Despite my big trip being centred around Russia and Mongolia, the place I was most excited to see was Helsinki. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve had a fascination with the Nordic countries ever since I was young. I think it maybe has something to do with the free healthcare, safe cars, designer furniture, and all of the other statistics which rank Finland and the other Nordics at the top of nearly every quality of life, freedom, health, environmental, democracy, anti-corruption, etc. survey imaginable. Arriving into Helsinki Airport was a sign of the amazingness to come. Within about 10 minutes of landing, I was off the plane, passport stamped, bag collected, through customs, out the door, and waiting for a bus. Ten minutes. Ten. 10. I think I’d faint from shock if that happened at Sydney Airport.
Those thinking Finland may immediately think about Nokia or reindeer or… well, probably not much else. Honestly, how many people know anything about Finland other than that it exists and that it’s probably somewhere near Sweden? Finland isn’t big on the world stage if you’re not paying attention. While France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and other big European powers are like the popular kids in school – everybody knows them – Finland is the quiet kid sitting at the back of class. You would barely know he’s there if you didn’t see him on the map once in a while. Once you talk to him, however, you realize that oh my god he’s the coolest one in the room. And he’s also really attractive…
Especially during autumn when the leaves were changing all sorts of colours.
Helsinki was a city of contrasts, and a beautiful one at that. Gorgeous old buildings could be found everywhere, and each and every one of them was well-maintained, just to match the clean, litter-free streets.
It wasn’t all old and glorious - there were plenty of new construction cranes dotting the skyline showing the growth that the city and country are experiencing. Helsinki is consistently ranked one of the ten best cities in the world to live in, so it only makes sense that more and more buildings are popping up to accommodate those seeking the good life. When they can, the old and new were mixed together, creating some very unique architecture.
Old and new weren’t just in the architecture. All around town were signs of traditional Finnish culture, folklore, and more.
And then there was the new influence from outside cultures, and a good sense of humour to go with it. Exhibit A: we went to the biggest gay club in Helsinki and got Hello Kitty stamps at the door.
More and more, Helsinki is becoming a major hub for air traffic, especially as Finnair expands with direct flights to more and more international cities. It’s location on the great circle route for many flights between Asia and Europe also helps. My friend Charlotte, back in London after a few years of living in Australia, jumped over to Helsinki to meet me for the weekend – just because it is really close and easy to get there. And with more and more international exposure comes more and more international influence to complement traditional Finnish culture. This could easily be seen in the food. Where else can you get a chicken burrito and Corona or a cider and bowl of salmon soup at the same restaurant? Only in Helsinki…
The Finnish people too are a reflection of the country in which they live. They are hospitable, going out of their way to ensure visitors feel welcome and at home. I had the pleasure of meeting up with several locals when I was there, including Fredrik from CouchSurfing. Fredrik and his mate Jari took me and Charlotte – complete strangers – out for a night on the town.
The hospitality was everywhere. Exhibit B: different English pamphlets for Brits/Aussies and Americans/Canadians. How thoughtful! I could read both fluently. Does this mean I’m bilingual?
And they are progressive. Exhibit C: Jesus and Johnny Cash. Even the most diehard country music fan from Bumfuck, Texas would take offense to anything which distorts Jesus’ image. The Finns don’t give a shit. Let’s have some fun with it!
And finally, the Finns, despite their old history with Russia, are truly Nordic, which I love. Exhibit D:
I know I have a majority of the world’s cities still to explore, but even after seeing them all, I have a feeling that Helsinki will always be ranked near the top of my list. It’s definitely on the list again for a second, longer visit… and third visit…