Peter Seenan: Reflecting on sauna and sea swimming in winter

This weekend I visited my girlfriend’s family’s country cottage near Loviisa in Southern Finland, where to my surprise I had to smash through lake ice to have a refreshing swim after the sauna.

In Helsinki I’m fortunate to live close to a very affordable winter swimming club (kayak club during the summer months) that I can nip to before or after work. Or sometimes even at lunch for a ‘swift one’. My watering hole, if you like, for a little less than 3 euros a time roughly.

The cost of a winter swimming membership is affordable which means I always have diverse and ordinary company in the sauna and on the exposed walk to the sea. The water stays open thanks to a pump that keeps on chugging away when the sea freezes over; something that doesn’t look set to happen this year.

A woman walks from the sauna to the sea at Helsingin kanoottiklubi.
On grey days, sauna and swimming is a perfect escape. Photograph: Peter Seenan

The windows of the sauna look towards Lauttasaari where the sun sets if it’s decided to turn up for its 9-5. And at this time of year in January, the sun rises late – like a teenager – behind the the rowing stadium built for the 1952 Olympics, which is on the far left of the panorama as you sit inside the sauna or steam off on the terrace.

There are a few simple reasons why I persist with sea swimming at this time of year, when most of sensible disposition give up not long after the schools go back after summer.

We’ve had a miserable winter in Southern Finland but luckily sea swimming isn’t demanding of good conditions. In fact, in the sleet and drizzle of a miserable November day when your options for outdoor activities are somewhat limited, then outdoor swimming comes into its own.

It’s a magical feeling the rain dancing off you as you trudge down to the sea and spring back a minute later full of the energies and quickness of step of a bright summer morning. The combination of waves rolling you about and little water darts tapping your skin as you emerge is a highly sensory and complete experience. With the cold water and the natural elements you become hyper aware of the moment, and your mind is taken far away from the monotony of grey skies and heavy clouds hanging like funereal veils.

On top of that, you’re guaranteed some company – when the easiest thing in the world is to crawl home after work to hide from the cold and dark. Life continues. In autumn last year I met an old Finnish man called Hannu almost every day. He’d leave his walking stick at the head of the wooden path to the sea or leaning against the tattered white tiles of the shower room. And then one day he just stopped coming, old age taking him some hours after one of his regular saunas.

Another reason for coming is the overwhelming sensation of tracing in the finest detail the changes of the seasons and throwing yourself into the scene, like a viewer stepping into a film.

Being an outdoor swimmer forces you to go outside when you don’t fancy it, and fairly frequently I feel that I’m stepping out my comfort zone. With that comes the chance to feel very close to seasonal changes in light and air, and in the sounds and smells of autumn and then winter. Being more aware of the natural world and my place in it allows me to more easily cope with the darkness and mundanity of autumn and see subtle differences where before I just saw monotony.

A letter to the sea

I’m guilty of being a romantic; intrigued by and longing for the next bend in the road, the brow of a hill, the dunes beyond the headland and the lands at the end of the horizon. Of all that there is to explore in the world.

I’m enchanted by the possibilities of daybreak and the closing of light at the end of the day. I wonder what’s out there, what lands there are to marvel at, what people to learn from. What day will bring, what will be of night.

When I was a young boy I would listen to trains in the night thudding along the tracks near to my grandparents’ house in Durham on their journey the length of Britain. I’d imagine their precious mysterious cargo going to places and people whose names were unknown, unheard of and unpronounceable.

I’ve always wondered about the elusive, the other, the out there, the unattainable, the mysteries of the world, the then but not the now, the now of then, but not the now of now. But it means I can sometimes miss the moment.

Enter open water swimming, something I’ve done forever but whose impact I really feel as an adult.

At this time of year the water temperature at Hietaniemen ranta, a beach near my house in Helsinki, drops below 10 degrees.

I was there the other night swimming through photographs at sunset.

You watch your hand glide through the clear water, feel the silk of the water wrapping every pore, the chill gradually turning to raw heat on your skin.

