My Wonderful Time in Finland
You may or may not have heard of Finland. Nestled right between Sweden and Russia, Finland is the home country of Nokia, Santa Claus, metal music (warning: click on the link at your own risk) and moose warning signs.
Her inhabitants are quite the odd people — shy and introvert, Finnish people are characterized by their love of saunas and their strange but fascinating habit of rolling naked in the snow after taking one. Their idea of fun includes wife carrying competitions (I don’t know either) and you can often find them playing gorvernment-run gambling machines in local supermarkets. (Yes, you read that right.) They also love beer, anything related to Angry Birds and those creepy-looking Moomins, are addicted to both salmiakki (salt liquorice) and coffee, and have one of the world’s highest suicide rates.
Finland, however, is much more than that (don’t let that music video scare you away from this gorgeous country). Suomi, after all, is home to some of the most delicious “pancakes” I’ve ever tasted, one of the cutest dog breeds in existence (Google Finnish Lapphund now, I dare you), thousands of snails just waiting to get crushed on the streets and some of the biggest rabbits I’ve ever seen. Scratch that — the biggest rabbits I’ve ever seen. The nature itself is quite similar to Canada in many regards. Forests cover more than 70% of the total land area, the green only broken by the blue of the 187, 888 lakes that zigzag through the land. Those lakes have earned Finland the nickname of “the country of a thousand lakes”, and they play such a prominent role in the identity of the country that they are behind the reason why the colour blue was chosen on the Finnish flag (the snow being represented by the white, of course).
But most importantly, Finland is where my boyfriend was born and where I was fortunate enough to spend the summer of 2013.
The best thing about being in a long distance relationship is finally meeting again. Absolutely nothing can compare to the thrill you feel when you are once again reunited with your loved one.
I could say that I am no stranger to that kind of thrill — and the accompanying heartbreak that comes with it. My boyfriend and I met online three years ago. In the span of those three years, we have managed to meet twice in person. About one and a half year after meeting, he was finally able to fly all the way from Finland to spend four months with me in Victoria, British Columbia. After his departure, it took exactly 9 months before we were able to meet again — this time in Finland. I arrived in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, on the last day of May 2013. During the three months that I spent in the small town of Porvoo, about an hour away from the capital, I learned so much about Finland and its charming, albeit odd, citizens. As a Canadian who had always dreamed of visiting this country, I was more than honored when my boyfriend’s parents welcomed me into their home.
While I already brought up the subject of Finnish saunas in one of my earlier HonestBlue articles, I thought it was about time for me tackle the monster that was my stay in Finland. So compiled together for your enjoyment, dear readers, are the accounts of my brief stay in Finland… and it starts on the plane!
From Vancouver aiport (YVR) to Munich aiport (MUC) and then from Munich to Helsinki aiport (HEL), I spent about 15 hours in the air — and not a single minute of sleep was granted to me during those 15 hours. (Keep in mind that it was my first flight, too.) The journey was merciless, and so was my Slovenian neighbour in his refusal to stop talking to me. As long and arduous as the flight was, it still came to an end faster than anticipated — and wow, what a splendid end it was. A few minutes before landing at the Helsinki airport, Finland greeted me with one of the most spectacular scenes I have evern seen. From my position in the sky above, everything was painted in shades of pink and orange. On the occasional dark patches of land that broke away from the water, now and then some orange lights would shine brightly. I wish I could describe better how magical it looked — this view, my first sight of Helsinki and Finland, was something beyond my wildest dreams. To me, it probably summarizes the beauty of Finland better than anything else.
In a way, I am both happy and devasted at the fact that taking pictures was prohibited during landing. While I like to think that having no pictures helps preserve the “purity” of the scene in my mind, on the other hand trying to explain the scene to people without being able to show them what it actually was like is incredibly frustrating. It was simply overwhelming. My energy was palpable, my smile contagious. You cannot begin to imagine the emotions that were coursing through me as Helsinki stretched below in all of her beauty. Months and months of waiting culminated into this one glorious moment, and it finally dawned on me that I was a mere minutes away from finally seeing my boyfriend again.
It was with that picture engraved in my brain and my heart pounding loudly in my chest that I made my way to the deserted Helsinki airport, slightly frightened at the thought of what might come next. But to my surprise (and relief), absolutely nobody cared about me… literally. I was honestly preparing for the worst. After all, here I was, a foreigner from Canada about to spend three months in the country. I was expecting some questions, at the very least, an officer pulling me aside. As I found out that night, Finland (Europe) is not like Canada at all in that aspect. If you’ve ever watched Border Security, you will know what I’m talking about. My boyfriend had the misfortune to be a victim of their suspicion at YVR when he visited me in Victoria. Let’s just say that I like to think that my crying shamelessly helped prevent him from being returned to Finland.
