Sixty Thousand Lakes in Finland
In returning to London from winter Lapland I had made the unusual bus trip down Finland’s Great Arctic Highway and had journeyed the entire length of that country. In visiting a number of her fine cities, including Helsinki and Turku, I had felt admiration welling up within me for this nation which was so old and yet so new.
Helen and I planned to return to Lapland together for summer filming. That trip would take us through Finland. Why not make a full-length film on this land, we began asking ourselves. Even before leaving home, realizing that Helsinki was scheduled to host the 1940 Olympic Games, such a thought had been in the back of our minds. While passing through Helsinki from Lapland I had procured guidebooks, maps, and extensive literature. In our small London flat we commenced burning the midnight gaslights, devouring this exciting Finnish material as though it were a mystery novel.
While still in America we had heard about a private English school which was one of the finest in the English-speaking world. It was Kittiwake, on Britain’s south coast, lovingly administered by Margaret Silcock. We had made plans by mail to leave our two children, Barbara and Adrienne, at this school during our summer journey to Lapland. And on our way to summer Lapland, we now decided, we would spend several months producing a film on Finland.
In her own language, Finland is known as “Suomi.” The Finns call their country “Suomen Tasavalta,” —” the land of a thousand lakes.” Actually she has more than 60,000, including Lake Ladoga, largest in Europe. Of the lower half of Finland, approximately twenty-five percent of its area consists of lakes. Many of them, so we read, were connected by rivers, or sometimes canals; steamers plied them to carry freight, deliver mail, and provide passenger service to isolated areas. Some of the rivers had mighty rapids which the adventurous could navigate or “shoot” in specially constructed river craft. We discovered in our reading that we would be able to journey through much of the Finnish nation by way of its lakes and rivers. We could make a film which would not only document the advanced social conditions and farsighted industrial and architectural aspects of this old-new nation, but we could flavor it all with episodes of high adventure.
Sixty thousand lakes Connecting rivers. Mighty rapids. We decided to name our new-planned color motion picture Finland Waters, A Story of Adventure in a New Nation. Our journeyings by water would give the film continuity—a thread on which to hang episodes of adventure and human interest.
The romantic approach to Finland is across the Baltic Sea through the archipelago surrounding the Aland Islands, last home of the windjammers. Following this route, wending through thirty thousand islands bunched like grapes until it was impossible to realize we were actually crossing a sea, we came to Turku.
It was necessary to visit and film three of Finland’s principal cities before starting our adventure by water. We soon found that Turku, the first of these, was more than a preface to the country. It was the whole first chapter. In one breathless whirl we were barraged with an ancient castle, a 13th century cathedral, horse -drawn droshkies (cabs), a chattering, gossipy marketplace, and a lively slice of modern Finnish life.
The wrinkled old market women, faces as varied and interesting as the heterogeneous products they sold, had real camera appeal, but the best photographic subjects were the trimly-attired young streetcar conductresses.
Turku was like that—a city of contrasts.
As we came to Tampere, the country’s chief industrial center and the second on our city list, we had expected normal factory conditions. Instead, we found factories with fine statuary in well-kept lawns before nearly every plant, and advanced social conditions which were the hallmark of Finland and Sweden.
Women as well as men—mothers as well as fathers—worked in the factories; special play areas, beautifully equipped, were located throughout the city where children might be left for the day under the care of girls in training for the teaching profession.
Best experience of all in Tampere had to do with Hellin Heiskala, our guide and interpreter, secured for us by a branch of the government. When our filming was over, she invited us out to her little home—a small red wooden structure by a forest at the edge of town—where we met her two-and-a-half year old girl, Heli, or “little Hellin.” This beautiful lady was a university graduate who spoke seven languages. She was an occasional tourist guide, and was the person in charge of a children’s radio program which was broadcast throughout much of the country. Her husband, Finland’s leading aviator, was known locally as the “Lindberg of Finland.”
Although we had no conception of it at the time, Hellin and little Heli, and her ever-enlarging family, would become world renowned, and play important parts in our own lives in the years to come.
The third city to be explored was the greatest of all—Helsinki, the nation’s capital, where outstanding architecture immediately came to our attention. Arriving by rail, we were deposited at the train station, one of the fine buildings designed by Finland’s world-renowned architect, Eliel Saarinin. He was also to play a significant part in our later lives.
After visiting the Diet, called by many travelers the finest parliament building in the world, and after admiring and filming the unusual churches, all the way from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral to a workingman’s church which resembled a skyscraper, we went out to the Olympic Stadium, whose towering shaft had caught our eye as we entered the city by rail. The Olympic Games, so everyone thought at that time, were less than a year away. Finland was a land devoted to athletic prowess. In much of our spare time we watched athletic contests, drills, aesthetic Scandinavian dancing, and field events of many kinds.
Getting Our Two Cents Worth
Finland’s cities offered us much culturally, but our exciting adventures, we had assumed, would come later. In a way that was true. But in these three metropolitan areas we experienced adventures of a different sort.
