Washington, DC continues to beckon Blake Zeff-he worked on Capitol Hill for Senator Charles E. Schumer (New York) from 2003 to 2004, and returned again in 2007 to work for Hillary Clinton on her primary campaign. "DC is a very transient town," says Zeff, "so to stay there for a year or two is actually not that short a time, and I've done that twice now." His new position as a senior member of the strategic communications division for Berlin Rosen, a New York public affairs firm, has him continuing to develop Washington ties as he represents political candidates, unions, nonprofits, helping them get their message out.
Zeff's career in communications began with his double major at Brown University in political science and modern culture and media. "If you take those two majors, the work I do now is a pretty good marriage of those two interests. I certainly have a really strong passion in advocating for issues and the way in which government works, it's fascinating." As the New York communications director for Obama, Zeff interacted with international reporters covering the presidential race and with international volunteers. "We often had any number of reporters from all over the world asking for information, watching what we were doing. This was a wonderful opportunity and wonderful to see such interest in U.S. politics from our friends abroad. One of my beliefs has always been that we as Americans are better off when we have alliances and when we are respected and admired, but also liked by other countries. That was one of the privileges that I had working as the New York communications director for then Senator Obama, was being able to interact with the media and interested observers from across the world."
In Helsinki Zeff looks forward to sharing his experiences in US politics, and in this election in particular. "But equally, I look forward to learning about how politics in Finland plays out, the challenges candidates face communicating with constituents and voters, and what the advocacy community is like. "
There are so many great aspects of Finnish culture, that I decided to narrow it down and focus on cuisine:
After days of planning, months of e-mailing with my new Finnish friends organizing the trip (eg, Mikko, Hilkka, etc), and hours of packing, my wife Patty and I finally departed for JFK Airport to Helsinki. We got to the airport around 3:30 for our 5:55 pm flight, and hoped we'd be able to sleep on our flights (one to Brussels, the second to Helsinki).
As it happened, we didn't get much sleep but the flights were smooth and uneventful. We converted some of our US cash to Euros in JFK and got to use them (as well as elementary French words) in the Brussels airport when we got breakfast (which felt more like a midnight snack, as it was approximately 3am in eastern time). The time difference between NY and Brussels is six hours, with Helsinki an additional hour ahead.
We finally landed in Helsinki around 3:30pm local time, exhausted but energized at the same time. Mikko Leisti picked us up, and drove us to the small but beautiful Haven Hotel, located right in the middle of the action, just yards from the city center.
After dropping off our stuff and taking much needed showers (I think this made Mikko happy), we met up with Mikko again for some quick stops through town - fish soup at a restaurant called Kathrinia in a boat nearby, coffee on the roof of Hotel Torni with a view of the entire region, and dinner (local delicacies, like herring) at Ursula Café.
It was a great night and wonderful welcome. Now let's pray we can defy jet lag and sleep through the night!
No such luck on the jet lag mission. Patty and I forced ourselves to stay up until 9 or 10, but woke up around 2:30. After reading for a few hours, I was able to sneak in a few hours of sleep before rising at around 8 or so.
I was greeted in the lobby of my hotel at 9:30 am by Rita Ekelund, a communications staffer at Helsinki City Hall. Rita was warm and friendly, with a great sense of humor, and made me feel right at home. She was also very polite about my tardiness, pretending not to notice. Rita escorted me to Helsinki's city hall for a TV interview with Yle, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, for its nighttime TV magazine news program on current affairs.
The questions were mostly about my experience working for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and the challenges of branding a campaign. I talked about Obama being the right candidate at the right time with the right message, a very rare confluence. There were also a number of questions about social networking sites (like Facebook) and their proliferation in the political world. The program ran tonight and it was funny to see my words translated into Finnish.
Speaking of which, I've picked up a few key Finnish phrases: Kiitos is "thank you." Moi is informal "hello." And pai-va is a more formal hello. Finnish people appear to be very polite so far, so I use and hear kiitos quite a bit.
After the interview, I was introduced to a number of other City Hall staffers, including Eero Waronen, the chief communications officer, and Tapio Kari, who has helped organized much of my program. They showed me around the premises, which are lovely. City Hall used to be a hotel, they explained, showing me the large ballroom, as well as a meeting room for prominent guests. Later we enjoyed a wonderful feast of local fish, roe, yogurt, extremely purified and tasty local water, and wine, at the restaurant Havis.
Well-nourished, I proceeded to the steps of the university (just a short walk from the restaurant) which is located in the square opposite from the senate and adjacent to a large church on one side and the back of city hall on the other. Laura Kolbe, a professor of European history and a specialist in urban history, guided me around the city. Laura was extremely knowledgeable and detailed the identity of Helsinki and "Finnishness." One of my favorite tidbits from Laura's tour was her explanation that she was happy the university was located across from the senate, because it made it easier for students to protest (and in a broader sense, fosters the notion of students as "citizens" and contributors to society).
After retiring to the hotel for a brief nap, Patty and I were accompanied by Kristina Niklander to the Finnish National Opera, where we met esteemed opera critic John Allison for a glass of sparkling wine and hors d'oeuvres. John generously shared some of his expertise with us, and helped facilitate our understanding of the opera (the subtitles didn't hurt either). The opera was The Ostrobothnians by Leeva Madetoja, and we enjoyed it more than we expected we would. We hadn't been exposed to much opera previously but will likely check it out a bit more when we return to the states. We exchanged email addresses with John and will try to pry free advice from him as much as possible in the future.
Today was an early morning, to say the least. Still adjusting to the local time here, I awoke at 5am for a live TV interview with Yle Morning TV for an appearance on a widely watched morning show. Funnily enough, this is the same show I had watched yesterday morning when I was getting ready.
The professionals in the studio were engaging and very competent. Everyone here seems to know a lot about America, and being fluent in English is the norm. Someone told me here that Finns learn Swedish and two other foreign languages by the time they're 13. Amazing. The makeup guy at the TV show was talking to me in flawless English about his recent trip to San Francisco (or as he called it, "Frisco").
The interview seemed to go well - conducted in English with regular interruptions for the host to translate my long answers into Finnish. As I was leaving the studio, Kristina explained that we had just bumped into a Finnish music star named Vicky in the lobby.
For lunch, Patty and I met Marjo Timonen, the head of information of Finnish Parliament, in a lovely dining room in Little Parliament and were served some delicious salmon and wine. Afterwards, we headed over to a plenary session where I gave a speech on Obama's victory and the lessons that could be learned from a political communications standpoint. The speech must have been announced ahead of time because throngs of local media were in attendance. I had been warned ahead of time that Finns are shy people, so I was pleasantly surprised to receive some great questions from the audience. Afterwards, I gave some media interviews to outlets from Finland, Sweden, and Albania. One woman from Albania was sure that I and my last name are Albanian; sadly, this is not the case.
After the media blitz(!) concluded, Rainer, the deputy head of information, led us on a tour of the etuskunda (parliament) building, and took us to the cafeteria where political deals are said to be brokered. One of the things that struck me today was that political journalists have much more access to politicians here in Finland than elsewhere. Marjo explained that journalists and members of Parliament routinely dine together in the cafeteria, and everyday the members make themselves available to live questioning. We were fortunate ourselves to run into a member of Parliament in the cafeteria, who asked for advice as he considers a bid for European parliament soon.
After this long and action-packed day, I returned to the hotel for some quick shut-eye and then proceeded to take part in an experience I don't think I'll ever forget. Mikko picked me up and drove me to the famous Sauna Society, where we met Aki Arjola, a food/wine/hospitality/hotel expert who published a book on the 50 best restaurants in Finland. Mikko, Aki, and I proceeded to try all of the variously heated saunas (other than Mikko mysteriously "disappearing" when we got to the really hot one). In between saunas we would sit outside and cool off, and attempt to take a dip into the cold sea. I got up to my shoulders before I froze and reflexively jumped back onto land. We also somehow found time to dine in the cantina on lavaret and soup. Participating in this rich, uniquely Finnish tradition was something I don't think I'll ever forget.
To top it all off, Aki and Mikko presented me with a certificate honoring me for my courage in enduring the ritual - my body is still freezing just thinking about the swimming part.
After we finally recovered, Mikko and I met Patty and Johanna Lemola, the spokesperson of Helsinki in Washington, for a really good dinner at a restaurant called Atelje Finne. Anyone who claims that Finland's restaurant scene is anything short of first-rate has clearly not been here!
After a few busy days, today may have been the most action-packed one yet. We met Tapio in the hotel lobby, and headed over to Helsinki University where we met with professor Markku Henriksson, chief of the North American Studies department. Professor Henriksson was wearing a New York State tie in my honor and was extremely knowledgeable about US politics. I proceeded to give a speech on President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. This one was a bit less formal than the one to Parliament (eg, the other one used PowerPoint slides, while this one was more free-wheeling) and the students had excellent questions. The audience was mostly students, along with some scholars and teachers. I have to say I was pretty surprised to get a question referencing Al Sharpton!
