May Day in Helsinki
“Demand less!” shouted a tall, stylish blond into a megaphone, right above my ear. “Love is free!” I spent this May Day in Finland, where there was no vandalism, no mayhem; just several thousand marchers strolling in the sunshine, waving signs and shouting the occasional non-threatening slogan. Occupy your mind. Demand life, not capitalism. Spring comes to everyone!
Spring is a big deal in a country that straddles the Arctic Circle. May Day is as much about celebrating snowmelt and sun as it is about politics. In Helsinki, May Day begins the night before, with a giant celebration of education in this country with one of the most acclaimed public school systems in the world. High school graduates—of all ages, not just this year’s grads—don their traditional white, nautical-style school caps and throng the center of the city. A cap is thrown on the head of everyone’s favorite mermaid statue, champagne bottles start popping, and spring, graduation and May Day are all officially welcomed. The next morning, the party continues with the all-city May Day march, after which everyone adjourns to lavish picnics in the central Kaivopuisto Park.
I marched and picnicked with my sister, my niece and my Finnish friend Kirsi. Kirsi and I met 25 years ago, when she was an exchange student in Seattle and an intern at the TV station where I worked. Now, she’s a producer of documentaries and TV programs in Helsinki. She credits that long-ago intern opportunity with launching her career. I credit her with giving me an experience of Finland I never could have had if I’d stumbled into Helsinki on May Day as just another unsuspecting tourist. (I would also like to thank the inventors of the Internet for helping us keep in touch over the many years in which we both raised children and were busy building careers.)
Before we started marching, Kirsi took us to the tent headquarters of Helsinki’s Occupy movement, where we warmed our hands over a wood stove and talked for a few minutes with two young men who had been living there, off and on, for months. We stopped into the nearby symphony hall to use the restroom (yes, it was open to marchers!) and ran into a TV director friend of Kirsi’s, who invited us up to his booth for a bird’s eye view of the stunning, brand-new venue, where the symphony would be playing a free Welcome Spring concert that afternoon.
It was all so congenial, so easy-going. Not all of the protesters agreed with each other and there were bystanders and concert-goers who had no interest in marching at all. But everyone respected each other’s right to have an opinion and to express it out loud.
And yet there are Americans who think “European” is a bad word, as if it connotes—what, exactly? A place where people spend too much time picnicking and protesting and not enough time working? A place where people are spoiled and pampered by big-government perks like basic health care and high-quality education?
This was my first trip to Europe in ten years. My first ever, to Finland. I am coming home inspired in ways that surprise me. There’s a love of community that I want to bring home to my neighborhood. There’s something to be said for sinking roots in a place about which you care deeply, as opposed to moving on when you get restless, an impulse far more common in newer countries like ours. And something to be said for folding new ideas like free speech into ancient rites like welcoming spring; celebrating in age-old ways, but with new faces in the crowd: immigrants and visitors from far-away places. And new slogans: “Demand Less!”
What an idea: we could make the world better by demanding less. Living in smaller spaces. Driving smaller cars.; walking, biking and using public transportation. Taking pleasure in simple things, like a picnic in the park.
I think there’s a place where that’s happening. It’s called Europe.
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Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.