Memory and Change A Letter from Antskog

August 07, 1994|By ANTERO PIETILA

ANTSKOG, FINLAND — Antskog, Finland. -- The magical moment comes around midnight.

At these northern latitudes, the summer sun may have set an hour ago, but a mirror-calm lake still reflects a reddish afterglow. Everything is quiet, except for an occasional call of a distant loon.

In a few months, darkness will prevail. But in late July the night still never quite arrives. By 2 a.m., the promise of another day will appear on the cloudless eastern sky.

I am on a sentimental journey, about an hour's drive from Helsinki. This is the summer cottage of my childhood, a place that is now crumbling. Daddy died last year, Mother a few days ago.

Summer in Finland is so short it was once said to have happened on a Thursday afternoon. This year has been an exception. After an unusually chilly spring, July brought in weeks of temperatures in the 80s, a veritable heat wave.

The long days and short nights of summer often produce outbursts of hedonism in the usually stolid Finns. This year's marvelous weather has rekindled a sense of optimism in this Montana-sized country of 5 million people.

Nationwide unemployment may still hover around 20 percent, but, thanks to a comprehensive long-term benefits program, its impact is almost invisible. The economy is growing again, particularly the pivotal paper manufacturing sector.

Over the years since I moved to the United States in 1967, I have been a frequent visitor to Finland. Last year, I made that trip twice. Yet the changes this time are far more noticeable than before.

The most striking change is the sudden internationalization. In the bustling, Victorian market hall of Helsinki's harbor area, I find a Korean couple operating a delicatessen. Elsewhere, I bump into Russian, Chilean and Vietnamese shopkeepers.

An increase in the number of blacks is visible. Most are from Africa, as Finland has opened its doors to refugees from Somalia and other trouble spots. In a blue-collar tenement area of Helsinki I even find a bar whose clientele seems to be almost exclusively African.

This was once the neighborhood of Eddie Boyd, a blues pianist from Clarksdale, Miss. He gravitated here from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, feeling Finland was freer from racism than those countries. He even composed a blues song in praise of tolerant Helsinki.

By the time Mr. Boyd died last month, he was a broken and disappointed man. He had reversed his view about Helsinki and thought its atmosphere was even more dismal than the worst Chicago ghettoes.

No question, racism has increased. That is a result of internationalization's hastening the breakup of the unified, acceptable behavior norms that so long ruled Finland. There were lots of official dos and don'ts. To behave correctly, a Finn had to say only good things about the Soviet Union, bad things about South Africa, hardly tolerate Israel and sympathize with oppressed people around the world. There could be no real debate.

All this has now changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, technology has erased many of the drawbacks of Finland's geographical isolation.

On basic cable television, most Finns now get stations from Sweden and France as well as MTV, CNBC, Eurosports and a U.S.-government operated channel that shows the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," among other offerings. Premium cable brings in a multitude of additional channels from Russia and Germany to Italy and Spain, plus movies and such.

Meanwhile, the government has embarked on a sweeping program to privatize state-owned companies. A total of 13 companies -- ranging from Finnair, the national carrier, and electric utilities to steel, chemical, oil and mining giants -- are targeted for privatization measures.

Monopolies are being phased out. Keen competition now rages among rival telephone companies. Even Alko, the state liquor monopoly, may be wiped out if the government figures out a way to recoup the monetary losses such an action would entail.

More fundamental changes in the economy are in sight because Finland is expected to become a member of the European Union.

This prospect is not without controversies as many Finns fear the loss of national sovereignty to faceless bureaucrats in foreign capitals. The future of Finland's heavily subsidized agricultural sector is a particular cause of concern for many rural interest groups. Globalization may be a steadily growing reality in Finland, but billboards argue that "one can't import the countryside" if rural vitality is lost.

My brother-in-law, a pig farmer who married a physician, thinks Finland has no choice. "We cannot be the only holdouts in a unified Europe," he argues.

Antero Pietila is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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