“Have you seen the cows in bras?”
I frowned in response to this question. Cows – in brassieres? Why couldn’t the cows in Nivala embrace Scandinavian morals and ‘go Woodstock’, if you know what I mean. What in heaven’s name did they need ‘udder support’ for? Were these brassieres colourful? Or were we talking, modest, flesh-toned bras? As I would soon find out, the (dairy) cows in Nivala opted for leather bras, which were strapped across their udders, in a string of unflattering shades – everything from chestnut to grey, and, if they were really raunchy, fur.
For those unfamiliar, Nivala is a small town in the Finnish countryside. It is described by Wikipedia as ‘unilingually Finnish’, with a bustling population of close to 10,000 people, although I’m sure the most I’ve ever seen at once is 100. It has a karaoke bar, a pizza shack, and lest I forget, a statue of a woman milking a cow.
Upon my visit to Nivala, I came to learn that saunas were featured as a ‘necessity’ in all Finnish households. Although I was no stranger to the idea of showering, sweating your skin off and then repeating the process, ‘sauna beers’ were somewhat of an alien idea to me. I hadn’t really taken to the idea too seriously until it was recommended to me by a Finn. After giving it a try, less than 10 minutes into a second bottle of Karhu (a local brew, meaning ‘Brown Bear’) I felt pretty pleased with life.
I followed my days of ‘sauna beers’ with a trip the javelin museum in Pihtipudas, a town caught between a triad of lakes. Once there, I learnt certain stereotypes about the Finnish were indeed true. Namely, the fact that potatoes are a staple, and that after a drink or two, a Finn was as approachable as a Spaniard. Incidentally I also got my first taste of ‘Lonkero’ (long drink) and ‘Jalokola’. The latter being a cocktail made with Jaloviina (Jalo), a cut brandy and cola (kola). Although I was forewarned about the drink, I have to say – I quite enjoyed it!
Another tick off my bucket list was sampling the local cuisine. I had a taste of reindeer meat with lingonberries, salmon, wild mushrooms, stewed vegetables, pickled gherkins, and heaven-forbid I were to forget – potatoes. Followed desserts like blueberry pie or mustikkapiirakka (berries are hugely abundant during the summer), ice cream with cloudberry jam and Fazer chocolates.
As exciting as the javelin museum was, the highlight of my time in central Finland was without doubt, the ‘European Laptop Throwing Championship’ in Nivala. Men and women alike competed in their respective categories for the equivalent title of ‘Best Laptop Thrower’. Approaching a throwing platform with a glove on their throwing hand, competitors selected their duct-taped laptop by weight, much as one would a bowling ball. After a few stretches, spins or squats, they would fling the laptop across the field, accompanying the action with a groan. And depending on if the throw was considered a success or a failure, a yelp or moan would follow.
I spent the remainder of my time in Finland in Rovaneimi, Helsinki, Tammisaari and Espoo, all of which were unique experiences by themselves. Rovaniemi, home to Santa and Mrs Claus in Lapland (remarkably, both government appointed positions) also hosts an outstanding number of 5-star hotels and, should conditions prove favourable – the Northen Lights.
Helsinki is a city with a countless number of surprises on every corner. Like most metropolitan capital cities, it offers a countless number of eating establishments, including food trucks that are sighted in the pleasant summers. A must-see when in Helsinki is the underground music scene whose menu holds everything from slow jazz to electro to rock. A city with so much culture, Helsinki’s architecture, both old and new is a testament to its history. Modern day wonders by Alver Aalto and old pre-Bolshevik buildings stand side by side along cobblestone roads. The neighbouring town of Espoo on the other hand, although somewhat suburban, is home to the newest of buildings, a brimming marina, and Nuuksio National Park.
Getaways from these two ‘urban’ destinations are endless and all are but a drive away by road or sea. Iso Vasikkasaari and Tammisaari are but two of an assortment of seaside towns with log cabins, Sunday fairs and muikku, a small white fish which is fried, seasoned with lemon and eaten whole (bones and all).
All in all the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ left me enriched in Scandinavian culture and a few pounds heavier with the chocolate and salmiakki (liquorice). The most idiosyncratic thing I’d learnt in Finland is something the Finns call ‘sisu’ – a term that embodies determination, strength of will and facing ones fears. It is, in my opinion, a quality that anyone planning a trip to Finland needs to experience it in its entirety.
This piece was edited for print Helsinki Times’ Expat View. It was published as ‘Have you seen the cows in bras?’
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