A mid-winter visit to Finland

I had a few weeks to burn before starting a new job, and dawdling with the parents, as lovely as they are, does drive someone who has lived independently for the previous eight years a little insane. So I decided to jet off to Finland and certainly had a week of doing things for the first time.

I was lucky enough to have a Finnish friend, Juha, who I’d roomed with in Portugal, and I was even luckier that he’d invited me to crash at his place with his girlfriend, Suvi, for the duration of my stay.

Suvi, Juha and I.
Suvi, Juha and I.

Anyway, on to the trip.

A flight to Helsinki via Amsterdam didn’t occasion anything out of the ordinary, so I landed at Vantaa international airport, about half an hour’s bus ride out of the capital, on time. I got on the airport bus and headed towards the centre. The city was pretty much covered in snow, and there were huge piles of it where it had been pushed to the sides of the roads; it seems the Finns are well-used to dealing with the white stuff.

I arrived at the central rail station and met up with Juha, who advised me to get a city transport pass. At 28 euros for 6 days, the pass included unlimited buses, metros and trains within the central zone and represented excellent value given that regular journeys usually cost between 3 and 5 euros for non-students.

First impressions of the city were that it was very clean and organised, and the buildings were all uniform, in that they were all about 4 floors high, so you avoid the contrast between high-rise skyscrapers and bungalows often encountered in some cities.

So what novel things did I get up to?

First day, I ticked off something I’ve wanted to do for a while and went skiing. Internet research and a 5-euro bus journey of about 30 minutes took me to Serena Ski in Espoo, basically now part of the Helsinki metropolitan area. I’d been warned that conditions weren’t exemplary; the temperature was about 3 degrees when normally in mid-February it’s minus 10, and there was a threat of there not being enough snow. However, me having absolutely no idea about how it should look, everything seemed fine. There were a few ski slopes, reasonably high and the snow was definitely plentiful.

Skiing...this time on my feet
Skiing…this time on my feet

I went to the rental place and hired skis, a helmet and poles for 25 euros for the whole day, and was immediately stumped. My question of “How do I put the skis on?” was clearly one not often heard, and they looked at me rather confusedly. Nevertheless, someone kindly showed me the click-in method required and I went off on my way towards the beginners’ slope, ski boots strangling my ankles.

I noticed that I was about three or four times older than all the other skiers, if we discount the kids’ mothers helping them out. Rather than the traditional ski lift, this “baby” slope had a pneumatic rope which pulled you up, though for a complete novice even dealing with that is difficult. I fell over (a recurring theme of the day) whilst trying to scale the slope, blocking an army of toddlers behind me, and struggled to my feet, knee ligaments crunching. Eventually I got the hang of it, via advice from a lady who seemed very fearful for the safety of her little boy with me around, and I ascended in the squat position, which is oh-so important in this sport.

My arch nemesis: the ski-lift.
My arch nemesis: the ski-lift.

I dismounted half way up and ran into my next problem. How to actually turn 90 degrees and get into a position so as to go downhill. If you don’t angle your skis correctly, you start sliding backwards, and if you turn too quickly gravity takes you away down the slope in any direction. I learned a kind of shuffle which got me walking across the slope and after about 3 or 4 attempts, lots of ass kissing the snow, and concerned advice from the kind lady, I managed to descend and then stop, if not very gracefully.

“Push your skis in towards each other to slow down and turn to stop,” the previous day’s YouTube videos had advised. This was indeed useful to know, but even so I continued to almost skid off-piste every time I went down. I eventually got the bravery to go to the top of this beginner’s slope, and had acquired enough technique to safely ski down and bring myself to a stop by pointing skis inwards and pulling sharply to one side and away from loitering children, who kept dangerously standing within my radius.

I slowly built up my confidence and then decided that since I was at a ski slope, I had to get a ski pass and go for the bigger slope. I went and bought a lift day-pass for 19 euros and met a real nemesis in the machine itself. I just couldn’t fathom how to get on it. First time round I grabbed it with my arms from behind, which initially worked, but I lost my grip halfway up and fell off, much to the amusement of young passers-by.  I then noticed that people were kind of sitting on the ski lift bars, so I tried copying. Again, a miserable fail. It turned out you had to pull the bar a little and then hook it round your hamstrings. I eventually got it, and began my ascent. I think you know what happened when it came to getting off.

