Not Sweden, the Other One.

A fellow ginger, adopting the Finnish way of life. Conan is my homeboy.

A fellow ginger, adopting the Finnish way of life. Conan is my homeboy.

Yeah, so I haven’t posted in forever, I’m sorry to my two avid* readers (*accidental). Gimme a break, I have a life too you know. Lol, jk, I just developed an addiction to knitting.

So as some of you may know, I’ve been living in Finland for the past few months. I have posted about the mysterious land of the Finns before, but from a visitors perspective. Now, having lived here for some time, I am posting from the perspective of a spy, behind enemy lines. In this scenario, the enemy is a sort of indifferent and mild mannered people with mostly blonde hair and blue eyes who are most definitely not to be confused with the Swedes. Sweden is the one with ABBA and Volvo. Finland is the other one. Not the rich one, that’s Norway. Well, yeah, it’s rich, but not compared to Norway. In Norway everyone gets a Lambourgini and some Chanel booties as a gift from the state. Here, the government just give you baby-stuff. Think Nokia and Angry Birds and Lordi, that angry band who won the Eurovision a few years back.

In this senseless article, I am taking time to analyse and discuss (and shake off writer’s block) some aspects of Finnish culture that often baffle and amuse the foreigners who come here. So lets get down to it:

Dill:

Before I came to Finland, Dill was a character on the Rugrats. Remember Tommy’s little brother? That guy, not the ginger kid. (Chuckie, like us all, was just misunderstood) In Finland, dill is a staple part of one’s diet. I grew up in a garden centre and until I came here, I couldn’t have even told you what it looked like, let alone what to put it with. It’s this mildly flavoured and scented herd, sort of similar to parsley, but more grassy and stringy. So what do you put it with? Everything. You put it with everything. Chips (crisps or taytos if you’re Irish) – what flavors come to mind? Cheese and onion, salt and vinegar, smokey bacon, am I right? Hell no, in Finland you better believe they’re putting dill on them.

General Nudity:

It’s not that they love being naked. They don’t (or at least I think they don’t. I don’t know. That would explain a lot) It’s just that there’s a general acceptance for it. It stems, probably, from the sauna culture, which I’ll talk about later. But Finns are totally cool being naked (and I mean stark naked, as the day they were born) around each other. It’s a part of the culture I have definitely not warmed to. I don’t wanna see that, and I don’t wanna talk about that. I spent 20 years in a Catholic country, and spent my school days forced into a casket of skin-covering tartan, being given a healthy dose of Catholic guilt and shame. So when I walk by the sauna in my building to the laundry and see a completely naked stranger, chatting to his completely naked friend, I get more uncomfortable than a chauvinist at Emma Watson’s house.

Sauna:

Awh yeeeeah. When you speak to a Finn about the famous things I mentioned above, they’ll almost all immediately retort with “We invented the sauna too!” There is usually one in every home, sort of like a kitchen – treated as a necessary part of the home. I honestly don’t get it. I don’t fancy being shut in a wooden box sweating myself to oblivion and then getting into a cold shower/frozen lake for the lols afterwards. Every Finn reading this is like “Oooh but the health benefits/hygienic reasons/relaxation, etc. etc” I’ve heard it all and I am not buying it. They’re very serious about it too. Like, yes, there are electric sauna’s in the home, but it’s not the same heat, you know? Nope, I don’t know. Finns are all about the wood burning saunas at their summer cottages, preferably next to the aforementioned lake where they have a much softer heat. I didn’t know that heat could have a texture. Apparently it most certainly can. Now get in that damn sauna and you better like it! 😀

Finnish stuff:

Pentik, Marimekko, Iittala, Fiskars, Moomin. Anyone who has ever been to Finland will immediately recognise these brands. They are all Finnish concepts, authentically Finnish and more expensive than the rent on a small apartment in Turku. Finns litter their neat homes with all manner of these things, from Pentik candle holders, to Marimekko curtains, Iittala Aalto vases to a collection of Moomin coffee mugs. And of course, a trusty orange scissors from Fiskars. They legit go nuts for it. Recently I was passing by a Marimekko store that had a 20% sale. It was like Black Friday, but with more blonde haired politeness and less yelling. Even though I have grown to love all of this stuff, I can’t really explain the fascination. None of it really has a function. For example, although they make lots of stuff, most of the popular Iittala glassware doesn’t actually do anything. Holding a teelight is not a function, It’s just in a fancy shape, or a fancy colour, but realistically, who needs a curved and mounted glass bowl to put their keys/jewelry/sugar in?** I guess, from the point of view of a Finn, it’s better to have fancy but functionless and overpriced stuff from Finland in your tidy and organised home, rather than fancy but functionless and overpriced stuff from Sweden.

