Written by: Adriana Bonifaz / Armand Amin / Haley Braun / Stephanie Rank / Katie Rentz
From the moment you step off the airplane onto the tarmac, clouds of breeze-borne cottonwood fluff give Finland in May a dreamlike aura. Whether standing on the shore of an impossibly glassy, tree-rimmed lake, or dodging extensive teams of construction workers taking advantage of snowless springtime streets in the city, the fuzzy white floating seeds fill the air. They cluster in still pockets of air on the tracks of Finland’s excellent train and tram systems before being blown aloft by a passing locomotive with all the whimsy of loose feathers in a pillow fight. When catching the train or tram, connecting with one of the country’s many bus routes to complete the final leg of your journey, or even hopping on a ferry for a reasonably-priced long-haul option, Finland’s transit system is likely to strike you as efficient, clean, and quiet.
What perhaps may strike you as less certain, as it did our team, are the dishes you may receive when ordering at a restaurant! The complex Finnish language creates its own set of challenges for the visiting, curious restaurant-goer, but even when items are described in English to an English-speaker, often our team was surprised by the unexpected foods brought out: we once saw a half-vegetable, half-meatloaf patty advertised as steak, a fully-liquid soup with tiny specks of meat termed reindeer stew, and we quickly learned that “fried” often means “grilled”.
Nonetheless, we quickly discovered a love of the popular mustards, the fresh and smoked salmon, and the many-flavored jams available at most local establishments and grocery stores. The Finns seem to put jam on almost anything—meats, bread, cheese, cake, and even eggs.
While the food can be hit or miss, the Finnish language is inarguably a true challenge, equally as unfamiliar to our team’s native English and Spanish speakers. We occasionally made a game of guessing the proper translation of Finland’s notoriously long words (and were most often wrong). Not only is the Finnish language structure and etymology quite unintuitive, it’s also known for a tendency to join disparate words together, forming intimidatingly long single words. Usually, we found that when we saw a fourteen or seventeen-letter word, we immediately gave up on trying to pronounce anything beyond the first syllable. In light of this running joke among the team, I decided to look up the longest word in the Finnish language, and discovered that a 61-letter word holds the title! “Lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas” means “airplane jet turbine engine auxiliary mechanic non-commissioned officer student”. As you can see, their practice of word-combining would constitute a bit of a farce in other languages when it comes to the competition for the longest word, but such extremely long words are commonplace in Finland.
What was reasonably predictable and consistent throughout our experiences both in business and casual settings, however, was the no-nonsense, straightforward nature of the Finnish people. This made for very good business relations with our IBD client, with whom we never had to worry about ulterior motives, unspoken sentiments, or hidden agendas. Although, on the flip side, it took some adjustment for me to stop myself from my American tendency of saying hello to strangers (I was not aware that this was “American” of me until traveling to Finland!) The Finns, while always helpful and kind if asked for help or directions, do not go out of their way to have conversations or interactions with strangers,
preferring on the whole to keep very much to themselves in public.
Working with our client, Confidex, was an overall enjoyable and rewarding experience for our IBD team. Confidex employees at its Tampere, Finland headquarters were warm and welcoming, always going above-and-beyond to ensure we had everything we needed, from Post-It notes to fresh fruit, and an endless supply of the Finns’ workplace fuels of choice, coffee and tea. Our IBD team’s day-to-day life began with a twenty-minute bus ride from our characteristically Finnish simple, efficiently-furnished apartments, to the similarly unadorned, clean, Confidex office building. Their office is located in a somewhat remote office park area bordered by neighborhoods, a few other businesses, and of course, plenty of expansive grassy fields effusing and ensnaring clumps of drifting cottonwood fluff. The small office serves as home-base to about twenty employees, mostly local Finns. The rest of the company’s employees are dispersed among its global offices.
Each day we continued our project research, interacted with and interviewed employees both local and remote, and hosted interactive brainstorming workshops to generate new ideas. We were surprised at how our project framework changed and adapted over time as we refined our strategic recommendations and priorities based on new learnings. We usually brought our lunch to the office, but sometimes took a fifteen-minute stroll to the only food bistro nearby, which ended up having a delicious buffet. Most days we worked until late afternoon or early evening and caught the bus back to our apartments before either enjoying a (very basic!) home-cooked dinner or eating out at a local restaurant. While our apartment certainly had all the amenities necessary to cook a decent meal, we found that planning to buy the supplies and having the time in the evening kept us from doing so most of the time.
One of the top highlights of the trip was the proximity and access to incredible weekend travel opportunities, which we will continue to take full advantage of, including Estonia, the arctic circle, Norway, Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Russia. Our trip to Estonia, by way of train and ferry, over our first weekend in country doubled as a wonderful team bonding experience. We stayed at a charming, beautifully-decorated Airbnb apartment in the heart of old town Tallinn, Estonia’s historic capital. Exploring the city with no solid plans meant a carefree afternoon of laughter and awe-inspiring sightseeing together, punctuated by tastings of Estonian beer and cocktails and what we agreed was the best food we’d had on the entire trip so far. Fresh seasonal fish topped off crisp-lettuce salads with a customizable motley of flavorful trimmings including olives, chewy cashews, mushrooms, herbed feta cheese, and pomegranate seeds. Starters were impressive unto themselves—tuna tartare beautifully adorned with crisp cucumber spirals, crunchy orange roe, crispy wonton strips, and sesame seeds, or savory noodle soup topped by a single sunny-side-up egg, perfectly browned on one side. When it came time to leave Estonia, I wished we could have many more days to explore the seemingly endless winding cobblestone streets and alleyways.
We have two more weeks in Finland, and are looking forward to continuing to move our project forward, exploring new places, trying local foods and drink, and learning more about new cultures!