Learning Finnish

I'm going to be visiting Finland again for the New Year, which means I probably ought to be revising my Finnish in preparation. That makes for a good opportunity to write something I've had in mind for ages.

This isn't an attempt to teach anyone Finnish - my own knowledge is extremely basic, and I'd like to be clear about that from the start (if anything I've said is wrong, I apologise, but please do let me know!). This is simply a way of sharing what I've learned from my own experience of studying the language, in the hope that others in a similar position might find it useful.

JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE SUMMER

JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE SUMMER

Why Learn Finnish?

A very good question, you might think. Of all the languages you could try to learn, no-one's going to claim that Finnish is one of the most useful in general around the world. There are said to be around 5 million speakers of Finnish, of whom you won't find very many outside of Finland itself. Unless you live there you shouldn't expect to need to speak it very often.

Still, I wouldn't say it's without its uses. While I'm probably unlikely to ever be the best French or German speaker in any given situation, however hard I try with those languages, if the time ever does come when a Finnish speaker is called for at my firm (for example) I suspect even my rudimentary knowledge will put me ahead of anyone else.

Of course, Finnish is going to be of most use to you if you intend having anything to do with Finland (and if you don't see why you might want to do that, may I point you towards a previous post of mine?). In that case, some Finnish will be very handy. English won't get you very far, for two main reasons:

  1. English isn't that widely spoken. in Finland Now, a lot of Finns speak very good English, but it's far less common than you'd find in Western Europe. It's not even the second language - Swedish is Finland's other official language (there is a significant population of Swedish-speaking Finns) and a compulsory subject at all levels of Finnish education. Of course, none of this is intended as a criticism; why should Finns learn English just to make things easier for us when they have a perfectly good language of their own? It's simply to make you aware that you shouldn't expect to be able to find an English translation wherever you go.
  2. You won't be able to figure it out like you might with French/German/Spanish etc. That's because Finnish is unrelated to almost any other European language - technically it's from the Uralic language family, rather than the Indo-European family that includes most European languages as well as Hindi, Russian and Urdu. It's therefore extremely different to anything you're likely familiar with, both in vocabulary and grammar (more on this later).
JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE WINTER

JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE WINTER

How To Learn

I suppose that the best way to learn would be lessons with a native speaker, but I'm going to assume for the purpose of this that you're as busy/cheap as I am and looking to self-teach.

Unfortunately resources for learning Finnish are limited compared to more widely-spoken languages. For instance, you won't find a Roaetta Stone course (I've no idea whether it would be any good if there was, having never tried one). That said, there are still useful materials you should look out for.

My starting point was a book called 'Finnish For Foreigners' by Maija-Hellikki Aaltio. It's out of print now, I think, but you may be able to find second hand copies online. It might be a little dated now but I found the lessons quite helpful and the explanations of grammar clear.  There is an exercise book to accompany it, and if you follow that you'll be able to pick up the basics. There's also an accompanying audio CD, if you can find that too, with a few listening exercises. I like it, although it's probably better for learning reading/writing than spoken Finnish.

That concern led me to pick up 'Teach Yourself Finnish' by Terttu Leney. It's part of the ubiquitous Teach Yourself range (I'd previously used one of their book/CD sets to pick up some very elementary Dutch) and will be familiar if you've ever tried any of their other courses.  It's much more focused on listening exercises than Finnish For Foreigners, although I personally found it a bit harder to pick up the grammar. I'd say the two books work well used in conjunction, though.

With any language you're going to need to find a way of learning vocabulary that suits you. Flash cards are often a good way, but for a more high-tech alternative I'd recommend a website/app called Memrise.  At its core it's effectively flash cards, but with a few brilliant innovations. For one thing, it uses 'mems', which are pictures or mnemonic phrases submitted by users for particular words to help you remember them. For another, users can record the pronunciation of words to be played along with the card. Since this is all created by the userbase rather than a central authority, even for languages like Finnish there is already a very good collection of mems and recordings.

