Sunday, July 17, 2011

Adventures in the North! Chapter 2: Hello, Helsinki!

I'd had two destinations in mind when I was to reach Helsinki: Suomenlinna and the Akseli Gallen-Kallela museum. I was more interested in the latter as the artist is one of my favorites, in my opinion up there with Wyeth in skill and visual storytelling. Both destinations required a fair bit of travel and walking, especially the museum, situated as it was in Espoo with at least a 2 mile walk just from and to the bus stop there. As it was my first and final day in Helsinki, I had a choice. Suomenlinna, the Gallen-Kallela museum, or taking it easy in the city. Perhaps I could have run myself through the first two destinations out of sheer force of will, but after the third dizzy spell during Hotel Linna's sumptuous breakfast, taking it easy seemed essential. As it turns out, three days of travel, a heaping serving of stress, and very little sleep can really take it out of you. Fortunately and unfortunately, one day in Helsinki was enough to make me fall in love.

Well fed, we strolled down the street, and I was immediately intrigued by this:


I don't know what it signified, but it struck me as whimsical, these lines of bright shirts tied together and slung between elegant 19th century buildings. Soon enough, we came upon a statue honoring the esteemed Elias Lonnrot, collector of the tales which make up the Kalevala.

Not fifteen minutes into our walk from the hotel, and I was already charmed by the city. From what I had read about Helsinki and her residents, I was expecting a cool, reserved place in which people rarely made eye contact and kept to themselves. Helsinki is cool, but not pretentious. There's an energy here like in all of the great cities of world- but Helsinki has a personality all her own: artistic, eccentric, and welcoming all at once. I'd dressed in one of my usual crazy-colored outfits complete with a flower in my hair (hey, if you're going to go all out, it may as well be in a foreign city), slightly worried that I would stick out. Not so. Everyone seemed to have their own individual style, thoughtfully chosen and, for the most part, flawlessly executed. Regardless of age or gender, an interesting hairstyle accompanied by a streak of wild color was the norm. It was wonderful. As for a reserved populace, smiles came easily here, and the people with whom I interacted were friendly and warm. Catherine mentioned that when she had been alone, whenever she checked her map a local would appear to offer help and directions.

After a visit to the excellent art museum (I did get to see some Gallen-Kallela paintings after all:) and a leisurely ramble, we retired to a cafe, where we enjoyed coffee, giant pastries, and the sight of an unfortunate fellow having his lunch swiped by a seagull (and this was in the middle of the city, mind!). Bellies full and brains caffinated, we moved on, stumbling across a small street festival in which there was a dancing contest, a little market of handmade goods, and a guy rapping Biggie Smalls in Finnish. Hipster guys off to the side were painting graffiti on large canvases for an appreciative audience. Smiling tattooed punk families pushed babies in strollers. I was officially smitten.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel where I decided to avail myself of its traditional sauna. There I encountered a charming Scottish mother and daughter duo, and chatted with them while steaming away the tension in my muscles. I'd mentioned my troubles in Iceland, and my regret that I hadn't been able to visit the hot springs there. The daughter laughed and mentioned that she had been, and that if I would go there that I should be sure to wear a bathing suit and bring my own soap ("Ah went with mah school one year. It's natural, so yeh know they can' clean it. I grabbed the soap- fulla pubes!" This line also proved that a Scottish accent makes anything sound awesome.). Normally I would be averse to being social in such a place, but gabbing with these funny ladies turned out to be just what I had needed.

I returned to my room refreshed and light of spirit, and found that my appetite, after two days of airport snacks, had returned with a vengeance. It was well into the evening at that point, and my companion very sensibly wished to turn in. However, since I only had a few more hours to spend in this city, I wanted to get as much out of the evening as I could. Led by my roaring stomach, I ventured forth and came across Bar Loose, where I enjoyed the BEST VEGGIE BURGER EVER. Seriously. As a stylishly mod DJ spun 60's tunes, I entrenched myself at a table, took out my sketchpad, and drew for hours. When I heeded the call of nature, I found that the bathroom stall was covered in silly sketches and Spongebob Squarepants quotes. I added a little scribble of my own to the graffiti, and the thought that a little bit of me still resides in a cool club in Helsinki brings me much joy. At around 1 am, I made my way back to the hotel on quiet streets feeling perfectly safe in a way that is rare to find in large cities. Heavy metal dudes nodded genially as I passed. Arriving back at our hotel room, I prepared for bed, already sorely missing Helsinki.

I need to go back someday.

In front of the amazing Hotel Linna, not ready to leave

No comments: