Strange as it may seem with all this forest and lake at our disposal, Finland is trickier than we thought it would be to find a quiet little carpark to hide away for the night. We really are going to have to buy a Finnish road atlas only the last one we saw was €40!
Wandering past a bookshop I noticed a pile of road atlases. Ooh look, only €18! When I asked the smiley lady behind the counter why it wasn’t €40, she pointed out that it was last year’s edition. “Oh, what’s the difference?”, I asked. She flicked through my new-found bargain with a slight frown, closed it, looked at the cover, paused then looked at me and said “I think it’s the cover”.
So off we go down the road and into the forest with confidence, looking for the ‘swimming places’ marked in last year’s tiekartasto (a baffling looking word for road atlas but there is a familiar bit in there – kart. Think cartography). Swimming places are sure to have a nice little carpark overlooking water.
Many kilometres later we were on a pot-holed and rippled gravel track, really only suitable for a rally car piloted by Jari-Matti Latvala. That is a name I have been desperate to drop into conversation about Finland, because it just sounds so cool. It also has to be said that, before I got my head around ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, the only Finnish I knew was Jari-Matti Latvala, Tomi Mäkinen and Mika Häkkinen. Embarassing really.
Well, back to the gravel track. After many kilometres past little lanes that all looked a bit narrow and a bit private with no signs hinting at ‘swimming place’, we started to wonder if our tiekartasto was more ‘art’ than ‘kart’. After one aborted attempt involving a 4-point turn up a steep drive with a deep ditch behind us, we decided to dispatch a reconnaissance team before heading down the next lane.
“This lane must be it – it has a skip and a recycling bin!” So off goes the reconnaissance team into the forest. When I say team, that’s me. To save time, I like to run. One of my lady companions doesn’t really do that sort of thing and the other is sadly now too old to keep up. Whilst running through this dark and beautiful forest, without my trusty little take-on-anything hound at my side, crazy thoughts started entering my head. This looks like bear country. What if 700kg of angry elk comes crashing through the undergrowth? Amazingly, I survived to the end of the lane where I found a little clearing beside a lake, with an old motorhome tucked in one corner and plenty of space for us.
We parked a polite distance from the other van and settled in for a peaceful evening with yet another million pound view for the price of an old Hymer. Enjoying the sound of the wind in the trees all around us and good data signal (how do the Finns have lots of forest and good data signal everywhere?), I started some work.
“Hello, what’s this?” A car comes down the lane and parks next to the other motorhome, followed by another. “Oh no, it’s going to be an all night booze-up in the forest isn’t it?”, says S. To reassure her and calm the situation, I suggested that it might be Russian mafia making a drop. We’ll be murdered as witnesses. Then a van and a flat-bed truck with a crane appeared. What? This is looking serious.
Panic over. They are putting on sports gear and heading off to another clearing we hadn’t noticed before. We could hear the odd bap-bap and could see a round ball bouncing above the undergrowth. What are these crazy Finns doing in the forest with a round ball? Football against trees? Giant mosquito culling in the style of a penalty shoot-out? Work forgotten, I had to investigate.
It turns out they weren’t Russian mafia and it wasn’t football. They were playing volleyball. I watched for a few minutes and then asked why they weren’t at the Olympics. The answer was “why don’t you play?”. OK, brilliant. I miss my Tuesday night football, so why not? I haven’t played volleyball since I was in school, can’t remember the rules and I can only say ‘thank you’ and ‘Jari-Matti Latvala’ in Finnish, but no matter, I’ll just fling my arms around, make some impressive dives and run around like a maniac to look busy. Much how I play football.
After many embarrassing ‘saves’ with the ball zinging off into the forest, I got it together and some of my serves even made it over the net! As usual in social sport, there was plenty of humour. When one of my shots went amusingly parallel to the next rather than in the direction of the opposition, one of my team mates nodded and said “It was the wind”, as if agreeing with an excuse I hadn’t yet made.
Thanks to my aches, I’ve been reminded what good exercise and what a great game volleyball is. I’ve also been reminded that sport is a great unifier. I wouldn’t have spoken to these 5 blokes, yet just by hitting a ball over a net (sometimes) for an hour, we’ve made jokes about pumping the ball, had a chat about the wonder of Finnish telecommunications and, by repetition, I can now definitely remember the Finnish for ‘sorry’.