Friday, June 25, 2010


I was lucky when I finished the Karhunkierros hike that I met a father and son duo who were driving south to Helsinki via Oulu, my next destination, and so gave me a ride. It was particularly lucky because it was a Sunday and transport options are always scarcer on Sundays. when travelling for such long periods you lose track of the days of the week and are only reminded when trains and buses don't run on weekends or when a museum is closed because it's a Monday. My luck continued when my host in Oulu, Pekka, picked me up and drove me straight to his parents' house where they were celebrating his sister's birthday. His parents didn't even bat an eyelid that he had brought an extra guest around, let alone one who was not especially clean (not surprising after 3 days of solid hiking and fighting off the mozzies) and was eyeing the table laden with cakes, biscuits and other delicacies like a starving hyena. Not only were they very understanding, but they also started up their sauna so that I could get clean and have an authentic Finnish experience. Going to the sauna in Finland is as close to a religious ritual the Finns have (except for perhaps getting absolutely hammered at the pub on a Saturday night) and there are many minor points and intricacies that can trip up the inexperienced novice. My favourite part was that you whip yourself with fresh birch branches - not because of any latent masochistic sentiments, as you'll get more pain from whipping yourself with a wet hanky, but because of the intensely fresh smell of the leaves when held over the steaming coals; the only word I could think to adequately describe it is that it smelled of pure green. The warm, soothing effect of the sauna was just what I needed and it made me wonder why we don't have them back home. I couldn't think of a better way of unwinding after a hard day at work, followed by a sticky, sweaty commute home, than spending a refreshing half hour in a sauna.

I find that despite travelling to foreign countries and exchanging ideas and seeing how other people live we rarely actually learn from them and change the way we live if we find something better abroad. Another simple example from Finland is draining boards. They don't have them here. Instead the cupboard for dishes and glasses is above the sink and has grilles. So, after washing their dishes, instead of placing them on draining boards and then having to put them away once they are dry, the Finns immediately put them away and the water just drip back into the sink. An ingenious idea and one I've never seen anywhere else. Similarly, but in a much more important sphere of life, when talking about political and economic systems, European commentators often talk about having to make a choice between an Anglo-Saxon (free-market) and a European i.e. French model with a big, central government regulating many parts of the economy. However there is rarely talk of the Scandinavian model, despite the fact that the Scandinavian countries (and Finland) consistently top the tables of worldwide quality of life and wealth. Surely they should be the people to emulate and yet we consistently ignore them. I don't understand why this is. Perhaps we're too proud to learn from smaller, seemingly less important, countries.

From Oulu my travels took me southwest along the coast to the town of Vaasa, the main town in Ostrobothnia, which is the region that is home to most of Finland's Swedish-speaking minority (Finland used to be part of the Swedish empire for over 500 years and Finland is, to this day, constitutionally a bilingual country). To this day there is still a little bit of friction between the two groups, with ordinary Finns thinking of them as privileged potential turncoats in their midst, whereas Swedish-speaking Finns (and they insist upon not being called Swedish Finns, as they consider themselves just as Finnish, just that they speak a different language) feel that they are picked upon by the stronger majority who want to eradicate their culture. Despite this the Finns have come up with a very equitable way of catering to the Swedish minority (at least cartographically): in municipalities where there is a Swedish minority of more than 10% all street signs are in both languages, and if Swedish speakers are in the majority then Swedish comes first - and in the rare municipalities where Finnish speakers make up less than 10% of the population the signs are in Swedish only. This results in a language leap-frog as place names jump about on signs and you need to keep your wits about you to remember that if you're heading to Kokkola that you are still on the right path if the sign says Karleby. Vaasa (Vasa to the Swedish-speaking Finns) is the best place to visit the Kvarken Archipelago which is made up of thousands of low, little islands that span the gap between Sweden and Finland. As well as being home to innumerable summer cottages dotting the low, forested islands, where Finns can retreat to in summer to grill sausages and drink beer in peace, the archipelago is also one of the best places in the world to witness isostatic rebound (also known as continental uplift) where the land rises following the melting of the ice sheet following the last ice age. Here the land is rising by about 1cm every year, which means that new islands are continually being formed and existing ones are getting larger (it's also one place that probably doesn't worry too much about rising sea levels). It is estimated that in 2500 years the land will have risen sufficiently for there to be a permanent land bridge across the Kvarken, turning the inner Gulf of Bothnia into a lake. But until then there's still the ferry.

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