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Notes from Finland: Spring 2020


28 May 2020 at 10.30pm

I hadn't been out tonight so I decided to go for a quick ten minute walk in the evening sun. It's the lightest time of the year and after an overcast day we got a gorgeous, bright evening. The bird cherry is in bloom and I've just seen the first strawberry flowers in the woods, probably some garden escapees because they were too big for wild plants. Lily-of the-valley covers the forest floor, with the last of the wood anemones peaking through the leaves.
Nearby woods on 27 May, favourite part of the day

About life in Helsinki this spring

I seriously thought about writing something that did not even mention, you know, the virus. But that would have been dishonest since it has affected our lives in so many ways.

I've been getting this nagging feeling that I should be recording the current events but it's been alleviated a great deal since I realised that everybody is doing it. Photographers taking snapshots of daily life, a local school burying a time capsule, organisations from the YHA in the UK to the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare in Finland inviting people to send in their stories. So I think the reason for resuming this blog has more to do with the spring sunshine, my extended contract slowly coming to an end and our thoughts turning to summer.

Having said that, it feels important to make a few notes, and right now there seems to be a lull in the proceedings. Personally, the crisis has been often upsetting, always thought-provoking, but mostly and simply exhausting. 

Like everyone else, we've had to cancel long-planned holidays, learn to entertain ourselves at home, and find new walks locally. The cheap tennis rackets were a best buy, and we used the green grassy area at the back of our building for the first time!

Winter

Can I just remind myself not to whinge about this past winter! Because there were some really good moments: visits from husband and friends, short breaks in Tallinn and, for the first time since I was in my teens, in St Petersburg, interesting work, banter with colleagues, Christmas gatherings and the birth of my niece.

But throughout it all, we waited for snow in Helsinki. Which then came in April and May, for a few days. No snow drifts, winter sports or sunlight sparkling on white fields in the park. Instead, it seemed to stay forever at four degrees Celsius, with no light, thick cloud cover and stormy rains.
St Petersburg in early September

Malmi station on 29 February

But wasn't it amazing when the winter rains ended. I was out for a walk on May Day with our daughter when she suddenly said "Look mummy, the grass is green!"

Snow by the flats on 4 April

Spring pea on 10 April

Snow on 10 May

I was asked in January whether I'd like to stay on in this job until the end of June. I said yes and then quickly arranged a trip to the UK to see friends and family. We were away for the first week in February. Chinese tourists had gone and Helsinki Airport was empty.

Botanical Gardens in Sheffield on 6 February

Helsinki Airport on 11 February

Interactive walls on Aukio

Socially - or is it physically - distant walk on 15 March in Helsinki Zoo

Timeline

Around 11 March the number of Covid-19 cases in Finland began to increase rapidly. On 12 March, the Government recommended that public gatherings of more than 500 people shouldn't be organised. However, at this stage it was the regional state administrative agencies and not the Government that could ban meetings. On 13 March local authorities, third-sector organisations and sports clubs began to cancel activities and close down buildings such as swimming pools (as in Helsinki) and even some schools.

Then on 17 March the Emergency Powers Act entered into force for the first time in Finnish history (a similar act had been in force in wartime). That and another piece of legislation, the Communicable Diseases Act, gave the Government more centralised powers.

Day out socialising

For me, Sunday 15 March was a hinge day. At work, for the past week or so we'd been washing hands every time when we entered the building, and there seemed to be bottles of hand sanitiser everywhere. We joked about the entire public service smelling of vodka. On Sunday I met my sister in Helsinki Zoo with the kids. We'd chosen the park because it would be easier to follow the social distancing recommendations the Government had issued earlier. We had a lovely time walking around the island, and I realised I hadn't visited the place since I was about 12. We spotted the first snowdrops and crocuses. The indoor areas were closed but cafes were open and we stopped on the way back to get coffees (and the kids wanted ice creams!)

It was a cold day and I wasn't wearing my winter jacket so I by the end of it I was freezing. That night I felt like I'd caught a cold and decided to work from home. I visited the office on 20 March. By then most people were working from home and those of us who were not observed the social distancing rules. It was a very strange day, standing around with colleagues in the office kitchen (which is a beautiful room with a long dining table, comfy armchairs and massive windows), trying to take it all in.