Social Awkwardness:

If there was a socially awkward world championship, Finland would totally win. (And totally beat Sweden. Finns love beating Sweden.) It’s not a rudeness. It may seem that way to some chatty foreigners, who enjoy nothing more than small talk with complete strangers (like me), but once you get to know the culture a bit better, you realise that it’s just a general unease in social situations. One ought not to be alarmed that the expression on the face of the man from whom you just asked directions never changes the entire time he replies. It is perfectly acceptable to sit next to someone on the train in complete silence for the duration of your journey. Waving at strangers is a no-no. Unless, like me, you enjoy entertaining yourself while you sit in a coffeeshop window, watching the confused expressions on the faces of Finns who awkwardly return your wave. Also, if you have time, and you manage to find an almost empty bus, sit in the seat right next to a Finn, ignoring all the other completely spaced-out and vacant seats. The will, no doubt, get off at the next stop, thinking you’re completely crazy and possibly dangerous. Lol. I have too much time on my hands.

Parenting:

Finns have a great parental system and it’s one of the best places to be a mother in the world. They have great governmental support and a fantastic education system. But what fascinates me most about Finnish parents is twofold, and both points are interrelated. Firstly, parents here are expert wrappers – their babies have more layers than an onion and are more wrapped up than a pass-the-parcel gift. They have baby grows, tops, pants, socks, heavy woolen socks, a sweater, a balaclava, a hat, a sort of padded and waterproof hazmat suit (think Walter White, but a less offensive shade of yellow), mittens and boots. There is not a breeze in the world going to get at that baby. He is zip locked, water tight and vacuum packed. (Perhaps a childhood spent essentially bubble-wrapped from the cold leads to the need to jump naked into a frozen lake) Secondly, with their cosy babies fully element-proofed, what is the best way to put said baby to sleep for his afternoon nap? Why, by bringing him for a nice stroll in the below freezing air. Because nothing sleeps sounder than an insulated baby in the snow.

Equality:

If there’s one thing Finns love more than a cacooned, sleepy baby, dill and a socially awkward sauna all put together, it’s equality. Finns don’t see gender, and I mean that in the most literal sense. In the Finnish language, they don’t have separate words for “he” and “she”. They just have this one encompassing term that can mean either, given the situation. Equality aside, this can give rise to some hilarity in English when your Finnish friend refers to her dad as “she”. Lol. Both parents get parental leave in Finland, all kids go to the same level of schools, with the same prospects, they all get fed the same school lunches and the big box of gifts from the state to every new born are gender neutral. Because Finland is all like “screw you, gender rolls!” A word exists in Finnish and Swedish for a situation where two people live together and are in an unmarried relationship which is totally ok here and has been for some time. (I don’t know it in Finnish, but it’s sambo in Swedish, which also means a “sandwich” where I come from) And just recently, same sex marriages were legalized. Finns are and incredibly equal people and equality can be seen in almost all areas of society here. Politics, education, family life, etc. Maybe just not in the eyes of the Finnish stranger who I sat next to on a Turku bus. She was not feeling the equal need to engage in a conversation about the weather with me. Not at all.

Finns are different to Irish people. They don’t say much at first and they are quite shy and modest. However, once you get to know a Finn, they are likely to be a friend for life and are among the most genuine and honest people I have ever met. Although I find their tendency to shove as many vowels into a word as possible infuriating and can never understand the desire to torture oneself by consuming samiakki licorice, (it’s not candy. Chocolate and wine gums are candy. Salmiakki is were candy goes to die) I am finding myself ever so slightly veering towards Finnishism in my life. I take off my shoes immediately on entrance of a premises, I air dry my dishes, I always have milk with my meal and my dinner is greatly improved by the appearance of some fresh dill. I will draw the line, however, at hopping into a wooden hot box with some buddies to sweat it out. That type of thing is used as a questionable punishment in some countries and something this little ginger is uncomfortable with in about 8 different levels. For now, I’ll stick to the gender equality and a simultaneous and quasi love/hate relationship with Sweden, becoming irritated by their more well-known international status, all the while loving H&M and reasonably priced trips to Stockholm. Conan’s got Finnish lifestyle down.

