Finns around the world: Päivi Arvonen

Finns around the world: Päivi Arvonen

Päivi Arvonen is a journalist, photographer, cultural trainer, and cultural communications consultant. In 2002 she established her one woman company, Diamond Idea and started to work full time as a journalist and as a photographer. In 2003 she received a scholarship from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to stay in Cairo for a month. Then she applied for another scholarship in 2004. She was only supposed to stay in Cairo for five months to study Arabic but found herself continually writing articles for the Finnish media because the life and culture there was so captivating. One thing led to another and she ended up staying there for twelve years.
Photography exhibition.
Photo: Päivi Arvonen

Her photography exhibition Soul of the Forest (Metsän sielu) has travelled around the world as part of the Finland 100 program, celebrating 100 years of Finnish independence. It is currently on display at the Embassy of Finland in Canberra as part of the Finland-inspired Art Exhibition (28 November 2017 – 31 January 2018). We sat down with her to have a chat about her life, career and travels. Have a read below!

Introduce yourself!

Päivi Arvonen
I am a journalist and photographer and I work for the Finnish print and online media. I also work as a trainer to provide cultural training for expatriates moving to live in an Arab culture. I'd like to do a little more of this in the future. I am also looking for new challenges as a consultant, in the cultural communications field. I love my work as a journalist and photographer but there are so many interesting things and life is too short! Perhaps I'll work one part of the year as a consultant and the other part as a journalist. It's for certain that I would continue to photograph all year around though – that's a big passion of mine.

You have worked all over the world – India, North Africa, the Middle East and have spent the most time in Egypt. Why did you choose to work in these countries and what challenges did you face?

It was more of a coincidence, if you want to believe in coincidences. My background is in education, teaching philosophy, psychology, ethics and religious education in high school. I have a Master's degree in theology and my major was in comparative religion at Helsinki University.. I very much enjoyed the teaching job but I also wanted to do something else since I had taught students in elementary school, high school, in a school for adults and I had been Vice Principal. My last holiday was during summer in the year 2000. I haven't had a holiday since.

There was this two year period (2000-2002) during which I was really thinking about what to do. One option was to start my PhD. But I couldn't get motivated to write for a scientific audience. However, writing was still close to my heart and I had already written some travel stories for travel magazines. Photography had been my passion since I'd got my first camera at the age of ten.

At a Coptic monastery. Photo: Päivi Arvonen
I had the opportunity to stay with a friend in Montenegro and then Cairo. That's how I accidentally ended up in Cairo. It was very challenging, very demanding and very difficult. I began to learn some Arabic because it's difficult to survive there without any knowledge of their language. I also started to become interested in the culture and religion; it's absolutely fascinating to see how Islam works in practice. I thought I had understood it based on theories I had learned while studying comparative religion at university, but it was fascinating to understand its meaning in everyday life and the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

Over the last fifteen years, I've been reporting about human rights, cultural issues, religion, travel, development work, environmental issues and animal welfare. I used to say that I cover nearly everything…except sports. But since I have been travelling so much, I have actually also written an article about race camels near Abu Dhabi. There was a Finnish vet who trained race camels and a Finnish company Lymed Oy that manufactured tailor made compression garments for the race camels. So I guess that I also report about sports too!

You were born and grew up in Finland. How has Finland had an impact on your work or the way you approach your work and life? Do you have any funny stories or anecdotes?

Cairo. Photo: Päivi Arvonen
I'm very much a Finn from my heart and soul and I'm very proud to be a Finn. I am proud of my country and especially at a moment like this, celebrating 100 years of independence this year. It's a huge honour to be included in the official Finland 100 program with my photography exhibition. Finland has a good reputation around the world and it's great to have a Finnish passport. We have a very equal society in Finland and don't conform to any strict hierarchies or traditional social classes. It helps that we treat and approach people equally, especially when living in societies that do adhere to strict hierarchies.

