“Finnish”ing Up the North

Leaving behind the pouring rain in Stockholm and changing time zones once more, I was soon on the ground in Helsinki. As is the way with these wonderful EU countries, I merely walked off the plane and out the door. No customs, no immigration, no nothing, so I set off to meet my Finnish couchsurfing host. There are three things worth noting about Finns: 1) there are a lot of giant Finns—so giant that I feel tiny 2) there are a lot of beautiful Finns, especially the women and 3) the taciturn Finn is a Helsinki/Western Finnish invention. Finns from the East are chatty, friendly, and funny and not the least bit cold or stand-offish. My host was from the East.


Once I’d dropped my backpack we went on walkabout around Helsinki, travelling at that excellent long legged Northern European pace that suits me so well. We scrambled over the surrounds of the “Rock Church” drifted down shopping streets, past the train station and the cathedral, and down to the harbour. Then it was back up the esplanade and a few more shopping streets where we found a street artist blowing tens of giant bubbles on the most ingenious bubble contraption I have ever seen. In the course of our walk I also discovered that Helsinki is remarkably “small town” for a city. Either that or my host just knew everybody.

Following a simple but tasty dinner of rye bread, ham, cucumber, and cheese, we had a mini youtube party and soon crashed unceremoniously into sleep.

My second day in Helsinki, we began the day with a breakfast sandwich at a nearby cafe and a cappuccino that was suspiciously sweet. Apparently it’s some lactose free milk that lends that flavour, but I am still not convinced that there wasn’t some surreptitious sugar slipped into my morning dose of caffeine. Either way it provided plenty of fuel for my following wander past the Sibellius music centre, the rather grand train station, and into the city library. I was looking for the National Library, but I wasn’t about to complain about finding a nice bright city library with lots of interesting books and people to peer at.

But soon I was yearning for sunshine once more so I set out again looking for the National Library and got distracted by the botanical gardens. They smelled like home. Ireland just doesn’t ever get that smell of proper boreal forest, but Finland does. Though the glasshouses were withheld from me by the application of an entry fee, the little bit of city centre forest was heaven. And as if the smell wasn’t enough to make my day, there were lovely little red squirrels! Two of them! Playing (or possibly fighting a life or death battle, it was hard to tell) across the trees in a clatter of scritching against rough bark and fwomping lightly from limb to limb. I could have spent all day there watching the little rodent drama play out, but perhaps fortunately, they soon moved up into the treetops too far out of view and I turned towards the cathedral and the National Library. I did make it into the cathedral but I did not make it so far as the library.

I was leaving the cathedral with every intention of finding the library but then there was a crowd and a stage and soon I was nestled in amongst the spectators on the cathedral steps watching young gymnasts turning themselves into pretzels and/or flying through the air for the European Gymnastrada event that Helsinki was hosting. The Austrian teams performing were quite impressive! There was also a heart-warming but also heart-breaking team of senior Finnish men who took the stage with their batons, their gusto, and an average age of 70. They were dancing away with quite impressive vigour for the first half but then around the 2/3rds mark something went wrong and one of the fellows seemed to have an attack of some sort. He appeared to be okay after but his confusion and stumbling into the others threw everyone quite badly and they only barely got it back together for the ending. It was both lovely to see them out there and also terribly sad to see the fragility. It seemed that there were many seniors teams at the event which I suppose is a good thing, but it was certainly unexpected!

Having spent a good few hours watching all manners and ages of gymnast perform, I met up with my host and one of his colleagues for a bugger buffet at one of the local Aussie bars. I think Finland made it its goal to make me fat. A ginger beer and several burgers later, we rolled towards the bus to go to the sauna in Vantaa, just north of Helsinki.

Sadly the smoke saunas were closed for the summer, but that was not to stop us. We parted ways at the saunas (gender segregated) and then, after some confusion and a lot of heat, met outside to take our sauna’d selves out into the water. Lake water is always so incredibly cold! And then you get used to it and it’s absolutely lovely.

We swam for a bit, sat on the dock in the sun for a bit, and then swam some more. It was a perfectly lovely afternoon and after one more round of sauna followed by swimming and a final brief moment in the sauna to reheat after the water, we were back on a bus to Helsinki. It was a quiet day in the saunas so I didn’t really get the real Finnish experience but that was to come later. No, instead there were perhaps one or two others, sitting placidly on the benches chucking water onto the stones with a frequency that turned a warm room into a hot box built for scalding. I very much enjoyed the heat, but I have to admit that the rolling sheets of steam which emanated from the rocks after each particularly enthusiastic application of water was perhaps more than my cold-blooded Canadian soul could take. Nonetheless, I left the sauna a melty puddle of relaxed and spent most of the bus ride back to the city struggling very valiantly to not fall asleep.

