A Few Helsinki Memories

As nights start to draw in and the winter air begins to chill, my thoughts always turn east to the Nordic countries. There’s just something about thinking about those cool, crisp countries that comforts me in long winter nights. I pick up my (guiltily) beloved Nordic crime novels, hunt for episodes of The Killing and The Bridge online, watch Aki Kaurismäki movies, listen to the glacial music of Rubik, Husky Rescue and Sigur Ros, remember my many visits and plan many more.

I met up with a woman from Helsinki last week for an article forthcoming for (614) Magazine and now I am dreaming of Finnish forests and remembering the last summer I spent in Helsinki.

Walking along the craggy shoreline of Suomenlinna, an 18th-century fortress island, made me feel far removed from the city — actually only a 15-minute ferry ride away.

Ferry from Kauppatori to Suomenlinna sea fortress, where I stayed for the first half of my trip. Photo by author.

The island is peaceful; almost silent outside of ferry arrival times.

House on Suomenlinna. Photo by author.

Arriving at Market Square from the Suomenlinna ferry, you can choose from dozens of food vendors. The Old Market Hall, which dates from 1914, is best known for its fresh produce — it’s where the city’s chefs shop.

Helsinki Market Square. Photo by author.
Boat in harbour at Kauppatori. Photo by author.

Töölö Bay is circled by a jogging/walking track and rowboats usually dot the bay.

Töölönlahti Bay. Photo by author.

The beautiful old villas overlooking the water are still inhabited. The terrace of Blue Villa Cafe has views across the Bay, as well as Finlandia House, National Opera House and Kiasma art museum.

Linnunlaulu Villa. Photo by author.

The contemporary art museum, Kiasma features striking architectural design and programming.

Kiasma. Photo by author.

Cutting-edge architectural and design is, of course, at the heart of Helsinki.

Helsinki Train Station. Photo by author.
Abrahaminkatu. Photo by author.
Ruoholahti. Photo by author.

Everyday objects are designed to within an inch of their lives — including bicycles. The almost painfully hip fixed gear Jopo bicycle is the most stylish, and practical, vehicle for getting around the city.

Jopo bicycle parked in the Design District. Photo by author.

Independent record stores thrive in Helsinki, especially in the Punavuori district.

Stupido Record Store. Photo by author.

Bars, clubs, music venues and cafes are rooted in Punavuori. One of my favourites was a combination of all four: Belly on Uudenmaankatu (which I fear may now be closed). They did a cheap buffet during the day and live music in the evenings.

Belly. Photo by author.
Helsinki street scene. Photo by author.
Helsinki colour. Photo by author.

On Board the MS Baltic Princess. Tallinn – Helsinki

MS Baltic Princess

While I was in Tallinn the advertising campaign for the national shipping company featured a disturbing clown dressed in a red fitted jump suit and a slogan that read Sirkusen Taikaa, which translates as “Circus Magic.”

"Circus Magic"

I travelled from Tallinn to Helsinki on the MS Baltic Princess and a circus it most certainly seemed. Magical? Not so much.

Tallinn Harbour

The journey began happily enough; plenty of room to wander; food, drink and gifts massively overpriced but available; lovely views of Tallinn harbour and the city’s rooftops as we pulled away. But then everyone started drinking.

I had made a concerted effort in Riga and Tallinn to avoid the hoards of stags (bachelor parties) that congregated (and, some might say, ruined) the centre of both cities; dressed in matching shirts, belligerent and drunk. For me, it was even more pressing to distance myself from these people because they were my people: the British.

I had thought that only the British were guilty, but I made the crossing on a Monday morning and, judging by the PVC leggings, metal shirts and wild hairstyles sported by my fellow passengers, I was joined by the Finnish stragglers from a long, drunken weekend in Tallinn.

The mass export of alcohol was astounding. People were carrying crates and pushing carts full of it; beer mostly, but whisky, vodka and various fruity “long drinks” too. I understand that alcohol is a lot cheaper in Tallinn than in Helsinki but, gosh, is the price difference really substantial enough to warrant a production that rivals Prohibition-era bootlegging?

Booze carrier

At first it was amusing watching everyone card their slabs of booze on board, but as containers were cracked and bottles and cans began to pile up on deck, I had an ominous feeling. Prescient, I realised after I walked into the ‘Entertainment Lounge’ and was groped by a drunk. Of course I shouted and kicked up a fuss, but then retreated to a couch in reception shared with a group of quiet elderly ladies. Besides a brief interaction with a man dressed as one of those hideous clowns, I was left alone to enjoy the rest of the trip.

A Cultural Reference: Helsinki

The way I travel.

Before I leave for a place I like to read about it; see it in a movie. When I leave, I like to hang on to the memories of a place through music, tastes, pictures. So, I take photographs, fill my bags with food and download tracks by local artists.

I only spent a week in Helsinki and yet, we have this connection, Helsinki and I. My jar of lingonberry jam, bags of Salmiakki and bottles of Lonkero are finished, but I can still imagine myself there through books, films and music.

Film: The Man Without a Past

Whenever someone asks me what film I want to watch I immediately think of The Man Without a Past. I could watch it every day without tiring. In this film by Aki Kaurismäki a man falls asleep in a Helsinki park, is beaten by thugs and declared dead in hospital. He wakes up, with no memory, and leaves the hospital of his own will and is taken in by a complete stranger to start his life from scratch. The man finds an old jukebox, inspires a group of musicians and falls in love with a Salvation Army worker.

I hate to use this word, but it is charming. The main character carves out a simple life, free from history and memory. For a while it seems like life really could be so simple.

Kaurismäki also directed Leningrad Cowboys Go America and pseudo-film noir, Lights in the Dusk.

Books: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and Lang: A Novel of Suspense

Most of Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name takes place in, as the title suggests, the far north of Finland. There is a brief section, however, when Clarissa first arrives in Helsinki from America and has an awkward encounter with a young hotel worker that just reeks of loneliness and the sense of feeling out of sorts and lost in a place that you don’t quite know why you came to.

Kjell Westö is a Finnish author who writes in Swedish — it is sometimes quite jarring to remember that there is a large Swedish-speaking Finnish population, and to realise that the street signs in Helsinki are in both languages. Lang is a character study of an arrogant television personality, just past his peak, and his childhood friend that appears out of the past. The book is suspenseful; menacing, and a page turner.

Music: Husky Rescue, Rubik, Manna and Islaja

Islaja sounds glacial; Rubik, melodious; Manna is rock n’ roll sass, and Husky Rescue, cinematic.

Ruoholahti, Helsinki