I wasn’t expecting Joe Biden in Helsinki the day we landed. A Finn I spoke with at baggage claim helpfully told us to take the train into town, since the presidential visit had closed the city center to traffic. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but perhaps this was why a border official regarded us with unusual suspicion. He asked everyone in the non-EU residents’ line at immigration at least five minutes’ worth of probing questions, before determining that we (including my family of four) posed no threat to Biden or to Finland, which became the newest member of NATO in April.
Days before our arrival, Deputy Prime Minister Riikka Purra of the right-wing Finns Party became embroiled in controversy after a newspaper uncovered comments she had written in 2008 about wanting to shoot immigrants. Jon, a Finns Party supporter we met at the Anna K. karaoke bar, told us that the press in Finland is far left and wants to destroy Purra. “Finland won’t be for us anymore if they don’t start to control immigration more,” he said. In fact, Helsinki is increasingly cosmopolitan. We met immigrants from India, the UAE, Spain, Georgia, and a host of other countries. Jon said that immigrants were having more children than Finns, threatening his country’s culture and language. (Finland is a nation of just 5 million people but 3.3 million saunas.)
Luckily for Purra, Biden’s visit pushed her off the front pages. Biden arrived at 10 p.m. the night before us, traveling in a 40-car motorcade in the bomb-, chemical-, and bullet-proof limo nicknamed “the Beast.” He was spirited into the four-star Radisson Blu Royal hotel through an underground parking garage. Local media reported that the American contingent booked the entire 261-room hotel for two nights, though Biden stayed just one night—reportedly in its 180 square-meter, 2,509 euro-per-night presidential suite, equipped with a jacuzzi and Japanese-style sauna.
The Finns invented the sauna which has become a symbol of national pride. The country used to host an annual sauna world championship, in which the last person to leave a scorching-hot sauna is declared winner. At the seaside Löyly sauna, a Finn told me that in 2010 the competition came down to two men, a Finn and a Russian, who endured 230-degree Fahrenheit heat for six minutes until they had to be dragged out, bloody and blistered, and taken to the hospital. The Russian died of third-degree burns, but the Finn, a five-time champion of the event nicknamed Sauna Timo, survived. “He became like a national hero,” he said, “because he wouldn’t let the Russian beat us.” The Sauna World Championships were never held again after the incident.
Biden stayed in the country for just under 24 hours, and there was no word if he tried the Japanese-style sauna or any of the Finnish ones around the city. “At his age, it can be dangerous depending on the temperature,” the Finn at Löyly told me.
The city was eerily quiet the day we arrived. The entire city center was closed to traffic, some businesses were closed, and the streets were largely empty until we got to Helsinki’s Esplanade Park, where perhaps 100 or so Finns had gathered, a few with signs protesting Biden’s visit. One read, “No U.S. Bases on Finnish Soil,” another said, “Biden Don’t Bring Your Wars Here.”
I asked a smartly dressed woman of perhaps 60 why everyone had assembled. She said that people were hoping to catch a glimpse of Biden’s motorcade. I asked her if Finns like America’s president. “I don’t think so,” she said, smiling. “But he’s better, I think, than the other guy you have,” she said, referring to Donald Trump.
American officials prepared for the visit for months. Local media reported that the White House medical unit visited Jorvi Hospital in nearby Espoo to check its equipment in May. And the Finns took no chances with security. All of the city’s manhole covers were welded shut, and a warship patrolled the harbor, close to the site of Biden’s meetings in the city center. Helsinki’s airspace was closed, and all boats and ships were prevented from sailing in the harbor. An Uber driver from India told us he found himself stranded just outside the city center for two and a half hours. “Biden cost me at least 100 euros,” he groused.
Local media outlets published photo slideshows depicting groups of Finns stationed around the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the American president. The night Biden arrived, a few dozen Finns set up just beyond the fences at the airport to see Air Force One. We struck up a conversation with a Donald Trump impersonator who wore an American flag as a cape. I asked “Donald” what he was doing in Finland. “I came here because Biden’s here,” he said. “Why would Biden be here but not me? I’m the real president. Biden stole the election. When I came here, the whole city was open. He comes, and the city is closed! It’s a disgrace.”