You can choose to follow pre-existing courses (again, submitted by users) or you can make your own. Personally I made a course with lessons containing all the vocabulary for each chapter of my books, as a way of memorising it alongside my study. It then uses an aparently well-researched system of revision and testing to help the words lodge in your mind and stay there.

There are also a whole range of features like points, friends and leaderboards that make it rather addictive. Even better, it's free. It has recently introduced a premium membership with some additional features, but you still get all of the above without paying.

Finally, I also like the book 'Finnish: An Essential Grammar' by Fred Karlsson. As the title suggests, it's a pretty comprehensive guide to Finnish grammar. It's most useful where you're struggling with some particularly weird Finnish rule that you've come across in the other books and want to see it properly explained. It's also a good reference for looking things up when you're trying to put your own sentences together.

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How Finnish Is Different

As I noted earlier, Finnish is likely very different from any other language you know. That can make it a bit more difficult - or more of an interesting challenge, depending on your point of view. However, one of the things that bothered me trying to learn some Dutch was that I could never tell how much of my understanding came from actual learning and how much was cheating based on what I knew of English and German. With Finnish, though, you get the satisfaction of knowing that anything you understand is a sign of what you've learned.

Here are some of the things you should expect from learning Finnish:

  1. Alien vocabulary. Finnish words bear no relation to their equivalents in any other language you know (unless you know Estonian or Hungarian, that is). If you're in Finland and see something that you think you can translate, it's more than likely Swedish.
  2. Long words. Finnish is an agglutinative language, which as far as I can tell means that it works by sticking stuff onto the end of words. There are various cases for nouns, which give them different suffixes.  Some of these are for where English would use prepositions. For example, the word sauna means 'sauna' (yes, really), but if you wanted to say 'in the sauna' you would say saunassa. Similarly, you can turn anything into a question by adding the suffix '-ko' e.g. saunassako? - 'In the sauna?' If you see a long word, it can quite possibly be broken down into an entire sentence.
  3. Surprisingly easy pronunciation. Pronunciation in Finnish is generally very regular, and stress is always on the first syllable, which means that once you know how each letter and diphthong is supposed to sound you can pronounce most words.
  4. No future tense. This one takes some getting used to. In Finnish, to talk about the future you use the present tense, with the appropriate words to indicate the time (such as 'tomorrow') if necessary. This supposedly has some interesting psychological effects; a study has found that people who speak languages without a future tense tend to be better prepared for the future.
  5. A separate form of language for speaking. This is annoying when you learn the written form and then realise that everyone is speaking something slightly different, and that you sound silly to them. Oh, and that's not even getting into the dialects.
  6. Gender-neutral pronouns. The pronoun hän means both 'he' or 'she'. While the difference in English can sometimes be convenient, it is also very annoying when trying to talk about a person of unknown gender, and forces you to use cumbersome descriptions (e.g. 'the robed figure') in sentences crying out for a pronoun.
  7. No articles. You can't say 'a car' or 'the car', just 'car'. The meaning is normally clear from word order.
THE HELSINKI CATHEDRAL

THE HELSINKI CATHEDRAL

The Bare Essentials

I know I said I wasn't going to teach any Finnish, but as with most languages, you can go lo a long way with a few simple words and phrases. In no particular order, here are a few that you really need to know before visiting Finland:

Hei means 'hello'. You can also use moi, or (hyväähuomenta which means 'good morning'.

Näkemiin means 'goodbye'.

Kiitos means 'thank you' but you can also use it to say 'please' (two words for the price of one!). When handing something over (e.g. money) you can also say olkaa hyvä, which is used like 'here you go' .

Hauska tavata means 'nice to meet you'.

Saanko...? means 'can I have...?'

Olutta means beer. Koskenkorva is a delicious brand of vodka. So, at a bar you might say Saanko Koskenkorva, kiitos?

