“Many hellos and too many goodbyes”
“Many hellos and too many goodbyes” is a saying, which for Mr. Manu Virtamo, the retiring Consul General of Finland in New York, sums up the life of a diplomat to a tee. It is now his turn, to say goodbye to New York, and almost fifteen years of life in the United States when he prepares leaving for Finland to enjoy his well-earned retirement days. But before we say our goodbyes, we had a chance to discuss his career, life in the US and what is in store for Finland and the United States in the future.
“First and foremost, I was not supposed to become a diplomat”, Mr. Manu Virtamo, current Consul General of Finland in New York laughs. It is his final weeks before retiring and moving back to Finland after a long and distinguished career as a diplomat and ambassador. Sitting behind his desk, he recalls the beginning of his career. “I was going to apply to the School of Arts, Design, and Architecture in Helsinki and become an industrial designer or an interior architect! But I missed getting a studying place there on my first time and had to think of new options. It took a while, but I started to look more closely into the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki. While studying there, I slowly began to think of the Foreign Ministry as a possible employer in the future. Many of my colleagues come from the same faculty actually.”
Mr. Virtamo joined the Foreign Ministry of Finland in 1980 when the world seemed a very different place from what it is today. “My first posting abroad was in Stockholm, Sweden.” Mr. Virtamo tells, “I almost left for Moscow. I believe it has had great meaning for my career later on that I went to Stockholm instead. I probably would have ended with a career focusing on eastern relations if Moscow had been my first posting.” After moving back to Finland from a posting in Stockholm, Mr. Virtamo worked closely with foreign economic and trade affairs. Working as the Special Assistant to the Minister for Foreign Trade and to the Under-Secretary of Trade was excellent experience in preparing Mr. Virtamo for his next foreign posting – as the Counselor of Economic Affairs in the Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. “I had been in the foreign service for a decade already when the posting for Washington opened up. And for all that time I had not even thought about the United States as a country to move to!” Mr. Virtamo laughs. “My wife had been as an exchange student in California in high school, and she started to nudge me into considering Washington D.C. as a potential posting for us. And of course, the job was a perfect fit for me with my background in foreign trade!”
After spending three and a half years in the Capital of the United States, the Virtamo Family traveled back to Finland. But they were missing Washington and the United States. So six years later, when the opportunity to move again to Washington D.C. opened up, they didn’t hesitate to go. This time the situation was vastly different when compared to Mr. Virtamo’s first time in Washington since Finland had joined the European Union in 1995 and was suddenly able to join negotiating tables it couldn’t before. “It was very interesting because I could compare quite straightforwardly how the EU had changed our dealing with the economic and trade affairs.” Mr. Virtamo explains, “Even though the European Union had an effect, added a new layer of issues on our agenda, bilateral relationships were still important.” While still in Washington D.C., the position of Consul General of Finland in Los Angeles opened up. “We moved straight from D.C. to Los Angeles and ended up spending eight years altogether in the States before moving back to Finland”, he tells. “We drove the trip from D.C. to Los Angeles by car, and you know, driving for six days through this country, really makes you realize and appreciate how giant and versatile it is.”
“If I had to pick two things, that have left the biggest impression on me, I would say on one hand the gigantic skyscrapers and the large cities, and on the other hand the vast and beautiful national parks. Two opposites which for me, sum up this country beautifully. And of course the people! How different people are in different parts of this country. When we talk to Finns who are perhaps trying to expand their businesses to the United States, we often advise them to think of a state or even a city at the time. Because even cities are most of the time big enough for our aspirations.” Mr. Virtamo explains. To set the scale: New York City has around 8.5 million people when the whole population of Finland is only 5.5 million!
“Most people here do not really know much about Finland. Back in 2000, we conducted a survey in the embassy, about people’s perceptions of Finland. And while many recognized Finland as a hi-tech country with great innovations, they did not know that Nokia was actually a Finnish company. They thought it was a Japanese company.” Mr. Virtamo laughs. “But generally, Finns do have a neutral, easygoing and good reputation here.”
Even though getting the United States to recognize Finland as an independent country a century ago wasn’t the easiest of tasks, the diplomatic relationships between the two countries have prospered almost uninterruptedly ever since. “After the First World War, Finland received financial help from the United States to rebuild the country. And, as shall not be forgotten, we were the only country to ever pay those loans back to the last penny!” Mr. Virtamo laughs. “But there have been naturally many chapters in the history of our relationship. But a basic understanding between the two countries has persevered.”
“One thing which will continue to help shape the relationships of the two countries in the years yet to come is migration. There are almost 600,000 Finns or people with Finnish roots here in the United States. That is a lot if you think about how many Finns live in Finland! This has certainly had locally a big effect. In states like Minnesota, Michigan and even Florida, one can see signs of Finnishness – in street names or local traditions. Today people might relocate to the United States on a more temporary basis after business opportunities or for other reasons. The United States is such an important economic partner for Finland, especially for our up and coming industries, that this link will probably grow only more and more meaningful.” Mr. Virtamo deliberates.
After seeing two of the three diplomatic missions Finland has in the United States, the Virtamos felt they wanted to see New York as well. And after spending three years as Ambassador of Finland in Japan, in 2016 the opportunity rose as Mr. Virtamo was appointed Consul General of Finland in New York. “We had visited New York plenty of times while living in the States previously and other times for business”, Mr. Virtamo reminiscences “But it felt as if we had lived here for a long time already. The city becomes so familiar through various TV-series and movies.”
“I can’t help but think about how dependent on chance everything is. First of all, I was never supposed to become a diplomat but ended up becoming one. Then, I wasn’t supposed to move here at all and ended up spending all together almost fifteen years in this country. It is all, so dependent on chance, but when you stop and look at your life, it all seems such a logical path, like all the pieces, fit.”
We thank You, Ambassador Manu Virtamo, dearly for your service here in New York and all your service in the Foreign Ministry.