Guest Posts

I would like to welcome a friend and contributing writer to this Blog.  I am excited to have Julie join in  by sharing her stories…her views… I hope you will join me in welcoming her.  I also welcome all of you to share your stories here.

Scott

Pictures and Story by Julie Antunes

I recently had the good fortune to return to Finland this summer.  Finland, you say?  Where’s that?  Well, it’s just to the east of Sweden and to the west of Russia.  No, it’s not a part of Russia although many years ago, it used to be.  It’s been a peaceful, independent nation since 1917.

Some fast fun facts:  Finland leads in the world education rankings as No. 1.  It is also the land of cell phones with a population that has the most mobile phones and the most email addresses per capita of any nation in the world.  It is home to Nokia, which is named after a town in Finland where the company has been in existence for decades before becoming a cell phone leader.

Although Finnish is the official language, a dialect of Finn/Swede is predominant in the cities and towns that are closest to Sweden.  English is spoken everywhere.  It is also the land of the Midnight Sun which is one of the reasons I traveled to Finland this time of year.

Having relatives in Finland makes it apparent to me why one would want to visit there but maybe not so evident to others.  To begin with, they have a laid back lifestyle. Most of the population own summer homes somewhere on or near the water and I was fortunate to be invited to stay at my relatives’ summer home on the Baltic Sea.

The average Finnish worker enjoys many weeks of annual vacation so this affords them the opportunity spend lazy days at the summer house boating, fishing, sunning and doing what they most cherish – sauna!  To ‘sauna’ is a verb to the Finns and is the most important part of the day, believe it or not.  (I didn’t but I’m now a converted Westerner.)

So, our typical ‘summer house’ day begins on the Gulf of Bothnia/Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden just south of Vasa in a seaside town called Oravais. It starts with a typical Finnish breakfast of porridge (oatmeal to us) with fresh local berries including blueberries, raspberries and lingonberries, a specialty berry of Scandanavia.  Always on the table are numerous tubes (not bottles) of relishes, spreads and cheeses for local crackers and breads in addition to cold cuts.  And this is just breakfast!

After we eat, we’d take a bicycle ride through the woods to see the other summer homes, pick berries, bike along the shore or get an ice cream.  Bicycle friendly, this area has a biking path system which is quite nice. Once that work was done, we’d come back, sun oursevles and swim, then have lunch (a big, hot meal)…sun and swim again then dinner. Dinner was either a smaller hot meal or lots of leftovers – way too much!

After dinner we’d go for a boat ride through the archipelago (an area of small islands with numerous places to camp for the day or night and even some with a little beach).  Quite beautiful but also treacherous…one needs to know the local waters well in order to avoid the rocks found sometimes just a few feet below.

Then it is time for Sauna!  I never realized now important this is to them but if a home does not have a sauna, it is unsellable I am told.  It would be like our houses not having bathrooms.  The sauna in the summer house is woodburning although they can be electric.  I’m told electric is not as good but is what is typically found in the city areas-better than nothing.  Once the sauna is hot enough, everyone goes in.  If you are Finnish, your culture and upbringing allow for the entire family (regardless of age or sex) to go in naked to partake.

No, this is not Julie’s family

If you’re American, like us, I went in with my bathing suit on and with only the females in our group.  Once inside, you hose yourself down with warm water and sit on the stairs taking in the sauna.  The higher you go on the stairs, the hotter it is.  I’m proud to say I’ve now graduated to the top stair!

Once you’ve done (basically when you’re too hot), you quickly exit and run down to the water where you jump in.  Believe it or not, it’s great!  Very invigorating and refreshing and the water wasn’t even that cold (or I was just that hot!)  I’m a chicken and hate cold water so if I can do it, anyone can. You swim around a bit and cool down – Finns will do this round at least 1 or 2 more times.  When done, a delicious typical after-sauna meal of sausages and beer is waiting for you.  After that, you sleep very well, I can attest.   The sun is still up, though, which is just crazy cool!  At 1 p.m., we were swimming and eating on the porch as if it was 6 pm here. If we had visite closer to June 21st, it would never have gone down at all.  Finns love this time of year as it makes up for the 2 weeks of complete darkness in December.  I can understand why.

The Finns love to dance and there are many summer dancing halls in the area for their residents.  Everything, of course, revolves around the water so many of them are located there.  Bands playing all kinds of music including American pop are there most nights during the hectic summer season.  It’s not unheard of to stay out dancing until 5am when most places close because the sun is still up.

Local food is great especially fish but some of the specialty offerings such as sardines can look and smell at little weird.  Watch for the fish bones but definitely worth it and the salmon is unbelievable!  Other adventures a traveler might like in Finland would be to visit the Cities of Helsinki, the capital; Turku, the 2011 European Capital of Culture; and Vasa, a mid-size city. These places all hold lots of history, are on the water with regular fairs featuring local food and novelty vendors.  Enjoy great outdoor cafes and beautiful strolls through lush, green parks especially along the Esplanadi in Helsinki.

It runs the length of its major commerical street right down to the harbor where the ferry and sightseeing boats are just waiting to take you out to proudly show their shoreline.  You never know what you’ll find. Strolling through the center of Vasa, there was a sand volleyball tournament going on for a European cup.  One never knows…but the Finns do like to have fun and are very athletic and active.  There always seemed to be some sporting event going on locally to watch.

In the south of Finland where most of the population is, there are alot of things to do as indicated above.  If you have time and the interest, though, I would suggest heading north to the Arctic Circle toward a City called Rovaniemi.  We took the 7 hour car ride from the summer house and it was amazing.  There were elk walking down the road with our car on the highway!  It was so remote, there was no one on the road but us and the elk!

It is dangerous to hit one of them but to see them trotting alongside the car was unbelievable. It’s also much cooler up there.  In July at night, it was absolutely freezing at the top of the sky slope we were at called Roka.  I would saw it had to be around 40 degrees with a wind chill!  But the view and the sunset was breathtaking.  The air is also very clean.  We met lots of deer just lounging around under the skylifts.  From there, we could also see the Russian mountains I’m told as they are not far away.  Oh, and there’s also an Ice Bar, of course!

You can also visit Santa Claus Land at the Arctic Circle.  There is even a post office there.  The place is set up like a small Disneyland with rides and interesting exhibits.  When I was there, it was quite well attended.There’s an Arctic Museum that holds artifacts of Scandanavian culture as well as a beautiful view of the area in one of the halls in this newer built modernistic building.  That’s the other striking difference…Finland is an old country with a deep heritage but the architecture and design of some buildings is ‘Scandanavian modern’ which contrasts quite nicely.

If you want to take a vacation somewhere different and experience the culture while enjoying some familiar comforts in addition to learning new ones, I would highly recommend taking a look at Finland.  Once you’ve visited the places, met the friendly people (although the Finns have a reserved demeanor) and done everything you wanted to do in Finland, you can take a short ferry ride to Stockholm or Tallinn also thereby visiting 3 countries very easily. All in all, a great trip and one I think you’ll certainly enjoy.  I’ve been back 3 times and always discover something new or another tradition to hold on to.  That’s Finland!

Julie, I would like to thank you for taking the time to write about your trip, I am now ready to go to Finland.  If any of you other adventurous types would like to have a way to share your stories, don’t hesitate to ask me.

Happy Travels

http://www.travelwithscott.com

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