At the risk of killing the suspense, I’ll just say up front that we loved Finland and the Finns. In The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (which is completely worth reading even if you’re not about to take three flights and nearly 20 hours getting to Finland), Michael Booth describes himself as “an unabashed groupie and cheerleader for all things Finnish.” He also writes that he would be comfortable if the Finns ruled the world. I couldn’t put it any better. The Finns may have a great entry in the “American First, My Country Second” video contest (anyone know of a funnier one than this one?), but calling themselves second is just their modesty on display. (Has there ever been a Finnish Nordic medalist who didn't give most of the credit to the wax techs?) But I digress. Seriously, this video is hilarious:
Yes, Finland is dark and cold. When we arrived, it was howling wind in the harbor, and the sun — which we then did not see for another week — seemed a set piece because I couldn’t detect any actual heat radiating from it. And then the rest of the weekend, the sky looked like this.
Yes, they really do take lots of saunas. Maijastiina and Kari, our friends and hosts in Lahti (really Hämeenkoski) sometimes take two a day. And a lot of Finns, at least in the countryside, have a sauna for winter use in their house and then a summer one in the backyard (or at the summer house; they are mad about their summer cottages, sort of like in Minnesota). The Finns own more saunas than cars, which is surely a sign of an advanced civilization. Standing out in the snow at the farm in between stints in the sauna — pretty much naked, and with a Proper American beer someone just happened to bring to Finland — was just pretty much terrific, but this gets us a little bit ahead. Sorry, no picture here.
Yes, they really are obsessed with cross-country skiing, which is of course partly why we visited in the first place. As a member of the tiny tribe of Nordic junkies in the U.S., it was such a bizarre and wonderful experience — Kari, let’s call it surreal — to enter an alternative universe where the cab drivers are hanging on every word of the radio call of the women’s skiathlon from the airport to the hotel (granted, a Finn won silver in this race, but still). One day J and I had a lovely lunch at the cafeteria at Stockmann, Helsinki’s old department store (our Estonian friend Liia remembers going to it long ago), and the TVs for sale just happened to be displaying a replay of the epic team sprints, in which Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen earned a bronze medal for the Americans (which we didn’t see live in person because someone failed to base the intra-Finland itinerary on the odds of the Americans medaling each day). Here’s Diggins after securing bronze by the length of a ski tip.
And apparently during the Cold War several western movies used Helsinki as a stand-in for Saint Petersburg. Yes, some of the apartment buildings are 1960s brutalist. But many buildings are quite beautiful, and the city contains a surprising amount of Art Deco … including the main train station below with the tower. Somehow the city ends up being a strange cross between St. Petersburg and Miami and Ljubljana and Brooklyn (the last for its hipster vibe and endless espresso cafes, not for any brownstones).
And the main Esplanade is absolutely beautiful.
Yes, the Finns love design, so much so that the Design Museum was one of our highlights. And they take design seriously.
And did you know that Princess Leia wore a Finnish necklace?
Yes, the Finns enjoy their alcohol and overpay for it in highly regulated state Alko stores -- I guess the closest thing to Utah we saw on the trip. But actually, the stereotypes about Finns and booze are wildly exaggerated; they drink less than many Europeans and, no, one doesn’t see a lot of drunken people staggering through the streets. It was actually the visiting Norwegians and Swedes who went craziest in the Alko store in Lahti, hilariously buying out all of the Aquavit (which is not really a Finnish specialty, but I highly recommend the Aquavit from the tiny Helsinki Distillery Company anyway, along with its gin flavored with hops and birch).
In fact, moving firmly over now to the surprises department, it turns out that the (experimental) beer culture in Finland is pretty much terrific. It just makes me amazed once again how far behind the Germans are. I’d never had a hemp beer before.
And if you think you like and have had piney beers, well, sorry guys, I’ve had a pinier one. I mean, this one, from a brewery and distillery in Lahti named Teerenpeli -- full whiskey casks for sale, 1400 Euros -- actually contains pine tar.
I guess the fact that the Finns are finding creative new uses for one of their biggest exports in the 19th century demonstrates why their economy is doing so well …
And yes, dear American friends, I will now answer the mother-of-all questions: even though our new friend Artturi (one of Maijastiina and Kari’s sons**) modestly undersold Finnish beer when he wrote, asked about Finnish beer in advance of our trip, “Always there is lager,” the Finns love IPAs, pronounced "eepas." About half the beers in the supermarket are eepas (no Goses yet), and they make an excellent hearty 100 IBU one to boot.
** and by the way, another of Maijastiina and Kari’s sons has a private sauna even in his 20-something, just-out-of-college apartment. We didn't get to meet him, however, because he was in Mexico -- during World Championships no less! So apparently there are a few people who don't like being in Finland in February.
Where was I? Ah right, beer and now food. I had assumed that there would be a few high-end restaurants serving Finnish staples like reindeer and perch, but we were not prepared for how fantastic the food was. I’m not talking about the usual lovely, how-do-they-fit-all-this-food-in-a-Park-City-kitchen-sized-room-at-best hotel breakfast buffet, one of the things we most miss about our time living in Europe.
I’m talking about hold-their-own-in-New-York-inventive-and-completely-delicious-I-can't-believe-this-place-doesn't-have-a-Michelin-star-call-Chef's-Table kind of food. That's vendace on the left (a fish we had never eaten), and in the front an open-faced porkbelly sandwich -- porkbelly being the bread. Yes ok, the second picture is of perch.
The bread is herkullinen too, though I will say there is a strange absence of bakeries. I’m not a big offal guy, but I can report that reindeer tongue is delicious (look for the little pieces on the plate, not the main loin). The plate had more white space than my students' blue books.
More on food — and more reindeer — from Lahti. But it’s worth mentioning here, finally, that the desserts, often some variation of oats or pancakes and fruit with caramel and cloudberries or seabuckthorn berries or lingonberries, are J’s dream.
I guess three other things surprised me about Finland. First, the Finns are absolutely mad about smoothies. As in, a smoothie a day is as common as a sauna a day. Or as common as 6 cups of coffee a day (they lead the world in coffee consumption). I've included a recipe for a lingonberry smoothie in case you don’t have the Winter issue of Lapland magazine handy.
Second, the Finns are absolutely mad about licorice. I’m not sure the Stockmann had enough on hand to suit their needs this day; maybe they were cleaned out from World Championships.
And finally, if you are not familiar, let me introduce you to the Moomins, a fictional family of … what exactly? … who have been the Peanuts of Finland for more than half a century. (I won't go into the whole topic of the Swedish-speaking Finns ...). 1970-71 episodes in English!
Slightly creepy perhaps yet totally irresistible, the Moomins are a very serious part of Finnish culture, as in put-in-the-Design Museum serious.
But luckily, there was no need to go to a museum to enjoy 6 cups of Moomin coffee.