Christmas in Finland

Erika skiing

When I decided to move to Oulu from London without my family for a year, I made a deal with my children that we wouldn’t be away from each other for more than 50% of the time.

That was before any of us heard about Covid19. We had no idea that flying between Oulu and London would not be quite so easy after March 2020. Still, despite the restrictions, we managed to stick to the 50% deal all the way to November.  My family could come and stay with me in Oulu on a regular basis because even in Covid times, close relatives of a person living in Finland were allowed to travel without any hassle.

That all changed with the new version of the virus, perfectly timed to make an appearance in England just before Christmas. The border was shut with immediate effect and there have been no flights from the UK to Helsinki since Dec 19.

With flights cancelled, my family couldn’t come to Oulu for Christmas. I could have probably gone to London. But if I’d done that, I would now be trapped there for weeks, or months. We thought it was best if I stayed in Finland and postpone our family Christmas to whenever we can travel again.

It’s moments like this when you realise how much we invest in Christmas emotionally. When the decision to stay apart sank in, we were all heartbroken. But what can you do when life throws lemons at you? The only sensible thing is to adapt. That’s how I ended up on a train to Turku to spend Christmas with a Finnish family I’ve known for over 35 years.

Eeva-Maria was my pen-friend when I was in primary school in communist Hungary.  A few years later she came to Budapest on an inter-rail trip and stayed in my family house for a few days. I came to Turku when I was a student to visit her. Another few years later she and her parents and siblings all drove from Turku to Hungary to attend my wedding. I have lots of friends in Oulu but I haven’t got this kind of history with anyone here. So Turku was an obvious choice: they are my Finnish family.

There I was, running in a snow-less forest in Kaarina, contemplating how, just three days earlier, I had no idea I would be there for Christmas. It was a strange thought but it passed quickly: I had to concentrate on not getting lost and risk being late for the start of the festivities. I was under firm instructions to get back home in time for the Joulurauha announcement.

I think traditions are important and they’re mostly reassuring: they connect you with previous generations and create shared experiences. By the time I sat down in front of the TV to watch the declaration of Christmas peace in Turku’s great square, all was well with the world.  A male choir and a military brass band performing Luther’s Battle Hymn of the Reformation was a bit unexpected but nevertheless uplifting addition to my start-of-Christmas experience.

But then came riisipuuro, It gave me a shock because it looked exactly like a sweet rice pudding, something I often ate as a child. But riisipuuro was salty! Somehow I ended up with a very large pile of it on my plate of which, I’m ashamed to report, I managed to eat only one very small spoonful. I decided that it was probably a south Finland aberration but upon my return to Oulu, I found out that it was also on everybody’s Christmas table here. What can I say? Maybe try, just once, making it with milk, honey, cream and vanilla sugar and drop in a few raisins?

The rest of Christmas food was great: a huge ham and salmon were brilliant centrepieces and I had a decent portion of each laatikko as well, unlike most other members of the family who I noticed were decidedly less enthusiastic. After my riisipuuro fiasco, I thought I’d better not comment on that. We then blissfully slipped into an eat-drink-chill-repeat routine that lasted for the better part of the next three days, all very similar to how it goes in England and Hungary. We exchanged presents, played a few games and I spent a lot of time trying to fend off the family’s huge Labrador who developed a keen interest in me.  We laughed and cried – the latter mostly when I was speaking Finnish – and had a blissfully relaxing time with wonderful people who rallied around me and gave me a brilliant Christmas. I’m so lucky  to have them in my life.

I’m now back in Oulu, working on four films in January. I’ve also stepped up my exercise regime in a big way. I bought a pair of skis and boots from tori.fi that fit me perfectly and I ski 5K every morning in winter wonderland. I’m improving fast and I find the whole experience of a having a new harrastus totally exhilarating. On top of that, I run 5K in the evening. I invested in a pair of running shoes with metal studs that feel safe even on ice. So I’ve effectively doubled up on exercise in the last two weeks and I feel super fit and healthy. It’s so easy: conditions to ski and run are perfect. Oulu is breathtakingly beautiful covered with tons of fresh snow. The skiing and running tracks are all lit and perfectly maintained. I enjoy the sight and feel of the city these days so much that I forget that I exercise. And if all goes well, my skis will even get a layer of fresh wax next week thanks to a friend who apparently knows what he’s doing. It has to be Oulu Tervahiihto next.

