What do I now think of when I think about Finland? What do I most associate with the country after my very first visit?
Well the first thing that springs to mind is that Aki Kaurismaki really wasn’t making it up; the Finns really are obsessed with coffee drinking. They do after all have the world’s highest per capita consumption of the caffineated beverage. It’s no suprise that it’s available pretty much everywhere, with the word Kahvila indicating a cafe or coffee shop. This can mean anything from a small corner of a very out of the way filling station, via a cute Kioski by a lake on a main road between towns, a stall outside a DIY superstore, or something much, much grander. What it means is filtered coffee, of variable quality, often with free refills. The cost varies as well as the quality and the two are not always connected! Of course if you’re lucky you’ll find kahvi and munkki (a filled doughnut, quite often containing apple) for a good price; the best offer we saw was somewhere round Hameenlinna, where the price was €1.50! How good (or bad) it was I can’t say. I was so caffinated by then it was getting silly!
So why all this coffee? Well I have a theory now that some of it is to do with driving conditions. To be fair Finland is a big country, but even so it takes a mighty long way to get anywhere by car. There are several reasons for this it seems. One is that most roads are not geared towards speed, with limits no higher than 60kph and a population who seem naturally inclined to regard those limits with suspicion and thus stay well below them. With few places where you can overtake this means you are resigned to a slow, stately pace between points. In the UK I know that I can cover 60 miles inside an hour, traffic idiocy permitting. In Finland I’m going to need a lot more than that and should assume that 50 miles will take a minimum of one hour and likely more than that. It can get frustrating but then on other occassions you find yourself in the middle of nowhere and there are no vehicles visible on either side, behind or ahead.
However, you probably still don’t want to go above the speed limit. It’s nice to slow down and is quite restful though that’s probably not why people do it. It may have to do with the way fines are imposed in Finland where the richer you are the more it’ll cost you.
There’s always the threat of moose, of which there are an estimated 100,000 on the loose out there. Moose (or elk if you prefer) are, after all, big buggers (an adult animal stands around 1.8–2.1 metres at shoulder height. Males weigh between 380 and 720 kg and females between 270 and 360 kg), and apparently at this time of year the youngsters are a bit of a menace because they haven’t figured out that the road is not a good place to be and will wander out there and then run alongside or in front of your car. As they can do around 35mph that makes them a serious threat. As a result there are lots and lots of warning signs, as well as lots and lots of fences to try and keep them off the roads. It doesn’t always work I’m told…
Something else that there are lots and lots of are road works, at least there were for us, with road surfaces being replaced, new roads being constructed and cones everywhere you look. A moments reflection tells you why this is. Half the year you can’t build; things are frozen over, it’s dark and so on. The prevailing mood seems to be “Quick! Get on with it! It’ll be September before we know it!” with the result that there seem to be more roadworks than roads in some provinces. This urge to build also pervades the cities so if you go in Summer don’t be surprised if wherever you visit seems to be more building site than town.
Also related to road use, we’d been told that refueling options could be sparse in the countryside, and while that was true to a point, everywhere else, including on the few motorway stretches, there were service stations aplenty, each seemingly with at least an attached supermarket, sometimes apparently an entire shopping centre, and some very odd attractions of which more elsewhere. I certainly know of no other country where a service station in the middle of nowhere would have a second hand garden ornaments store or a craft shop to name but two. Of course if you don’t want to buy things in the shops there’s plenty of produce out there in the birch woods.
In addition to being tremendously lawabiding when driving, the other thing you’ll notice is the extreme care taken crossing the road. I’m not saying a Finn won’t ignore a pedestrian crossing light that is against them if there’s no traffic in sight – and this is not unusual in July in Helsinki – but it clearly goes against the grain to do so. In fact the only other nationality I’ve encountered that is so averse to crossing against the lights are the Germans. Sometimes we ended up ignoring the lights and crossing a completely empty road just because we could! It’s great to be a rebel sometimes!
There are also notable memories/associations around food now. I can probably never look at a buffet again, as it seems there is NOWHERE that doesn’t provide a lunch (lounas) buffet, and occasionally an evening one also. These are of variable quality though usually very good (and very good value) from what we could tell. However, as neither of us are big fans of a large lunch on a day when you want to get some use from the afternoon, we pretty much skipped them and opted for a light (if more expensive) lunch option. The thing that fascinated me most was how early some of them kicked off – 11:00 was normal, some even got going at 10:30, and kept right on going as late as 16:00 in some cases. It’s a bit startling to those of us used to a sandwich or soup at our desks I can tell you that!
Also on the food front I don’t think I’ve ever seen, or eaten, so many chanterelles. Right now they are everywhere, on the stalls in every kauppatori (summer market place – and every town has one of these it seems), on the menu in pretty much every restaurant, in the dinners I created on the nights we were self catering, probably in the apple and mushroom saladd on the buffets I did encounter, I suspect somewhere someone is even using them in cocktails! Alongside them the vegetable du jour at this time of year is the pea, eaten fresh from the pod, and piled up everywhere.
Of course on the other side of the stalls were berries, lots and lots of berries, and my but a Finnish grown strawberry is a wonderful thing, like biting into jam, they’re so sweet and sticky! The blueberries and bilberries and raspberries and cherries are pretty good too. The markets are in fact seriously dangerous places, as are the indoor markets (kauppahalli), where you’ll find all sorts of wonderful goodies, both local and imported. I needed a restraining hand the first time I went out to round up ingredients for supper. I could have run amock and we’d have ended up with who knows how much food!
Of course buying the food had its own hazrds, mostly in the shape of mad-eyed gulls which are everywhere. They’re more lake gulls I suppose than seagulls, but they lurk around cafes and food stalls and ice cream kioskis just waiting for the right moment to snatch whatever it is you’ve just bought and were looking forward to. If you do survive the attentions of these razor-beaked predators and get your food back to where you’re staying, it’s good odds you’ll find yourself placing the items on beautiful Iitala plates, which causes intense outbreaks of crockery envy, usually followed by distressed wailing and gnashing of teeth when you realise how expensive these things are.
Still, there’s almost certainly a museum where you can go and look at these beautiful things. There are museums for pretty much everything in Finland as far as I can tell. A drive anywhere is peppered with signs that let you know there’s something to see and more often than not it’s a museum of some sort. We didn’t visit all of them, there just wasn’t time, but you probably could gain much entertainment and some education from most of them along the way. And of course the tourist information offices will almost certainly be able to tell you all about them. In fact there’s probably not much that the Finnish TI offices can’t tell you, and in impeccable English usually too. It’s all part of thr friendliness of the Finns we encountered, who pretty much to a man or woman wanted to make sure we were enjoying their country. Right down to the woman who told me about the parking rule when I parked the car facing the wrong way in Turku, or the TI employee in Imatra who rushed back to her car to get some information specifically for us. I have lots and lots of brochures, maps, flyers and guidebooks now… it seems I can’t go anywhere without returning with half a tree.
I miss the daylight now I’m back, though I know at other times of year I’d hate the lack of it. I miss the way the Finns all seemed to have taken to the outdoors. I’m fascinated by the sheer number of open-air theatres around the country, and the way pretty much every town seemed to have a bandstand where it seems anyone can turn up and play (though they may have to book a slot). I’m guessing that this is all part of the effects of so much sunlight after a long winter and that any sane person would rush out into the light and refuse to come back in for as long as it lasts. I know I would!