There are many prejudices about Finland and the Finns, often expressed in one or two words: “Drunks!”, “Carry knives!”
Such myths are hard to dispel and not my business really. All I want is to introduce a new, trustworthier generalization: “Helsinki embraces you!”
Approaching the capital airborne is all-embracing, the green and blue of woods and lakes envelop you, holding you tight all the way to Helsinki. Although city life has other colors, the green and blue keep popping up in parks and in streets as well.
Finland seems to be one big wall to wall carpet, so tightly woven and with colors so clear that nothing you put on top of it, can hide it.
In the beginning, you may not exactly consider the Finnish language an embrace. However, you come to like these clear-spoken people, also the way they sound – loud, with a touch of sharpness and completely unintelligible. They use an enormous amount of words, at other times a few syllables seem sufficient to sort things out. English they speak gladly, Swedish reluctantly.
They do learn Swedish at school, a gesture toward the Swedish speaking minority of some 6%, but also a reminder that Finland has been under Swedish rule. “English please!” is a standard reaction if you address a Finn in Swedish, a language they are striving to forget. Swedish tourists also switch to English in order to enjoy a welcoming embrace – like the rest of us, who have accommodated to the Finnish patriotism and consider “Helsingfors” a slip of the tongue. Next step could be the country itself, “Suomi please!”
Walking up and down a huge road with heavy traffic several times a day, only makes you feel embraced by noise and exhaust fumes. You must, however, acquaint yourself with the Mannerheim Road, Mannerheimintie, coming from northwest and plowing into the center of Helsinki to end at the Swedish Theater. You may be surprised how many attractions are located along the Mannerheim. Ask for it when you get lost, then you will easily find your bearings again.
Planned or not, Mannerheim is an example of a city structure that works – central, high capacity, popular location for hotels and institutions attracting more of the same kind, ample local transport. If you perceive the advantages of Mannerheim like an embrace, you should make it your base. Out where the Opera lies, at the bay of Tooloviken, are a couple of large hotels like Crowne Plaza and Scandic Continental next door, very strategic for an active tourist.
From there you have numerous possibilities – you could take a path in green surroundings on either side of the bay, with wild hares coming to greet you, the white Finlandia House by Alvar Aalto emerging right before you or in the background, depending on which side of the railway lines you walk. Ladies are out walking their poles, where are the men in this the home country of Nordic Walking. “Special training fields!” says one. Anyway, Nordic Walking is an embrace that nearly sends you flying. This time, though, you arrive at the Central Railway Station.
The drivers of tram 3T and 3B are waiting to spoil you with a round trip at normal fare, going this way or the other. It takes one hour unless you get on and off at the sights. The Central Station is an obvious place to start. The more you use those trams, the more they embrace you, by giving you a feeling of the whole city, confírming that the Mannerheimintie is a backbone you cannot do without. Lost and tired, that word will automatically come over your lips.
Leave Mannerheim behind at times to get around to other major sights like the white Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral on the sloping Senate Square. In its whiteness, the imposing church appears so light as were it heaven-sent and just landed on top of the hill, its members now seated outside on the majestic steps taking in how things have developed down here. The majority of them will surely approach the port and border a boat for Sveaborg Fortress – Suomenlinna – covering several islands, an incredible bulwork against seaway intruders. After such drama, a walk on the Esplanaden will reset things to flowering idyll.
The tourist office on Esplanaden gives you the answers before you ask the questions. “Kamppi, Forum, Sokos and Stockmann!” That answers a potential question about shopping, which brings you back to the embrace of Mannerheim – to one shopping center and three department stores. Studying modern Finnish design may be all you want, take care though that you do not leave in a state of sinking under chock-full plastic bags. Shopping here is definitely worth your while.
Getting tired is no problem, you just find yourself a strategic cafe chair and continue your sightseeing from there, one possibility is the outdoor cafe at the Kiasma art museum. Backed by contemporary modern art, you can dive into Finnish history. There to guide you is Mannerheim himself up on his horse, Marshal and President, dead 1951. He was a Finland-Swede with German roots, who fought the wars that led to a modern and sovereign Finland. On the monument, he appears to leave the powerful Parliament – Riksdagen – behind him. Its secretive facade of columns faces a huge building site, possibly a future masterpiece of Finnish architecture – a new concert hall.
Drop in at an Alko shop – the alcohol monopoly. In folders and booklets, they differentiate between positive and negative effects of drinking, the latter spelled out in great detail. When it comes to alcohol consumption per capita, Finland is front runner among the Nordic countries. “Drink to get drunk!” This behavior is common, according to Alko, and the drinking mainly takes place during weekends. Crime statistics are nevertheless down in Helsinki, except among certain groups of youngsters. Young people need to be 18 to buy beer, 20 to get stronger liquids.
“Helsinki at night is a bore!” say some. Evenings before workdays can admittedly be quiet. If you live in the area of the two hotels mentioned, there is no reason to go to bed bored. The Storyville Happy Jazz Club stages light jazz downstairs, its ground floor is a pub with tables outside too, and across the street, a very cozy garden cafe attracts a crowd. People will embrace you with useful tips and the latest news. The agenda is slightly different on Friday and Saturday nights when people dress up and their eyes say “Cruising!”
Hotel bars are perfect for digesting the impressions of the day. Whether it’s a young guy or an elderly lady, bartenders do not mind stupid questions, “Is Finland a land of high technology or a land of a thousand lakes?” “Both!” they answer promptly. I think I understand – technology creates exhaustion, nature provides silence. It’s just another image of my Nokia and its recharger – nature being the recharger of creative Finnish minds, always ready to embrace us with new mobile features.
Illustrations by Zofia Hedvard