Helsinki: An Objective Review

Jan 7, 2020 10:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf  recaps his experience at the 2019 European Association for International Education (EAIE) Conference and shares his observations of Helsinki and the Finnish way of life.

The EAIE Conference 2019

The European Association for International Education (EAIE) is an excellent organization run by clever and nice people. It has an annual conference that is marked by grown up conversations. This contrasts to some other conferences where the major discourses are about such critical matters as whether or not international students should be supplied with sheets, a topic wherein the scope for thoughtful debate is somewhat limited. The answer is resolved precisely and ultimately by the answer yes or no with a decided preference for yes.

Attendance at the EAIE conference, now in its 32nd year, has grown from around 300 to about 6,000 serious souls from all over the world. A growing body of US colleagues in search of adult company attend. I have presented at the majority of these with, in my view, erudite wisdom. As always, I discourage attendees from filling in evaluation forms unless they are most impressed so as to avoid blows to the ego such as “a hysterical rant” (London 1994); “Un despojo histérico”[1] (Madrid 2009) ; Worum ging es dabei?[2]   (Vienna 2003); “Qu’est-ce que c'était tout au sujet?”[3]  (Nantes 2010) [4] .

Thus, these days when I have made a presentation, I ask the audience (usually 2-3 people) not to write anything unless it reflects uncritical adoration. I need criticism like I need a hole in the head.

I have also written several things for EAIE, have edited an unread Occasional Paper, and most recently written a “blog” which caused not a single ripple in the consciousness of our colleagues:

The Problem of EAIE

In addition to my verbal and written contributions, EAIE has other problems. When we were a few hundred people we were able to gather in small cute places like Montpelier and small terrible places like Tampere. The conference has outgrown the cute so we are limited to places where thousands of international educators [5]  may be housed in hotels in “reasonable vicinity” (less than 3 hours) to conference centers.

The other factor with which the estimable leadership is required to grapple is that EAIE is a pan-European organization and many countries compete to host the event because of the honor, prestige, visibility, and money that comes with that honor.

There are a lot of EAIE members from Finland. This is because there is not much else to do. However, a consequence is that Finnish members have some influence on decisions made by the leadership. Indeed, a great ex-President of recent years, and a dear friend, is the distinguished Markus Laitinen of Helsinki. Those of us who, by temperament and mental weakness, believe in conspiracy theories suspect that this is why in 2019 we gathered for the 31st conference in Helsinki.


Personal Perspectives

These are my observations about this excellent city.

On Cleanliness

Helsinki is mostly defined by cleanliness. Evidence of this is found in public toilets throughout the city. English signs rather smugly announce that the water is drinkable. I took this to refer to the water coming out of the taps though some colleagues interpreted this more broadly.

Further, the most iconic object through which many of us define Finland is the sauna. Allowing a symbol to stand for a complex society is a strategy with which we are entirely familiar in the rhetoric of education abroad. It saves us having to think too much.

For those of you unfamiliar with a sauna: this is a place where you remove your clothes and then get extremely hot and then get extremely cold. It precisely replicates the symptoms of influenza. Everybody in Helsinki thinks this is great because, although debilitated, you are very clean indeed after a sauna.

The sauna is an objective correlative of the city.

On Language

The Finnish language has a long and rich tradition of producing great literature found in poetry, sagas and myths told through nuanced subtlety. That is why nobody can name a Finnish writer.

The spoken language is easy on the ear, full of beautiful rhythms and delightful cadences. It is profoundly expressive, permeated with symbols and metaphors that enrich the ways in which we interpret our reality. That is why almost nobody speaks it.

At all levels of society everybody speaks English better than any English professional soccer player. A distinguishing characteristic of the city compared to London is that bus drivers say things to you like “Good morning. Are you perchance in need of some assistance to reach your intended destination?” In contrast, English bus drivers speak an economical dialect known as “grunt.” It is not intended to convey information but to indicate indifference to the plight of lost foreigners.

However, on rare occasions our hosts reverted to Finnish. That was when they wanted to express affection for foreigners. I had this experience when I noted that two colleagues were looking at me rather intently. They shared meaningful glances and reverted to their native tongue. At the end of their discourse, they laughed quite a lot while pointing in my direction. This I believe was because they wanted to demonstrate the warmth of a Helsinki welcome. I nodded and smiled in agreement which they found even funnier. You are immediately made to feel at home and at ease.

A Center for Moral Reform

If you think you may have a drinking problem (that is you drink too much not that you can’t get enough), Helsinki is the place for you. Unless a foreigner is very rich indeed, it will be impossible to achieve alcohol dependency. Finns can become alcoholics because they make highly potent concoctions at home using spotlessly clean water (which may be accessed from any public toilet). This is mixed with mysterious roots and other ingredients depending on family preference. Almost all draw upon a variant of the recipe recommended by the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravined salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i' th' dark,
Gall of goat and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon’s eclipse,
Make the gruel thick and slab.

Some of these ingredients are difficult to find in Helsinki. However, aftershave can be used instead of “gulf of the ravined salt-sea shark.” A shortage of “scale of dragon” may be overcome by substituting drain cleaner.

Visitors rarely enjoy access to this marvelous libation. Instead you are forced to enter a bar. Bars in Helsinki are like the British Library. They are very quiet and close at 8.30. I entered just such an emporium to enjoy a glass of Scotch. After a reasonable gap of about 30 minutes (required by Finish law to allow you time to change your reckless mind) I was served with the smallest drink I have ever seen: a brown shadow at the bottom of a very clean glass. I lingered over my drink for around 40 seconds and then asked for the bill. I diffidently and politely asked (this is the English way), if perhaps, by any chance, a zero or two were inadvertently added to the total. I was informed that, indeed, the bill was precisely correct. The cost of this minuscule drink would have covered an indulgent night at the exorbitant Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho.