HELSINKI RAILWAY STATION

HELSINKI RAILWAY STATION

Conclusion

I hope that this might be of some use if you're trying to learn Finnish. I've tried to keep things simple, but if you notice any errors please do let me know and I'll correct them. Also, if you have any suggestions for other good ways to learn Finnish, I'd be very glad to hear them!


If you liked this you might also be interested in my other articles about Finland. Alternatively you might want to read my first novel. I can't promise that it will help you learn Finnish, but then again I can't promise that it won't.

On The Road

As I mentioned recently, I've been reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road and it's been bringing back some great memories of my own trip to America. Thought it might be quite fun to try to put them into writing (ok, and pictures too). So, here we go.

I visited the USA for the first and so far only time in the summer of 2012.  It was the gap between the completion of the Legal Practice Course and the start of my training contract in September, and so potentially the last chance for a six week holiday for quite some time. I got together with Rob (an old friend from primary school) and Strev (Rob's friend from university and subsequently a good friend of my own) and we booked flights, a hotel for the first few nights and a hire car for the duration.

We flew out to Las Vegas on the 4th July, as it happens. It was the first time I'd been on a plane for more than a couple of hours, so the strange neither-day-nor-night of a transatlantic flight was a new experience in itself. We eventually landed in Vegas itself in the early evening and checked into our hotel near the South end of the Strip, and then set out to explore.

Venice? No the Venetian Casino, because whyever  wouldn't  you build an artificial canal in the middle of a desert?

Venice? No the Venetian Casino, because whyever wouldn't you build an artificial canal in the middle of a desert?

Vegas is, at least in my limited experience, a unique and incredible place. It's quite exhausting, actually: both from the deep dry heat that drives you quickly from one air-conditioned relief to another, but also from the sheer quantity of things going on to grab your attention. The city seems to be set up to cater purely for visitors looking for a good time, and it fulfills that purpose admirably. Everywhere you look there's something different. The casinos, of course, are a big part of everything, but you don't even really need to gamble if you don't want to: each casino is also a showhall, shopping centre, hotel, leisure park and architectural curiosity in itself. Each has its own theme, and they offer all kinds of free entertainment to get people in the doors, so it's well worth seeing as many as you can. As it happened I didn't really have the money to really gamble it away, but I did put $10 on red at the roulette table and doubled my money, so I like to think I came away having beaten the house.

You don't actually need to see the rest of the world; it's all here in Vegas

You don't actually need to see the rest of the world; it's all here in Vegas

This is the old side of Vegas, at the north end of the Strip

This is the old side of Vegas, at the north end of the Strip

On the second day we collected our car from the airport, a Mazda Versa. Having never driven an automatic before, or driven abroad at all, this took some getting used to. Somehow on the way back to the hotel I managed to end up on a huge Interstate road and the Strip itself, but once the initial terror was past driving became rather fun. One thing you can say about America is that it's big, and so once you get out of the cities it's like you've got the roads to yourself.

Fact: you can't photograph a car in America without it looking like an advert

Fact: you can't photograph a car in America without it looking like an advert

After a few days in Vegas we set off into the desert. Our first day's destination was Kingman, a small town in Arizona on Route 66 where we visited the town museum and the extremely friendly man there told us all about the presidents in his gallery and showed us his snakeskin. Then we carried on along the 66 to Flagstaff, from where we had a day exploring the Grand Canyon. Without wanting to sound too obvious, it's pretty spectacular. I've seen no end of pictures of it, of course, but none have ever really captured the true scale of it. Took a bus ride along in one direction, and then drove out along the other. Really worth seeing if you ever get the chance.

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From there, the next destination was Los Angeles. We didn't really have any kind of plan, but generally navigated based on how far we thought we could drive and where we could find a cheap motel. This took us one night to Prescott and the next to Parker, then Twenty Nine Palms before reaching Lancaster just north of LA.

