Nine Questions for ...

Leena Reimavuo on Helsinki: “People are Always Looking for Polar Bears Here!”

Copyright: Aglaya Jacobson
Every nation has its idols: the statue of the poet Aleksis Kivi in front of the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki (Photo: Aglaya Jacobson)

6 February 2013

Don’t be taken in! If all you associate with Finland is saunas, lakes and tangos, Leena Reimavuo from the Goethe-Institut Helsinki will straighten you out – and explain why German literature is a big thing this year in Finland.

Is it true that the Finns have a preference for German TV crime shows?

Reimavuo: Yes, it’s true. Crime dramas are very popular in Finland anyway, but the German crime shows seem to especially appeal to the Finnish mind-set. There is a crime drama every Saturday evening on television and most Finns are familiar with Ein Fall für Zwei or Die Kommissarin.

What presumption about the Finns do we need to revise?

I don’t know if it’s just a German rumour, but the people are always looking for polar bears here. We are often asked whether any live around Helsinki. When there aren’t any in Finland at all.

Copyright: Leena Reimavuo
Leena Reimavuo: “A lot of translations are being produced in Finland.” (Photo: private)
What are the people in Finland concerned most about right now?

At the moment, mainly the pension deficit. There was a genuine baby boom in Finland in the post-war years. Now, the people in this generation are gradually entering retirement so less and less people are working. According to predictions, by 2030 two thirds of the inhabitants of Finland will have to provide for the remaining third – the large number of retirees, children and those unable to work. This doesn’t even count the unemployed. This is a major problem. So, there is a lot of discussion of whether the retirement age needs to be raised.

In what way do the Finns differ the most from the Germans?

In the way they discuss issues. While Germans tend to be more impulsive and defend their viewpoints, Finns are a bit shy in debates and do not always speak their minds. Finns also speak slowly and with many pauses, which Germans often misinterpret as the end of their contribution.

What German book are people in Finland familiar with?

Goethe and Schiller, of course. But there is also great interest in contemporary German literature and a great deal is being translated. The books of Günter Grass and Wladimir Kaminer are very well known. And ever since In Times of Fading Light they are reading a lot by Eugen Ruge. This year, Germany is the guest country at the Helsinki book fair and 18 new German books have already been translated.

Copyright: Lars Kastilan
Leather, linen and paper: Books in the Kansalliskirjasto Finnish National Library in Helsinki (Photo: Lars Kastilan)

What Finnish book should we in Germany be reading?

Those who have a true interest in Finland should be familiar with the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Väinö Linna was a very important writer in the 20th century. His books say a lot about the Finnish soul, for example The Unknown Soldier, which tells of the so-called Winter War and the battle for Karelia. Among the younger writers, I recommend Sofi Oksanen and her book Purge. It is not set in Finland, but is a huge worldwide success. And then, we return to crime stories. You have to have read Leena Lehtolainen, of course.

Why do Finns learn German?

Not as much German is spoken in Finland as in the past. Most Finns learn it because they need it for their work. If you want to be able to sell a product in Germany, you have to offer it in German. You can also buy it in English, but sales only work in German.

Copyright: Leena Reimavuo
Before the gates of Helsinki: Not a polar bear to be seen (Photo: Leena Reimavuo)

What do the people in Finland love most of all?

Their summer cottages – if you consider that a population of a little over 5.4 million has 500,000 summer cottages! Also, the Finns love ice hockey, which is played both by boys and girls. We are, I believe, the second largest ice hockey nation after Canada.

Your favourite artist from Finland?

I love the theatre and my favourite actor is named Esko Salminen. He is a great artist and if there’s anyone I’d like to meet, it’s him. He is mainly a theatre actor, but he also made films when he was a young man. For many people, he was a star back then. I always thought nothing would come of him, but then he evolved into a great actor.

The questions were asked by Stephanie Scharf.

Leena Reimavuo was born in Helsinki. As a child she wanted to grow up to be a ballerina. Instead, she became a chemical engineer and information manager. She has worked for the Goethe-Institut since 2001. In Helsinki, she is the Information and Library head and also head of Administration since 2006. Her dream: to live for awhile abroad again, in London, Berlin or Merano – and to study history. By the way, Leena Reimavuo likes to spend her leisure time on the golf course.

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