Oh my goodness, ladies and gents. I seriously have a public service announcement. Last week we headed off to Finland, and I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into. Adventure time!
What ended up happening was a lot of fun, foraging, exercise and relaxation. I write this post with a plea: Go to Finland. You will find something wonderful there.
And it will heal you. Here’s why:
1. Epic Food
To be fair, we were in Helsinki for part of our journey, which is a big city filled with delicious cuisine from around the world (I saw more than one Nepalese joint), but even on the side of the road there were plenty of things to enjoy.
I don’t need to go on too much about how amazing the gluten-free choices are here, because plenty of other bloggers have. And I’ve been told that most Finns are lactose intolerant, so there is lactose-free everything there.
It’s true. Even at a tiny shop along the road, where the water isn’t potable so they cart in by the bottle to make mediocre coffee, there was lactose-free cream for it. So yeah, basically paradise for me and Sante.
Oh, and I ate reindeer. And moose is pretty common fare too, so if you’re into game, you’re in luck. Plus salmon is the price of chicken in the U.S. I think we ate salmon for almost every meal, including breakfast.
2. So Much Water
I am a firm believer in the healing properties of water. I have a bit of a phobia of dehydration and believe all of this comes from the fact that I’m a reincarnated mermaid.
Also, I grew up in Minnesota, where if you didn’t live on a lake, you had a family cabin on some body of water or at least a few friends with boats.
All I have to say is no wonder so many Finns settled in Minnesota. It’s pretty much identical. Well, actually I would say Finland looks like you smushed the rocky landscape of Wisconsin together with the water of Minnesota.
We biked over countless bridges, swam in the not-so-salty sea and kayaked among the 100s of rock islands that make up the Åland Island archipelago.
I dreamt of my youth while I was there, and when I left, I felt lighter than I ever have. The water helped me let go of shame I’ve carried for years.
The sea washed away the walls I’d built up as defenses after years of sexual abuse. I cried buckets of salty tears that found their home finally outside of me.
3. Finnish Hospitality
I’m not sure if it’s because there are so few people there or what, but no one seems annoyed at tourists in Finland. In fact, we almost seem a novelty.
We ran into one guy who was so curious how two Americans ended up in Finland. As we chatted, it was clear he was in the tourism industry, but he had serious pride in the country and wanted the world to know it.
We stayed with a friend for part of our adventure, and we laughed about how she knew everyone in town. When she saw another group of tourists on our way out of town she joked how they were there to replace us — the only tourists around.
As we stood in a parking lot trying to figure out how to find a store on the map, a girl approached us and helped us with directions. Never have I felt more welcome in a country.
4. English-Speakers Paradise
If you’re one of those people who is freaked out by the idea of going to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, Finland is the place for you.
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, speaks English. I remember people saying this about Germany, but it’s not true. And that’s OK with me. I need the practice after all. I live here.
But in Finland I was on vacation. And when I approached a few different people with one of the few phrases I learned in Finnish — Do you speak English? — I got strange looks.
At first I thought it was my accent, that I was saying it wrong, but the hotel desk clerk assured me I was correct. Turns out it’s just a weird question because the answer is clear. Obvious. The question is silly.
The butcher, the hotel maids, the salon receptionist — it didn’t matter who I spoke with — they all spoke English. And it was nice.
Oh, and we saw Mad Max in English, which was a real treat. Piece of trivia for you: Finland has two official languages, Swedish and Finnish, so every thing is in both: road signs, menus and even subtitles in the movies.
5. One Word: Saunas
If you have never taken a sauna, it’s hard to explain how awesome it is. These aren’t the super steamy saunas where you can’t see anything. These are a drier heat, and because of that, they can get a LOT hotter.
As a kid, we would sit in the sauna until we couldn’t stand it anymore. Then we’d run and jump in the cold lake (sometimes through a hole in the ice) or roll in the snow depending on the season. Afterwards we’d head right back into the sauna to warm up.
I had no idea this was a Finnish thing until I learned that in a country of 5 million people, there are 1.5 million saunas.
There is something so rejuvenating and cleansing about thermo-therapy. You can read fun tales about it being part of the fountain of youth in one of my favorite novels, Jitterbug Perfume.
The fact is, saunas feel cleansing in a way that a shower rarely does. Maybe you’re sweating out toxins. Maybe it’s that you sit in the dark quiet before you start your day.
Whatever it is, I’m a fan, and pretty much wherever you stay, even the crappy airport hotel, has saunas in Finland.
6. Wide Open Spaces
OK, maybe that’s an over-statement. I saw a LOT of forest actually. I guess I mean this more metaphorically. When you read about traveling to a lot of places in Europe during high season, you read about the crowds.
And I’ve been there. I was in Venice during Carnival when there was literally pedestrian rush-hour — you’d have to stop and stand and wait for the mass of people to start moving again.
While I am all for seeing the celebrated spots of the world, I am certainly not a fan of crowds. In fact, I don’t know a ton of people who are. We tolerate them to see something — a band, a cathedral, a restaurant — we think is worthwhile.
We traveled to Finland during high season, and there were certainly people around. But not a lot. We waited in a few lines, but mostly during the typical times — lunch at a celebrated cafe, dinner in the spot for reindeer or to get groceries in a touristy spot on a Saturday afternoon.
It’s a country with a population less than that of Berlin. Or NYC. And it’s a big place. My therapist hiked in the Lapland area (where they have thousands of lakes), and she didn’t meet a single person for three days. Not one.
This to me sounds like paradise. Probably because I am not a city person. Neither is Sante. Growing up in towns of 7,000 will do that to you.
7. The Light (and the Darkness)
Visiting Finland a month after the Summer Solstice means there is a LOT of light. Every place we stayed (except our tent) had black-out curtains. Even so, our sleep masks were essential.
While we were camping I got up to pee at probably 3 a.m. The sun was rising. When I woke up later, it felt like it was past 11. The tent was sticky hot, and the sun parked right above us. It was 7:30 a.m.
While this can be disorienting, it’s also an amazing reminder of the rock we live on and the star we count on for light. I imagine the winter would bring even more clarity. Now that solstice must be such a celebration.
I want to go back to Finland during the cold months to experience the darkness and also see the Northern Lights in all their glory. For me, this isn’t a one-and-done visit to a country. It’s only the beginning, strangely enough.
Or maybe it’s not strange at all. I’m drawn to Norse gods. I understand a fair amount of Swedish. And well, some of my favorite people I grew up with had Finnish ancestors.
Have you been to Finland? What did you like about it? Or have a suggestion of where I should travel? Tell me in the comments!