Once we got back to my host’s house, we dined on another Finnish specialty, the Karelian pie. It’s nothing like what I would ever have called pie, but it is a delicious foundation for all manner of open faced sandwich adventures. In short, it’s a thin little shell of rye dough shaped rather like a viking boat only flatter, and all the little vikings are represented by a nice thick rich rice porridge that is baked in to achieve a nice golden upper crust. On their own they are rich, heavy, and lightly sweet; with meat, cheese, and cucumber, they are heaven! My host also recommended a dash of sriracha sauce between the butter and the other toppings and I have to agree that it was an excellent addition.

Having stuffed ourselves with pies, we then moved on to Hendrick’s gin and tonics which lead rather naturally to an open air bar beneath big spreading trees where we drank grapefruit juice and gin (apparently the Finns invented it for the Olympics back in the 50s) and listened to jazz piano. There are definitely worse ways to spend a night.

The following day began with a breakfast buffet before I set off to actually find the National Library that had so expertly evaded me the day before. After a full circumnavigation of the building, I finally found the entry that wasn’t barricaded off by construction and padded up the stone steps into the music library. It’s a very nice little music library but the real star of the show was the Slavonic collection. It is one of the world’s best collections of Russian periodicals, especially those dating back to pre-revolutionary times and it’s just packed floor to ceiling with beautifully bound collections of magazines, newspapers, academic, and political publications all from the 1800s through to the early 1900s. They also have a card catalogue that has been untouched since 1993 and which, I have no doubt, will someday stand as a historical relic in its own right.

As I was strolling through the stacks ogling publication dates, my rough and ready backpacker appearance did not go unnoticed and soon I found a librarian at my side clarifying that the entire collection was in fact in Russian, and that it was world famous but perhaps better suited to researchers. Once I explained that I was just an idiot with an MLIS she was only too happy to direct me to a military periodical with pictures that I could open on the desks and maybe flip through. It was worth the look. Much to my chagrin, however, the beautiful main room of the library was under construction and so once I left the Slavonic collection, I found myself all out of library to explore.

Having had my little nerd-out, it was time to head back to the gymnastics where I saw insane tricks, and wicked flexibility from youth from all over the world. Near the end of my stay at the stage, the church bells from the nearby cathedral began to ring with that divine clarion call that was ever so nearly in-sync with the music. Nearly, but not quite, which makes me shudder to think how unnerving it would have been to be on stage trying to hold timing and synchronization with an ever so slightly offset instrument over your music. Having seen them through to the end of their interrupted performance, I left the gymnasts to seek warmer climes and caffeinated rejuvenation in Fratello Torrefazione.

As I entered the hipster shrine that is Fratello Siphon Bar, I was met by carefully groomed young hipsters standing over their siphons and registers like aloof grand masters ready to exercise their occult skill. Ranged around bar were a menagerie of tourist, middle-aged gymnasts, and what I presume represent the actual everyday clientele: sleekly coiffed salarymen in perfectly tailored suits. To accompany this charming scenery, I ordered an elegant little passion fruit and pistachio layered fancy and a cup of siphon brewed coffee made from a Burundi bean. The cake was heaven and the coffee, well, it began chocolatey and rich and then as it cooled, the brew lightened up, picking up bright acidic notes and a hint of cinnamon. It was most excellent.

As the weather seemed to be turning cold, I headed back to my host’s house to pick up my sweater. Half an hour’s walk later, I re-emerged with my sweater into a broiling hot summer afternoon. It seems that Finnish weather is even more schizoid than the Irish!

Either way, as I was back up in that part of town I decided to stop by the very modern Rock Church. It is build into a rocky hilltop with a ribbed glass roof and a very heavy dark modern interior. I liked all the rockery, but I wouldn’t have said that the design inspired me to aspire to the heavens, it seemed rather more earthy than pagan, perhaps Finnish Lutherans are?

Walking further south back towards the harbour where I planned to catch a boat to Suomenlinna, I stumbled across St. Johannes Cathedral. Surrounded by leafy trees, it was very nearly deserted and, like so many of my favourite churches in this trip, it had a live organist filling the arching ceilings with harmony. Unfortunately, my quiet reverie was soon interrupted by the arrival of other tourists who seemed far less awed by the music and so I picked myself back up out of the pew and headed onwards to the docks.

