Thought of the Day

I don't believe in morality, but I believe in ethical conduct as set out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "Ethical conduct = a way of behaving that respects others’ right to be happy".

Saturday, 12 January 2008

in suomi land

i am not following any chronological order to catch up with a month of adventures and reunions. so, i am going start with a tale of two cities: karstula and helsinki. to be fair, i should also mention turku, ex-capital of finland under the swedish *domination*, but, since we spent there only a farewell night and half day, it will receive only partial attention.


spending five nights in a cottage with other 12 people from all over europe was relaxing, rejuvenating, reinvigorating, educative and great fun. we spent our time having walks during the few hours of day-light, ice-skating on the iced lake overlooking our chalet, cooking, taking numerous saunas and playing board and other group games.

sun didn't rise before 9.30am and used to set at 3.30pm, leaving us only a few hours of (twi)light. whenever possible, we tried to make the most of it, but in all truth our social life tended to stretch into the wee hours which made it very hard to wake up at a decent hour. but i liked it that way. it means that we never got tired or bored of each others. cooking and playing together was in fact for me the best part of the day.

the cottage was in the middle of nowhere and was surrounded by a spectacular winter scenery made up of pine trees, birches, water and a sky marked by waves of changing coloured lights (we did not have the honour to spot the aurora borealis, but you could tell that the winter finnish sky is endowed with unique features, being the northern lights its highest expression). we were told that bears dwelling the area were hibernated, so every time the darkness fell upon us, my thoughts went to them. being rowed along the river was the most peaceful experience i had had in months. silence reigned, broken only by the sound of wind, which cost me two days of flu!

ice-skating was fun. at first, due to wrong skates, i feared i was not able to skate outside the safety zone of an ice rink, out in the nature, but as soon as i changed them, it was okay. i was not a ice-skating dancer, but i could slide around. we helped mao who had never done it before. his speed to learn was impressive. ute and mathias ventured into ice-hockey and stayed out playing till late while other people were chatting, cooking or reading, undisturbed. i think this was the luxury of this holiday: everybody could freely choose what to do within the frame of our cottage life.

i had the pleasure to taste lithuanian food: two delicious soups and a choco cake; a bavarian specialty: pork accompanied by a bready side dish (i need to be reminded the name of this dish which involved a lengthy and quite sophisticated preparation); french cheese and an austrian dessert. our post-dinner nights, one of which included NYE and i almost forgot about it - so disjointed i was from time, included playing games, such as risk and ronan's celebrity game, dancing and drinking (mainly beer - apparently we drank 200 cans/bottles of beer in five days. we counted them because in finland you get money back for recycling them). Taking saunas, proper dry saunas reaching temperatures in the region of 90`C, or even more when someone in a joyful mood decided to pour more water on the already hot stove, was one of the highlights. we counterbalanced the heat with trips into the snow, a truly refreshing experience. i was told that finnish wisdom recommends to drink beer before during and after saunas, i am still not convinced of this habit, so i tried to alternate jugs of water to cans of beer. the last night in karstula was spent in a huge luxurious cottage (long story!) with a big sauna next to the iced lake. so we tried the finnish ultimate experience: "ice-swimming". well, it was more "ice-dipping" after a few hot hot hot saunas. i did it, too, although i didn't dare to wet my shoulders and went down to my waist level only. incredibly enough, it was not unpleasant and the aftermath sensation was rather bizzarre: i could feel pins and needles on my legs. the day after i felt so well, despite my recent flu - in fact i performed this rather extreme sport before i had completely recovered and i am convinced now that it helped gaining back my energies. my nose's skin felt so smooth as never before!

in turku we said goodbye to each others drinking and chatting till very late in a cool jazzy club before going to sleep in the bunk beds of our dormitory - fighting the snoring people was another funny aspect of our holiday. the morning after it was hard to say farewell to the people i had been glued to for five full days. it was particularly sad to depart from ute, my new german friend, a very supportive and brave girl.

i'd like to conclude this tale of karstula with a few words on my travel mates:

mao (italy) - his photographic eye immortalised the best moments of our staying.
ary (italy) - well, what can i say of one of my best friends ever?! it is thank to her that we had the opportunity to do this trip. she is a great organiser and a great compagniona.
ronan (france) - his woody allen's attitude and french sense of humour were an explosive combination.
mathias (france)
- his energy was overpowering.
yann (france)
- a person with a big heart and a big mouth.
ute (germany)
- she is vegetarian until she can afford to buy the meat she likes.
andy (germany) - one of the most relaxed people i know. his dry and cunning humour (different from the sarcastic humour of my english buddy but equally funny) kept me amused.
hansi (austria) - the most adaptable person i know.
nadia (austria) - so graceful and so knowledgeable.
steve (england) - competitive, ironic and generous.
yulia (lithiania/russia) - a very caring and cultured girl.
gendrius (lithuania) - a quiet artist and a good cook.



after a brief visit to moominmania, which excited steve like a child, the four of us (mao, ary, steve and I) proceeded to the capital to spend the last three days of our tour. helsinki is a lovely city but deserves to be visited in the summer months as many places were shut and it was at times quite desolate - but its melancholic component was also part of its allure. we managed to go ice skating in the north of the city, a cheap place mainly attended by finnish people. we tasted nepalese cuisine (similar to indian), finnish food (based on reindeer meat, meatballs and salmon) and a glorious japanese meal (where we could cook our own food to our taste). we also visited a couple of museums (KIASMA and the photographic museum), which kept us away from the freezing cold. temperatures dropped quite drastically since our arrival. to my disappointment the design museum was shut but i visited instead the design forum, showcasing a revolutionary concept of hotels, and i discovered a few scandinavian designers: laikia-design, a label produced by three 50s style finnish girls adamant of dogs, and fifth avenue shoe repair, a swedish clothing brand, minimal-cool with unusual cuts. below is the laika purse/bag i got. i love the bulldogs' expression on their faces!
the contrast between the lutheran and greek-ortodox churches of helsinki was striking. the former was all white, with sumptuous but candid interiors. the latter was austerer, with elaborated mosaics and rich paintings. both were monumental from the outside, but once in they looked rather modest in size. i happened to be in the greek-ortodox church during their sunday service. i quietly sat down and observed. there were many russian-looking people eccentrically dressed. most of them were standing in circle and actively participated to the service which was sang all the way... and very long. i am not sure how long because i left before it finished. a catholic or anglican service ends shortly after the communion, the climax of it. but this seemed to drag on and on and on after it. once upon a time (in 2000), i visited a monastery in greece and the monk kindly explained me all the dogmatic differences between the various christian beliefs, but i sadly cannot recall much, aside from the obvious divergences.

the last two days snow set slowly but steadily upon the city - it was the last present from the sky during this wonder-full holiday.

some trivia: there are more than 180.000 lakes in Finland whose population is just over 5.000.000 people, spread in a country of the size of italy! two thirds of them live in the south around helsinki (500.000), leaving only 1.666.666 in north (Lapland) and central Finland (where we were). i could not stop thinking how few they are. every time i met or saw a finnish person it was like gold dust...

moi moi!

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