Finland: First Impressions on a Videotaping Shoot

Since we spend a lot of time videotaping in different countries around the world, I am frequently asked my impressions of local communities and places. Often my response harkens back to the opening scene in the movie Blue Velvet. The viewer first sees a helicopter view of a perfect 1960s-era postage-stamp looking community with cute little houses and pretty green lawns. The camera lens then begins to zoom in, and imperfections appear on screen. The objects grow closer, and the viewer sees more details that paint a fuller picture mixing positive imagery with negative. And then, to foreshadow the harrowing movie to follow, the camera zooms into the creepiest microscopic insect behaviors, suggesting the ugliness of what lies beneath the surface.

The full analogy to this opening is apt when I describe the most awful of situations we’ve witnessed while videotaping particular documentaries, such as dangerous territories still reeling from recent wars.  But thankfully most of our travels take us to daily life in peaceful situations, so the Blue Velvet comparison stops before the last zoom-in. Yet it underscores my acute awareness that an accurate description of the pros and cons of real life anywhere on the planet lurks far beneath those first, surface-level impressions. I am therefore hesitant to convey opinions about places where we stop for only a few days to do a corporate video shoot for a marketing video or investor relations video .

And yet, of course, those first impressions linger. So I sometimes bow to the inquiry, hoping those who ask will recognize the shallowness of my responses.

It took that introduction to make me feel comfortable launching into my very favorable initial impressions here on the ground in Helsinki!

First one: Last week we were working in Paris. We had pre-rented a car online, as we did for this trip. At Charles DeGaulle Airport, we spent literally 45 minutes at the rental car desk with only two people in front of us. The experience was like waiting during a work slowdown, except there was no formal slowdown.  Questions we asked were answered in as few words as possible with looks of annoyance, despite our use of French language. In comparison, after arriving in Helsinki, we were second in line for our car. Our total time at the counter was under ten minutes. We spoke no Finnish at all, but the woman at Budget spoke fluent English. She smiled as she imparted key information, did not try to sell us anything we did not need, and literally mapped out our car ride from her counter to the rental car parking lot to our hotel, the Sokos Flamingo Hotel in Vantaa.  I felt stress-free despite a total lack of familiarity with the culture and the ancient and unique language spoken there. I even perceived the cold air that enveloped us when we walked out the airport doors as crisp and healthy rather than an unwelcome reminder of the upcoming winter.

Next: Thoughtful layouts. The wide roads were well-marked, sensible, and lined with sprawling landscapes – after all, this large country is populated by a total of only five million people. The hotel receptionist gave us a parking pass for the garage even before requiring us to check in, and the parking lot had plenty of spaces to accommodate all the cars. The spotless room was styled with simple but comfortable Ikea-type furniture. One entire wall was covered in windows enabling us to look out into the horizon, where fiery red sunrises beneath puffy dark clouds greeted us in the morning.

The food was less impressive, though I am spoiled by living bi-coastally in Los Angeles and the metro NY area – specifically, NJ’s restaurant capital of Montclair. Didn’t mind it too much – we had gone to Finland to work, not to eat.

One other footnote: A friendly encounter on the elevator with a businessman from northern Finland led to breakfast together the next morning. A few things I learned from him were:

  • Children in Finland learn to cross country ski when they are very young, and get around that way much of the winter in southern Finland, which is not mountainous
  • Ski country is northern Finland, but often the freezing temperatures (below -30 degrees centigrade is not uncommon) prohibit outdoor activity until February or March
  • In much of the country, you can see the Northern Lights
  • In the summer in the Helsinki area, darkness falls around 11 pm and dawn comes by 4 am. In the winter, of course, it is the opposite. (October wasn’t too bad. It got dark at about 6 pm and light before 8 am.)
  • The Finnish and Hungarian languages share the same root
  • Swedish is the second language of Finland since Sweden ruled the country for 600 years, from the 13th through the 19th centuries
  • In World War II, the Finns fought against the Russians, who had occupied the country after the Swedes. (This, of course, made them allies with the Germans, though they saw their participation as anti-Russian rather than pro-German, and they protected their Jewish population.)

Had the businessman not had dinner plans that night, we would have met again, underscoring my impression of the friendliness of local people. Of course, he was not talking in front of the camera lens. But those who were featured in the business video that brought us there shared the warm spirit of our hotel acquaintance.

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