I met Maria and Julia and some other Finns at the University of Chester in 2011. It was my first year at university and their ERASMUS year. Through them I learnt about Finnish culture and I wanted to experience it myself, so I first went to Finland to visit Maria on 17th December 2012. When I arrived in Tampere airport, we stayed in Spa Hotel Rantasipi Eden in Nokia for one night. I enjoyed the swimming pool and the different types of sauna. There were three types of sauna: ordinary, tropical and aroma. I could only go in the scented steam one because the other two were too hot for me! I also found it a bit awkward because everybody was naked, although there are separate saunas for men and women.
The next day we looked around Tampere in the shops, the Christmas market and Pyynikki Observation Tower, which also has a cafe that is renowned for its doughnuts. We had the rest of the week in Jyväskylä, where we looked around the city centre, went to another Christmas market and went to cafes, restaurants and bars where I was able to try some of the typical Finnish food and drink. One day we went to a natural ice rink, which I struggled with because I'm really useless at iceskating and there were no sides to hold on to! In Finland snow sports are very popular because the cold season lasts from November until about March, which provides lots of opportunities to practice. Apparently children learn to ski and ice skate from a young age, therefore Maria was much better at iceskating than me.
We then went to Maria's parent's house in Pieksämäki where we spent time with her family and cooked. We made a fantastic gingerbread house from scratch with beautiful decorations. We also had to chance to go in the family sauna. Most families or apartment blocks in Finland have their own sauna as it is very popular, perhaps because it is a coping mechanism for the cold (the lowest temperature when I was there was -25 degrees). They use what they call a 'bath whisk' in English, which is basically a branch of a birch tree and you hit each other or yourself with it. I found this very strange, but apparently it's good for your skin. In Finland Christmas is celebrated on 24th December and the family pay somebody to dress up as Santa, who comes to the house in the evening and the family sings a song to him before he 'brings the presents'.
After returning to Jyväskylä we went to Vaajakoski, where Maria's family's cottage is. Finland is very spacious and has lots of lakes, but only has a population of about 6 million, so most families own or know somebody who owns a cottage by a lake. The cottage had no shower but had a sauna, so Maria collected water by pumping it from underneath the ice and heating it up in the sauna. I couldn't stay in the sauna for very long, but I enjoyed relaxing inside with a cider.
When it was New Year's Eve we went in the sauna with some wine and at midnight we ran out into the snow and made naked snow angels! One day we went cross country skiing, although I wasn't very good at that either because I couldn't keep my legs in the correct position. Towards the end of my stay Maria had a surprise for me. She drove me to a place called Varjola, where I was lucky enough to go on husky and reindeer sleigh rides.
I love Finland because they are so conscious of important issues such as the environment and education, is isn't very crowded and it has beautiful landscapes but I think I would struggle to live there during the cold.