My first trip to Finland, also my first trip to Europe, was filled with questions - would I understand street signs? Would I make people mad with my terrible mispronounciations of the Finnish language? Would I be able to find the facilities in an emergency? Would I like the food? The 8-hour flight wasn't bad. Apparently I said "kittos" (thank you) correctly, and the stewardesses spoke to me in Finnish at first.
My best friend had invited me to visit Finland in the spring to spend Easter with her family in Saariniemi, the famous lakes region of east-central Finland. This is the land where the national folklore originated. The origionally-spoken tales were collected and recorded in a great tome called the Kalevala. The stories are rich and entertaining. Many beautiful paintings of Kalevala subjects hang in the great museums of Helsinki.
My introduction to Helsinki was through a concert at Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, where my friend, a member of the Choir Dominante, had an appearance. Afterward, we retired to a restaurant downtown, inside a medieval building with long rows of seats. The food and wine were fantastic - Norweigan salmon is less saltier and far superior to our own variety. The members of Dominante (geez, I guess around 200 people) and their guests began breaking into song. The mass songs turned into boy vs girl, and then into various competing groups. It was magical, voices rising through the high-vaulted ceilings.
The next day we drove to Saariniemi. My friend and her father in touch about the best roads to travel, even though Finland is very strict about cell phones - use your ear plug or get a ticket. I gawked out the window at the snow, the forests, and the Hiirvi warning signs. Hiirvi, a much better word than Moose, are common, and, judging by the signs and huge fences lining much of the highway, not very good practitioners of collision avoidance.
We ended up at her grandmother's farm - a collection of wooden buildings painted gold and red with white trim and lots of Finnish history. The wooden homes in Finland are built within the forests. The trees are left and yards are nonexistent. Even the better neighborhoods have homes built close together without expanses of grass. This allows more of the forests to exist. The Finnish people are avid about the outdoors. They cherish the forests and the lakes and take pride in the abundance of these rich resources.
I watched ice fishing on the lake, eagles, with striking black-and-white underbellies, soaring over, and attempted cross-country skiing, much to the mirth of the family. My friend's father is an Olympic physician who is very familiar with athletes. He tried to provide instruction, losing patience after many repetitions of, "It is very easy. Like this. Like this," while skiing circles around me. Remember, I am a Florida native. Have pity.
As the snow slowly melted, we enjoyed the country, sauna, and visiting with neighbors. We took an Avanto sauna - warm in the sauna, run to a hole cut in the thick lake ice, duck under the ice water, and then back to the sauna! It was very refreshing. Our hosts served us gypsy wine (a secret recipe) and spoke of old times.
When we returned, my friend's brothers told me, "Not even a Finn does Avanto sauna five times!" Her brothers and their grilfriends were fun and courteous. We found we were all similar, each of us having been kicked out of Sunday school as children for being too rambunctious! Easter is appreciated, nonetheless!
The snow wasn't cold, particularly compared to the hearts of my hostess and her family.
The sauna is a wonderful chance to bond with new friends (not to mention leading to a gorgeous complexion because you sweat out all the oils).
The food was excellent: the small red berries and the national sausage are very much like American hot dogs, potatoes, and more. Lactose-intolerance is common in Finland, so I didn't feel like a freak being unable to enjoy lactose-filled milk.
NOTE: the Finns love their coffee strong. Really strong. One morning I made a pot, not realizing the coffee ground was what Americans would use for espresso. I was horrified at first (I love strong coffee, and have made this mistake in America many times), but the family was pleased that I knew how to make "Finnish coffee". I love Finland! They are very generous with their praise.
Easter is a family affair. The two main religions in Finland are Lutheran and Greek Orthodox. As per custom, we left a candle burning at the gravesite of my friend's mother, who had succumbed to cancer some years ago.
While I didn't see any Hiirvi, we did see some wild geese. The countryside has gentle, rolling hills covered with cedar forests and little underbrush (at least at that time of year).
I gazed one last time at the lake through the great picture window my friend's mother had called her changing painting, watching the sky and the far hills. I added my entry to the house journal, and we said our goodbyes as I returned to Helsinki for the rest of my visit.