Finland 2018 (part 1b): Helsinki

The charisma that I found lacking in Jyvaskyla was on offer in abundance in Helsinki. Sadly, I only had about 24 hours to take in the sights; I arrived at 2:30pm on Saturday and needed to head to the airport at 2:30pm on Sunday, so I wasted no time in depositing my bags in the hotel room and heading out to acquaint myself with the city.

Although I generally dislike doing things that seem overtly, cheesily touristy, I find that bus tours can be quite helpful for providing a comprehensive overview of a new place while helping you get your bearings. They are especially handy for when you’d like to see a variety of places but don’t have time to squeeze them all into your schedule. Given that I only had a few hours before closing time, a bus tour seemed like a good way to do some scouting in advance of my longer free period on Sunday.

Senate Square, Helsinki
The Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square, as seen from the top of the tour bus

There are a few tour bus options in Helsinki, all of which use red buses. I have taken a number of City Sightseeing tours elsewhere and I thought that was the company I was booking with when I bought my ticket. However, in reality, I was getting a ticket from Red Buses, which visits all the same places using pretty much exactly the same route. The audio recording, though, wasn’t up to the same standard I have had on previous trips elsewhere. Maybe it’s just a Helsinki thing, and the same is true for the City Sightseeing audio tour, but I have my doubts. There were big gaps between anecdotes, and during the quiet periods we kept passing by interesting things that I would have liked to have learned more about; further, there was silence during those gaps (on previous tours there has been locally relevant music used as a spacer), so I kept wondering whether there was a problem with my audio port. Most crucially, the narrator mispronounced and misused words to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to discern meaning. I can see why the tour company would record someone with a Finnish accent–it somehow makes the experience a little more authentic–but I don’t understand why they didn’t do a better job with quality control for the messaging. Still, there were some interesting anecdotes mixed in with the confusing stuff, and the WTF moments added a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to the experience.

After disembarking, I headed off to visit some of the sights that we’d driven past during the tour–starting with the Helsinki Cathedral, which was right in front of me. It’s an elegant building with a prominent position (both in Senate Square specifically and in the city more generally). It was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, who had been brought to Helsinki shortly after Finland was annexed by Russia, and tasked with creating a proper capital city (which was, by the way, substantially smaller then, with a population of only approximately 4,000 people). Engel dedicated over two decades of his life to perfecting the cathedral, which wasn’t consecrated until 1852, twelve years after his death. On the outside, it may look very similar to other religious buildings such as the Sacre Coeur, but the Helsinki Cathedral is a Lutheran house of worship and is therefore incredibly austere inside. It isn’t plain, exactly, but there are few decorations and ornaments, and those that have been included involve no frippery. It is amazing how this alters the thoughts and feelings you experience while you are inside the building.

Altar at the Helsinki Cathedral
Look at all the unadorned walls here, and the completely blank dome. You would never mistake this for a Catholic building.

Just a couple blocks away is the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox facility that, unfortunately, I couldn’t properly visit because preparations were underway for a Saturday evening mass. I was able to briefly poke my head in the doorway and catch a glimpse of some of its many icons. Although the building is stylistically quite distinct from the Helsinki Cathedral, it was built during approximately the same period and was consecrated not long after its Lutheran neighbour, in 1868. The red brick, darker interior, gilt decor, and large collection of religious artwork give it an incredibly different atmosphere. As I was leaving, I encountered an orthodox woman who had come for the service. Although I have incredibly conflicted feelings about ‘modest dress’, I did think she looked very romantically beautiful in her lace veil and shawl; because I never see such things in my daily life, I sometimes forget that people still wear these traditional forms of clothes, so it was like encountering someone who had stepped out of the pages of a history book.

I had a bit of a wander through the harbour area, where the large weekend market was just packing up for the day. The fresh fruits looked particularly appealing, not only to me but also to the many gulls waiting around to catch things that fell off stands or to nab food right off tables if the vendors let down their guard for just a moment. I also took in the Esplanade, a long, thin park where people come to relax and picnic in the sun. It is situated near a range of shops, theatres, and restaurants, so it’s the perfect place to stop off for a mini-break in the middle of a busy day out.

Fact and Fable statue
‘Fact and Fable’, by Gunnar Finne, unveiled in 1932. The statue is accompanied by a plaque with QR codes and a URL for more info (http://vihreatsylit.fi/en/esplanadinpuisto/).

