School Trips

School Trips - Finland 1966-67

Finland

1966

They may ironically, even bitterly, ask you how many polar bears have you seen prowling the streets of Helsinki; they may frequently sacrifice you up as a burnt offering to the great god Sauna Bath; they may even, sin of sins, contemptuously dismiss cricket and cheer for Germany in the World Cup but, throughout all, the Finns remain absolutely charming and friendly and for this you can forgive them almost anything. It is, in fact, this completely natural friendliness combined with the intensely peaceful beauty of the Finnish countryside, with its great still lakes surrounded by silent pine forests, that comes most vividly to mind when I remember the holiday that, last summer, I spent in this part of Scandinavia. Most of my happy memories can be traced back to the time when I found myself at a sports camp 400 miles north of Helsinki, having been changed, rather unexpectedly, from a uniformed sixth former to a "teacher" attempting to explain the intricacies of the English language to about 35 students from all over Finland. With the atmosphere being completely relaxed and unschool-like, however, and with the surroundings at Vuokatti being one of the famous beauty spots of a beautiful country it was certain that we would all thoroughly enjoy ourselves despite the lessons in English grammar. The sports' camp having been described (along with the definite if unique pleasures of Sauna Bath) once already in "The Monovian" (Xmas 1965) suffice it now to say that the surroundings were for making firm friends. Each day would pass all too quickly being spent alternatively in eating, teaching and sporting with the absolute minimum of the latter as far as I was concerned. Certainly I never became as eager as one well known member of the Monoux staff who would be seen, every morning before breakfast, prancing around the race track perhaps with more enthusiasm than style. The evenings passed in sitting for hours on end in the cafe just talking or listening to the radio, or organising folk song sessions down by the lakeside where sausages were roasted over a bonfire and the pacifist convictions of the protest songs conveniently forgotten whenever a mosquito ventured near enough to the swatter. If it was a matter of two's company, three's a crowd then there was nothing more romantic than going for long walks into the forest, awe inspiring in its absolute silence and the night, because of the nearness to the Arctic Circle, strangely calm and tranquil in its continuous dusk while the moon stared out blood red mirroring itself in the lake and forming the "bridge of the water". While this thoroughly beautiful, peaceful, almost utopian picture is obviously not completely representative of Finland as a whole, it certainly did reflect many aspects of Scandinavian life as I saw it not only at Vuokatti but also when I spent some three weeks with a Finnish family in the industrial town of Valkeakoski. It is interesting to note that this ideally situated camp with its adequate cabins, large television/lecture room, and well equipped gym and sports' room, containing everything from a shooting range to ping-pong tables, is in fact owned by the State which then allows private organisations to hire out these excellent facilities. That the authorities are not in power just grudgingly to provide the minimum requirements demanded by the people is an attitude apparently shared by factory managements, if the two factories visited are at all typical. There the workers were not just the means of turning out the end product but rather each was an individual with the right to clean canteens, on-the-spot doctors and a number of small shops actually on the premises. It is perhaps typical that while many of the youngsters I spoke to regarded themselves as "right wing" they naturally accepted attitudes and policies which in Britain would be condemned in the correspondence columns of "Time and Tide" as "creeping socialism undermining the country's morals." Although large and modern the camp blended well with the surrounding countryside just as the numerous restaurants and cafes set in beauty spots, did not feel compelled to construct huge neon lighted hordings advertising Coca Cola. Although the great majority of Finland is still forested and in its natural state the people don't needlessly spoil one acre of their land either by dropping litter or by hideous architecture. Certainly the friendliness of the students was typical for any Finn would go out of his way to make you feel at home. At one railway station, for example, I spent half an hour in happy if stilted conversation with a sailor who knew half a dozen words of English to my nix of Finnish. Indeed friendships at the camp were such that some of the teachers, after the English course was finished, spent part of the remainder of their holiday staying with different students and their families; one person even cancelled his trip home and is, as far as I am aware, still travelling round living off the families to the apparent satisfaction of both host and guest. Obviously, however, the 60,000 lakes, beautiful blondes and sauna baths are not all there is to Finland. While Helsinki is a very modern, pleasant and remarkably clean city it is not a place to stay during the summer for in the months of June, July and August, most people desert it for the countryside. There seems to be very little night life outside of the bars and the funfair. It is also in Helsinki that you see most clearly one of the most worrying problems in Finland-drink. Whether it is 10 o'clock in the evening or 10 o'clock in the morning there will always be seen large numbers of drunks reeling their way down the streets or sleeping it off in doorways. Despite, or perhaps because of, the slack liquor regulations most Finns just don't seem capable of putting a bottle down once they have started with the inevitable result! Finnish youths are just as restless, if not more so than many of their European counterparts, and every morning, in the industrial town of Valkeakoski where I stayed, 1 saw great masses of youngsters just hanging around the streets for lack of anything else to do. Their television is swamped by cheap American "comedies" which even I.T.V. would spurn in England.Finland is in the unenviable position of sharing an English summer with a Russian winter. How my love for the forests would bear up with everything covered by great snow drifts I am not quite sure! Despite all this I hope that if a Finnish trip is arranged next year other Monoux boys will take advantage of this opportunity to travel in and round this country and, by actually staying with a family, see how the people live and work. While some of my friends were not so lucky, the friendly reception I received and the things I saw made this one of the most enjoyable holidays ever, and to miss this opportunity would be to miss a great experience.
J. A. Weinstein

1967

The facts and statistics made relatively easy reading. Between 25th July and 27th August, a party from Monoux travelled approximately 3,600 miles: from Gatwick to Helsinki by jet, north by train to a sports centre at Vuokatti, a small village in Central Finland, where we were to take part in t holiday course aimed at improving the English of the Finns of our own ages. who had travelled there for that reason from all over Finland: then, after three weeks south again to be guests of Finnish families near Helsinki for 10 days: finally the last sightseeing week-end in Helsinki before flying home. But to summarise our impressions of a different country, a different people, and an unforgettable holiday, is a very different matter.

