Why I Love Finland

Since you're probably all bored with me talking about my new book all the time, I thought I'd try something different today and try to explain why it is that I'm always going on about Finland these days.

It all started in January this year, which feels like an awfully long time ago now. I've got some friends living in Jyväskylä, a town in central Finland, and so I decided to pay them a visit.  The only advice I received was "bring plenty of warm clothes", which turned out to be very good advice indeed.

Finland in January is cold. Very cold. -27 degrees Celsius when I stepped off the plane in fact, cold enough to freeze the inside of your nose. Cold enough that you didn't need to use the huge bridge that crosses Jyväskylä's lake, since it was frozen thick enough to walk across. Or ski across, if you prefer.

 Yes, I'm standing in the middle of a lake right now

Yes, I'm standing in the middle of a lake right now

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So yes, wrap up warm if you visit in winter. But I was never at all cold inside; the Finns seem to understand heating and insulation far better than we do in Britain.

I spent my first visit getting to know Jyväskylä.  It's a nice town, with a good university and lots of buildings designed by the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto.

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One thing you realise very quickly in Finland (as an English-speaker, at least) is how alien the language is. Whereas anyone with English and a smattering of French or German can often figure out the gist of most written languages throughout Europe, that won't get you very far with Finnish.  It's a Uralic language, along with Hungarian and Estonian, and so it comes from a completely different root from the Indo-European languages we know and love.

That means that not only is the vocabulary completely unlike anything in English, the grammar is very different too, relying a lot on different cases with different word endings. I've been trying to teach myself, and I've managed to pick up a lot of the basics, but there's an awfully long way to go. Still, it's a nice challenge to learn something so very different.

One other thing I picked up on my first visit was a love of Finnish vodka, and Koskenkorva in particular. I've drunk plenty of Russian vodka before (or at least, the sort that's sold in the UK - I'd be very happy to learn this isn't typical of what the Russians actually drink) but it's a drink with a clear purpose, and that purpose isn't to provide a great flavour. Koskenkorva, on the other hand, tastes absolutely delicious straight, particularly when drunk straight out from the freezer.

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Even aside from Koskenkorva, the range of drinks on offer in Finland is quite diverse. Who needs Jaegerbombs when you've got fish shots, pine shots, mint shots and salmiakki shots? The latter is made from salmiakki, a kind of salted liquorice which is perhaps an acquired taste, but the Finns love it and by the time I left so did I.

By the way, if you think Finnish beer is a bit flavourless, take it in the sauna to properly appreciate it.

 Not all mine, I promise

Not all mine, I promise

My second visit to Finland came in July, by which point it was a completely different country. Instead of the freezing cold of winter, the climate was now much more like a decent English summer. Instead of short days, now there are just a few hours of twilight before the sun rises once again.

 This was taken about 3am. In another hour it would be as bright as noon.

This was taken about 3am. In another hour it would be as bright as noon.

 Jyväskylä in the summer - contrast with the same shot above

Jyväskylä in the summer - contrast with the same shot above

This time I had some other friends with me, and so we hired a car and went on a bit of a road trip from Jyväskylä up to Nilsiä and down to Helsinki. Driving between towns in Finland, you come to realise just how sparsely populated it is. Just five and a half million people live there - the rest is trees.

 Lots of trees

Lots of trees

As you might expect, this makes for some rather beautiful landscapes. The picture at the top of this webpage (and on the front of my book) was taken at Koli national park, from where you can look out as far as Russia. There's also a lot of wildlife, although unfortunately (or perhaps not) I still haven't seen a bear.

July, like every other time in Finland, is the perfect time for a sauna. It's a massive part of Finnish culture, and there are supposedly two million saunas in the county (for five and a half million people, remember). You probably won't believe me until you've tried it, but there are few things more fun than jumping from a scorching sauna into a freezing lake.

 Lighting the sauna

Lighting the sauna

The stereotypical Finnish sauna is located at the kesämökki (summer cabin), a little wooden cabin on the side of a lake.

 The sauna

The sauna

 The lake

The lake

My third visit to Finland this year came in December. It seems that it's been quite a mild winter so far, and I'd been told that all the snow had been washed away. Despite this there was still more snow than you're ever likely to see in England.

There was one thing in particular I wanted to try this time: skiing. Not downhill, since Finland isn't particularly mountainous, but cross-country. I'd never done any kind of skiing before, so I didn't quite know what to expect, but I went to a winter sport park with one of my friends (who had at least skied once more than me) and rented some skis.

Unfortunately, so early in the year there was only a single course open, and with hindsight it probably wasn't the best one for beginners, particularly those without any instruction. My skiing proved to be mostly falling down hills and trying to work out how to regain my feet while on a slope. The end result was a lot of bruises, but I'm looking forward to trying again in the future. I can only get better, right?

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So, that's my experience of Finland so far. Aside from the above, it's also extremely clean and has awesome trains. The people can be shy, or rather quiet, but also very friendly. It's the only country I know of to have defeated both Nazi Germany and the USSR in the Second World War. It has the world's best schools and I've seen no signs of poverty. It's home to the one and only Father Christmas (known locally as Joulupukki). It has the highest ratio of metal bands to people of any country (as well as some great music from other genres, too), and drinks more coffee than anyone else either.

So that's why I love Finland. Why don't you visit it yourself someday?

UPDATE: If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my other articles about Finland. Take a look!