This post needs no words …. that we all enjoyed being surrounded by green forests, pristine lakes and wood fired saunas, is an understatement. We loved every precious moment!
Our cousins appeared from everywhere on our first full day at Mikko’s to help prepare the Juhanuus meal and arrange seating for everyone and by 5 pm, the cottage was full of Leppanens … about 40 of us !! ….. had my head spinning with all the introductions …. a challenge trying to remember all the names of the generations that follow mine!
But no problem at all, despite the decades, recognizing our first cousins: Mikko and his twin sister Anna-Maija, Heikki, Lassi, Pekka, Marti, Jukka and Sirkka! They are all the children of my Uncle Kyosti, my father’s younger brother and his wife, Aunt Vieno, both now passed. It was a pleasure to also meet relevant spouses and children … and a few grandchildren for Aliana to mingle with …. just such a fun evening!! …. full of good food and drink, story sharing, revisiting old memories and lots of laughter.
A break in the evening was made to honour and celebrate our cousin Pekka’s 60th birthday …. a shy man apparently loath to be acknowledged …. but his siblings would have none of that! Asta, Lassi’s wife gave Pekka a warmly poignant and funny poetry reading describing the decades of our lives …. I think I have heard it in English at some point but a delight to hear it read in Finnish. This was followed by a group gift certificate presentation from his siblings. He may not have wanted anyone to acknowledge his birthday, but like all Leppanen men, soft in the heart as they are, his tears flowed freely as he was being honoured and he was very touched. I know when we hugged, our tears mingled. That we share the DNA of this awesome arm of the Leppanen family leaves me humbled. ‘My cup runneth over’. We will be meeting more of the other members of the Leppanen family in the days to come.
I know it must have been lonely for my parents in those early years, with no extended family in Canada and I know my own life would have been enriched with time spent around these many many cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, but such is life and I am just as proud today to be a Canadian and all that it entails as I am of my Finnish heritage. They merged well. Finnish sisu lives within us.
Finland is known as the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ during these precious summer months and June 21 being the longest day of the year, the sun sets briefly around midnight, scans the horizon and by 3:00 am, it is light again! We all head to the water’s edge to enjoy the Juhannus bonfire, kept alive until sometime after 5 am, when it is left to flicker out. Everyone appears to make a contribution to the fire …. Aliana threw her little stick in as well, thrilled to be part of the ritual. Margaret and Jennifer stay later with everyone else but Sarah, Aliana and I turn in sometime before 2:00 am. It was the first Juhannus experience I can remember and one I am unlikely to ever forget. A feeling of absolute gratitude fills my heart.
The pictures tell the story …..
Travelling solo so much in recent years, I have developed a rather pronounced meandering way of exploring countries, cultures, cuisines, sites. These slow-mo tendencies had to be abandoned somewhat over the past few weeks …. Windsor, London, Helsinki, Joensuu and finally to settle for five days at cousin Mikko’s kesamokki on the Leppanen homestead lands …. followed by a return to Helsinki and a ferry commute to the medieval city of Tallinn in Estonia for our final two days together! Whew!! Catching my breath now that everyone else has gone home, although must say, am already missing the ‘hallina’ of family around! I remain in Finland for another ten days to …. ummm, explore at my usual leisurely, rather lazy pace …. started with an afternoon nap 🙂
Having my sister Margaret, niece Jennifer, Sarah and Aliana along, has truly been beyond wonderful …. what unmitigated joy to share this journey into our roots, heritage and find out how ‘sisu’, a quality much valued by Finns, also developed in us, so far from the source!
Time for absorbing the experience and reflecting on this amazing time with family …. writing it all down seems to bring clarity to my travels and oh boy, a great resource and aid when memory fails 🙂
We met up with Johanna Lukkari, our cousin Sirkka’s daughter in Helsinki. Helli, another second cousin who lives and works in Helsinki, joined us for lunch on our first afternoon. Johanna is here for a month’s holiday from Los Angeles where she has been in film studies for the past five years. After magician calibre finagling, we all managed to squish into our van amongst the multitude of travel bags, various toddler paraphernalia and drive the six plus hours from Helsinki to Joensuu with Johanna as our guide. The seemingly endless pine green forests, broken up by a scattering of small towns, farms, and the vast watery landscape beyond, fills our senses as we drive along freeways that often merge into two lane country roads. Throughout, it is all framed by a lush wildflower carpet, predominantly deep pink and purple lupin. We arrive at Johanna’s parent’s Sirkka and Mauno’s beautiful home in time for dinner, where their lush gardens were also in full bloom! I am totally in the aaaahing and oooohing mode with all this abundance of natural beauty everywhere!
