The plane was packed. We were about to depart from Rome for Riga, and it was hot in there. I eyed the overhead locker, and thought that I could just fit in my son’s carry-on with a bit of gentle juggling. I took out a small, light backpack and was about to move it next to another small bag, when a hulking, bald man in his 30s grabbed the backpack out of my hands, and without a word, stuck it back in its original place. Then he closed the locker with a firm snap and turned his back on me, going back to his seat a few rows down. I had bleated out something about both bags fitting in there perfectly well, but was too dazed to really react. My son and daughter were hushing me up, saying that they could easily fit the carry-on between their legs – patently untrue – and coaxing me to let it be.
After quite a bit of negotiating with the air hostesses, a space was found for the carry-on. As I was heading back for my seat, I noticed the guy nodding towards me, laughing with his friend. Something snapped, and there, with about 250 people looking idly on from their seats, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Vaffanculo, vai!”, with hand gestures to match. Johannes and Minerva were staring at me completely astonished, as was half the plane. I kept shouting, in Finnish this time, as Minerva desperately tugged at my jacket to get me to sit down. Johannes said over and over again, “Mom, the world is full of idiots, don’t you see that if you act like that you’re as bad as them!” I finally calmed down enough to take my seat. The kids were red with embarrassment, Minerva fiddling at the knob on the tray in front of her and Johannes pretending to be very interested in something going on on the runway. I held back hot tears of rage and shame. I had acted out of character, against my values and had given the kids a fright.
A couple of days later I was trying to explain to my sister why I overreacted so violently to the man and his behaviour: “You see, we have just spent twelve days in a place where people are warm and courteous, where women and especially mothers are treated with consideration…” My sister grimaced and said, “Yeah, I know. Welcome home, back North.”
Helsinki consistently tops the lists as one of the places with the best quality of life. That is certainly true in some ways, but it is also a question of what you are measuring. According to the CAF Word Giving Index, Finland ranks at number 50 in how generous people are, and according to a recent (controversial) study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Finland is one of the least empathetic countries in the world. At the very least we can safely say that Finns are selective about whom they help and who they feel empathy for.
The cold, dark side of how people treat each other shows up in daily life in many small ways: people don’t look behind them at doorways to see if anyone is coming in after them, so doors tend to slam in your face. They stop in the middle of the street without warning and stand in the middle of escalators. On buses people sit as far away from others as possible. The waitress claims that the restaurant is "full", and no effort is made to arrange a table. To my mind, the rise of the political far right, the low employment rate of second-generation immigrants, and the sense of all-pervasive loneliness are aspects of the same phenomenon.
At times coming back feels like going into a stone grinder: the manic focus on work, the lack of humour and light, the holier than thou attitude, the straight jacket of wrong and right behaviour. None of this shows up in the quality of life polls, because ambiance is hard to measure. You get used to it, of course. But it doesn't make it right.
Here in the north, a tight circle of family and friends are cared for. Empathy is also shown to those who are thought to be worthy of it. The rest are outsiders, and as such, not really important. The thinking goes that many people are in a bad way because they somehow deserve it. The outer, ever expanding rings of interpersonal relationships so crucial to a rich and nurturing social fabric are not strong.
There is a great deal here that works well. But as in all things in life, what we prioritise, grows, and what we ignore, wilts. Having high-pressure shower nozzles and buses running reliably on time isn’t really what counts on my personal list of quality of life. With a bit more love, care and attention to each other, this would indeed be paradise. It’s just a question of focus.