Being More Finnish

25th Feb 2014

Years ago I watched Witness.  I'm sure you've seen it too.  It's the classic Harrison Ford film where a tough city cop hides out in an Amish community to escape police corruption.  It's a great film but my overriding feeling after it finished was how cool the Amish seemed.  I suppose I was attracted by their strong sense of community, of how in harmony with nature they seemed and, above all, the seeming simplicity of their lives.  I've no idea how close to reality the portrayal was and I suppose what I really wanted was to be one of the Amish as they were portrayed in Witness.  I've had the same feeling several times since and my life, like every traveller, is always going to be influenced by each community and culture I dip into.  Right now I am sitting in a isolated lodge in Finland and the same feeling is back.  At the moment I really want to be more Finnish..........
My visit to Finland has been fantastic.  I have been based in the Hossa Wilderness Area which is a stunning panorama of lakes and forest sitting close to the Russian border.  So close, in fact, that one of the places we stayed was an old border station.  Hossa is a stunningly picturesque natural oasis that has left a powerful impression.  The same can be said of the local people I have met and worked with.  The impression I've gained is of a people in harmony with both their natural environment and their culture.  Of a welcoming people who embrace having visitors to share the passion they feel for their home and of a peaceful people with a strong sense of pride in their country.  
It's been great to witness these qualities on so many levels and it started to become apparent straight after arrival.  I was met at the small airport in Kuusomo by a gentle natured and quietly spoken man who, it turned out, was our in country agent.  His greeting was so mellow that I immediately felt at home.  Every Finn I've met since has been the same.  Sometimes it has taken a little while to break down a more formal outer shell but I've always found a fun loving and gentle character in every person I've met.  It is very endearing.
We drove through the snowy evening to our wilderness base and chatted about our respective homes and families.  Our free flowing conversation revealed something else which has been reinforced ever since.   Finns are very proud of their country and they speak at all times with a quiet pride.  I never heard anyone utter a negative comment which was quite a tonic for a Brit well used to our renowned negativity.  No one complained about politics or work, about the weather or the price of food.  No one actually complained about anything during our whole stay.
On arrival at our accommodation the rest of our team of guides was waiting to greet me.  As we walked in one was sharpening his knife and another was studying the snow depth forecast ready for the day ahead (a feature of every Finnish weather forecast that I grew to really look forward too).  My next lesson began.  Everyone I've been working with is at one with their natural environment.  Of course, living in a stunningly beautiful landscape may help, but my whole visit has been like watching a 24/7 Ray Mears programme!
And, of course, that knowledge about their natural surroundings surely influences how much Finns respect it too.  I never saw any litter and properties were constructed in harmony with their setting.  I'm sure it helps when you have a lot of space and a population of around 5 million, but it still reflects a passion for integrating rather than dominating.  Being at one with nature is also embedded in their freedom to use it.  Finland's 'Everyman Right' gives everyone the right to roam freely in the countryside without needing to seek a landowners permission.  We may be slowly making headway with this in the UK but in Finland it has been a right for centuries.
The next morning we had a series of meetings and, as I was the first to leave the property in the morning, I noticed that both the front door and vehicle door were unlocked.  I looked quizzically and my hosts smiled.  From then on we never locked a single door during my stay and although it took a while to get used to, it soon became very liberating.  Come to think about it, I never locked away my skis, a car door or any other equipment either.  I never felt at risk or anything other than completely relaxed.  Finns seem to respect each other enough (in these remoter areas at least) to mean it isn't necessary.    To be fair I live in a place that can afford a relaxed attitude to crime, but in the places we visited this was still taken to a whole new level.
We had a meeting, followed this with lunch and so I soon realised that it was deemed our working day was complete.  It is nothing to do with being lazy (all the guiding team I worked with were extremely hardworking).  It is more about pacing yourself and in that sense the pace of life here has been a real tonic.  I am used to dashing around and some time here has shown me that I really need to slow down.  No need to rush that lunch or avoid stopping to chat to that friend they meet, to avoid staring at that wood grouse or soaking up that lakeside view.  During my visit their Olympic team were playing ice hockey against Russia and it was inevitable everyone would down tools even though there was stuff to organise for the following day - it was great!
There were so many other simple positives.  Smiles around a campfire, chatting in a Finnish sauna (apparently there are about 5 million Finns and over 2 million saunas - it soon became clear their passion for them is something of a religion!), sitting by the edge of a frozen lake watching heavy snowflakes tumble down or eating some tasty soup from a handcrafted wooden bowl.  Finland has resonated on so many levels and I'm returning home with recharged batteries and a renewed appreciation of the value of our links with nature.  Right now I really want to be more Finnish.
Posted by Paul