The Finnish Ambassador’s residence in central London is, compared to its neighbours at least, rather an unassuming abode. Set in the middle of Kensington Palace Gardens, the hushed and cordoned avenue behind Prince William’s pad at the far end of Hyde Park, the house dates back to the 1850s and has been the home of Helsinki’s man in London since 1952.
At both ends of the street you’ll walk past the automatic car barriers and the security booths. Head there from Notting Hill Gate on the north side and you’ll pass the attachés milling about outside the Russian Ambassador’s place, eyes fixed upon you with an icy glare fiercer than the Moscow winter. The more adventurous approach from Kensington Road to the south, just to see if they can spot the sniper rifles atop the Israeli Embassy (don’t worry, they’ve already spotted you).
To walk through the front door of Ambassador Pekka Huhtaniemi’s home, and to be greeted by a spread of Karelian rice pies and coffee, is like finally arriving at a place of sanctuary. For the other four FCP alumni who were invited round last Thursday to get together and chat about their memories, it was much the same.
Richard Braggins became the British representative on the first ever Foreign Correspondents’ Programme back in 1992 after spotting an advertisement on a noticeboard at Stirling University. He recalls a time when Finland was emerging from a deep recession – albeit manifested rather differently to the economic woes he has witnessed through the years in his native Scotland.
Though the country has doubtless changed in the space of a generation, his memories echo some of mine. The rise and fall of Nokia was a story yet to begin and Tarja Halonen was just another local MP for the Helsinki constituency. Indeed, it was some five years after Richard returned from Finland that current Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen spent a six-month stint working as a press intern at the Finnish Embassy in London, immortalised with a plaque by the door of his old office, now the embassy staff’s kitchenette (his counterpart interning here this autumn, Olli Ylioja, has some big shoes to fill). But other places and people Richard visited were still on my itinerary this summer – fashion house Marimekko; state broadcaster YLE; the dazzling beauty of Lapland.
Many of the old FCP alumni from the UK have inevitably moved out of journalism. Zoe Smith spent the summer in Helsinki in 2005, and now is specialising as a writer on international development issues after studying for a master’s in conflict and development in parts of the world with rather different challenges to Finland. Anna Wardley meanwhile was a graduate of City University London when she visited Finland in 2000, and is now director of her own communications firm – not to mention a keen ice swimmer, having returned to the country years later to compete in the world championships.
All remember their time in Finland fondly, in part for the country that welcomed them, and of course for the friends they made there. The energy of a score of young journalists from all over the world, from j-schools and newsrooms and television studios where they have already at such a tender age reported on the worst and the best of human experience, was as compelling and as inspirational for the group in 1992 as it was for me this year. The national stereotypes we all brought over from respective native lands have remained a constant over two decades: one alumnus even remembers the Italian representative bringing along his own espresso machine. Every year seems to have its own Nordic romance – although one young lad from who enjoyed a fling with a girl on the programme some years ago mysteriously fell out of contact with the rest of the group when his girlfriend back home got wind of the affair and insisted he break off all ties or she would dump him. (If you’re still together now then good luck to you both; you’ll need it…)
Many from former years have made lasting friends, visiting them across the globe time and again. Some have been to others’ weddings and met their kids. But Richard was struck dumb in 2003 when he heard reports of the death of Spaniard Julio Anguita Parrado. When he met Julio eleven years earlier in the first FCP, neither he nor the rest of the group knew he was the son of one of the country’s most prominent left-wing politicians. Julio went on to work for El Mundo, and witnessed the September 11th attacks as they happened in New York. He was embedded in the forces when the Americans led Operation Shock and Awe – and he was in the building when an Iraqi missile struck the communications centre of the 2nd Brigade just 15 miles south of Baghdad. He died, only 32 years old. The city council of his hometown Cordoba declared the following day a day of mourning. Four years later the Julio Anguita Parrado Prize was established by the Andalusian Union of Journalists and the Municipality of Cordoba for journalists reporting in places of conflict and violence.
At the final reception this August to mark the end of our programme, we joked about where the 2013 gang might be when we have our inevitable ten-year reunion in Helsinki in 2023. Alexis from France would be a world-renowned musical producer after his experience choreographing our take on ‘Do A Deer…’; Phila from Hong Kong would be in charge of his own empire of sleep cafes and bars; Eva from Germany would be an internet sensation – more so than she already is (google ‘Eva Schulz eating things tumblr’ and see for yourself).
I’ll be 33 by the summer of 2023. I wouldn’t dare guess what the world will look like by then, though my suspicion is it won’t have changed all that much. Politicians and ideologies come and go, but the things that make life worth living stay constant. If I’ve found a woman crazy and bold enough to marry me by then, I’ll be surprised. But as long as Leeds United FC are back in the Champions League, I’ll be a happy man. Whether I’m picking up my Pulitzer or opening my new bar on the Falklands, as Florencia from Argentina predicted (though she may have called them Las Malvinas), I do look forward to sharing a plate of Karelian rice pies and a cup of coffee with the alumni of FCP 2013.