It was the summer Beyonce was Crazy in Love and Captain Jack Sparrow swashbuckled onto our screens. Can you guess the year?*
I was 25 and fresh out of journalism school when I travelled to Finland to take part in the FCP programme, eager to explore a country I had yet to visit but with which I somehow felt a bond.
Scotland and Finland share a population size of around 5.5 million, long winters, and a friendly rivalry with their larger neighbour. One has lakes, the other lochs; one vodka the other malt whisky.
These things I learned through my Finnish friends who, like Scots, emanate a certain reserve that belies a warmth and self-depreciating wit, and enjoy connecting with nature.
Nude saunas is where we prudes would draw the line, however.
So it was with some trepidation that I performed this ritual during a family stay in Kauhajoki on the programme. Now I truly felt inducted into the Finnish way of life.
The other highlights of my visit: Being chased by squirrels on Seurasaari, visiting Tove Jansson’s island home, a day shadowing reporters at Hufvudstadsbladet, cycling on the Aland Islands, and panning for gold in the forest. Now I’m a vegetarian, I feel bad about the reindeer stew!
Coming home with my Moomin mug and a CD of Finnish tango (who knew that was a thing!) I had learned so much about the country, its culture, politics and economy, but with my writing career not yet begun, I don’t think I was able to make the most of it.
Returning as an experienced journalist, I’m really looking forward to considering the parallels with my country again, and see how Finland is showing the rest of the globe how to do things.
Baby boxes were introduced for all new mothers in Scotland in 2017, with a hat tip to Helsinki, and we and other countries continue to look to Finland for its socially progressive policies and world-leading education and health systems.
I hope to write some articles for the Press Association, the UK’s national news wire, that may give some insight into the World’s Happiest Country 2019. As a union deeply split over the vote to leave the EU, we could learn a lot.
Who knows, maybe it will be a completely unexpected thing that will grab my attention this year (like the time I saw Santa sitting outside an Ivalo café in August!)
I’m sure Finland will have changed as I have in 16 years (yes, it was 2003*) and I can’t wait to explore it again.