia. We could visit them.

Europe doesn’t suit us. Europe makes us even more stupid than we already are. Europe makes us think less of ourselves and more of other people.

All us Finns have some version of the European experience. You wake up around six in the morning in a bad temper. It’s dark; it’s raining sleet. Half-dazed, you step into the taxi you ordered yesterday. The taxi takes you to the airport, where you take off your shoes and your belt and check repeatedly that your passport is where it should be.

Then things begin to feel better. After security, you’re already nearly in Europe. Bubbly and beer are delicious even this early in the morning. Things are more relaxed here in Europe, go Europe.

Everything gets better still, becomes more European, when you sit down in a restaurant, preferably by the Mediterranean. You eat a heap of oily scallops which you would never dream of ordering in Finland, but here, in Europe, they’re the world’s best food, because this is Europe. The wine is pleasantly warming, and the restaurateur, Fabio, clearly loves us, Fabio, a big personality speaking his bad English, touching you and laughing, Fabio, even though you’re struck dumb and can’t even say a thing.

Europe is free, freedom is Europe; prison is where I return from Europe.

When you come back to Finland after a trip, you get nervous. We are a country whose citizens love to denigrate themselves. We Finns, we are jealous, silent, negative, grey, slow, unflexible and joyless. We drag ourselves through life, queue on commuter roads to get back in the dark to our dreary homes to alcoholise ourselves.

They don’t do things like that in Europe, in Europe they dance and rejoice in the streets. And since we have such a negative attitude to ourselves, our self-deprecation becomes, perversely, a kind of pride, particularly in relation to Europe.

The media are beside themselves with enthusiasm in our self-deprecation, because it sells: it’s commercially viable to be horrified about how horrible it is in Finland.

Every year we have slightly different reasons to denigrate ourselves. Sometimes it’s something as simple as the weather, sometimes it’s the national character, from time to time it’s our food culture and often all of the above, and a lot more.

This year we’ve been flagellating ourselves because we’re the world’s only nation with rules enforced by civil servants. Often those rules are of a kind that doesn’t exist in Europe: small-minded, ridiculous, bureaucratic, pointless.

And rules, it’s only us that have them. There are dozens of different offices in Finland, with hundreds of officials, who are all trying to do what their job descriptions say. To make up rules and boundaries and police them, to keep some kind of order. Cruel and uncaring, these official of the devil told an innocent grocery-store keeper that his foods should have an ingredients list. They forced their own, probably fascist, hygiene standards on a pure-minded street-café owner who only wanted the best for us.

Sometimes that invention of rules takes on comic dimensions: for the tiniest and most inseconsequential error a shopkeeper may have to pay tens of thousands of euros, and the media can then run the story of a merchant who is driven on to hard times by rules, who is always the good person crushed by bureaucracy, not a person who did not know what he was doing.

And then we compare this misery of ours to the Europe of our imagination. There are no bureucrats in Europe, no rules, no laws, just freedom, and everything works, although I did have to wait two hours for my food and I didn’t get what I ordered, but it didn’t matter, because I was in Europe.

Education is an important thing. If you educate yourself you don’t live so deep in your own misconceptions that you fall in love with them.

Travel is important, but so is reading. You learn about the world through reading. Even the fact that everywhere, believe it or not, has rules, civil servants, bureaucracy, which sometimes approaches the ridiculous.

But we don’t see these in Europe. we prefer to see the lie, a free Europe and a harried Finland, because we want to rejoice in something, even if it has to be our unusual misery. It makes us just that little bit more special and individual.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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