I was surprised with what I found. Can I say that?
I knew so little about Helsinki or Finnish history.
The Nordic regions weren’t a focus of the Australian school curriculum at all. In fact, you would be considered a bit of a nerd, or at least a well-read child, if you even knew of the country called Finland, growing up in Australia in the sixties, (unless you had Finnish heritage or a ‘Euro-vision’ Song Contest fanatic in your family).
Armed with this startling lack of knowledge, and the little I had gleaned from my post school readings, I flew into ‘Vantaa’ airport in Helsinki, en route to Norway. And let me say again, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.
First impressions of Helsinki:
There is something about the smell of the place that I can’t quite put my finger on. It has the smell of Scandinavia, or at least that is what my nostrils tell me…. but I can’t be sure if this, so I challenge my thinking a bit more. It is then I realize, it is not the smell of a country per se, but the smell of clean, crisp, fresh air unadulterated by the pollution that besets many cities today. The proximity of Finland, both to the North Pole and the Baltic sea, as well as its clean energy sources have clearly given Finland this privilege and I for one, reveled in it.
Looking out of the airport bus window, heading into Helsinki after my long flight via Singapore, I see so much GREEN, and it is not the same green; there are 101 varieties of green. Brilliant green, apple green, mint green, moss-green, and of course, leaf green in the many trees, plants, grassy fields and forest.
All this greenery is punctuated haphazardly here and there by massive granite rocks, seemingly flung around like a giant’s marble set that is over 560 million years old. The remnants now lying still and intractable, polished smooth by glacial action and natural forces through time. Houses, trees and modern infrastructure has simply no alternative, but to work around these stoic, granite monoliths.
But please don’t visualize a stark moonscape of rock, because it is not like that at all, purely because there is so much greenery and interesting architecture. Shading almost each and every boulder, you will find the ever graceful Birch trees. Being summertime when I arrived, the Birch branches let their long leafy tresses sway gently in the sea breeze, like a welcome party, beckoning me forward.
Yes, there is something wonderful here. I feel instantly comfortable, even though I am an alien in this environment and a solo female traveler. ‘Hey,’ I remind myself, ‘I don’t even know any Finnish words!’ Yet it is only a matter of minutes after setting down in my hotel, at the harbour, that I quickly understand ‘Moi’ is ‘Hello’ and ‘Kittos’ means ‘thank you.’ Essential language if one would like to eat!!
If you fly into Helsinki from the west, you will undoubtedly spot the coastline of Finland, dotted as it is with thousands of islands and small skerries. Maritime navigation must be a nightmare for the inexperienced sailor! Particularly as: “The southern islands in the Gulf of Finland are mainly of low elevation, while those lying along the southwest coastline may rise to heights of more than 400 feet (120 metres).”
But, perhaps I should tell you a little more about Helsinki, other than what you find in the usual tourist brochures?
Finland share its borders with Russia, Sweden and Norway and I do think the history with these neighbouring powers is reflected in the capital city, Helsinki’s architecture. Think glass conservatories, crisp white, copper green and red painted domes and turrets, lemon yellow and eggshell-blue buildings with white window detailings, echoing Swedish or Russian imperialist regimes and their respective architectural styles.
The clothing, lifestyle and culture in Southern Finland also evokes the typical Scandinavian summer day: cool and crisp in the morning, warming towards a lazy long afternoon where time becomes confused, (it may be 10 pm and some are only thinking about dinner). Imagine also long shafts of golden evening light and cool glades of shadows resting languidly behind the festive main street atmosphere, before the night makes its slow descent to darkness with the onset of twilight.
The capital city Helsinki seems to be a fashionable place… a secret I am sure is kept from the rest of the world. In the storefronts, I see elegant dresses, unique and beautiful designs, bold bright colours…of which Marimekko is famous for. [And if anyone knows me, they will tell of my preference for this exact thing: bold, bright colour]. So I wear a happy smile!!!
Gorgeous dresses with a distinctive, personal flair, not seen in my corner of the world, adorn the formal wear shops in Helsinki. Who would have thought I would find this so far north? I also spot delicate botanical, Linnean- inspired prints in sheer, lightweight fabrics, all with that indefinable something, that says ‘Scandinavia.’ It is so light here and like the beech and birch wood, summertime in Finland also seems free and tolerant… a little like the mentality the Scandinavian summer landscape seems to suggest. Helsinki has me feelibg all romantic!!!
Mind you, the Finns do seem a little reserved with strangers, but this will only be a bother if you expect American or Australian open-mindedness towards strangers. Despite the staging of a multicultural music and ethnic festival held in the city during my stay, I could still feel the Finnish character: that Scandinavian essence, but with an inner stoicism that visitors may find a little aloof. Rather, than thinking this, I preferred a more romantic view that Finns guard their privacy and others’ with the respect it deserves.
In the next post, I will share something of the most iconic sites and foods found around Helsinki and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suomenlimma Fortress. For me it is Something to Ponder About.