12 wonderful ways Finland could be an even more amazing country

12 ways Helsinki could be an even more amazing city

My name is Marc Aulén. I’m 52 years of age, the father of two, and I’ve lived in Helsinki, Finland since I was 13. As a partner in a lunch restaurant, I run a tiny, meals-on-wheels business and wrote and published a book in Finnish featuring my best soup recipes in 2014 (I’m the soup guy).

Marc AulenI’m currently working on a new book project with my business partner and friend, Antti Lehto, my awesome photo guy Mr. Jaeseong Park, and three very talented graphic designers. Our aim is to simply to show a different view of our hometown to visitors. Most guide books for tourists, and not only in Finland, only blow sunshine up your bottom, painting pretty pictures with fluttering bluebirds and everyone in love. For some strange reason, these books also usually only recommend expensive fine-dining restaurants and designer shops. Nothing wrong with that, but we want to reach normal people with normal travel budgets. Which is why we’d like to offer a guide book that’s more down to earth. The book will contain lists of my best picks of everything from bars to beaches.

To celebrate its forthcoming publication, my buddy, award-winning author, Co-founder of Ink Tank Media and funny guy, Joel Willans, asked me to write a few lines on Ink Tank. The challenge was to show how I see Finland and Helsinki as a local, mentioning both the good and the bad, and how I would change things if I could. So, here goes.

1. Sort out the service

Helsinki service

I have a ton of stories about how Finns don’t get the level of customer service they deserve at Finnish prices, but as I only have limited space here, I’ll only share one of them. This happened to me a few years back while I was buying a cup of coffee from our local gas station. I was the only customer on the premises at the time, and two teenaged girls were working the morning shift. Now, they were standing only a couple of feet away from me while I was filling my cup, when they started gossiping: ”Yeah, f—k, I told that f—king c—t that she can p—s off, but she just called me a wh-re, yeah, but I said that her mama’s a wh-re and that her boyfriend is a h-mo who can suck my –ss” and so forth and so forth. This continued for several minutes and got even nastier than this. I told the girls that I’m no prude, but that I really didn’t feel like sharing what was being dished out. The taller of the girls approached me, snapped her fingers an inch from my face, and said ”yo mama is!”. I was flabbergasted!

Offended, I dashed home and wrote a very accurate description of what had happened and sent the email to the head office of Sh—(no names named). I waited week after week for a reply. I also tried calling them to get a response, but no. Finally, about a month after the incident, I was contacted and told to take it easy and that girls will be girls. Lesson learned? The customer is always…wrong.

What could be done?

People working in the service industry could all have a nice big slice of humble pie. I know that it’s an acquired taste for some, but at the end of the day, it is the customer who pays your wages.

2.  Make communication king

Helsinki trains

While Englishmen love to use terms of endearment while addressing a total stranger, the average Finn would never do this. Words such as dear and darling just aren’t used. Handshaking, eye contact and pecks on the cheek are also strange phenomena for the Finn. Just a subtle nod of the head will often do the job if you want to say hello.

Communicating electronically should be, one would think, a fast and efficient way to reach one another in a country as big on high-tech as Finland is, but no. Getting an answer by e-mail or text can take a while. I’m switching back to postcards, I think. It’s quicker.

What could be done?

Teach the kids how to debate in class at an early stage and make them want to see the world. Teach them how business works and how to sell. We have a lot of innovations, know-how and products that come from Finland, we just aren’t good at selling.

3. Take down taxes

Helsinki taxes

We get taxed heavily in Finland. We can boast about being on the top ten list of the most severely taxed countries globally. On top of the income tax, we pay an additional 24% VAT on, well, almost everything. As an entrepreneur, I have also noticed that my taxes have risen beyond comprehension, even though I don’t make very much money at all. Mandatory company insurance is also very pricey. Everyone knows that the Finnish economy doesn’t look good and that Finland needs international companies to invest in us, but with our taxation system and the wage level the way it is, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

The word entrepreneur translated into Finnish is yrittäjä, which loosely means someone who tries. I find it quite fitting: you can always try, but…

What could be done?

Well, that’s quite obvious.

4. Learn to love the light and dark

Helsinki darkness

Come winter, it’s pitch black when you get up in the morning and pitch black when you leave for home after work. One can easily learn to live in the winter cold. Just dress accordingly. For me, it’s the darkness that’s the villain and it gets harder to cope with it the older one gets. Come summer, the sky is lit around the clock and it’s really hard to get some shut-eye.

What could be done?

Not much. Enjoy Aurora Borealis if you can and buy a snazzy sleep mask come summertime.

5. Make living cheerily cheaper

expensive Helsinki

The cost of living in Finland is, as in other Scandinavian countries, far too high. One of the reasons apart from the taxation is that we have heavy bureaucracy on everything, making everyday life more expensive and thus miserable for everyone.

What could be done?

Re-think and re-build the whole system into something light, modern and people friendly.

6. Learn some mobility manners

Driving in Helsinki


While every Guido and Guiseppe in Italia thinks that they are the Formula One gods of the road and want to overtake everything in sight, Seppo and Pekka from Finland would be the guys who will do their best to stop this from happening. While driving in Finland you’ll notice that when you try changing lanes, there’s always an a-hole who doesn’t want you in his lane. You accelerate, he’ll do the same. You slow down, he’ll slow down.

What could be done?

Faster cars for everyone and may the best man win!

7. Cut out the cutting

Helsinki financial situation

Finland is living in harsh economical times and has been doing so for many years now. Our government is doing a fantastic job of screwing up Finland Ltd. Instead of looking ahead and thinking about future generations, they’re mowing down funding for education, daycare, national healthcare and elderly care. This is not the way to go. While other countries are getting back on track financially, the situation in Finland seems to be getting gloomier and darker. The ’elderly’ unemployed people are also getting a raw deal when trying to find work. Why on earth should one have to carry around a stamp on the old forehead saying OBSOLETE the day one turns fifty? The plus fifties are the ones with the know-how. They have a lifetime of experience and know stuff about stuff that the young’ns maybe don’t.

I really hope that the people who are behind the wheel today, their kids and their grandchildren can some day look back proudly on how things turned out. I doubt that they’ll be able to, though.

What could be done?

Cut the entrepreneur some slack! Think ahead, think constructively, and not destructively!

8. Win with wine

Helsinki park

Finland has very strict alcohol laws and all liquor stores are state controlled, as they are in other Scandinavian countries. You can’t buy any beverage stronger than 4,7 % in alcohol after 8 pm. Come nine o clock in the evening and you want to buy a beer or a cider from the local shop, kiosk or gas station, forget about it. It’s not going to happen. Why, we ask? It’s for our own good, they say. Ask to buy a bottle of red wine to take home from a restaurant, as one could do in Italy or France and you’ll get nothing more than a funny look. This almost totalitarian way of thinking only makes people fetch their booze cheaper elsewhere, like Estonia or Germany. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Who misses out in the long run? Finland, of course.

What could be done?

Put wine on our shop shelves and stop the nonsense.

9. Fix the food

Helsinki food

Growing up elsewhere, I’ve never really understood the essence of the Finnish kitchen. It’s a bit bland for my taste. There’s a saying: Onko tämä tehty suomalaiseen makuun, which loosely translated questions if something is suited for the Finnish palate. Now in layman’s terms, the person asking wants to know if the food is tasteless and bland enough. Finding a nice restaurant hasn’t always been easy. The lack of passion in restaurant kitchens (please note that I am looking back in time) and the service that wasn’t that great never really got Finland very far on the world’s culinary map. Many a Finn will of course be insulted fby my bluntness, but hey, it’s my opinion. Fortunately, people started travelling, opening their eyes to new experiences, trying out new food sensations abroad, broadening their horizons, awakening their tastebuds and seeing what well prepared food was all about. The Finnish customer started demanding better food at home, better quality and better service. The situation today is so much better than it used to be and finding a really nice eatery in the city center isn’t hard at all. Maybe today we have too much on offer for such a little population?

Finland has incredible products to work with in the kitchen. We have the best fish you can get, mind-blowing berries and mushrooms, and fantastic root vegetables, but still, convenient food seems to be what people want.

What could be done?

The huge amount of industrial waste in the form of microwave food on offer could and should be abolished by law. The word for convenience food in Finnish is eines which, if said out loud, sounds a lot like a certain word in English. Think about it.

10. Cash in on the coastline

Helsinki coastline

We have a beautiful coastline in Helsinki, but don’t really know what to do with it. There are vast unused areas by the sea that could make Helsinki into an even more attractive city than it already is. Only recently was it discovered that the beautiful coastline we have can be used for purposes other than stacking containers and parking cars. There is still a long way to go, though.

What could be done?

Build more cafés and restaurants by the water!

11. High-five health inspectors

Helsinki flowers

They have no lesser status in Finland than God himself. Having said that, I will say nothing more about them.

What could be done?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Everyone is happy, restaurant- and café owners alike love them and everything is fine and dandy…or is it?

12. Embrace the odd

Finns in Helsinki

The Finns are maybe a bit of an odd bunch, but then again my darling wife Susanne usually says ”Embrace the odd!” about me. Name a nation that doesn’t have it’s own quirky ways and habits. I certainly can’t.

Finns are mostly trustworthy, curious, hard-working, honest people who love to spend time in their sauna, have a few drinks with friends, and watch and play ice hockey. Become good friends with a Finn and it’s probably for life!

What could be done?

Stay quirky and odd and don’t try to become something you’re not!

All images by Jaeseong Park

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13 replies

  1. Hey,

    Nicely written but there are things that are not completely true. I live myself here for 8 years,.

