My first visit to Finland in 2001 is one of the highlights of my career in journalism – but there’s a lingering guilt about it.
I arrived in Helsinki that summer straight out of a postgraduate journalism degree, and still unsure of where my first job would take me. The Foreign Correspondents Programme provided me with many eye-opening issues and vivid characters to write about, but I was still fairly naïve and lacking in confidence, and – not having an employer leaning on me to come back with a sackful of stories – I wrote very little about my time there.
Over the years, I have talked effusively and often about a fondness for Finland that remains with me to this day. But I have also retained a sense of unfinished business – that would like to write more about this country which I got to know so well.
I now work for Scotland’s leading publication aimed at teachers, so I have an obvious interest in finding out more about the education system, one of the great Finnish success stories of recent times. But my interests are far broader than that.
Finland is a fascinating destination for a Scottish journalist, given that we are still working out the implication of our country’s historic independence referendum in 2014. Given that Finland will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence in 2017, and that it shares so many features with Scotland – including population size, some of Europe’s last wildernesses, a history often dominated by larger neighbours – there should be some fascinating parallels to draw.
I have many vivid memories of Finland in August 2001: of the unstinting hospitality and helpfulness of just about everyone I met; of learning new definitions of cold and exhilaration when jumping from a sauna into a lake inside the Arctic Circle; of the cornucopia of characters I encountered, from Santa Claus to the Bomfunk MCs; of visiting Nokia at its commercial height; of the most beautiful sunset I ever saw, on the Åland Islands; of lying blissfully on animal-skin rugs in a museum in Lapland for nearly an hour, watching silent black and white footage of the Sami people from many years ago.
I hope and expect that my next visit will be equally memorable. Fifteen years on from the 2001 Foreign Correspondents’ Programme, I have changed and Scotland has changed – now I relish the opportunity to discover how Finland has changed.