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Yes but what is Finland really like?


We spent almost three years in Iran, where we had been happy but enormously busy, with a huge work-load in the office. Looking back on it, as much as we loved the country, it had also been difficult to set up a really warm relationship with people of such a different history and background – even if I could speak their language quite well. Things were quite a contrast when, after a very brief spell of leave, we went straight on to Finland as our next posting in January 1974. I had been appointed as Commercial Counsellor and number two in the Embassy.

In Helsinki we were lucky enough to live in a beautifully spacious second floor flat at 11A Puistokatu, overlooking the park and the edge of the sea. The windows were huge and slightly curved and we were told that, if one of them got broken, it would have to be replaced from abroad at enormous cost. We were lucky to be spared any such catastrophe and able to look through these windows to watch the busy park for the whole of our time there. We were also lucky that, for the early period, we had the company of Christoph and Ella who went to a day-school in Helsinki. The other two boys were by now at boarding school back in the UK.

undiplomatic episodes book coverOne major difference from Iran lay in the climate. Finland had been suffering like much of the world from global warming, but the winter of 1975-76 was memorably bitter. By that January, the temperature had been below zero continuously for more than a month, so this could now be judged as a real Finnish winter – something very different from the pale and watery versions of the previous couple of years.

To us, things even sounded different once the frost and snow came in earnest. Instead of the drip drip from the drainpipes in the early morning, one could hear the ringing noise of a metallic pick chipping away somewhere at the ice, or the more woody sound of the special shovel they had for clearing the snow from the pavements. Once up and about, we often heard the proper creak of snow under our boots. We had one spell 91

of about a week at -15 degrees and it went down to -20 for one night in Helsinki itself – which we were told was far from unusual. One luckless Embassy couple with a newborn babe arrived from England where the temperature was 15 and got out of the aeroplane at -25!

The Finns, who loved to talk about temperatures of -40 during the Winter War, were in general simply delighted at these freezing conditions. Both nationally and individually, they were geared to cope with every extreme. Winter tyres were compulsory, the roads gritted and the snow taken off the highway and piled up alongside. Fur hats sprouted from every head – some of them (on children) even adorned with Davy Crockett tails. All these hats had earpieces which were normally moored on top but could be pulled down to cover the ears. I quickly invested in a splendid muskrat number and, when venturing forth in freezing conditions, always put the earflaps down. The majority of the hardy Finns were not nearly so circumspect; they seemed to think this sissy and resolutely left their flaps aloft. All the little tots in the parks were swathed from head to foot in headgear, gloves, boots and very often all-in-one ski-suits in which they slid down the icy slopes on their bottoms in great style.

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One of Finland’s few disappointments for us was the lack of any mountains steep enough to encourage downhill skiing – though a certain amount did and still does take place on the country’s sizeable hills. Instead, the Finns tended to be fanatical cross-country skiers, often boasting about how many miles they did per day – sometimes using measured routes through the forests and aiming to build up a good total for the winter as a whole. I was rather pathetically unable to adapt my very average downhill skiing techniques to the cross-country version and never went in for it seriously.

Skating was closer to my heart, following an initiation during a couple of cold winters at Maidwell Hall. My major achievement was to be able to jump in the air and end up going backwards on one skate, but my ankles were never robust enough to enable me to keep going for long. The children all loved skating and, of course, tobogganing, mostly of the tea-tray type version. I remember one epic weekend when we could skate as far as we were able over a huge lake covered in deliciously smooth ice. Yet a majority of Finnish men seemed to think that skating was all about ice hockey; in general, only girls went in for elegant boots and figure skating skills.

The ice, the ice! How much pleasure it gave! But how much trauma, too. I’m thinking especially of the ice-covered pool at the edge of the sea within view of our flat. One of our friends told me about a small group whose members broke the ice on this pool and dived in. If I did the same, he added unfairly, I would qualify for membership of this exclusive club and have my name (and the name of the British Embassy!) inscribed in its book. I could hardly refuse this uncomfortable chance of glory; but let no-one say that there is no physical hardship in the diplomatic role. The day of doom was selected and I met my friend at the little hut by the pool, stripped down to my swimmers and dived – or perhaps jumped – into the small area now stripped of ice. Of course, I was petrified of the possibility of being stuck under the ice, but by good fortune that didn’t happen. My friend pretended he was enjoying himself swimming around and told me to relax and do the same. I declined, but bravely waited until he got out to follow suit. There was just time for a quick schnapps and to sign the book before I raced away.