Another Trump supporter, identified on television as Bernie from Florida, told a reporter he was ashamed of Biden. “He has dementia. He just does what he’s told,” he said. “It’s kind of a hopeless case.”
Biden met with Sauli Niinistö, the president of Finland, who, at 74, is just six years younger than he. Helsingin Sanomat, one of the capital’s leading newspapers, speculated that Biden’s hearing is bad, noting that he had to ask reporters to repeat their questions multiple times. They also noted that Niinistö had his remarks memorized while Biden had to read his, “even the parts that didn’t seem particularly difficult,” from a script. “Repeated questions do not help improve Biden’s image,” an academic told the newspaper.
After a summit meeting with the leaders of all five Nordic countries—Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, which now seems set to join NATO—the nations issued a joint press release full of platitudes about support for Ukraine and the fight against climate change. “The leaders emphasized that climate change and loss of nature are the most critical challenges facing our planet,” it read.
The Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published an unflattering cover photo of Biden in its postmortem cover with a headline asserting that the president was either rude or grumpy, depending on whose translation you trust (I asked several Finns, and these two adjectives came up). The paper consulted a body language expert who concluded that Biden didn’t appreciate some of the questions, particularly one about guaranteeing Finland’s security.
The papers were full of stories about the trip, but none mentioned Biden visiting any of the city’s sights. The weather was glorious, and sunset didn’t arrive until 10:30 p.m. during our visit. Helsinki is idyllic in the summertime: clean and stylish, full of attractive and friendly people. My family and I explored its watery geography on a canal cruise, navigating around several of its enchanting islands. We felt like we had landed in a Nordic paradise of fresh air and sea breezes. There were no panhandlers or homeless people on the streets, and even those with the humblest of jobs spoke fluent English, regardless of their age or social status.
I asked some Finns at the sauna where all the homeless drug addicts lived and about their country’s holding the title of “world’s happiest people.” “We’re proud of the happiest people title but among ourselves we joke about it,” one Finn said to me. “We’re happy now because it’s sunny and the days are long, but if you come back in winter, it’s a different story.” He said the country has well-functioning services for poor people and addicts, paid for with high taxes, which he didn’t mind. Jon, the man from the karaoke bar, on the other hand, said the handouts were too generous and were attracting migrants from around the world, particularly from Muslim countries. “They can come here and get 3,000 euros per month to do nothing,” he complained.
Biden likely didn’t visit Finland’s excellent national museum, as we did. That’s a shame because the country’s history illustrates the appeal of NATO membership. Ruled by Sweden for nearly 700 years, and then by Russia for more than a century, Finns didn’t gain their independence until the Russian revolution in 1917. Interactive exhibits illustrate how Russia’s once relatively benign rule turned tyrannical in the late nineteenth century, when Finnish newspapers were shuttered and Russia tried to marginalize the Finnish language.
Helsingin Sanomat’s Biden coverage noted that “experts don’t believe the visit did much to boost Biden’s popularity among his voters.” One such expert informed the paper that “Americans are not terribly interested in foreign policy.” The newspaper published a full-page, front-page advertisement, which read, “Dear President Biden, it’s time to move to Joensuu!” Joensuu, I discovered, is a lakeside city of 77,000 in eastern Finland, close to Russia’s border. Their half-serious pitch to Biden boasted in English that Joensuu is a “growing city, perfect for energetic and active citizens like yourself.” It said that the city is an “excellent fit for remote working, even in demanding professions.” The city concluded that Biden should divert Air Force One to Joensuu, claiming, “We can’t guarantee you the Oval Office, but we do have lots and lots of delicious oval pies.”
I asked an employee at the museum if he thought Biden, an ice cream fan, would like a pie-eating enclave like Joensuu. He looked dubious. “I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “It’s very quiet. Maybe it would be a good place for him to retire.” That might be the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.
Photo by MIKKO STIG/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images