(**Me. I do. Please buy me one.)

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2013: Richard Parker and a Half Full Can of Redbull

A year consists of 365 days, provided it’s not a leap year. 2013 was not a leap year. A year, like 2013, consists of 525,949 minutes. As I write this, it is the 349th day of the year. That means that I have spent (give or take a few hundred minutes due to frequent time zone change) over 502,560 minutes in the year of 2013. Those minutes have been among the best in my life. Combined, 2013 was the best year I have ever lived through.

On January 2nd of this year, I jumped on the early train from Portlaoise to Dublin. I slept an uncomfortable sleep for about 40 minutes that dark and frosty morning. I took the Red Line into Abbey Street and then sat on the top deck of the Number 4 bus out to Ballsbridge. It was still dark when I went through security check. I sat awaiting my turn to be scrutinised and was momentarily terrified when I heard a loud interaction between an unsuccessful visa applicant and a man behind 4 inches of bulletproof glass.  Turned out that the applicant had “accidentally” stayed in the States 2 years after the expiration of his last visa and had a dodgy experience in Amsterdam involving a suspicious amount of “sweet tea”. I needn’t have worried. My passport and my visa were promptly posted to me a week later. On my way home from Dublin I purchased “Life of Pi” in Easons on O’Connell street.

Fast forward to January 20th when I flew over 4,300 miles, taking 3 flights and over 24 hours of travelling and landed in the snowy wonderland of Missoula, Montana. And so, the journey began for me. Missoula was the starting point of things for me. It was the change in my life that I never knew I needed. Since I first started studying my course, I knew about the 3rd year opportunities. I knew that I wanted to go to Montana. I had no idea just how fundamental the experience would be.

Somewhere between Sunday the 20th and Thursday 24th I made a friend. I walked with my neighbour toward the bus stop, through the snow. We saw a deer. She said he looked like Bambi. This friend would turn out to be my best friend for the next 4 months until she left for Finland. She would be one of my best friends for the foreseeable future. She would come to visit me in F25, in Helsinki and in Ireland. She would make me food, eat my food, share GF brownies and dance on a bar with me in Vegas. She would watch the Eurovision in my apartment and have a Big-Gay-Day with me and she would cry when I gave her photographs and Salmiakki for her birthday. She would teach me how to say “I look good as hell” in Finnish and I would teach her Irish slang and a phrase or two in Irish. She would laugh with me and laugh at me and irritate me and love me, throughout the year. She would be my favourite little Finly. Riina deserves a mention on this blog. I have no idea how I met her. We were both too jet lagged to recall. We just know that I went to pick her up for the Griz v. Idaho State basketball on the Thursday after we arrived in Missoula and we ended up as friends. Best friends. People mistook her as Irish. They mistook me as Finnish. I am privileged to know her.

Frequently people say that their favourite thing about Missoula is the people. I have to agree. I made friends with mostly foreigners, like myself. Like a crazy little party animal who lives on top of the world. The Norwegian made me laugh everyday. She was a daemon for the Iho, hiking and banana bread. She was always the last man standing at any party and organised some of the best parties I have ever been to. She would bike into town with me and the Finn for ice cream in Big Dipper and tea in Liquid Planet. She was always up for an adventure or a lazy day of procrastination. Tanja is my favourite Norwegian and is the reason I can only say extremely vulgar things in her language. She was the last Nordic to leave the States and it broke my heart hugging her goodbye in the Irish House. Her recent Christmas card in Norwegian warmed my heart.

