I was lucky enough to be invited by my friends at KVPS to live and work in Tampere, Finland for the last 10 weeks. It has been a wonderful experience, made even better by the fact that I was able to go with my wife, Nicola. There were too many good experiences to try and fit into one blog. But as a kind of thank you (kiitos) I thought I’d share 10 things I love about Finland.
1. The people, the people, the people – The Finns are almost proud of their reputation as a rather reserved people. But we were treated with the greatest courtesy, warmth and kindness from beginning to end. So many interesting conversations and so kindly invited into people’s homes and given the chance to meet parents, friends and children. I wonder whether the Finns are perhaps exaggerating their own reserve so that the pleasure of their welcome is made even greater by the element of surprise.
2. Katja and Anssi’s cottage – It is an honour to be welcomed into the home of any Finn, but it was a special pleasure to spend my birthday in the country cottage of Anssi and Katja. We got to have a sauna in the snow, see the sunset through the trees and experience the calm and beauty of a Finnish winter night by a lake. Amazing and an experience neither of us will forget with beautiful people.
3. Snow and cold – When we arrived in Tampere it was -25 degrees. But the snow and ice were magical – twinkling like diamonds. At first the extreme cold is a shock – but then you get to enjoy it. The snow brings light and the cold leaves everything crisp and beautiful. Walking across a lake covered in a deep layer of ice is a very special experience. Soon we were regretting the thaws and hoping for more snow and colder temperatures.
4. Music – We were lucky enough to listen to some beautiful music in Helsinki and Tampere, but the high point was the KeMut Concert. This concert, in Finlandia Hall, brings together great musical performances by people with learning disabilities from across Finland. The event was topped off by a rousing performance by the famed Finnish punk band PKN – who have sadly decided to make this their final year. Catch them if you can.
5. Art & design – Finland is rightly famed for its design. There are so many beautiful objects – which seem to honour the strong Finnish sense of home. We were also very lucky to see some great art – including the stunning display of art by Anselm Kiefer. But perhaps the most amazing thing was to visit the Ateneum’s display of Finnish artists. At the end of the nineteenth century Finland produced a crop of great artists, in particular Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Hugo Simberg and Pekka Halonen. I am quite sure that if these artists were French, and had simpler names, they would be as well known as Manet, Monet and Degas.
6. Tampere Cathedral – Who knew that nestled in the back streets of Tampere is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world? From the outside Tampere Cathedral is like a miniature fairytale castle. But inside it opens into a building unlike any I have ever visited. Carvings, paintings, frescos combine in a strange kind of Finnish beauty. I had very few conversations about God in Finland, I’m not sure He’s someone people talk about a lot. But the Cathedral suggests that Finns understand very well the importance of respecting the realities of life and death, the threat of evil and the fragile hope of grace and salvation. I only hope I am brave enough next time (if there is a next time) to enquire a little further into Finnish theology.
7. Unknown Soldiers – This novel, by Väinö Linna, is incredibly powerful. Like War and Peace – but more War and War. However, although the novel is stunning in its brutal description of the realities of war, it becomes more a testament to the dogged determination of men who must survive as all their illusions are stripped away. By the end of the book you love so many of the characters, even those who are rather flawed. It is not a romantic story of heroism (although there is a kind of heroism). It’s about what lies beyond the shores of heroism.
8. The Moomins – I have loved Finland since I was a little boy when one of the first books I read to myself was Finn Family Moomintroll. It was so exciting to go and see the drawings by Tove Jansson at the Tampere at Museum and her frescos which are now on display at the Helsinki Art Museum. More and more I see the close harmony between her work and the values of Finland – especially the joy taken in the small and the beautiful.
9. Food & Beer – One of our family was very worried about our trip to Finland. They thought we’d be eating nothing but sausages and potatoes. How wrong they were. I am not sure I’ve ever had so much fish and salad, combined with tasty sauces, berries and a fantastic range of different breads. On the other hand a Finnish friend asked whether it was really true (as they’d seen on Morse and other detective programmes) that we British drank so much beer. I told her, no, that this was just a stereotype, but then spoiled my argument by talking on and on about beer. However I discovered that the Finns, while not great beer drinkers, are great beer makers. Not only the commercial beers Lapin Kulta and Sandels, but in particular the microbreweries that are popping up everywhere. The beer at the local Plevna was particularly impressive – although I’m sorry to say I didn’t quite managed to make it to tasting all their varieties.
10. Sauna – The importance of the sauna to Finland is hard to exaggerate. Finns love their saunas, although not everyone leaps out to roll in the snow or jump in an icy lake. For an Englishman there are two challenges: public nudity (although usually unisex nudity) and getting sweaty. I must say I really liked the sauna experience and eventually I was brave enough to go to the public saunas. It is relaxing – both physically and mentally – and must give the Finns some of their mysterious ‘sisu’ or determination.
Of course – 10 is not enough. There were many other good things and many things we missed doing. We didn’t get to hear Sibelius, visit Lapland, go cross country skiing, go ice dipping, visit the islands or enjoy the Finnish Summer. But there’s always next time…
So – kiitos Finland – we love you!