Friday, August 14, 2015

in Helsinki

Finnish Story

This is a story that dates back to 1973. I am, therefore, 20 years old. I've come to the States as an au pair for a family with a little girl. Except, after a year of living with them (and studying at a NY college), I tell the parents that their little girl is getting too old for a nanny. She is nine and already has a tutor, a cook, a maid (well, several maids), a chauffer, a seamstress and various other people in their employ providing nanny type assistance. In the placement office on campus, I flip through a help wanted folder, looking for some other interesting summer work.

I come across a hand scrawled request for help from Finland. (To this day I don't know how this ever made its way to my college placement office, but there you have it -- one of those mysteries of life.)

A farm family with five children wants a student to come live with them for six weeks in June and July. The student would help with routine farm work and also speak English with the children. (The oldest is in high school and is modestly able to slap together some English sentences but the rest of the family knows no English.)

Perfect! I apply for and I get the job.

Well, almost perfect. Three weeks before I'm to go, I get an acute gall bladder attack (most likely related to the fact that my diet, since coming to the States, has been awful -- heavy in fatty and processed food, not at all like what I ate back home in Poland). I have a rupture and so go in for extensive surgery. My huge scar rivals that of LBJ's (an inside joke for those who were alive and following the news in those years). I wail to the surgeon -- but I'm supposed to go to Finland and work on a farm!
He's a doc ahead of his time. Eh, you're young, you're strong, you'll heal. Go to Finland.

I am at the farm. On the first evening, the girls ask me to come down to the sauna with them. In the little hut by the lake, as we strip down and get ready to slap birch branches on our bodies (it intensifies the experience), they note in horror my stitched up stomach. I tell them I'm fine, but they insist that at least I should sleep in a more comfortable situation: in the grandmother's room, on a couch, rather than in the attic, with the kids on the floor.

One night with the grandma (she had the loudest snore in all of Hirvivuori!) and I beg to join the kids upstairs. After that, my surgery is forgotten. I have a fine old time learning to work the tractor, we do the daily sauna and jump in the cold lake after, and I teach the kids the basics of conversational English.

That is my introduction to Finland.

Your Introduction to Finland

Before I tell you about my brief time now in this very northern European country, let me say a few things  (that you may or may not know) about Finland:

It's nearly impossible for us to earn Finnish: it doesn't follow the patterns of other European languages. Like Estonian and Hungarian, it belongs to the Uralic family of languages.

Meaning, I never learned much Finnish in the time I was here so many decades ago.

At the hotel breakfast, there are place mats with printed phrases for you to learn. For example, they instruct you how to say "that damn sea gull took my meat pie!" (Tuo pahuksen lokki vei lihapiirakkani!) and "God, it's do dark here!" (Onpa taalla pimeaa) and "Do you have elk?" (Onko teilla hirvea?) and "Do you have anything cheaper?" (Onko teilla mitaan halvempaa?)

This reveals a lot about the country: it has an extensive relationship with the sea, the winter days are ridiculously short, elk is more common here than say in Wisconsin, everything is very expensive, and Finnish people have a sharp wit and a dry sense of humor.

Other things to know: if you live in a place that has more cool days than warm days (a quarter of Finalnd lies above the Arctic Circle), you're going to appreciate all that August has to offer. Today was sunny and (at 70F) relatively warm. People were out enjoying the weather.



(by evening, bottles of wine and cans of hard cider were popped open on city strips of grass)

(If you live in a country with lots of dark days, you don't skimp on color)

You should know, too, that it is a country of many wild blueberries (and berries in general -- just walk through a market).


And in August -- many, many chanterelle mushrooms.


(Lingonberries don't come around until September)

There. Now let's proceed to my day here.

A Day in Helsinki

At breakfast I finally meet up with my friends. (Some of you may know Diane from her loyal comments here, on Ocean and from her own blog.)


It is a lovely and very long meal. There is so much to talk about!

We part ways after it: they're visiting friends who live outside the city and I'm hell bent on exploring this town. I have memories of a somber city and I want to improve on those images with a new perspective. And I do. Helsinki is a beautiful and inspiring place. (A young woman I encounter in the course of an evening meal tells me it has changed a lot -- even in the last half dozen years. You notice this most in the proliferation of art and music, but also in the vibe out on the streets.)

I don't really follow the list of must sees, so forgive me for leaving things out (a ferry trip to the fortress island comes to mind -- everyone should do that. I just ran out of steam. I'm still going on way too little sleep).

Here's my long and somewhat quirky walk through town:

(a beautiful shoreline)

(morning: tables made ready...)

(...for the afternoon sunshine)



I spend a while at the market. Apart from the numerous stalls of berries and chanterelles and new potatoes, you'll find items crafted in Finland. I purchased just one such thing (you'll have to guess which one).



The market square is right at the water's edge. In Helsinki, you're never too far from the Baltic Sea.


After, I crisscross one of the islands (Katajanokka) linked by numerous bridges. It's where you'll find Uspenskin Orthodox Cathedral.


...and old warehouses, converted to modern venues.


Back on the mainland, I should not neglect the second (many would say the first) of Helsinki's famous cathedrals: the Lutheran Tuomiokirkko:


My walk then takes me also to the Kiasma Museum of modern art. The building itself is remarkable -- designed by the American architect Steven Holl and finished just at the cusp of the 21st century, it tells you something about the way Helsinki has reinvented itself.


(Inside, a moment with mirrors.)


I cross over and make my way to Sibelius Park. A monument to the great Finnish composer:


There. My day in a nutshell.

Oh, but let's not neglect dinner. Since I only have one meal (apart from breakfasts here), I want to make it a good one -- something that picks up on the themes of the new Nordic cuisine. Something that makes use of local produce. I go to the tiny, tiny and wonderful Spis, where you can only select one of two tasting menus. Feeling frugal, I choose the shorter one.

Many beautifully crafted small plates later...

(this was just a nibble)

...I walk away thinking that there is a lot to discover and enjoy here. I am also reminded that Scandinavians drink more French white wine than the French themselves. The dinner was paired with wines -- all French, all memorable. But the dish that made me smile the most was the dessert: it's a play on rhubarb and oatmeal (the ice cream is oatmeal, as is the cookie crumb and the tiny bit of warm cereal at the side). If nothing else, I am a fan of oatmeal!


I take a stroll afterwards, just to people watch. Even now, in August, it does not get dark until after 10. Plenty of people take advantage of this.


But it's cool once the sun dips closer to the horizon. I take out my fleece jacket. And I walk briskly back to my lovely, very modern room at the Fabian Hotel.

Tomorrow we leave for Russia.