Bug Bytes is a weekly feature in which fellow travelers give us the scoop on places they have lived around the world and what makes those awesome places.
This week’s Bug Bytes comes from Dave Brett, a Londoner who has been living in Finland while he goes to school. In the past year, Dave has dove head first into ice water and Finnish culture… uncovering their love for Saunas, Camping, Sausage… and Heavy Metal Karaoke.
Bug Bytes: What part of Finland are you in? How long have you lived there?
Dave Brett: I’m originally from London but I study in Swansea Metropolitan University and I’m currently doing an exchange year in Vaasa, Finland.
I live along the West Coast in a small city called Vaasa (Swedish: Vasa) which is located in the Ostrobothnia.
It overlooks part of the Baltic sea and is well known for being one of the only few towns in Finland that has a Swedish community as well as a Finnish community. Around 17,000 Swedish speaking Finns live in Finland and it’s the second national language of Finland, this has made Vaasa a popular destination away from the south coast where the major cities are for students and foreigners, as Swedish is a little easier to understand.
BB: It’s silly, but I realized I don’t know that much about Finland! What’s the local food like? Any traditional dishes?
DB: To say Finnish food is the best in the world is something that Finns themselves will not admit, but they are indeed proud of their food and are very warmed to it. A lot of the food is adapted to the climate and more based on what can be grown or made. Rye bread is the first thing that comes to mind, this very dark tough bread is loved by all Finns and you typically will have this for breakfast or lunch snack with cheese, meat, pickled cucumber and mustard.
Also, Finns are obsessed with coffee, we have crazy daylight hours and it changes throughout the year. All summer the sun never goes down and the whole winter you have little light at all so coffee is the fuel for most locals.
It’s estimated that on average every Finn has around 4 cups a day to keep awake and active.
If you have been a good boy or girl all week when Lauantai (Saturday) comes along you will be rewarded with Karkki (candy) which is very unique to this part of the world! For many people around the world it is not considered a treat at all because a lot of the candy is salty, such as Salmiakki, a salty Liquorices… but Finns love it in large numbers!
Even the adults still enjoy this unique Finnish treat and have adapted it to a evening shot by mixing it with Vodka, this has been done with Fishermans friend as well and I highly recommend trying either Fisu or Salmiak shots with a local in a bar, it will roll out to be a rather entertaining evening.
BB: Is it an expensive place to travel? What can we expect to pay for a hostel? For a meal?
DB: Travelling to Northern Europe is a costly business, but compared to its Nordic brothers of Sweden, Iceland, Norway or Denmark it’s not actually much of a problem and is rather affordable, this is down to the fact that it’s the only Nordic country to have adopted the Euro so a lot of the prices can be compared to many European destinations.
Camping in Finland is also free, you can camp any were for free as the law allows Finns to camp any were at their advantage, which might be a nice option for many backpackers and is very cost-effective.
You really can camp anywhere here and I camped in city centers before… there are so many wild spots it’s not much of a problem.
Couchsurfing is also very popular here and Finland has a very strong Couchsurfing community so finding a couch is not so tough. YHA covers Finland, and their going rate is round 20-30 euros, but hotels cost around 50-70 euros and can be rather costly.
Transportation is very good in Finland and you can travel all over with VR rail or by the large bus network, but it can be costly so make sure you have your student card as students get 50% off.
A typical meal costs 5-7 Euros, but almost all pizzerias run by other nationalities have special 5 euro large pizzas with a salad and, of course, free coffee which is a great food filler after a night out.
BB: Finland can get pretty cold! What are the seasons like? Does winter last longer than the summer or are they equal in length? When’s the best time to visit?
DB: This is the wonderful thing about Finland, its seasons are so different and unique that if you visited for every season it will feel like a completely different place. Summer is nice and, as the sun never goes down, nice long summers are great when you have BBQ and go to your summer cabin to relax in the sun whilst swimming in the lake.
It’s really enjoyable, but avoid Lapland as its swamped by mosquitoes. Autumn is the best time to go hiking as nature is at its best, getting ready for the winter, it looks really mysterious and there are a handful of great bear trails if you want to get up and close to these grizzly creatures.
Then the Winter is what can make your trip to Finland truly magical (if you can brave the cold) you will for sure not be disappointed. It really does turn into a wonderland and you can even stay in a hotel made of ice in Kemi and wine and dine in the ice bar during the evening.
Also, a trip to Finland without seeing father Christmas is a crime in itself, and if you cross the Arctic circle into Lappi (Lapland) you can visit Santas grotto and the Elvis post office where his letters get sorted truly an amazing experience for all ages and you can try the tradition Sami dishes that include reindeer. Also snow safaris and sledge rides are all possible In the city of Rovaniemi Laplands capital.
BB: I heard a rumour that people from Finland can be very stoic and don’t like to hug or smile much to strangers. Is that true?
DB: This is very true indeed! The whole time I have lived here, not once I have said hello to my next door neighbour, Finnish people are very bizarre but yet interesting to watch.
You will never say hello to anyone in the street which is the same in my native city of London, but not so if you are in the happy, friendly place of Norway. Still yet, if they notice you are in need of help or assistance they will run to your rescue.
To explain the unique culture of the locals is very hard to put into one sentence you can really write a book about it because it’s so bizarre…
But Finnish people are the friendliest people on the planet if you put in the time to get to know them.
This is why visitors who have gone on a weekend trip to Helsinki never have enough time to experience the Finnish culture…it’s something that takes time to understand but it’s really worth it.
Finns love to live for the weekend and they party hard, some might say too hard but it’s funny to see these really quiet people burst out a Whitney song in broken English at Karaoke, or shooting 6 Fisu with no worry in the world…it’s really entertaining and shocking at the same time.
Some of the best friends I was are Finns because your friendship means so much more than a normal friendship… it’s like a life long bond.
BB: What would you say defines Finland? In other words, what is unique to it?
DB: One word: Sauna.
Nowhere in the world will you experience something like the Finnish Sauna…it really is the core of their culture and the unique thing that makes Finland what it is. Finnish Life evolves around the sauna and a lot of the everyday things happen there, such as business meetings, socializing, cooking, cleaning, partying, relaxing and even birth for some Finns happen in the sauna.
For foreigners, if you ever get invited to a Finnish sauna by a Finn consider yourself one of the luckiest people on the planet… Not only will you get a traditional experience, it’s really a great relaxing social experience.
But you must go naked. This is very important not to upset the spirit of the sauna and also if it’s the winter you must try the ice dive its truly a refreshing experience.
BB: What kind of music is popular in Finland?
DB: Finns adore their heavy metal (heavymesta) and in many towns you will find a metal bar for the supporting fans to party on the weekend and karaoke their favorite songs. A lot of talent has come out of Finland, such as Lordi from Lapland and Him, as well as Nigthwish, an opera style metal which is a rather great listen.
BB: Newsweek just named Finland the ”best place to live” in the world. Why do you think this is?
DB: Finns themselves will not admit that they won, but I feel that it is a wonderful place to live. The crime is practically non-existent, and you find a lot of people don’t lock their bikes or houses.. It really is safe here and compared to my home town of London it’s really a joy that I can leave my house any time of the year and not worry about crime.
Also, public services are very good and education is top notch..the teaching methods are very good here and it’s more evolved around chucking the textbook out the window and getting involved in group work and team work and I really like the education system… it’s one of the best in the world.
BB: If a friend came to town, what would you want them to see and why?
DB: I would recommend the archipelago here in Vaasa, it’s Finland’s only Unesco world heritage site and in the summer it’s really stunning when the sun is shining over it. They have many boat tours that can take you around, but if you had more time you should take advantage of renting a bike and cycle along it with a tent and find a sauna house with some beer and grill some sausages…would be an awesome experience!