Erika Benke, journalist
born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC.
Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project.


As we’re approaching Christmas and the end of 2020, it’s time to take stock.Erika Benke

It’s been an exceptional year, with a global pandemic messing with all of our lives in a big way.  But here in Oulu, Covid19 has caused a lot less disruption and pain than elsewhere.

To me, moving from London to Oulu last summer was certainly the best decision in 2020. Not just because of the coronavirus situation, but also for general wellbeing.

I love that Oulu still has four seasons. Most of Europe has lost four seasons to climate change. In London you can even sometimes wear the same clothes in June and January.  In Budapest, they now have a hot summer and a cold winter and nothing in between: the temperature jumps from minus 5 in the middle of March to plus 25 a week later.  It appears that even southern Finland is losing winter. Last year’s temperatures in Helsinki were the same as London’s, with lots of rain rather than snow.

I think there’s something profoundly reassuring about having four seasons. Last June we had gorgeous summer weather here. I had the best tan in many years thanks to my running-cycling-swimming routine while on holiday in Ii. In September and early October I saw the most beautiful colours in Oulu, trees with incredibly bright red and yellow leaves. I picked lingonberries and went canoeing on Oulujoki in crisp autumn air and watched wonderful sunsets all the way to mid-November.  And now we have snow and ice and I can’t get enough of it. Winter is my favourite season and I’m taking full advantage: I’ve skied in the Hiironen tracks and gone for short swims in the canal in Toppilansaari after breaking some ice. That you can experience all of this in the middle of a city of 200,000 is incredible. Pure nature and all the services that come as standard in any big city, all in one place. We’re so lucky to have this mix. To me it provides a much better quality of life than any other place I’ve lived before.

And then there’s cycling. I haven’t got a car in Oulu: I go everywhere by bike. The network of bike paths is so extensive and maintenance is so good that I don’t need a car. I’m not alone: over 20% of all journeys in Oulu are made by bike which is twice as many as the Finnish average. And 50% of Oulu’s residents cycle in the winter. My friends outside Nordic countries can’t believe their eyes when they see my photos. “Astonishing.” “How on earth is this possible?” – are typical reactions.

Oulu is perfect for cycling because of its size, and the infrastructure to support cycling is excellent. Bike paths are cleared of snow before roads – a measure that results in more gender-equal travel and a reduction in the overall number of accidents The world could learn so much from Oulu about how to make cycling and walking the preferred option for moving around in a medium-sized city.

I don’t cycle in London because the majority of cycle paths are not segregated: you ride with cars around you. It’s not safe. In Oulu, it is. You hardly ever cross a busy road and when you do, there’s traffic lights with sensors to help cyclists pass without having to wait. My daily journeys are a world apart from London’s. They’re now stress-free and hugely enjoyable: no driving, no hassle to find a parking space and no crowded, sweaty hours on the underground. It’s a huge bonus for my wellbeing: cycling in a forest for an hour a day does wonders to mental health.

The only thing I’m missing is meeting people face-to-face. But that’s the reality of 2020:  the chequered laptop screens of Zoom and Teams, and the face masks on rare occasions when I can interview somebody in person. There’s a good reason why we have to put up with them and hopefully not for long now.

Social distancing and the recommendation to work from home have seriously hampered my efforts to learn Finnish. I’m nowhere near where I thought I would be after living in Finland for six months. But it’s not a complete failure.