When you’re seeking the undiscovered and the unknown, the untouchable and all the things that are great and powerful in the world, swimming in the sea at this time of year is your friend. You feel all those things.

After immersing yourself and breathing slowly you notice you’re in control; it’s an immediate feeling.

Emerging from the water there is overwhelming ecstasy, as the blood rushes back to your extremities. At that moment I feel that I can accomplish anything and every whisper from fluttering birch bark or shimmer of a leaf is so many more times intense than before going in.

Every sense is intensified and the colours of nature are more vivid and beautiful than ever before. I want to stroke the wispy bark of an old birch and play with the leaves between my fingers.

Every ripple on the sea’s surface is a silver thread in an intricate tapestry and every reflection is a door to the soul. A soul that has just been fulfilled by swimming.

Swimming for 15 minutes at this time of year in the sea feels like fully immersing yourself in something that is the other, in the great mysteries of the depth, the unknowable. The sea is the goods train in the night, a stranger’s flickering candle on an ashen grey Sunday. It’s the icebreaker on the horizon and the deserted bothie on Scotland’s west coast.

Swimming in the cold takes me out of my own head from what might be to what is now. Instead of contemplating what is out there – the beauty and endless possibilities of an unvisited land – there now grabs you in a cold but very tender embrace.

The sea she is not jagged or pointy, the hug is total and at once, like the embrace of a mother.

In the water you become part of that evasive unattainable other. You feel the might and the maybe. And the tomorrow becomes the today.

Swimming takes me far away from myself; from my own thoughts to just breathing, being, watching, listening. Feeling small and immersed by something mighty is a good way to put things in perspective.

It’s not just the sea, it’s the vast sky and the geese in autumn flight that remind you of your place in the world and your impermanence, your insignificance and the beauty and power of nature. A feeling I’m always chasing.

I feel like I’m emptying myself into the water and the water is numbing my urges and my longing for something more. It is so intense and encompassing that I can only think of the feeling of now. So overwhelming and full that I feel like I don’t need more. It’s the drug I’ve been longing for.

The cold water washes off the yearnings of my nature and places me in the painting I want to explore.

The beginning of the line for the mindfulness industry

You might have read the story last week about the enterprising Japanese commuter who sold his seat on one of Tokyo’s notoriously crowded trains. Every morning he begins his journey from the outer metropolitan area of the world’s largest city, meaning he is one of the very lucky ones frequently guaranteed a seat.

As we know, the world’s population is increasingly urban. Overpopulation and inadequate infrastructure make for horrible commutes, associated with increased risk of health problems, including anxiety, depression and psychosis.

If you’re commuting in Finland you get off very lightly.

Daily life in Tokyo looks like these photographs from Michael Wolf’s compression series but it’s a global phenomenon, so it’s not surprising to hear that last year Apple named mental wellness and mindfulness apps the number 1 global app trend.

These poor blighters in Japan are some of the prime targets of an industry which has far outstripped global economic growth in recent years, now said to be worth $4.2 trillion.

A lot has been written about McMindfulness and the false idea it spreads that you can manage the life as you currently live it if only you search inside to centre yourself in the present. Imagine being ‘present’ on a Tokyo commute, perhaps mulling over what it feels like to chew mindfully on a raisin.

The truth is that instead of staring into an app looking for calm as you’re rammed headfirst into a sweat-soaked carriage you’d be better trying to identify the external factors that make life so difficult and try to change your environment.

Of course, that’s a big challenge if your livelihood depends on your commute, but at least the Japanese have forest bathing whose practioners recognise the mental health costs of cheek-to-jowl urban living and a culture of long working hours.

Forest bathing, which is really about being passive in nature – or going to a forest with the fixed purpose of wandering without a fixed purpose – has been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. A chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, was found to help the immune system.

And there are plenty of other actions that provide significant health benefits more inexpensively than a monthly wellness app subscription and much less screen time.