I made friends with some unforgettable Germans, an adorable Italian who will never have more fridge magnets than I, the most loveable Mexicans with the kindest of hearts, a Spaniard who taught me some Finnish, a Moldavian who flew in with me and spoke Italian, the kindest, most motherly and caring Burmese woman who made the most amazing food and is still a legend in the University of Montana. I befriended a beautiful Brazilian man who brightened up my day, a feisty little French girl and the most goodnatured Canadian rugby player who might just be the tallest person I know and a girl from Seattle who showed us all the ropes and introduced me to Superbowl parties, deep fried cheese and chilli. I became friends with Irish students from my own university who I am privileged to see often – an angry leprechaun, a few crazy geologists and a man -among my favourite men – who, upon first meeting him, drunkenly discussed the pros and cons of the female anatomy at 2:30am. I made some of the most interesting friends – a whole bunch of the most different, diverse but fundamentally the same people. Despite our backgrounds, Missoula called out to us all and to the Rockies we came.

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – I can now say, with 100% knowledge of fact that this is entirely false. Because what happened for me in the Golden Nugget on Freemont Street in early April of 2013 most certainly did not stay in Vegas. It did not come to Missoula, in the literal sense, but it did come into my life a little. Then suddenly, what happened in Vegas became a bigger part of my life. Soon it -he- became one of the biggest things. What happened in Vegas was what the Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz disaster should have been. I met somebody so truly wonderful that saying goodbye forever, outside a taxi with 2 other people and an awkward hug would never be enough. Unconventional friendship turned into something more and eagerness to “see what happens” followed. This came with communication at all possible times through a multitude of media – text, email, Facebook, Whatsapp and daily Skype (the record being a marathon 7 hour conversation until 4am) And although 2 timezones and over 3,000 kilometres separated us, something was worth seeing through. He encouraged me to write, he reads through every post before I publish it, every article before I send it to my editor and is a driving force of support for me and my abilities. Finding something that fit so well into my unexpecting life was worth the eventual 9 hour time difference, the altered sleep pattern to facilitate Skyping and the then 7,500 kilometres between us. Because discovering a person who suddenly makes you happier than you have ever been is not something to let go of. When your life is suddenly a lot brighter than before because of the presence of one person who is so compatible to your personality, that person is special and they need to be held onto. A Canadian, Nordic men playing American Football, a broken wrist, a few Finns, a blind date with my best friend, a Mexican, a trip to Vegas and a tearful cuddle at Dublin airport somehow brought us together and let me just say that since that chance meeting next to slot machines and a half full can of Redbull, things have only got one way: Upwards.

Coming back to Ireland was an experience filled with jet lag, overexposure to good food and even better welcomes. I had never been away from my family for more than 3 weeks at a time, so my 5 month absence was met with a joyful return, a balloon, a sign welcome sign and a fry up. I then slept for what felt like a year in a bed of such extreme comfort, that it could only have been crafted by angels, sprinkled with fairy dust and lined with unicorn fur. Less than a week later, most of my family – my incredibly large family, I’ll have you know – friends and a bemused and loveable Finnish man came to celebrate my birthday. Seeing everyone again, having being gone so far for so long was the perfect coming-home experience. It was a chance to catch up with everyone, to have all the people I loved dearly and who had always been a part of my life in one room, a rare occasion to have all the important people in my life together. It was a fantastic night and I couldn’t thank everyone enough for being there and making it special.

2013 marks the beginning of my final academic year in UCC. I have spent almost 4 whole years as a student. I have had ups, I have had downs, but UCC will always have a special place in my heart. This year I live in a house with 7 other girls. 8 girls and two bathrooms. Mayhem, that’s what you’re thinking, utter mayhem! But you’re wrong. The girls are among the sweetest and friendliest people I know. Some of them I have known for years and some I am only just getting to know, but in all my life I never imagined to get so lucky 7 times over with such nice housemates. Sure, there’s an almost constant milk shortage and we occasionally forget to take out the bins and we’ve had tremendously bad luck with the piscine species but we all get along. The houses never empty for long and although we all have our own plans in life and our own journeys to take, we all seem to blend together. There is a constant buzz and atmosphere around the four floors and despite the fact that we’ve rarely been all together at the one time (3 times, I think. Correct me if I’m wrong) we still all mesh together, like one big, ever so slightly odd and mildly dysfunctional family.