Those of the party who stayed at the Vuokatti sports centre (a few of us spent the entire holiday with a Finnish family) arrived, after journeying for a total of 15 hours by train, impatient to compare the much heralded camp with reality. The word camp is deceptive. The sports centre is laid out around a football pitch, and an encircling running track. On a bank, standing back from one flank of the pitch, is a long building, which combines the offices of administration centre, gymnasium, accommodation centre, washrooms and showers, and, in the basement, shooting gallery, launderette, drying rooms, electric generator and ski repair workshop. At the end of the football pitch lie the dining hail and library, and set well back from the pitch are chalets. The party from Monoux was accommodated in a chalet at the crest of a small wooded hill under the supervision of Mr. M. Elliott, to whom we are all grateful for hard work of administration and organisation. The view from one window was across the sports centre and from the opposite windows out over a lake. So great is the prestige at the centre that it has an exclusive station on the railway line running nearby.
Initial hesitance, surprisingly more evident in the Finns than the foreigners, was soon overcome and the three weeks rushed past, lost in the making of new friends, the discovery of new beauties of scenery, and the enjoyment of the widest imaginable range of sports. No description of Vuokatti is complete without the revelation of Sauna. Indeed it seems to a foreigner that Sauna is the Finnish way of life. When a Finn builds his home, he builds sauna first, where he will live until minor details like bedrooms, dining rooms, bathrooms, have been sorted out. In order to bake a Finn to his satisfaction, the fire in the boiler which heats a large (three feet diameter) cylinder of pebbles, must be lit some hours before it is required. One enters a medium sized wood-lined room, and sits down naked on one of the wooden benches that stretch tier-like to the ceiling, facing the imposing black boiler, which radiates heat. In a temperature of around 100° centigrade, one sweats. At first sweat quickly evaporates but it gradually accumulates and drips off one's toes, fingers and nose. One's hair is soaked after five minutes. Any ideas about the ease of toleration of this temperature are dispelled as a glistening pink Finnish masochist begins to ladle water into the hissing black cylinder, with the apparent effect of doubling the temperature. At this point, Finns present will begin to make polite conversation, but even the most determined Finnophile leaves for the lake. Saunas are built, where possible, on the sides of lakes. One runs down a short jetty and plunges into the icy cold lake water. And sauna, despite our pessimistic expectations, produces an incredible sensation of well-being and a tingling which lasts for several hours, probably the result of wholesale destruction of nerve endings.

But whether we were rowing on a vast lake which stretched over the horizon in two Directions, struggling breathless towards a rugged peak, participating furiously with cracking voices in a camp fire sing-song by the lake, playing football against another team of foreigners--Germans from a nearby camp, dancing late into the summer twilight that the Finns call night, driving around the battle grounds of the Finno-Russian war, or just lying in the hot sun which hardly left us during the whole stay, we succeeded in escaping from time, there in the north of Europe.

The next stage of the holiday was with a family in South Finland. I stayed in a tiny farming settlement near Tampere. Others of us were nearer Helsinki. These ten days, 1 think we are agreed, provided a greater insight into the Finnish way of life, and in every case were unforgettably enjoyable.

The entire Monoux party met up again at the Students' hostel in Helsinki for the last weekend. One of us had travelled far north beyond the Arctic Circle, into Lapland and over the Swedish border. Others, after five weeks in Helsinki, now knew the streets of the city better than they remembered those of Walthamstow. We had been into radio stations, up towers, down mines, on combine harvesters, and across vast lakes.

Under the highly efficient guidance of Reijo Olander, to whom we owe our sincere thanks, we toured Helsinki and suburbs, with memorable visits to the ancient island fortress of Suomenlinna in Helsinki harbour, and the famous amusement park of Linnanmaki, high above the capital. Our last meal in Finland, prepared, I must think, in our honour, was sausages and chips with tomato sauce, flavours which most of us had forgotten.

What did we learn about Finns and Finland? The Finns belong to an ethnic group, which is neither Slavonic nor Nordic, yet they have a long history of foreign domination. They have been self-ruling since 1917 yet enmities remain: they are strongly anti-Russian: and some Finns, with motives stretching much further back into history, feel hostility against the Swedes. Finns have a very distinct national character, which they take great delight in probing. There is a large number of anecdotes in circulation, each purporting to show one aspect of this character, or the character of the people of one particular region, famed perhaps for slowness, or tight-fistedness. Foreigners are informed with mock seriousness that Finns emerged long ago from the ubiquitous lakes of Finland, a myth alluded to by the famous statue of the Maid of Finland on the Helsinki waterfront. Finns are very proud of their work and their importance in the United Nations peacekeeping force, and of their achievements particularly in design. Yet there is an element of reservation in every Finn, even verging on shyness as those of us who tried to hitchhike discovered.

Even so, the foreign visitor is greeted with a rarely encountered wealth of kindness. The months and the years pass by, but warmth of memory will always remain.

Patrick R. Humphreys, 6iR

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