From schnapps to sisu: why Finland is secretly the best Scandinavian country

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As anybody who’s perused a lifestyle magazine in the last five years will know, the Danes are now very widely celebrated for their hygge – a sense of warm, melty cosiness – while the Swedes are getting by on a bottomless tank of lagom (which translates as doing everything in moderation or ‘just the right amount’). 

Best of luck to them. As far as I’m concerned, the finest Scandinavian cultural phenomenon of all is a Finnish one: sisuIn English, ‘sisu’ means having guts, determination and chutzpah; refusing to give up, while pushing fearlessly forward. Modern Finland is built on sisu. And that’s part of the reason why, in my humble opinion, it’s the best of the Nordic countries.

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Finland is an egalitarian and forward-thinking country

Finns like to say “On lottovoitto syntyä Suomeen” (To be born in Finland, is like winning the lottery) and it’s easy to see why. Their nation consistently ranks as the happiest in the world, as well as one of the most egalitarian and forward-thinking. 

Plus, according to the World Health Organisation, they have the cleanest air on the planet (thanks to the fact that 68% of this Eden-like nation is carpeted in dewy, pine-stitched forest). 

Not only that, but Finland is an extraordinarily safe country, too; high on honesty and low on crime (incredibly, 11 out of every 12 wallets are returned to their owners here). 

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Since my first assignment, I’ve been back to Finland than 10 times

My personal love affair with Finland began almost 20 years ago, when one of my first assignments as a travel writer involved flying to Finnish Lapland, in the far north, to train as a biathlete. Since then, I’ve been back more than 10 times – particularly as one of my best mates from university married a Finn. 

During our late 20s and early 30s, we’d head to Finland each June to celebrate juhannus (midsummer) in the traditional way: hanging out as a group of friends at a mökki (summer lake cottage), for a weekend of sauna-ing, swimming and sausages cooked over an open fire.

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The wooden sauna was always at the heart of our weekends

It was utterly idyllic – and it’s painfully easy to arrange, too. They call Finland “The Land of a Thousand Lakes”, but that’s heinously underselling it – there are actually 188,000 lakes in this Nordic utopia, with countless summer cottages to rent on them. 

The wooden sauna was always at the heart of our weekends away as a group and it remains a sacred place for the Finns: an almost religious cleansing ritual for body and soul, best enjoyed next to a cold lake (for diving into) and a handful of fresh birch twigs (for beating the person next to you, apparently improving circulation). 

There are more saunas than cars in Finland. Locals will sit in their time-honoured huts for hours, digging deep into their inner sisu – and usually a handy six pack of Karhu beer – to handle the heat.

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Put bluntly, Finns love to party

Indeed, drinking is a serious business in Finland. Not in an over-indulgent way, despite what mischievous Swedes will tell you. But because Finns like to have fun (you only have to glance at the recent press coverage around their young Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, to see that). 

Put bluntly, Finns love to party – and I, for one, am a big fan of that stance. There’s an incredible phrase you’ll hear here which sum this up: Ei tippa tapa ja ämpäriin ei huku (A drop won’t kill you and you can’t drown in a bucket).

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Finns have a deep connection with the great outdoors

Yet, if there’s one thing Finns love more than vodka, schnapps and even the sauna, it’s the great outdoors. The country is home to some of Europe’s most sensational scenery and the Finns have a deep personal connection with it. By law, the wilderness belongs to everyone. The rights of civil access mean anybody can walk, cycle, ski or camp (almost) anywhere in the country.

The long summer nights here have their own magic, but so too do the crisp, clear winter ones; Finland is one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis (Northern Lights, or “fox fires”, as the locals call it), which is particularly strong in the skies over Lapland.

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Finland is a wild, rugged corner of Europe

There are many lazy stereotypes attached to the Scandinavians – largely by each other (“the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian” jokes remain commonplace). One of the least deserved is that of the Finns being, shy, self-sufficing and somewhat anti-social. 

In my experience, the precise opposite is true. Finland is a wild, rugged, magnificently bucolic corner of Europe, where a warm, curious, welcoming population have built one of the world’s most attractive, accessible and intriguing countries – and all through the sheer force of their sisu.

Follow in Jonathan Thompson’s footsteps on Flash Pack’s winter adventure in Finland which chases the Northern Lights and skips across frosty tundra on snowmobiles, while staying on a private island in the Arctic Circle. 

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: courtesy of Jonathan Thompson, Flash Pack, Unsplash & Adobe Stock 

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