Long before I met my fiancée Nina I had visited Finland a few times. Being that I’m a sleddog owner, it’s heaven on earth. I spent some time in the 90ies there, and also in Sweden.
Loving a country is like falling in love; you tend to romanticise everything (and I’m well aware that this applies here too). But when I take a step back, most of the positives still stand.
It’s insane just how much nature is there. You will read it multiple times on this blog. Apart from some city centers, in most places you can be in a forest, park or nature area within only 5 -10 minutes of walking. From well-managed parks to wilderness areas, they are always close by and accessible. And we both love it. Personally I’ve grown up near a forest, and we’ve spent lots of time outside. And nothing beats that calming feeling you get when you’re surrounded by nature.
We’re both also love to hike and camp. And these are very good reasons for us to want to move there. In Belgium, there are a few places where you can live near nature, but camping is a big no-no unless it’s a designated campsite, and you’re rarely really very far away from civilisation. It’s not that we dislike people, but clearing your mind in nature works wonders.
Finns live in a country where there are thousands of lakes (187,000!) and half of the country is covered in forests; so they spend a lot of time outdoors. And while you might encountered like-minded wanderers in the middle of nowhere, everybody respects one another’s search for solitude. You won’t encounter a hiker carrying on a conversation in loud voice with his companion, or with music booming from a loudspeaker, etc…
Maybe this is linked to a the Finnish character of not wanting to bother other people, but I feel mostly it’s just about respecting your (and the) environment.
This is maybe just a big pet peeve of mine. But compared to other countries, traffic is normally very calm in Finland. No quick cutting-off other drivers, no racing to beati the light before it turns red ( but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty myself). And traffic jams are rare, except of course in the city centers during rush hour.
Here in Belgium you can easily get sucked into the fast-paced lifestyle, and people here get easily agitated in traffic. Most drivers here are pretty egotistic, while in Finland there is a general tendency to be polite, mannerly and not attract attention.
The more North in Finland that you go, the lighter the traffic. It’s pretty logical: There are only half the number of people in a country 10 times the size of Belgium, and Lapland has only 177,000 people living in 100,000 squareKM. So, meeting somebody on the road is rare… Ok, now I’m making it sound like there’s nobody, but when we drive from Kallojärvi to Kittilä for example, we meet more reindeer then cars…
And because walking is such an important activity in Finland, many areas have separate walking/biking paths, including such passages under the roads. So cyclists are not only safe, but they also do not slow down other traffic.
I’m a regular user of the website https://www.kelikamerat.info/kelikamerat-lappi where you can see the live road conditions. This is especially handy in winter.
This the number one favourite pass-time; it represents a whole series of activities, being outdoors again, and making time for physical and mental well-being.
There are more saunas in Finland than there are cars, and even the apartment buildings, communal living areas, etc, have saunas. Larger apartments have their own sauna, and further, I have yet to see a private house without a sauna. And the best place, the mökki or cottage, also has one, and sometimes even two (smoke sauna).
And then there are the public saunas. Often run by sport clubs or dedicated local sauna clubs, they are also everywhere. It’s an important part of the daily life. Many people come several times a day to meet, chat, have a beer or two, and swim, in the lake, river or sea. We tend to meet up with our friends and go together, because unlike here in Belgium, talking is normal in the sauna and you would be surprised by the level of socialising that happens in the sauna. We have been to a small, country-side club, where the fire is roaring all night, water is poured on like crazy, and swimming is in a muddy, dark river. Only the locals are there, and they’re a bit difficult to understand but very friendly. On the deck they sell makkara, a Finnish grill-saussage, and beer, to satisfy the small hunger. But they’re so friendly, that we were included immediately.
Even in winter this outdoor swimming tradition is kept; the water stays at 0-5 degrees. You have to get used to it, but the feeling of being reborn and the energy boost is well-worth the few gasps of air when you first get in the water. Small steps in the beginning and the slow build-up is key to doing this safely. And not alone! Even in Helsinki, you experience ice swimming in the winter, if it freezes there is an “avanto”!
