I've had a soft spot for Finland since I first heard its rock music. It seems wild to my English eyes, with its endless forests, dark Winters and enigmatic predators.
I've needed some time out recently, so - when my cousin introduced me to a church in Espoo, and they invited me over for five weeks - it was impossible to turn down. I worked there in exchange for a place to stay, daily essentials and time to reflect.
I already knew a little Finnish, I'd read my Moomins books and I'd fallen in love with Fazer chocolate; when I landed in Vantaa, I was ready to go!
I had to self-isolate due to Covid travel restrictions, but when I finally started exploring Espoo, I was struck by the quietness. People walked with care, and the whole world felt a little like a library! I connected with a few dog walkers by talking with them about their beloved pets. Everyone was friendly, but words were few: I soon learned that small talk isn't necessary here! Sometimes this is a liberating relief - no one will take your personal space from you. Sometimes it's hard, and I missed the smiles and short greetings which are common in the UK. The cold weather and long darkness are more intense in Finland, too.
Neverthless, I learned so many wonderful things during my stay. I lodged with the most welcoming people that I could've hoped to meet; warmer than a Reindeer's fur, and much easier to talk to! They introduced me to Finnish food, and we had deep conversations which lasted long into the night. I met lots of Finns through the church, and also a number of expats. I led a youth trip to Helsinki and helped with the church band. I was invited for home-made blueberry pie, visited Tampere and Porvoo, jammed with a Heavy Metal guitarist, explored Nuuksio and hand-fed the birds on Seurasaari. I even spent a couple of hours in Verkkokauppa!
The most interesting experience of all was being invited to sauna. With each invite, I fought my instinct to 'cover-up' with swimming gear (in the UK, we barely shower naked)! I'm glad I embraced it. It taught me something important about the quiet Finns: in sauna, people talk. They really talk. I had lots of deep and interesting conversations, chilling with 'the guys', beer in hand. I now realise that this natural, freeing activity sums up so much of Finnish life - the calm equality and the simple humility.
Looking back, I'm struck by the wonderful paradoxes of Finland. A silent country full of Heavy Metal bands, a socially-distant people who hang out, unclothed in sauna, a serious- seeming people who love the Moomins. It's confusing in theory, but in practice; it makes perfect sense.
I flew back to Heathrow in late December, a host of new contacts in my phone, and a puukko in my suitcase (a present from the church). I learned too much to sum-up here, but as I stepped off the plane in London, I realised something: I can't wait for the day that I touch down in Vantaa once more. Maybe I'll go in Summer next time, though!
Chris Witherall is a professional musician from London England, who writes whenever he can. He loves psychology, food and dogs – but not necessarily in that order!