Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fintics #9: Finland once more, then back home

(June 6-8, 2008) Punctuality is a typical Finnish trait. My friend Jari was 5 minutes early at the aiport to pick me up, but my flight from Riga was 10 minutes early. He drove me back to downtown Helsinki (in his small, cute Citroen), to the same Katajanokka neighbourhood where M&M&I had been staying, only this time I was staying not in the hostel but with Jari and Philippe in their gorgeous apartment. Think Wallpaper, or some other magazine of modern interior design, and you've probably pictured what it looks like.

Jari and Philippe made a fabulous supper for us:
- a chilled apéritif based on white tea (Philippe is a tea connoisseur);
- first course: sesame encrusted salmon, pan seared, with a raspberry garnish, and tomato and basil salad, with rosé wine;
- main course: Caribbean-flavoured chicken breast, inspired by J's travels to Martinique (mmm, cardamom); asparagus with mayonnaise
- bread and 4 kinds of cheese
- macerated berries for dessert

After dinner, P. was a bit tired so stayed in, and J. and I went for an evening stroll around town.

The next morning (Saturday, my last full day in Finland), Jari and I had breakfast while Philippe slept a little longer. I might add that Jari and I had met in cycling events in Montreal during the 2006 Outgames. So he and I went for a bike ride around Helsinki, including a stop at a factory outlet for some of the famous Finnish houseware designers. After we had done a nice loop of cycling, we met Philippe (on bike) and went for another ride to a café in an art museum, where, rest assured, we had suitable refreshments (coffee and pastries). We returned via the Munkiniemi district, past embassies and fancy houses.

After showering and getting changed, the three of us went out to dinner with three of Philippe and Jari's friends (two French women, one Finnish man). My appetizer was marinated oxtail, marinated horseradish, and garlic cream; main course, tender and delicious lamb with mixed veggies; and dessert, a rhubarb crumble topped with a spiced nutty topping and vanilla ice cream; and a lovely very short espresso to conclude things. Great food, wonderful company.

But the day wasn't wonderful enough yet. I had told Jari that the one thing missing on my trip was experiencing a genuine Finnish sauna. Since saunas are pretty ubiquitous, I was thinking maybe we could go to some place in Helsinki... but it was much better than that. We drove to the cottage of J & P's friends, Filip and Jouni, in Mäntsälä northeast of Helsinki. Jouni is a Finnish Finn, and Filip is a Swedish Finn; our conversation alternated between French and English. (I've already expressed my amazement at European multi-lingualism, right?) Their cottage is set admidst birch and pine trees on a small lake, and from the dock we admired the ducklings and lilypads. The cottage was small, a little bit rustic (it had electricity and cold water, but no hot running water and there was an outhouse for those matters), but above all, the cottage was very cute. Filip and Jouni have a lovely golden retriever, rather a glutton for attention. Filip was toiling at some repairwork in the sauna, so the smoke would exit via the chimney instead of spilling into the sauna, and Jari helped him with that. So, close to midnight, though still with plenty of Finnish summer light, three of us headed into the sauna (Filip and Philippe abstained).

So what does a Finnish sauna look like? The cottage itself was one large room, entered via the front porch. But from the front porch, you could also take a different door, into the ante-room of the sauna (changing area, storage, etc.). The sauna had the wooden benches you'd expect, and a wood-burning stove in the corner with hot stones on the top, a ventilation window up high that could be opened if necessary, a drain on the floor, plus a showerhead. The stove had its own water reservoir, to store hot water. There were several buckets of lake water, and a ewer (is that what you call it, sort of like a giant ladle), for washing up. The wall thermometer wasn't working right; Jouni estimated the temperature at 60C, which is not hot by Finnish sauna standards (they can go up to 80 and even 100C). Whatever the temperature, it was very pleasant, though when you splashed water on the stones, with the hot steam, I found it hard to breathe for a little while.

After a while in the sauna, we ran down to the lake. Jouni dove in; Jari noted how cold it was; I tried gradually easing into the water, which was a mistake, as I only got waist deep. But no matter, back to the sauna we went for a bit more sweating and steaming, and then we washed up once more. I had a chance to try the pine tar shampoo I'd read about. This is something I wish I had a chance to buy to bring back. Yes, it does smell like tar, but only a little bit, and not in a petrochemical way; mostly it smells like pine. Between the smell of the pine-wood smoke (remember, the sauna chimney had been leaking earlier in the night) and the pine-tar shampoo, I had the lovely pine-tar-smoke smell in my nostrils for days. I can still smelll it.

