The first stop on my trip was Helsinki, which was celebrating its two-hundredth year as Finland’s capital. That meant festivals and street fairs all over the place. I was lucky enough to run into the lovely Anna, a local lady and fellow Trinity student, who endured my head-lolling and snoozing throughout the plane journey, and still found it in her heart to take me around.
I met up with Anna properly on my third day in town at Kauppatori, the fancier market square on the water. I was excited and got there early, so I got to wander around the stalls and reapply sunscreen while I waited.* If I learned anything from the market it was that Finnish strawberries belong on and in everything that is on its way to my mouth, and that wood and reindeer are better than Krazy Glue and duct tape as far as versatility goes.
For the past twenty years the artist’s been hand-cutting coins from all sorts of countries and time periods. Besides being a skilled artisan and a cool guy, he didn’t mind my hemming and hawing while trying to pick out a graduation present for a friend. Man’s a winner, folks.
Shortly after I made my purchase, Anna arrived. We got pork doughnuts (delicious) and coffee (I didn’t even hate it), which prepped us for ice cream pretty well. Since I don’t like liquorice, I was told I had to try terve ice cream, which tasted like smoky Coke. I looked it up, and it turns out that it was tar-flavored. I kind of liked it.
Then we had to drop off her friend who was working at one of the political stalls in the fair near the train station. Just about every political party and cause was represented, though Anna confessed that, “They put the hippies far away in a different location.” I was still muscling down my cone of terve–biggest small I ever had–but I almost dropped it when I saw the long tent full of books. Inside, every independent publishing house in Finland was represented. And, people, let me tell you, there were a lot. It was awesome. Everywhere I looked, there were stacks upon stacks of beautifully-designed books on topics I’d love to read about. There were even political pamphlets; proper ones that were printed and bound, not just copies run off in a Kinko’s. Alas, I don’t speak Finnish.
Then we hopped on a bus out to the suburbs to catch a snippet of another friend’s reimagining of Robin Hood at a neighborhood fair. We missed it the first time around, getting lost somewhere between an outdoor rockabilly concert and the face-painting down by the public vegetable gardens, but we made the second curtain and it was great fun. Anna had to lean in from time to time to explain what the actors were saying or that the song being sung was a popular Finnish mainstream anarchy (INORITE?) song from the Seventies. After that we just kind of wandered around the fair, and every house had something to offer.
We had to split up at the end of the afternoon, though, because I was convinced that I had lost my passport, and had to run back to my hostel to find out that that was thankfully untrue.
“But, Liz,” I hear you say, “While these anecdotes are quaint and your photos visually amusing, they do not apply to every visit to Helsinki. What should I do while I’m there?”
I’m not sure if this is a self-proclaimed thing or an actual title the city has won, but Helsinki is the World Design Capital. I spent my first night at Hostel Errotajanpuisto, which is sweet spot right in the center of the design section of the city. While hunting down a grocery store, I found myself wandering in and out of galleries and shops to admire everything inside.
The hostel also put me right near the Design Museum. The entry fees were reduced since only one floor was open (repairs, etc.) and I thought that was pretty sound. The exhibitions I did see were amazing, and spanned Finnish design from the late Nineteenth Century to the present. I was honestly blown away by the range of items: writing desks, hospital bed-stands, cutlery, spinning Marilyn Monroe-inspired lamps. I heard a couple of other museum-goers complaining about the fact that they couldn’t take pictures, but they clearly didn’t get into it enough to find the interactive parts of the exhibition. Throughout it there were blue drawers that you could pull out and get your hands a bit dirty. In the section that talks about how nature inspires a lot of designs, pulling out a drawer activates a speaker overhead that gets birdsong and leaf-rustling going like you’re in the middle of a forest. Another one (around the Sixties and Seventies) has a bunch of old newspapers and challenges you to fashion jewelry out of it.
But maybe you don’t want to talk about how popular design is still catching up with Fifties Finland. Maybe you don’t like design.
That’s cool, baby. I feel that.
A good portion of my trip was spent on Iso Mustasaari, one of the islands that makes up the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. Yeah, just one of the islands. That bad boy is spread out over several islands and has been under Swedish, Russian, and Finnish command. And people live there. And there’s a prison. And there are still active military personnel in the fortress. The fortress. Beat that. You can’t.
Suomenlinna has it all: beautiful walkways, a reformed Russian Orthodox church (stripped of its decoration), cannons, a creepy toy museum, a brewery, beaches, a library–more things that you can shake an ice cream at. The hostel on Mustasaari is a converted Russian elementary school. What more do you want from me? Blood? You have to take a ferry to get on and off the island. It’s a bad horror movie just waiting to happen.
Really, though, it’s a gorgeous place to walk around. I followed some geese along the water and got to sit in the sunshine before working my way up to what my map called, “the artists’ cafe”. When arrived, I was delighted to find that there was an exhibition of one artist’s ink drawings and painting of Finnish wildlife, meant to raise awareness about preservation and adorable animals. Ringed seals and brown bears, people. Get with it. There was also live music, tea, and a gorgeous atmosphere, which, for me, means lots of posters and candles.
So, Helsinki is great and you should go if you can/like food/appreciate stuff. I wish I’d had more time, but I hopped a train to Tampere on the fourth day. That’s what you have to look forward to.
No Follower Love-Fest this time. Just appreciate Anna for getting me off to a solid start and for being hilarious.
*Thank you, Helsinki, for starting my traveling off on a sunny note. Your Vitamin D carried me through several dark days since I left you.