Sunday, October 23

A few words about my new home

Finland, land of forests, saunas and magic

Finland, tucked away near the top of the world, is a country that few of my acquaintances have visited
Published: 2011/10/14 09:51:52 AM

Finland is a country that few of my acquaintances have visited. It is not that it is dangerous or dead boring; it is just tucked away near the top of the world, and its citizens are not famous for letting the world know how proud of their country they are.

Upon landing at Vantaa airport, in the capital, Helsinki, I am overrun by trees. Hamish, a friend from South Africa, was right; Finland is a giant forest.

As I walk out of the airport, I wonder why I am not wearing shorts. It is as humid as Mozambique in January. Hamish did not mention the humidity, but he had been here in winter. He said it was -30° Celsius.

Having arrived on a Saturday, I spend the weekend visiting beaches and seeing the sites the city has to offer. But I start the first official week of my programme here (it is a business visit) by befriending trees.

Hamish said all he remembered about Finland were trees, trees and more trees. But he did not mention how beautiful these trees were. As much as 70% of the country’s land area is covered by forests. It is full of beautiful green structures and has more lakes than any other country — the combination is spectacular.

According to the website, Finland is the most extensively forested country in Europe. There are about 4,5ha of forest to every Finn, of which there are about 5-million. Aki, a Finn from the country’s embassy in South Africa who has visited Mpumalanga, says he saw many trees there too, but they looked planted for industry. Finland, instead, has maintained its forests, adding some trees, but always trying to make it hard for tourists to tell which are for industry.

It is Tuesday and, following a cruise along the Baltic Sea, my group is visiting Nuuksio national park. We take a bus from Helsinki and stop among — surprise! — some trees. We are going to experience some of the most beautiful forests in Finland. A man in a multicoloured cap, jeans and a lumberjack-type shirt greets us. What hair he has is quite light.

"Hello, I am Pekka and welcome to our forest. We go for a walk and then we drink coffee, OK? Coffee is wonderful," he says.

According to research by Alwyn van der Merwe, Sanlam Investment Management’s director of investments, Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other nation. The average Finn drinks 1,400 cups of coffee a year.

Pekka Väänänen’s company Green Window operates in Nuuksio. Judging by our 30-minute bus ride, one could argue Nuuksio is near the city. But there is no sign of city slickers other than my tour group.

"Don’t disturb the elves," Mari, a Finnish organiser, warns.

"There are elves? Do Finns really believe in magic?" I ask.

"I don’t know what you mean by magic but elves are real. You may just see one," she says.

Nuuksio’s valleys and gorges were created during the Ice Age. I know I will not see mammoths and other creatures from that time but elves — I am now determined to see one.

I did not see any elves in any forest but I was still able to be Fox Mulder of the X-Files for a few minutes. I spotted something that looked like a dog with wings and fangs. I was convinced it was la chupacabra, a mythical creature that kills goats in Latin America.

Back in Nuuksio, we are, I assume, halfway through our trip, when Pekka shows us a flower. I am not sure what it is called.

"Give it to a beautiful person. It will bring them luck" he says.

Well, I like my tour group, and the respective Finnish embassies in each of their countries chose well. I am looking around for a pretty person, and many of the girls already have flowers. I give mine to Ekatha from India. "I hope he’s right," I say.

Next, we pick blueberries. Pekka also picks mushrooms, showing us which are edible and which are also edible but with side effects.

"These ones will make your stomach unhappy. These red ones will make you see things and not sleep," he says. "But the blueberries go well with coffee."

It is slightly darker, so it must be nearly 8pm. We have been drinking average-strength coffee. Some people wet their feet in the lake in front of us, while I drink more.

Half an hour or so later, Pekka says the salmon he was smoking is ready. It is the finest I have eaten in my life; so juicy. I hear the food is from restaurant Metsätähti. It’s a Finnish surname. The boys drink copious amounts of wine with it, while the girlLinks go to do something else that also involves smoke — "they go to sauna".

The rest of us also conclude the day by going to sauna, a popular but also spiritual activity in Finland. It is a tradition that came from people wanting to make their bodies stronger for the winters — to build their sisu, or strength of will.

Nowadays, Finns sauna throughout the year. It is a peaceful setting. I do not think intimacy accurately describes it but I feel stripped of stress.

* The writer was hosted by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland


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