After we finished with the sauna, we joined Filip and Philippe in the living room for more chat. Filip had roasted some sausages in the fireplace (sausages and beer are traditional after-sauna snacks).... and eventually, we turned in for the night.

A friend of mine loaned me Lonely Planets for this trip. The L.P. for Finland has a section on Finnish jokes which seem to have been created by Norwegians who were struck by certain aspects of Finnishness. The two stock characters are the manly heroes Pekka and Toivonen. "Small talk is not common among Finns. When Pekka and Toivonen meet again after a long time, they go to a sauna in the woods. They drink vodka for a couple of hours. Pekka asks how Toivonen has been doing. Toivonen says nothing, but continues drinking for a couple of hours. Then slowly, he replies: `Did we come here to babble, or did we come here to drink?'" We weren't that averse to conversation, but what felt so pleasantly different from Canada was that the occasional moment of silence was also okay.

The next morning, we had a very, very lovely outdoor breakfast with coffee, juice, breads, jams, cheese, pastries, scrambled eggs, and other things I've surely forgotten. Then Philippe, Jari, and I thanked our hosts and drove off.

I had one last errand to do: a trip to the Iitala factory outlet for some Finnish ceramics on the way to the airport (where Philippe and I had stopped in the day before). When Philippe and Jari weren't looking, I also picked up a small vase/candleholder for them as a very small token of my appreciation. You see, there is a very plain but famous Finnish vase that Iitala will put out in a new colour every once in a while, and I noticed that Philippe collected them, but was missing a colour. The next day was actually Philippe's birthday, so he was tickled pink by my gift of the pink vase.

I said my goodbyes and thank-yous, and they dropped me off at the airport, where I met up with Mom and M..

Our Finnair flight (on an MD-11) from Helsinki to New York was notable in at least one regard. Our tickets had not all been purchased together, and initially we would have been seated separately, but Mom managed to work things out so that we could sit together, and it was in the window section (rather than the central no-view section). Our flight path took us from Finland, then over Sweden and Norway, then over the ocean, then over Iceland and Greenland, then more ocean, then Newfoundland, Labrador, Quebec, Maine, New York. I was excited because I'd always wanted to see the ocean from a transatlantic flight. I am told that usually there are clouds in the way, and alas that was true that day, but we got an even better treat of a view. I am also told that Greenland is almost always cloudy, but the sky changed from cloudy to clear just as we got to Greenland. We had fantastic views of sea-ice, glaciers, fjords, and mountains peaking through the snow and ice in places. Just as the clouds had parted to reveal Greenland, as soon as we were again over open water, the clouds covered things up again. I asked the flight attendant to thank the pilot for giving us such a great view.

A few hours more and we were in New York. The in-flight display panel showed ground temperature in the 30s, and I was worried about thunderstorms, but we landed all right. I didn't enjoy the US Customs or Immigration experience, but I think I have an irrationally negative reaction to being ordered around; on the plus side, it was fast and efficient... and unlike their Canadian counterparts, US security didn't object to my plastic cutlery. Anyway... because Mom and I had only carry-on luggage, we were able to get to the gate fast and catch an early flight to Montreal. Our plane got out onto the tarmac, and was in queue, almost ready for takeoff, when the thunderstorms I'd feared did hit. They were sufficient to ground all air traffic into/out of JFK, Newark, and La Guardia, so we had to wait both for the storm for pass, and next to be given our turn for take-off by the New York-wide air traffic control system. Eventually we did get clearance to take off, and the clouds that we passed through were remarkable giant marshmallows. It was fun to fly over New England and try to see what I could recognise from the plane. We landed in Montreal, waited to clear customs, and there we were, back in Canada. Mom stayed with me overnight.

The next morning, we had some free time so Mom and I shopped around Montreal a bit, and I took her to my favourite travelling / luggage store... and then Mom took a cab to the airport to conclude her trip.

THE END of Fintics 2008

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