I had never given much thought to visiting Helsinki until my friend Erica said she wanted to visit her daughter, Sophie, who is studying there. For some reason, I said, “Let’s go.” Even after she told me we would have to visit in mid-April when temperatures would still be hovering in the 30s and 40s and not one green leaf would be in sight , I still said, “Let’s go.” So, we did.
Sophie, like a seasoned member of the paparazzi, greeted us at the airport snapping photos as we emerged from behind the doors of the customs area. We all laughed and hugged as bewildered Finns looked on. Who are these people they must have been asking.
Once outside, the chilly crispness of early evening woke me up from my airplane stupor. Jumping on the bus we headed downtown. As we rode along, first through uninteresting suburbs of one nondescript apartment building after another and then through the city streets, memories of Boston suddenly started popping into my head. I remembered how long the month of March seemed, how we would drag themselves around, our eyes softening, our lips giving way to faint smiles only at the sight of a daffodil in a window or a crocus in a jar. There would be nothing much left of winter but dirty piles of snow here and there and the dusty, gritty residue of winter-long sanding covering the streets, sidewalks, and windows. Even the black branches of the trees making lacy patterns against the deep blue sky would have lost their loveliness. Where are the buds? Where are the leaves? Where is spring? Surely, the Finns must be asking, too.
Once at the hotel, the only thing we could think of was getting something to eat and staying awake long enough to justify falling into bed. We succeeded.
Once in bed, Erica fell in love immediately, with the bed that is. It was one of her favorite things about the trip and so comfortable that she, a reportedly poor sleeper, slept ten-to-twelve hours every day. This was well-deserved rest because as an big-city middle school teacher she needs all the rest she can get. So enamored was she with her bed, she even stopped by a Finlayson store and priced what it would cost to buy one. True love.
I’m sure you are asking what makes a Finnish bed so special? Well, they are amazingly comfortable, not just because of the down comforters and soft pillows but also because of the unique mattress system: A sheeted mini-mattress sitting on a box spring of sorts. A nest for resting, the Finnish bed is that perfect point of repose, all year long, during long winter nights and endless summer days, dark and light, yin and yang.
Actually, you never know what you’ll end up falling in love with when traveling; that’s part of the mystery and fun. On this trip, spending time with Sophie topped my list. She’s smart and generous with a cynical wit; a talented photographer and writer, she’s also a great cook and made two delicious meals for us.
Her vegetarian casserole with a gluten-free béchamel was delightful as were her seven-hour roasted cherry tomatoes and everything else she made. Yum! Sophie, thank you for your warm and caring hospitality.
Second on my list are the Finnish people. OK, so they are dour looking on the street, their mouths taunt and slightly turned down, their pale eyes looking straight ahead. But, ask any one of them a question and the biggest smile emerges and the eyes shine. Still, they aren’t exuberant talkers. Nothing is volunteered. Ask a question and straight-away you get a to-the-point answer, nothing more, nothing less. On the other hand, they seem grateful for each question and are more than happy if you keep on asking. So ask I did.
Next come the baby buggies. In Helsinki, elaborate baby buggies are everywhere. For a country with less than two children per family, this was surprising, but then, Helsinki is a university town with about 39,000 students attending the University there. Besides, a broad and rich social support system for families, including paid parental leave and free health care for all children, makes the decision to have children easier for young couples. But, back to the buggies. They come in all colors and styles with hoods and umbrellas against rain and sun, winter weather protection, accessory bags, fur interiors, and sturdy wheels. And inside, the cutest children you’ll see anywhere.
So many florist shops! On just about every block you’ll find a florist shop stocked to the brim with plants and flowers arranged in seasonal bouquets. The Finns take flowers seriously and when invited, almost always arrive with a bouquet or plant. This goes for university students as well as the older generation. Being Easter week, all the shops were decorated with little chicks and rabbits, the pastel colors of spring, Easter egg trees, and spring flowers. There were even pop-up florist shops.
Architecture. What struck me about the architecture in Helsinki (and I’m not talking about the band of this name) is that apart of the buildings of Aalto, including Finlandia Hall and the Academic Bookstore, 18th and 19th century styles predominate in the city center giving it a low-key vibe that invites you in from the cold.
I especially liked this turret high above the esplanade where I imagined myself gazing out over the rooftops of Helsinki as the sun sets over the Baltic.
But it was two little red wooden buildings that stole my heart.
The first, a devilishly small cafe on the harbor just a stone’s throw from the beautiful monument to Sibelius. Inside, this miniature ode to a fishing shack, two young women filled orders for hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls freshly baked in a tiny oven just behind the counter to a steady stream of customers. While some preferred to sip their hot drinks inside huddled on benches around cramped tables, others headed outside with drinks in hand and a warm blanket taken from a stack by the door under the arm. Either way is delightful and everyone was happy here.
The second charming little red building, I found in the garden of Hvitträsk, the home of Eliel Saarinen, the father of the great mid-20th century American architect, Eero Saarinen, in the town of Kirkkonummi on the shores of Lake Vitträsk. Originally designed as the studio home for the members of the Finnish architecture firm Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen, the Saarinen family lived here until immigrating to the United States in 1923. Sitting alone in a still mostly winter-brown garden, I imagined the delight of curling up inside this little gem to take a spring nap in the sun.
Last on my list are the women, statues and carvings.
Starting on the Esplanade, look for the statue of J. L. Runeberg, Finland’s national poet. At his feet is a female figure, the patron muse of Finnish Poetry, wrapped in a bear skin, its head covering hers, she stares out at you from her deep and wild eyes. Woman, animal, muse. Beautiful.
Continue walking to Kauppatori (Market Square) where in the center of a fountain is Havis Amanda, a nude mermaid. Having just emerged from the sea, she stands on seaweed with fish and hungry sea lions around her feet. I like her uncertainty as she emerges in her natural form from her native environment into the unknown. Built in 1906 and erected here in 1908, the statue, originally called Merenneito, or The Mermaid, was designed by Vile Vallgren to symbolize the rebirth of Helsinki but caused quite a raucous. Women’s rights groups said that the statue belittled and objectified women. Today, the statue is the object of university students pranks and rituals including the placing a graduate hat on her head at the start of May Day festivities at 6PM on April 30. But, for me she in her innocence is finding her way in the universe.
From Havis Amanda turn right and walk past the cruise ship-sized ferries that shuttle people to St Petersburg, Stockholm, and Tallinn, to the south harbor where you’ll find the statue of a lithe young woman standing high above you. She’s young; free; perhaps, a bit naive, and also another object of controversy. Erected in 1968 by the Finnish people as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence between Finland and the Soviet Union, she came under friendly fire by Finns who disapproved of her message. But not knowing the history, I like her very much as she looks out at the Baltic as the wind sweep across her.
Finally, back at Hvitträsk, in the basement of the museum, I found several stunning carvings of women that originally were pedestals for furniture. They are exquisite and reminded me of the dances of Isadora Duncan. Beautiful.
All original content Copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum