This post got a little bit out of control. Very little editing has been done. Also, to preempt the inevitable "America: Love it or leave it" comments, I would like to say that I don't know anyone who doesn't think the US could be better in some way.
Possibly the best part of my trip to Finland, and the primary reason I went, was the experiencing a culture and way of life different (at least a little) from what I'm used to. I was lucky to have a local guide (Jani) who was happy to show me around. Without him I expect I wouldn't have seen near as much as I did. That, in spite of sleeping a lot and reading comic books for (too) much of the time.
So, what was different?
The US, especially the Midwest is a car dependent culture. I don't own a car and I get by, but really, if I want to go anywhere outside of Ames I need a car. My first experiences in Finland were taking a bus from the airport to Helsinki and then a train from Helsinki to Lahti. This was a far cry from getting from Ames to the Des Moines airport. I had to beg friends to drive me to the airport here. Crazy. Needless to say I am in favor of more public transit options in the US.
Lahti is a city of about 100k, similar in size to Cedar Rapids where I grew up, yet in size it feels about the same as Ames, a city of 50k (according to Wikipedia however there is actually little area difference, so...). A lot of this has to do with how people live. Here virtually everyone lives in a single family home, at least anyone who can afford it. In Lahti (and I assume elsewhere in Finland) most folks seem to live in high rise apartment buildings. Walking around town I don't think I saw any single family homes.
The apartments are small by US standards, but they are hardly uncomfortable. Efficient design helps. Bathrooms are much smaller and there is no tub (like you ever use it). The whole floor is tile and drains to the shower, simple and obvious. Single beds are the norm. I don't know if you can buy a single bed in the US. When I bought the smallest bed I could (at IKEA no less) last summer it was a twin.
I doubt that Americans will give up their sprawling lawns, three car garages, and king size beds, but I wouldn't be opposed to it.
I did a lot of walking in Finland. Heck, I do a lot of walking here, but I'm weird like that. While walking I saw lots of other folks walking as well. Actually it was a little strange for me walking on crowded sidewalks. I'm used to having them to myself. A more compact city, less car traffic, and walk signals that actually mean something all make it easy to get where you're going on foot.
As a side note here, the Finns don't seem to use any salt on their sidewalks or roads. They do use a lot of gravel though. While the gravel does make the footing better it is not as easy as bare concrete. I suppose that because of our litigious habits here in the US salt is a necessity (with some businesses, notably banks, putting out so much salt that it seems there is more salt than snow), but people in Finland, even old ladies with walkers, seemed to navigate the sidewalks quite well. No one, with the notable exception of myself, ever slipped that I saw. I suppose an abundance of freshwater lakes make the idea of throwing salt in them more repugnant than it is here. We don't seem to much care where our drains go.
Even in town much of Finland is public property or at least publicly usable. When walking around Lahti we explored parks and green spaces of greater extent than I have seen in the US (Duluth might be the exception). A short walk from where I was staying there were ski trails with largely unrestricted access. Trails that in the US would have been either had limited hours and/or a day use fee. Not only that, but even on a day when world class skiers were out practicing the trails were open. In the US those trails would have been closed.
Relatedly, when we spectated the Lahti Ski Games we were allowed to get right up next to the ski trails. Here we would have been herded behind tape and into approved areas.
Again related, much of the Kaukopartio crossed private land, this made possible by Every Man's Rights. No getting chased off of private property by an angry man with a shotgun in Finland. I would dearly love to have something similar here, but even where laws allow stepping on private property here it is strongly discouraged.
For the most part the food was what I'm used to. Potatoes and carrots, ground beef, macaroni, but there were a few different things. Sweet pickles, while not too unusual here are a regular side dish. Muesli isn't just something you buy at the health food store. Bread is far heavier and darker than here. I now understand when a Russian friend from college complained about the lack of good bread in the US. There is nothing like it here, really, not even at specialty stores. No peanut butter. And no, there were no Soviet style bread lines.
And finally salmiakki. Salmiakki is weird and great. If you haven't tried it in candy or liquor form then you should and you will probably hate it. To say that it tastes like salty liquorice is an understatement. It is completely unique. It's too bad it's not available here. I'm hooked.
You may think you have been to a sauna, but you probably haven't. Hotel saunas with signs warning you not to throw water on the stones (löyly) don't count. After all, it's not the heat, it's the humidity. Second, you must be naked. Again, hotel saunas discourage this, but it's necessary. But with steam and nudity and a place to step outside into the cold or take an icy shower there's nothing like it.
Being naked around strangers is apparently no big deal for me (see above), but not being able to speak the language was deeply embarrassing. Fortunately almost everyone spoke English quite well which seems a little unfair. If you come to the US you'd best be able to speak English. Go to another country with a unique and difficult language, don't bother learning the language, just speak your own. In any case Finnish is apparently a very difficult language, but one I'd love to learn in spite of the fact that only .1% of the worlds population speaks it. I did manage to learn a few words, but mostly place names like saari (island), mäki (hill), järvi (lake), and katu (street) (in case you're wondering, "maki" means lemur). When I go back I intend to have at least learned my numbers.
Once again the good photos are by Jani, the bad ones by me.