The food, throughout the holiday, was great, although not by any standards healthy. It turned out to be surprisingly hard to find fresh food, but all too cheap and convenient to sample the many chains of fast food far nicer than the ones that have made it over to the UK. One place I really wish we could import is Denny's, a twenty four hour diner where you can stroll in at 1am and order a massive plate of pancakes (as we did on one occasion). One warning though: the brightly-coloured non-alcoholic cocktails they serve (with free refills, just like everywhere else!) have a very odd effect on your digestion. You've really got to see it for yourself to believe it.

This place was every bit as awesome as it looks

This place was every bit as awesome as it looks

As was this little diner on Route 66

As was this little diner on Route 66

In Lancaster we went along to the local minor league baseball game. I'd seen a couple of games on the TV and Rob and Strev had managed to explain the rules, which are essentially pretty simple. It was a very fun evening; it seemed quite a large proportion of the town had turned out to the game, but no-one seemed to take it too seriously. It was more a chance to hang out with friends, drink beer, eat hot dogs, chant songs and cheer a lot. Would be nice to have something like that over here.

Hard to beat for a summer evening's entertainment

Hard to beat for a summer evening's entertainment

From Lancaster we drove through the hills down into LA itself. It's a strange city full of strange people. We were staying at a Motel 6 in Arcadia, a place in the north of the city which allowed us to avoid driving through too much of the city. Also, the options for cheap motels were either there or Compton.

LA!

LA!

There's a lot to LA (unsurprisingly), but it's generally pretty spread out. There's the downtown area. and then there's Hollywood, and there's the various beaches, but you definitely need to take the bus to get between them, and there was nowhere that really felt unmistakeably LA - you could have been in a city anywhere, which is certainly not something you could say about Vegas or (as we would later find) San Francisco. Don't get me wrong, I still like LA, but I don't think it's a place you can really get to know in a few days.

Hollywood!

Hollywood!

Home of the Dodgers. A little bigger than the Lancaster JetHawks' stadium, but the atmosphere is the same

Home of the Dodgers. A little bigger than the Lancaster JetHawks' stadium, but the atmosphere is the same

We went to Downtown, Hollywood, Santa Monica and Redondo Beach, as well as a baseball game at the Dodgers' stadium. On Santa Monica pier we watched a band playing a few songs as a soundcheck before their gig that evening. They were very good, and it turned out Rob and Strev had given them their first UK airplay on their university radio station. The band's name: Haim. Bear in mind this was July 2012, six months before they were chosen as the BBC Sound of 2013 and a year before they played Glastonbury. Anyway, that's enough hipsterism for now.

I doubt you'll be able to find such a small audience for Haim these days

I doubt you'll be able to find such a small audience for Haim these days

I said people in LA were strange. Probably the best example of this was encountered one night when we made the mistake of trying to walk back to the motel after catching a late bus back from Redondo beach. Here's a tip: any distance that is visible on any map in the USA, no matter how small it looks, will turn out to be massive. On the way we met a chubby man in a bright pink shellsuit, who was being pursued by a small dachshund trailing its lead behind it. He asked us what city this was; we told him LA. He continued. A little while later we passed a burger restaurant surrounded by the police. No matter how many times I've considered this story, I've yet to come up with a plausible interpretation.

Santa Monica beach

Santa Monica beach

Sunset at Redondo Beach

Sunset at Redondo Beach

After LA we headed north, to the coast and up towards San Francisco. Victorville, Bakersfield and then Pismo Beach. Nice place. Had a bread bowl full of clam chowder, which was delicious. Really wish I could find some in England. Standing by the pier that evening I somehow got talking to a young lady who it seemed had spent the last few days in Pismo dropping acid and antagonising the police. She told me she had declared herself to be a sovereign state, and that the last time she had gone in the sea she had washed up three miles along the coast, and so she was here tonight to make peace with it. I hope she was alright.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach

We eventually reached San Francisco. I'd say out of all the places we visited it's (earthquakes aside) the one I'd most like to live in. For one thing it's got a much more reasonable climate that those places further south and away from the coast, which for someone who doesn't deal well with heat is quite a major advantage. It felt like it had far more character than LA, which is I think helped by the fact it's geographically pretty small: you can quite easily walk around San Francisco itself. It's very hilly, too, which means that most places have a pretty decent view out over the sea or the bay. Plus it has trams, which is always a bonus.

