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Thursday, October 17, 2013

I'll see you in Helsinki!

Never had been to Finland, but over the years I’ve known some Finns.  Maybe that’s why I had a yen to stick my toe in the front door.  A Finnish wife lived near us in Madrid.  She spoke four or five languages and went from one to another as easily as you’d change the look on your face.  Her son, who was first or second grade, also maneuvered from language to language like a linguistic acrobat.  One day, in a room full of people, her son ran up to her and whispered something.  She told him in English,  “No need to whisper.  Nobody else here speaks Finnish.”  She could be pretty sure.  Only five million or so Finnish speakers in the world and few outside Finland.  

I did know a man who taught himself Finnish.  He also spoke English, German, Russian, and Spanish.  He worked for an agency of the U.S. Government.  When I asked him what he did, he was very tight lipped.  “I go places and talk to people.”

Also bought a Finnish fishing knife in the mid 70’s.  Still have it.  Still sharp as a razor, as many a fat, cold water perch has found out.

Finland, like the Scandinavian countries, is sparsely populated, so unless you’re prepared to stay awhile and wander from the Baltic to the Artic Circle, Helsinki really does only get your toe in the door.  But don’t let that put you off.  Go ahead! Take a peek at perhaps the only exotic country in the far north of Europe.

Why exotic?  The language, for one.  Danish?  Swedish?  Norwegian?  All related.  Finnish?  Very different, although it’s spoken by a few minorities in nearby lands, including Russia. Take the English name of the county:  Finland.  Same in the rest of Scandinavia.  In Finnish, it’s Suomi, pronounced as it’s spelled.

Other ways Finland is different from its Scandinavia neighbors:  Uses the Euro, has no monarchy.  Apparently, Finland (even more than Sweden) is a picker and chooser in its ties and cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  It prides itself on remaining non-aligned.  Lots of reasons, many of them I suspect historical.  Finland has been a battleground for centuries.  For nearly all of the 19th Century, up until 1917, it was the Grand Duchy of Finland, ruled by the Russian Empire, the Russian Tsar as the Grand Duke.  Revolution in Russia and civil war at home, both of the bloody kind, separated the two.

Ok, enough blather.  Important stuff.  Finnish women are walking clichés:  tall, blond, and gorgeous, but a little more like ice sculptures.  How do I know?  Hummmm, well, I mean, uhhhh, I forget.  Must have heard it from friends. 

Moving on…What’s there to do in Helsinki?  In the winter, I haven’t a clue, but I suspect building fires and fighting frostbite would be at the top of the list.  Pin the tail on the reindeer?  Get red hot in the sauna, then run naked in the snow and flog yourself with birch branches?  I chose summer.  Greenery, outdoor parks, and markets, and cafés.  Cold beer. You know, the things that separate modern man from Big Foot.

Not all that much to see in Helsinki, or at least I didn’t find swarms of tourists, but you have to consider that I was on a cruise and had only a few sweet hours to do the daylight town.  Couple of churches, one of them unique.  Couple of tourist spots, a monument to the most famous of Finnish composers, Jean Sibelius.  Want to listen to a portion of his towering masterwork, Finlandia? 

A word about the churches.  First, Temppeliaukio Lutheran Church, dug into a block of granite.  Very modern.  Architectural firm?  Flintstone and Rubble.  Hahahaha, only kidding.  The architects were brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen.  Construction finished in 1969 and since then half a million visitors have flooded through.  Also a popular venue for concerts, to take advantage of the excellent acoustics.

Our thoroughly Nordic guide

Another church is the very traditional Helsinki Catherdral, or if you want to give Finnish a try, it’s called ‘Helsingin tuomiokirkko.’  Notice all the u’s and o’s and m’s in this language? The cathedral dates from the mid 19th Century and sits high in the middle of Senate Square.  In front of the cathedral is a statue of Tsar Alexander II.  Wait a sec!  Didn’t the Finns move heaven and earth to free themselves from their Russian masters?  Yeah, over the years, the statue has caused some controversy, with suggestions ranging from moving it into a less conspicuous locale, to recycling it into beach sand.  Ok, I made that last part up.  But, the statue has stayed for a couple of reasons.  Alex II reestablished the Diet of Finland in 1863, and introduced reforms that gave Finland more autonomy.

Changing the subject, have you heard of Marimekko, the Finnish design firm?  Known since 1951 for bold fabrics, including colorful floral patterns.  Once you see one, you’ll remember the style.  Pricy?  Oh, indeed, but also so beautiful they’re suitable for framing.  There’s a large area in Helsinki known as the Design Center, and it’s well worth a stroll.  Here’s a site that will introduce you to Finnish design:

A typical Marimekko flower design, a style called Unikko, designed by Maija Isola (1927-2001)

But, what do I like best about Helsinki?  The people and the genial atmosphere.  Grab a sidewalk café and order yourself an over-priced beer.  The beer is delicious, especially on a warm summer’s afternoon.  Wander through an open-air market.  Feast on sausage and fresh berries.  Or, stick with the beer and linger awhile.  Watch those tall, gorgeous, fabulously dressed ice statues slink by.

1 comment:

  1. Gotta go there. A nephew on my wife's side works there and after more than five years hasn't gone back to his roots in Illinois. Bet he likes the beer. And a Soviet girl he met there. He's a Chicago kid and like most folks from the Great Lakes, he tends to frolic in out of the way places with few tourists, lots of chow, and good beer. Thank you for the posting, Bill.