Life in New York through the eyes of a Finn

Life in New York through the eyes of a Finn

As the wise Snufkin from Moomins taught us, “You must go on a long journey before you can really find out how wonderful home is.” How does living abroad make you re-evaluate your relationship with your native country? We discussed this, among others themes, with Eero Kilpi, president of the Finlandia Foundation New York chapter, who has spent over two decades living in the US.

Eero Kilpi is a distinguished businessperson, (kauppatieteiden tohtori), and the President of Finlandia Foundation's New York Chapter. Finlandia Foundation New York Metropolitan Chapter, Inc is the leading non-profit organization dedicated solely to promote Finnish-American cultural exchange in the tri-state area. They give out scholarship to students and arrange various cultural events throughout the year and have given more than half a million dollars in scholarships and grants so far.

“We were living quite contently in Helsinki with my wife and two kids back in the nineties”, Mr. Eero Kilpi recalls, “Both me and my wife were pursuing our careers aggressively back then. Slowly we realized that our kids were kind of drifting along and not getting the attention they deserved. We decided that we needed a sort of time off as a family in order to take a new look at life. We started to look for jobs abroad, never with the intention of specifically moving to the United States.” However, as life rarely goes as planned, the Kilpi family packed their bags and moved to New York in the summer of 1998.

“First my job was to be a stay-at-home father while my wife had landed a job at Pöyry’s New York office. For the first five years of living here, every spring my wife asked 'should we move back to Finland'. Every time I answered, 'Maybe not yet this year'. Come sixth spring it was my wife who said that we won’t be moving back to Finland yet.” Mr. Kilpi laughs.

“The United States is an easy country to come to”, he continues. “If you don’t consider the administrative side to it, the visas and citizenships, culturally it is an easy country and an easy city to move into as a Finn. It has an appeal and quaintness to it. Therefore, with 21 years of experience, speaking for my wife, and myself, we feel that we like the United States and Finland equally well. For very different reasons, but equally.”

The world has changed a great deal during the past decades. Finland has grown from a small country at the peripheries of Europe, into an active participant in the European Union. At the same time, the global presence of the United States has changed. “I feel as if Finland and Finnish people have found their voice”, Mr. Kilpi comments. “Back when we moved here, it felt as if there was a kind of oblivious admiration towards the United States. That this is the country where things are done right and the faith in the American dream was still strong. It seems now that Finns have found their own extraordinaire. There was a period for some time, that every once or twice a month, the major newspapers wrote appreciative pieces about Finland. And if they didn’t, one started to wonder already if something had happened!”

With globalization and Finland finding its voice in the global arenas, running into Finnish goods outside the borders Finland is not such a rare occasion anymore. “I can find licorice from Panda, Finlandia cheese and sour crackers from Vaasan in my neighborhood store!” Mr. Kilpi agrees happily. One can also run into people knowledgeable about Finland in the most peculiar places in the United States these days. “I was calling for assistance on filling our tax forms, and I was on the phone with a lady who had lived in upstate New York some years ago. She could not believe that she was on the phone with a genuine Finn! Her kids had gone to a school where they utilize Finnish teaching and schooling methods because Finland has the best education system in the world. These kinds of situations have increased over the years. People know more and more about Finland here.” Mr. Kilpi explains.

Finland’s education system has truly been a success story, gaining reputation all over the world. What else is something Finland and Finns have to give to the world and to Americans beside our teaching methods? According to Mr. Kilpi, a few things really do stand out. “I think that the relationship what Finns have with nature is something remarkable. I might be partial to this since I just read the book, The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness through the Power of Sisu, from Katja Pantzar, but I think that is important. Finns are also keen on having hobbies. It is not just having hobbies, but the way Finnish society subsidizes hobbies so that one does not need to be rich in order to have pastime activities. Our whole welfare state is based on the value that society supports its citizens. These kind of values and ideas are extremely important and something I wish to see Finland sharing to the world.”

“Even though the relationship that the Finns have with nature is exceptional, I do feel there are somethings Finns could also learn from the Americans”, Mr. Kilpi continues. “There is this positive outlook on life and certain happiness that the Americans have. They have a sort of relaxed attitude towards life and tend to be more social.”

Even though the United States has become a second home to Mr. Kilpi and his family, he misses some things from Finland. “Food!” Mr. Kilpi laughs, “I remember spending time in Finland during one summer, and all I ate was the different fish, like European whitefish, herring, perch, and salmon and various crayfish! The staples of Finnish summer food.” While you can find restaurants and coffee places offering other Nordic food styles, such as Swedish and Danish, there is not one focusing on Finnish food. “I am quite sure it is only a matter of time until we have a Finnish coffee place here in New York City”, Mr. Kilpi says, “but I won’t be the one starting that business!”   

After spending two decades in the United States and away from Finland, Mr. Kilpi agrees that he has found another kind of respect and perspective to the Finnish lifestyle. “That is what distance does to you. You start to appreciate life in Finland in a different way. Questions about sustainable development, circular economy and environment as a whole are such integrated part of the Finnish day-to-day life in a way it is not in the United States. Or our social welfare system, these are the kind of things you really start to appreciate after leaving.”

“But all in all, it is such a blessing to be able to call two wonderful countries as home.”