Neighbours

New Zealand and Finland have a few things in common. While at opposite ends of the globe our positions geographically are not too unlike and we are both strong in beautiful nature. Of similar size and population we also both know what it is like to have big neighbours.

The Maiden of Finland

The Maiden of Finland

While NZ’s relationship with Australia could be likened to that between Finland and Sweden, we’ve never had to contend with a neighbour like Russia. Today is Itsenäisyyspäivä, when Finland celebrates 98 years of independence from the Russian Republic.

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Even Google is celebrating

I made my second visit to Russia earlier this year when my parents were visiting from NZ. While many Finns have never been and say they never will go, we felt having travelled from the other side of the world it was worth making a visit.

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We could enter visa-free for 48 hours by arriving on a certain ferry, so we travelled one evening, sleeping on the boat. We arrived early in St Petersburg the next day, where we queued for 90 minutes at the passport check before being allowed to enter the city.

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Not the ferry we arrived on

Obviously it’s impossible to see St Petersburg in a day but we managed to visit sites of note, including St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

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We also visited the State Hermitage, where I realised the enormity of the place after spotting a ‘small cloakroom’ designed for a population bigger than a town I grew up in back in New Zealand.

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There is a huge collection of art …

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… and historical displays….

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…. and rooms dripping in gold.

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For when understated is overrated

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Tips on redecorating your entranceway abound

While fascinating, to be honest I found the displays of wealth that so many could benefit from, at times felt a little grotesque.

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Not available at IKEA

As we left we found a military display taking place in the square outside.

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Despite the tanks, guns and number of personnel there was a moment of levity as we watched a group of women practice their dance moves to the side.

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Heading back to the boat we queued again for nearly two hours to get through security and customs, with checks continuing onboard as food and electrical items are not allowed on.

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While the visit was nice, we have no plans of defecting to Russia, especially as Finland prepares to celebrate its centenary of independence.

Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivä Suomi!

Independence Day Finland

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer ( Juhannus ) is one of the biggest events on the Finnish calendar and is celebrated on the Saturday after June 19. With the biggest events happening on Midsummer’s Eve, we set off to the island of Seurasaari for some traditional Finnish celebrations.

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We’ve had a lot of rain this week, but the sun was out and the island is looking beautiful, covered in wildflowers and green.

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We love how the landscape here is left untamed and unshaped over summer, just left free to do its own thing.

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There was quite an extensive program on, with traditional crafts, singing, storytellers and puppet shows set up around the island.

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At one place you could make your own head wreath, choosing flowers from baskets of wildflowers.

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We stopped for a while in a clearing and the boys had turns on stilts while I went for a ride on a horse-drawn cart.

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Next we went down to the main events area and had our picnic dinner and wine. There was a flag procession and singing and Jonathan got drawn into dancing a Finnish folk dance, much to his discomfort and our immense delight.

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We soon followed Jonathan and his band of merry dancers down to the beach for the lighting of the first of the bonfires.

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Midsummer bonfires are called kokko, which is also the name of a mythical bird of iron and fire from Finnish folklore, similar to a phoenix.

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Despite the appearance that the sun was still rising in the sky, it was soon time for us to head off and get Miko to bed.

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For those who stayed there was music and dancing until 1 am and more bonfires lit beneath the midnight sun.

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Seurasaari is an open air museum and home to examples of Finnish architecture from across the ages and country. My parents are visiting from New Zealand and enjoyed checking out the different buildings on our way back to the bus.

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You can tell by our clothing that it wasn’t a particularly warm night on Friday, with the temperature hitting a high of just 14 degrees. That was 14 degrees warmer than last year however, so in comparison it really was a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Walking through a winter wonderland

There are so many new traditions for us here in Finland, especially around Christmas time. On Sunday we headed over to Seurasaari for our first Christmas path.

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2.30pm Helsinki – just before sunset

Seurasaari is an island connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge. We caught a bus there full of families, babies in strollers, children and dogs. We squashed in together and there was a feeling of excitement in the air.

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The bridge was decorated and there was a tree where children could hang homemade decorations. I’m not sure of the significance of these bundles of wheat but they seem to be popular at Christmas time and Saint Lucia holds one in her arms.

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Seurasaari is an open air museum that features buildings in original styles from around Finland. You can wander the island for free or pay to enter different museum exhibits.

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Upon arrival we were greeted by women handing out maps and Christmas cards and there was also a group of carollers.

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The Christmas path followed the main walking track around the island with special events dotted along the way amongst the old buildings.

