Friday, 3 July 2015

Hei, Suomi (Part One)

Finland is called Suomi in Suomalainen.  Suomailainen is Finnish in Suomalainen.
Suomalainen isn’t like other European languages.  It’s a bit like Hungarian, mostly in that it isn’t like other European languages.  It may take years to learn it; years spent shaking the head and asking “But, why…?”  It’s not a language many foreigners learn, as most Suomalainen acknowledge.

Suomi is a bit like the rest of Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark), but it may or not actually be a part of Scandinavia (more on that later).  It shares a border with Russia and is one of the 90% of countries in the world that was dominated by powerful neighbours. 

(The current political story is that the Finnish government have just announced plans for national civil defense in preparation for any potential Russian aggression…which seems highly unlikely to me, but then I didn’t grow up sharing a border with one of the biggest armies in history that ruled over much of eastern Europe, wondering if my peaceful, progressive wee country would again be taken over by the powerful neighbour.  The government have recently sent letters to reservists and strategically-important private companies concerning “readiness” and civil defense planning following the conflict in Ukraine.  Finns have subjected these international events to the “cold, hard analysis” for which they are known, and there has been, according to some, a growth in nationalist and patriotic feeling in response to the potential threat, for which every single country in the world is known.)

Anyway, never mind that, we’re on us hols…

We arrive in Helsinki at lunchtime and find our digs in a “cool neighbourhood”.  It all seems pretty quiet for a capital city; having lived in London and the busier parts of Bristol, anything less than thousands of people running around the place in a hurry and making loads of unnecessary noise seems nice and quiet to me.
Maybe it’s because it’s nearly Juhannus (that’s Midsummer to you – or Solstice, if you prefer).  It’s like Christmas Day, apparently, but in summer – a big holiday where most people go to summer houses for the week/end.
For a country (half) in the Arctic Circle, lots of light – and temperatures that don’t make your piss freeze – is well worth celebrating.  It’s dark for months on end through the winter, and you can only go outside if you are in seventeen layers of bear skin.  Or used to it.
It will be light for most of the time we are here, although not especially warm.  Pretty much like Britain’s June weather, but more so.

We mostly take it easy on Day One, but find time to check out the cathedral.  (I like churches and cathedrals.  I just don’t know why.)
The Helsinki Cathedral is impressive (not my pic, mind.

There’s some pretty impressive buildings all over town, in fact.  This is the central train station:

(My pic, mind.)

We also check out the Torni (tower) Hotel and its 13th floor bar.  The views are pretty good:

After ordering drinks and looking at my change several times, I realise that we are paying a pretty penny for the view, which I don’t mind too much.   I do mind the cold, being outside for a while – I’ve been caught out as tourists often are, in shorts and short sleeves, so stop to buy a jumper.  (I didn’t really feel the cold when I was a fat bastard.  Now that I am a somewhat thinner bastard, it bothers me.)

We head back to our neighbourhood and get a meal at the local bar, which is Stokes Croft (but not quite Shoreditch) level of cool (so, about right), and busy enough for a Wednesday night.
As is the way in Northern European countries, Asian food is popular; the bar does Vietnamese food, which is very popular with us.  After handing over 15 Euro for two drinks, I am expecting some change, but I’m actually short for the round.  Well, we’re on us hols – we’ll either piss all our money up a wall, in traditional style, or drink a bit less….we’re British tourists.  Guess which one we choose.
(I wouldn’t mind paying Scandinavian prices/taxes for Scandinavian standard of living.)
The DJ in the bar plays Pharcyde, Tribe Called Quest and Beastie Boys, and we are sat on old sofas eating good Vietnamese food and drinking high-quality European beer and cider.  Life is good.
The DJ even drops in Last Of The Famous International Playboys…these people.
These People are my Holiday Reps, and they’re doing a fantastic job.
As we leave, I big up the DJ and tell him “Anyone that plays Pharcyde, Tribe and Morrissey in the same set is alright by me.”  He laughs and looks at me like I’m drunk.

We leave the bar at half-past midnight and it’s still light.  Which is interesting.  We’ve been up and travelling and walking around a long time, so it feels more like being up all night drinking than leaving the pub early.

The next day it rains all day, so we decide against the trip to a beautiful island for picnics and general summer hanging out.  And it’s pretty cold once the sun goes in (which it does most of the time). There is a whole archipelago around Helsinki, but it’s probably best explored in good weather.  
Instead, we visit Kamppi Chapel (another church, I know, I know), which is a nice little place, the kind London could do with, ie, a non-monetised quiet space where anyone can go and chill for a bit to escape the madness of the big city.  It’s recently-built, so doesn’t quite have the baggage of many British/European churches, which tend to scream QUAKEBEFOREMEUNWORTHYSINNERSYOUMAYNOTENTERGODSHOUSEWITHOUTBOWINGYOURUNWORTHYHEADS with their imposing facades, high walls and austere, intimidating atmosphere.  And huge gold statues next to a person who took a vow of poverty preaching to poor people about how they should give all their possessions away….ah, that’s why I like churches. 
But Helsinki is still pretty quiet.  Isn’t it always the way – all the good chill-out stuff is in places that aren’t that hectic anyway?  

The day is all a bit dreech but the buildings are cool, so it reminds me of Glasgow.  Lovely.

You can’t buy alcohol of more than 5%ABV at a shop/supermarket in Finland (as in parts of the US, and all of Norway, I think).  You have to go to an Alko (off licence) for the hard stuff.  Everything is expensive, except wine which is quite reasonable by British standards.  So I decide to play it safe and head to the normal shops for some normal Finnish beer instead of the high fallutin’ (you, know nice) stuff.

We head back to the cathedral because there’s a concert on.  It’s a performance including works by Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer (he wrote the national anthem).  Watch this space for a proper review of that performance…
We head back to the digs and watch Last Action Hero with Finnish subtitles while grazing contentedly. 

On Day Three, like most Suomalianen, we head to the country.  Friends of friends have generously agreed to host us with their crew, so we’re off to Espoo for a traditional/international Finnish Midsummer celebration.  There are thirteen of us, and nationalities represented include (in alphabetical order): Canada, Finland, France, India, Russia, UK and Zimbabwe, with some Celtic roots (there’s no getting away from them). 
The traditional thing is to head to a summer house in the countryside.  I’m told Espoo is a city, but it looks like the suburbs where I grew up, except much, much nicer.  There’s loads of space between the houses, there’s a forest at the end of the road and the whole place is lush and verdant.

We’re made to feel totally welcome and everyone is cool.  (Big Up The Juhannus crew – and kiitos to our hosts.)
After being told solemnly that all Finnish houses are shoes-off-at-the-door, we dutifully dump the foot prisons on the porch.  (Aren’t most British houses shoes-off-at-the-door?  I thought so – but here it’s kind of a big deal, apparently.)
After all the introductions and stock-piling of beer and cider, we head into the forest to gather flowers and birch branches.  The flowers are for head-dresses/crowns and the tradition is for young girls to put seven different types of flowers under the pillow and dream of the husband to come…or something like that. 

The birch branches are for vihta (this is the Western Finnish name – in the east, they are known as vasta), which is for the sauna (which is pronounced saa-woo-nah).  The vihta is to hit people on the back with in the sauna….which is nicer than it sounds.  It also makes the sauna smell nice.
I watched a video (in Finnish) on how to make one.  It’s like a fan made of branches, sort of.

We head back to the house, which reminds me of the US colonial-era style: it’s a large detached house with wooden panels and a covered porch.  It’s pretty idyllic here.  Here’s to a lovely weekend in the country.
I’m looking forward to my first ever saa-woo-na…


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