Now on the higher slope, which was a good deal steeper, I noticed all other skiers doing a wonderfully graceful zigzag down the slope, thus keeping their speed reasonable. I on the other hand didn’t have such control and ended up bombing all the way down the slope. Realising I wasn’t going to slow down on time, I had to abort, which can only really be done by throwing yourself tumbling to the ground and hoping for the best. On subsequent descents I managed to learn enough so as to slow down on time, but had to wait for a lot of child traffic before setting off.

My travails with the ski lift and the floor meant that I was only able to go round about five times more before I had to catch the bus back. The experience was great and the exhilaration you get from going down the slope at full speed with wind in your face is definitely one I’d like to repeat.

Later that evening, I met up with Juha to go and watch an ice hockey game between The Espoo Blues, and another team whose name literally translated as The Lynxes. The arena was tucked away in a modern-looking sports complex in Espoo and once inside, the installations were impressive. The place held about 5,000 fans, and many of them dressed in their teams’ colours, faces painted too. There were people of all ages and I got the impression that the sport was rather family-orientated. Indeed it’s the best-supported sport in the country, although football is growing in popularity.

Ice jockey in Espoo
Ice jockey in Espoo
Blues ice hockey Ultras
Blues ice hockey Ultras
Blues!
Blues!

To the game and I didn’t really understand why play was being stopped and players sin-binned, but I could surmise that The Blues were clearly the superior team, and not just because of the 3-0 lead they took into the first of three twenty-minute breaks separating the four periods. As often remarked, the game can be a little violent at times, but I began to question why they were shoulder-charging each other when the puck was nowhere near. A band of ultras to my left maintained a good atmosphere throughout, flags aloft as they sang a Finnish tribute to ex-Rochdale defender Nathan Stanton. The match finished 4-1, with the away ‘keeper incredibly scoring an own goal by throwing the puck into his net, and though watching ice hockey was a new experience, I have to admit that the sport didn’t exactly keep me on the edge of my seat and the fact that the clock stops after any minor incident does prevent any fluidity and thus the game drags a little.

The next day Juha and I walked around the city centre and looked at the parliament building and harbour amongst other things. The city is clean and organised as I mentioned before, but I didn’t really get the wow-factor from it, nor did it seem that different to any other European capital I’ve visited, the wide streets and high streets nothing out of the ordinary. I imagine that during the winter when the city is whitewashed and the water in the harbour freezes over it becomes quite a spectacle, so I felt a little unfortunate that the weather had been irregular during my visit.

The central square in Helsinki.
The central square in Helsinki.
Finnish Parliament.
Finnish Parliament.

Later in the evening and onto the most Finnish of traditions: the sauna. The one we went to, on the outskirts of the city in a secluded country club was special because it was a smoke sauna, which involves pouring water over hot coals to generate heat instead of the modern electrical saunas found in the average family home. This was a unisex sauna, so it didn’t involve getting my schlong out in a room full of strangers as is the normal tradition. Juha even commented that on school trips they’d often be ushered into the sauna room naked not only with all their classmates, but their schoolteachers too. Imagine that!

Set in darkness, the sauna was indeed quite relaxing and caused me to get a sweat on, especially when the locals lobbed buckets of water over the coals and the temperature really rose. 100 degrees was mild, they said, it can go upwards of 160. I was a little dubious. Now this particular sauna sat on the edge of a frozen lake, which meant another activity to contrast with the steam room was on the cards. It involved getting out of the sauna and jumping straight into the neighbouring frozen lake. Needless to say, upon complete submersion my body commanded me to scramble out of the lake as quickly as I could in some kind of wild delirium and my calves and shins locked up like they were frozen solid. After escaping the water, jogging on the spot helped recover feeling in my legs, and the sensation I felt a few minutes later was certainly more exhilarating than the effect of any coffee or energy drink. The sauna and ice lake cycle was repeated several times, and the reports I’d heard of people becoming addicted to the sensation of the freezing water started to become believable.

