I’ve been listening to a language of which I understand only one word — ravintola. It means restaurant. My companions, Maati and Kati, live in Sweden but are from Finland. They’ve recently retired, so can now do much more of what they like doing best — hopping across to Finland and spending solitary weeks in their summer cottage, miles away from civilisation. I’m tagging along on one such retreat.
We’re in a car-queue at a harbour in Stockholm, waiting to roll into the bowels of a cruise ship and make the 12-hour journey to Finland. I am going to eat lots of pirogs, try not to die in a sauna, and, most importantly, indulge in that characteristic Finnish thing — silence. EveryÃ‚one has assured me that the Finns don’t talk and they illustrate this with jokes like: a Finn and Swede meet for a drink. The Swede raises his glass and says “Skål” to which the Finn asks, “Shall we drink or shall we talk?”
On the Amorella’s top deck there are lots of Finns who don’t talk, unperturbed by blasts of icy wind and staring calmly at Stockholm as it sails away. In the bar downstairs they compensate, however, by singing raucous, off-key karaoke, following which a German oompah band in black waistcoats and colourful ties takes over, appearing to do the same song over and over again. The supermarket specialises in alcohol and giant packs of candy. Everything on the Amorella has a robust kitschiness to it. We find two Kaurismaki brothers films at bargain rates, however.
Waves of Kaurismaki nostalgia wash over me the next morning as we’re going up to the top deck to catch the first glimpse of Finland. A trembling old couple get on the elevator at deck 5 and take some time to establish that they want to go to 6. “You’ve missed it, we’re already on 7,” says a man. “It doesn’t matter,” replies the old guy. “In any case, this elevator is the only free thing on this ship.” Kaurismaki follows us as we leave the liner. At the customs checkpoint there are officers holding breathalysers. The Viking Line does not want to be seen as a company responsible for unleashing hordes of drunk drivers into the country every morning. As Maati rolls down the window, an officer who seems unreally handsome for 7.30 on an overcast morning asks, “Good morning, are you drunk?” “Oh, we’re used to that,” says Kati. Maati breathes into the implement, the officer checks it and says in the same deadpan voice, “There are a lot of zeroes in this car.”
As we drive on, Kati translates the voice on the radio. According to a recent survey, the more people drink, the higher their salaries. It takes me some time to figure out that what she means is the reverse. Some hearty Finnish rock follows and I start to realise that Finland, so similar in external appearance to its western neighbour, Sweden, is indeed another country. It’s funnier and colder, its citizens drink more, its rock bands are better, its language, unlike Swedish, is incomprehensible to an English speaker. Things in general are rougher around the edges.
Our first stop is a town called Lahti, famous for its ski-jumping centre, where Maati’s mother, an elegant 80-year-old widow, lives by herself in a large apartment. Grandmother Terttu is mad about dogs, has never worked in her life, lives on cakes and chocolates (she finds potatoes boring), and belongs to the sort of bourgeoisie family where it is de rigueur to have painted portraits of family members (among serious artwork) on the walls, and a quantity of high, straight-backed chairs with stuffed seats. Terttu has cooked us the sort of meal that in scope and volume is murder. A huge baked salmon occupies centre stage surrounded by tureens of meatballs, reindeer stew, boiled vegetables, various salads, tuuvinki (a sweet potato mush), the thin slices of salt-cured salmon eaten all over Scandinavia, pickled herring, pasta, and various Finnish breads including some she has baked herself.
Terttu is not a quiet Finn, at least not today when she has her family around her. She describes her everyday life in rapid-fire Finnish. This consists of waking up at 4am to sing along with hymns on the radio and walking the neighbour’s dogs in the afternoon. There is another secret hobby, which she will reveal to me later, she says. I live a good life, I am never bored and I never complain. Do I ever complain? she asks Maati and his brother, Seppo, who has joined us for lunch. We-ell, they drawl. Afterwards, the secret hobby is laid out for me on the bed — dozens of brightly coloured striped socks that Terttu knits for Russian orphans.
Teija, Maati and Seppo’s sister, lives in Nurmijärvi, the town that was home to the father of modern Finnish literature, Alexis Kivi. We stop at Kivi’s 19th-century childhood home on our way to Teija’s house — a plain red cottage indistinguishable from the others that dot the landscape. In summer it hosts performances based on his plays. Kivi only lived till 38, drank heavily and lost his mind towards the end of his life. Teija tells us how Kivi’s brother kept him locked up in the house because it was cheaper to do that than pay for the lunatic asylum, and how he starved Kivi to death. Maati feels this story has Finland written all over it. Meanwhile I meet my first really quiet Finn — Jori — Teija’s husband. He stands by the living-room window with his back to us, contemplating the view as if he has just seen it, asks in a whisper for the coffee pot when we move to the dining table for tea and then disappears altogether.
On to Santamäki, too tiny for any map, but not far from one of the many hundred lakes that dazzle the eye when one opens a map of Finland. Maati and Kati’s summer cottage is deep in a Finnish forest; to reach it we turn into roads that grow narrower and narrower, and finally bump along gently on a two-kilometre dirt track. They could build a road if they wanted to but never will because that would attract people, and the whole point of such cottages is to get away from people and be silent. Already there are Russians buying some of the places in this area, says Kati disapprovingly.
The cottage is from the 1920s, part of a farmhouse with large granaries and an old, disused larder sunk into the ground. We do rural things over the next few days — walking through the 24-acre spruce, pine and birch forest that the couple are the proud owners of, discovering juniper berries, from which gin is made, as well as a plant that stings most viciously when you step on it. Maati christens it Finland’s national plant. And then I do the sauna. This involves sitting in a wooden room in 700 C heat, while a large iron stove bakes stones upon which water is sprinkled to generate humidity that can make Bombay seem dry as the Arctic. The idea is masochistic in a hearty Finnish way. You take as much of it as you can, then rush out and skinny dip in a freezing lake, or, if none is at hand, just stand outside in the cold and drink beer. Repeat as many times as possible.
By now we’ve driven through mile after mile of Finnish countryside and I haven’t seen a single person on the roads, just the occasional car whizzing by. We pass picturesque little wooden bus stops with bus signs painted on them but no people, and no buses either. The extended summer is giving way to a wet autumn, the birch trees are yellow, and life, as the Kaurismaki brothers know so well, feels just a tiny bit sad. I’m glad to go to Forssa, one of the bigger towns in this part of the country. We walk up to the pretty red brick church but the doors are locked and on the steps sit two young boys drinking a twelve-pack of beer.
Something about them sitting outside a deserted church makes them seem different from the people walking about in the town square. I decide that they want to be artists, and are giving the thumbs-down sign to Forssa and its small-town values. Later we see them in the super-market buying more beer. In a park old men are playing boules and in the square more men sit around, talking desultorily. Some of the countryside melancholy has seeped into the town. It’s the beginning of the suicide season, Maati says cheerfully. I’m nevertheless reluctant to leave as we sit in the cottage the last evening, eating meat buns called lörtsy which Kati describes as a dying Finnish tradition, while outside the night is as dark as nights must have been before the invention of electricity.
It’s the Amorella again on the way back. We get better music this time — a spirited Finnish tango band to which old couples — some in wheelchairs — dance gracefully, and later in the day an ‘international’ band that does great covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The sun comes out and everybody seems to be drinking as much as they can or else buying something to drink in the tax-free shop. Within minutes we’re in Stockholm, and Finland is only a white and blue flag on the ship’s mast, flapping in the sunset. And I’ve learnt a second Finnish word — kiitos, thank you.
FinnAir flies Delhi-Helsinki-Delhi for Rs 25,555 (including taxes) on economy class three times a week. By the middle of the year they will fly daily on this route and will also operate flights from Mumbai. If you happen to be elsewhere in Europe, like Sweden or Germany, you can take a cruise ship to Helsinki or Turku. And if you just want a cruise ship experience, you could take the cruise from Helsinki to one of the islands in the archipelago like Mariehamn. The rates vary through the year; when I went on the Viking Line ferry between Stockholm and Turku, it cost 9.50 euros one-way. Check www.vikingline.fi and www.silja.com for details.
Southern Finland travel guide
The best way to see the towns of Southern Finland and the lake-dotted, deeply forested landscape in between is to travel by car, which can be rented at the airport or booked on the Net. The drive from Helsinki to any of the smaller towns in the south rarely takes more than an hour. There are also regular bus services.
Where to stay:
Rent a summer cottage: it’s the best way to experience the great Finnish outdoors. Choose from a range of cottages — those located near a ski resort, fishing cottages, or those on a farm. The prices vary according to the time of year and type of cottage. A cottage for six will range from 400 euros to 700 euros a week. Check www.lomarengas.fi for details.
What to eat:
The national dish seems to be pirog (piirakka) — which is a small pie filled with meat or potatoes and is available in large quantities in supermarkets. The general Scandinavian favourites of smoked salmon (and other fishes) and pickled herring are freely available. Typical Finnish food is hard to come by, unless one is eating in someone’s home. The supermarkets tend to be well-stocked with ready to eat, affordable food, while restaurants, by comparison, are expensive and offer what would seem to an Indian palate a rather bland, meat-based cuisine.