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The Bay Bridge to Oakland

The Bay Bridge to Oakland

We stayed in a hostel near the centre, and shared a room with another Englishman. He was probably in his late thirties and was far more well-travelled than us; he seemed to have visited most parts of the world at some point or another. Unfortunately, he described almost everywhere he'd been as shit. The one exception was North Korea, where he had visited on a guided holiday from China after getting bored of Tibet. From the way he described it, North Korea was the only place that had impressed him. His opinion of San Francisco on his first day: "a load of crackheads". To be fair to him, we did see the most overt drugs deal ever going on just down the road, so maybe he had a bit of a point.

Tram? Well, it's a cable car actually

Tram? Well, it's a cable car actually

Did I mention trams? They're pretty cool. San Franciso has all sorts. There are the really old ones, technically cable cars, that are dragged along by moving cable - you can visit the winding station that powers them - as well as the more modern electric ones. One night we were riding one of the old sort home when it got stuck going up a hill around a corner. We jumped off and gave it a push to get going again. Now, that's an experience you're never likely to get on the Tube.

This is the place that moves all those cable cars

This is the place that moves all those cable cars

There's obviously far too much to do in San Franciso in the few days we were there, but I think we made the most of our time. One day we walked out across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a stunning view.

Sorry, only one picture of the Golden Gate Bridge allowed, or this technically becomes an Apple advert

Sorry, only one picture of the Golden Gate Bridge allowed, or this technically becomes an Apple advert

We left San Francisco and carried on a bit further north before cutting inland, eventually reaching Sacramento. I must admit it's not a city I'd heard of before visiting, but it's actually the state capital of California. Pretty cool place, too. You can visit the Capital building, which looks a lot like its counterpart in DC, and see the legislature chambers and the governor's office, previously home to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Me and a bear outside the Governor's office

Me and a bear outside the Governor's office

From Sacramento we drove next to Modesto, where we caught another game of minor league baseball. It was a good game, but all the better for the presence of the slightly-mad but brilliant local cheerleader Mike on the Mic. We drove around the town for a bit beforehand looking for anything else to do, but weren't able to find anything. One thing we realised on this trip is that a lot of US towns, at least on the west coast, don't generally have what we'd think of in Europe as a town centre. There's the main street, stretching for miles and interspersed with commercial and residential buildings, but nowhere that you could point to as a focal point of the town. Particularly in this heat, you'd probably want to drive between shops rather than walking. Perhaps that explains why in Hollywood films at least everyone always goes to meet at the Mall.

The Modesto Nuts

The Modesto Nuts

The next stop was Merced, from where we were able to take the bus into the Yosemite national park and walk out from the centre. I loved Yosemite; it felt just like how you would imagine the untamed forests of America, even though we were largely keeping to the trails. Was kind of disappointed not to see a bear, especially given the number of signs warning you not to take your eyes off your lunch.

A view worth climbing a dry waterfall for

A view worth climbing a dry waterfall for

You should definitely come to Yosemite

You should definitely come to Yosemite

After a day in Mariposa (where we learned all about John Fremont, whose name was on street signs everywhere we went - check him out, it's a hell of a story) we drove across Yosemite to Bishop. This was probably an even better way of seeing it, since we could cover a wider area and stop off wherever seemed interesting. Had several stops and a couple of treks for some spectacular views. It was a long day, and by the time we reached the other side of the park it was dusk. As the sun was setting we stopped at a carpark overlooking the massive Mono Lake. At first it looked like clouds on the horizon, but then we saw an awful lot of lightning strikes and realised we were looking out at the smoke of a massive wildfire. Quite a sight.