    – #3

    Taxes in Finland are not that high, especially comparing to the services you get. If you are a middle-level family with 2 kids, you would have probably noticed that with similar level of income, it is much easier to live here then comparing to some other (non-scandinavian even eu) countries. People are paying easily 1500 euros / kid for daycare elsewhere, maternity leaves are shorter and/or with super-low compensation, here you get the child-money (lapsilisa) regardless of your income level. You also get quite-okay level pension pay (if you dare to live that long) comparing to you get some 500-600 euros / month elsewhere. If you are in need, they support you with housing and hell crime rate is low, because population is taken care well. As a middle class person you make this happen, you should be happy to not see people begging for money in the streets (that much) or to feel safe, well always foreigners can be blamed for those activities 🙂 Here, you know that you can have as much as children you like without (big) concerns about monetary side of it, elsewhere money is a big concern.

    If you would be on the higher-class (earning 250.000+ euros / year), Finland is not the best country for sure, then you have power to pay everything in high-class providers, you would complain about the taxation for sure, system is based on equality here which I think it is a nice thing.


    Thanks but no thanks. We love nature as is, I don’t want that all the coastline polluted by stupid restaurants, I am happy that all the nature is not fully wasted and I am happy to be able to picnic during summer in one of the nice natural places all-over. In some places, government even provides the wood for bbq shelters, what the heck 🙂

    I agree with #1 and #8


  2. Great stuff, well written, funny and unfortunately true. Having food related business in Finland shows some “unfabled” face of this country for sure.

    No wonder, with a “little push” in customer service and simple but good products we have no problem with staying alive in the ocean of bland food… How strange, though.

  3. Looks like you are a real Finn: Thinking negative, while in reality things are not so bad 😉

    As a Finnish and European entrepreneur I’ve paid taxes to several different countries in Europe and by my experience Finland has one of the lowest tax rates. Actually thanks to low bureaucracy and tax discounts it’s by far the easiest country for small entrepreneurs to get started. Don’t believe this? Try to get your business rolling in France, Germany, Switzerland or any other Central European country. Compared to those, Finland has only one “downside”: Rich entrepreneurs earn less because that’s when you start paying higher taxes. But hey, that’s the idea of social democracy (not capitalism), which is a good thing to have if you ask from most of the Finns.

    In principle many of your points are rooted into one major difference between Finnish way of thinking and “big world” thinking: In Finland empty space is the king. People in Helsinki seem to forget this, although they also still have it rooted deep inside their heart. When a person learns to respect the empty space, one stops wondering why people don’t sell so much, why there’s no flattering small talk, or why one should keep distance to others while driving. I rather walk on empty seashore than overbuilt promenade with dozens of cafeterias. Kaivopuisto already have three cafes, and a lot of nice empty space to walk between them. That’s what I really enjoy after living next to overbuilt lakes in Switzerland or overpopulated cost lines of mediterranean – no empty space to walk there! Population of Southern Finland is around 3 million, including the capital “city”. Compare that to Northern Italy, area of the same size: 30 million people. No, I don’t want more buildings, salesmen or crowds around, I just want to enjoy Mother Earth’s greatest gifts even in the middle of Helsinki – peaceful living and respect towards empty space between people – that’s what makes Finland so unique. For many this sounds unfriendly but in truth it’s the opposite: First give some space to people, then share the pleasure of it with your friends (sauna at summer cottage ;).

  4. Oi there, Marc!
    You speak mainly words of wisdom, and of course one must sharpen the edge to get the message through. I couldn’t agree more especially about # 1; I too have experienced and heard many a tale of similar behavior and that really pisses me off. The reply you eventually got from the establishment’s chief was only proof of that all is not well in the management either. Nowadays the debate is on about refugees and other foreigners “coming in and taking our jobs”. In this case I’ll just say – let them in! My point is that I’ve never (or seldom) been met with such bad service attitude by foreign waiters or other sales persons, only too often by our own Finnish equivalents. A funny sketch spot-on picturing this dilemma was shown in the new Finnish version of Saturday Night Live. Check it out, y’all!

  5. I know this is incredibly nitpicky and entirely beside the point, but Finland isn’t a part of Scandinavia, it’s a Nordic country.

  6. Did I get this right: first you complain about taxes being high, then you slam the government for cutting public services like education and healthcare? Doesn’t quite add up. And while the Finnish bureaucrasy system is quite heavy, “Re-think and re-build the whole system into something light, modern and people friendly.” isn’t very helpful or constructive now is it?

  7. Visited Finland once in the summer while living in Norway. Beautiful country with many natural assets which you need to preserve and protect. My advice–maximize your uniqueness. And never ever cave on nakedness in saunas. ?

  8. #9: Each to their own, but I think that traditional Finnish food is actually very tasty. Besides, a country’s food is only as good as the skills of the cook who prepares it and there are good and bad cooks absolutely everywhere in this world. Agreed, however, that there is a lazy tendency towards junk food. Although, having experienced life in the UK, France, Spain, Mexico and Finland, I’d say that isn’t uniquely a Finnish problem either.

    Couldn’t agree more about #8!

  9. There’s also a saying: poimia rusinat pullasta (to pick the raisins from cinnamon roll). One cannot expect to get everything good for free, dear sir.

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