Ystävä, joka ei puhu englantia, sanoo, että suomen kielen taitoni paranee pikku hiljaa. Suomalainen mies ei sano niin pelkästä kohteliaisuudesta. En vieläkään ymmärrä, mitä ihmiset sanovat normaalilla nopeudella, mutta olen alkanut puhua paljon enemmän. Viime viikolla puhuin sujuvasti 5 minuutin ajan sairaanhoitajan kanssa.  Hän ei halunnut vaihtaa englantiin. Minusta tuntui kuin olisin siirtänyt vuoren, vaikka itse asiassa ilmoitin vain uuden osoitteen ja lähisukulaiset.

I hope that with vaccinations rolled out, the worst of the pandemic will be soon behind us and I can make serious progress with my Finnish through meeting and interacting with more people. Here’s to a virus-free 2021, in fairness, security and freedom for all of us.

Erika Benke, journalist
born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC.
Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project.









Dark but Safe

Erika Benke

As we go into November, more and more people are telling me how much they’re dreading the dark season. “Snow would make all the difference,” they routinely add.

As I write this there’s no snow in the forecast for at least a week and darkness is taking over at an alarming speed. I couldn’t see much in the forest at half past three in the afternoon today. What a contrast to just two months ago, when I was watching the most beautiful sunsets at Nallikari beach at nine in the evening.

This is my first full winter in the north and I wonder how darkness will affect me. It’s early days but so far the only change is that I’ve got into the habit of making a fire in the living room every evening.

I’m also seeing more friends. It’s a coincidence that November is shaping up to be the most active month in my social calendar since I moved to Finland. But it’s perfect timing: having a good laugh with friends is probably the best antidote to winter gloom.

Sometimes the best laugh comes when things don’t go according to plan. Like at my last dinner party when I was cooking a large joint of beef in the leivinuuni for my guests. Imagine my shock when I found out that one of them was a vegetarian just a few hours before they arrived. To save the day, I quickly shoved a large celeriac in the oven as well, seasoned with walnut oil, tightly wrapped in foil.

“What is this?”, my vegetarian friend asked with a nervous smile, not even trying to disguise her disgust when I served her what looked like a culinary masterpiece. “A celeriac,” I mumbled. “Oh, I see, this is what they normally give to horses,” she concluded. “You know, if I have to choose between this and beef, I’ll go for the beef.” And she did. What not to love about typical Finnish honesty?

Roast beef and fires aside, I appreciate that the start of the dark season will cause more distress to people who’ve lived in Oulu all their lives. One thing I keep telling them is that despite the approaching winter, in the Covid-19 nightmare that’s engulfed Europe, this is the best place to be.

Finland is a safe haven. It’s had fewer infections per 100,000 people in the last 14 days than any other country in Europe. The outbreak is under control. There are some restrictions but schools, restaurants, cafes, libraries, gyms and cinemas are all open. Life goes on pretty much as normal.

I spent yesterday at a university lab interviewing scientists who work on the 6G project. Today I’m going to the opening of an art exhibition in Pikisaari. I’m driving to Ruka to ski on Saturday and I’ll fly to Helsinki in two weeks. I’ll have friends from Turku staying with me in Oulu later in November.

Compare that with France, Germany, Britain and the Czech Republic where non-essential businesses are shut and grandparents can’t see their grandchildren. Movements are limited to buying groceries and medicines, households are not allowed to mix and travel is banned. When my friends in London hear what I’m up to, they go green with envy.

Finland is leading Europe in the fight against Covid-19. It’s a fantastic achievement. The government has made some sensible decisions but at the end of the day this is our success as a community. All of us who live here should be very proud.

When it comes to choosing between a dark, cold but mostly virus-free place and living in fear in a warm, light but very sick country in the south of Europe, it’s no question which one I’ll go for.  Sadly it’s not just me: the people I’m renting my Oulu house from have decided to cut short their Spanish adventure, sending me on a quest for find myself another house with a fireplace and a levinuuni for Christmas.

Erika Benke, journalist
born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC.
Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project.

Forests and bank cards

Erika Benke“What are you doing in Ruka?, I asked the young woman who joined me in the hotel sauna. It was a dark autumn day and a cold drizzle had just started outside. “I’m on my summer holiday”, came the defiant answer.

