Local tourists get a glimpse into Finland’s window

Contributed photo
Pat Burkle with her daughters, all agreed to make the trip to Finland together through the Cultural Center. Burkle is 100 percent Finnish.

By Tucker Henderson


A group of local travelers recently returned from their trip to Finland after spending over a week in the country, as a part of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center’s Window to the World program from Sept. 15-26.

Eleven local community members took part in the tour of Southern Finland and many of them reconnected to their Finnish heritage and learned more about their own roots.

“I have always been curious about Finland,” said Keith Johnson. “My grandparents and my mother were Finns and they hardly ever spoke of the country from whence they came. I needed to see it and to try to understand why you would live there and why you would leave.”

As NY Mills and the surrounding areas have a rich history of Finnish-American settlement, there were several travelers with similar motivations for the trip.

“I wanted to learn more about the Finnish culture and to experience it. It’s part of my ancestry. I wanted to see how they lived.”

Shirley Quist

Betsy Roder said she had the same reasons as Quist behind her decision to visit Finland. As Executive Director of the Cultural Center, she was also in a perfect position to try out a Window to the World program for the first time.

“I love to travel and I wanted to experience a Cultural Center travel experience,” said Roder. “Also, my mom is 100 percent Finnish and we had decided as a family, my mom and sisters, would all go. It was a really special experience for my family. The trip was all planned for us, so I didn’t have to do any of the work, but got to enjoy all of the benefits. Thank you, Cheryl—she did all the research and planning.”

The Cultural Center recently hosted a trip to Finland. Here Karla Burkle, Cheryl Bannes, Betsy Roder, Pat Buerkle, Julie Radniecki, Gwen Denninger, Sarah Vesper, Doreen Hoyhtya, Cindy Fox, Keith Johnson, Shirley Quist, and tour director Shaun Fitzhenry stand in front of the Sibelius Monument in Helsinki. 

Cheryl Bannes, Artistic Director at the Cultural Center was the only member of the group without ancestral ties to Finland. She said that in all honesty, she didn’t know almost anything about the country before the trip, but was enamored after spending time in both rural and metropolitan areas in the Southern portion.

“I planned the trip based on the requests and interests of the area,” said Bannes. “Everybody wanted to learn about Finland and I was happy to put the trip together for everyone who lives in the Finnish American Triangle. I had no knowledge of Finland whatsoever. I had heard it was just like Minnesota, so I was interested in learning about the people and the culture.”

Bannes said that she is an avid traveler and enjoys seeing the different ways people live and how they make things work for themselves. Bannes plans the Window to the World programs through the Cultural Center every two years and is always eager to see what the next country will be like.

“I love to travel,” said Bannes. “You travel to learn about the people and build understanding. Personally, the thing I was really interested in was the architecture. That’s what I wanted to see.”

Cheryl Bannes and Betsy Roder stand on a balcony overlooking the Iittala glassware factory while employees make handblown glass pieces.

While the group toured around the grand architecture of Southern Finland, they were able to experience life in both rural and metropolitan communities. The group visited a number of places including a culinary institute in Helsinki where they learned about the preparation of a traditional Finnish meal, an old paper factory that is now a UNESCO world heritage site, the renowned Iittala glass factory where they were able to see glassblowers in action. They also visited the summer cabin Villa Maria which was designed by famous Finn, Alvar Aalto, the largest cathedrals in Helsinki and Turku, and a rock church at Matildadal alongside an old iron works. The trip also included a stop at the countryside, the Saimaa lake region and a Finnish winery.

“I wanted to experience the country and their culture, see what it was all about,” said Quist. “I’ve heard about the people and they say that they aren’t friendly…well they were. It was great because we went from city to rural area. You got a vast experience of the areas, even though we were just in the tip of Finland.”

Johnson also enjoyed the contrast between city and rural setting as well as Finnish hospitality.

“I was looking forward to the lakes country especially. The cities turned out the be wonderful as well, but the lakes country is truly spectacular. I was surprised at the very cosmopolitan nature of the cities. The people and culture compete with the best of classical Europe. There are art galleries and concert halls ubiquitously spread about the downtowns of every city.”

Keith Johnson

Though Johnson is of Finnish descent, he said that his Finnish language skills are not adequate to communicate fluently.

“Speaking only the most rudimentary Finnish, I expected to have trouble with communication,” said Johnson. “Not to worry—Finns speak English, Finnish, Swedish, and most of them speak German when they need to. I had conversations in the sauna with Swedish businessmen, Finnish deer hunters, Jordanian immigrants, French world-class video gamers there for the world championships, and other genuinely nice people.”

Although Finnish food has stereotypically been regarded as bland and tasteless by many other nations who inundate their cuisine with spices and herbs, the average tourist may be surprised at their first meal in the country.

“I always heard that Finnish food was bland, but if you combine it with the right stuff, it tastes wonderful,” said Quist. “They are very proud of the contests that they enter and win. There was a wine place where they had internationally won.”

Much of the food in Finland is simple and healthy as the Finns use the resources surrounding them to make the most of what they have.

“The food was great, it was delicious,” said Roder. “We had lots of fish and vegetables, it was really healthy and tasty, using locally sourced foods and goods, which supports the Finnish economy.”

Among the expectations among the travelers was the rich natural environment and Finland’s flora and fauna.

