By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
“It is easy to identify me – I am the tallest person around. (6 foot, 7 inches and athletic). I will wait for you under the tower of the station building. You will have to walk under the tracks through the tunnel.” — Jukka, one of my Cosy Finland hosts, in May 2013
One of the everlasting rewards of independent travel is interacting with the local people. A few minutes’ conversation, a shared meal or a simple exchange of sightseeing information — or other activity — can lead to a memorable connection.
In some countries, programs are specifically designed to match locals with tourists, and that includes a visit to their home. A glimpse behind the curtain, if you will.
If you are intent on doing this, try to set it up before you leave home. It’s best to have the elements in place, because they may include a reservation and a fee paid in advance.
I had read in my “Finland” Lonely Planet guidebook about such a program. It’s called Cosy Finland, and its website is enthusiastic about introducing visitors to a version of Scandinavian life. The privately owned program began in 2005 and bills itself as “an authentic culture experience.”
Among the offerings was a three-hour dinner at a Finnish home, a Sunday afternoon lunch, a ladies’ only evening, a chance to bake a salmon cake (or seasonally, gingerbread), or to enjoy a sauna, an essential Finnish experience.
There was even the possibility of an overnight visit. Some options were geared to the solo traveler and others to groups. Many of the hosts reside in Helsinki or its suburbs, but the program also listed participants in other Finnish cities.
The process started with filling out an online form, giving a range of dates I was available and selecting one of the choices I’ve outlined above. It also asked my nationality, what language(s) I spoke, where I was staying in Finland, if I had any dietary restrictions or allergies, if I had children, what age I’d like my hosts to be and if I had any special interests.
The website also gave some biographical information about prospective hosts, who possessed a range of interests and abilities. You can try to find people with passions that complement yours, or go in for a totally different escapade.
For example, this is a description (currently on the website) from a retired couple in Hämeenlinna:
“We love hiking and wildlife; having retired we walked the Camino de Santiago, a 800 km pilgrimage from the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic in northern Spain. Sauna and ice-hole swimming enthusiasts in winter, would you like to try? We live in Helsinki and in a summer house in Hämeenlinna (100 km north of Helsinki). Sauna with private beach, boats available. Homestay for 1-3 persons in both of them. Wir sprechen auch Deutsch. Vi pratar svenska. Hablamos español. Parliamo un poco d’italiano. On parle un peu de français.”
Or perhaps these hosts:
“An active retired couple from Helsinki living in the district of Lauttasaari which is an island! We both adore crafts and being creative: knitting, renovating, silver jewelry, gardening, baking. She is specialized in gluten-free cooking due to her own condition. We spend our winters in the warmth of Spain and our summers in our community garden not far away from our home. Our little chihuahua follows us all around! We speak Finnish, Swedish, Spanish, German, and English. With a little help from our daughters, we can also communicate in French.”
The Cosy Finland fee for putting all this together for my visit was 69 euros, or about $73 at today’s exchange rate.
The couple I selected — Marjo, a biologist, and Jukka, a graphic designer/photographer /web designer, lived in Kerava, a municipality north of Helsinki. Once Cosy Finland contacted them, it forwarded an invitation from my hosts that included phone numbers, detailed information on which train to catch, what time it left, and that I would be picked up at the station. We also exchanged email addresses, and it was via this that Jukka provided his physical description so I could find him after my 40-minute train ride (it was a slower commuter; the trip can be made more quickly).
He was, indeed, very tall, and Marjo reached only to his shoulders. Both were slim, and I’d put their ages at around mid-50s. She worked for the Helsinki zoo as an educational specialist. The very energetic Jukka, also a former city councilman (platforms: more bike trails, and immigration), picked me up in a Honda SUV. The drive to the house was only about 10 minutes.
And what a home it was, built over about six months by Jukka himself in the late 1980s. The interior was quintessentially Finnish, with lots of wood, sleek clean lines and an open floor plan on the ground level. A floating wooden staircase led to the bedrooms upstairs, but I did not intrude and ask for a full tour. Outside was a patio, where we had dinner on a superb, sunny late May evening.
Jukka told me that not too many weeks previously, the now deep-green carpet of backyard lawn had been a frozen wonderland. One of his delights was to run the few steps from the steamy sauna directly into the thick layer of icy flakes and make snow angels.
Marjo was busy in the kitchen making dinner: marinated lamb fillets (cooked later on the grill outdoors); steamed broccoli with new potatoes; mushroom sauce; a green salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and walnuts; and hearty bread. We also enjoyed a bottle of red wine from Chile.
The springtime sun was beginning to set, and the temperature was falling. It had been pleasantly warm shirtsleeve weather, but we retreated indoors for dessert. On a fruit-motif tablecloth, Marjo set out bowls full of lingonberries, blueberries, sugar, cream and quark (similar to thick yogurt).
Probably the most startling revelation of the evening: Jukka said his father had 17 siblings.
Marjo and Jukka were an athletic couple, telling me about a 500-kilometer cycling adventure in the Netherlands. One goal of the tour was to gather ideas that could be implemented in Kerava, a city of about 35,000 people, less than 20 miles from Helsinki.
We talked about our jobs, families (each had grown children from previous relationships) and travel experiences. I was in the early part of my two-week Finnish circuit, and I indicated my plans to go very far north to the village of Inari, a center of Sami (indigenous) culture, and Rovaniemi, close to the Arctic Circle.
I had with me the gifts I usually carry on my journeys: a United States map, one of Georgia and Alabama, postcards and small books about the Peach State. Knowing I’d be visiting with someone in a profession related to mine, I had a copy of the Food section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which featured my article about taking a cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The U.S. maps were well-received, as they generally are, especially if the people you’re giving them to have been to America, as was Jukka’s case.
He told an entertaining story about having been an exchange student at the Pomfret School in Connecticut when he was 17, and it seems the East Coast family had a substantial amount of money. They had a house in Rhode Island and on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
During winter break, Jukka said, he and a friend took a cross-country bus trip to Washington State and en route had managed to visit 30 states.
In Denver, they ran out of money, and his friend contacted an uncle who lived there. Apparently, the uncle didn’t come across with any funds immediately, and they ended up in a shelter overnight. And when he did loan them $20 (!), the uncle expected to be paid back.
Jukka must have remembered his American sojourn fondly, because one of his daughters followed in his footsteps, though she studied in the South, Meridian, Mississippi, to be exact.
After dinner, Jukka was eager to show me some of his work, so we went to his office, a separate small building behind the carport. Inside were two large desktop Macs and a lot of expensive camera equipment. He explained some magazine projects he was working on (and gave me a couple of samples of published issues to take home; alas, they’re all in Finnish) and a book about water, written by a professor, for which he’d done the design.
One of the magazines was energy-related, but its cover featured 10 young ice skaters, in black short-sleeved leotard tops and flowing, mid-calf-length yellow satin skirts. Perhaps an energy company sponsored their competition or training.
We were having such a pleasant chat that we exceeded the suggested three-hour visit. Jukka dropped me back at the station, and I caught the 10:49 train back to Helsinki.
Quick reference: http://www.cosyfinland.com