This was my first trip to Turku. To be honest, before meeting the conference organizers last year, I’d never even heard of the place. But I really enjoyed it.

The city has about 200,000 people, so it’s definitely not big: it’s perhaps a third the size of San Francisco. At the same time, it’s got a lot of history, and some interesting modern stuff as well. The city has recently been competing to be named 2011 European Cultural Capital (from what I can gather, this is an annual EU-organized competition between two countries), so they’re doing a lot of cultural stuff, both in the way of permanent things and festivals. They’ve branded all these efforts “Turku City on Fire,” which is rather cheeky, since the city has burned down repeatedly, most recently in 1827.

The city was the capital of Finland until the early 1800s, when Finland became part of the Russian empire (though it seems to have had more independence than some other acquisitions). I think the city suffers from a bit of the same complex that Philadelphia has: both are former national capitals now overshadowed by much larger and more significant neighbors. However, like Philadelphia, there’s lots of interesting historical stuff; unlike Philadelphia, some it dates back to the 13th century. They went through a somewhat unfortunate New Brutalist phase, and some of the city has aging residential blocks that could be anywhere in the world, but the rest of the city is still nice.

I wonder what the future holds for small cities like this. Part of me think that they should be able to develop world-class reputations, and get a lot more attention than they do now; but I’ve only been thinking about it for a little while, so I’m not sure what the long-strategy to become a small world-class city looks like. It’s more than just playing off an interesting history, though that certainly helps; nor is it just a matter of competing on the sorts of things any city can throw together– music festivals, sports teams, and the like. There’s got to be something more distinctive, and probably more niche-specific. However, even if you can’t compete with London and San Francisco (which are astonishingly geared to tourists, and for all the rampant commercialization of places like Leicester Square and Pier 39 have excellent infrastructures for supporting visitors), the world is a big place, so places like Turku (or Aarhus, or for that matter Charlottesville or Santa Cruz) should be better-known than they are.

One thing I noticed in Turku is that once you get out of the airport, the amount of written English on signs, menus, and other public texts drops to near zero, even though almost everyone can speak it. Parts of Denmark are like this too: I ended up eating in kebab places in Aarhus and Copenhagen because, paradoxically, I could read the menu more easily than in the local Pizza Hut: words like “cheese” and “pepperoni” get translated, but “gyro” and “hummus” are spelled the same way in English and Danish. (I feel a bit guilty not knowing any Danish or Finnish, but I’m definitely quite grateful that so many people there know English.)

For all outsiders’ assumptions about the homogeneity of Scandinavians, I’m struck at 1) how much they insist they’re different, and 2) how much their history belies assumptions of uniformity. To some degree, that homogeneity is an historical by-product of a few big historical movements, like regional trade and migration, and Swedish imperialism. After all, the region spans several thousand miles, and its various countries have pretty substantial ties with non-Scandinavian countries (Denmark with Germany, Finland with Russia, etc.). But after centuries of raids, conquests, counter-conquests, independence movements, etc., it seems to me that the region could have turned into another Balkans, rather than a group of peaceful cellphone-making social democracies. Instead, there’s still a substantial Swedish-speaking minority on the western coast of Finland, and at least two Swedish-speaking universities.

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