I didn’t think I was going to like Finland. In fact, based on my first visit to Helsinki, I was pretty sure I was going to hate it. My memories from that trip over a decade ago were somewhat vague, but I could still vividly remember the sense of unease I felt throughout the weekend I spent there. It was my friend’s birthday and we traveled to Finland’s capital to spend it with her boyfriend and a group of friends but the people we ended up staying with were a little odd, and the Fins we met turned out to be even more bizarre. On one of the nights, we ventured out in the freezing cold in search of a club that would let us in – we were 19 at the time, but most places we tried to get into turned out to be 21+ only. When we finally found a club that we could enter, it was full of making out couples and strange men who would enter the dance floor only to stand in front of us and silently stare as we continued to dance alone. It was with those memories that I was returning to Finland ten years later.
Based on my short encounter with the Finnish culture I decided Finland was a strange place, and thus didn’t particularly look forward to going there on a business trip. I promised myself to go out one evening to take some photos and get the sightseeing out of the way, but otherwise I was convinced I would be spending that week in my hotel room, catching up on my reading. Luckily, it turned out that Helsinki had something else in store for me.
With the cute little cafes and snow covered lakes, the city was actually quite charming and to my even greater surprise, all the Finnish people I met turned out to be perfectly nice and normal. Somewhere between the cinnamon buns and sauna sessions, I grew fond of this Scandinavian country that ended up having more impact on me then I had expected.
For a nation of introverts, Finns appeared to be surprisingly vested in cultivating close relationships with friends and relatives. Working 9-4 pm allowed them to spend more time with their families or catching up with friends over cakes and coffee. They also seemed quite unmoved about being completely naked around strangers in a sauna, some confidently arriving into the hot room accompanied by their naked friends. The Finnish togetherness however appeared quite independent and I kept on getting the impression that should one feel inclined to start reading in the middle of a social get together, their need for alone time would not be shocking or rude to anyone. I liked that about them, this freedom to be your own introverted self in the extroverted world. That, and their love of books.
Unlike many other countries, in Finland the libraries constitute a vibrant part of the city life, providing quiet space for those looking to bury themselves with a book as well as serving delicious cake and coffee for those meeting there with their friends. The whole of Helsinki seemed to cater exactly to that need for a quiet relaxation and genuine connection. Most of the cafes I’ve visited, were snug little places sweetly scented with the cinnamon from the korvapuusti and other delicious buns. Aside from the quiet conversations and soft blues, they were all quiet, which combined with their warmth and cosy atmosphere provided a lovely respite from work and the cold outside. Aside from the Ihana Kahvila Baari, a wonderfully cosy cafe located next to the stunning Senate Square with its iconic Cathedral, my absolute favourite was Cafe Regatta. Walking to this tiny wooden cabin covered in snow and majestically situated by a frozen lake was something out of a fairytale and stepping in felt like walking into my grandma’s living room right the moment she baked cake and made cocoa.
But life in Helsinki is not just about the coziness. Finns seem equally interested in relaxing as they are in building physical and mental toughness. There is even a word in Finnish language, sisu, which is a kind of robustness and stamina that is highy valued in amongst the Finns. You can see sisu everywhere in Helsinki. From the people running in -9° Celsius and cycling through the heaps of snow, to the healthy diet everyone in Finland seems to be so conscious of. In fact, probably the most perfect symbol of that uniquely Finnish balance between toughness and self-care is the sauna.
It is difficult to find a more substantial element of the Finnish culture than a sauna. On average every household in Finland is equipped with this wooden room heated to 80–110 °C. Saunas are used for relaxation as much as for their health benefits, and the transition from the warmth into an ice cold shower is a perfect metaphor for the way in which Finns choose to live their life.
Finns may be seen as cold, solitary people at first. But looking at their way of living has been quite insightful. They may live in a country with extreme temperatures, but they never let the weather stop them living their life. Not only do they not shy away from cold but have found a way to thrive in it. They have mastered the art of a good life by celebrating self-care and endurance in equal parts. They are comfortable alone but always make time for the people who matter to them. Helsinki inspired me to think about my relationship with myself and others, to live a little bit slower without becoming stagnant, to allocate time to taking good care of my soul, body and friendships.
On my first night in Helsinki, a colleague told me a story. Once upon a time Buddha was sitting at a crossing of two paths. Along comes walking a traveler and before heading ahead, he asks Buddha what the town the path lead to was like. Buddha asked him: “what was the town you traveled from like?”. The traveler responded: “It was horrible, people were hostile and the town was of no beauty”. Buddha thought for a second and told him: “the town ahead is exactly the same”. Few hours later, another traveler shows up on the path, heading from the same direction as the previous one. Just like his predecessor, he asked Buddha what the town ahead was like, to which Buddha asked him the same question he asked before. The traveller responded: “The town was incredible! People were so welcoming and I have never seen a place of more beauty”. Buddha smiled and responded: “In this case, the town ahead is going to be exactly like that”.
I kept on getting back to this story throughout my stay in Helsinki. I don’t think the city has changed since my last trip. Perhaps what did change was my attitude and perception. I changed from the first traveler and learnt to appreciate the lessons all places can teach us.