The first was monetary in nature, a phenomenon of the pocketbook. We discovered that, economically, at the time of our visit, Finland was a tourist paradise.
Many countries in Europe, where the dollar had an unfavorable rate of exchange, were expensive. Not so in Finland. A Finnish mark was worth two and one-ninth cents. It bought a streetcar ride of any length, with two transfers if needed; it was good for a shoeshine, an ice cream cone, or several miles of railway travel.
To quote in American terms, taxi minimum fares were twelve cents, excellent meals cost a quarter, modest hotels were one dollar for two persons, while twice this price obtained a double room in the very best places.
Those meals and hotels require elaboration. Our breakfasts were served to us in bed—an old Finnish custom and one not at all hard to adopt.
For lunch and dinner one sits down to food displays which are artistic and gastronomic achievements. “Sit down” is not the proper expression, for in many establishments the food is served buffet style. One table in the center of the “Ruokasalissa,” or dining room, beams invitingly with its salads, cheeses and hors d’oeuvres. Another is bedecked with breads, butter, milks, coffee, and dessert, while a third groans under the weight of the entrees. For one of our noon meals there were thirty-two different fancy dishes on the salad table alone—and the whole meal cost twenty-eight cents.
Finland is indeed a tourist paradise. A paradise in all respects but one—her language. A little sample is the word ” siskomakkarakeitto, ” which we were told was a type of soup. Just to pronounce it sounds a bit like slurping bouillon.
In a railway station, when we came upon a sign reading “Matkalavaravakuutuksia” we didn’t know whether it was a place to buy tickets, procure a meal, or take a train. A sign on a door in the parliament building in Helsinki reads “Tyovaenasiainvaliokunta. ” We discovered that “sanomalehtitoimisto” means “newspaper office.”
Helen could not make heads or tails out of a notice over a park bench on which she sat to consult her Finnish-Engish dictionary. She found it said: “Wet Paint.”
All this may be well enough for the people who are born to such a language, but it does seem a bit unjust to strangers to call the travel office a Suomen Matkailisayhdistys. There are a few compensations, however. We saw a Finn jam his finger in a window and he said “Ouch,” just as we would. At a Helsinki church service we heard the minister close his weird-sounding prayer with a familiar “Amen.” It was one of the few words in the service we could understand.
A ridiculously favorable rate of monetary exchange; a chamber of linguistic horrors—those provided the first two of our unusual Finnish adventures. The third had to do with bathing.
The sauna is the Finnish steam bath and the word “amazing” is all that can describe it. My initial experience with one came just after I had reached civilization at Mari after crossing winter Lapland by reindeer.
Two Finnish youths led me out over the snow to a red log building, took me into the dressing room, and then to the hot steam room itself, where I perched myself on an elevated bench up under the rafters. In a corner stood a great boiler filled with hot rocks, and over these one boy poured pails of water. That room became unbearable. Dante’s inspiration for his literary masterpiece must have been one of these Finnish sweat baths. According to instructions, I frantically soused cool water over my body and face and beat myself lustily with small birch branches. But the cool water turned hot just from contact with the air. I had withstood cold and hardships and had endured blizzards, but after three minutes in that executioner’s chamber, I bolted out the door onto the cooling snow. Stark naked. It was several minutes before the boys could coax me back. The room had cooled somewhat, but after scrubbing thoroughly I went out and took a snow rubdown. Afterward I learned that those fellows had sized me up for a tenderfoot and purposely made the room so hot that they themselves could scarcely bear it.
That was my first experience with the sauna. My second took place at the resort hotel Finlandia, situated between the lakes at the famous ridge of Punkaharju.
After dinner, a sign was posted in the hotel lobby announcing this to be “sauna” night—it apparently being the practice to “steam up” only twice a week. Helen at once decided to try it, but I demurred. One parboiling, it seemed to me, was enough. In thirty minutes she returned, grinning from ear to ear.
“What seems to be the matter?” I asked.
“Never mind,” came her mysterious reply. “All I can say is, you don’t understand the fine points of a Finnish sauna.”
In three minutes an appointment had been made with the porter. Another ten minutes and I was in the steam room.
The temperature was not hot in the least—just 165 degrees Fahrenheit and completely comfortable. The innovation came in the fact that, instead of performing my own beatings with the birch twigs, in marched a most attractive young maiden to take full charge of the task. She really beat hard, and after fifteen minutes of that, she motioned me down to the scrubbing floor. Handing me a tumbler and a great frosty pitcher of ice-cold cider, she procured soap and water. To the accompaniment of an icy drink, I was scrubbed from head to foot.
The cheerful young lady then proceeded to the rinsing, using pail after pail of successively cooler water. Finally she wrapped me in a great bedsheet of a towel and pronounced the ablutions complete.
The person must have been thinking of Finland who said that travel is an education in itself.