With that brief introduction to the city under my belt, I headed back to the hotel to have dinner. This hotel, incidentally, was quite a step up from the one in Jyvaskyla. It had its own cobbled courtyard and counted among its decorations a centuries-old tapestry. Sadly–tragically, even–the flamingo frescos featured so prominently on the hotel’s website were not in evidence anywhere I looked. I had so been anticipating a selfie with the pink bird art and was disappointed that this was not possible. What I got instead was front row tickets to a small urban common gull breeding colony, from which emanated an endless amount of territorial shrieking  ALL. NIGHT. LONG.

Night sky in Helsinki
Long past my bedtime, the sun is still up. This is 11:30pm in Finland in mid-June.

Though this inevitably left me feeling somewhat bleary-eyed the next morning, I was still eager to get out and explore more of the city. I had two destinations in mind: the Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM, and the National Museum of Helsinki. You might think that I was going to the former in order to see fine art, but, no, I was only there to snap a photo of its main entrance:

Main entrance to the HAM
Helsinki Art Museum entrance under the watchful eye of an enormous gull head

I’d seen the HAM the previous day during the bus tour, which mentioned the museum but said nothing about the bizarre avian decoration outside its entrance; likewise, online research yielded no explanation and no photos featuring the, um, art. I can only assume this is a temporary installation, for which I am sure the residents of the apartments across the street are extremely grateful. If you are thinking that this building looks like an unusual place for an art museum even before you factor in the gull, you may be interested to know that this facility is called the Tennispalatsi and was originally constructed in 1938 for the 1940 Olympics (which were supposed to have been held in Tokyo but were relocated to Finland); it housed four tennis courts that were never used for their intended function because the Olympics were cancelled once WWII began. However, the building did finally contribute to the Olympics in 1952, when it hosted the basketball preliminaries.

After the photo shoot, I headed over to my second and final museum of the day. The National Museum is housed in a striking building designed in the ‘national romantic’ style–one inspired by the castles and churches of medieval Finland. It houses an extensive collection of items dating from prehistory to the modern era; there was even a temporary Barbie exhibit on display when I visited, though I didn’t have time to wander through. You start by heading downstairs to learn about Finland’s earliest human residents and then climb upwards to work your way through successive periods of history.

The museum is not only full of interesting things, but also laid out extremely well. For example, though there aren’t that many prehistoric artefacts to put on display, the exhibition is rounded out with drawings, videos, and infographics that provide additional information to help you contextualise what you are seeing; these are arranged so as to reinforce certain messages and concepts and help audiences really understand and remember the topics addressed through the collections.

National Museum living stones

(This–which is a video in which the sound is crucial–is one of the weirdest but also most wonderful things I’ve ever encountered in a museum. Without any preamble or captioning, it accompanied a display about petroglyphs. The text associated with the reproduction rock art stated that often the artists painted their images on rocks that had human features. That was the only context provided. There were four of these.)

As in Norse mythology, the idea of a tree of life can also be found in ancient Finnish beliefs. Here, the layout of the room helps the visitor get a sense of how a three-part tree structure (roots, trunk, canopy) might symbolise distinct parts of the universe.

I knew next to nothing about Finland before visiting, and though I am sure my current levels of historical and cultural understanding are well beneath those even of a young Finnish child, I do at least feel that I learned a substantial amount from touring the museum, and that what I picked up was the sort of crucial knowledge you would want to impart to a visitor so the they have a framework for understanding the country and its people. I got the sense that the museum was providing me with a lens through which everything I encountered in Finland was clearer and more logical.

Further, I found I was genuinely interested in everything I was learning. This is something I notice wherever I travel: No matter how little you knew about a place and its people beforehand, and no matter how unlikely those seem directly related to your own history or current life, it is almost inevitable that you will find something that connects with you personally, or that you have encountered in some fashion before, even without realising it. No matter where in the world they live, people are people, and we all share things in common.

Offering stone
Case in point: offering stone. People around the world are drawn to stones that are deemed holy because they are unusual in some way. This stone features lots of impressions where offerings–milk, food, flowers, etc.–were once left. I saw very similar things last year in Ireland.

