Why pessimists in Finland are embracing their town's reputation as 'the worst'
The director of the Puolanka Pessimist Association says you're invited not to visit
Tommi Rajala doesn't particularly like his town, but he's comfortable with that. He is, after all, the director of the Puolanka Pessimist Association.
Located about 650 kilometres north of Helsinki, Puolanka tends to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Its steadily declining population and high rate of unemployment are complemented by a 2 p.m. sunset in winter.
And yet, Rajala and other Puolanka residents are leaning into what many might call a grim situation by making pessimism the town's brand.
They've produced signs warning people against visiting. Their cheeky YouTube videos acknowledging the town's many shortcomings have garnered tens of thousands of views. And they've even created a musical called — you guessed it — The Pessimism Musical, which held its final show of the year on Friday.
As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Rajala about his approach to life in Puolanka. Here's part of their conversation.
Can you tell us about the warning signs that people will see as they're driving into your town?
There's a huge signs that says, "Next stop: Puolanka. You still have time to turn around." And the funny thing is that if he or she turns around, it's about 70 kilometres to go back to the previous town, of course.
This is because it's regarded as the worst town in all of Finland, right?
Yeah, in many statistics, Puolanka happens to be the worst — or among the bottom 10 towns. [We're] the fastest-dying town, or how many people are unemployed. It's always on the news that Puolanka tends to be performing really badly everywhere, in every possible scenario. That has a lot to do with it, yes.
But then on top of that ... you're all very pessimistic, right? You're known to be pessimists?
If everybody tells a child he is stupid, then the child believes he is stupid. So many people have told Puolanka that Puolanka is the worst place to be, so maybe we've [started] to believe that.
You live in Puolanka. Is is that depressing?
Yes. Yes it is.
Give us your best shot at selling us Puolanka. Let's say I'm a tourist going to Finland. Give me one good reason I might want to go see Puolanka.
Puolanka itself looks like any town in Finland. It was mostly built in the '70s and is surrounded by a lot of forest ... beautiful nature.
But so is every single other town in Finland also. So why would somebody come here? Mostly people come here because they have family here they are related to. This is not a major tourist attraction in any way. We do have the highest waterfall in Finland, but ... compared to any waterfall in any neighbouring country, it's a really tiny one.
But if I did go to Puolanka, I might be able to join your association — the Pessimist Association. Would that be fun to be part of that?
I don't know if that's fun to be a pessimist, but ... our association's members are coming from all over Finland — not only Puolanka. I don't think we have any members abroad yet. So you are welcome to join us, yes.
But there are some things to see in Puolanka, right? I mean, there's a bus that goes there six times a week. You have a grocery store ... a gas station. I can get a cup of coffee at a restaurant. Is that right?
There is currently one restaurant in town and one gas station, yes. Two grocery stores. So yeah, you can live here.
I've said that Puolanka is not a dying town; Puolanka is an already dead town. But when you accept that truth — that it's not getting better — then you can perfectly well live here.
But if you think that it will [once] again be like it was in the '70s, you will be really disappointed and you are a not a real pessimist.
So if people are pessimistic, they will really enjoy being in your town, I guess?
Well, not everybody in Puolanka likes what our association is doing. They [believe] pessimism is doing bad things for Puolanka, that it's ruining our reputation.
I don't know what there is to be ruined. Nobody's ever heard of Puolanka, unless they've heard about it through the Pessimist [Association]. Not in Finland, and definitely not in Canada.
Now probably they will fire me from the Association because of this ... and we will have next year at least one Canadian tourist coming here saying, "I heard about you on the radio, can I join you?"
And we'll say, "No you can't. Bye."
Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.