In the Land of the Midnight Sun,
at the Peak of Summer


The Statue of Three Blacksmiths in Helsinki. Sculpted by Felix Nylund, it was given to the city as a gift, in 1932, by the Pro Helsingfors Foundation. According to a story the Finns enjoy telling visitors, the blacksmiths strike the anvil with their hammers whenever a virgin walks past the statue. The author, seeing no such action when a few teenage girls passed by, asked his Finnish friend, “Why aren’t the blacksmiths striking now? Do you mean to say that not one of those girls is a virgin?”

July 19, 2009—Sunday
When I met Martine and her mother in Berlin in the summer of 2008, I had told them about a desire I had been nurturing for some time: to experience what it is like being in Finland at the heights of summer and winter. Finland being part of the Land of the Midnight Sun, its summer nights are very, very short. In the Lapland area of the country, it is virtual day all twenty-four hours. The sun may disappear briefly at what the clock says is midnight, but the sunlight lingers. In winter, on the other hand, one rarely sees the sun. It is grayish even at noon.

“For you two, this phenomenon may be a reality of life,” I had told Martine and her mother. “For me, it’s only bookish knowledge. One day, before I kick the bucket, I want to make it a real-life experience.”

“You must,” the mother had said. “Whether there is sun or not, people go about doing their things, as in any other part of the world. We want you to find it out for yourself.”

A year later, while wandering around Helsinki on this sunny Sunday in July, I said to Martine, “Remember what I had told you and Mom last year? About my wanting to be in Finland at the peaks of summer and winter?”

“Yes, I remember,” she replied.

“Right now, I am fulfilling the first part of my wish. I don’t know when I am going to do the second part. Be prepared for the boredom you will have to suffer when it happens.”

“You can come here any number of times, in any season. As long as I am here, you will have a friend to go around with.”

I was touched by Martine’s response.

There was one more thing about Martine that left a deep impression on me. A Finnish Lutheran, she was married to a Moroccan Muslim. There is nothing special about that, one may say. But there was more to that relationship.
An Unusual Love Story

Martine was a college graduate who knew five languages. The man she married was a high school dropout. His mother tongue was Arabic. When they met, he spoke no Finnish but knew a little French, which Martine was fluent in. At the time they met, he was making a living as an undocumented manual laborer in Helsinki. She was a graduate student majoring in graphic design.

When she told her college buddies that she was going to marry this guy, they thought she was crazy. “What do you see in him?” some of them had asked her. She told them all to get lost.

I had patted Martine on her back when she narrated her love story while in Berlin. Her Muslim husband also had won my admiration when she told me that not once had he, or anyone from his family, asked her to convert to Islam. Since they met, she had visited his family in Morocco twice.

I had been looking forward to meeting him, and was disappointed when Martine said that he couldn’t join us. “He has to work,” she said. “He is painting somebody’s apartment. He had promised the apartment owner that he would complete it today. His work ethic is another thing that I admire in him.”

“Please tell your husband that I admire it, too,” I told Martine. “Let him know that I am anxious to meet him one day.”

I had not told Martine, but she knew it: that her being in Helsinki was the second reason why I put the city on my itinerary this time. (The first was my obsession mentioned above.) She had decided to do everything she could to make my three days in the city as comfortable as possible.

“You are lucky that both yesterday and today happened to be unusually sunny,” she said. “Unusual for Helsinki, I mean. It was raining all last week.”

“Pardon my sounding conceited,” I replied. “The sunny days have something to do with my arrival. Will I be boring you if I continue?”

“I will tell you when you do,” she said. “Please continue.”

“In my mother tongue, the word Prabhakaran means one who creates light. It’s a synonym for the sun. The sun is one of the gods in Hindu mythology.”

She gave me a pat on my shoulder. “That’s why I love traveling,” she said. “I wouldn’t have known this if I had not met you.”

“And I wouldn’t have had the tons of non-bookish knowledge about Finland if I had not met you,” I said.

Then she changed the topic. Pointing to the huge clock at the main entrance to the Stockmann Department Store, the largest department store in Helsinki, she said, “This spot is a popular rendezvous for us Helsinkians. Friends would simply say, ‘Let’s meet at the clock.’”