Research reported last week in the Guardian suggests that spending as little as 2 hours a week in nature has enormous health benefits, shown in how likely people are to report good health and life satisfaction.

Of those who spent little or no time in nature, a quarter reported poor health and almost half said they were not satisfied with their life. In contrast, just one-seventh of those who spent at least two hours in nature said their health was poor, while a third were not satisfied with their life.

Significantly, for people with limited access to nature nearby, the research found that it did not matter whether the two hours were spent in an urban park, beach, or woodlands.

Another piece of research from King’s College London published last year in BioScience showed that seeing trees, the sky and hearing birdsong in cities provided immediate and time-lasting mental wellbeing benefits.

We’re a country of well over half a million summer residences and surrounded by trees but it’s easy to get sucked in by your phone and forget the beautiful natural sights that surround us. Instead of planting my face into a mindfulness app or another self-mastery article I should spend more time looking out the window, or just go outside and walk with no fixed purpose.

Peter Seenan | Why did you come to Finland?

One of the most common questions Finns ask me is “why did you come to Finland?”

Other foreigners ask too, for that matter.

I like to think the question isn’t so much a subtle implication that I might wish to leave as a throbbing curiosity about what makes anyone move to Finland. Many would consider Finland a strange choice, especially given how often we hear how foreigners’ lives are a struggle here.

I first came here on Erasmus exchange in September 2004 to study – weirdly many think – Finnish politics and from then on I was hooked by Finland. 

No one else from the University of Edinburgh was coming to Helsinki that autumn and I liked the idea of being something of a lone wolf. Edinburgh tutors looked at me weirdly, as if I was taking a backward step.

After the end of Erasmus I lived all over the world – including far less bleak and cold climes, like Brazil – but I loved Finland even after my initial Erasmus infatuation had passed and I was always looking for ways to come back because the country seemed to suit my values and outlook. Back then it seemed like an impossible and very unrealistic dream without knowing Finnish, but the country has changed dramatically since then. 

I love Finland for its unfaltering commitment to the life part of a work-life balance (seen, for example through generous paternity provisions) and I enjoy living in Helsinki because of its diminutive capital city size.

Looking back, 21-year-old me would have been surprised to learn that one day I would ice-swim two or three times a week, head to the sauna like I was catching a bus and become a huge fan of an archipelago-inspired sport called swimrun, even travelling to our Nordic neighbours to take part.  

I still remember my first sauna with a big mix of Finns and foreigners a month or so into my Erasmus experience in 2004.

It was strange and very special at once. At the start of autumn we travelled to a fellow student’s old country house – it felt modest despite being quite a grand place  – and we caught fish and cooked it on an open fire, jumped into the lake, sang naked in the sauna and crawled around on a forest floor looking for mushrooms.

I remember thinking to myself that I’d never have imagined that collecting mushrooms would be be such a communal ‘thing’ and it was then that I started to realise what Finland was all about: taking pleasure in the simple things, slowing down, enjoying nature’s jewels and being grateful for your surroundings. What society so badly needs these days. 

Essentially, it’s the feeling of being free to enjoy doing nothing without a drop of FOMO.

Ice swimming: fear and discomfort then elation

In one of my first jobs in Finland people laughed at me when I told them ice swimming was one of my hobbies. ”It’s for old people”, they chortled. Over the years Finns have looked at me shocked and exclaimed that I’m more Finnish than them.

A couple of years ago the BBC ran an article suggesting that sauna is the Finnish equivalent of the British pub. It’s true for me. These days I don’t spend nearly as much time in the pub in Finland as I did in the UK, but I’d say that sauna and ice swimming is the full alternative.

When I was an Erasmus student here, I wasn’t in the pub because it was prohibitively expensive. But for a handful of years now I’ve been at home in the ice-cold water after work and on weekends. I get a lot of the same social benefits of a pub, but with an adrenaline rush and elation (and no after-effects) that a pub simply can’t provide.

