Friday, August 3, 2012

 July 2012
Part 1 - Finland


This was a powerful time away for us, in part because we were traveling to the land from whence Bill's people hail. His maternal grandparents emigrated to America in the 1920's and Bill grew up amongst Finnish-speaking relatives. We were blessed to stay with his mother's second cousin on the farm that belonged to Bill's great-grandparents.

The interesting thing about traveling to the land of your ancestors is realising how much of your personality comes down through your genes. For example, Bill is naturally drawn to do the things that  Finns (or Suomi, as they call themselves, meaning 'People of the Swamp') are good at, like carving wood, skiing, building houses, sitting quietly, and tolerating extreme cold, while I have always been drawn to the activities the Irish excel at, like dancing, talking, singing, telling stories and complaining about the slightest change in temperature.

The other powerful aspect of this trip was learning about the history of Finland and Estonia - two small, peaceful countries dominated for centuries by the superpowers that surround them - Sweden and Germany to the west and Russia to the east. The sense of freedom and joy is particularly strong in Estonia which is finally free after decades of cultural oppression by the Soviets. 

If Finland has a theme it's wood. Wood, wood, wood. Everywhere that isn't water is trees, and thus everything is made of wood. This was refreshing change from Ireland where everything is made of stone.

We arrived in Helsinki, which is at the southernmost point of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The following day we went to Seurasaari, an open air museum on an island featuring lots of old buildings and other cool things made from trees.

 Every house had a massive Finnish stove for heating and cooking
Looms in every house for weaving wool and flax in traditional patterns

Good roof design for shedding water
Smoking shed

 Birch bark shoes

 Natural curve of root used to support fascia board

Maypole - this will stay up until next year's Mayday celebration

The next day we went 4 hours north by train and bus to stay with Bill's relatives Marjatta and Taisto.

They still live in Bill's great-grandfather's house in Äänekoski, in the central lakeland district of Finland. 
The farm produces oats, wheat and a tall perennial grass used for fuel, plus a big vegetable garden. 

Marjatta and Taisto also have a beautiful little sauna next to a lake.
 Marjatta cut birch twigs for us so we could beat ourselves in the traditional way with them 
while in the sauna. An acquired taste, I guess......

There is a little sitting room and kitchen in the cottage to relax while waiting for the sauna to heat.

Post sauna - purple haze

The next day we took a hike in the nearby national forest and saw lots of trees.

Taisto is a professional videographer

Bog boardwalk

Orange cloudberries (related to raspberries but taste like orange/apricot)

Farm in Äänekoski - this could easily be a farm in Newfield, much of which was settled by Finns.

Beautiful barley

Wild lupines grow next to the road

World's tallest thistles

Cute sauna down the road

Saying goodbye to our wonderful hosts Marjatta and Taisto, who were so welcoming and fed us so well from their garden during our visit!

From Äänekoski we traveled to Tartu, another city on the east coast, where we walked in the city and on a wooded island in the pouring rain. From there we took the train back to Helsinki for a ferry to Tallinn on the northern coast of Estonia. But before we leave Finland, a few things that we learned about the Finns:
  • They are not related to other Scandinavian people in Sweden and Norway. Finns originally migrated from the area now called Hungary, and with Estonians and a few other cultures are known collectively as Finno-Ugric. Their languages are very unique, difficult to learn and beautiful to hear.
  • There are no gender words in Finnish, like he/she, her/him, etc. Although most Finnish we met have very good English they struggled with this one. Interestingly, Finland was also the first country to give women the right to vote. 
  • The Soviet Union tried to take over Finland but the tiny country with a population of only 1 million was able to fight off a giant superpower with over 180 million people. In the Winter War the Finns held off the Russians by fighting on skiis and wearing white uniforms that hid them in the snow. They also built wood heated shelters during the war and continued to sauna on a regular basis which kept them healthy. The Finns have a word for their extreme hardiness and persistence - sisu.
  • Even 6 weeks after the summer solstice, it was still light all night in Äänekoski which is roughly halfway to Lapland in the very north. The downside is sunset at 3 pm in the mid winter which accounts for the world's high per capita consumption of vodka.
The rest of this blog will have to be postponed for now - my brother Tom with wife Martha and son Ian are arriving tomorrow so I'll send out Part 2 in a few weeks.