It had been a full 43 years since Sirkka and I last sat together, sweating in her parent’s sauna, sharing and comparing stories of our lives in Canada and Finland. We were 19 year olds then, just starting out in our adult lives. As though no years had passed at all, we bonded as sisters, discovering once again how similar we really are, not just physically but emotionally as well! We cried at the drop of a hat … the same thoughts and experiences could set off our waterworks simultaneously! Genetics cannot be denied, regardless of a vast ocean between us! Sirkka’s husband Mauno was born in Lapland, Northern Finland, unlike most of the Leppanen family and their spouses who seem to all be from the Central and more Eastern regions of Finland. Mauno is just a delightful man, sharing great stories while we enjoyed a very Karelian style dinner complete with our much coveted piirakaat!! Unfortunately, their twin sons, Sami and Juho were not there but will meet them at Juhannus I would think. Sirkka and Mauno made us feel so welcome on this long overdue visit to our homeland … I tear up at the thought of their gentle kind-hearted graciousness.
Sirkka and Johanna offer to guide us to Mikko’s kesamokki after dinner. It was about a twenty minute drive to the Leppanen homestead lands where our cousins all have cottages built lakeside. Woodsmoke could be seen coming out of the lakeside sauna as we drove up …. a warm welcome indeed! Mikko is there to greet and welcome us to his awesome ‘mokki’ ….. He stayed at another family cottage nearby, freeing his own up for our little troop. Yet another sweet kind generous relative. There is an abundance of them, as we are about to discover.
We arrive in time for the much celebrated Juhannus (Mid Summer’s Eve), the longest day of the year, which is almost as big a celebration in Finland as Christmas! It is a national holiday weekend where most head to their cottages to spend time with family, sweating it up in the requisite wood fired saunas by lakesides, where piers are available for a cool-off in the frigid lakes. Everyone assures us it is usually warmer but the weather has been unseasonably cool this year, the temperature hovering in the low to mid teens with periods of rain. Well, no different from what we are used to in Canada some years 🙂 There were enough sunny warm days mixed in with the cool ones … all good.
Juhanuus was always our parent’s favourite time of year. Finns may be known as a reserved quiet people as a whole, (there is a saying that Finns know silence in two languages :)) … but boy, not a hint of shyness when it comes to stripping down for a sauna … so, with only the tiniest of hesitations, we reacquainted ourselves with this most quintessential of Finnish rituals 🙂 …. the sauna sweat, lake dip/swim and wash!! Young Aliana joined in with zero hesitation and I know she will, as will we all, miss this kind of organic human connection … sitting naked in a sauna, sweating together, washing together, pretty much in the same manner we did with our parents long ago. It is said there are over a million saunas in Finland, most of them by lakeside cottages. That would be one sauna for every five people as the population of Finland hovers at 5.4 million hardy souls.
So started our journey into the heart of our roots … I am totally humbled by the kindness and generosity of our kinfolk and am moved to happy tears at every juncture. A few pictures of our first days …..
A few short years ago, my sisters and I decided a journey to revisit our heritage country, the birthplace of my parents and five of their daughters was long overdue. Only our youngest sister Margaret was born in Ontario! It has been a full 43 years since I was here on a visit with my parents and last walked the well worn paths of the farmland where I was born! It has been 58 years since my parents left their homeland for the wilds of Canada, with five girls ranging in age from 1 to 7 … a harrowing journey, surely!
A plan was set in motion and here we are, en route to that country of a zillion lakes, of the midnight sun, vast spaces of empty forest, home to just over five million Finlanders! Sadly my sister Maija and her daughter were unable to come, but Margaret, her daughter Jennifer, my Sarah and granddaughter Aliana all forged ahead, knowing that if we continue to wait for everyone to come on board, the trip will forever remain on the back burner. First steps, for whatever we take on in life, always seem to hold a special kind of magic and so it was for us.
A detour to Windsor and London to show Jennifer, Margaret and Jordan a touch of England was a spot of fun … Rob joined us for our time here as did Margaret’s son Jordan, on his way to a Scottish holiday …. We all enjoyed our few days here, roaming the streets of Windsor and the royal castle, toasting over Guinness and various other libations 🙂 …. savoured the quintessential British fish and chips by the River Thames, walked the lush gardens of Hyde Park, discovering a hidden treasure for a toddler …. a playground for Aliana to burn off some much needed two year old energy!!
Tomorrow we fly to Helsinki …. an adventure of the heart begins.