I always think ice-swimming is a little bit like task management; confronting a critical to-do item head on and later reaping the mind-clearing benefits of having tackled what weighed most heavily.

Like the walk that you must make gingerly from sauna to end of pier – feet sticking fast with every tread, there’s a fear and sense of reckoning, but once you’re done you stand there and feel anything is possible, as if no challenge is too great.

Ice-swimming is one way I break the winter darkness and it helps me feel closer to nature, riding with her as we creep through winds and across treacherous ice to the more humane pastures of spring.

Peter Seenan: Hietaniemi cemetery is my local escape from Christmas mania

In the shops people rush around frantically snatching products off shelves like rationing is about to begin and at Alko, I see a hobbling bent old lady suddenly stand arrow-like to wrestle a 24-pack of beer into her trolley.

Awful covers of once meaningful songs rattle off temporary walls, a not subtle reminder from retailers to continue shopping; to celebrate the opportunity to gift someone you love with yet more unneeded stuff.

In offices there’s panic as if things that don’t get done by the holiday will be forever left undone, their futility exposed by a snap arbitrary deadline imposed from above.

The trams that screech up Mannerheimintie are packed. People sit squashed against the tram walls drowning under their own bags. They grimace, but stare silently into their phones scrolling and scrolling.

Welcome to the final shopping days before Christmas, when we’re drawn out of the darkness by the gaudy brightness of shop displays like unsentinent moths flapping wildly around a lightbulb.

Like the day before half a dozen flag days, it feels as if madness has gripped Finland.

Shoppers stuff products of no utility into baskets thinking of the hilarity that will greet their unwrapping and anticipate a rush, which will turn out to be as fleeting and easily forgotten as a tobacco buzz at a drunken Pikkujoulu party.

But long after the laughter that greets the unveiling of the inflatable flamingo beer can holder dies down and the banter points expire we will still be paying for those cheap laughs.

inflatable flamingo drink holder

According to researcher Annie Leonard, 99% of everything for sale in North America will be dispatched to landfill within 6 months because it’s designed to break or has no utility in the first place.

That electric bug vacuum, the mini USB-powered fish tank, the iPhone case that smells of watermelon will be fast-tracked to a rubbish tip, after eliciting perhaps a giggle, a thanks or one or two uses before it fails or is forgotten about.

But there’s an alternative to this brain-shredding Yuletide consumption. A place. Somewhere I like to wander and catch my breath, particularly at this time of year. And it doesn’t cost anything.

If you politely elbow your way off the tram at Hesperianpuisto and walk to the far end of the street, following the light like some men in a time gone by, you’ll come to Hietaniemi cemetery

Perched above Hietaniemi beach and guarded by tall trees that feel like an ancient company of silent watchmen, Hietaniemi cemetery is a perfect antidote to the noise and pressure of manufactured consumerism and a serene place during the ten months of the year when you’re not tripping over baubles.

It twinkles into life each year on All Saints Day, not long after the clocks go back, as the long shadows of autumn make way for the darkness of winter and the leaves blow in. People congregate again on Independence Day to lay candles on the graves of relatives and the war dead, and some families return on Christmas Eve to reflect and remember before sitting down to celebrate Christmas together.

On these occasions it can feel in as much demand as Stockmann department store, but nature’s free and beautiful gifts stand in sharp contrast with the continued destruction of the natural world that powers our consumer society.

I’d recommend visiting Hietaniemi cemetery on a winter day as part of a walk that takes in the stretch of path flanking Cafe Regatta, via the crunchy sands of Hietaniemi beach as I find myself doing today. There aren’t the used needles and empty lager cans you will find in other city graveyards, nor the graffitied gravestones.

Gravestones and trees covered in snow at Hietaniemi cemetery

Trees whisper old memories, grass shivers in the breeze. A fading light cracks a slight pink smile above Seurasaari. You’ll find time for yourself.

The cemetery grows in importance for me at this time of year when it’s too cold to walk far from my home in Töölö and I feel I need to switch off from the world around me. Mindfulness, if you will. Or the polar opposite of retail therapy. 