After the speech, Tapio escorted Patty and me to the Ravintola (restaurant) Nokka, where we dined with Elina Kalkku, the chief of the Department for Americas and Asias in the Finnish Foreign Ministry, along with other senior diplomats and a journalist. We had a very intensive discussion about foreign policy as well as the Obama campaign. I am quite certain that I learned more from them than they did from me.
It was a bit cooler today than it has been the previous days. I should point out that the weather, by and large, has been better than I expected. Mild in the low 50s. Today it was windy and probably in the low 40s, but totally tolerable. Braving the cold wind, I headed from Nokko to the Helsinki city hall to give another speech - this one a very informal 15 minute talk to the city departments' chief information officers about my work in political communication. The reaction to this speech, like the others, defied the stereotype of Finns as shy and reserved, when I was greeted with scores of questions.
The speech was preceded by an interesting discussion about a new poll that measured the performance of city press departments across Europe. There seemed to be a good amount of pride in the room at the news that Helsinki fared better than nearby Stockholm.
The walk back to the hotel took no longer than three minutes. Again, the location of Haven Hotel was phenomenal - as was everything else about it: the staff, facilities, restaurant, etc. Anyone visiting Helsinki could do far worse than to stay at this hotel. Patty and I quickly got ready and headed over the Savoy theater, which was a five minute walk in the opposite direction. Funnily enough we saw a ballet performed by an American company, called "Rock the Ballet." During the intermission we were served wine and hors d'oeuvres, a tradition I think the US should strongly consider adopting.
On the way out, we ran into Nicole Conn of the US Embassy in Finland, as well as her husband, and discussed how much we all enjoyed it here. As it was late and chilly, Patty and I had dinner in the hotel bar, enjoyed some wine, and played some poker.
Sadly, our time in Helsinki is rapidly winding down.
I had the morning off today and used it to walk around the city and do some shopping. Patty went to Marimekko, a Finnish textiles/clothing store, and bought some souvenirs for our families.
Next, I headed to a meeting with Bob Helsinki, a political marketing agency here that has done very successful work with the Coalition Party. Over sushi, we discussed some of the tactics and messaging that was so successful for Obama, and they shared with me some of their innovative campaigns for their candidates, including the foreign minister. Bob has pioneered the use of simple, colorful advertising in Finland where the norm has been more issue-oriented messaging. They were successful in taking candidates few had heard of and making them very competitive. One of their most interesting ideas was to create "ear" cafes, where voters and politicians can go to listen to each other.
We had a great back-and-forth and it was interesting to see the similarities of our approaches both here and in the US, as well as the differences - eg, there is far sharper ideological distinction between the political parties in the US because proportional representation and government by coalition in Finland foster consensus.
After the meeting, I headed over to city hall for a meeting with Pekka Sauri, the deputy mayor and a member of the Green Party. We discussed the program of the last week, as well as opportunities to market Helsinki to the rest of the world. Some of the ideas we considered were leveraging Nokia's success to continue branding the city's high-tech growth and achievement. We also discussed the great asset that is the Finnish people - highly educated, engaging, socially conscious, etc. For businesses contemplating where to locate in this region, the skilled and motivated workforce should be a great incentive.
After the meeting, Patty and I met Mikko for drinks at some local neighborhood bars. First we went to Corona, followed by Moscow. It was great recapping the week and talking about our future plans to stay in touch. Afterwards, Mikko generously got us a reservation at an excellent restaurant, Kuurna. The food was delicious and the atmosphere perfect for a night for just the two of us.
Sadly, today is our last in Helsinki. We began the morning with a great breakfast - I have been eating herring with alarming regularity this last week - and then took the advice of many and planned a day trip to Tallinn, the largest and capital city in Estonia. After hopping on an enormous ferry - replete with cafes, casinos, supermarkets, and the like - Patty and I arrived at Tallinn and walked around this at once modern and medieval town. We traversed streets, ate in a restaurant that looked like a white cave from the 1800's, and visited a fort.
When we got back in the late afternoon, Patty and I began the unhappy chore of packing, and grabbed a bite to eat in the hotel bar. Mikko came by to present us with a six-pack of Koff beer (a local favorite), some books, and t-shirts. It's hard to believe that this city I knew so little about just a week or two ago, now feels like home. But it's true. I am really going to miss it and wish we could stay another week, at least.