Our bikes on 5 April by Kahvitupa Laurentius 

On syytä

Since then I've been at the office twice, first to borrow a big monitor to take home and then to work for half a day since I needed to use the printer anyway. We've been told that we may use the office if we want, but remote working is recommended. And that pretty much seems to be the Finnish lockdown story: you can, but if it's not necessary, don't. It's been interesting to compare that strategy with Sweden on one side and the UK on the other.

The Finnish Government has come under heavy scrutiny not so much for their measures and decisions but for their use of language: were they really all enforceable rules or did people have a choice? And if they did, why weren't they told about it. Some people wanted a more authoritative tone to inspire trust, others thought it'd do the opposite. Early on, I read this blog post by scientist Aura Raulo and pretty much agreed with it. 

Travel was restricted to and from the Helsinki region for three weeks. That felt really dramatic. During the first week of lockdown I decided to buy second-hand bicycles so we could avoid using public transport. We went to pick them up from a house near Ainola. The local train had announcements about the Uuusima regional border being closed and passengers needing to show evidence to the police to prove essential travel. At Ainola station there was a similar announcement because the train line crosses "the border". I'm still sorry I didn't record the message. I have lots and lots of memes though!

It took the Government until 3 April to propose and have legislation passed to close down restaurants. But they could still sell food and drinks to take out, and all other private businesses, such as hairdressers, clothes stores and gyms, could stay open. Nevertheless, many of them closed their doors because people stayed at home anyway. But no difference was made between essential and non-essential businesses, I didn't see any restrictions on the number of people who could enter shops, and places like construction sites stayed open. I know because the council has been digging up the pavements around our flats for three months.

Distance learning

Schools closed on 18 March. However, the Finnish education authorities have been very pointedly reminding everyone that the schools were not 'closed'; they'd just switched to distance learning. The Government first tried the 'key workers only' approach but then realised they couldn't really agree who was a key worker so decided to keep years 1 to 3 open for everybody, while recommending that parents should keep their kids at home if at all possible. The same applied to early years and nurseries, which never closed anyway. In Estonia, for example, all schools were closed.

Most kids did stay at home with their parents. For us it worked okay. Some schools even kept to the same timetable but ours just had the normal topics each day, including music, arts and textiles/wood tech, and one or two Google Classroom or Teams meetings per day, depending on the teacher. The class teacher sent the day's lessons on Wilma, the online app similar to ParentMail, and I then copied them into daughter's WhatsApp. Kids sent the work back every day using the apps or WhatsApp. Attendance and work were monitored and assessed, but when we had a parents' meeting on Teams, the class teacher said none of the work would lower the grades, only move them upwards if the child had done well.

Finnish schools serve a warm meal to all kids. Our school first kept serving them in the school refectory with social distancing rules and then switched to giving them out twice a week for heating at home. Schools in some local authorities have been giving out food parcels rather than hot meals.

After two months, contact teaching resumed on 15 May at primary and lower secondary schools and kids were asked to come back for two weeks before the summer hols. It's been lovely to get some normality back into our lives. The teachers' union was not happy about the schools first having to improvise a whole new way of teaching and then having to manage social distancing for the staff and children. Our school has requisitioned rooms from the local church, library and after-school club to make space for everyone.

6 June 2020

It's late at night and I'm determined to post this now! Today was a special day: many restaurants, swimming pools and museums opened this week, and today we celebrated some missed birthdays at Fazer Experience. Unlimited sweets! And the most dramatic company story video I've ever watched in Finland.


On 21 May, a lovely walk from the new Tripla buildings in Pasila (very quiet)...

...through Keskuspuisto (busy)...

...to Tilkka for an emergency dental appointment.

About writing a ghost blog

When I asked a friend, who visited around this time last year, what she'd like to do in Helsinki, she said she doesn't want to plan anything too carefully or know too much about a place. Because then it'll feel like you've been there already and you lose the element of surprise and suddenly it's like... boring. I think I feel the same about writing. I read a Twitter posting by author Mark Lawrence about writers not having problems finding ideas but deciding which ones to go with and then keeping focused. I've been writing this blog usually every Saturday morning when I'm cleaning the flat or washing the dishes (that have been piling up for a week). I've argued with myself, written the subheadings and even imagined the responses. By the time the dishes are done, I can happily move on to other things, like reading. It's just that I've missed the crucial step of putting my fingers on keyboard. But I just wanted to tell you I've had lots of fun with this blog!

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