Forget summer in the city. For Finns the season is all about the countryside, where nature and tradition reign. So come along, take a nostalgia trip to the country that once was. Romance in the hay fields, dancing under the stars and an uncomplicated life await!

Where have all the people gone?

Why, it is summer, and holidaying Finns are getting out of towns, of course. There is no such thing as summer in the city – you have to get into the peace and quiet of the countryside. So there they go, filling the roads with their cars, off to feast on the fresh air of the pure, pure countryside.

For all the high-tech hype and urbane Nokia pride, if you scratch the surface you find that the country is the true home, heart and soul of Finnishness. Some of them may be in denial, but there is only a handful of truly urban Finns, if that. Even the teenagers, who whine about being dragged away from the pleasant city life to the unfathomable boredom of the sticks, will one day hear the call of the countryside and pack their own sulking teenagers into the car and head into the rural sunset.

Finland industrialises… finally!

One of the reasons for this annual migration may be that Finns yearn for the home they only just left. In Western terms Finland urbanised quite late: in 1950 Finland was still an agrarian country, in which only about a third of the population were town dwellers. Rapid industrialisation contributed to rapid urbanisation: by 1975, 65 per cent of the population lived in towns and people were still moving away from the rural areas.

Country to City

In 1920, 70% of the population in Finland depended on
agriculture as their source of livelihood
• In contrast, 2% of the population in industrialising Helsinki
depended on agriculture as their source of livelihood
• In 2004 agriculture accounted for 4.2% of the industrial
• Rural municipalities now have only 15% of Finnish jobs
and 20% of the population
• In these municipalities 20% of jobs are based on
• 63,000 people move annually from rural areas into urban
• 53,000 people move annually from towns to the countryside,
also known as “counter urbanisation,” which also occurred
in Finland during the 1990s

Source: Statistics Finland

This late blooming of industrialisation and city life raises mixed feelings in Finns – there is some pride, due to the rapid industrialisation, but on the other hand it’s somewhat embarrassing. You feel a bit of a country bumpkin among the Europeans and have bullies like the Italian prime minister cracking jokes about you. So you brandish the latest Nokia phone and make pointed remarks about “the hicks” and how they are a bit on the slow side there in the country.

Yet the countryside is the home of the quintessential Finnish values. It isn’t only the source of the superbly pure Finnish food (if only it wasn’t so expensive so that you have to buy Spanish tomatoes); it is somehow more noble and honest. And who would define the concept of sisu but the gutsy Finnish farmers of olden times who turned bogs and forests into arable land and toiled against one adversity after another, never giving up. Truly this is the sturdy blood that runs in Finnish veins!

Nostalgia for the good ol’ days

You could say that the rural nature is deeply set in Finnish brains, too – unlike in Indo-European languages, the Finnish months are named after what mattered most to the farmer, following the yearly cycle. Numerous everyday expressions derive from the agricultural practices, although most Finns wouldn’t recognise their original meaning anymore, even if they stopped to think about them.

An even more indoctrinating influence would be Finnish literature and especially the visual arts. In the first half of the 20th century, towns were usually depicted as places of moral decay, alienation, and general wickedness, which would corrupt any fresh-faced youth who made the mistake of leaving their country homes. After the 1950s, when more and more Finns settled in towns, questions of morality were replaced by nostalgia.

Somehow in the urban years the imagery of the old films stuck – in Finnish minds the countryside tends to be all about sun-kissed yellow fields of corn gently swaying in the wind, Finnish horses and picturesque cattle on green pastures, handsome muscular men and pretty blond women – all young – making hay (and later making out in the hay), in the eternal hot summer. If there is rain and thunder, it is short and picturesque, too (and the perfect time for that little escapade in the barn).

The real countryside

Basically people know that this image isn’t quite right, but when born town-dwellers move to the country they’re likely to have a big surprise. There are decidedly worse smells than hay and roses; there are flies and mosquitoes and all kinds of creepy-crawlies. Instead of the well-proportioned youths you get stout middle-aged farmers in overalls, insisting on starting their noisy tractors early in the morning and running them till late at night, apparently having never heard of leisurely country life.

What’s more, for a town-bred individual the celebrated oldworld communality may seem more like poking noses in other people’s matters. Oh, and if you happen to see any hay that isn’t baled and/or wrapped in white plastic, it turns out to be itchy and scratchy. Those movie folks must have had a thicker skin. And if you thought that winter is a dark time in towns, darkness gets redefined in the country.

Most of the town folk only dream about moving to the country, though, and are satisfied with briefer visits. For them it would be enough if the countryside just stayed that depository of true values in which they could dip in the warmth of summer months and feel renewed. If only they would bring back haystacks and horses it would be a nice theme park to relax in.

As for the conditions for food production - what do you mean? Duh, food comes from the supermarket!

Tuula Ruskeeniemi
Photos: KAVA - Photo
illustration: Hans Eiskonen

A Celluloid Sense Of Community

Finland was not really urbanised until the 1970s, so even nowadays most people are either born in the countryside or just a few generations away from it. It’s not surprising that for many the countryside symbolises home and lost community. And what better way to visualise this proverbial home than through the beloved suomifilmi.

