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Oh Finland, how art thou?

Thanks to my latest posts, about Lucca and Florence, my Finnish friends are now thinking “right, we’ve seen the last of the English git. He ain’t never coming back”. But hold, not so fast. I have moved countries many times in my life (England ’73-78; Argentina ’78-80; England ’80; Botswana ’81-86; Peru ’86-92; Scotland ’92-94; Finland ’95-6; Scotland ’97-2001; Finland 2001-present) which has left me with no real sense of home being a place. Home is people, and, to a lesser extent, some elements of culture. So the idea, and even the process, of moving to another country doesn’t faze me at all. But it has also made me think that it would be nice for my kids to see something of the world, but to always know where home is.

[If you are interested in what my family was doing in Africa and South America while I was growing up, go read my Dad's new memoir, More Sherlock Holmes than James HerriotI haven't read it yet (it only just came out) but I know it does include baby cheetahs, angry rhinos, and me and my sister playing with a rabid dog.]

When I moved to Finland in 2001, everybody asked “Why Finland?” They still do. It’s probably the question I am asked most often. Even while teaching seminars, in foreign lands, I sometimes get asked it in class. It’s that odd a choice, apparently.

Nobody, not one person, has asked “why Italy?” They ask “how did you manage it”. (See here for the answer.) Because Italy is a normal choice. The advantages are obvious. Gorgeous architecture? Check. Great wine? Check. Great food? Check. Fabulous bloody everything? Check. And it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

But Finland? The last decade or so has seen a major improvement in Finland’s international perception; people think “good schools” or “clean environment” or something like that. But apart from the wretched bloody snow, and the way the entire population seems to be shifted towards the silent end of the gregariousness spectrum, here are some much-under-appreciated elements.

1) The Tax Office. Yes, really. Customer service in Finland as a whole sucks. But the Tax Office staff, unless you are obviously trying to defraud the people of Finland, are extraordinarily helpful, and will go out of their way to make the quite transparent tax system even clearer. And unless you are making serious great gobs of cash, the healthcare, daycare, public order, public transport, and other taxpayer-funded benefits, far outweigh the somewhat higher taxes than you might pay somewhere else.

2) Fairness and transparency. The system seems to be pretty fair all round. Sure, it’s hard to get really rich (but that’s true anywhere); but it is very easy to start a business (and there’s plenty of government help to do so), and you have to be making way more money than I ever have before you start paying seriously high taxes. Sure, there’s some corruption, but it tends to only exist at the higher levels of finance (where it exists everywhere); knowing how to deniably offer a bribe is no part of the basic education here.

3) Kids walk to school at age 7. On their own. No problem. That is really true, and totally unlike any other country I know, other than possibly Sweden or Norway.

I could add to this list decent plumbing, properly insulated houses, free daycare, no traffic, decent cycle paths and pedestrian routes (my elder daughter and I tried walking from Lucca to Torre, about 10k. We ended up walking along a dyke for much of the journey, and not quite making it (much to her fury) as there was literally nowhere for people to walk or cycle except on the road with the Italian drivers. It was just too dangerous.). Really, people, Finland is lovely.

I miss mountains. I miss really proper old buildings and castles and such. But I can travel to see those, and even live among them for a while as I am now doing. But I have no plans to give up transparency, stability, and my kids walking to school, in an education system that seems to work.

So relax, peeps. I am not seriously planning on relocating. Yet….

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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