After a short ride in a small boat, I was at the central quay on Suomenlinna, a Unesco World Heritage site exhibiting a unique style of military fortification spread over a total of six islands and used by the Swedes, the Russians, and the Finns themselves. There were plenty of pretty views of the city and the sea, interesting fortifications, tunnels, parks, and a church which doubles as a lighthouse. It takes a certain brand of ingenuity to think, hmmm, you know what this church needs? A light in the top of the tower. The island was also home to the most adorable twee little public library which featured more duplicate books than I’ve seen in a long time which makes me think that there must be a very active book club amongst the local population, either that or the library is just a dumping ground of books that the rest of Helsinki has had done with.

After a very relaxing afternoon crawling along the shore and over the fortifications, I treated myself to an ice cream which ended up being the catalyst for one of the most dramatic moments my trip has offered thus far. I was wandering along looking for a quiet place to retreat to my book and enjoy my soft serve when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came a shrieking, claw and feather bedecked missile of pure hatred. The hungry seagull dove through my hair and over my shoulder within inches of my neck and skull. Much to his disappointment, my response to ill mannered seagulls was to turtle my neck down between my shoulders and growl viciously at my attacker without any chance of dropping my €3.50 ice cream cone. Thankfully Mr. Marauder the Evil Seagull was not inclined to try round two and so we agreed that I could have my ice cream in peace and he should perhaps stick to attacking innocent children rather than savage Canadian wild women.

My ice cream cone and I then found a sunny spot on the boardwalk and relaxed into an almost afternoon nap surrounded by the curious investigations of a little family of sparrows with chicks independent enough to fly, but not so independent as to leave their parents’ sides. They were very sweet and made up for the hijinks of their less civilized avian cousins of the seagull variety.

Moseying my way up to the main quay at the north end of the islands, I stumbled across an interesting art gallery half of which was filled with lovely feminine pastels and half of which was populated by angry, aggressive pieces dripping with religious symbolism. I choose to think that they were painted by different artists and I like the one who uses pastel shades much much better. Soon after I joined all the young soldier types at the grocery store to grab a sandwich and a bun for dinner. After scarfing my sandwich on a sunny bench, I headed off to the last two little islands in hope of more adventures. Sadly I was turned back rather swiftly by a cavalcade of signs suggesting I not enter on “pain of punishment”. I liked the phrasing but felt that no amount of masochism was likely to make military punishment the least bit pleasant and so I trundled back to the dock to catch a ferry back to Helsinki.

My final stop of the day was at Helsinki’s big brick Russian Orthodox church. It’s at the very top of a hill with a commanding view of the city, and the inside is pure glamour. The amount of gold and jewels would make a catholic blush! There are no pews—Russian Orthodox come before god on their feet I am told—but the altarpiece fills most of a wall, and all remaining spaces are coated in shrines, ornaments, and paintings of presumably biblical themes. Imposing would be an understatement. As an added bonus, the front of the church (on the outside) also boasted four proud parishioners equipped with scripts and microphones reading something in Russian. I have no idea what it was but I presume there was some element of preaching involved. I chose to ignore.

And then I was back in my host’s apartment sharing ciders and chocolate before he headed out to the club and I headed to bed in anticipation of a rather early morning the next day.

Early the next morning I was out in the pouring rain schlepping my way to the bus station. I stopped in a cafe for coffee and a magical cinnamon something or other which looked like a massively oversized croissant and tasted like a cinnamon roll on steroids. It was heaven and it was also enough to get me to the bus where our deep sonorous voiced driver steered us through a thrilling blend of torrential downpour and raucous thunderstorm all the way east to Lappeenranta.


Upon arrival in Lappeenranta I was met by the wonderful knitting Finn of UCD MLIS fame: Henna. It had been nearly a year since I’d last seen her so it was a very warm and enthusiastic reunion. We soon returned to her flat where we ate salmon and scallions on richly buttered rye bread while catching up on all the life that had run its course since the completion of our degrees.

Once fed and all caught up, we headed out to check out the local church in Henna’s suburb. It’s a unique building, tall and triangular with somewhat the geometric character of a ski jump. Inside it is dark and modern but with brilliant light streaming in through the upper windows. Like the rock church in Helsinki, it was very bold and modern, but I liked the upwards sweeping shape and I suspect on a sunny Sunday morning it would feel quite divine indeed.

Heading into the city centre we visited the Lappe Church with its double cross floorplan and pretty blue interior. It reminded me rather strongly of the Swedish sailor’s churches in Denmark and the small country churches in Iceland all blue and bedecked with stars. Because anything can happen in Finland if only you ask, we also got to explore the upper balcony that housed the organ, from which we had a fantastic view of the entire space and had an excellent view point from which to watch other explorers and discuss our impressions in hushed whispers.

Passing by a graveyard rather full of world war two dead, we headed on down to the lakeside on our way to ladies night at the public sauna. After a lazy stroll around the shore and through an adventure park, we reached the sauna where we stripped off, showered down, and stepped into the searing wooden interior of an honest to goodness wood heated sauna filled with chattering Karelian ladies of every age and description.

They sat gossiping and laughing with regular interruptions to toss another label of water over the hot rocks filling the room with scalding steam. I think sauna is relaxing as a function of its overwhelmingness. If you feel like you might die of the heat, your muscles will probably give up hope and turn to putty, and just when you think you are liable to end as a puddle not a person, it’s time to hit the lake and the cold lake water reinvigorates your muscles and reminds them that the deal is function or drown. It’s pretty spectacular, especially given the relaxed attitudes around nudity that mean that everyone, no matter their shape, size or skin tone, is happy to lounge about with her friends in the sauna, sit on the balcony watching the world go by, and paddle about in the lake all without a stitch of clothing. I suspect that it leads to far better body confidence than the more repressed, skin-averse cultures that I’ve thus far lived in.

After a few rounds of swimming and sauna, the sauna filled up to the point that there was no bench left for a single additional sitter and so we showered off, crawled back into our clothes and headed for the bus. We had around half an hour to wait and we probably could have gone for a walk but the sauna seemed to have drained all the adrenaline out of me leaving only a tired traveller rather than a frenetic adventurer and so we sat on the bench and melted until the bus arrived.

The bus delivered us home where we had a dinner of Karelian pies with meat and cucumber before curling up to watch Trevor Noah stand-up videos on youtube and veg out. It’s probably for the best that I don’t live in a sauna culture because both of my sauna experiences in Finland left me completely useless for the entire rest of the day.

Saturday morning, after a somewhat sleepless night filled with feline shenanigans, we woke to a breakfast of Karelian pies topped with everything the fridge had to offer (including salmon, ham, cucumber, and scallions), we hopped a bus back into town to explore the old part of Lappeenranta.

We started at the Candy Factory which segued into old military buildings, now mostly apartments, before giving way to the Lappeenranta Church. Though not open to the public on Saturday, the church was a charming brick structure surrounded by disused ditches and fortifications now mostly grassed over and providing more of an interesting architectural element than any real defines. We plopped down on the remains of a tower of some sort and spent a lazy stretch of sunshine eating fresh local strawberries and watching a wedding party slowly form itself around the church. We soon had a rather healthy cluster of bees buzzing around us and after some ignoring, discovered that we were seated almost directly atop the entrance to their underground hive. Oops. Fortunately, no one got stung, but we were soon off again to find a less apian place to enjoy the sun.

That place turned out to be the local market. The market was a mix of wood work, basket weaving, local fruit and veg, and little cafes that served traditional meat pie sandwiches that very nearly defy description. We got the variety called Vety. To begin with, this is not just a meat pie, nor is it just a sandwich, this is a deep fried envelope of dough already carrying a motherland of meat filling which is then parted to serve as the wrapper in which pickles, hard boiled egg, ham, and an orgy of sauces all come together to inspire salivation and expand waistlines. The best description I can give of the dough is Yorkshire pudding but softer, and more like a doughnut without the sugar. Realistically, you’re going to have to taste it to understand, and you really really should understand because it was amazing. In addition to the meaty fried heaven that filled my tummy, I also had traditional Karelian coffee which [close your ears my dear coffee-snobs] is made by dumping coffee grounds into a giant pot of water and simmering it on the stove all day. It ain’t gourmet but somehow, with a Vehty it’s perfection.
With tummies full, we sat and watched the sparrows and the jackdaws negotiate scrap distribution until the cafe staff began to make moves to tidy away the tables and we headed off to the old town and the fortress. The fortress plays host to Finland’s oldest Russian Orthodox church which though smaller than Helsinki’s is equally glamorous, as well as a range of cafes and galleries, and for one weekend only a massive hard rock/metal festival. The people watching was divine!

