Sauna to hobbyhorsing: Five things to know before your trip to Finland

Hindustan Times Dec 06, 2017 07:56 am
Finnish men resting as they spend the day at Helsinki’s Suomen Saunaseura (the Finnish Sauna Society). (AFP)
Finnish men resting as they spend the day at Helsinki’s Suomen Saunaseura (the Finnish Sauna Society). (AFP)

Finland, a former Russian Grand Duchy, celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence on Wednesday.

Here are five things to know about the nation on the Baltic Sea:

1. Sauna ritual

The sauna (which means “bath” in Finnish) is a ritual -- almost even a rite -- which Finland’s 5.5 million inhabitants carry out at least once a week.

A sociable event that once lent a sense of community, saunas are now generally enjoyed privately or with friends: there are an estimated two to three million saunas in the country.

During the Cold War, Finnish president Urho Kekkonen negotiated with Soviet diplomats in the sauna of his residence in his birthday suit -- a sauna is enjoyed in the nude in Finland. In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin also dropped his towel when he sweated it out with the husband of his Finnish counterpart Tarja Halonen.

Finland even hosts a sauna world championship, an annual endurance test that occasionally, as in 2010, ends in death for competitors taking the heat in temperatures hitting 110 degrees Celsius (230 Fahrenheit).

To mark the centenary of its independence, Finland has launched “a touring sauna” that is currently criss-crossing the United States.

2. Hobbyhorsing

It’s not expensive and it’s good for your health: hobbyhorsing has become a social phenomenon in Finland, where some 10,000 girls practise the sport.

The idea? Straddle a wooden stick decorated with a pretend, but laboriously decorated, horse’s head and off you go as if you were riding a real horse.

Hobbyhorsing has its own sporting federation (http://viuhku.net/sky/index.html) and jumping competitions, which are taken very seriously.

Finland is also home to a slew of other wacky competitions: the air guitar world championship gathers dozens of contenders each year who go on stage and energetically pretend to play a non-existing guitar. In addition there are the world championships of mobile phone throwing and rubber boot tossing, as well as the wife-carrying contest and the swamp soccer world competition.

3. Racing Finns

Finishing third in his first season driving for Mercedes in the Formula One World Championship this year, Valtteri Bottas is the latest in a prestigious line of Finnish drivers who have raced cars at the top level for half a century.

Learning the ropes on their country’s frozen lakes and forest roads, Finns have claimed four Formula One world championships (Keke Rosberg in 1982, Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999, and Kimi Raikkonen in 2007).

They’ve also won 14 world rally championships (WRC), their speciality. Markku Aleen, Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikola, Timo Salonen, Juha Kankkunen, Tommi Makinen and Marcus Gronholm have all won the WRC championship.

4. Tops in education

Finland has since the early 2000s made a name for itself in the PISA studies that measure the education systems of OECD countries. Despite a slight decline in the 2015 study, the most recent one available, the country is still one of the top performers behind Singapore, Japan, Estonia and Taiwan.

It came just behind its neighbour Estonia -- whose language also belongs to the Fenno-Ugric family -- in sciences, but scored ahead in written comprehension.

The main key to its success? Reforms that allow independent management of schools, less theory and more practice, and widespread use of new technologies.

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