The frozen lake which I jumped into
The frozen lake which I jumped into

The next day entailed a day-trip to Estonia on the ferry, something Finns do on the weekend so as to have a cheap piss-up, given that beers in Helsinki are generally priced at 7 euros, whereas in Tallinn you can pay less than 3. I’ll talk about this trip in a different blog, however.

Arriving later that night, we headed to a nice pub, and had some decent Finnish lagers, Kukko being the only name I can remember. At 7 euros a pint, you certainly don’t rush through your drinks and I ask myself how much a full-on piss-up must cost in the city.

The plan for Sunday was to go ice-skating and perhaps play ice hockey, but warmer temperatures and watery ice put paid to that. Instead, we slept in a little later and I went for a further explore in the city. I went through the city park where cross-country skiing is a usual weekend pastime, but not on this day, and I scaled the tower of the Olympic stadium and managed to see the neighbouring football stadium of HJK Helsinki and a panoramic view of the city from above.

Sadly, it wasn't cold enough to play ice hockey.
Sadly, it wasn’t cold enough to play ice hockey.
HJK Helsinki stadium.
HJK Helsinki stadium.
Peering through the gate at HJK Helsinki's stadium.
Peering through the gate at HJK Helsinki’s stadium.
Olympic Stadium
Olympic Stadium

Monday involved another stroll around the city, and as the National History Museum was closed, we went to the City Museum, which was rather small, and despite having a decent amount of written text and an array of photos, I felt that the works on display lacked coherence.  Then suddenly it was Tuesday and I was on my back to Manchester via Amsterdam, and upon arrival I would see that British transport and organisation is far inferior to that in other countries which logically schedule their bus and train timetables, don’t put two staff on at airport passport control when four flights have just landed, and don’t cancel trains just ‘coz they feel like it. Anyway, less moaning about that, and let’s get on the interesting things I got round to eating in Finland.

Being a coastal city, the Helsinki residents certainly have an abundance of good fish to eat and the two fish dishes that Juha and Suvi made me at their house certainly didn’t disappoint. The first was a take on fish and chips to welcome me, and we ate breaded pike fillets, which didn’t have dramatic seasoning, but melted satisfactorily in the mouth. Salmon soup is another local food and involves throwing salmon into a broth made up of onions, carrots, potatoes and a generous amount of dill, again with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper being sufficient. The Finns don’t really go overboard with tastes, but use quality ingredients, so no complaints there.

Salmon soup
Salmon soup

Onto the more exotic thing I ate now, and one of the new things I tasted was reindeer. I didn’t imagine Rudolph and co pulling Santa’s sleigh, nor did I picture Bambi bounding through the forest as I ate slices of the meat on a bed of mashed potato covered with lingonberries. It was tender and didn’t taste too dissimilar to beef really.

Reindeer, mashed potatoes and lingonberries.
Reindeer, mashed potatoes and lingonberries.

I had also intended to bring back some foods with me for my family and friends to try, so I purchased an array of moose products: canned meat, sausage and pepperami. Unfortunately, the people in airport security wouldn’t let me take the can of elk on board as it contained juices, so I had to swallow it there and then. Opening the can wasn’t a pretty sight, as the product seemed rather like spam, and was ringed by a layer of fat. The sausage was a little fatty too, fat squirting out of the meat as you made to eat it.

Moose in a can.
Moose in a can.

Drinkswise, as I previously mentioned, there were lagers aplenty, most of them rather strong-tasting and with a steep cost of 7 euros. They also had a product similar to Smirnoff Ice on tap, which was called Long Drink and served in pint glasses. Finally, a point to make on lunches.  In most places, for the relatively modest sum of 10 euros you can get an all-you-can-eat buffet meal all over the city centre, whether it be Finnish or Mexican food, pizza or sushi. So given you pay an arm and a leg for a beer, you’d be well-advised to take advantage, as dinner prices aren’t so friendly.

In conclusion, I had a fun week experiencing new things and trying new foods, and the fact that nothing out of the ordinary happened reinforced the idea that Finland is a pleasant and organised if not overly spectacular place to go.

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