Finnish? I'm certainly not Finnished with Finland.
I have a pretty embarrassing secret that I've managed to keep to myself during my time working at the embassy. Lapland is real. To be clear, the secret isn't the fact that Lapland is not a fictional place. Rather it's that I realised this fact well into my mid-twenties and only after starting work at the embassy.
So, here's a public service announcement for everyone. The Ice Queen is not real, although she very well might be if, while on a family trip, you push your mother into an ice fishing hole. Lapland is real (I have to reemphasise this, if not for everyone's sake, then for my own). And I'll let you in on an even bigger secret, one of the best kept ones there is – Finland is also real (despite what Reddit claims).
I learned the latter especially well during my trip to Helsinki. In between meetings and trainings and a seemingly continuous downpour of rain, I managed to catch a few rays and collect some quality Finnish experiences under my belt. Here are my top five picks of Helsinki:
1. Berry picking in the forest
Growing up in Australia, you learn not to touch anything that moves and also to avoid anything that doesn't. Please note that I'm probably paranoid. Spiders are poisonous, mushrooms are probably poisonous, and those little red berries on the bushes are most likely inedible. That rustling in the bushes? It's probably a snake or an overgrown goanna. Snakes are generally deadly, and goannas are significantly less so, although once a goanna did bundle my friend's jumper into its mouth and clamber up a tree. She never got her jumper back. Basically, the lesson to learn is that everything is terrifying.
So one relatively basic thing that excited me the most about Finland, was that while walking in Nuuksio National Park I could pick any and all the berries I could find. Families would come scrambling out of the undergrowth with baskets in tow overflowing with mushrooms. The forest was lush and towering and the ground was damp underfoot. I revelled in the thud of my footsteps as I danced over the tree roots intertwined with the paths and the squelch of the moss under my weight. Basically, it was awesome.
Nuuksio National Park: http://www.nationalparks.fi/nuuksionp
If you like exploring as much as I do and you enjoy fortresses as much as the next person, then Suomenlinna is for you. Whether you're a history buff or you just want a quiet walk next to the waves, this 18th century sea fortress is still worth a visit. Visitors can roam around to their liking and there are networks of unlit tunnels that you can scramble through. I certainly did not pretend to command an invisible platoon and I definitely did not run frantically from pillar to pillar during the breaks in invisible and very imaginary gunfire.
There's endless history and facts about this place, including that it's on the UNESCO World Heritage List, so have a read for yourself below.
3. Finnish food
The salmon was SO good. And because the summer came a little late, it meant that September still had market vendors selling those sweet juicy Finnish strawberries. My colleagues were not exaggerating about how delicious they are and I'm sorry to say that Australian strawberries pale in comparison. For the entire week I proceeded to stuff my face with copious amounts of salmon soup, liquorice, cinnamon buns (korvapuusti), donuts (munkki), bread cheese (leipäjuusto), rye bread, berries (lingonberries, cloudberries, bilberries, blueberries, raspberries, rowan berries and there are probably more), karelian pies (karjalanpiirakka) and those ridiculous Turkish pepper lollies (I had one and my face puckered up like a shrivelled prune). My tongue is still burning and I cannot believe that people actually like them.
More delicious and non-trauma-inducing Finnish food: http://www.visitfinland.com/article/iconic-finnish-foods-of-all-time/
Sauna is a huge part of Finnish life and culture. And in Löyly you can experience all the löyly and the kiuas. It's a beautifully constructed building with three saunas, including a smoke sauna. I still have no idea whether I actually 'sauna-ed' correctly but I found it to be a wonderfully meditative experience.
For an unseasoned sauna-goer like myself, it was overbearingly hot in all the saunas, but it was particularly so in the smoke sauna. If you add in the fact that I love winter, cannot stand the Australian summer, and have actually been told by a medical professional that I'm allergic to heat – you can see how this might have gone absolutely terribly. But I found that being in that dark, humid and hot room allowed me to focus on the sensations in my body and breathe through the experience. It was beautifully calm and relaxing. And when the others in the sauna felt like lifting the lid of the löyly (stove) to pour more water on the stones, which raised the temperature by what felt like 20 degrees, I promptly waddled right out of there and jumped straight into the Baltic Sea.
Let me tell you, there's nothing that'll get you feeling more alive than that sudden change of temperature.
5. Finnish design
Helsinki is basically design central. It all came to life while I was in Helsinki with Helsinki Design Week, with the city filled to the brim and practically bursting with design events and street popups, including the Design the Cellulose Hackathon (but more on that next week).
Of course we can't forget the iconic Finnish brands of Iittala, Marimekko and Arabia. One day, when I was feeling particularly in tune with my inner Finn, I decided to go through with it…and bought myself a Moomin mug (if they had initiation rituals for Finnish citizenship, this would probably be one of them). The streets of Helsinki are lined with quaint interior design stores and you could spend days exploring them all. Finland is also the home of Alvar Aalto and you know he's one of the greats when all his designs look revolutionarily modern seventy years later and something in you feels warm, fuzzy, and satisfied just by looking at his furniture and glassware.
A walk around the Design District: http://www.visithelsinki.fi/en/whats-on/sightseeing-trips-and-guidances/a-walk-around-the-design-district
A week was definitely not enough! I haven't seen the aurora borealis yet, or stepped into one of those glass igloos, or hiked a Lappish forest during the winter. My sauna tally is abysmally low and my stomach still craves the full smoky flavour of the salmon in Finland. All the forests have not been explored by yours truly yet, and so many cities were left unvisited.
That's why my travels through Finland have not come to an end, merely to a quivering pause. Before you know it, I'll be off to Finland again, because I'm not Finnished yet!
Author information: Karen Khoo is the Information Officer at the Embassy of Finland and a self-proclaimed lover of puns. Opinions expressed are the author's own and do not reflect those of the Embassy of Finland in Canberra. Because obviously the Embassy of Finland in Canberra knows that Lapland is real.