I’ll roll down here after a big Sunday lunch for the last drops of daylight and the kind of refreshing breeze that makes me feel alive and ready for the week ahead. Sometimes I’ll go for an ice swim and sauna afterwards in an unassuming place nearby. Hietaniemi blows away the cobwebs gathered from too much time spent indoors or hunched over a laptop.

I don’t much like November and December in Helsinki, but Hietaniemi cemetery I like in the cold months of winter when walls of darkness press in hard on every side and I’m seeking a glimpse of sunlight, even if it’s just to watch it disappear over the horizon.

Here, everything has taken its place over hundreds of years. The people lie still, it’s serene, and the continuity in a world of constant change provides a sense of certainty and freedom to pursue your own path.

It’s also a retreat from social media with its faux outrage, mob politics and constant interruptions. A world of Trump and permanent uncertainty caused by human-made destruction of the planet. Of online rage and public humiliation available at your fingertips every second, of bad news you’re impotent to solve.

At Hietaniemi my mind is instantly cleared of ugly Christmas earworms and jarring musical homages to a little donkey whose purpose no one cares to remember.

In the end we lie beside our enemies and friends and nothing much will change that. No matter what you achieve or don’t achieve, no matter the gifts you buy or don’t buy, you’re still going to end up in the ground like most other people in this land, and I find this way of thinking is liberating.

At Hietaniemi cemetery, the words of the Scottish author, Richard Holloway are never far from my mind:

‘And the years blow away like leaves in the wind.’

It’s a tender and pragmatic reminder of the transitory nature of life and in a year during which I lost my Grandmother it reminds me to more carefully choose how I spend my time, especially at Christmas.  

It’s easier than ever to manage without Finnish in Helsinki

It’s Friday morning. I use Google Maps in English to check which number seventy bus I’ll take from Töölö to Viikki to get me there by eight. I board the bus and present a ticket I’ve bought on Whim, a Finnish travel app which is available in English.

At Prisma in Viikki I visit a self-service checkout with at least four languages to choose from – and I acknowledge the staff member who hangs near the scanners a bit aimlessly with what is probably quite an underwhelming “kiitos”.

A short while later I unlock my phone and choose Google and Whim to frictionlessly get me back to the centre from where I will flag down the Finnair bus. The bus pulls up, but I don’t need to say anything to the driver; I just scan the electronic ticket I’ve bought on the web pages of Pohjolan Liikenne and that’s it.

25 minutes later I’m at the Finnair offices next to the airport. The coffee machine gives me a choice of languages and I decide I am up to the challenge of selecting a Finnish flag. While I’m waiting, its little screen serves up a film shot during Finnish summer time in the city, which features a lot of rain – but that’s another story.

A short while after that I go for lunch with an Estonian, Chinese and Swedish-speaking Finn.

I present my credit card at a contactless payment terminal and a second later I’m greeted with “have a nice day to you” by the kind, warm-faced Finnish lady who’s always in the canteen and who always wishes me on my way with those well-meaning words.

At lunch, the four of us speak English, then I go back to my desk to write stories in English for Finnair and speak to my colleagues in English, which is Finnair’s workplace language.

As the late afternoon sun sets red over the trees I book a Matkahuolto bus ticket on their website in English and set out for Porvoo. There I visit a K-Market and speak to no one, except for a lady who is handing out free chocolates. I weigh and barcode my own veg, visit a self-service checkout and leave.

From Porvoo we drive beyond Loviisa chatting away in English with my girlfriend, past a petrol station where on other Fridays we’ll be pumping our own fuel, then finally after speaking almost no Finnish all day a cottage neighbour pops round and cheerily starts a conversation about the water temperature, her dog and a hundred other things.

In the middle of nowhere, closer to the Russian border than Helsinki, I finally get the feeling of getting inside the skin of Finland.