In the early days feature films were mostly based in literature, which in Finland was rather patriotic and mostly set in the countryside. Nature was a metaphor for an idyllic, pristine life and lakes and rapids symbolised freedom and passion. For later generations these films portray a flawless picture of white nights and never-ending summers, brave rafting and romance under the birch trees.

The great Finnish melodrama’s most notable example is the Niskavuori family saga, which recounts the story of a powerful peasant family in Tavastia. The master of melodrama, Teuvo Tulio, also directed many rural romances with dramatic twists. He is considered to have started the traditional “hay barn romance” genre, which alludes to poorly hidden eroticism. Both the Niskavuori series and Tulio’s melodramas had a set of type characters: strong maternal figures, reckless men with weakness for alcohol and milk maids and hysterical women running into the woods and lakes. Strong emotions and strong articulation make these films enjoyable even today.

The ruling studios

In the studio era there was a clear division between the two dominant studios. Suomi-Filmi produced mostly light comedies set in Helsinki, whereas Suomen Filmiteollisuus (SF) offered rural settings and lower class characters. For the urban audience SF’s films provided a nostalgic sense of community.

In the 1950s the rising youth culture caused concern among film makers. Cities were portrayed as dangerous places where innocent country kids were lured into bad habits, resulting in car accidents, suicides, drug abuse and unwanted pregnancies. It goes without saying that the countryside remained as flawless as ever. At the same time there was a similar kind of division in the folk comedy genre of rillumarei films, in which city folks were always portrayed either as fancy pants elite or suspicious conmen, whereas the rural everyman was clever, honest and won the girls over. The division was as black and white as the film themselves, and the genre also strongly divided opinions within audiences and among critics.

The Finnish Studio system collapsed in the 1960s and most new wave film makers despised everything that had to do with the countryside and romantics in the traditional sense. Nowadays the genre is practically nonexistent in Finnish cinema. One of the rare exceptions is Markku Pölönen, who has directed the lumber flick Kuningasjätkä and a few other rustic romances.

Kati Hurme



Step it out Helsinki

Even the smallest village in Finland has a stage set for dancing, the centre of local social life and sanctum of traditional Finnish dance culture. In urban Helsinki people also gather to dance under the dimming night sky.

Tath Finlandis a recently industrialised society is no secret, but that many of its recent cultural phenomena are a result of this concentration in the cities is not so obvious. Many city folk are fortunate to be able to retreat to a rural idyll during spring weekends and summer months, but for young adults such an option is not so simple.

Hence the rise of urban horticulture, the popularity of small garden plots or allotments, and the ever increasing popularity of summer dances, even folkdance! Nowadays the range runs from Rumba to Rastafarian, and is available at clubs and schools all year round. And in summertime dance fever really does prevail.

From the sublime

The heart of the outdoor dancing scene has to be the island of Seurasaari. The outdoor museum celebrating its centenary this year hosts traditional folkdance sessions and shows throughout the summer. An increasingly popular outdoor dance venue is on the grass outside the Opera House overlooking the water of Töölö Bay, where the salsa people gather. That’s at 18:30 every Sunday through the summer. All you need are the clothes you stand up in, and an ear for rhythm. The same applies to the communal dance-ins organised by Kaupunkitanssit, mainly in the piazzas in front of shopping malls outside the city centre. The main locations are Arabia, Kannelmäki, Malmi, Pikku Huopamäki and in August in Leppävaara.

These too are free for allcomers, with foreigners welcome to join in and, with any luck, getting instructions in English. Each session lasts for 45 minutes and has a style that is practised that day. It can be jive and bugg, tango, waltz or even blues! The entry threshold is low, but my experience was that many dancers were very skilled, making it as much a spectator event even if that is not the intention! Check the web for locations and dance style.

To the superlative

Every Thursday evening is salsa night in Club Havanna on Erikinkatu starting around 9, although a more spectacular experience are the retro dance events organised around town through the summer. These are nights of traditional Finnish evergreens, tangos, waltzes, you name it, played straight from the vinyl for all to groove to. As dj Timo Santala puts it, “no experience is needed, just the willingness to get into the groove along with the crowd. And it’s amazing how well folks behave in the audience – all dressed up in 50s and 60s gear, and no Neanderthal antics at all!”

These are run by We Love Helsinki, who have a programme on Juhannus Eve and Day, and again over the weekend of 31 July at Korjaamo and Kuudes linja, as well as a smaller programme at the Flow Festival.

Every afternoon from 3 August until the end of the month the centre of town is the hub of folk music and dance, around the band-stand stage at the bottom of Esplanadi. Organised by Etno-Espa, there’s usually one band per afternoon, starting at 16:30. The programme starts with Sväng’s Jouko Kyhälä’s own band Saalas. Then at the end of the month the retro acoustic dance-band Vallilan Tango have a weekend show in Vanha Kaupunginlahti. Nowadays there’s just no excuse to be a wallflower!

welovehelsinki.blogspot.com (in Finnish)