MY HOMELAND, MY FINLAND

Aurora Borealis.JPG

Finland is often called the Land of Thousand Lakes, a modest name considering that there are, in fact, 188,000 lakes in the country. The size of the lakes, on the other hand, is so vast that Finland has most water in relation to land mass of all the countries in the world and the water is also some of the cleanest. Finland’s coast boasts the world’s largest archipelago, difficult to get an exact number, but there are at least 70,000 islands, with over 20,000 of those being large enough for a small cabin or summer house. It is also a land of thousands of forests with over 70% of Finland being taken over by forest – more than any other European country and it covers an area larger than UK or Italy!

One of the most remarkable features of Finland is light. The endless sunshine of summer Midnight Sun, when the sun stays above the horizon for over 70 days in the northernmost parts, gives way to dark winter when the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) appear like magic and lighten up the sky, appearing on 200 nights a year During the winter months, temperatures can drop as low as –35 degree Celsius. Luckily, this is not the norm as regular winter temperatures fall somewhere between –50 C and –150 C with snow in northern and eastern Finland. The snow season in northern Finland begins in November and lasts at least until April-May. In the summer, it can be as hot as 300 C, sometimes even more. Normal summer temperature, however, is just over 20 degrees. It is common to have up to a 70-degree difference in temperature between January and July.

This year Finland topped the World Happiness Report, in which 156 countries were ranked by happiness levels, based on factors such as life expectancy, social support and corruption. A Finnish term, jokamiehen oikeus, everyman’s right, means you can walk freely in the nature: you can pick wild berries and mushrooms, but not someone’s apples or plums. You can go canoeing and camping, but not too close to someone’s house. In many areas, fishing requires a permit. In the rush and crush of modern life, the simple things are what makes the Finns happy, such as space quiet and time, oma aika. Finns feel good in the forest. Not alone, not lost – the forest provides protection and peace. Berry-picking is something nearly all Finns do, regardless of age, wandering in the woods, deep in thoughts, filling baskets with blueberries, cloudberries and lingonberries. It is a Finnish kind of therapy for the soul.

A lakeside cottage, kesämökki, is an essential part of Finnish summer and most summer activities take place around water, such as swimming and going to the sauna, fishing, canoeing, rowing and sailing. It is estimated that there are over three million saunas, with a population of only 5.5million, in Finland. Coloured lights, aromatic fragrances and relaxing music have nothing to do with Finnish sauna; real Finnish saunas are dimly lit, there’s no smells except for fresh birch and natural tar. It is a place for physical and mental cleansing, and many suggest one should behave in a sauna as they would in church.

Finns say the sauna is a poor man's pharmacy. If a sick person is not cured by tar, spirits or sauna, then they will die," ("Spirits" here means strong alcohol, while tar was historically used as an antiseptic). Still only a few decades ago, the sauna used to be a gateway in and out of this world: Women gave birth in the sauna because the walls of traditional smoke saunas were lined with naturally bacteria-resistant soot, making them the cleanest room in the house. Upon a person’s death, the body would be given a final wash there.

Since 1938, the Finnish state has provided all expectant mothers with a beautiful, durable box with clothes, sheets, nappies, toys and a mattress – making it an excellent bed for a tiny newcomer. All mothers get to stay at home with their baby for almost a year with full salary or excellent benefits. When a parent with a child in a buggy uses public transport, they travel free of charge in most cities. Finnish education system is one of the world’s best and schools are free of charge, providing lunch, medical care, counselling for free and even taxi service if needed.

Santa Claus comes from Finland. His official hometown is Rovaniemi, Lapland, where he greets visitors all year round. On Christmas Eve he visits Finnish children in their homes. Finland is also home to the mysterious little creatures called the Moomins. Created by the talented Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson, the Moomins’ presence can be felt and seen – both in places such as the Naantali Moomin World or the Tampere Moomin Museum. Finland is a true design nation. Some of the world’s most imitated and admired designers and architects come from Finland from Eero Aarnio’s Ball Chair as James Bond’s favourite seat to Marimekko Poppies worn by Jackie O. The Angry Birds were a Finnish invention; Clash of Clans also comes from Finland, as do most of the greatest mobile phone games ever invented. Finns are also a bit crazy when it comes to contests and events. Ever heard of the Wife Carrying, Air Guitar Playing or Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships? Whether an event “makes sense” or not, does not matter. What’s important is that you let yourself go and have fun! Perhaps it has something to do with the coldness of winters – the Finns just love their coffee. Finnish people consume more coffee per person than does any other nation in the world.

The Finnish language has 15 cases, no articles, lot of suffixes and any Finnish noun can have up to over 200 different forms. Try pronouncing “Äkäslompolo” (name of a village), which is easy and “hyvää päivää” (good afternoon) is normal. The longest word is: “epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydelläänsäkäänköhän” – quite a tongue twister for some – but not for the Finns!

Hei, hei! (Bye, bye)

contributed by Helena Schasché