A desire to experience Scandinavian midnight sun drew me to Helsinki last July.
My magpie approach to discovering Europe combines my desire to go everywhere with selecting a destination when I find an interesting event to I can build my trip around. This time, for my first trip to Scandinavia, Finland just sounded interesting – out of the way and out of the ordinary. I chose Helsinki because I really love cities and because there is ferry service to Tallinn, Estonia; I could include that country as a day trip (See my previous blog post on Tallinn).
Getting to Helsinki was simple. Icelandair flies direct from JFK with its usual stopover in Reykjavik. Trying to fly as efficiently using Virgin Atlantic from New York to London, then connecting from London took too many hours, so Icelandair won the toss. By the time I booked my ticket, only business class remained for the outbound leg but it didn’t seem much more costly, or else my mental math is wrong. Icelandair now charges for food in economy class, but not in business class. And, when I fell asleep between Reykjavik and Helsinki and woke up after they’d served breakfast, the attendant, a very nice older fellow, said I had missed the meal but that he had kept it warm and would I like it now? Boy, it’s nice to be treated like you’re somebody, if only for a few hours! Onion frittata, a little ham, roast potato, tomato and asparagus. A small waffle with berries and syrup and two cups of great coffee completed the meal. I packed the bread, tiny jar of jam and crackers in my bag for later. Moments later, we were on the ground. It was around 2 in the afternoon, the sky was a sharp, vibrant blue, cloudless and the sun so high and bright that it actually hurt. Quick, where are my shades!
Some of my friends think everything goes swimmingly when I travel. Yeah, right. I got my passport stamped (unnecessarily) at Helsinki airport because I went to the wrong area (I didn’t think it was even possible to do that!) See, basically every European country except for the U.K. is part of what’s called the Schengen area – passport processing is required only once when you first enter this area. I’d gone through passport control in Reykjavik during the layover, so didn’t need to do so again. The officer looked at me with pity, pointed me towards baggage claim and called the next person in line. So now you know. I usually get it right, but when I mess up, it can be spectacular.
Heading for baggage claim, I was instantly mesmerized by the shops. All the big name Finnish stuff was there. Iitala crystal and Pirkko birds! Marimekko’s dazzling, colorful fabrics! Arabia stoneware! And Moomins! Wow! Moomins on T-shirts; Moomins on dinnerware! Moomins on pens and toys and books. Whew! I was tempted to start spending money right there in the airport terminal but I calmed down and decided to wait. Can’t blow the wad on Day One, after all.
Let me tell you a little about Moomins. They are characters in a series of children’s books written by Tove Jansson, a Swedish-Finnish woman. The first books were written in the 1950s; I discovered them at my town library in Long Island growing up. See, even then I was attracted to the unfamiliar and the world outside. The Moomin family is sweet and
kind with a sometimes apprehensive view of the world. They look like white hippos and they walk upright. Moominpappa is identified by his hats – usually a top hat or a fishing cap. The Moomin wearing the apron or carrying a purse is Moominmamma. The child, Moomintroll, is the small one; he’s the one who has the adventures and sometimes gets into trouble. There are other characters living in and around Moominvalley but the one I always liked was Snork Maiden, who looks like a Moomin except for her shock of yellow bangs. Moomintroll likes her in a shy, little-boy way. There are other characters with some nasty personalities who cause all sorts of mischief but, by today’s standards, are fairly harmless. Finding myself in a place where Moomins are well-known and popular added an unexpected element of little-kid excitement to this trip. Silly, perhaps, but there you are.
Rolling my bag behind me, I looked for the buses. Spotting a sign with a little bus icon and a word that looks like ‘bus’ (the Finnish word is ”bussi”), I headed that way. For better or worse, Europe is increasingly a place where locals speak their native language/s to each other and English to visitors. Signs in Finland are in Finnish and Swedish, the two official languages. English does not always appear on signs but English was understood by everyone I spoke to. Even so, I used the polite phrases such as ‘please’ (Ole hyvä = ”o-luh HAY-va”) and ‘thank you’ (kiitos = ”KAY-tose”) as often as possible. This reminds me… Icelandair had a really helpful feature in their inflight entertainment. Along with the movies and flight map, there was a language feature with a menu of different Scandinavian languages (there may have been English or others as well; I don’t recall). Each language had several mini-lessons with pictures and audio, kind of like a kid’s picture book. Each lesson had a topic – numbers, days of the week, clothing, etc. and the corresponding foreign word. At the end of each topic was a quiz asking you to match the word with the picture. I spent some time learning some Icelandic (just because) and some Finnish (the only word still in my head is their word for restaurant: ”ravintola”).
The airport bus to city center was parked prominently and ran to the main train station, a trip that took less than an hour. My hotel was right across the street from the station, one reason I’d chosen it. Much of central Helsinki is a typical 20th century with a couple of structures influenced by Finland’s proximity to and occupation by Russia: the train station entrance is flanked by two huge Socialist-style figures holding lamps, ”The Lantern Carriers” and their faces make them look like someone used Lenin’s kid brothers as models (OK, so I don’t know if Lenin even had any brothers).
Across several sets of tram tracks, in a historic building, is Hotel Seurahuone. It has Old World features and modern amenities but no a/c. A small check-in desk is surrounded with dark wood, making it look like a bird cage with the clerk trapped inside it. Carpeted and marble floors lead past the elevator to curved steps sweeping up to the dining room where more of the old architecture shines – high ceilings, head-high dark wainscoting, red brocaded chairs and floor-to-ceiling windows. This room could easily have been a Paris movie set in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. My room faced the back courtyard with large casement windows, Klimt reproductions on the walls and a black lacquer wardrobe. Cable TV (I always check out the TV) carried channels in 3 or 4 languages as well as Finnish-subtitled English language programs. An electric kettle and packets of coffee and tea and a small modern bathroom made the room perfectly comfortable. The hotel curves around the corner of the street, so rooms are shaped like pie wedges with the tips cut off, making the room feel spacious.
Now, last July was a scorcher everywhere I went, Helsinki included. They were breaking records for high temps but, even though we’re only talking high 80s, it felt as hot as home in southern New England. The sun wasn’t really setting, so temperatures dropped very little overnight. At 5 pm, there were still hardly any shadows and at 9pm the sun seemed barely to have moved. I think my room faced west but if the sun is always up, how can you tell? The electric fan was fighting a losing battle. And I’d been sure that Finland would be an escape from summer’s miserable heat even in July.
The room’s electronic key-card controlled the room current from a slot inside the door (the subject of the blog ”some thoughts about electricity”). Not so many years ago, I would just dump my bags in the room and immediately explore the city but flying from the U.S. to Europe is exhausting even when London is the end of the line. I made some tea, watched some TV, including a British mystery, wrote in my journal and called it a day. I didn’t go outside for the midnight sun but at 11pm, the sun showed no inclination to actually set and the air was as hot and sticky as it probably was in New England. Foof!