I knew I was nearing reindeerland as soon as I headed towards the Tallinn docks. Some cheeky Finnish youth actually said "Welcome to Helsinki" to me as he trudged through that day's blizzard towards the ship with a bundle of discount booze in his arms.
I had the privilege of spending some hours amongst Estonia's northern kin that day. Some notes on the neighbors:
* According to a recent column by Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb (left) in Finnair's in flight magazine, his country is among the happiest in the world, if not the happiest. How this washes with having three public shooting sprees in as many years is anybody's guess. Maybe those three mass murderers were the only unhappy people in Finland?
* Grouped by some wacky 19th century anthropologists with Japanese and Koreans as part of the "yellow race," there is some truth to Finland's eastern orientation. Finnair maintains reliable services to many cities in Asia, including three destinations in Japan and China each. Even though Finns have had preciously little to do with Asian culture or history, they seem to know what they are doing. It's hard to tell the Finnish elements and the Japanese elements in their marketing campaigns apart.
* Even though Finland has its problems, some Finns still seem to think that life is infinitely better there than in Estonia, which I think they see as troublesome and less stable. Finnish media covered a small protest outside the independence day gala by marginal figures, for example, while Estonian media ignored it. Why? If only Estonia was more pragmatic, if only they knew how to deal with Moscow, if only Estonia had a world class Olympic hockey team, if only Estonians were, basically, Finns, then they would rise rapidly on the happiness scale, according to this line of thought. Little Estonia still needs to grow up. Big Finland is waiting patiently for the day to arrive.
* Some Estonians stereotype Finnish women as being ugly. This is not true.
* Finland seems to enjoy its own monoculture: all the things you could possibly need are produced within the country, with each brand contributing to the national identity. In Finland, your whole childhood can be Moomin, your pantry and closets filled with Marimekko dishes and attire, your communications needs serviced by Nokia. It's easy to spot Finns in airports: they sport the same hairstyles, spectacles, and fashion accessories. It's like they have some kind of secret national uniform. Estonia also has attempted to replicate Finnish monoculture by building its own Esto world of consumer goods, but, so far, it's less convincing.
* Along with consumer monoculture, there is also genetic homogeneity. Researchers will tell you that Estonians are actually genetically closer to Latvians than Finns. That's true, but one should keep in mind that Finns are remote from basically all other Europeans because they descend from a relatively small founder population. This may be why so many Finns look alike. Each one is like genetic concentrate.