Release the cows!

Finland has amazing dairy products but something we have often mulled over is, “Where are all the cows?” It’s true we haven’t seen a lot of Finnish country-side but we’ve seen enough to wonder at times where they are all kept.

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Well, we found out when friends invited us last weekend to join them at a unique Finnish event – the releasing to pasture of cows after a long, cold winter.

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It was a beautiful spring day and we caught the bus to Viikki, about 30 mins from the city centre, to the University of Helsinki Research Farm.

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We weren’t quite sure where to go but just followed all the other families heading to where crowds had gathered for the occasion.

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And I mean crowds. By 11.00 the fence around the paddock was lined with people who were soon joined by even more people arriving by foot or bicycle.

The first thing we saw upon arrival was the large barn where the cows had spent winter.

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I would have loved to go inside but only managed to get into this one – which was lovely but didn’t answer my questions about insulation.

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Back at the fence-line, we had prime position as an MC on the back of a truck talked us through the names of the ‘ladies’ about to appear and their breed. Then three women from the farm sang a harmonious ballad to welcome the cows and encourage milk production.

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Finally as we were about to burst with anticipation, it was all on! Like long-awaited celebrities, out popped the bovine beauties, their udders swinging in the spring sunlight.

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They skipped and kicked up their heels,  ecstatic at being out on the grass.

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I have to admit I whooped and clapped and loved the show, as did anyone who recognises the joy of being out in the sun after a Finnish winter.

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They put on a good show, playing together and butting heads.

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Afterwards we shared a picnic with our friends and the kids enjoyed seeing other animals including sheep, calves and horses. I would say the pictures speak for themselves in that it was a good day out for all.

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Aurinko Paistaa ( The sun is shining )

I’ve always loved the sun, which is not great in New Zealand where we are exposed to high levels of UV rays. But my love affair with the sun is even more pronounced here in Finland, where it has become something of a long distance love affair.

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I realise now there is a strong difference between sunlight and sunshine. One marks the day and one warms the skin. The second is now returning after a long hiatus and seriously, I could weep with joy. Which makes a nice difference from the day I wept on the way home from Finnish class for no real reason – other than lack of Vitamin D.

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I’ve done my first Finnish winter now and spring has never felt so good. The difference in the trees is amazing, week to week, and the presence of birds and flowers is increasing.

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On a recent walk from Hietalahti Market Square to Merekatu I was delighted to see the outdoor market growing in size once again.

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I also came across this sculpture by Rafael Saifulin called Onni.

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Onni means happiness or bliss. To me he’s really captured the pleasure of feeling the sun on your face once again.

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Although fairly weak, the sun is now up from 4am to 10pm in Helsinki, with a month to go until summer solstice. Miko told me he can’t go to bed until the sun goes down, but considering that won’t really be until October, honestly, he’s kidding himself.

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Like most Finns we are now eating ice cream any chance we get. The funny thing is, as good as it feels, it’s still only 10 degrees outside.

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But that’s okay, the sun is back and we’ve learnt to savour it while we have it.

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Breaking free in the Baana & beyond

Miko is great company but we don’t get much of a break from each other these days.  So its a real a treat for me to have a walk by myself – no stroller to push; no wrestling a human octopus into a jacket and no need to hear myself issue instructions like ‘Stop licking me, I am not an ice cream!’

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On a beautiful spring day last weekend I managed to escape on my own for a couple of hours and set out to explore the Baana, without really knowing where I would end up.

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Like New York’s High Line, Helsinki has transformed a former freight line into a safe route for pedestrians through the heart of the city. Called the Baana, this ‘Low Line’ is carved out of the streets and provides a 1.3km passage from West Harbour to Töölö Bay via Kamppi. With an entrance at each end and four ramps to street level along the way, there are paths marked out for those on foot as well as those travelling by bicycle.

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Near West Harbour there are ping pong tables, a basketball court and seating areas, all of which were being used on the sunny day I set off. Like most of Helsinki there were loads of people passing by on bicycles, safe from the main traffic area. After coming out near the city I carried on towards Töölö and the peninsula known as Hietaniemi.

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One of the nicest thing about this time of year is seeing Finnish people just relishing the sunshine and taking the time to sit with friends and relax in its rays. I can’t help but smile when I see people sitting alone, eyes closed, face lifted to the sun with looks of pure bliss on their faces.

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This lake is so close to the city but feels miles away. The number of birds returning to the area after their winter travel is increasing, their presence made known by the camera-shutter sound of their wings.

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The foliage on the trees is changing dramatically and the shades of green at the moment are so fresh, like a giant salad tossed on the ground.

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I walked past a large cemetery and further on passed by the back of a hospital where women were tending the vegetable garden. It seems nature is left untamed here, no fancy hedge trimming or pruning; each plant’s journey towards the sun left uncompromised after such a long winters sleep.

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The hospital garden

I felt so refreshed by the end of my walk I looked forward to heading home and putting my feet up. Best of all I was ready to spend time with Miko again, musing over the mysteries of life, because really, its important to know, ‘Does everyone have bottoms?

Hyvää Vappua!

The only May Day I’m familiar with is the distress call made by captains of marine vessels as they face disaster at sea. And by ‘familiar with‘ I mean I’ve watched them on TV from the comfort of my couch. So it was with pleasure that I experienced my first May Day and it wasn’t a disaster at all!  

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A sea of white caps converges on Esplanadi for the capping of Havis Amanda

Vapuu is a variation of the name ‘Walpurgis Night’ (Walpurgisnacht), a feast observed in Germany for Saint Walpurga since the 8th century. The celebrations being on 30 April and carry on into the 1 May which is a public holiday in Finland and signifies the start of Spring. It is one of the biggest holidays on the calendar, up there in significance with Christmas, New Years and Midsummer.

Students start celebrating from the week before and their area of study is identified by the colour of their overalls

Students start celebrating the week before and their area of study is identified by the colour of their overalls

On the 30th April, crowds converge on Market Square in white caps, identifying them as university preparation school alumni. The festivities really kick off at 6pm when a white cap is placed on the head of the statue of Havis Amanda by a group of students raised high in a cherry-picker. As her new ‘crown’ was placed on her head this year a large cheer went up from the crowd, a huge glitter bomb went off and the sound of many bottles of sparkling wine opening could be heard all around.

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Other statues don’t have to feel they’ve missed out on a cap either

As well as sparkling wine, people drink sima, an alcoholic drink similar to mead, although the honey used in production is now comonly replaced by sugar. The alcohol content is generally so low it is considered okay for children to drink and is usually accompanied by munkki (doughnuts) or  tippaleipä (funnel cake).

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Sima and tippaleipä

Helium balloons are common accessories and sellers can be seen on nearly every street corner from the morning of the 30th April. There doesn’t seem to be a particular theme; we saw champagne bottles, life-size superheroes and of course the ever-present Angry Birds characters.

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The next day it is customary to have a picnic in the park and we were lucky enough to watch the crowds in Kaivopuisto from the warmth of Ravintola Kaivohuone (Kaivohuone Restaurant) as the temperature dropped down into the low single-digits. We heard there was a sauna set up in the park but the rain drove us back from exploring further. After the company brunch we caught the tram back to our apartment with some friends who helped us drink sima, sparkling wine and eat doughnuts in true Finnish style into the early evening.