I arrived in Helsinki around noon and seeing the airport almost devoid of people almost shocked me. In the last few years, serpentine queues for security and teeming millions trying to jostle for space in almost every major airport in the world, not to especially mention the chaos in New Delhi and the total lack of respect in London Heathrow. Besides, the complete lack of security checks did make me wonder for a moment if I had arrived in another era!!!!
The city bus was easy to find (I love the concept of having easy maps and city guides in every conceivable corner in Europe!), and in 40 min I was at the city centre, walking towards the hotel in downtrown Helsinki where I was staying. It was snowing mildly and despite the sub-zero temperature, I quite enjoyed the 10 min walk.
In the next few hours, I discovered an ancient Finnish tradition, that has remain unchanged for many thousands of years…the sauna. The sauna is a small room or hut heated to around 80 degrees Celsius. It is used for bathing as well as for mental and physical relaxation. Unlike the steamy saunas that I have seen, the traditional Finnish sauna believe in the principle of ‘sweat bathing’ as opposed to steam bathing in foggy rooms!
While a hot sauna may seem a cruel punishment to unexperienced bathers, it is actually a very pleasant experience. All you need is a towel and at least half an hour of time. I learnt through my Finnish friend that the sauna has a long history and close relatives in other cultures: the Russian banya, the Native American sweat lodge or inipi, the Turkish hamam, even the Japanese onsen, though the sauna is definitely of Finnish origin, and something that the Finns are incredibly proud of.
Unlike the weather, the Finns are a warm lot, and my friends’ home in suburban Helsinki was even more so. In their home, I learnt to make a traditional mushroom soup, that were freshly plucked from under the snow during the day. The dessert was also quite unique- bright red forest berries, from my friends’ summer cottage, topped with a cream-caramel sauce. He told me that they pluck these berries in the summers and freeze it for use for the rest of the year. I got addicted to the mildly sour Finnish rye bread, and ended up having it with every meal and even between meals!!
The few days I spent in Finland, were also an eye-opener in many ways. I was completely oblivious of the Finn’s contribution to design and art, which I found in plenty through the rich body of work I saw in the design museums, and stores like Marimekko. I also realised how geographical position can change the course of history, as it did and continues to do in the case of Finland. Its proximity to Russia and Estonia came as a surprise to me, as somehow, one always tends to club the Nordic countries as part of western Europe (most Finns do so too!!) and I realised the stong influence of the Russian mainland on their cuisine and culture.
Even as the Finns prepare for the shortest day (Dec 21), where daylight is for a mere 5 hours, I make a promise to myself that I will return soon to this gorgeous country…perhaps in the summer where in the northern countryside, days can last for many weeks!!!!!!!!!