Possibly more pleasurable than swimming, however briefly, in the ice-bound sea, was fishing through a hole made in the ice with an instrument which looks like a huge gimlet. I was told that this was a day long occupation and the number of fish caught by the evening likely to be small – a lonely task indeed, but thought by many to be particularly suitable for the temperament of the frequently morose Finns. Even Finns say that ice fishing is mostly practised by those whose marital relations leave something to be desired. All the same, when we went out over the ice to sea for an hour from Helsinki, I was amazed to see almost hundreds of such fishermen, stretching from the shore to the horizon – none of them, of course, too close to one another. The Finnish friends we were with on this occasion had made two holes in the ice and hung a net in the water between them. This net was to be inspected once a week – and one day they got 14 bourbots, whose roes are a great delicacy in Finland. They said that the lone fishermen caught perch – if anything at all.

Driving out over the sea was never without its risks. During these proper winters the sea froze further and further out and daredevils would drive out onto the ice for some skidding practice. Eventually, the authorities would open roads over the ice, so that people could drive from island to island. But our friends estimated that some 100 cars went underneath every year; the insurance companies didn’t pay up either. 93

***

Nothing can be more Finnish than the sauna, which must be pronounced as in sow, not saw. When a Finn builds any kind of dwelling, the sauna is an essential, early element, even if it’s just a small flat. Not unusually, our great friends Gustav and Karin Mattson had a sauna in their main house as well as one in the garden within trotting distance of their lake. Attending the sauna was an important ritual for all true Finns and it became one for us as well. I took saunas frequently and even felt that to turn invitations down might imperil friendships. Luckily I enjoyed it, although I never went overboard on the subject. It is essentially not a boozy occasion, though a beer after the virtually compulsory post-sauna dip and hot shower can, of course, be a prelude to further indulgence.

When I told people I was going to Finland and mentioned saunas, some of my more childish friends sniggered a bit about the possibility of sitting alongside naked members of the opposite sex. In fact, I don’t believe this happened to me once. The norm seemed to be for the men and ladies to go in separately. It’s true, though, that the men enjoying their beer post-sauna might occasionally catch a glimpse of giggling girls running from their sauna down to the water.

Rolling in the snow somehow didn’t loom large in my sauna experience, but I did it once or twice and found being sluiced with cold water after the roll uncomfortably cold. Equally, my sauna partners tended not to do much in the way of beating each other with birch branches. But I found it a pleasant enough experience – nice and scratchy when applied gently.

My most extreme sauna experience came during a visit by Sir Monty Finniston, the Chairman of British Steel, when he came to Finland. When he visited a Finnish steel plant near the Baltic coast it was thought essential that he should have a sauna. We were duly ensconced in the sauna and a saucer of water put on the bench next to us. The temperature crept up and we knew that it was hot enough when the water began to boil. Next came the essential dip in the sea, where the temperature was said to be -2. That was the biggest contrast I’ve experienced and, much later, I discovered that it could even have affected one of my ears. The surgeon operating on it years later to insert a hearing device told me that he’d had a hard time and thought that the coldness of this experience could have toughened up various working parts within the ear which he had to slice through.

***

Following my Persian experience, I thought I might be a reasonable linguist and decided to have a go at Finnish, in spite of its reputation of being really difficult. As most of the Finns I needed to know could be relied upon to speak good English, the Foreign Office would not give me time to learn the language, but were prepared to pay for lessons to be attended in my spare time. I worked really hard at it, with a charming and efficient lady tutor, for a year and made quite a lot of progress – but ended with a pretty dismal result. After all that effort, I couldn’t even understand the television news! I decided that I was knocking my head against a brick wall and gave up my lessons. All the same, I did, unbelievably, manage to scrape through the Lower Finnish language exam, which brought in a few extra shekels. I am convinced that I only managed the oral part of the exam because the examiner seemed determined to give me a pass-mark and did nearly all the talking himself – and told me afterwards (in English) that I seemed to nod at the right times!

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The Finns made wonderful friends and sometimes gave wonderful parties. They didn’t always live up to their reputation as hard drinkers; but one formative and particularly boozy experience came early on. The Ambassador, Anthony Elliott, and others from the Embassy were paying a visit to a cable factory close to Helsinki which was a part of the Nokia group, very much smaller in those days. On arrival at 4.15 p.m. we were offered a strong drink to help us absorb a short lecture explaining the company’s activities. Next, we whizzed at almost indecent speed through the factory itself. This took about twenty minutes. The ladies were then segregated into a launch, equipped with a bar, which took them over a lake near the factory. They disappeared for the time being. The men were made of sterner stuff; we had to walk at least two hundred yards through the woods to a pistol range where we found not only the usual accoutrements but also a lavishly equipped bar, set up for the occasion.