“I encountered a snake I had never seen before,” said Johnson. “If I had known it was poisonous, I probably would not have gotten such a good picture of it!”

Johnson also saw a moose and other wildlife, though he seemed to see more of Finland’s animals than the rest of the group. The forests and plants were a highlight for others, however.

“Everything was so clean,” mentioned Bannes. 

Quist agreed, “Even the ditches alongside the roads and the forest were pristine.”

Finland has long been known for their environmental advocacy and their relationship with the natural landscape of their country. Being conscientious of how their actions affect the earth is a part of everyday life for all native Finns.

“The first thing that amazed me was putting the keycard in a little sensor to turn your lights on in your room and then you took it out and the lights went out,” said Quist. “You could not leave a light on.”

“The environmental stuff was cool, there were a bunch of super simple things everywhere. Every hotel had shampoo and conditioner in big bottles, I’m sure they refill them. Every time you bought something, they would ask if you needed a bag and would charge you for one, but almost everyone brought their own bags. Almost all of the cutlery was wood or biodegradable, just very little waste. It was not a big deal, they just figured it out. Everywhere you looked there were really smart, simple, sustainable choices.”

Betsy Roder

Among the ways Finland’s people are good stewards, the environment is just one aspect, they also make sure to take good care of one another.

“I was impressed in a way that I hadn’t expected,” said Bannes. “Their innovation, their overall respect for the people that live there, the political structure. They had it figured out. It was wonderful to see a country that has figured out how to provide for their citizens and make sure everyone has a happy life. Not in a sense of handouts, just taking care of people and making sure they have a good life. That level of care from the government was really amazing. Their focus on education for those same reasons. Technology, education, and making sure everyone had access to everything they need. That was really, really impressive.”

The other group members observed the same innate qualities that Finland had to offer.

“I really value the environmental part and taking care of the citizens,” said Roder. “It’s a lot of the values that I hold close. The other thing I read about was that they tend to be quieter and embrace nature and being in solitude and slow down and appreciate nature and the outdoors. I went into the trip with that attitude. It felt quieter and slower, it was just a really nice vibe.”

Upon a trip to the Helsinki Central Library, called ‘Oodi,’ the feeling of this phenomenon grew stronger and more clear in the minds of the group.

“It’s the snapshot of that feeling we’re trying to put into words,” said Bannes. “You see this investment in their people. That’s what it is—an investment in their people, their education, and their future, in a way that we don’t see here in the United States. I just appreciate it so much—that care for their citizens and that they have it figured out. That family is important and kids are taken care of and everyone is taken care of in a way that’s no big deal, it’s just life. It’s just how they live.”

Roder said that she loves visiting libraries and the Helsinki Library was a highlight of the trip, despite not being able to see every floor and department.

“It’s investing in a committed way,” said Roder. “Quality over quantity. I spent probably two hours in the library and there’s a beautiful children’s area with a secret room that kids can go into that’s a quiet space. One room had a projection on the wall that was interactive, kids would touch the wall and flowers would burst out. So many people were there using that space. It’s beautifully designed and so many books! It speaks to all of those values—education, community, family, access for all, and technology. It was built as a gift for the country for their 100th year of independence. It was a great snapshot of Finnish culture.”

Quist also experienced the innovative new library and saw many of its offerings and services.

“It was a center for creativity—any creativity,” said Quist. “It had a kitchen where you could cook. It had a craft and sewing area. You could check out instruments, 3D printers, recording studios, practice rooms, and meeting rooms. There were people at all of the computers researching. We talked to a man from Lapland and he was researching how to grow blueberries and what you needed to do to harvest them.”

Johnson had his own thoughts about Oodi, the Finnish library.

“The absolute highlight was probably the Helsinki Library,” said Johnson. “This is truly an expression of what a people and government can do for each other, if they have a mind to. It goes way beyond the lending of books. You can check out any number of quality musical instruments and use them to record music in any of the several studio rooms, all equipped with state of the art equipment. You can use the sewing machines and sergers, all staffed by people who can help you use them. For 70 cents an hour, you can use the computers and 3D printers, and if you need help, someone is there. Or, you can just hang out and visit or listen to music, or read. Activities of which it looked like half of Helsinki took advantage of.”

As the group returned home and started processing their journey, the parts of Finland that they missed most were easy to recall. Johnson and Roder had shared topics of what they missed from Finland.

“The nightly saunas,” said Roder. “I took a sauna almost every night and I love saunas. I take them sometimes here, but that was really cool to have as a part of my day. The food too, everyday we had good healthy food.”

“The breakfasts,” Johnson agreed. “Crusty bread, tender crepes, gooseberry jelly, lingonberry sauce on clabbered milk yogurt. Man, I could get used to that. Also, the good saunas everywhere.”

Bannes said that she misses the socio-economic-political climate the most. 

“They definitely have a deep appreciation for their history and celebrate that while looking to the future,” said Bannes. “It’s really a great combination. There’s an appreciation for the finer things too—the Iittala glass that we all keep on our shelves because we don’t want to break it—it’s everyday stuff there and gets used everywhere you go. I was very pleasantly surprised at everything we learned.”

An exhibit showcasing the pictures from various members of the trip will be shown in December with a chance to learn more about the Window to the World program. The Cultural Center is already planning their next trip to Portugal and Spain in 2024.