Subsequently, I was obliged to invite some colleagues for a drink. That exhausted most of my annual entertainment budget. For the rest of my time, I was reduced to bumming drinks from US colleagues who did not appear to understand the currency.

Alcohol is fearsomely, even surreally, expensive. Restaurant food is also not cheap. This is why I am recommending Helsinki as a location, akin to the Betty Ford Center, where overweight and overindulgent colleagues (like myself) will be required to reduce dependency on booze and food. Helsinki is the precise equivalence of Jerusalem for religious Jews. The grosser needs of the body are necessarily secondary to the contemplation of the world beyond.

The British Library and Helsinki

The British Library is a bit like Helsinki in many ways. Few things are expressly forbidden there. There are no rules, for example, that would formally restrain anyone from laughing aloud but it is just not done. There is a pervasive air of restraint. It is not a place conducive to riotous abandon.

Neither is Helsinki. No hordes of hen and stag parties litter the streets. It occupies a place at the other end of a spectrum of urban life than, say, Dublin. It would require an act of extreme rashness to get into any kind of trouble in downtown Helsinki. In contrast, it requires extremely conservative behavioral traits not to get into trouble in downtown Dublin.

Helsinki is also, we were assured on many, many occasions, a great place for higher education. Indeed, it is so good that many students study abroad simply to confirm the fact that Finland is better than everywhere else. Thus, students study abroad as a kind of scholastic slumming. With profound disbelief they experience the standards of lesser nations. I learned that all European universities wish they were in Finland.

The British Library is also very clean and is devoted to doing things in silence like sleeping or reading. In similar vein, there is a jazz club in Helsinki that is closed.

Finnish happiness is famous. The high rate of suicide in the country is because of foreigners.

A Diversion into Scandinavian Autobiography

I have a history in Scandinavia. From the age of 17 to 23, I taught remedial English in the small isolated town of Humlum in Jutland which I thought was in Sweden. It is in Denmark.

The student body (between 15 and 18 years old) was comprised largely of the young daughters of farmers. As they had not yet achieved total fluency (though they spoke better English than anyone in my family) they were required to attend a summer session to benefit from my expert instruction. Humlum is a very isolated place. The farmers were conservative, suspicious of foreigners, zealous guardians of the honor of their daughters, and armed with shot guns. This was an uneasy scenario that I would prefer not to recall.

The headmaster was a majestic figure. Dr. Lindhart was enormously tall, skeletally thin, and wore white wing collars that were ever so slightly frayed. He was also, whenever you respectfully encountered him, somewhat drunk whether it was 8am or 8pm. I suspect that “scale of dragon” had something to do with this.

Over the years in which I contributed to the education of the feckless daughters of Humlum Skole, he became something of a role model. On the many occasions when our paths would cross (about 4 times a day) he would pause to regard me with a mixture of puzzlement and mild distracted distaste. He was clearly trying to recall who I was and why I was there. After a few minutes, swaying eloquently a little, he would say: “Hello. You are English. Are you not?” That combination of dignity and indifference has been an inspiration to me throughout my career.

What I Learned in Helsinki

Certainly, being in Helsinki triggered some memories of the great Lindhart and the frustrations of Humlum. However, I do not want to give the impression that I learnt nothing. I made progress in two areas of personal and professional development (you are never too old to benefit from one of CAPA’s learning objectives).

I was delighted to negotiate the complexities of gender-neutral toilets with only deep unease. This is no small matter for an elderly English gentleman. The English are deeply embarrassed about being anywhere. We are the only people in the world who apologize to furniture. We would, in general, prefer to be invisible. The challenge of male toilets is considerable but hugely magnified when other genders occupy the same difficult space.

I was also delighted to learn about “APPS”. In previous years, P.H., (pre-Helsinki) if asked I would confirm that I had many apps at EAIE, NAFSA, Forum AIEA and so on ad nauseam. I had, for example, one at 10.30, another at 12, and a hideous breakfast app at 7.30 on Tuesday morning with a dear American colleague. I love America and many Americans but the propensity for meeting before the sun has risen is most destructive of what is left of my equilibrium. The idea of a “discussion” at that time of the morning is an anathema. I use the term in the formal sense: a Papal denunciation or something evil or accursed. In my own case, the hours between 7 and 10 are customarily reserved for silent hyper-ventilation.

An APP, I learned, has nothing whatsoever to do with an arrangement to meet colleagues. It is an annoying thing on a telephone which means that, like a teenage seeker after affection, you spend your day poking at the infernal machine in increasing frustration.


This was the largest EAIE conference ever although there were no English people there; we were all trying to pass as Irish. Most of the Americans were Canadians.

Next year the conference is in Barcelona and there will, certainly, be a rather different set of problems. The idea that problems are opportunities is a profound calumny by which we try to convince ourselves that suffering humanizes. This is not true.

It hurts.


[1] A hysterical rant.
[2] What was that all about?   
[3] What was that all about?  
[4] This is a small selection of the more palatable evaluations. The editors.  
[5] This raises the vital issue of what collective noun might be applied to international educators; perhaps a Chaos of educators or a Babel, a Melange, a Dissonance? Nb. This is not a vital issue. Correspondence on this matter is unwelcome. The editors.  


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education