Now let’s all be honest, in our minds Finnish cuisine does not immediately links to our classical image of fine cuisine, Burgundian style or gastronomical marvel. But let me tell you that we (as in “more southern Europeans”) are in for a surprise. And there has been a really big change the last 20 or so years! Taking some very basic ingredients, and applying conventional and modern kitchen techniques has become the standard. Mix in the fact that there are some unique local ingredients (grouse, cloudberry, beetroot, moose, pike, salmon, etc…) and they’re combined with nordic minimalism, very fine seasoning and sometimes surprising combinations the culinary delights are not only a beautiful sight but a true flavour discovery!
We love winter. Sure, it’s cold, but you can always layer and dress warmly. And sure, we grumble when we have to clear out the driveway for the 5th time in as many days, and scrape the ice from the windshields. But the crispness of the air, the silence that it brings, and another advantage: no insects! It makes up for the invasion in Summer. The low temperatures make some tasks very daunting, but some would say, even more rewarding. Add that everything looks idyllic, since we all associate Christmas (more on that later) with snowy trees and hot beverages… Winter also brings some challenges: Driving times are 20% longer, accidents are more serious, and basically everywhere it’s slippery.
Skiing is part of winter of course, both cross-country and alpine, and more recently ski-trekking. While Nina was proverbially born with skis on her feet, I was taught skiing at age 12 and my parents took us cross country skiing in the South of Belgium. One of the things I’m looking forward to the most is the longer trekking tours, with a dog or two, pulka sled and our daughter Aamu in her own sled. There is an abundance of tracks across Lapland, so it’s easy to just go out and enjoy it. When there’s no snow there are roller-skis to keep you in shape.
Did you know the real Santa Claus lives in Lapland? He has a huge house in Rovaniemi, where he and Mrs. Claus reside all your round, and together with hundreds of elves. But it goes beyond Santa of course. Finland is abundant with Christmas traditions, and each family has their own. Everything is infused with Christmas. And festivities start early, with some “pre-Christmas” parties, sometimes small ones at friend’s houses, but also bigger corporate events.
Christmas Eve is typically a family event, so on the 24th of December a lot is done: food preparation, tree dressing, sauna session, church service. As to the food, there is a lot of it! Finns like traditions, so a spread of foods is prepared, and they are the typical ones: Smoked salmon, beet salad, roast, and casseroles, etc…
But the most endearing moment is on that morning, Santa goes on TV, and for 4 hours he takes live calls from children. From young to old, they all get their chance to tell, sing, and talk to Santa, who patiently listens and answers.
And this is maybe the second most important reason for our move. We have a pretty hectic life: with the new baby, the dogs and cats, our workouts (we try to run/bike a bit), meet-ups with friends, and work of course. And it all seems to take 150% of our available time. Some of our preferred activities are such a hassle here, or cannot be done under ideal circumstances. Eg. running dogs. In Finland I can just let the dogs out (woo-woo-woo-woo-woo 😉 ) and go for an hour (or two) hiking and they will follow me. Here in Belgium I have to hook-up the trailer, drive 30 min, and only then can I let them run free in a designated closed off area or leash them up and walk. Life in Lapland is much “simpler” without this being a negative or demeaning word. Some basic things are more difficult, but a remote area also brings a sense of adventure…
This is a tricky one and a big downside. Throughout the years we have built up a close circle of friends in Brussels, across Europe and around the world. Some we have met online, some in person, and some of them left to live somewhere else. And we will miss having them close by…
“If we do meet again, we’ll smile indeed. If not, ’tis true this parting was well made.”
But I have already decided that I’m only going for the first part! And it’s 2020, so we have all of today’s great tech available to us. Heck, we have better 4G at the cabin then we do in downtown Brussels… And of course we welcome everybody also that wants to come over!