Today I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Her Excellence Ulla Väistö, Finland’s Ambassador to Romania. Ms. Väistö has been here for 4 years and will soon be wrapping up her time here in Romania. The Ambassador is a curious, open-minded, strong woman, a female role-model when it comes to leadership.
She was born in Finland and finished her Master Studies in Economics at Helsinki University. She has worked within Foreign Affairs for 30 years, in Austria, France, Germany, Mexico and now Romania.
1. What made you become a diplomat?
– There was one year in my late teens that had a big impact on me, and that was my exchange year in the USA. I changed a lot and the need to discover and see the world was born. After finishing the University I got a job at the Foreign Ministry in Helsinki and I thought that it suited me well. I spoke many languages, was interested in politics and world occurrences and I had a huge drive to be able to make an impact in the world I live in. Everywhere I go I am a vivid spokesperson for Finnish equality and human rights.
2. Do you remember your first impressions of Romania ? If yes, what were they ?
I was posted in Mexico and had only been posed in countries that were quite stable. I had grown a curiosity about learning more about eastern Europe. I met the Romanian Ambassador to Mexico, Ms. Manuela Breazu ( The Romania Ambassador to Ireland now) and she was one of the reasons why I started becoming fascinated by Romania. She always told me captivating stories of her homeland. She told me how she and her husband were educated engineers during Communism and how they were sent out to work , away from their son, who was cared for by the grandparents. Ms. Breazu organized events, such as film evenings, where she was showing humoristic Romanian films. All in all, I got very interested and wanted to know more. When there was an opening for Bucharest I applied and got the position. I visited Romania the first time in March 2011, to have a first impression of Bucharest and the embassy here. I arrived very late, with a plane from London. In the morning, as I strolled around the city and met other diplomats from the Nordic countries I realized that I would like it here ! I started working at the Embassy here in September 2011.
3. What is surprising about Romania ?
I was told before I went that the situation in Romania is very hard, but as I learned through my work, that the best thing is to take things as they come, in the country which I work in. The financial crisis struck Romania in 2009 and it is indeed a country in development, but things are moving. I believe strongly in the younger generation of Romanians.
I believe that Bucharest as a capital is a very interesting one, cultural, and with a lot of things going on all the time. It is a European capital and I always try to get my friends and relatives over ! They can only be positively surprised. Many are sceptical and it is sometimes hard to convince them. When I lived in Mexico I had visitors all the time. Here it has not been the same as Finns already have their predisposed view about Romania. Those of my friends and family who came here said in unison ” Wow ” and ” What a positive surprise!”.
4. When you describe Romania to your friends and family, what do you actually say ?
I keep saying the same things as you : ” Come and see for yourself” It is hard to convince them by words and even pictures. I also tell them about far away places in Romania, places that are unique and that you can’t find anywhere else in Europe any-longer. If I would have a month to travel with my friends I would have them see Marmaures, Bucovina and the Danube Delta. There is an absolutely special ambiance, especially in Bucovina. The monasteries are stunning and special ! Other places that I would take my Finnish friends to are : Brasov, Cluj, Timisoara and Oradea.
5. What can Romania and the Romanians offer to us Scandinavians ?
Us Scandinavians are rather reserved, cold and tend to keep the distance. The Romanians melt us with their warmth and their strong value of human connections. They are overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. Anywhere in the country I traveled it was the same ! It is contagious, kindness !
6. What can Finland offer to Romania, with regards to values, minset, culture, and so forth ?
We can contribute with our approach to education, how we set up the Finnish schools in a system where everyone is included, a school for all, not only the elite. We can contribute with our values of equality where women being more often represented in leadership positions. I am often invited to speak at Female Business Forums and at Universities, here in Romania. I talk about matters with regards to female leadership and representation important positions in society. Women in Romania meet different challenges than women in Finland.
Finnish values are inclusive and we work to strengthen weaker groups such as handicapped people and minorities.
We also work for good governance which means anti-corruption.
Some people say that we can’t compare Finland to Romania, as Romania is still in a developing phase after Communism fell in 1989. What I usually say is that Finland was a very poor country after the World War 2. We had to pay war reparations, that is compensation, for the losses Soviet Union had suffered in the war 1941-44. We did this up until 1952. Finland had to reshape itself after the war: the educational system, roads, industry, leadership, all. What we had that made a difference, were leaders who worked for the good of the country. They wanted the best for its inhabitants!
7. Who are the Romanians you think are inspirational and why ?
I have met many well-educated women here in Romania, whom do well. I don’t want to pick one or two, but just say, many. They are in positions in business and administration. We think in the same way, we wish to do good. They are people in important positions in society. For example I am thinking of some leaders within NGO’s who are doing splendid jobs !
I also have high hopes on the President Mr. Klaus Iohannis. He seems to be serious in his job wanting to lead Romania forward. If I look at what he did in Sibiu I feel hopeful. I hope he will be a stabile President, because Romania needs stability !
Who else ? I admire Enescu, Eminescu and Brancusi. Simona Halep is a good role model and singer Angela Gheorghiu is amazing !
8. Let us know more about your fascination about the IA, the Romanian blouse :
When I lived in Mexico I was very much into their handicraft and I was very much impressed and fond of it and believed I had seen it all, that nothing could be more amazing than that ! The art and life are so diverse and I had a feeling I had seen it all !
…then I encountered the Romanian blouse. I was taken by its beauty and the fact that people was actually wearing it. I could even wear it, being a foreigner ! Every blouse is unique and I got my first one at the Christmas market, at the Muzeul Taranuui Roman, The Peasant’s Museum in Bucharest. Now I started to collect them and I have blouses from Maramures, Transylvania, Moldavia and Oltenia. I love the classical pictures that Matisse made , of the IA. Now fashion designers get inspired by them. I have 6-7 friends in Finland who wish for me to buy them a blouse !
9. Do you have some mottos in life and how do you apply them ?
The most important thing for me is to stay open and curious, not to believe in rumours but to dig deeper and find out yourself how things really are. It is also important for me to show respect to others.