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Vappu Berggren: Of course the world has changed in 100 years

Vappu Berggren: Of course the world has changed in 100 years

| Text: Bengt Östling, photo: Cata Portin

Ståhlberg, Relander, Svinhufvud, Kallio, Ryti, Mannerheim, Paasikivi, Kekkonen, Koivisto, Ahtisaari, Halonen and Niinistö!

Vappu Berggren recites all the presidents since Finland’s independence without a hitch. She is only one month younger than her native Finland. On 6 December 1917 the Diet of  Finland – the legislative assembly – recognised a declaration of independence, and Finland gained its independence from Russia. One month later Vappu was born. Before all this, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire for over 100 years (1809 – 1917), and before that a part of Sweden. 

It started with a war

Vappu Berggren was born in January 1918, the year the Finnish civil war began. The White Guard supported by the political right, clashed with the socialist Red Guard, resulting in a war and many dead, especially among the loosing Reds.

Vappu’s life has been simple, with no great drama according to herself. Soon turning 100 is nothing special, an being as old as Finland is what it is.

“You are old when your child is 73”

When we meet Vappu Berggren in her home, she is being visited by her children, the support troupes.

“That’s when you realise you are old, when the oldest child is 73, and the others are all retired. It doesn’t feel right,” jokes Vappu Berggren.

Vappu family photo

She lives alone in her own home, a large wooden building just outside the centre of Punkalaidun municipality.


This is where she started working at a café aged 17. She was promised a cow if she worked for ten years. But after six years she got a husband instead, and left her job. The café closed during the war in the 1940s, as there were no goods to sell. The rationing of groceries and luxury products was tough. Later the house came up for sale, and she moved in with her husband.

And she has stayed here ever since.

The house has been modernised, but old wood burners and such remain. 

“It doesn’t feel so strange to live in your old workplace, you feel at home here,” says Vappu Berggren. She does not want to move.

There used to be children

In 2016 more people died than were born in Finland. There are two exemptions in history. Both during the war in 1918 and in the war years 1939 – 1945 more died than were born.

After the war came the babyboom, as a result of the joy and newfound safe knowledge of better times to come after the war against the Soviet Union. The majority of that generation have retired already, the rest dream about doing the same. 

Finland is ageing, that is something which has changed. Earlier there were many children in the municipality. Vappu gave birth to five children herself. She has since had ten grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren. There is much life and action when they come visiting, says Vappu Berggren.

Vappu small

She now needs a walking frame to move around the house, which has been adapted to her needs. She gets help from the municipal home care service three times a day.

The recipe: a simple life?

She keeps returning to the fact that there is very little she can tell us. Life has been simple. She has mainly stayed true to her home municipality, and travelled little. Sweden is the only foreign country she has visited. She has been on a plane once, on the domestic flight between Helsinki and Joensuu. 

“These days even babies are taken abroad. I was 13 when I was allowed to visit a train station for the first time, to see a train. Just to look at the train, we weren’t going anywhere, life was simpler then.”

To Vappu this is a fun and exciting memory.

Migration waves are nothing new

A lot of people arrived in Sweden to find work in the 1970s, also from Punkalaidun, but it was not on the cards for Vappu and her husband.

During the war in the 1940s, many war children were sent to Sweden, there was a lack of everything in Finland.  Later the first great immigration wave arrived in Punkalaidun too – people from the province of Karelia which Finland had to cede to the Soviet Union.

Vappu remembers the war as a dark time. Many men died, the number of heroes’ graves grew. One of Vappu’s brothers also died in the war. Her husband was spared going to the front to fight Russia, and worked on the home front instead.

“Would have lived the same life over again”

Older people in Finland are often described as being content, something Vappu can confirm.  

“Of course I am happy with my life, very happy. I don’t regret a thing, and would have lived the same life over again.

Finland’s centenary celebrations are nothing special to her.

“It is being celebrated by others. But of course, the world has changed a lot in 100 years. People have it better than before. They were poorer then, but people were happy with what they had. There was work for everyone. Everything was done by hand and with horsepower during long working days.”

Easier work, important machines

Work seems easier today with so much technology and machines helping us out. It is hard to say which machine helps Vappu’s life the most. Perhaps the mobile telephone for her contacts. Cars, rather than having to walk long distances or maybe go by horse. The refrigerator to keep food fresh. Or electricity – there wasn’t any in her own childhood home. Or perhaps the television, which still isn’t that important.

“Entertainment programmes are made for much younger people, there is nothing on the TV for us older people,” complains Vappu Berggren.

Longer working life difficult for many

When Vappu retired she had been working as a seamstress for 15 years. She left that job with no great regret at 65. But you get the impression that she, like most women in the countryside, has always had work to do in the home. If nothing else there has been sewing, handiwork and growing crops on the farm. 

Vappu Berggren is relatively healthy for her age. Yet at 97 she had to stop going to the gym. She now needs a walking frame and must look after her diabetes. She gets health visitors three times a day, her children come at other times. If not it would hardly have been possible for her to stay at home.

More and more centenarians 

Around 30 percent of the Punkalaidun population have turned 65, the Finnish pensionable age. The number for the rest of Finland is below 20 percent. You can understand why municipal politicians feel the need to look for new residents, preferably larger families with children.

Vappu is not entirely sure that she will make her own hundredth birthday. But the venue and the catering has been ordered, and there will be a big party. 

People talk about genes, healthy living and working in the garden as causes for living to a ripe old age. Vappu Berggren has no further advice. But more and more people do as she has done.

When Vappu Berggren was born there were fewer than ten centenarians in the whole of Finland. Now, as it is time for Vappu to celebrate one hundred, the number has risen to nearly 800!

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