With the amount of people walking into my life this year, a certain few have had to walk out in order to make space. A year ago life without some of these people would not have seemed possible. But my 2013 has been proof that a lot can happen in a year. And somebodies who you thought were pillars in your life sometimes turn out to be structures that weren’t really supporting anything and that you can stand stable and strong without them. People faded from my life. Some had been there for a long time, others had only just entered it, but nonetheless without even noting the shift, they were suddenly gone after weeks, months and sometimes years of erosion. Little tiny fragments of their importance worn away by time and experience until one day – nothing. The fading away of such people has not been a source of sadness for me, although I would have expected it. Rather these insignificant characters evacuating my life either through being pushed or their own twisted will has only proved to me just how far I have come in 12 months and just how capable I really am. It was not only people that eroded away. Previous blog posts and the subsequent fall out will tell you that daemons I had been unwittingly clutching on to also drifted away. Through this very blog, through the clicking of the “Publish” button, I dusted away the last of the painful fragments that I held from experiences gone by and cast them, along with those removed individuals, into the realm of memories and nothing more.

My future plans have drastically changed in a year. Exposure to experiences and other cultures has made me want to take a different path in my life. To change from such a certain and definite plan to the current blurred and malleable one might seem a little scary, but to me it is exciting. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years. I know that I’ll have studied and learned the things that interest me. I know I’ll have had some fantastic experiences and travelled the world. I know I’ll be happy. And that’s all that matters.

I finished Life of Pi in April. A slow read by me, but I had been quite busy. I cried at the end. And immediately rushed to the sink, filled it with water and popped in a few bananas. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the movie yet, the emotional roller coaster is too much to handle twice in one year. I still wonder about Pi’s stories. I believe that the story of Richard Parker is true, and that the other atrocities suggested are what the first appear to be. I think, however, that had I begun to read Mr. Martel’s masterpiece in January 2012 I would be less optimistic. I would have seen that Redbull can in Vegas as half empty and I would have sat in melancholy, knowing that Richard Parker never made it to that life boat and that Pi’s mother had met an horrific end. However 2013 has changed me. It has given me the optimism and hope that I didn’t know I lacked. It has given me happiness and faith in humanity that had become silently void in my life.

As I said, 2013 was not a leap year. If you offered me the chance of repeating this year, with one additional day, February 29th, despite all the wonder and happiness of 12 months, I would decline. Why, you ask? I don’t want to repeat the year for the simple reason that it has been perfect and doing it all again could not make it any more perfect. I also don’t want to repeat it because I do not fear the future. I look forward to new beginnings that 2014 will no doubt offer me. I look forward to progressing in a happy relationship, in a happy state of mind and in a happy life. I look forward to the challenges of the year, the undeniable stresses I will face, the ending of eras and the start of new ones. 2013 – you have been beautiful. The people in it have been likewise. Here’s to 2014.

Finland – What I missed.

This is not a travel guide. It is not a blog dedicated to exploring the world and reporting on it, for all those making use of the Internet machine to read. Although if anyone reading this wants to buy me flights around the world so I can transform this into a travel guide, then I am totally cool with that.

I am, however, going to dedicate this post to exploring and my recent international adventure. No America, this time, I’m afraid. So where am I, you ask? Currently, I am North by 59 degrees and 58 minutes and East by 23 degrees and 26 minutes, making it the highest point I have ever been to in the world. Still wondering? I am in a town in Southern Finland, blogging about co-ordinates.

Next question: Finland? Why? An equally good question. A year ago, I would have asked myself the same question. But circumstances change (for further information, see my previous posts) and people you never knew existed come into your life and change it so radically, you can hardly believe how life used to be.

When I was in primary school, at the tender age of 12, my teacher assigned us a geography task. We each had to pick a European country and create a project of information on that country. Thankfully my class consisted of 13 kids, so there was plenty of “good countries” to go around. I chose Finland. Why did I choose Finland? Because Santa Clause lives there. Duh. 

This blog post will consist of a number of things my A1 sheet of colourful Finnish facts missed.

