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ABOUT OFF THE MAP II

Welcome to the site for the site for the all new, improved, medically proven effective, revised 2018 edition of Off the Map: A Personal History of Finland, an historical memoir of my special relationship with Finland.

Well, I am not sure whether it’s medically proven effective, but I’ll vouch for the fact that it is new and significantly improved.  Most importantly, it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about what is still one of Europe’s most misunderstood countries—as well as how it was possible for an American journalist to “fall into” Finland, to paraphrase Henry James’s description for how he fell in love with the British capital.

What can I say?  Six years after it was published, I still have a thing for Finland.  This revised, lavishly illustrated, edition of my quixotic half-autobiographical, half-historical tome, which contains a new, 50 page section reprising the highlights of my recent reporting from Finland, helps explain why.  Unlike the original edition, this handsome edition, measuring 14 x 21 cm (5.5 x 8.25 in), is in hard cover.  Weighing just under a kilogram (2 lbs), it’s the real McCoy—or should I say, the real Mannerheim?--in every way.

Published in response to public demand, I am bringing it out in order to celebrate two signal events, my appointment, in September 2017, to the Order of the Lion of Finland, and the Finnish centenary (not necessarily in that order). 

What exactly is this singular tome about?  In a way, the title says it all.  When I first visited Suomi in the long ago, mid-Cold War year of 1977, this sparsely populated Nordic country was very much off the world’s radar for most Americans, not to mention most Western Europeans, and content to stay that way. 

To be sure, the one survey of Finnish history which I had read before my initial sortie intrigued me. 

“Here,” as I write in the introduction, “was a country with European values but whose history had taken place, essentially, parallel to the rest of Western Europe, a country of three and a half million that had fought a valiant if doomed struggle against the Soviet Union in 1939,  the Winter War—and the subject of my future book on that forgotten war, The Hundred Day Winter War--but that had somehow wound up fighting alongside Nazi Germany a year and a half later, eclipsing its former glory.

“It was also a country that had made a separate peace with Moscow after 1944, following the conclusion of the subsequent Continuation War, as it was called, and had since hovered in a kind of military-politico twilight zone between East and West pejoratively known as Finlandization, the term used to describe a country bordering the Soviet Union run by remote control by the Kremlin. 

“...Americans just didn’t go to Finland in 1977.  It was, in the words of an interwar Finnish tourist brochure, ‘off the map,’ as well as ‘sadly neglected and ignored,’ in the words of Michael Palin’s lament, particularly by the Western media.  Sweden and Denmark, two other Nordic countries which also intrigued me  could wait,  Clearly Finland needed me.  Moreover, I liked the idea of going to some place that was so exotic.

And was it!

“I remember waiting to cross the street and hearing a strange pinging sound that coincided with the light turning green and wondering where it came from.  After some investigation, I realized that the noise was emanating from the light itself.  But why?  For the blind I was told.  I was impressed.  That was something I wouldn’t find back in my native Manhattan.  Here was a country that cared about its people—all of its people.

“I remember being astonished by the klieg-like Finnish sun and how it made everything look backlit.  And how it never seemed to set, except briefly behind a thin, magenta eyebrow of clouds before popping out again a few short hours later.

“I remember seeing goddess-like women with white-blonde hair, strawberry red hair, jet black hair—shades I had only seen before except on the covers of Revlon hair coloring boxes, all smartly dressed, bounding down the cobblestone streets of Helsinki like springboks, adorned in brisk, striped Vuokko dresses.

“I remember walking into Stockmann’s, the fabled Helsinki department store, and encountering a life-sized cardboard cutout of someone, evidently a musician of some sort, called Danny.

“I remember one Friday night watching amazed as droves of Helsinkians went careening through the city, bottles in hand, on a collective binge.

“I remember commiserating with the night desk clerk of the Hotel Marski over the uncouth behavior of an American woman who was spending a transfer night at the hotel en route to Moscow—as was the case with the 70,000 odd Americans who passed through.  The clerk was upset. Apparently the clueless visitor in question had come down in the middle of the night, in her curlers no less, and demanded to know what country she was in.

“She didn’t even know that she was in Finland!

“That was Finland in 1977.  Definitely off the map.”

Forty years later, many if not most of the above sights and sounds which so impressed me during that intial foray to the Finnish capital are still there—so much so that if one strolls down Mannerheimintie, the capital’s main drag, on a typical summer afternoon, and looks and listens (but not too hard),  little seems to have changed. 

The klieg-like sun is still there, of course, and so are the pinging traffic lights: the Finnish safety net is still firmly in place, even though it might not be quite as generous as it used to be.  The cut-out of Danny has been retired, (as has the actual one, fortunately), but of course Stockmann’s, that great temple of consumerism, is still there.  The gorgeous, springbok-like women may not be adorned in Vuokko any longer, but they are there, too, bounding around town as if they own the place (which they do).

But of course Finland is a very different place than it was in 1977, or in 1990, when I returned for my second visit and began writing about the country in earnest.  How much Finland has changed and grown and shed her old ways and prejudices since then.  Have any of Europe’s democracies changed and matured and regenerated and improved themselves—a word I use advisedly—as speedily and in as many different ways—as Suomi?  With the possible exception of unified Germany, I think not.

Example: in 1990, when my career as a writer as a Fennophile essentially began, at the end of that long shadowy time known as “the Soviet time,” Finland had the reputation, deserved or not, of being xenophobic.  Immigrants, particularly ones from Africa or Asia, were definitely not welcome.  I saw what this meant in practice in 1995 when a boatload of Somalis was “mistakenly” dropped off in Helsinki and given grudging asylum, triggering a number of violent incidents.