Friday was a day like any other, but what came starkly into focus when I was reflecting later was the fact there wasn’t one moment where I needed to know Finnish to accomplish what I’d set out to do, despite all the things I’d done and places I’d been that day.

I breezed through the day uttering fewer than a handful of words in Finnish, until I arrived in the middle of nowhere. The previous seven years in Finland might as well have not happened, I thought, because I had needed as much Finnish as I spoke the day I arrived.

I work in an international company, yes, but this privilege is only a small part of the reason I didn’t need Finnish last Friday and won’t need it for many of the other mundanities of ordinary life to come.  

A Dane I was talking to the other night is a cleaner at St. George’s Hotel in Helsinki and she faces the same experience. She speaks English with her colleagues and she has the same access to automated checkouts, Whim, and self-operated ticket machines as me. Automation and service in English is widespread in the capital region and as technology replaces what were previously jobs for humans, it will become even less necessary to know Finnish to navigate regular life comfortably in Helsinki. 

During the weekend I was preparing to publish the story of a Tanzanian woman called Emma who has lived in Finland for twenty years and she had expressed a similar point when she spoke to me at the start of this year. One of the things that exercises Emma most is when she hears other immigrants bitterly complaining that “everything is in Finnish.” “I just feel like saying that they should have come 15 years earlier,” she says.

Of course there are many other more complicated things that one has to manage in Finnish – and it has profoundly benefitted me to have Finnish friends to help – but because of the creep of automation and the widespread rise of so-called “shadow work” (what I’d been doing on Friday, like scanning my own goods) there is the possibility to make life easier for newly arrived immigrants and visitors.

Shadow work is driven by technological advancements and clearly there are benefits; not least the speed and the autonomy it provides. But removing human interactions certainly has its downsides – and I don’t just mean the way shadow work turns us into our own checkout operators, our own travel agents, our own accountants, our own secretaries and our own waiters, paradoxically making us feel both busier and freer at the same time.

For some people the chance to do all this themselves will be a relief, while for others – particularly older people – all this automation might remove valuable social interaction. For opponents of shadow work it represents a socially-isolating erosion of daily interactions; interactions that glue us together and create bonds, however small, incidental, fleeting or insignificant they might feel at the time.

One of the most interesting stories relating to this discussion that I’ve come across in Finland features Matthew, an English tech developer who was once invited onto Yle radio to talk about some badges he made.

Matthew was both the beneficiary and victim of the polite willingness of Finnish shop staff to switch to English if they thought it could help. But he saw a social interaction at a checkout as an opportunity to use his Finnish, not as unnecessary friction that technology should help eradicate.

“I found that many times I would be talking to someone, for example, at work or in a shop. I would try to use the level of Finnish I knew and it would only take me to hesitate or pause, or even just be speaking Finnish with a slightly British accent, and that was enough for them to switch to English. I understand why they thought that was polite from their side. But what people maybe were not able to see in that moment was that I was trying to speak Finnish because I wanted to practice, not because I thought I had to.”

To try to stop well-intentioned shop staff switching to English and increasing conversations in Finnish as he went about his daily business, Matthew made badges that read “Opettelen suomea”. He wore his badges on different items of clothing and his idea caught on with Finnish teachers who bought his spares to give to their students.

I’m in Matthew’s camp on this one. As much as I’m sure the self-help checkout speeds up my shop, I wonder what I’m in such a hurry for. So I can have a silent, soulless interaction with the next machine?

Finland shocks

I was recently asked the question, what was your biggest culture shock going to Finland for the first time?

I arrived in 2011 to settle in Helsinki having lived for almost a year in Finland during my Erasmus exchange in 2004.

Things had changed a lot in 7 years, but looking back this is what I think shocked or surprised me the most when I first arrived and again 7 years later when I came to settle:

Nakedness. I’m naked in public for probably about 3 hours per week in Finland compared to perhaps zero minutes per year back home. For a long time I was a member of Yrjönkatu swimming pool, perhaps one of the most beautiful swim halls in the country – and one with a naked dress code.