The year was 2004. The internet wasn’t what it is now. Researching meant everyone had to stay off the landline and I could go and eat my dinner while our family PC connected to the World Wide Web. I’m putting a lot of the gaps in my Nordic knowledge back in ’04 down to this. The first thing I did, when I chose Finland, the funny shaped country at the top of our old map of Europe (that still contained Yugoslavia and USSR. Bosnia who?) was source my brother’s atlas, the one he got from collecting Wheetabix tokens. In the back of the atlas, was a page containing world flags, which I loved. I mostly loved this page because there were animated Wheetabix people, in various national dresses and the Brazilian Wheetabix lady was pretty colourful. But therein I found the Finnish flag. I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed. I loved to draw and the plain blue cross wouldn’t be much of a challenge. I should have gone for Spain. That coat of arms would have been more fun. But nonetheless, I set myself to work. First things first. Decorate the border of the large white page in Finnish flags. It was extremely artful, trust me. Then I stuck on a larger Finnish flag on the upper righthand corner, raising it up a little from the page, because 3D effect were cool and definitely worthy of a red “go maith” tic from my teacher. Yes. Even at 12, praise from teachers was like crack to me.

Next I resorted to the largest source of information I could lay my hands on. The labyrinth of knowledge and power. Encarta 97. After an epic game of MindMaze I proceeded to “Google”, 2004 style ‘Finland’. The little men in the computer box spun the CD and made sounds like an aeroplane taking off, only to present me with maps, short videos and fun little facts about the Nordic Maiden. Because apparently Finland is shape like a chick. I can’t see it yet, but I am trying.

Added to my large piece of paper was a printed map of Finland, containing several lines and fading colour everywhere North of Oulu. Using coloured card, I created a box of Fun Facts. Population, language, area and currency. Sort of like an ancient form of Wikipedia, and probably just as accurate. On red card, I wrote about Nokia, the cellphone giant of the age and how they were “connecting people” with the 3310 and 3310i, if you were cool. (What’s an iPhone?) This was pasted somewhere near the middle, along with a few paragraphs about Lapland and Santa Clause. Can you tell I love Christmas? There was a 3D Santa Clause featured too. Because I was a goddamn A student. Weirdly, I also wrote about the high suicide rates and tree farming. Not related. I think.

There were various other illustrations and something about copious amounts of snow and how most of the water is frozen in the winter and basically people can’t do anything. I presented it before a largely bored audience of 12 year olds and it was hung on the corridor (the only corridor in the building) for a few weeks until we did our project on American States. I chose Hawaii. There was a 3D Hula dancer incorporated.

So here are some things I missed. Firstly, and most importantly, Finland has two languages. I know, I didn’t know that either. Finnish and Swedish are both official languages. A long history with Sweden left a minority group of Swedish Speaking Finns in Finland and a language that is as alive as Finnish in many parts of the country. Most people speak Finnish, English and some Swedish in this country. I actually know more Swedish Speaking Finns than Finnish Speaking Finns, a fact which is apparently weird considering they only make up 5% of the population.

The languages themselves are vastly different. Finnish is vastly complicated and unlike most languages. But it is by far the most emotive and expressive language I have ever heard. To Finns, words are like gold – to be preserved and used only with genuine desire and intent. If a Finn tells you something – they mean it. No matter what language. Swedish is a vibrant and sensible language, grammatically similar to English, but rich in strange accent and thick pronunciation. Those who have Swedish as their first language are proud of it, proud of their heritage and their culture, proud to be Finnish, proud to speak Swedish. Their language is part of their very beings. One thing I have noticed with Finns, be it Finnish or Swedish speaking, is that they are genuine. They are honest and although they may be cautious of strangers at first, once they have gotten to know a person, they are a source of a true, loving and strong friendship.

The Finns I have met have all been fun and energetic people. Apart from the way that Irish people are overtly talkative and always have something to say, Finns remind me a lot of my own people. And apparently they do just as well in the partying department as their Irish counterparts. They are efficient. Like, seriously efficient. Efficiency that makes you stop and gasp in awe at the sheer sensibility of customs. Think you may have a million euro idea for a simple labour-saving, household gadget? Chances are the Finns have beaten you to it.

