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, growing up in Australia in the sixties,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, (unless, of course, 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 reading, 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 just what this is. So I challenge my thinking a bit more.
It is then I realize, it is not the smell of a country iself, but the smell of clean, crisp, fresh air. Air that is unadulterated by the pollution that besets many cities today. The proximity of Finland to both the North Pole and the Baltic sea, as well as its clean energy sources clearly gives Finland this privilege and I for one, revel in it.
Heading into Helsinki after a long haul flight, I look out airport-city bus window to see Green everywhere 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. Beautiful!
Then I notice that all this greenery is punctuated haphazardly here and there by massive granite rocks, seemingly flung around like a giant’s marble set. One that is over 560 million years old. The remnants now lying still and intractable. Permanent. Polished smooth by glacial action and natural forces through time. Houses, trees and modern infrastructure with simply no alternative, but to build around these stoic, granite monoliths.
But 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.Because, shading almost each and every boulder, you will find the ever graceful Birch trees. Quintessentially Scandinavian. Being summertime when I arrived, the Birch branches let their long leafy tresses sway gently in the sea breeze. It felt like a welcome party, beckoning me forward to experience Helsinki.
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!’ But 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 or drink in public!!
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, “
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 neighboring powers is reflected in the capital’s architecture. When you imagine Helsinki, imagine glass conservatories, crisp white, copper green or even red painted domes and turrets and lemon yellow or eggshell-blue buildings adorned with white window details, all of which echo the historic Swedish and Russian imperialist regimes and their respective architectural styles.
The clothing, lifestyle and culture in Southern Finland also evokes a 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 with shadows resting languidly behind a festive main street atmosphere. All this, at the onset of twilight, before the night makes its slow descent to darkness.
The capital city Helsinki is a fashionable place… a secret I am sure is kept from the rest of the world. In the storefronts, I see elegant dresses with unique and beautiful designs and lots of bold bright colour…of which ‘Marimekko’ is famous. [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 many of the formal wear shops in the streets of Helsinki. Who would have thought I would find this so far north?
I also spot botanical, Linnean- inspired prints in delicate, lightweight fabrics, all with that indefinable something, that says ‘Scandinavia.’ It is so light here in the summer and like the beech and birch wood, Finland also seems free and tolerant… a little like the mentality the Scandinavian summer landscape seems to suggest. Helsinki has me feeling all romantic!!!
Mind you, the Finns are 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 wonderful Scandinavian persona, but with an inner stoicism that visitors may find a little aloof. Rather, than thinking this was a negative, I preferred a more romantic view of the people. One where Finns guard their privacy and others’ privacy, with the respect it deserves.
There is so much more to Helsinki and Finland, and I will talk about that in the next post. After all, there are some of the most iconic sites found around Helsinki, not the least of which is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suomenlimma Fortress.
For me it is Something to Ponder About.