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Finland is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe — boasting vast forests, snow-capped mountains, and over 180,000 lakes. Together with Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, it is classified as one of the Nordic nations, though Finns don’t consider their country to be part of Scandinavia. Visitors to the welcoming country are in for a surprise. Here are nine things you didn’t know about this Nordic nation.
Street Names Are Written in Swedish as Well as Finnish
Observant visitors to Finland — particularly Helsinki — might notice that the street signs are dual-language. A Swedish translation appears below the words in Finnish. Although both Swedish and Finnish are official languages of Finland, the Swedish signs actually appeared first. Sweden ruled Finland until the early 19th century, after which Finland was an autonomous region of the Russian Empire until it gained full independence in 1917, (which explains why you might also see Cyrillic lettering).
The Swedes are also responsible for the appearance of animals and mythical creatures which denote city blocks and neighborhoods on signs, such as unicorns. This generates some rather curious names. There’s a street called Papukaija Zagulan Polku, for instance, which means “Parrot Zagula’s Path.” Allegedly, the street was named after a foul-mouthed bird that belonged to a Russian countess.
It’s the Happiest Country in the World
For the last three years, Finland has topped the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, an index typically dominated by Nordic nations. This statistics-based survey combines factors that have an impact on wellbeing: GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support, freedom to make choices, generosity, and perceptions about government corruption. There’s an emphasis on quality education, good healthcare, and an efficient transport network, which might also explain why Finns are generally content with their lives.
Finnish Babies Sleep in Cardboard Boxes
Even if they can afford a crib or beautifully made bassinet, parents of newborns are highly likely to put their babies down to sleep in a cardboard box. The Finnish baby box is a tradition that dates back to 1938, when the government decided that all children deserve an equal start in life. The contents of this state-funded maternity gift have evolved over the years, but include clothing, diapers, a bib, a picture book, and a toy. Combine the mattress they supply with the box itself and voilà, you have the baby’s first bed. These days, Finnish parents have the option of a tax-free cash payment of 170 euros, but 95% take the box instead!
Extreme Cold Is a Fact of Life in Winter
While summers are pleasantly warm, Finnish winters can be brutal. In the north, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for 51 days — a phenomenon known as “polar night.” Winter temperatures average below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but in Lapland and eastern areas of the country, they can plummet to well below -49 degrees. The lowest temperature ever recorded in the country was in 1999 — a staggering -60.5 degrees in Pokka, a small town in the Kittilä municipality of Lapland. Many of Finland’s lakes and waterways freeze and snow impacts the country for months on end, so it’s no surprise to learn that people have learned to adapt. Ancient skis and poles have even been uncovered by archaeologists, proving the winter sport has been popular in Finland for centuries!
Reindeer Outnumber People in Finnish Lapland
About 180,000 people live in Finnish Lapland, but there are an estimated 50,000 more reindeer than humans. These magnificent creatures are perfectly suited to the winter weather, featuring thick, soft fur that traps air and acts as insulation. There are several species of reindeer; the Finnish forest reindeer is the largest. It has wide hooves to help dig through the snow to lichens on the forest floor and antlers which grow close together to make it easier to squeeze between trees. Reindeer are crucial to the indigenous Sámi people, who use the deer for transportation, milk, meat, and clothing. The Sámi have hundreds of words that refer to reindeer in some way. The word sietnjanjunni, for instance, translates as “reindeer with the hair nearest to its nostrils having a different color than one would expect in view of the color of the rest of its hair.”
Brown Bears Are Common
While reindeer are herbivores, the largest carnivore in Finland — and also in Europe — is the brown bear. There are approximately 2,000 of them in Finland, making this one of the best places on the continent for a bear-watching safari. Though you can find the bears almost anywhere in Finland except for the Åland Islands, the largest concentration of bears is along the eastern border and in Lapland. As with reindeer, the large number of Finnish words for the bears (nalle, otso, mesikämmen, mettä, metsä, otava, and mörkö, for starters) signifies how important these animals are to the country.
Finnish Is Unlike Other Nordic Languages
Finnish actually bears no similarities to other Nordic languages. It’s believed that the language didn’t even originate in the region. While Finnish made its way west from the Ural Mountains in Russia, historians believe the first Finnish-speakers migrated from Turkey. The Finnish alphabet consists of 29 letters: the 26 used by English speakers (though “W” is rarely used), plus “Å,” “Ö,” and “Ä.” Only two English words come from Finnish. The word tundra is derived from the Finnish word tunturia, meaning “barren hill,” though the Russian Sámi word tūndâr is closer. The other is sauna, although Finns pronounce it “sow-nah,” rather than “saw-nah.”
Saunas Are Everywhere — Even on a Ferris Wheel
You won’t get far in Finland without encountering a sauna. According to some estimates, there could be as many as one sauna for every two people, and using one is ingrained in Finnish culture. While a sauna standing in a picturesque spot on the shore of a lake is probably the first image that comes to mind, saunas are also found in considerably more unusual places. In 2016, Burger King opened one in its Mannerheimintie restaurant in Helsinki, though the jury’s out as to whether this enhances the dining experience. You’ll even find a sauna gondola on the Finnish capital’s SkyWheel and another in a private box at the city’s ice hockey arena. There’s at least one sauna in most office buildings or factories, and there’s even one in the Finnish parliament building.
The World Wife-Carrying Championship Finals Are Hosted Here
Another of Finland’s favorite pastimes is the rather unusual sport of wife-carrying, known locally as eukonkanto. Preliminary heats are held as far as Australia and the United States, but the annual final is always held in the central Finnish town of Sonkajärvi because it’s where the sport originated. Each man races along an obstacle course carrying a woman slung over his shoulder. Competitors have battled it out for a quarter of a century, but right now, the host nation is struggling to take the championship from a formidable couple from Lithuania. Fortunately for local pride, the Guinness World Record-holder for the most wife-carrying championship wins — a respectable six — is Finnish couple Taisto Miettinen and Kristiina Haapanen.