Take for example, drying dishes. You didn’t even think it was an action that needed simplifying. But there, above every Finnish sink, craftily disguised as just a regular cabinet lies an Astiankuivauskaappi (I can’t pronounce this one, but I do a mean job of saying it in broken Swedish – I just have no idea how to spell it) Google it. And make sure you’re sitting down. This dish drying cabinet will blow your mind with it’s simplistic genius. I’m almost a little offended that the European stereotype for efficiency is Germany. Shoes are to be removed at the door of Finnish homes. In my country, asking this might be treated with contempt – but think about it: You’ve been outside, walking around. Perhaps in the snow. Your shoes are dirty. You take them off to keep the place clean. Not only do you feel more at home, you’re also maintaining a clean floor! It gets better – Bottles and aluminium cans all have a price written on them; 0,15€, 0,20€ etc. Recycling them will result in reimbursement for the amount you have collected. Effectively, the government pay you to recycle, at the same time as paying you for keeping streets clean. What is this witchcraft!? 

By far the most underrated aspect of my 6th class project, however, was the complete lack of notice paid to the beauty of the country itself. I did quite a bit of sightseeing in my 11 days here, all in the southern part of the country. I am aware that this means I have about 70% of the country left to explore, but this leaves me only with excitement for what is to come. I saw the beautiful and scenic old town of Ekenäs, the soft pastel coloured houses with crisp white shutters dripping of old European beauty. I toured Turku, its idilic clock tower church towering over the city’s cobbles and calm streets. I climbed to Turku’s observatory and looked out over the city, Åbo Akademi University buildings inconspicuously dotted about the colourful buildings, the bustling cafe’s lining the river in the shade of beautifully green trees.

Helsinki was altogether unexpected. I am, by my nature, not a city girl, but Helsinki surprised me. The city centre is full of detailed architecture and it is bursting full of history. From the titanic Parliament building, its great pillars looking out over the capital’s people, to Senate Square, full of tourist and Finns alike, eating lunch on the steps of the white Lutheran Cathedral, to the many old buildings, which thankfully survived wartime, Helsinki is like no other European city I have been to. It is a mixture of everything and nothing, a bustling hive of activity and commuting, and grossly under marketed as a city-break destination in Europe. The city’s parks mean that despite the thriving hub of movement, there is always somewhere to escape, somewhere to get away.

Helsinki offers ferries (for €2.20 – might I add, this is the price of a cup of tea on Irish Rail. A cup of tea.) to many of the beautiful islands in the archipelago in the harbour. I strolled around Suomenlinna with my two favourite people, eating rye bread and yoghurt, drinking in the sea breeze, the stone caverns and the rich history. Finland’s long, yet altogether recent history was more than present in the Sea Fort Island’s museums and cultural centres.

Porvoo – my favourite place in Finland, so far. It is a beautiful city in southern Finland, where the old town resembles streets of painted doll houses, all similar, but each with its own charming character and uniqueness. The old cobbled hill to the church provides a fabulous view of the winding streets, the decorative craft shops and the lazy, meandering river. I stood there, atop the hill at Porvoo’s stone church as the sun began to set, on a warm Friday evening and fell in love with Finland.

I took an unexpected stroll around the hidden wonder of Fiskars – a town famous in Finland for scissors and knives – but famous in my heart for its romantic captivity. A small stream, clutching ducks and swans, runs through the village, hugged by picturesque wooden bridges. A fantastic chocolate shop is nestled in the row of redbricked handcraft stores. There I discovered another new love of mine – Kinuski. A sort of fudgey, chocolatey caramel. Not quite ganache, not quite toffee, but something of an heavenly mixture, enveloping my senses and tasting like more.

I went to the Southernmost town in Finland, Hanko, where one can almost see Estonia and the memory of Russian occupation is evident in the trees, no more than 70 years old and the rocky forests. I stood on the beach, in front of the infamous restaurant and function house, Casino and watched they giant cargo ships head for Poland, Stockholm and Tallinn as the sea air brushed my face and the sand caressed my toes… I love Finnish water, I love the trees, I love the weather, the landscape, the food, the fish and the culture. I love Finland and I love its people. I can say, not just with hope of conditional certainty, but with actual knowledge and fact, that I will return to the Finnish Maiden, and that my return shall not be the last of such.

In hindsight, 21 year old Gearóidín is struggling to put into words they majesty of Finland. I have not done the country justice. But I don’t think there are words – not in the English language, anyway. I’m not sure if 12 year old me would have done a much better job, even with all this experience, all this excitement and all this love.