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What Finland can teach America about true luxury

Finns value time and solitude – along with a high quality of life for all citizens.

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What is true luxury? Just when I thought I'd settled on my answer – a flat-screen TV the size of Kansas and a leather-upholstered car that can travel at triple the speed limit – I made several visits to Finland. Shortly after my return the financial crisis hit. Finland has been on my mind ever since. In these hard times, we could learn a few things about luxury from the Finns.

Strolling the streets of Helsinki, the capital, I noticed a lack of grand architecture and opulent homes, and an abundance of modest cars. Helsinki was a nice enough city, and it had some gems of modern design, but part of me felt that Finland was a bit dull. And, strangely, some of the Finns I met seemed to take pride in this.

Finland seemed even duller on my next visit in July. The weather was glorious, but Helsinki felt like a ghost town. I learned that most Finns take a five-week summer vacation, and that many of them disappear for the entire time to tiny, bare-bones cottages in the woods. Curious, I wrangled an invitation to visit one of these secluded cabins. It was meticulously cared for, but lacked any creature comforts. I quickly realized that there was nothing to do and no one to see.

After a couple of days at the cabin I was a convert. It was marvelously relaxing, and I realized the Finns were on to something – a form of luxury that had little to do with high-end products, the quest to acquire them, or the need to show them off. While some Finns pursue the material trappings of success, most seem to feel that the pleasures of time and solitude are more precious.

During my visits, I met some North American expats, including a Canadian who'd lived in the US for years. "I talk to friends back in North America," he told me, "and they tell me about all the latest toys they've bought. Here I'm just puttering away on my little house like a Finn, and that's about it. The pace of life is slower. I like that."

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