This fall, our family took a trip to Finland.
The family was my daughter Wendy, her husband Steve, and their children, Annika and Lars, plus Steve’s mom, Ruth, who was born in Finland. I was invited along.
The occasion was partly a big birthday for Ruth, as well as a chance to visit the old country.
When we got to Helsinki, we were met by Ruth’s cousin and his family, who spirited us to our hotel. They, like the other relatives, are comfortable, with shiny BMWs and such. Finland has high taxes, but also is very prosperous.
We discovered that Helsinki, a city of 500,000, is built on peninsulas and islands; water is everywhere.
There are some old buildings, but the city is very modern in general. It’s built on bedrock, and in fact, much of it is underground. The frugal Finns have built stores, shopping centers, garages and even a large church in the bomb shelters dug for World War II, when they fought the Soviets.
Our minimalist hotel was only a block off the main street and close to the center of town. We got numeric codes for entrance to the hotel, elevator and rooms and there were no receptionists or other attendants. The rooms were clean, compact and efficient, but basic. (They did have free Wi-Fi.) The cost was reasonable — under $100 per room per night.
Choosing a place to eat was always challenging, however, with tastes ranging from a boy who would just as soon have mac ‘n’ cheese at every meal to a vegetarian to a cattle rancher relative.
Meatballs, stews, soups and potatoes were widespread, although the people clearly value the fruits and berries the short summer brings. We often encountered game — bear, reindeer and elk — which I understand is a fairly new fad.
They didn’t eat as much seafood as I would have expected for a place on the sea, and much was from the lakes and rivers, not the Baltic. The smoked and preserved fish was excellent, though the main courses were overcooked.
There was little vegetarian food in sight, and most of the food was bland, though ethnic places are all over, as are American fast food joints.
There seemed to be at least two McDonald’s visible from anywhere you stood downtown, and though I didn’t succumb to lunch or dinner there, I found their bacon egg McMuffins as good as here.
Everything was expensive but the hotel. A euro is 1.3 dollars, and most things cost in euros what we’d pay in dollars. The McMuffin breakfast, for example, was about $7, though we also found breakfast buffets for little more.
Alcohol was especially expensive. It’s a state monopoly, and wine, regular beer and spirits are sold in special stores. The cheapest bottles of wine I noted in a restaurant was Chilean wine we’d pay $12 retail for at 40 euros ($52).
I looked in a number of the Alko shops and didn’t find a single bottle of California wine, though I’m told some is for sale at certain stores.
The people, remembering the deprivations of the war, eat heartily of what they’re served; our special requests for no meat puzzled them, although they were happy to try to comply.
An example: I asked for a bagel with just cream cheese, which wasn’t on the menu. They eat them as sandwiches stuffed with anything from smoked salmon to beef burgers.
We found a huge array of sights within walking distance, and the city was crisscrossed by convenient streetcars that go everywhere, mostly on pedestrian streets or their own rights of way, though there’s also a subway line we didn’t take. The weather in September was moderate, mostly in the 60s, and it drizzled a few times, but not seriously.
Amid much sightseeing, we attended the 50th birthday celebration, where, without ties, we were underdressed. Still, the people were delightful.
The people were uniformly friendly, and almost all spoke excellent English, though some of the older ones were shy about talking.
There are only 5 million Finns, and other than Estonian, no other languages are closely related. They jealously guard their language and have traditionally created new words from native roots for new things rather than adopting English or other foreign words. The Finnish language is phonetic and all words accented on the first syllable at least. It’s HEL-sin-kee, for example, not Hel-SINK-ee.
All the younger people and many of the others speak excellent, idiomatic English with American accents, a consequence of movies and TV programs, even game shows, shown without dubbing.
The bookshops had more books in English than most do here, and even many paperbacks are sold in English right out in the front of bookstores.
Your high-school French, Spanish or German will be of absolutely no use in figuring out the signs, but that’s not a big problem for there’s probably one next to it in English. There were also signs everywhere in Swedish; Finland was long part of Sweden and a minority of the population speaks Swedish. Russian signs were also everywhere, as were Russians.
Since Imperial Russia kept the country as a vassal for a hundred years, and the Soviets invaded Finland as a buffer against the Nazis, the Finns have mixed feelings about their newly prosperous visitors.
It should be noted that the Soviets had such a tough time with the pesky Finns that they finally just took part of its territory and reparations. They didn’t try to occupy the country as they did countries from Estonia to Bulgaria.
We visited the zoo and a historic fort — once Swedish and once Russian — in the harbor, the kids went to an amusement park, and we shopped. Finnish design is famous, and many of the stores were like galleries or museums.
We also took an overnight cruise to Stockholm 300 miles away for a day of sightseeing and an overnight return. The cruises exist partly because they stop in the Aland Islands, a semi-autonomous part of Finland with lower taxes.
The ship has nightclub shows, a casino and duty-free shop as well as a selection of restaurants. We ate in a fancy one, where I found the buffet of appetizers superb; a main course was superfluous.
Stockholm deserved more than a few hours, particularly for a guy names Paul Oscar Franson, but that will have to wait another time.
We had a great adventure in Finland, and found the people most welcoming. We invited them all to visit us in Napa, and I’d be surprised if we don’t get a chance to show them our rural paradise, great food and moderately priced wines in not too long.
I’d certainly recommend that any of you who haven’t visited your ancestral home do so. Even though Finland isn’t mine, I know it will help my grandkids connect to their heritage and I had a great time.