We visited a few galleries, ate some more strawberries, sat watching the city and the festival goers from several conveniently located hills and fortifications, and eventually made our way to a charmingly twee little cafe for tea and cake. I had chocolate tea and Sacher torte surrounded by lace, water colours, and all the accoutrements of a perfect little summer teahouse. We were also joined for a time by Henna’s brother who was full of amusing anecdotes and suggested that we make our way down to the beach to see the sand sculptures from a competition held earlier in the summer.

After a few more galleries and a bit more people watching we headed to the sand sculptures where we found everything from The Avengers, to Donkey Kong, to boxers, and Nikola Tesla. Some were showing the effects of weather but they were all, nonetheless impressive in their detail and size. The Nikola Tesla piece was particularly impressive with a background in the shape of a brain outlined by an arc of lightning which lead the eye to an astounding likeness of Tesla himself.

Before heading home for the evening we made another stop at the lakeside to acquire another traditional food and watch the locals get a little drunker and more entertaining. We ate our plates of fried veggies, potatoes, and tiny little lake fishes fried whole while watching all the local populace emerge to enjoy the evening. Sometime later, as the local enjoyment began to drift towards unnecessary drunkenness and the sky began to threaten rain, we headed for the bus. In traditional small town Finnish fashion, the bus contained two gossiping, slightly drunk teen girls, a very drunk middle aged couple contemplating a fight, a strange character carrying a box of beer nearly as big as himself, a genuine madman, and a few cool characters who had no time for anyone’s nonsense. It was an adventure indeed!

The following day I woke up rather better rested to find that I was now sharing my bed with a big handsome black fella. His name is Pippo, and despite initial reservations he had decided to make friends with me. Aren’t cats wonderful?

Once I had extricated the dozing feline, Henna and I took off to wander along the Saimaa Canal which stretches from the Lappeenranta shores of Lake Saimaa all the way into Russia. Despite the schizoid Finnish weather which spent the entire day deciding between broiling sun and pouring rain, we had a lovely walk along the old canals, past old and new locks, beautiful little old wooden houses, and a former dry dock now filled in to serve as a parking lot. We watched a little pleasure craft ride through a massive lock, sat on the rocks at the edge of an old lock and eventually made our way past the new Ikea construction wasteland to a quaint little cafe in the stables of an old mansion.

I had a ridiculously lovely piece of plain cheesecake and a teensy tiny cup of coffee. The cheesecake was just plain with no sauce or toppings but the texture and the taste were heaven. Unlike so many Canadian and Irish cheesecakes which end with a uniformly dense, smooth texture, this cake was lighter without being mousse-like. Instead it was a rich conglomeration of cheese curds, each little bigger than a grain of sand but packed together just lightly enough to leave room for the loft of airiness. And if the texture wasn’t lovely enough already, the taste! It was faintly sour with a touch of sweetness, but only a touch. Ever so delicately flavoured by the cheese and nothing else. It was heaven. The fact that it was sunny and idyllic in the countryside didn’t hurt either.

After our walk, we headed to the shops to pick up toothpaste and a giant bag of Finnish chocolates for me to sample. I have been told that the goal is to enslave everyone under the deliciousness of Finland’s Fazer chocolate. Having eaten all my little chocolate bars, I suspect that this is an attainable goal.

We ate a lovely dinner of fishballs, potatoes, and beans with a sauce of mushrooms bacon and cheese (yes, it’s as good as you’re imagining) made by Henna’s mother and then spent a good chunk of time vegging out to episodes of Buffy with the occasional chocolate intermission. Yes, I have started watching Buffy. I expect full blown addiction within the week. Please forgive me?

And then, lest we should get too lazy, we crawled back to our feet and headed out for another walk, this time through the woods and along the bank of the lake. Because I am a total country child at heart, I was delighted to bound through the woods looking for new paths, plucking tiny sweet wild strawberries, beautifully chalky little while blueberries, and soul suckingly sour red currants, and exploring all the vagaries of the shoreline. We passed fishermen quietly fly-fishing from the bank and boaters getting a little too friendly for our liking, and then all too soon we had reached the fence that encircles the local pulp mill with all its warnings about NOT entering and so we turned back to ogle old wooden houses on our way back to the flat.

Monday meant work day which meant that Henna and her mom were up and out of the house early. I lazed about working on my blog and sorting my photos for a few hours and then set out to the bus that would take me to the bus that would take me to the bigger bus that would deliver me up to Helsinki where I could find my ferry. Some six hours of miscellaneous transit later, I was on the high speed ferry bidding Finland goodbye. I will miss the food and of course the wonderful people!

Bidding Finland Farewell,
The Canadian


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