On the Road: Helsinki
And suddenly, it was over almost as quickly as it had started, and we were on a flight from Tallinn to Helsinki.
Helsinki was a fascinating place. It felt just similar enough to Oslo, Stockholm, or Copenhagen to feel familiar. But, with a closer look, things didn’t appear to be what they were. Not least of all is Finnish (Suomi), a language that is not related to German or the other Nordic languages, but to Estonian and, at a distance, Hungarian.
Take the phrase, “Have a nice day!” Translated into Norwegian? “Ha en fin dag!” Or what about Swedish? “Ha en bra dag!” It looks a little different in print, but, when spoken, native English speakers can understand it.
But Finnish? “Hauskaa päivän jatkoa.”
I mean, it’s a lovely language. But I think it sums up the similar but surprisingly different experience of the country.
We arrived in Helsinki midday and started to walk around the historic quarter. Relatively flat and compact, Helsinki is a lovely city to traverse on foot. We stayed near the center of town at the Hotel Indigo. It was a lovely hotel — clean and quiet — with a full breakfast included in our room rate. One important thing to note — as the summers are short, so is the construction season! We were amazed at how many projects seemed to be in progress in the city center. Because of this, expect construction noise starting relatively early in the morning. We requested a quiet room (off of the street) and suggest you do the same due to the extra road noise in nice weather.
Like Tallinn, you can feel the Russian influence in Helsinki as well. One of the things that we particularly liked was the “dueling cathedrals” on opposite hills. We visited the Finnish Orthodox Cathedral first (don’t be fooled by the “Finnish,” as it’s part of the Russian Orthodox church), and it was beautiful! Unlike the cathedral in Estonia, we were permitted to take photos inside!
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest this is a faith that is unknown to me. What did we do before the internet? We started to wonder about the religion and were able to answer our own questions. This cathedral was built overlooking the city — it is said that it was to remind Finns about Russia’s presence just to the East.
Finns have an interesting relationship to the Russians. In some cases, they like the tsars that sometimes ruled their people. When it was the Grand Duchy of Finland (and ruled by Russia), the Finns formed their own postal service, their own currency, and governed somewhat independently (they made requests of the tsar, which were generally approved). Ironically, Alexander II, beloved by Finns, was hated at home and later assisinated.
Compare the opulence of the Orthodox Cathedral to the stark Neoclassical style of the Lutheran Cathedral. As a former (lapsed?) Lutheran, I’m always astounded at how decorated, even exciting, Catholic or Orthodox churches are in comparison. The interior has only three key areas of focus — the pulpit, the organ, and three statues of great reformers. Like other Scandinavian countries, the state church is Lutheran, to which ~70% of the population “belongs.”
I find these sorts of things fascinating. I live in a country without a state religion, but one in which there is a huge culture war between different factions who disagree on how much religion should be in our day-to-day lives. And then I visit a region where each country has a state church, yet few people attend and the countries have some of the most progressive social policies in the world. I have more to say here, so stay tuned for my next post, filled with reflections about the differences (good and bad) between the US and Scandinavia.
We also found some pretty delicious food our first day. There is a lovely waterside market filled with fish, produce, and food vendors (and flocks of sneaky seagulls, ready to grab any bite!). And we all know where I stopped — crepes! They were quite delicious, probably the best I’ve had outside of France. For dinner we found a lovely little Mexican restaurant. It is very hard to find authentic Mexican food in Europe, and I’m pleasantly surprised that we had phenomenal tacos in Helsinki. The last pleasant food surprise was a vegan restaurant across the street from our hotel that made delicious Middle Eastern wraps and salads. We’ve been toying with the idea of giving up meat, at least part-time, and this inspired us to start searching for new recipes.
Two other fun stops on our walk were a bit more modern. The Temppeliaukio Church was blasted out of a rock in the 1960s. It took me back to my grandparents’ church growing up (it’s the pews, I swear), but it was a charming space — copper ceiling, glass skylights, and rock walls.
The other place was the Kamppi Chapel. Just off of the central train station, it is a place of quiet reflection and sanctuary where both pastors and social workers are available if you need need help (how cool is that?). When the door shut behind you, it was tranquil and restorative.
By this point in the trip we were a bit tired. There was more napping than before, and I had two coaching calls in Helsinki (one for my pod and one individual supervision call). We took time to relax a bit and enjoyed reading more than before.
My favorite outing was (you guessed it) the local folk museum, Seurasaari. Located on an island just outside of the city center, we had a lovely walk from the bus to the museum. And can I just say how much I love public transit in European cities? It’s so convenient!
The buildings in Seurasaari are scattered around a large public park, so we were mixing and mingling with walkers and families who were strolling about. Because we went on a weekday there were fewer buildings open, but the docents in the buildings we entered were very well-spoken and helped the history come alive.
There was a lot of variation in the living situations across Finland. Some of the southern parts were occupied by Swedes (Sweden, like Russia, has ruled Finland from time to time). There were wealthy families that inhabited manor houses, and poor families that crowded into single rooms. Like Estonia, a lot of attention and care was put into the construction of all the buildings — not just those for living, but those for storage and work.
But my favorite building in the museum was one of the oldest — a church dating from the 1600s. With separate sections for rich, middle-class, and bleachers in the back for the poor, this elaborate wood building has survived hundreds of years, and was one of the buildings that inspired the founding of the museum.
As I reflect on Finland, I’m noticing that we went to a lot of churches, but since it was late in the vacation we spent more time walking and looking than serious touring. For example, we skipped out on the local art and history museums in Helsinki. Rather than beat myself up about that (my normal course of action), I’ve adopted the Rick Steves view — Nothing can ever be fully seen or experienced in a single visit, so tour as if you will come back.
Finland was a nice end to the vacation because of the fine experiences, good walking, and friendly people. Unfortunately due to flight times (and a six-hour layover in London) it took 23 hours to get from our hotel in Helsinki to our home in Washington. We took the entire trip in daylight and enjoyed reading and movies and another stop at Wakamama in Heathrow. But, as it always happens, about five hours into the long flight I crashed (and I forgot to make someone promise to not take photos).
But everything went well and we arrived safely home, tired and satisfied. This June European trip was wonderful — we enjoyed Norway, Estonia, and Finland, each in different ways. We are glad to be back with our kitty as a little family again!
And you know me — I’m already plotting our next escape!
P.S. Next up? Now that I’ve visited Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland (as well as just finished a fantastic book about Scandinavia, the good and the bad), I want to share what I’ve learned about my travels to that region, as well as share a few things I wish Scandinavia would import from the USA.