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What do I now think of when I think about Finland? What do I most associate with the country after my very first visit?

Well the first thing that springs to mind is that Aki Kaurismaki really wasn't making it up; the Finns really are obsessed with coffee drinking. They do after all have the world's highest per capita consumption of the caffineated beverage. It's no suprise that it's available pretty much everywhere, with the word Kahvila indicating a cafe or coffee shop. This can mean anything from a small corner of a very out of the way filling station, via a cute Kioski by a lake on a main road between towns, a stall outside a DIY superstore, or something much, much grander. What it means is filtered coffee, of variable quality, often with free refills. The cost varies as well as the quality and the two are not always connected! Of course if you're lucky you'll find kahvi and munkki (a filled doughnut, quite often containing apple) for a good price; the best offer we saw was somewhere round Hameenlinna, where the price was €1.50! How good (or bad) it was I can't say. I was so caffinated by then it was getting silly!

ROBERT'S COFFEE, HELSINKI, ICED COFFEE 001

In addition to being tremendously lawabiding when driving, the other thing you'll notice is the extreme care taken crossing the road. I'm not saying a Finn won't ignore a pedestrian crossing light that is against them if there's no traffic in sight - and this is not unusual in July in Helsinki - but it clearly goes against the grain to do so. In fact the only other nationality I've encountered that is so averse to crossing against the lights are the Germans. Sometimes we ended up ignoring the lights and crossing a completely empty road just because we could! It's great to be a rebel sometimes!

There are also notable memories/associations around food now. I can probably never look at a buffet again, as it seems there is NOWHERE that doesn't provide a lunch (lounas) buffet, and occasionally an evening one also. These are of variable quality though usually very good (and very good value) from what we could tell. However, as neither of us are big fans of a large lunch on a day when you want to get some use from the afternoon, we pretty much skipped them and opted for a light (if more expensive) lunch option. The thing that fascinated me most was how early some of them kicked off - 11:00 was normal, some even got going at 10:30, and kept right on going as late as 16:00 in some cases. It's a bit startling to those of us used to a sandwich or soup at our desks I can tell you that!

Also on the food front I don't think I've ever seen, or eaten, so many chanterelles. Right now they are everywhere, on the stalls in every kauppatori (summer market place - and every town has one of these it seems), on the menu in pretty much every restaurant, in the dinners I created on the nights we were self catering, probably in the apple and mushroom saladd on the buffets I did encounter, I suspect somewhere someone is even using them in cocktails! Alongside them the vegetable du jour at this time of year is the pea, eaten fresh from the pod, and piled up everywhere.

FOOD WALKING TOUR, HELSINKI 030

Of course on the other side of the stalls were berries, lots and lots of berries, and my but a Finnish grown strawberry is a wonderful thing, like biting into jam, they're so sweet and sticky! The blueberries and bilberries and raspberries and cherries are pretty good too. The markets are in fact seriously dangerous places, as are the indoor markets (kauppahalli), where you'll find all sorts of wonderful goodies, both local and imported. I needed a restraining hand the first time I went out to round up ingredients for supper. I could have run amock and we'd have ended up with who knows how much food!

Of course buying the food had its own hazrds, mostly in the shape of mad-eyed gulls which are everywhere. They're more lake gulls I suppose than seagulls, but they lurk around cafes and food stalls and ice cream kioskis just waiting for the right moment to snatch whatever it is you've just bought and were looking forward to. If you do survive the attentions of these razor-beaked predators and get your food back to where you're staying, it's good odds you'll find yourself placing the items on beautiful Iitala plates, which causes intense outbreaks of crockery envy, usually followed by distressed wailing and gnashing of teeth when you realise how expensive these things are.

FOOD WALKING TOUR, HELSINKI 038

Still, there's almost certainly a museum where you can go and look at these beautiful things. There are museums for pretty much everything in Finland as far as I can tell. A drive anywhere is peppered with signs that let you know there's something to see and more often than not it's a museum of some sort. We didn't visit all of them, there just wasn't time, but you probably could gain much entertainment and some education from most of them along the way. And of course the tourist information offices will almost certainly be able to tell you all about them. In fact there's probably not much that the Finnish TI offices can't tell you, and in impeccable English usually too. It's all part of thr friendliness of the Finns we encountered, who pretty much to a man or woman wanted to make sure we were enjoying their country. Right down to the woman who told me about the parking rule when I parked the car facing the wrong way in Turku, or the TI employee in Imatra who rushed back to her car to get some information specifically for us. I have lots and lots of brochures, maps, flyers and guidebooks now... it seems I can't go anywhere without returning with half a tree.

I miss the daylight now I'm back, though I know at other times of year I'd hate the lack of it. I miss the way the Finns all seemed to have taken to the outdoors. I'm fascinated by the sheer number of open-air theatres around the country, and the way pretty much every town seemed to have a bandstand where it seems anyone can turn up and play (though they may have to book a slot). I'm guessing that this is all part of the effects of so much sunlight after a long winter and that any sane person would rush out into the light and refuse to come back in for as long as it lasts. I know I would!
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