A national dish drying system that doesn’t involve sodden cloths and hours of input.

Dishes which are put away only after having been rinsed of soapy water. Simply unheard of madness in the eyes of many a Brit.

That when the dress code to some event says “suit” that can also mean “tracksuit” – and frequently does.

Taps that mix hot and cold water. It’s an unfamiliar feeling to be neither scalded nor instantly frost-bitten while going about the simple business of washing your hands.

Houses and apartments that aren’t cold all year round in all weathers. Under-floor heating was another revelation which pretty much blew my mind and in fact I have spent a lot of time lying on warm floors.

Saunas in apartments.

Saunas in apartment blocks.

Saunas in tents.

Free saunas on public beaches. You get the picture; saunas are everywhere.

Saunas have nothing to do with sex and in many ways they’re holier places than churches for lots of Finns. Certainly better attended.

That there are people who are willing to eat liquorice.

That smashing up bus shelters hasn’t yet caught on with the youth of Finland. They’ll learn.

The fact that you can’t buy paracetamol in a supermarket or any strong alcohol. Makes for a difficult hangover for the unprepared.

That friends get undressed together and go naked to the sauna. It happened last weekend and it reminded me how much I love this country because – and I quote – “literally no one gives a shit what you look like.”

That picking mushrooms and crawling round on the forest floor is a thing here and is also an activity to fill an entire weekend.

That silence is a virtue. Finns don’t care for following global social norms and I think that’s utterly admirable. Knowing how and when to be silent is as much a skill as knowing how to be an entertainer.

That in Finland it hasn’t been necessary to lean on family, friends or connections to survive, like in less meritocratic UK. Far from being a “nanny state” making people lazy, as some would like to see it, I think Finland enables you to get on with the bigger stuff while the state takes care of the basics.

Workplace canteens often serve excellent food.

The sheer number of flag days. The world seems to think Finns are miserable but Finns are always celebrating something with a flag.

That people and services can function when it’s 25 degrees minus. Wet leaves don’t seem to have the same crippling effect on train travel as they have in the UK.

How much contentment there is in very simple things – one reason I came back to live here. Finland feels like the perfect antedote to the modern world.

She walked out of Tom of Finland feeling sick

A couple of years ago a close friend of mine attended the Tom of Finland exhibition at Taidehalli with her colleagues. One, a married mother, left in disgust explaining that she’d been made to feel physically sick.

I was reminded of this story while watching an outstanding documentary about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and revolutionary work this week on YLE Areena. His imagery has also appeared in Helsinki, at Kiasma.

Mapplethorpe faced severe criticism in his time because of the subject matter he depicted through his lense. It was shocking for many to see intimacy, particularly homosexual sexuality, brought from the bedroom into the art gallery.

There’s a scene in the film where labourers working near an underground club regularly acquainted by Mapplethorpe decry the vulgarity and depravity and the mental sickness this gay hangout visits upon the neighbourhood. Mapplethorpe’s work is somehow seen as an extension of that immorality.

The documentary, like Mapplethorpe’s life, is full of enraged men screaming that his work should be banished and holding protests at art galleries, explaining why someone else’s sexuality and intimacy is wrong.

I wondered what their reactions would have been if every beautifully composed photograph of a black penis was substituted with a vagina or pair of breasts, the lines of a flower used to evoke a woman’s back instead.

And it reminded me of my friend’s colleague’s reaction to Tom of Finland, just as offended in 2016 by the sight of a sketched, almost comically exaggerated penis in an art gallery. But a reaction to what? To one’s own intolerance certainly.

So much of Mapplethorpe’s work was simple and powerful, showing what we all know to be human. Intimacy, sexuality, love, nudity, arousal. He celebrated homosexuality and sent a powerful message to those who wanted to pretend homosexuality didn’t exist.

Hearing about my friend’s colleague’s reaction to Tom of Finland annoyed me enormously because essentially she was repulsed by the depiction of someone else’s sexuality; a sexuality that is as worthy and right as her own. But her reaction also pleased me because she’d been forced to recognise a reality even though it wasn’t her own.

