A week in Helsinki

As the post title suggests, I just spent a week in Finland’s capital city of Helsinki to attend the Fulbright Center Orientation for new grantees.  It was very ‘bright lights, big city’ after the field station tour of the north country I did for my first week in-country.  As far as natural dichotomies of human nature (baker vs. cook, urban- vs. rural-dweller) I have discovered about myself that landscape is one of the ways in which I am truly flexible.  I am comfortable in large cities, and also in secluded wilderness – I have no overarching preference, although a balance of the two seems perfect.  This is a way in which I am very similar to Finns, who have made taking a summer retreat to the woods a national pastime.  In fact, the word in Finnish for a summer cabin (kesämökki) has no adequate or easy English equivalent, as the entire summer cabin experience is encapsulated in the single word ‘kesämökki’ (kay-sah-mourk-key).  But I digress…

Below are two pictures I took while in the Helsinki International Airport.  This was the small waste basket in my bathroom stall (a bathroom which is decorated to resemble a birch forest, complete with a bird-noises soundtrack issuing from overhead speakers) – and I found myself asking if I was actually in a spy movie?  Why in the world would you need a fingerprint-proof hands-free tiny garbage pail in each stall of the ladies’ restroom??  Mystery: unsolved.  An auspicious beginning to my Helsinki experience.

I am also really proud that I only got a little lost on the pubic transit system getting to my hotel from the airport!  I did get a nice walking tour of the city central during my slight rambling, which is littered with these birthday ribbon statues, commemorating Helsinki’s 200th birthday as a city.

It was really nice to meet my Fulbright cohort and the staff of people who work at the Fulbright Center in Helsinki, shown here outside of the Fulbright Center building (there’s 20 of us: 10 grantees, and 10 scholars/distinguished chairs).

While the majority of the 4-day orientation was spent in a series of short, intense sessions where invited speakers taught us about everything from how to do our Finnish taxes to the etymology of Finnish noun structure, we were also given a lot of opportunities to experience Finnish culture and to sight-see around the city.  On our first afternoon, we were taken to the Ateneum Art Museum, which is Finland’s National Gallery.  We were given a short presentation on the history of Finnish artists from the 15-20th centuries, and then given a personal tour of the current exhibition on Helene Schjerfbeck by the head curator!  I cannot remember a time when I enjoyed a museum so much, although I’ve also never had a personal tour from the world’s expert and head curator.  She had a great story, and subtle suggestions about interpretations for what seemed like all 300 pieces in the exhibit.  It was really special.

Here’s one of Helene Schjerfbeck’s most famous pieces, and recently voted the ‘favorite’ by Helsinki Ateneum-goers.  It’s titled ‘The Convalescent’, 1888.

We were also gifted a city tour by the city of Helsinki!  Below are some of the shots of us on the tour.

This is the Sibelius Monument – made of 600+ hand-wrought steel tubes welded together in the general shape of a wave.  Each tube also has a design welded into it.  This was all done by an elderly, frail-looking Finnish woman, and was installed here in Sibelius Park in the late 1960s.  On a windy day (which was not the case when we were there), you can hear a very distinctive sound issuing from the tubes, so I’m told.

Here you see me, Meghan Whalen, Hannah East, and Cora Meehan (the daughter of one Fulbrighter).  This photo was taken by Sophie Knowles, another Fulbrighter.

And then began the ‘Jump!’ series of photos.  Here’s Meghan, Hannah and I jumping! (photo: Sophie)

And then it’s a Jump! with Sophie Knowles, Rae Ellen Bichell, me and Cora! (photo: Meghan)

Let’s continue our ‘Jump!’ series at Congress square!  Is Van Halen running through your mind yet, because it was in my head this whole day… (photo: Sophie)

Our most dangerous ‘Jump!’, Hannah, Meghan and I jump from the steps of the Congress building gifted to Helsinki by the Russian Czar Alexander I (the statute in the photo above is of Czar Alex I, not that you can see who’s on the pedestal..).

We also went to the ‘Rock Church’ (Finnish: Temppeliaukion kirkko), which is a round church, designed and excavated out of a single mound of rock by a set of brothers in the late 1960s.  The inside of the roof is a spiral of woven copper plating on top of some insulating material, which dampens echo, making the acoustics of this building famous.

This church was amazing – a truly magnificent building that seemed to demand reverence.  It helped that there was a concert pianist playing gorgeous music while we were there.  The copper ceiling is held up on all sides by wooden beams, all spaced apart so the church is lit by natural light.

The only aspect that was a little bit of a ‘wet blanket’ to unparalleled natural splendor was the pew upholstery.  Rough, natural rock walls, a copper ceiling with 360-degree sunlight roof – I also would have jumped straight to blue and neon red-violet pews (shown below)!  One wonders if these are the original colors, chosen in the 60s, or if this is a more 80s-esque scheme??

(tour ended)

The second night we were there, a small group of us went to a pasta restaurant near the main train station, where you get one of these little credit cards when you walk in, and then you walk around to chef stations, order something that they make in front of you while you stand there waiting, and they scan your card.  The bar and dessert table also have card scanners.  You then just present your card when you’re ready to leave, and the balance of everything you’ve ordered is on it.  It’s brilliant – they don’t actually have to have servers, your food is made-to-order where it’s only your fault if it’s not exactly how you want it, and no more split checks!  Why don’t we have (more of?) these types of restaurants in the states??

On my last night, I went with Ben, Kate, Rae Ellen, Meghan and Lindsay to the Linnanmäki Amusement Park (in the middle of Helsinki).  Ben is a Fulbright scholar from last year who got a job after his grant period and now lives in Helsinki permanently.  Meghan and I asked Ben where we might get a good hamburger in the city, and he suggested we go to Kattila, a restaurant inside this theme park.  We were dubious, despite his assurances that this burger joint boasts a Michelin star (!), and that it also had kickin’ milkshakes.  We coerced Kate, Rae Ellen and Lindsay to join us on our adventure.

Unlike their American counterparts, amusement/theme parks here don’t charge general admission, you simply pay by the ride, so we were able to just walk in to go to the restaurant.  The burgers were good (no Dottie’s Dumpling Dowry by any stretch of the imagination), and the milkshakes were made in what I think of as ‘African-style’, meaning they were shaved ice with chocolate milk poured on top, and were decent for what they were.  It was overpriced – a basic cheeseburger costs about $15, and that’s without the extra $8 for ‘friend fries’ (I’m not even kidding here – that’s what they’re called on the menu!).  Before dispersing, I tried for one more ‘Jump!’ picture, but the combination of my camera and the dusky light was not ideal.

And then I took the 10-hour train back ‘home’ to Rovaniemi on Saturday morning.  The train station in downtown Helsinki is one of the most famous buildings in the city (and that’s saying something for a city known worldwide for its architecture).  The lantern-toting rock men are iconic Helsinki, so I wanted to make sure they made it into the slideshow (although you can see a parody of them above in the amusement park ‘Jump!’ shot).  Farewell, Helsinki.  I’m hoping to convince Brandon to do a few days in Helsinki with me later this year, to visit my new Fulbrighter friends, and to explore more.  :)