In high school I went to Finland for two weeks. I took great pride in having gone there, because really, who goes to Finland?
To be honest, before going, I knew very little about the country or it's culture. I gleamed bits from my Finnish girlfriend and her family. That includes learning a few helpful Swedish Finnish words like "eye-brow" and "go out to pee" (for the family dog, not me).
My girlfriend asked me go with her to Finland for our spring break. I was surprised when my mom actually said yes. The plan was to spend time with her family in Helsinki, as well as go skiing and snowboarding in Lapland.
To this day I still have a soft spot in my heart for the little country that could. With only five million people, Finland had managed to support some big companies, like Nokia and Fiskar. It seemed to me that everybody was healthy and happy and that there were trees and lakes everywhere.
Here I am, twelve years later, exploring Helsinki with the same eyes, but different perspective, and seeing the same things: a well-educated, environmentally-conscious, happy people in a productive country. It's a gem of a country sandwiched between Russia and Sweden, having been conquered by both of them, but now deciding it's own fate.
I cannot stop raving about Finland. The architecture is my absolute favorite - simple, efficient, beautiful to look at while obviously being well-made. It's as if Apple started designing homes and buildings.
Mass transportation is excellent and cheap. Roads are clean and always accompanied by well-designed bike lanes/roads. There are many parks and recreational opportunities nearby. It seems that most people live in a small apartment or townhouse in the city, and that each family has a country house on the lake where they spend their summers gardening and swimming, and their winters cross-country skiing.
Finland is also the first country where we officially couchsurfed. While we have stayed on many a couch, floor, and spare bedroom in our last year of travels, it has always been with a friend or friend-of-a-friend. Now we are traveling to places where I haven't built up a network of friends and so we are using couchsurfing.com.
This website was started in San Francisco many years ago, with the sole aim of connecting like-minded travelers. One can host travelers, find a couch/floor/bed to sleep on, or just meet up to chat. While it is used by budget travelers the world over, the idea is to make new friends and further cultural understandings, not just save a few bucks by skipping the hostels.
While in Helsinki we stayed with two different people. The first was Tanja, who lived in a twenty square meter apartment (yes, there was room on the floor for us to sleep). She was fluent in at least five languages and has traveled quite extensively. Her apartment backed up against a giant birch forest where Kristin and I went running. Our second host was Hido, who was born in Korea but moved to Finland to get his undergraduate degree (in English, for free). He is now working towards a graduate degree in soil science. He lives on campus in a college town outside of Helsinki - it very much reminded us of Davis.
Both experiences were absolutely wonderful. We entertained our hosts with tales from Latin America and comparisons of Finland and American culture. We cooked for them, which gave us the opportunity to stick to our normal ultra-healthy diet. Our hosts, meanwhile, got to relax, sample our food, and abstain from cleaning the dishes. Win. Win. Win.
Overall, Kristin and I absolutely love Helsinki. We would really like to come back and explore more of the country, especially on a bike. Interactions with our hosts took time away from touristy stuff, which was obviously a trade-off we didn't mind!
Oh, and how did we end up in Finland of all places? We wanted to go to Russia but tickets to Helsinki were hundreds of dollars cheaper. So, we got to see Finland and then hop a $25 bus to St. Petersburg.
[ed note: this was written a week ago but not published until now. I am trying to catch up]
Helsinki - Where the buses couldn't get any cleaner or greener
During the summer, everybody and their mom commutes by bike. Their bikes are practical: built-in racks, fenders, basket, kickstand, and lights, with a comfortable upright position and easy step-over frame.
Twenty minutes outside of Helsinki and we were hiking through lush fields and rich forests. The building in the background is Helsinki University's green house and botanical garden. Dare I say even better than Davis?