There we were, the three of us: Vera, her daughter and I. The sauna was as unlike anything that you’ll find assembled in India: it looked rough and hand-made, and would have looked completely out of place in a spa at a five star hotel anywhere in our country. It was ten metres from the waters of the Gulf of Finland, had a trough containing logs of wood outside, as well as a bucket of water and a mug for sluicing yourself before the sauna. Vera took charge of the operations straight away. She sluiced enough water on the fire to make it hiss and to make steam rise. As the temperature inside the tiny sauna with the huge fireplace was caused by burning wood, it never became unbearable. We sat on a wooden bench; the floor was wooden too: no granite walls here, nor spa staff gently knocking on the door with fluffy bathrobes for us.
Vera had taken in drinks in cans for us: it was some suitably exotic-tasting thing, a cross between a beer and a Fanta. I have never seen it before or since, and the only reason we were drinking it at all was because you cannot, apparently, go into a sauna and not drink: you may become dehydrated. Vera was telling me about life in a suburb of Helsinki, where the block of flats that she and her charming young daughter live in, has a sauna. Apparently, you choose your time slot and then you more or less stick to it. It’s not high-tech or plush, but then, those are attributes that the average Finn would have trouble relating to. The three of us were deep in an arm-chair discussion. The only difference was our lack of attire. Every once in a while, one of us would wrap ourselves in a towel and walk up to the sea, then jump into it. The invigorating contact with icy cold water and the contrast of the hot sauna, fragrant with pine smoke and two strawberry blonde heads in front of me is a memory I’ll carry with me to the grave.
Finally, our sauna came to an end when dinner was ready. Our host Pertti Illi had been smoking salmon for us, followed by potato salad and a dessert of mouth-puckeringly sour but oh so refreshing lingonberries.
Pertti Illi symbolizes the Finnish people for me. They are all strong and silent, they are possessed of an inner strength, they convey the impression of being self-sufficient and their lives revolve around the outdoors. Every Finn – and there are around five million of them – has a bond with the outdoors that you and I cannot even begin to imagine. The overwhelming majority of the population possesses a country cottage. This is usually on an island, and in a country with 179,584 islands, they are hardly in short supply.
Neither is real estate in short supply: the population density in Lapland, North Finland, is an astonishing 1 person per 17 kilometers! It’s not quite so sparse in South Finland, where capital Helsinki is located, but even so, every Finn is a loner at heart, whose innermost being craves for life as it was centuries ago: picking berries and mushrooms in a forest alone.
What is so piquant is that there are over a billion of us Indians, and none of us seem to prize silence or aloneness. In contrast, of the five million Finns, four million have cottages where they retreat to on weekends and during the summer. The only condition for the location of the cottage is that it must be completely away from civilization, and hence the island connection. Throwing a bash in your summer home, Vera assured me, is an oxymoron. You go there to commune with nature.
Pertti Illi’s own house meets that criterion. It’s not even his summer cottage, but a regular residence, situated on the mainland in a village called Vimpasaari. It couldn’t have been more apt had Pertti chosen the name himself. He didn’t of course: he came by the place by extremely fortuitous chance. Vimpa means fish and saari means island. Vimpasaari is not a fishing island, but the fishing mad Pertti uses his house and the surrounding gardens as a base for his fishing expeditions. 10 miles south is his summer cottage, on the island of Rakinkotka. Kotka, I learn in a fascinating tutorial on the boatride to the island about the Finnish language, means eagle.
There are two types of summer cottages in Finland, based on two opposing philosophies. One school of thought feels that if you are getting away from civilization, you must, by definition, live as your ancestors did, without electricity and running water. This is not as inconvenient as it sounds: all through summer, when the country virtually shuts down and midnight sun is celebrated in a way that we in the tropics can never conceive of, you don’t need lights. And on the off-chance that you visit your cottage in winter, there’s the warmth of a wood fire. Finland has so much forestland that burning wood fires is hardly the tinder-box that it would be to us in India.
The other type of summer cottage is a perfectly modern one, where wi-fi keeps you connected to your work place. Being the outdoors, Robinson Crusoe type, Pertti’s cottages have no electricity or modern conveniences. We not only cook the food ourselves, we catch it too! Although Pertti’s travel company, Vimpa, takes tourists away from the beaten track and towards the Finnish way of holidaying, it is clear where his heart lies: in fishing. He is a hands-on boss, light years away from the Indian concept of a travel agency owner who barks orders to others. If there’s a fault to be found with him, it is that he is a little too faraway, a tad too busy to answer persistent questions from somebody who is goggle-eyed at the novelty of it all!
So, I cannot tell you whether there are plenty of other players in the “back to our Finnish roots” field, or whether Pertti is one of few others. I can’t even tell you whether Rakinkotka belongs exclusively to him, or whether he – and by extension, his guests – have the occasional use of it. Certainly, the 28 hectare island seems almost too small and too insignificant to actually bear a name. On the boat ride, I spied about a dozen other islands, all equally small on the horizon. Did they too have summer cottages on them? Did they even have names? Indeed, did all the islands that make up Finland’s archipelago have names? Pertti had more important things to do than be bombarded by questions. He had set up a trap that looked rather basic – a couple of bent pieces of wood nailed on to a couple of straight planks, surrounded by a fine net.
He had set the trap in the sea on his way to pick us up. In the span of an hour, he had caught two huge salmon. Eating salmon that had been smoked minutes ago in a manner that Robinson Crusoe himself would have approved of is an experience in itself, quite apart from the deserted island with four souls on it, and not another human being in sight. Or within shouting distance.
Good as the dinner was, it was overshadowed by the other meals I had in that spectacular country. Archipelago cuisine was all about great seafood. Fish – vendace, whitefish, turbot, trout, herring and herring were cooked in such a variety of ways that could give the Japanese a complex. Light delicate mousse flavoured with fresh, fragrant dill, uncooked herring doused with pungent mustard, salad of tiny pink shrimps – nobody had prepared me for the wonders of Finnish cuisine.
But then, when you have five million souls, all strong and silent, you don’t expect them to tom-tom their achievements, do you?