Nature is angry

Nature is angry

We saw a bit of US television in the motels over the holiday. There were different comedies, of varying qualities, and we became connoisseurs of the various late shows. We caught some of the London Olympics, although from the NBC coverage you could be forgiven for thinking the only events were beach volleyball and Michael Phelps. By the way, Fox is just as awful as you may have heard. We saw Bill O'Reilley state that England had legalised drugs and that Boris Johnson was a liberal. It's sometimes comforting to think that, however terrible our own national politics are (which is pretty terrible at the moment, you have to admit), the USA's got it a bit worse.

Saving this for my inevitable country album
Saving this for my inevitable country album

The next stop was at a little town called Beatty on the edge of Death Valley. After checking in to the motel we drove out to a place called Rhyolite Ghost Town, which we had seen marked on our map and couldn't resist visiting. Turns out to be just what it says on the tin: a ghost town which sprung up in the gold rush but died once the gold ran out. Now the buildings stand empty, in various states of disrepair, and the only other occupant was the man who ran the museum and its collection of art, including a ghostly sculptural recreation of the Last Supper. He was extremely welcoming, but I'd be lying if I said we weren't a little bit scared when he appeared behind us playing a tin whistle.

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite Ghost Town

I've traveled through worse stations in England

I've traveled through worse stations in England

The next day we ventured into Death Valley itself. The first thing you need to know about Death Valley is that it is hot. Really hot. Like, 114 degrees Fahrenheit/45 degrees Celsius hot. It made Vegas feel quite pleasant by comparison.

Hot

Hot

Fortunately the dramatic scenery makes up for the heat.

Not the Lake District

Not the Lake District

We drove around the Valley, sometimes venturing out of our air conditioned Mazda to explore. We had been climbing up through a canyon when we began to notice the a lot of grey clouds in the sky. Made it back to the car and drove down a steep gravel road just before the heavens opened. Bear in mind that Death Valley gets an average of 60mm of rain per year - we must have got a good proportion of that.

The curse of the English Tourist

The curse of the English Tourist

The rain was intense but brief, and it didn't do much about the heat. There were a couple more hairy moments, such as when the air conditioning stopped working and we worried the engine was overheating, or when the only petrol station was closed and the pump didn't look like it was going to accept our cards. Still, we made it out unharmed, and glad to have seen it.

Having come full circle, we were now returning to Las Vegas, from which we would be flying in a few days time. We were going to return to our first hotel, which with its free breakfast at the on-site Denny's would take some beating, but found a cheap last minute deal on a room for the night in the Luxor casino. You really don't pass up the opportunity to spend the night in a massive black pyramid topped with what Wikipedia assures me is the strongest beam of light in the world.

The Luxor casino. No self-respecting fantasy writer could ever resist this.

The Luxor casino. No self-respecting fantasy writer could ever resist this.

Inside the Luxor

Inside the Luxor

We had another day in Vegas, and then that evening got caught in another almighty rainstorm. Six weeks, and the only rain we get is in Death Valley and Vegas? It seems the Vegas sewers hadn't been designed for such precipitation as the Strip was rapidly turned into a river.

Vegas in the rain

Vegas in the rain

Just like in Ocean's Eleven

Just like in Ocean's Eleven

The next day we took a drive out to the Hoover Dam. It's one of the most impressive works of engineering I've ever seen.

It was then our last full day in America. Managed to fit a lot into it, including visiting the famous 'Welcome' sign, a chocolate factory and an aquarium. Saw a circus display, rode on the monorail and saw the melancholy sight of the Sahara, a dead casino standing abandoned.

The next day we caught a plane across the country to Philadelphia, where we had a few hours stopover and so took the opportunity to make a brief trip into the city. It feels a lot more European that the west coast, which I suppose makes sense. For one thing it's got a lot of history to it: we were able to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was drawn up. We saw the Liberty Bell, and of course had a Philly Cheesesteak for lunch.