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Before long we came across a group of forest animals handing out piparkakut (ginger biscuits) to the children.

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Back off dad – kids only

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Soon we came across a sign pointing the way to ‘Lasten puuro’ (children’s porridge).

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I’d read on the website to bring a bowl and spoon and so we lined up like Oliver Twist and Miko was spooned out a share. We joined other families at long tables set with milk and cinnamon mixed with sugar.

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With warm bellies full of rice porridge we set off again and came across a row of buildings bedecked with ginger-bread. Check out the foundations on these houses.

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Look at foundations on these buildings!

The path was decorated all the way around the island with handmade crafts and traditional Finnish pieces. Colourful scarves were tied around tree trunks to show the way.

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 By 3.30pm the light was beginning to fade but lights and candles brightened the gloom.

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Around the next corner we came across a large group of people singing Christmas carols. There was also a large area where people could burn candles.

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Many Finns will visit the cemetery on Christmas morning to light candles just like these on the graves of loved ones.

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Along we walked until we came to a clearing with stalls selling glöggi (mulled wine) and a woman leading children in traditional songs and dances. Best of all was the chance to see Joulupukki (Santa Claus) and his wife – and despite the amount of people – no queue!

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After staying for a while and enjoying the moment we walked on as the sun had dropped quite low and taken the temperature with it.

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We walked through a maze made out of hay bales, but the best was yet to come! We came across a field full of people cooking over fires. We were handed a stick with damper on and found our cooking spot.

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It’s a Christmas miracle that Jonny’s hair did not catch alight

It was soon time to leave and make our way home. We had one of those amazing experiences where, despite the large crowds, a bus pulled up just as we arrived at the bus stop and we managed to get a seat.

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This was a free event and one we all really enjoyed. I would highly recommend it if you’re in Helsinki this time next year.

We will be celebrating Christmas on the 24th December here in Finland. I send a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read my blog this year, commented, added information and advice. As well as staying in touch with friends & family back home I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of meeting some great Finnish people through my blog and I’m very grateful for these new friends and how they love to show us Finnish life, often inviting us to places & events they know we’ve never seen before.

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I get a few emails from people travelling to Helsinki and have been asked by a teacher if she can share my stories with her Russian students. I also love hearing from people who have lived here and like to share memories about their life in Finland. I’ve even been contacted by a doctor in Israel asking where to buy ice skates in Helsinki! Thank you for all your input.

Wishing you all a very Hyvää Joulua!

xx

Finding Saint Lucia

Here’s a confession: I used to love watching beauty pageants. When Miss New Zealand was crowned Miss Universe and then went on to marry an All Black* I remember thinking ‘Could life possibly get any better than this?’ (it was 1986 and I was 8).

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Lorraine Downes – she always woke up looking like this

So I quite like it when a person is selected from a group of applicants and not only wins but is given a crown. A crown! Which is why Miko and I braved the cold and went to see Saint Lucia last Saturday night.

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The celebration of Saint Lucia is popular with Swedish-speaking Finns and is marked on 13th December. This was once thought to be the winter solstice and some elements of the festival still celebrate the bringing of light after the darkest day.

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We met some friends and had dinner at the Christmas Markets before waiting with a large crowd for Lucia’s appearance. A TV screen in Senate Square broadcast the 2-hour service happening inside Helsinki Cathedral, including the crowning of Lucia.

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Hundreds of girls apply to be Lucia each year and the winner is decided by popular vote after a panel selects the top ten. Lucia needs to be musically gifted and her role in Finland is to bring light, joy and good cheer during the long, dark Nordic winter.

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After being crowned, Lucia descends the stairs from Helsinki Cathedral to her horse-drawn cart

The original Saint Lucia was born in 283 and there was an attempt made to burn her when she refused to give up her virginity to her future husband, choosing instead to devote her Friday nights to Christian scholarship. But Lucia did not burn and now wears a crown of lights upon her head.

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Another story credits Lucia with helping Christians that were hiding from the Romans and suggests her crown of candles is a result of needing to have her hands free as she brought food to them in the catacombs. So practical Lucia!

Modern-day Lucia is still associated with charitable acts and collects money to donate to worthy causes.

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Whatever the reason for her crown of lights, it’s a good reminder to all Finns that there is light beyond the winter darkness, as Lucia and her followers parade through the cold December streets. (Yes I did squeal when I saw her).

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And do I still watch beauty pageants? No. I guess you could say… I saw the light.

*All Blacks = New Zealand’s national rugby team

St Lucia – Wikipedia

The Chosen One – This is Finland