It turned out that my new friend from Jyväskylä was going to drive to the northernmost part of Lapland the next day to embark on a six-day trek in the wilderness, sleeping in her tent along the way, with no sun in the forecast and maximum daytime temperatures estimated at 3 to 5 degrees.

Our conversation reminded me of the questions my BBC colleagues in London were asking me every time Finland was named as the world’s happiest country in the United Nation’s World Happiness Report. On each occasion in the last three years, I was asked to explain on TV and radio what makes Finns so happy.

I was a regular traveller to Finland at the time but I wasn’t living here so I was always wondering if I got this right. I was mostly talking about low crime rates, equality, welfare and free, high-quality health care and education. I mentioned clean air and beautiful nature too, but only in passing.

I think that was wrong: now that I’ve been living here for almost four months, I’m beginning to be convinced that the key to Finnish people’s happiness is living so close to nature.

With 65% of Finland covered with forest and another 10% by lakes, nature is at everybody’s doorstep. Most people can walk or bike to a stunningly beautiful spot where they can sit and enjoy the silence. Go on a hike, make a fire and cook sausages. Pick blueberries. Jump in an avanto in a frozen lake. There’s so much beauty and fun throughout the year, readily available to all.

It’s not like that in other countries. There’s, of course, beautiful countryside in other parts of the world, too, but not everybody has such an easy access to it.

Before I moved to Oulu, I lived in London for 20 years. Much of the land is southern England is private property, fenced off and carefully guarded. Londoners have to drive for an hour to get to Ashdown Forest – the nearest place where you can get an experience comparable to that of a Finnish forest. But you need to have a car, pay for petrol and parking and you won’t be able to make a fire. And you may sit in a traffic jam on the M25 on your way back home so it’s altogether a more stressful experience.

Everybody can visit public parks in London. The royal parks are free and spectacular. But you share them with hundreds if not thousands of other visitors. Lesser-known parks are quieter, more suitable for quiet reflection. But you’ll never be alone and the hustle and bustle of a big city is always going to be there in the background. London’s green spaces are unlikely to give you the kind of deep clean of the mind that you can get in a Finnish forest.

I think the bond Finnish people have with nature is unique. You go to the forest no matter what the weather is like and find your peace because being in nature heals the soul like nothing else does. Equally importantly, Finnish people’s love of nature cuts across generations and social standing. Almost every Finn I’ve met, young and old, rich and poor, loves doing the same things: pick berries, swim in the lake and ski in the winter. It’s such a powerful shared positive experience. I think it’s a wonderful thing that can truly make a society happy.

And a quick word about security. I’m renting a house in Oulu from a family who’s moved to Spain for a few months. When I told my landlady that she’d received a new bank card in the post, she casually asked me to put it under the pillow on a sofa in the garden. “A friend is coming to visit us in Spain next week; she’ll come to the house to pick it up in a few days.”

Hide a bank card in a garden? In a city? And not expect it to be stolen? Being able to do this without considering it risky says more about community values and happy living than any official statistics.

Erika Benke, journalist
born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC.
Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project.

How I fell in love with Finland

Erika Benke, rannalla

I arrived in Finland after three months of living under strict lockdown in London. Covid-19 was spreading like wildfire in Britain, with hundreds of people dying and thousands of new infections reported every day. The authorities imposed severe restrictions: we were instructed to work from home and we were only allowed to get out of the house to buy food and for what the authorities termed as “essential exercise.” In my case it was a daily 5K run in my local park in south London at six o’ clock in the morning. I went early to avoid people: by seven o’ clock the park was so full of runners, cyclists, dog walkers and babies in pushchairs that it was impossible to keep two meters away from others. Many people didn’t even care which was really annoying. But with nine million people living in London, social distancing would be impossible to maintain even if everybody had the best intentions and observed all the rules – but they didn’t.