A further round of drinks compensated for our recent exertions and put us in the right mood for marksmanship. My first go was poor, but I was duly fortified with another drink, which had the effect of improving my performance fairly dramatically. The Ambassador had been muttering about never even hitting a target, but did quite respectably at first; then disaster struck his game. Our junior First Secretary – Charles Godden – nobly stepped into the breach and missed the target altogether when his turn came – so His Excellency didn’t quite come at the bottom of the list. Anthony Elliott was an admirably relaxed and delightful taskmaster who, lamentably enough, drowned during his later period as Ambassador to Israel.

undiplomatic episodes book coverExhausted by all this marksmanship, we walked the shortish distance to the clubhouse where we were rejoined by the women. We went on to carouse until 1 a.m. – but, lest the journey home should prove too much for us, found our way first to a strategically parked railway carriage in which some treaty with the Russians had been signed many years ago. Hardly to our surprise by now there was, at the end of the corridor – a bar. Marguerite was away at the time; but I remember this as a great evening.

The Finns had quite a reputation for drinking but would never, ever, drive after drinking any drop of alcohol. On arrival at our place for one of the many drinks parties it was my job to give, they tended to bring the silence of the forests with them, but rapidly warmed up after a couple of drinks. Put another way, they were often shy before a drink or two. It was often a good idea to add to your dinner-party some chatty member of the Embassy who could be relied upon to make those (often fatuous) remarks which can keep the conversational ball rolling.

As guests, their behaviour was normally impeccable, but there was one lapse I remember vividly. It was the end of an evening at our place, involving dinner as well as drinks. When it was time to go, a single girl, maybe in her 30s and fairly substantial, was found to have collapsed on the floor. A couple of brawny fellow guests picked her up between them and carried her to the lift, while a taxi was summoned. The scruffy taxi driver came up to the lift, clearly recognised the situation as a familiar one and was told the lady’s address. With no hesitation, he picked her up with a fireman’s lift and, under our supervision, took her to his vehicle. Job done!

We certainly went to a large number of parties in Finland and generally led a highly sociable life among both Finnish and Swedish speakers. The latter, a tiny percentage of the population, loomed large on the economic and commercial front and formed a slightly disproportionate position among our close friends. Looking at the country as a whole, the combination of the two language groups had certainly proved an effective one, with the Finns moving ahead powerfully in engineering fields such as boat-building and paper-making machinery.

It was my job to know all about the contribution to the Finnish economy which could be made by British exports; but all too often I only heard about it when things went wrong – such as the time when I was telephoned by the major Finnish ship-builder Wartsila with a serious complaint about the failure of a British manufacturer to deliver an engine on time, thus delaying the scheduled launch-date of one of their vessels. Another complaint, which happened more than once, was that British-made Jaguars kept breaking down. In general, this was a poor time to be trying to help the British export effort. The British economy was going through a dreadful period and our manufacturers too often failed to match the Germans when it came to quality of product and efficient delivery. On a visit back to the UK in 1974, I noticed rubbish all over the place – a stark contrast to Finland – as well as much general depression and what almost seemed a failure of national will.

The Finns may have been quiet, but they were also tough and efficient. You only had to play squash against one of them to realise what the Russians were up against in the Winter War. This characteristic is encapsulated in the Finnish word sisu, which can be translated as a kind of dour effort along with tenacity. None of this meant that they were not fun-loving – but, when it came to any kind of formal lunch or dinner, the fun was usually tempered by a degree of formality. It was vitally important for the host to make a little speech of welcome before the meal began and for the guest of honour to respond at the end of the meal. The wife of the chief guest needed to sit to the right of the host, though it was the other way round for Swedish families. I liked these rituals and started to do the same when we returned to live in the UK – but was soon discouraged. Similarly, we needed to remember to drink a toast – Skal in Swedish, or Kippis in Finnish – to the right people, something similar to the habits my father observed during his time in Denmark.

Yes, the Finns certainly gave excellent parties, and they also channelled much energy into perfecting their holiday plans every year. Every moderately well-off Finnish family living in a town seemed to have a place in the country. This was closely connected to their huge love of “the nature”. Their country places varied between small country dwellings to residences by a lake or even a place on one of the myriad islands in the archipelago, complete with a motor-boat to get them there. The Finns were fanatical about their country dwellings and always ready to invite us to visit them there – very often rather than doing anything more formal at their place in town.

Sometimes these country dwellings could generate their own electricity. There was always running water in the house and, of course, the sauna area; but the very idea of a flushing toilet was taboo. When I dared to query this, I was told that it was simple. The island and lakeside areas were made of granite. There was no way anyone could drill down through that in order to put in the necessary pipes.

Finnish engineering prowess was matched by their brilliance at design, both when it came to architecture and, for instance, glass and ceramics. One of the reasons why I have always enjoyed returning to Helsinki is the fact that even the suburbs are beautifully laid out, with an admirable incorporation of trees and lawns to soften the image of the blocks of flats or houses. And I certainly have returned frequently to Finland, with Marguerite and since her passing, to enjoy both winter sports and summery delights. Those three years were among the happiest of our lives; the place remains a second home, indeed.

Extracted from Martin’s newly-published book, Undiplomatic Episodes, available from the publisher or, if you have to, from Amazon.

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