With Helsinki Pride upon us it’s a good time to remember the people and movements that have faced down intolerance, standing up to those who seek to control other people’s bodies, thoughts and sexuality.

Peter Seenan: I found a eulogy to my grandfather written 10 years after his death

It’s strange the feeling when the office suddenly empties. Today it was apparent at half past three. There’s the distinctive staccato of laptops being hurriedly closed in thuds and claps and then in an instant a wasteland of empty desks. I don’t work in a factory where all eyes are on the clock. This is Finland and the sun is shining. There’s the faint sense that there’s something not to be missed outside.

The birch trees glisten like an attentive army of recently washed Dalmatians and you can smell the earth waking up from its deep, deep sleep. In the winter it feels like people are in no rush to leave. What’s the point they say silently? It’s dark and freezing and that’s not going to change if I go home. But now it’s different; as the days lengthen the workdays shorten minute by minute.

One evening last week the office had emptied in a heartbeat as if someone outside was giving away free buckets (it’s become apparent that this is a thing in Finland) and I was in the last throes of work, when some spark of nostalgia inspired me to google my grandfather, a phrase I never could have used when he was alive.

Grandpa died in 2005 in Durham, England, when I’d just finished a year of Erasmus in Helsinki and I was living in Pretoria, South Africa, getting work experience at the United Nations.

He lived at a time when an internet presence wasn’t in the public conscience and in the days when my dad would still send text messages to our house phone confusing “LOL” to mean lots of love. “Did you hear the neighbour’s cat died? LOL, Dad.” In Helsinki and later Pretoria I’d print my photos and write a description on each one before sending them to my grandparents in Durham.

In my mind I can’t imagine it’s been that long since I googled my grandfather. I often search for old university friends with whom I’ve lost touch but warmly admire from a distance. When you sit at a computer screen for 8 hours a day, searching for people you care about is routine. Have they published something, how was their musical festival reviewed, what have they to say about President Lula’s imprisonment.

But then again, my grandpa stopped speaking publicly in 2005 and his peers who were in their eighties when he died would be reaching one hundred years old by now. So although it felt like I’d never stopped looking for him, I’d probably stopped looking for him online at least 5 years ago.

But there were his students.

Typing your grandpa’s full name into Google is a strange feeling. It somehow formalises the relationship, in the same strange way you unformalise your relationship with school teachers after you leave, calling them Evelyn or Jim later in life. To me he was just “Grandpa” but to Google he has a title, two Christian names which I rarely heard as a boy, and a surname. He also belonged to a college at Durham University, St Chad’s and he earlier studied at Oxford.

As the search engine returned a result I’d never seen before I was struck with excitement. 10 years after grandpa’s death a student had written a moving tribute to him, comparing his companionship and wisdom to candles in the dim light of winter.

“He was very popular with the students, since he had a fine sense of humour, was extremely kind, very patient and gave wise advice when it was sought. He didn’t ever alter his convictions in search of popularity. Sometimes we neglect the wisdom that may come with age and we do so to our great detriment.”

These days we’re conditioned to think that data can tell us everything, that data is our guide, our sage, our wise old man.

And to someone analysing the stats on this eulogy to my grandpa my visit would be nothing more than what’s called a ‘bounce’ in web analytics. It means I read one page and left, which is the last thing you want from a website visitor.

What they wouldn’t know is that the visitor is the old man’s grandson sitting far away in Helsinki and this tribute has just brought my grandfather back to life for a wonderful moment.

That day was Maundy Thursday and Good Friday felt a little more good knowing there was one person in this world who had felt the need to write about my grandfather 10 years after his death.

Maybe we – with the wisdom of years – should instinctively know to say thank you to those we have loved and cherished, without waiting for it to be proven to us that it’s the right thing to do. Because there’s probably another grandson or granddaughter out there searching.

Thank you Michael.