I have a small house so living under lockdown quickly became stressful, with days and weeks just blending into one. I was working from home, mostly editing material that I had gathered in Chile and Spain in January and February. I travelled there with Micropolis CEO Leena Vuotovesi who’s in charge of implementing Ii’s ambitious initiatives to tackle climate change. I produced two stories about how tiny little Ii was leading the way in 2019 which captured BBC audiences’ imagination around the world. A lot of people were asking how to get started with a program like Ii’s so my bosses decided to commission a follow-up story which involved taking Leena to two countries at opposite ends of the world where people wanted to learn from Ii. Editing video and audio from these two trips while confined to my bedroom in London 23 hours a day helped quite a bit to cope with the psychological pressures of lockdown.

I’m so lucky to work as a journalist: I meet a lot of people and I get to travel to many places. I’m also a bit of a troublemaker and somehow tend to get into a lot of unexpected adventures. Luckily this meant that my head was full of memories of experiences that I could reflect on when the strain of sitting at home in the spring was getting a bit too much. One of my favourite memories was our trip with Leena to Valparaiso: we started off by walking into tear gas fired by riot police trying to disperse a demonstration. We escaped the tear gas by running back to our car and driving to a beach – only to have our lunch invaded by an innocent-looking but giant pelican that turned up behind Leena’s back. I’ll never forget Leena’s face when she turned after I said to her: “You have a new friend”.

A few hilarious parking and navigation incidents later we were driving back to Santiago in a state where we were laughing hysterically at absolutely everything, including some incomprehensible traffic rules.  Memories like that kept me going in those pretty desperate times in London – until a happy moment when I heard that the authorities decided to allow representatives of the International media to enter Finland.

I booked a ticket and flew to Oulu in the middle of June, rented a car and drove to Ii for two weeks of self-isolation. Now, there’s a huge contrast between London and Ii at the best of times. In Covid-19 times, the contrast was astronomical. In Ii, life was back to normal. Nobody was wearing masks, there were no queues outside supermarkets with people suspiciously scrutinising each other for any symptoms of Covid-19. In Ii, everybody was relaxed: people were not even talking about the pandemic. It was like landing on a different planet.

It was glorious midsummer weather and I was living in a forest. It was intoxicating. I embraced freedom with a vengeance: I did my runs, rode my bike to the river and the seaside to swim. There were very few people: I certainly didn’t have to worry about getting within less than two metres from anyone. Many of the beaches where I went were so remote that I didn’t think twice about swimming naked: there was nobody around for miles and even if someone had spotted me, I knew they wouldn’t have cared. I love how relaxed Finns are about swimming naked. I’m guessing people are used to nudity in the sauna.  Such a far cry from the prudish Victorian instincts of many of my British colleagues. One of them who was travelling with me on a shoot to Finland almost fainted when a friend of mine called to invite me to his sauna at 2130 on a Saturday night. He blushed and said “if anyone in the BBC heard that, you’d be in so much trouble”.

Back to June in Ii, I loved having all that space for myself, and so much clean air to breathe. I felt safe and hugely relieved. I felt like home even though my family was in London. That was a strange thought and I spent quite a bit of time analysing how I could be so happy without my kids. I’m still not sure. I had an insanely busy work schedule in the three years before Covid-19 hit us all and I didn’t take proper holidays. There was a ski trip every year with my daughter and sometimes a few days of holiday time added to my work trips. But I had never had the kind of month-long summer holidays that most Finnish people have. Finally here I was, enjoying an extended break and I was alone, doing what I wanted. No compromises to make, nobody nagging me that they wanted to eat something different. For two weeks, I was living the dream without meeting anyone. It was total bliss despite sharing it with the world’s biggest and most blood-thirsty mosquitoes. Not even in Lapland did I ever come across monsters as vicious as those living in Tangosaari to whom OFF! appears to be just another delicacy.

Mosquitoes aside, having so much space is one of the reasons why I fell in love with Finland, long before Covid-19 started messing with our lives.


Erika Benke, journalist

born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC.
Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project.