The Village of Utsjoki

Sunrise behind a traditional Finnish house in the northernmost Village of Utsjoki

We were in for a day of lessons in History, Culture and Geography when we embarked onto our tour of the village of Utsjoki (Ohcejohka In Sami language). I wish all social sciences lessons were held like this, I would have remembered more! It was our first day and since it was colder than usual, a relaxed day roaming around the village and then warming up in the cafe, is just what the doctor ordered.

The oldest cottage of Utsjoki with the church in the background
The oldest cottage of Utsjoki with the church in the background

We spent the whole day talking with Tiina, Emilia (our guide) and other people who we met in the course of the day. We had so much fun listening to their stories and telling them ours and then comparing the two. There were jaw dropping differences in both our lifestyles and it reminded me why it is so much fun meeting people from around the world.

We were taken to a tour of the church and its grounds by the Vicar of Utsjoki who is a man of many talents and full of stories. He has been living there for more than 2 decades and knows the history of the village in minute detail. He is a musician too and composes original tunes which he plays for his parishioners. He played music for us, (on the church organ!) and even let us climb the church tower to watch the sunrise, which was the ‘highlight of our day’. It is no easy feat climbing the church tower! Its literally like a bunker above you, used as a watchtower in old times to see the enemy approaching and housed two big bells which are rung at different times in different ways which hold different meanings. He told us that every man in Finland must serve in the military and get a military rank before they go on to do other things in their lives.

Listening to stories about history of Utsjoki from the Vicar
Listening to stories about history of Utsjoki from the Vicar
One of the three flights of stairs to climb onto the church tower.
One of the three flights of stairs to climb onto the church tower.
Watching the sunrise from the church tower. No, it is not a painting! :)
Watching the sunrise from the church tower. No, it is not a painting! 🙂

We visited the bridge which runs over the Teno river (the biggest salmon fishing river in Europe), the natural border between Finland and Norway. We stood in the middle with one foot in each country (something that everyone does). Who can resist it anyway :D. We came to know that there is a point where Sweden, Norway and Finland have a joint border, you can run around that point and cross 3 countries in one round. That one goes on my bucket list!

Standing at the border on the bridge connecting Finland and Norway
Standing at the border on the bridge connecting Finland and Norway

We spent most of the day in the cafe, warming up, drinking nice hot chocolate and hearing stories and experiences. There were a lot of things we learnt over the course of the day and some of them stuck with me. So I compiled a list of TILs (“Today I Learnt”):

– The school in Utsjoki holds classes in two languages – Finnish and Sami. Children and parents can choose in which language they want to attend classes or they can even mix and match.
– A child of Utsjoki can end up learning 5 languages before they finish school – Finnish, Sami, Swedish (the second national language of Finland), Norwegian (since its on the border of Norway) and English. Wow! You know how they say, children brains are perfect for grasping languages. These people are really utilising them to the fullest.
– There is exactly one supermarket in the village and one Cafe, which also serves as a souvenir shop and no hotels.
– Utsjoki has been inhabited for the last 9500 years and still has a standing cottage from before the road to Utsjoki was build (600 years ago, if my memory serves)

Bunch of the first cottages in the village of Utsjoki. Each cottage housed a family.
Bunch of the first cottages in the village of Utsjoki. Each cottage housed a family.

– The painting on the altar of the church depicts an actual family living in the village around that time and there are people in Utsjoki who can still recognise some of those faces.

The painting behind the altar of the Utsjoki Church featuring a local family of that time
The painting behind the altar of the Utsjoki Church featuring a local family of that time

– The main occupation of people is reindeer herding and there are actually NO wild reindeer in Finland. Each reindeer belongs to someone and their ears are marked uniquely to signify the owner. Children are given their own reindeer cubs and are expected to take care of them and in time learn to manage their own herd.
– Sauna has been around in Finland since before anyone can remember. In fact, one of the cottage among the oldest cottages in church grounds is a sauna.
– Snowmobiles are more common than regular vehicles and young people hardly ever want to drive anything except a snowmobile in winter.

Its a laid back village whose motto is “Relax”. Time seems to have little significance here and everything runs at its own pace. You cant hurry it but you can enjoy it.