Saturday, June 20, 2015

Helsinki Diary- I

As I await the Air Finland flight to Helsinki at the boarding gate in Delhi, I am in for a big surprise. The flight is full - and most of the passengers are Indian, mostly middle-class people on a group tour. 

The flight departs half an hour late (and lands half an hour late), so India's airlines take heart. The economy section is cramped and uncomfortable and it's warm inside as the plane readies to depart. The airline doesn't provide a bottle of mineral water. You are supposed to trudge up to the flight crew's section and help yourself to a cup of water. Since this means having to disturb the person next to you, it's not pleasant at all. Lunch is frugal and nothing to write home about. There are announcements in Hindi and English, the airline mindful of the large complement of Indians on the flight.

Helsinki airport is quite small and the immigration counter courteous and quick to clear. I am out in about half an hour or so. It's cold and drizzling outside,14 degrees- and this is supposed to be summer in the Arctic region. I'm glad I have my jacket on and have brought along a sweater. I get into a large-sized cab. It turns out to be a BMW (and yet the fare is no different from that for other cabs). The driver is from Somalia. He landed decades ago and hasn't thought it necessary to ever go back. "It's rather tough out there", he says. It's hard to disagree.

The sights alone the drive from the airport to downtown Helsinki, where my hotel is located, remind me of London, with lots of brickwork-like buildings along the route and plenty of greenery. It's a Sunday, so traffic is scanty. We do the 20 km distance in about 20 minutes. The cab fare is around 50 Euro. As I arrive at the hotel, a seafront and several large liners loom into view. Helsinki has five ports and this one comes right into the city. There are plenty of cruises from here to Stockholm, St Petersburg and elsewhere.

Scandic Grand Marina is a four-star hotel. It wouldn't compare with Taj Vivanta although the tariff is comparable to that at Taj Colaba. There is a flight of steps to climb from the road into the hotel. No attendant comes rushing nor is there a doorman. I have to lug my bag up the stairs up myself. There is a smallish lobby leading to the only restaurant. Just two people at the counter to do the check-in and check-out. You understand what it is to be in a high-wage country (Finland has a per capita income of around $30,000).

I had asked for a sea-facing room. What I get is a room facing the conference centre. Standing at the window and viewing the outside from a sharp angle, I get a glimpse of the sea. The room itself is quite utilitarian. Surprisingly, there's no indoor heating. I'm told a room heater can be available on request. I had seen the menu card put up at reception and my heart sank. There is a very limited number of items on offer (quite unlike the multi-page menu you get at an upmarket hotel in India) and, except for one item of salad, no vegetarian food.


The next morning, I head for Aalto business school where the conference is to kick off. I'm there for the European Workshop on Efficiency and Productivity Analysis. Helsinki has free wi-fi in most places in the city. I look up Google Maps and know which tram to take and where.

I step out of the hotel and make way to the tram stop. The narrow road from the hotel gives way to a broader one about 100 metres away. I walk pass Market Square where fresh vegetable, fruit and other foods are on offer. This is a typical downtown location of an European city. Broad avenues with parks and other greenery at regular intervals at the centre. Cafes and other restaurants on either side, along with upmarket shops selling clothes, jewellery, hand bags and what have you.

I have to stop and ask for directions every now and then. I am to find over the next few days that people are uniformly courteous helpful. This is probably the friendliest country I've ever been to.
Finland has a population of just five million. It was ruled for nearly 150 years by Sweden and then by Russia, becoming free, I am told, in 1917. It is part of the Nordic states and its economy conforms to the Nordic model- high taxes (43% at its highest in Finland) and free provision of education at all levels and high-quality medical care. It also has an excellent public transport system, comprising buses, trams and a metro, and cycling paths all over the city.

I board the tram. Most drivers, I notice over the stay, are female. There's no conductor, you pay the driver as you enter. (Doubt that this would work in India). I know from Google Maps that the ride is about 20 minutes long. I keep glancing at my watch. It turns out that there is a lady next to me who is also headed for the conference. Twenty minutes later, we ask somebody if we are close to Aalto. We learn we are and hop off. It's a good ten minutes from the tram stop to the business school.

There's not much of a formal inauguration. The first day is spent on workshops for students. I head for the finance department. Some of the offices are open. I knock on a door titled, 'Director of finance'- I guess it must be the head of the department. A professor with his back turned to me and bent over a PC wheels around on his chair and looks up. I ask,"Do you have few minutes"? He breaks into a grin. "Of course".

I walk in and take a chair. I introduce myself. I tell him I want to know something about the school. He chats with me for a while and then puts me on to a colleague. Aalto is Finland's leading business school. Both students and faculty are overwhelmingly from Finland but that's changing of late.There is a huge effort to recruit faculty from outside by offering competitive pay. A business school degree is not part of the mainstream university courses, so Aalto charges a fee for its undergrad and MBA programmes. I am surprised to learn that placement- which is really the whole point about a business school- is not very active at Aalto. Not many companies come to the campus  to recruit. Students have to apply on their own. If this happened in India, b-schools would lose their clientele.

I ask about Finland's high school education model of which I have heard so much. Kids go to school only when they are seven.There are no exams until the final stage. The teacher to student ratio is amongst the best. School teachers are well paid, well-educated and highly respected in society. The prof remarks, "This system is good for bringing everybody up to a certain level but it's not good enough to achieve excellence". I guess that could pass for a comment on socialism in general. What he omits to mention is that it may be difficult to achieve excellence until society as a whole first reaches a certain level. Ask the Russians and the Chinese.

Aalto b-school is part of Aalto university. The university itself is split across three campuses, one of which is close to my hotel. The b-school has another building, called the main building, which houses mostly the administrative staff. I am put in touch with the international exchange coordinator. I'm pleasantly surprised to learn that IIMA has an exchange arrangement with the b-school and a couple of students on either side have been going over for the past several years.

Not far from the B-school is one of the best-known sights of Helsinki, the Rock Church, a whole church burrowed into a natural rock formation. I enter the cavernous structure and am amazed to see a beautifully lit church inside swarming with tourists. There's a lady playing the piano. I sit on the one of the benches and take in the mellifluous notes.


Sanjay said...

Very well written – enjoyed reading.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Thanks Sanjay


K.R.Srivarahan said...

Very good narration. In our country, one separate person will be exclusively attached to welcome at the airport and assist till the foreigner leaves.

T T Ram Mohan said...

thanks srivarahan... we have people to receive even board members arriving for meetings!