History!

History!

We couldn't stay for too long, unfortunately, since we had a transatlantic flight to catch. I'd like to see some more of the east coast; definitely want to visit New York and Washington DC sometime. In fact there's so much of America that I'd like to see. Despite all the miles we covered and the variety of places we saw, I'm aware that's barely scratched the surface of what the continent contains. It was definitely a good way to spend six weeks.

So that's my experience of America. I'm sure I'll be back some day. If you've got any recommendations, or any stories of your own to share, please do let me know!

Spring Holiday

I spent the last week on holiday in Finland, so I guess that must mean it's time for another instalment of these irregular travelogues.

My visit this time coincided with the holiday known in Finland as Vappu, which falls on 1 May. The celebrations actually start (at least for students) the day before with big public parties. Part of these parties involve the placing of hats on statues. 

 

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In the case of Jyväskylä, this statue is of Minna Canth, a leading Finnish feminist in her day.

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Once the statue is wearing her hat, everyone else dons their own. You might be forgiven for thinking I'm surrounded by sailors in the picture above, but these hats are actually given to all Finnish students on completing school.

 

No, I didn't graduate from Finnish high school, and no, I don't know why I ever uploaded this photo either

No, I didn't graduate from Finnish high school, and no, I don't know why I ever uploaded this photo either

Vappu day itself is more relaxed (possibly a consequence of drinking the night before?). It's a day for speeches, music and chilling out with friends and family. People drink sima, a generally non-alcoholic form of mead, and eat tippaleipä, a tasty type of cake most accurately described as 'brittle'.

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I missed Easter in Finland, of course, but I knew when I arrived that I had to take the opportunity to try out the traditional Easter food, mämmi. The Finns eat a lot of rye, from bread to pasties to crisps, all of which are delicious, but mämmi is perhaps the ryiest of all. I'd not heard particularly encouraging things about it, to be honest. I'd like to say that it was surprisingly tasty and my new favourite food, but unfortunately I'd be lying. 

Perhaps the best that can be said is that it tastes a whole lot better than it looks

Perhaps the best that can be said is that it tastes a whole lot better than it looks

While in Jyväskylä I managed to attend a game of ice hockey. It's the most popular sport in Finland, but this was the first time I'd seen it played. It's a very fun sport to watch: fast paced, filled with displays of great skill and just a little bit violent. It's particularly impressive to me given that I wouldn't even be able to move around the pitch, so poor are my skating skills, nevermind play hockey on it.

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This was actually a charity game for Vappu with celebrity players, and the rules may have been relaxed somewhat. For example, I might not really understand the rules of ice hockey, but I'm pretty sure the scene below wouldn't take place on any other day.

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For scheduling reasons, I flew for the first time with Finnair into Helsinki airport. It was considerably more luxurious than my usual flights, with free coffee and sandwich. It was also a good excuse to spend a day in Helsinki. I'd been before, staying on the outskirts, but this time I stayed with a friend in a youth hostel that as it happened was part of the old Olympic stadium.

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Nice hostel, nice location and remarkably good price, so worth remembering if you're in the area. Also free parking, and it's half an hour's walk from the centre along the river. Plus I can't think of a youth hostel I've ever stayed in with its own athletics track.

While in Helsinki we took the ferry across to Suomenlinna ('The Castle of Finland') , which is an island fortress just off the coast. It was originally constructed by Sweden when it ruled Finland, but was captured by Russia in 1808 after a three-month siege. It became Finnish when Finland became independent, and it's now a UNESCO monument, a home to about 900 and a rather impressive place to visit.

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Land ahoy!

Land ahoy!

Of course the Finns even have a better class of fortress than the rest of us.

Of course the Finns even have a better class of fortress than the rest of us.