One of Finland’s six medieval towns and the country’s second oldest town, Porvoo (known as Borgå in Swedish) is located on the eastern cost of Finland, about 50 kilometres from Helsinki. Famous for its “Old Town” and its red storage buildings that have been proposed as an UNESCO World heritage site, Porvoo draws its name from a Swedish earth fortress that can be found on the river Porvoonjoki. The latter flows through the town and is depicted in many of the pictures found in this article. The name itself is the Fennicised version of the Swedish name (Borgå). Borg in Swedish means “castle” and å “river”. If you did not know, Swedish is the second official language of Finland, and about 30% of the population in Porvoo speaks Swedish.
Maybe it’s because I was always so poor and could never afford quality strawberries, but it had been years since the last time I had such delicious strawberries. When I was a kid, I remember going strawberry picking back in Quebec, my home province. Since that day, the enjoyment of strawberries has started decreasing dramatically for me. Though they always were my favourite fruits, I quickly grew sick of the fake, watery taste of strawberries that I only ever had in Western Canada. When I think back to my summer in Finland, I am instantly reminded of sweet Finnish strawberries and fresh, GMO-free vegetables. (Canada should really take Europe and their refusal to let GMOs pass through their borders as an example.) I don’t know why, but everything tasted so much better, so much crisper in Finland. Even the peaches I had there could not be compared to the ones I had in Canada.
￼Strangely enough though, one of my favourite foods in Finland was salmiakki, or salty liquorice, most commonly found in Finland and other Nordic countries. Some people believe salmiakki to be an acquired taste, and I could not agree more. The weird thing about this story though… is that I always hated liquorice. Before tasting salmiakki, if someone had asked me to make a list of the top 10 worst flavours in existence, liquorice would probably have figured high on it. Whenever I happened to pick a black jelly bean by accident my face would wrinkle up in disgust and I would spit it out instantly.
Maybe it’s the salty tinge, or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s Finnish, but salmiakki is a different story. Though it took me a while to grow accustomed to the intense, almost-stinging flavour of salmiakki, once I did I could not get enough of it. My personal favourites were the famous [lakkupippu] and the delicious soft licorice bars made by Panda. (That is the closest thing I can find to the ones I had on the Canadian version of the website.) As I said earlier, Finnish people are utterly addicted to salmiakki. I would not be surprised if some people put salmiakki in their coffee, really. (I am planning to write an article about the weird candies that can be found in Finland when I return there!)
One downside of Finland, however, was the cost of living. While a good majority of the $3,000 that I had brought with me from Canada was spent on falafels, a good part of it was also spent on normal food and clothes. The latter were ming-boggingly, insanely, stupidly expensive. I was lucky if I could find a shirt that was less than 25€ and pants that were less than 40€ — respectively about $35 and $55. (And don’t get me started on the cost of underwears!)
Living in Porvoo in the summer was such a magical experience — not only because of its beautiful nature, but because of how light summer nights were. My boyfriend had mentionned summer nights countless times before, and it was with great anticipation that I finally was able to experience them. Because I happen to live very close to the US/Canada border, summer nights (and winter nights too for that matter), are dark and long in Victoria. Summer nights in Finland are the very opposite. My boyfriend and I were quite fond of nightly walks as we took them almost every day! (His mother always thought it was weird.)
If you live in Victoria (or close to it) you probably know that it has a depressingly low amount of thunderstorms. While for some this is a good thing, for others (like me) it is not quite so. I have always loved thunderstorms, especially summer thunderstorms. Being able to lie in bed and close your eyes as the earth shakes and the wind howls at your window is one of the most peaceful feelings. Unfortunately, Finland granted me only a few thunderstorms during the summer, but one of my favourite memories of Finland, in fact, involves a thunderstorm — and a walk outside to get some salmiakki ice cream. You can imagine the reaction of Rea, my boyfriend’s mother, when she saw us come back. (Of course, there I was, innocently pointing to my boyfriend and saying “That was his idea. Not mine.”)
Aside from its expensive cost of living, another downside sadly plagues the country (especially Porvoo) — its lack of tasty Chinese restaurants. Unfortunately, I am not the only person to think this way, and the country has a terrible reputation when it comes to Chinese food. Naturally, me, being the Victoria girl and Chinese food lover that I am, I found this to be simply heartbreaking. But what the town lacked in Chinese food, it made up with something else: Kebab places (and falafels). If you ever go to Porvoo, you have to go to Ararat. The town is sprawled with small and cozy Turkish restaurants, and while they don’t look the part, they certainly make delicious Turkish food. (I became addicted to falafels during my stay in Finland, seriously.)
￼An article about my stay in Finland would not be complete without a mention of saunas. Of all the things I miss about this wonderful country (my boyfriend not included) saunas are probably what I miss the most. You can read the full article that I wrote about Saunas. “Saunas have now become a daily ritual for me; through them I have been able to understand what it means to be Finnish a little bit more.” From Finnish saunas to lettus, without of course forgetting the long, endless summer nights, Finland has proved to be everything I had always hoped for. Though it is quite different to Canada, it is also quite similar in many aspects. Even after almost three months have passed I still miss the fresh air, the thunderstorms, the grocery store aisles filled with salmiakki chocolate, the beautiful language I can hardly understand. Finland was more welcoming than I would have ever hoped for, and I loved everything about it