When people hear that I have lived in Egypt for so long, I am sometimes asked if I have become an Egyptian or if I am still a Finn. Of course I am familiar with both cultures and can adapt myself fairly well, but at heart, I am very much a Finn. When I was growing up during my teenage years, I always felt like I was a little different from the others. When I went to the Mediterranean for a one week holiday, I immediately felt more at home in a cultural way that I had never felt in Finland.

The longer I am away from Finland, the more I love and respect the country, culture and heritage. But I feel most at home in the forest and in Finnish nature, rather than around Finnish people. I find that many Finns living in Finland don't seem to have a wide perspective.

What's your relationship with Australia and Finland? Have you noticed any differences/similarities between the two countries?

It's difficult to compare countries. Australia is more relaxed than Finland. The nature here is also spectacular and is so different from the nature in Finland. This is one of those countries where I feel like I could stay here a long time.

Your photography installation "Soul of the Forest" is part of the Finland-inspired Art Exhibition at the embassy. What was the inspiration behind it?

The Great Sand Sea, Sahara. Photo: Päivi Arvonen
Finnish nature. It's because the nature in Finland became increasingly more important for me during those years living in Egypt. Cairo is a fascinating city but the population is almost the same as Australia, with over twenty million people living in one city. There is pollution, traffic jams and a lot of noise. You can't find silence unless you go to the desert which lies outside the city. I was suffering.

For the first few years, I thought that I would somehow get used to it but it actually became more difficult as each year went by. I developed a yearly routine of travelling back to the Kuusamo area in North Eastern Finland. That time became the most important time of the year for me. I would do the daily walks in the national parks and would photograph Kuusamo during autumn. It wasn't exactly a holiday though. While I was walking in the forest, I would always get ideas about what I would write next. I brought all my work with me and wrote every day. It's very hard work but it's become a way of life for me now.

What's your next big project?

During the January 2011 revolution at Tahrir Square, Cairo.
Photo: Päivi Arvonen
I always seem to have one thousand and one projects going all the time. Maybe the next big project will be to find time to write books. Or to find a way to finance the time to find time for writing books! In all seriousness though, I have ideas for a great many books. One would be about my experiences in the Middle East as a Finnish female journalist. Another would be about the immigrants who migrated to Australia from Finland. Hopefully this would be translated into English because there are many second and third generation Finns who would also like to read these stories. And of course, there are a few more ideas in the works.

You have been interviewing the Finns in Australia regarding their migration down under. Have there been any interesting stories that you have discovered in these interviews? Are there any similarities or differences that stand out?

I have done a lot of personal interviews as it's one of my specialties. I really admire those Finns who made that decision to come to Australia. Most came because Australia was paying their travel costs and the agreement was that they would stay for at least two years. Most had nearly zero knowledge of English. Most came for the work as a construction worker. Many were male teenagers starting fulltime labour. Many brought families with them. That's why Canberra has such a solid population of Finns, because Australia needed the workforce to build the country. Some went back home after the two years, but many stayed.

I've met a seventy five year old lady who came to Australia with her family when she was fourteen years old.  Her family was the first Finnish family to arrive in Australia in 1956. I also heard another story in a care home about and old Finnish lady. Originally, they didn't even know she was from Finland. They only knew that she didn't speak much English. It was only because there was a second generation Finnish lady working there that she found someone who spoke her language and luckily she is now in the support circle of Finn Support Care. There are still Finns who have been in Australia for fifty years but still can't communicate properly and need assistance when going to a doctor.

Nowadays, it's easy for people to move. The world is different; they know English and they can find all the information from the internet. You can generally afford to buy a flight ticket back home. But back in those days, many had families and buying a ticket home wasn't an option, even if they had wanted to go back.

And the last question, what do you miss most about Finland when travelling?

The nature and the forest. Many people say that they miss Finnish food or Finnish bread. There's nothing wrong with those things but to be perfectly honest, I can live without that. But the Finnish nature is something that I enjoy so much. I could be in the desert, or in the rainforest or at the seaside, but there is nowhere else that has the same feeling as the Finnish forest.
Photography exhibition. Photo: Päivi Arvonen

Interview conducted by Karen Khoo


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