The weather at this point had taken on something of an English bank holiday feeling   

The weather at this point had taken on something of an English bank holiday feeling

 

 

The King's Gate

The King's Gate

That evening in Helsinki we visited a bar named Stone's, which has a good selection of beers and unlike a lot of places is open on a Sunday. My own knowledge of Helsinki is very limited, but if you want to know what to do there you should check out the blog HelsinkiIn, which is full of good ideas and also offers regular insights into Finnish life that I've always found very interesting.

If you've got anything to add to what I've said, or if there's anything else you'd particularly like me to write about next, let me know in the comments below. If you haven't already, you might like to  have a look at my other articles on Finland here. And if you need even more to read you could always try my book!

Finnish Design

My previous post about Finland turned out to be surprisingly popular. It was picked up by the Finnish tourist board's Twitter account, and is still one of the most visited pages on the site with a regular trickle of visitors, from Finland and around the world. In light of that it seems like a good idea to write something else about the place. There are a few topics I could have chosen, but in the end I decided on design.

It should probably be said at the outset that I'm no expert on art, architecture, design or anything like that. I'm sure there is much more knowledgeable writing about this available, if you want it. But during my visits to Finland I've come across many examples of what I consider to be good design, and that's what I want to share with you - an outsider's view on Finnish design, if you like.

Probably a good place to start is with Alvar Aalto, who seems to be pretty much a 20th century Nordic Leonardo da Vinci. He was, among other things, an architect, with a very distinctive style. He designed a great many buildings in Jyväskylä, particularly in the university, and indeed all around the world, but probably his most famous is Finlandiatalo in Helsinki.

Just being an iconic architect wasn't enough for him, though. He also decided to turn his hard to furniture making, along with his wife Aino Aalto. Have you ever seen any of his pieces? Well, if you've ever gone into an Apple Store then you'll have seen his High Stool 64. The Paimio Chair is also pretty recognisable.

And then, because achieving world renown in two fields was too easy, Aalto dabbled in a bit of glassware too. One of his most successful creations is this vase.

One other thing ought to be said about Aalto's buildings, though. Several of them on the Jyväskylä University campus suffer from what's known as Bad Air.  No-one seems entirely clear what this is all about, but it seems to be a peculiarly Finnish problem that afflicts buildings throughout the country and manifests itself through headaches and nausea. It may be something to do with mould developing in the Finnish climate. My own, completely uninformed, opinion is that this is a consequence of the Finns having grown up in a place with absurdly good air quality. In Britain, for example, we're well used to breathing pollution, so no-one notices a bit of mould here and there.

So that's Alvar Aalto. Next, there's Marimekko. This is a modern design brand with shops across Finland. They primarily produce a range of fabric designs in bright colours, like the poppy-based Unikko. It's a bit like the Finnish equivalent of Liberty Print. Here's a Unikko oven glove.

And here's a Unikko mug (yes, I do quite like this design, how did you guess?)

Another well-known Finnish brand is Iitala, who produce glassware. Of course, our friend Aalto worked for them in his time too. They have a certain range of glass bowls, which you'll find in virtually every Finnish household. And mine, naturally.

There's also Arabia, who specialise in ceramics. Here's a nice cup and saucer:

Photo by Richard Spoun

So, all this arty stuff's very nice, but what about something more practical? A design that saves us time? Well, look no further than the Finnish Dish Drying Cupboard, invented by the Finnish Association for Work Efficiency. If you're feeling lazy, drip drying is an easy way to deal with the dishes, but then you still have to put the stuff away. Who's got time for that? Well, why not put a drying rack in a cupboard over the sink? I can't see why it hasn't taken off outside Finland.

Photo by Richard Spoun, genius by Finland

I hope you found this brief trip around Finnish design interesting. If unlike me you know what you're talking about, you can always put me right in the comments. Or, if you're looking for something to do, you can always read my book, or you might like to check out my other articles about Finland here.

 

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!