If you had told me that in 2015 that same country would take in over 30,000 asylum seekers—the fourth highest proportionate number in Europe with relatively few violent incidents and has since proceeded to integrate them into the larger Finnish society in an expeditious manner, I would not have believed you.  But that, essentially, is what has happened.  There are black presenters on Finnish television today.  One sees mixed couples on the streets of Helsinki.  These things would have been unthinkable as recently as fifteen years ago.

Example:  twenty years ago, during the great lama, or depression of the 1990s which followed the collapse of the USSR, it was commonplace to see homeless people on the streets of the capital.  Today Finland is the only European county where homelessness is actually on the decrease.  How did it do this?  By reversing the usual formula of making the homeless progress through several levels of housing in order to “prove” their eligibility for new housing—and instead giving them housing first. 

Example: Finns, with their proximity to nature, have always been environmentally conscious.  Now they are even more so.  According to the Yale Environmental Protection Index, Finland is the greenest country in the world.  Astoundingly, Finns are the only nation to commit themselves to a carbon-neutral society that does no exceed nature’s carrying capacity by 2050.

Does this make Finland “the best country in the world,” as Newsweek put it several years ago?

I wouldn’t go quite that far. 

But it certainly is a dramatically changed—and yes, I would say, a better, more humane, more cosmopolitan place than the insular, proudly ”backwards” country it was in 1977, or 1990.

Moreover, Finland is also in a very different geopolitical place, vis-a-vis Europe and the rest of the world, than it was  in 1977, when the “special relationship” with the Soviet Union was at its height; or thirteen years later, when I returned, on what I thought was a one-off assignment to write about Finnish higher education—as well as to fulfill a promise I had made to myself to see the magical Aland Islands, the one part of the country I had not been able to visit during my first, extended visit—and wound up arriving just in time for the epochal Bush-Gorbachev summit—though not before nearly drowning in a secluded corner of that magical archipelago.  (Read the book!)

A very different geopolitical place indeed.  The ghost of Finlandization, which also happens to be the subject of my next book about Finland, my biography-in-progress of Urho Kekkonen, the man who effectively “ruled” the country during the heart of the “Soviet time,” from 1956 to 1981—is, essentially, a thing of the past.  “We are now very much part of the West,” as Sauli Niinisto, the current president, firmly declared in the exclusive interview which he gave me for the new edition of Off The Map. 

Indeed.  Finland is now a member of EU, which it enthusiastically joined in 1995. confirming its emergence from the shadow of the Kremlin.   No longer is Finland Europe’s odd man out.  No less remarkably, the country is a staunch affiliate member of NATO—although Finns can still not bring themselves to join the organization proper. 

On a certain level, at least when it comes to the matter of defending themselves against their hereditary neighbor/enemy, in the memorable phrase which Gustaf Mannerheim used after the surprise Russian attack of November, 1939, Finns are still keen to go it alone, just as they did during the heroic Talvisota.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Off The Map is the story of how much Finland has changed—as well as how it hasn’t—seen through the prism of the varied and variable experiences I have had during the course of the five decades I have had the privilege of knowing and writing about her.  

And varied and variable those experiences have been.  Romantic interludes, the aforementioned near drowning in the archipalgeo, another near fatal encounter with the Russian mafia on board the Helsinki to Tallinn ferry, a summit, a ship sinking--the 1994 sinking of the Estonia, which I reported for The New York Times; hanging out with the numerous Finnish artists and designers whom I have had the privilege of first bringing to the attention of American readers, including iconic filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki and his improbable star, Matti Pellonpaa, the greatest Finnish actor of modern times; iconoclastoc designer Stefan Lindfors, and his form-breaking colleague, and my friend, Ilkka Suppanen; rubbing elbows and downing shots (not necessarily in that order) with the triad of movers and shakers who helped pull Finland out of the cultural twilight zone of the Kekkonen era and into the bright light of freedom—Ami Hasan, founder of hasan & partners, the pioneering Helsinki media shop, Christian Moustgaard, managing director of Radio City, aka The Man Who Brought Rock ‘n Roll to Finland, and publisher and creative entrepeneur Raoul Grunstein, the founder of Image Magazine, Korjaamo Culture Factory and much much more!

All these experiences and more comprise the smorgasbord that is Off The Map.

Then there are the photos—or, should I say, the new photos.  The original edition had 30 photos from my Finnish peregrinations.  This edition has nearly twice as many, all gorgeously produced on glossy paper including new images from my travels to the eerily untouched site of the Mannerheim Line for my research for Taistelu Suomesta, cruising through the otherworldly Aland archipelago, catching the scene at the Kamp bar, more portraits of Baltic babes, my celebrated (and tongue-in-cheek) moniker for the beauteous women of Finland and the Baltic region, and much much more!

Herranjestas!  It’s more than a book—it’s a cultural phenomenon! 

--And yes, Off The Map also has a healthy dollop of humor.  It wouldn’t be a book by Gordon Sander without it.

Is it my favorite book?  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that.  I love all of my books, but this one may well be the most lovingly produced.   And don’t forget: this is a book I brought back from the dead (so to speak).  Off The Map was out-of-print, and was fated to remain so, until with the aid of my stellar team in Finland and Latvia, including Gummerus, which published the original edition, and my friends at Tip Off publishers in Riga, I decided to reissue it in this extraordinary new limited edition.  

So what are you waiting for?  Order your copy of the revised, 2018 edition of Off The Map: A Personal History of Finland today!