One of the most impressive techniques utilised by the National Museum was that of housing entire structures within its gallery space. For example, there was a boxcar that you walked through as part of an exhibition on schoolchildren that had been sent to safety in Sweden during WWII; in a series of rooms showing artefacts from the 18th century, several were devoted to reconstructing an 18th-century house featuring domestic artefacts in situ; and my favourite: there was an entire traditional Finnish log cabin. This last example could be smelled before it was seen because it was the genuine article and, since cabins were originally made without any chimneys, it gave off a very strong campfire-like eau de smoke.

Log cabin
It was interesting to look inside the cabin, but it was even better to smell it.

The National Museum also dealt with politics fairly directly, acknowledging Finland’s difficulties with successive external rulers (first the Swedes, then the Russians), then its internal struggles as it sought an identity as an independent nation, and finally more modern challenges associated with the economic crisis and immigration. It was a thoughtful but practical approach that showed pride in national accomplishments without minimising less savoury moments in history or straying into the realm of propaganda. I appreciated the blunt, self-aware approach, which allowed you to interpret the information in whatever way you felt was appropriate and draw your own conclusions accordingly.

Saved art
Pieces scavenged and saved by Sakari Palsi, Olavi Paavolainen, and Yrjo Jylha during the Continuation War. This trio wandered through abandoned villages to preserve precious cultural artefacts that had been left behind when homes were abandoned or were at risk of being destroyed in the fighting.
Finnish presidents
Finland became an independent country in 1918 and is celebrating its centenary all this year. These photos are straight out of Harry Potter: The subjects, Finland’s presidents over the years, all move very subtly every few seconds. It is extremely unnerving when you are not expecting it.

I do not know many Finns personally, though I know enough people who do that I have heard all the classic stereotypes: The Finnish have intensely deadpan humour; they love vodka; their culture revolves around the sauna; they are very direct; they are quite individualistic; they’re all a little crazy (which is always linked to the long days in summer and long nights in winter). I have to say that I saw either elements of, or the roots of, most of these things, both while out and about in Finland in general and while wandering through the National Museum.

A display of sauna ladles
This is only a portion of the entire sauna ladle display. People go to the sauna not just with friends and family, but also with colleagues. Important business and political deals are completed at the sauna. And all of this is supposed to take place without clothing.

I mean that in an appreciative, kind-hearted way rather than a judgmental one. These are a people who live in an incredibly extreme environment, and although there is a decently sized immigrant population, many Finns descended from ancestors who lived in that harsh wilderness for generations upon generations and somehow managed to survive and thrive. You can’t achieve that feat without being at least a little intense, yourself. It is no surprise that the Finns are direct and no-nonsense, or that their culture contains extremes of both colour (I am picturing some of the more outlandish clothing styles I encountered on the street and also remembering this crazy article I saw a few years ago) and darkness (I’m pretty sure even lullabies are heavy metal). The people are shaped by their surroundings.

Museum display of heavy metal music
This great interactive display allowed you to sample from the wide range of heavy metal music produced by Finnish artists.

I know that statement is slightly oversimplified, but I do think there’s a lot of truth in it. And, while the Finnish climate–not to mention those crazy-long winter ‘nights’–is perhaps a little extreme even for me, I did feel an affinity for the country and its people. I never felt self-conscious in the way that I have in some of the other places I’ve visited, and my interactions left me with the sense of a kindred spirit. I have absolutely no idea what anybody was saying, though, so for all I know I was being made fun of the entire time I was there, and just couldn’t tell because nobody ever laughs.

In any case, the National Museum was an extremely educational and enjoyable experience and was a great way to finish up the trip (pun intended!). If you’ve only got a limited amount of time in Helsinki, I can’t think of a better way to get a good introduction and overview to Finnish culture in general. However, I would recommend trying to linger in the city a bit longer than I did so that you can explore some of the many other museums and cultural sites on offer. I’m sad I wasn’t able to squeeze them in during this visit, but I’m hoping to return some day.

In fact, though it won’t give me an opportunity to see more of Helsinki, I do have another trip to Finland coming up at the end of August. This time, I will be heading out into the wilds. Will the change in scenery alter my appreciation of the country and its people? Will spending time in the Finnish forest make me more laconic? Will I develop a love of saunas and swimming in very cold water? Stay tuned to find out…

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