Finland: Introduction

  • © Chrisss,

    © Chrisss,

There is a quiet ‘splash’ out on the lake. A duck has just dived under to catch a fish. The concentric circles on the glassy surface of the water show where the bird disappeared from view. Somewhere in the forest around about, the tell-tale tapping of a woodpecker can be heard. Otherwise there is nothing. Only peace and quiet, the little cabin on the lake, the jetty and the sun that is high in the sky. Tervetuloa Suomeen – Welcome to Finland! 

Welcome to the far north, to the wild and lonely part of Europe. Finland is often called the ‘country of thousands of lakes’ – but this is a slight understatement. Anyone who comes here can look forward to some 200,000 lakes, 2 million saunas and sheer endless forests.

The countryside is like a flecked carpet of blues and greens with a scattering of little red-painted houses with white windows in between. These Bullerby-like log cabins with saunas, called mökki in Finnish, are a paradise for nature-lovers. No rushing around, no stress, no noise: two weeks at the lakeside are pure balsam for the soul. The Finns really know how to enjoy the summer. 

In summer everything bursts into life 

Only 5.3 million people live in Suomi, as the Finnish call their country. Their way of living is governed by the short summer when everything comes to life with a rush. Anybody travelling around the country in mid summer – around 21 June – will find that nobody goes to sleep: they are all out celebrating. In summer, life shifts to the countryside; out of the cities and into the great outdoors.

The sun never sets, but bathes the night in a diffused, silvery dusk-like light. These are carefree days when life is celebrated to the full, such as during the lively festivities around Midsummer’s Day or tango dancing under a starry sky. The largest tango festival of its kind takes place every year in July in a little place called Seinäjoki. And with the summer, a range of weird and wonderful competitions take place, such as motocross races on dirt tracks, swamp soccer, boat races, or wellie-throwing competitions – a sport that is already well-established in England. But as strange as these events may seem, they are also rather deceptive. The Finns are not cultural ‘lightweights’. Quite the opposite.

The summer is also a time for established cultural highlights. In Savonlinna, the Covent Garden of the north, the world-famous opera festival is held every year in July. And high-calibre art finds its way beyond the very last birch tree: internationally well-known artists tour the country from June until August, playing at the chamber music festival in Kuhmo on the Russian border, for example, or attending the Midnight Sun Film Festival in tiny Sodankylä in Lapland. There is always enough space for theatrical performances in summer, even in the smallest of villages. And you may even be surprised to find works of art right in the middle of nowhere. 

A house on a lake and the holiday is perfect

The most important ingredient for a perfect summer, however, is that little holiday house called a mökki. Vitually every Finn has one – or at least has friends who own one. While Helsinki is left to the tourists in the summer – and several pubs and restaurants in the capital are closed between June and August – the locals relax in their cabins and recover from a year of hard work, the city, the noise and the adversities of life. Every mökki has a sauna – something that can be taken for granted in just the same way as every mökki has a front door and windows. And should you ever be invited by friends or neighbours to join them for a sauna during their holiday, don’t turn it down whatever you do: an invitation to a sauna is the Finnish token of friendship. 

The comforting heat of the sauna also helps the Finns through the long winter months, when the arctic darkness falls across the country. Traditional Finns brave the cold and go off on cross-country skis or snowshoes to keep fit – virtually every town and village has floodlit cross-country tracks and trails. Modern-thinking northerners prefer to zoom around on snowmobiles, roaring at up to 70 km/h through the snowy countryside.

Whatever your preference, a sauna afterwards is a must – and the really hardy types cool off afterwards by jumping through a hole in the ice! Everyone goes to great pains to make life in the dark and cold as varied as possible and to carry on as usual despite adverse conditions. The Finns face up to the forces of Nature with a  doggedness typical of the country as a whole. Airports, for example, operate normally even in extreme conditions and mountains of snow are removed as a matter of course.

The notion of 'Sisu'

In a country of individualists and lone wolves, where neighbours can be many miles away, sisu is a virtue of the first order. This is the ability to achieve one’s aims with a pertinacity bordering on stubbornness. Sisu is definitely one of the reasons that Suomi is an ambitious industrial nation and counts as one of the world’s most innovative and competitive countries.

Children are equipped with the skills needed for a successful professional life on the international stage while at school. Just how successfully Finland does this has been confirmed time and again in studies on educational standards. Even in their first year at school, for example, children have computer lessons and learn a foreign language.

That’s just as well really, as Finnish counts as an ‘exotic’ language. It is one of a small family of Finno-Ugric languages that are in danger of dying out. Anyone who seriously wants to get to know the Finnish culture in some depth should at least try to learn a few words of this seemingly strange language – but you should also remember that Finns are happy to help visitors any time in English.

A Nation of tolerance

Finland is a tolerant nation which is always willing to make compromises.
For some 500 years the Finnish people were ruled by the Kingdom of Sweden. The upper classes spoke Swedish; Finnish was the language of farmers and foresters. Separated from the ‘mainland’ by the Baltic and with its 1200 km-long (750 mi) border with Russia, the region was often a bone of contention between the two major powers and fell to Russia in 1809. Its status as an autonomous ‘Grand Principality’ laid the cornerstone for the later nation of Finland. Helsinki became the seat of parliament, a national identity was kindled and the Finnish language was recognised as the second official language in 1863.

Music and architecture developed a style of their own, too. In 1917, the Finns boldly declared independence during the October Revolution in Russia and were put to the hardest of tests on several occasions during the confusion of both world wars. Today, Finland is a parliamentary democracy and is one of the most stable societies in the world. The country is a committed member of the EU. Neutrality, the ability to compromise, reservation and tolerance characterise its political position. 

The home of bears, wolves and eagles

Sometimes Finland is hastily passed off as being monotonous. To put it more succinctly: one has to like being on one’s own to like the country. Those who need a lot of company will not feel at home here. At 16 people per km², the population density of Finland is very low; some areas of the country are extremely thinly populated and Lapland - which after all makes up one third of the country – is virtually uninhabited. But this brings a lot of advantages with it. As a tourist, you can look forward to swimming and fishing as much as you like in clear lakes, and to breathing unpolluted air.

Those who love Finland enjoy hiking for hours on end or going off on paddling tours through a natural environment which, although not always totally untouched, is still home to bears and eagles, wolves, otters and many other animals and plants. Millions of berries and mushrooms wait to be harvested every year. Restaurants cook with fresh, regional produce that is frequently organic in quality even if it comes without the official seal of approval.

While environmental awareness is growing, Finland is, however, not a ‘green’ fairy-tale country. Energy policies are based on nuclear power, marshlands are being drained on a large scale, forests chopped down and urban settlements often sprawl seemingly without any conscious planning into the surrounding countryside. The rapid rural exodus after World War II resulted in unimaginative blocks of flats being built in the middle of what were once idyllic towns.

By contrast, there are also very pretty corners to explore, such as the wooden house districts in coastal towns. The culturally interested are more likely to find what they are looking for in the wealthier south of the country with its houses, art galleries and marinas than in the harsh, untamed north – although that also has its surprises in store, too. Suomi is fascinating and different in its own unique way, wherever you go. Nowhere else is the light in the summer as bright and the lakes in the evening as peaceful as here. This is where you can take a deep breath and recharge your batteries. Welcome to Finland!

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