Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tell me about this place... // Helsinki

Helsinki?  Where do I start... I've been seven times!  I've been only once in the winter... The city sits up on a bay of the  Baltic Sea.  The ocean freezes over along the shorelines up to about a mile out.  You can walk on the ice; people are scattered about ice fishing as well... Huge cargo ships have these massive metal claw-like contraptions on the bow that break apart the ice as they barrel through the waters.  You can stand about 100 feet from them on the frozen sea while they break through on their way to the docks.   It's unlike anything I've ever seen.

I've never been up north to Lapland.  In the winter, on the shortest days of the year, the sun doesn't rise.  It never gets lighter than dusk and twilight outside, and that's only for a few hours mid day.  Helsinki is dark as well, but the sun shows its face for a few hours, though the days are short.  Everyone - young, old, rich, poor - has a sauna (they were invented in Finland).  It is an age old tradition to sauna in the dead of winter, then run out onto the ice of a frozen lake and jump into a hole carved in the ice, then climb out on a make-shift wooden latter and sprint back to the dry heat of the sauna.  (You thought snow angels after hot-tubs in Idaho was bad-ass).

The buildings in Helsinki are pastel shaded and colorful, as characteristic of many of the surrounding places that experience long, dark winters.  The thought behind this is that it helps to brighten up the streets in a place where darkness is so prevalent, at least for a part of the year.  The streets aren't as narrow or windy as you'll find them in many European cities, even in Stockholm, but they do run at odd angles.  Many streets are cobbled with bricks, which quaintness is contrasted by runs of tram tracks.  Within the core neighborhoods that make up the city, the public transportation is widespread, and highly utilized.  There are lots of parks, providing a fair offering of greenness, as well as dog-friendly space.  Pests like flies and ants may as well be creatures of myth.

Many may fight me on this, but I will argue that Helsinki is one of the best cities on the planet to see in summertime.  All that darkness goes completely reverse!  On what is celebrated as the longest day of the year, June 25th (called Juhanos, and also the day of my birth!), the sun sets around 11pm.  Twilight lingers for a bit longer than we're used to Stateside, and then a light darkness falls - ever so briefly - before the sun rises again around 4am.  The general rule of summertime thumb is that it's dusk when you enter the nightclub, and a slightly brighter dawn when you leave.  In a time and place where darkness is more or less obsolete, questions of safety and numbers wandering about the streets fall largely to the wayside.  Free to roam and wander in the light, boundaries begin to melt, and the fluidity of people between and among groups rises, aided by slightly discrete, public alcohol consumption - coined "pusikaliya".

Between beaches, parks, paths along the water, the bazaar and farmer's market on the bay, coin-op rental bikes stationed like ZipCars throughout the city, and semi frequent city-wide festivals, the summer is brimming with energy and activity.  People do not take for granted the warmth and light for a second.  After enduring a longer and more wretched winter than most of us have ever known, even an hour of Santa Barbara-like weather is idyllic.  The joviality is tangible, even for one who has not undergone the winter. 

Out of all the places I've been, Helsinki has earned a place in me that I will always love.  Should you be so lucky to visit, you will not regret it.  Quick tip: "Moi" (rhymes with 'boy') is hello.  "Moi moi" is good bye.  "Joo" (yo) is yes (informal).  "Ei" (ay) is no.  "Kiitos" (keyyy-tose) is thank you.  "Toi oli ihan naurettavaa" is 'that was absolutely ridiculous'.  The latter phrase can be used in a remarkable number of instances - I highly recommend practicing the pronunciation and reciting.  

Pus! Moikka! [(poose! moy-kah!) Kiss! Bubye!]

1 comment:

  1. AWWW I can't believe you wrote about Helsinki! We miss you like crazy and want you to come back and finally go to Lapland to see Santa :D I LOVED your little finnish lesson there, especially "toi oli ihan naurettavaa!"
    We miss you and love you! Keep posting!
    Pus Moikka! <3