WTF?? No, It Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means…Welcome To Finland!!

Jennifer Stern May 4, 2017 No Comments

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If you’ve been bitten (or at least nibbled on) by the travel bug, you’re probably already daydreaming about where you and your family would like to go on your next vacation. The idea of traveling to Europe sounds pretty chic to most Americans. But maybe it seems like London, Paris and Rome are a little too “been there, done that.” I mean, if I had a dime for every Facebook friend who’s posted a selfie standing in front of the Eiffel Tower…well, you get the picture.

May I suggest a fresh, new destination for your next European adventure? Think north. Way north. I’m talking about the beautiful city of Helsinki. Yep, Finland. Land of the Midnight Sun.

Scandinavia doesn’t usually pop up on the radar of most Americans as a vacation destination. But I’ve spent the past two summers traveling and eating my way through Helsinki, thanks to the gracious hospitality of a Finnish friend I happened to met on Facebook. (That’s another story for another time.) It is one of the most stunningly beautiful, clean and spacious countries I have ever been to, and I’ve fallen in love with it. Let me count the ways!

Because Finnish winters are so long, cold, and dark, (and no self-respecting Southern Californian could possibly endure the frigid temperatures), you and your family will probably want to go in the summer. Finns take maximum advantage of their short summers and outdoor activities abound. Your family is sure to enjoy a visit a beautiful Finnish beach (yes, beach!) like I did. Complete with cute blonde lifeguards, a beach volleyball game, and Helsinki’s own answer to the fabled “Muscle Beach” in Venice.

The beach was on a lake. One of Finland’s nicknames is “Land of a Thousand Lakes,” but that’s a pretty modest moniker, considering there are more than 188,000 lakes in the country. They’re gorgeous and pristine, and most city residents have a tiny lakeside cottage for summer use. I think it’s pretty funny that this California girl first learned how to do stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) on a Finnish lake last summer! Surprisingly, SUPping is extremely popular in Finland in the summer, and a great family activity as well as relatively inexpensive.

Outdoor music festivals are everywhere–and who knew that Finland has the world’s highest concentration of heavy metal bands?? I didn’t–until two summers ago. And because in the summer the Finnish sun only barely dips below the horizon before rising again, (hence its other nickname, “Land of the Midnight Sun,”) you have nearly 24 hours of daylight, so these festivals go on well into the wee hours!

The Finnish language is one of the most complex and beautiful languages I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been studying it for the past two years and have acquired roughly enough vocabulary to have a conversation with a Finnish toddler. Almost. But that shouldn’t stop you from going there! Finns speak excellent English, and even though they’re pretty shy and reserved at first, they warm up very quickly and I have found them exceptionally gracious and welcoming. I’ve been invited to people’s homes to pick strawberries, and I’ve been invited for Lettu, a scrumptious Finnish pancake served with berries, whipped cream and ice cream. The Finns have a huge thing for berries, by the way. Berry stands are everywhere in the city, and the berries are huge, delicious and cheap!

Speaking of food, an American can find some pretty exotic cuisine in and around Helsinki. My friend insisted on taking me to a Lappish restaurant downtown. In Lapland, the northernmost part of the country, reindeer is standard fare. So, yeah…I ate Rudolph. And actually enjoyed it immensely! The reindeer meat is tender, juicy, and was served on a heaping bed of mashed potatoes with gravy, and garnished with a side of bright red lingonberries. Appealing to my eyeballs and my tastebuds! Plus they gave us such big servings we got doggie bags and enjoyed it again the next day.

Of course, you can also find pizza and hamburgers, which may be more palate-pleasing to younger and pickier family members–but why go to Helsinki for that? You can try a plate of reindeer meatballs at the outdoor market place, or a crispy basket of muikku–tiny fish fried whole, kind of like French fries, served with a yummy garlic aioli sauce.

But, for the true Finnish experience, you have to go all the way. Without clothes.

I meant you have to take a Finnish sauna. What were you thinking? ;)

Finnish sauna is a tradition–heck,  it’s an institution. There’s even a sauna in the Finnish Parliament. You can find them in nearly every household and hotel, and they are seen as a necessity for relaxation, not a luxury. They are often co-ed, but sauna is a strictly non-sexual place and even sort of sacred. No swearing is allowed, and arguments and controversial topics are avoided. While you will find people wearing bathing suits in some co-ed or family saunas, usually clothing is considered a faux pas, even though it’s OK to sit on a small towel. After a few sauna sessions I began to relax and enjoy myself when I realized that no one cares that you’re not wearing clothes. Hey, when in Rome!! (or Helsinki).

There’s much more to Finland that an American ought to experience–the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), the clean and efficient public transportation, the beautiful pre-war architecture and the contrasting Scandinavian minimalist design–I loved how my friend’s apartment looked precisely as if it came out of an IKEA catalog!

I hope you’ll get the chance to visit someday…and people can say “WTF” (Welcome to Finland) to you too!

P.S. Wanna know what to do next?? Check out SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) for some good deals on flights to Helsinki. I’ve traveled with them twice and I highly recommend them!!

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avatarAbout the Author:

Jennifer Stern is a mom of three teen boys, who provide her with constant inspiration to write. She is also a fitness professional/junkie who teaches everything from Spinning to Zumba. A New Jersey native, this is her second time living in Southern California. She loves the L.A. lifestyle, but does miss eating decent pizza and bagels--so she consoles herself with excellent Mexican food. She and her family live in Burbank.

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