Into the Unknown
In 2009 I went to live in Helsinki. It was a bit spur-of-the-moment and I’d never even visited Finland before but me and my (now) husband arrived in early February and ended up staying for 3 months. I suppose it’s debatable as to whether this was ‘living there’ or just an extended working holiday but it was one of the more unusual things we’ve done and one that had a lasting effect on me.
Other than the weather I really didn’t know what to expect from Helsinki. A few months before going there we’d spent the weekend in Geneva and found that unbearably cold. Going to the capital of Finland in the depths of winter when it was -11°C, however felt by comparison strangely comfortable.
Not only had I not been there before, I’d not even really seen any pictures of the city. In my mind I expected the architecture to look a bit like cities in Germany or the Netherlands but it wasn’t really like that and seemed to be more influenced by Russia (which, geographically speaking, makes sense).
There are loads of things that Finland is known for: Fazer chocolate, Marimekko, Moomin Shops, Strindberg Cafe (and its selection of cakes), Suomenlinna, the underground shopping malls, trams, the church carved out of rock (which, actually we lived just around the corner from and didn’t visit at all in the 3 months we lived there…).
Obviously I remember all of those things and have a fondness for them (apart from the church that I didn’t see). I still recall times like when we climbed to the top of the Hotel Torni to sit at the outdoor bar, admire the view and drink hot chocolate with blankets over our legs.
However, the anecdotes we laugh about and share with people are about totally different things. I suppose Finland was my first experience of travelling. Not just going on holiday for a couple of weeks and having a quick look at what’s there but slowly exploring a bit more, noticing things about the culture and the people. Experiencing what might just be ordinary everyday life, but ordinary everyday life in a different culture.
Home Away From Home
I’ve got happy memories of our slightly too-small studio flat that actually contained everything we needed. Of Sunday afternoons when we would walk down to the sea and cross the bridge over the ice to a cafe for tea and, of course, cake.
The municipal heating system that ensured we were kept warm and always had hot water. The discovery that it’s common to have your draining board inside a cupboard above the kitchen sink, and a tiny shower bidet attached to the underside of the bathroom sink (both genius ideas in my opinion).
Food and Studying
I remember seeing lots of people rush from the tram to a tiny tent near the harbour which, I later discovered, served salmon soup (as did the boat moored nearby). I remember learning to make salmon soup at home, cooking reindeer stew and buying Mämmi to eat at Easter.
I remember using the library at Helsinki University (when finishing the assignments for my London-based Masters Degree), being unable to find the Theology section as I was in the wrong building – and then sliding down the icy hill near the (white) cathedral on the way home.
I remember that it seemed to be impossible to buy a fresh chicken in a supermarket and that the stall holders at the indoor market, where you could buy a chicken (and a microwaved reindeer kebab, if the mood took you) all assumed I was Finnish. I actually found myself feeling a bit guilty that I wasn’t.
We eventually decided against signing up for Finnish lessons. Instead we went to the Academic Bookstore and had a conversation with a shop assistant, who wore a flag badge to represent every language she could speak (there were a lot of badges). She recommended all kinds of books to us and we childishly avoided eye contact with one another as she repeatedly described the differences between the introductory level books and the ones we might like ‘if you want to go deeper’.
I am ashamed to say that I barely looked at our ‘Finnish for Foreigners’ books and sold them on Ebay when we came back to London. I am not ashamed to say though, that I picked up lots of Finnish words just from listening to and interacting with Finnish people, and using online translation tools to write my shopping lists and to help me decipher food labels.
There were a few people I spoke to in shops who were very excited to discover I was English, so they could practice their foreign language skills (and ask me why it was that I would leave Yorkshire – the land of green moors and ‘Wuthering Heights’ for such a cold place).
Weather, Food and People
We saw another side to the usually very reserved Finnish people in the extremely drunk man who invited himself to sit with us at the end of our meal in a Chinese restaurant on Valentines night. He invited us to visit his home the following day and didn’t notice as we walked in the opposite direction when leaving the restaurant.
I remember heavy snowfall in April and tiny snow ploughs that almost immediately cleared the roads and car parks. I remember May Day in Helsinki when we bought a brick for €1 from a drunk student on a tram, agreeing that we would take the brick back to the UK and email him a photo of it (we didn’t bring it back).
I remember sampling bear pie while listening to a loud English man tell some strangers how he’d cured his own diabetes. I remember the restaurant a few doors down from where we lived, that served mostly steak (including ‘Robbers steak’ which was served hanging from miniature gallows) and where, no matter what you ordered you would be given a large bowl of iceberg lettuce before your meal.
Finland was the first place where I saw the sea frozen solid. So solid in fact that people regularly walked across it (I wasn’t brave enough to do that). It was where I bought a pair of (very expensive) Ugg boots to give my poor feet respite from the walking boots that had given me blisters (story of my life – all shoes hate my feet).
Finland was where, on a ferry, we met a Finnish woman who had lived through the Winter War and told us a few stories about the village where she grew up.
It was also the place where, no matter where you bought it, a cup of coffee (or a bunch of broccoli) cost €2.50. Where there were ducks who had not flown south for the winter. Where we discovered Ruispalat and where we bought a huge block of cheese that we stored in our freezer.
Helsinki was the city I remember where people enjoyed being outdoors, no matter how cold the weather was. Where you could get a free cup of tea with a sandwich and where, on a visit, if your Father-in-law mentioned that he’d not seen a band of panpipe players busking in the street (obligatory in most European tourist spots) you could immediately walk outside and see, for the first time, one setting up ready to start playing.
It was where parents would take their babies out in prams and use a blanket to protect them from the falling snow. Where I found a homeless person asleep inside a coin operated toilet. Where, in the railway station we saw a picture of a dog, that I assume was missing. Where we first ate cloudberries and where, if ever we asked a fishmonger to recommend a traditional way of eating (any) fish they would, without fail, tell us to stuff it with cheese and eat it with potatoes.
There were of, course, lots of things about the UK that I missed while I was away and that I was really glad to come home to: not needing to wear a winter coat in Spring, the busyness of London, being able to buy my underwear at Marks and Spencer‘s, but most of all being closer to family.
What this experience made me realise though was the difference between going on holiday and travelling. Bertrand Russell describes how some people will travel to foreign countries but eat the same food as they do at home, have the same conversations, hang around with the same kinds of people and may just feel tired at the end of it from all the travelling. I’m not sure that I agree with him entirely about this but he compares this type of person to,
‘Other men [who], wherever they go, see what is characteristic, make the acquaintance of people who typify the locality, observe whatever is of interest either historically or socially, eat the food of the country, learn its manners and its language, and come home with a new stock of pleasant thoughts for winter evenings.’1
I think that trying to experience a city or country by finding the places that the local people hang out, talking to them and learning about their food and history means that, you’re likely to learn more, come away with unique memories that go beyond the typical tourist experience of a new place, and get closer to the reality of life there.