Cine Europa is a ten-day feast of European movies being shown FOR FREE at Shang Cineplex in Ortigas. I have almost decided to move into the Shangri-La Hotel for the week to take full advantage of this amazing smorgasbord of movies. Yes, I know, we have a movie theatre within walking distance of our apartment, but invariably it is packed with American bang-crash-car-chase movies, of which I can only see so many before I start to go deaf and cross-eyed.
So what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than camping out at the cinema? And we landed a gem of a 2014 Finnish movie called ‘Kesäkaverit’ (Summertime). It was a chick flick about friendship and being twenty five, an A grade one to entertain the One & Only as well. And, of course, having finally made it to Finland this summer, it meant so much more. I expect we would have loved the film anyway, but the scenery, the language and the humour was, thanks to our recent trip, both familiar and already nostalgic; a quick fix of space and subtlety without the long flight.
Finland (or Suomi) has been on my list of Top 10 places to visit for years. (I refuse to call it a bucket list – I am just not old enough to be counting down already!) My sister first ignited my interest when she described hitch hiking through Finland and up through Lapland to the Arctic Circle in the early nineties, walking with moose and swimming in midge-infested lakes.
A couple of years later, we met a young Finnish family in Thailand whose small daughter shared a birthday with ours. The same thing happened in Malaysia – or maybe she was Swedish, the memories blur. Over the years, we have met Finns in SE Asia, in the UK and even in the Philippines, and each of them taught us something about their homeland: the Finnish love of vodka and a traditional Finnish toast; the short, dark winters that would drive anyone to drink and the long summer nights when the sun barely sets; the Northern Lights with their hallucinogenic effect on the sky; an ice hotel and the secret home of Santa; the heart-stopping thrill of leaping from steaming saunas into freezing lakes; gravadlax, herring, and smoked reindeer meatballs; summer cherries and summer houses by the sea; lakes, lakes and more lakes.
So, at last, we had the opportunity to experience some of these Finnish legends. Despite the lack of snow and ice, the vodka still flowed freely, and we did leap from a steamy sauna into a chilly lake. Finland has a lot of water. Not only is it an archipelago on the Baltic Sea, sprinkled with armloads of islands (like the Philippines, only granite not volcanic) but it has a vast expanse of inland lakes north of Helsinki, in much the same way South Australia doesn’t. We ate ridiculous amounts of fish: baked salmon and pickled herring, ceviche and smoked fish, served with new potatoes and dill, fried chanterelles and rye bread.
We arrived in Helsinki by air, but the view of the city is far lovelier from the sea, as we discovered when we made a couple of forays out into the Bay. As a capital city, Helsinki is only young – about the same age as my home town of Adelaide, with which I found more than a few parallels: broad streets and plenty of parks; a population of around a million; a plentiful supply of churches of all denominations; a sense of isolation from the rest of the pack but a subsequent self-sufficiency.
Finland has spent many centuries playing Piggy in the Middle with Russia and Sweden. For more than 600 years, it was a province of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1809, Sweden hand-balled it across to Russia. Czar Alexander I named it the Grand Duchy of Finland and generously granted it autonomy. At the same time, he relocated the western capital of Turku to the more centrally located Helsinki, in an attempt to cut ties with Sweden and bring it closer to St. Petersburg. Just over a century later, Russia became embroiled in a civil skirmish, otherwise known as the October Revolution, during which an autocratic Tsar was executed and replaced by a didactic Bolshevik revolutionary. While Russia was distracted, Finland cheekily took the opportunity to declare its independence. And so it has remained.
Finland is a country of intense colours spread with broad brush strokes: a red brick eastern orthodox cathedral with conical, verdigris roofs topped with golden cupolas and a sparkling white neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral overlook cerulean seas; endless miles of bottle green pine and deciduous birch forests; equally endless miles of glittering silver lakes; a penchant for painting their timber houses ‘falu’ or oxblood (a dark, terracotta red); pink salmon on every menu; tin pails filled with deep magenta cherries, bright green peas-in-the-pod or huge, scarlet strawberries; vast, snow white landscapes stretching to the horizon.
We took a ferry to the tiny island of Lonna for an exquisitely simple meal in a converted warehouse restaurant, waiting on the end of the jetty in a brisk and chilly summer ‘breeze.’ On a sunny Sunday, we rode another ferry to the naval fortress known as Suomenlinna, now a prime tourist destination full of buggies and brides. We drove out to one of the oldest medieval towns in Finland. Porvoo is about 50 kilometres east of Helsinki and sits above the river Porvoonjoki. Threaded with steep, cobbled streets and brimming with art galleries, cafes and craft shops, the town is overlooked by an attractive mediaeval church (Lutheran) with wooden roof tiles. Beside the church stands a square, stone clock tower, where the men would leave their weapons during services. And we celebrated a 100th birthday (2 x 50) in Finnish, Swedish and English.
And, like the women in the movie, we drifted about a beautiful white, weatherboard home above the sea, as well as ‘glamping’ in a traditional log cabin by a clear, tea-coloured lake; picking tiny wild raspberries and chanterelles in the woods and building a camp fire on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. The unsophisticated simplicity of these too-short side trips was both utterly relaxing and wonderfully rejuvenating.
To return at last to the movie. ‘Kesäkaverit’ captures the carefree summers of young adulthood as three girls meet up for a working holiday in a coffee shop at the beach, and find themselves lurching awkwardly into the world of grown ups where there are tough choices to make. We sat there exclaiming (quietly) at the scenery: the coastline, the woods and the weatherboard house by the sea near Hanko, so similar to where we had stayed in Barösund. We smiled at the Finnish flavour of the screenplay: short, pithy conversations, where less is more and the silences are as telling as the words, in stark contrast to Australians and Filipinos who tend to rattle away like high speed trains. We nudged each other when we noticed a Finnish tiled ceramic stove, which, like a pot-belly stove, burns wood and slowly radiates the heat throughout the freezing winter days. And we longed to wander along the shady woodland paths thick with pine needles. Both the memories and the movie were food for the soul.