I was in Finland for only a little over a week in December at absolutely the darkest part of the year just to see how it feels to be there when it’s cold and there isn’t much light. I’ll admit I had other motives too (my son lives in Helsinki for the time being), but mostly I needed to see for myself if the darkness was something I thought I could live with. If you are reading this from somewhere far away from the north pole you probably are not aware of how dark it can get so far north. On the shortest day of the year, around December 21, a Helsinki day is about 5 hours, 49 minutes long. In Boston, close to where I live now, by contrast it is 9 hours, 5 minutes long. The difference is a little over 3 hours. You can check your own location here. I don’t know if it makes a big difference. What I discovered on this trip is that Helsinki is a really great city for me.
It was interesting how the cold, dark winter made me feel like slowing down. I don’ know if its true, but it seemed just much more quiet than it ever does during a summer visit. The darkness is like a blanket that shrouds the country and puts it to bed. I’ve always loved getting up in the morning before the sun to drink coffee and read the newspaper. I wouldn’t even have to get up early to do that in the winter. It might be dark and slow in the winter, but there are still plenty of things to do for someone who wants to go out.
One of the most memorable things we did was to attend a hockey game.
According to the Hockey Writers the Finnish SM-Liiga or the Finnish Elite League is the fourth best league in the world after the NHL, KHL, and the Swedish Elite League. In any case, both teams played really well–it was great fun to watch. The night we went HIFK, the Helsinki team, played Vaasa Sport. For Americans like us there were a few differences between their game and the NHL games we’ve been to. Most obvious to us was the fact that the ice is larger. There were some differences in the rules, but interesting to me was the seriousness of the crowd. These people had come to watch hockey! Alcohol was not allowed in the stands so no drunken rowdiness that I could see from where I sat. No kiss-cam or mugging for the Jumbotron cameras. No distractions, I loved it! Best of all the game went into a shoot-out. HIFK won on a shot from Joonas Rask, the brother of my favorite Boston Bruins goalie, Tuukka Rask.
One night we went out to a public sauna, more specifically we went to Kultuurisauna in the Hakaniemi section of Helsinki. How do I begin to explain this experience to someone who has never tried real Finnish sauna? Men and women were separated into separate facilities for the actual sauna experience. I set on a wooden bench, buck naked, cheek-to-cheek with several young women in a hot steamy room, somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees C (176 to 194F) for as long as I could stand it. When I needed a break to catch my breath I wrapped my thin, rented towel around me and went outdoors into the cool evening to cool off. It was possible to take a dip in the ocean which was 2 degrees C (about 36F). Several people were actually doing so but house rules were that it required a swimsuit and I didn’t have one with me. Many people, both men and women were trekking down the path from the sauna to the water do it was a popular thing to do.
The view from the bench outside of the sauna was beautiful with the lights of a power plant twinkling in the distance. The air was hovering around the freezing point but after the sauna it was no problem to sit outdoors in my towel enjoying the peaceful, dark, chilly evening.
As you see, I did some touristy things while I was there– but mostly I was trying to figure out if this was a place I could really live. I did some normal, everyday things too, as much as one can while only visiting…I shopped. I shopped for food several times, as I was staying mostly at my son’s apartment, and we were cooking at home.
In general, I didn’t find the food prices to be as high as I had been warned. I live in Massachusetts and food prices in our stores are higher than what I found in Finland. The stores I saw were clean, well-organized and had more diversity than what I remembered from previous visits.
While there are now many more foreign foods available, I think I am going to have to learn a whole new way of cooking and eating there. Finnish markets have a wonderful diversity of breads, flours, dairy products, and cold-cuts. The things that were missing, from my point of view were beans, greens, and non-Finnish cheeses. I like cooking with black beans or garbanzos and am used to finding them both canned and dried. It is going to be a bit of a challenge unless we end up living in an urban area– and even then, maybe. Finnish cheeses are not as diverse as what I’m used to either. Being a lover of aged cheddar I’m just going to have to look for an acceptable substitute.
As one of the reasons for the trip was to see if Finland was going to be a no-go because of the winter, the verdict seems to be a resounding NO. The darkness is temporary and as long as we are living near an urban center we will be able to find things to keep us occupied.