A few yards away from Stockmann is the Statue of Three Blacksmiths, made possible by a donation from the businessman Julius Tallberg. Sculpted by Felix Nylund, the statue was given to the city as a gift by the Pro Helsingfors Foundation, in 1932. It shows three naked, muscular men hammering on an anvil. According to a funny story Finns are fond of telling visitors, the blacksmiths strike the anvil every time a virgin walks by the statue.

Pointing to a group of young girls who just passed by, I asked Martine, “Why aren’t the blacksmiths striking now? Do you mean to say that not one of these girls is a virgin?”

“Come on,” Martine said, “you have heard such stories all over the world.” She nudged me to move on. After a few minutes of aimless wandering, we ambled into an alfresco bar.

The pleasant conversation we were having over a beer was interrupted and spoiled by the boisterousness of three drunken men sitting at a nearby table. One of the two ladies sitting next to us asked me whether I was from India. When I replied yes, she said, “I will be flying to Islamabad, Pakistan, tomorrow.”

The trip had to do with the work she was doing for a nongovernmental organization. She didn’t tell me the name of the NGO, and I didn’t ask, either. She was a little apprehensive about “flying to one of the trouble spots in the world.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “you will be all right.”

Alcoholism, a Major Problem

After a few minutes’ chat, I handed her my camera and requested that she take a picture of me and Martine. Hardly had she taken one picture when one of the drunken men came and stood behind us. Standing between us, he placed his hands on our shoulders and almost knelt to bring his face to the same level as ours. He insisted that a picture be taken of the three of us together. We didn’t know what gesture he made with his face. It did make his two friends burst out into loud laughs. The lady, who was still holding my camera, obliged him. While handing the camera back to me, she whispered, “Delete it when you reach home.”

But the drunken man was in no mood to leave us alone. He stood in front of Martine and said: “Where did my little princess meet this ugly foreigner?”

At that point, Martine grabbed my hand and said, “Come, let’s go.”

As we walked out, she threw a contemptuous look at the man. The lady who took our picture and her friend bowed their heads in shame and buried their faces in their hands.

“I am ashamed of my countrymen when they behave like this,” Martine said.

“Don’t feel embarrassed,” I told her. “Every country has characters like these.”

“Alcoholism is a major problem in our country,” she said. “So are alcohol-related deaths. I think I had told you about my father.”

“Yes, you had.”

“He was a World War Two veteran. He drank himself to death. My mother walked out on him when his drinking got out of control. Now she lives with her friend. Can I call a man in his fifties boyfriend?”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s the term they use. It has nothing to do with age. They are called boyfriends and girlfriends even if they are a hundred years old.”

Martine told me that her English was not as good as her mother tongue, Finnish. But I had not noticed any shortcomings. Other than Finnish and English, she could also read, write, and speak French, German, and Russian. She had a smattering of Mandarin, too, having spent a year in China as an exchange student.

After some more wandering around, we came to the last item on the agenda for the day, which was dinner. It was my suggestion. “I want to treat you to lunch or dinner at an Indian restaurant,” I had told her.

Martine said that she knew an Indian restaurant, "but it's a little far away." So we settled for a Thai restaurant, which was right in front of us.

As we walked in, Martine told me that she purposely did not bring her car because “I knew I would be having a drink with you. Fines for even minor traffic violations are hefty here. Cops show no mercy, especially when those violations are alcohol-related.”

Though dinner was suggested by me and the main purpose behind it was to give Martine a good treat in appreciation of all that she had done for me, it ended up in my being given a good treat by her. She wouldn’t let me pay. When the waiter brought the check, both of us fought to grab it. I gave in when I saw the customers at the nearby table watching us amusedly.

“When you are in Finland, you are my guest,” Martine said. “When I come to India, you can treat me to all the Indian food I can eat.”

After the dinner, she walked me to the door of my hostel and kissed me goodnight. “Don’t forget, we have a dinner date with Mom tomorrow,” she reminded me while leaving.
This is one of the nearly 200,000 lakes in Finland. During the arctic winter most of the lakes get frozen. But at the height of summer – June, July and August – they get transformed “into a glistening patchwork of waterways, studded with islands and bordered by emerald pine, spruce and silver birch forests,” as Paul Harding of Lonely Planet puts it. Cruising through some of the lakes is a pleasure most visitors to Finland make it a point to indulge in.

(Published on September 8, 2016, This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 5 from the author's recently published book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at, and

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