It has been a very Finnish week, and a break from the routines that I am now accustomed to.
A cottage trip over the weekend was enjoyable, even though the programme was dominated by obligatory segments of drinking and partying. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, these cottages serve traditionally as vacation houses in the Scandinavian countries, for locals to enjoy the peace and serenity of the beautiful countryside. There, we tried a few Finnish outdoor activities during FinnOlympics (yes, in the blistering negative 17 outdoors) before the international dinner. Since “national dishes” were expected, the Germans had their garlic soup and pancakes, the French prepared pies, cakes, and tarts, and the Taiwanese went to the trouble of making bubble milk tea (complete with tapioca pearls from the Asian stores).
Most Singaporeans made fried rice or some stir-fry. I fried spring rolls.
Completing the fire-and-ice ritual was undoubtedly the highlight of the night. The sauna – an ancient Finnish word for a bathhouse filled with löyly (steam) – is an integral part of the Finnish culture. Water is constantly thrown on hot stones to warm the room. Its population of 5.4 million lives in 1.2 million residential buildings, but the total number of saunas was estimated by Finland’s statistical office to be over two million at the end of 2012. My Norwegian group-mate thought her trip to a public pool and sauna in Helsinki, seeing other females without clothes, was pretty meaningful. As a BBC quote read, “It’s very healthy to see different types of breasts and bums that aren’t shown in the magazines”.
The whole fire-and-ice routine went like this. We had little cups of hot cocoa laced with vodka, and we gathered around a lovely bonfire to keep warm, to roast marshmallows and sausages. After a pledge, we made our way to the sauna, stripped down to our swimwear, washed ourselves up briefly, and started sweating it out. By this time the room was packed with students, and many had already completed their outdoor dip at the frozen lake, where a little ice-hole had been carved around metal steps. I was nervous. In fifteen minutes, I began to feel uncomfortable with the accumulating heat and steam in the wood-panelled room.
And so out you go. When you leave the sauna room the chilly wind hits you, and you think “I am making a terrible life decision”. As you start to shiver a little you wonder “how far away is this damned hole in the lake”? And when you hit the spot the cold is so unbearable that your resolve is strengthened, and it is “get this over and done with”. You shuffle your bare feet because they are frosty and sticking horribly to the icy ground.
Terribly anti-climactic perhaps, because the five to eight seconds in the water was bearable. So bearable – and rejuvenating – that fire-and-ice was conquered three times over, even if I did hang onto the steps for dear life (duh, especially when you cue the rare horror stories of hypothermia and shock, or about people stuck under the layer of ice). In fact, the short jog from the sauna room to the ice-hole was more uncomfortable than the actual neck-level dip.
It was a good trip, so I am thankful for that.
Besides resources on the Internet and conversations with the locals I am also gaining various insights, including the aforementioned about the Finnish cottage and sauna, after enrolling myself into “Introduction to Finnish Language and Culture”. Mapping this module back is technically impossible, but the 19-week long course (open only to the exchange students) should allow me to gain a greater appreciation of Finland and her people. Learning the language – with its seemingly countless permutations of nouns and verbs, and few direct similarities with English and Chinese – will be extremely difficult, although I reckon it would open more doors here. I am now a little more confident to make my first foray into Finnish literature (the translated versions, of course): the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. Only two lessons thus far, and I have been enjoying myself tremendously.
Having two passionate teachers in Merja and Christina has been fantastic. During our first session they shared enthusiastically about Moomin, Iittala and Marimekko, Alvar Aalto, the Kalevala, Rafael Wardi, the Design District in Helsinki. And saunas.
Something not too foreign: Model United Nations. Representatives of the Finnish MUN (FINMUN) have been gracious to include me in the organising committee, which gives me the chance to interact with local students from the University of Helsinki (I am at the Aalto University School of Business). With my perpetual OCD, I was a little apprehensive in the beginning: was not in charge of a MUN session or event, am the only foreigner on the team, and will be unfamiliar with logistical or administrative arrangements in Finland. But the reception at my first meeting could not be warmer, and it will definitely all work out.
After consecutive weekends of traipsing around, the next two days will be spent at the hostel, whipping up dishes and preparing for an examination on Friday. So it goes.
Mitä kuuluu? Kiitos hyvää.
Check out The Finland Chapter, from start to finnish.