The Finnish don’t like to make a fuss, especially about themselves. In fact, they are so self-deprecating they make English reserve look positively brash by comparison.
Q: How can you tell the difference between a Finnish introvert and a Finnish extrovert?
A: When he’s talking to you, a Finnish introvert looks at his feet. A Finnish extrovert looks at yours.
But that doesn’t mean people are pushovers.
“The word that best defines the Finnish is ‘sisu,’” explained Heather, our guide on the excellent Heather's Helsinki "Fork in Hand" food tour. “There’s no exact translation, but it means something like the willingness to persevere when anyone else would have given up.” Frankly, I can see how people would be tempted to give up on Finland, if only because of the weather. Up north, in the Lapland region where Father Christmas is said to reside, thermometer readings can plummet to 50 below zero, there’s snow from October to April, and for two months the sun never peeks over the horizon. Helsinki isn’t quite that bad, with freezing temperatures for “only” five months a year. “Around here,” Heather told me, “people say, ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.’” Yikes! Now that’s sisu.
As Heather led us through downtown Helsinki’s charming markets, shops, and parks, past lovely buildings in styles ranging from neoclassical to Art Nouveau to Byzantine-Russian, I began to be seriously impressed. Helsinki is a friendly, walkable city where people spend a great deal of time sitting around drinking coffee (12 kilos per person per year, more than any other nation) and trying to figure out how to make life better in small, unassuming ways. For instance, somebody had the bright idea of covering every playing field in the city with gravel instead of grass, so they could be flooded with water, easily and cheaply creating free public ice skating rinks every winter. Someone else suggested creating a 20-minute meal station at Stockman’s supermarket; every few days there’s a new, quick-prep menu, with all the recipes and ingredients collected handily in one grab-and-go place. And we all have to thank whoever dreamed up the city’s Restaurant Day, which launched a lot of culinary careers — and the concept of the pop-up restaurant.
One young food entrepreneur who got her start on Restaurant Day is Elizabeth, an American expat who wondered if her adopted city would have a taste for treats from her homeland. Today she’s running Blondie Bakes in Vanha Kauppahalli, the Old Market Hall on Helsinki’s waterfront. Built in 1889, this local landmark offers foreign delicacies including Elizabeth’s sweets, French cheeses, and Spanish ham, along with such traditional local favourites as reindeer, horse, elk, bear, nettle soup, and sea buckthorn jam. During our stay in Helsinki, Rich and I ate in the Old Market Hall, sidewalk cafés, top rated restaurants, funky bars, and random bakeries that appeared when we needed a caffeine and sugar fix. We were frankly astonished; everything was delicious, even the extremely creative dishes that looked so great we were certain they’d disappoint — but they never did. We voted Helsinki the best food town of this trip, possibly of our travel careers.
But Helsinki isn’t only about the food. Artwork is scattered about the landscape thanks to the Helsinki Art Museum, which has placed half of its 9000-piece collection in parks, streets, offices, health centers, schools, and libraries “to brighten everyone’s day.” If your day needs even more good cheer, you can always go gaze at the outrageously colorful textiles at one the Marimekko stores, which were launched in Finland in 1951 “to bring joy to everyday life.” Another Finnish product that is now known worldwide is Fiskars. In 1967 the company revolutionized the look of scissors by adding bright orange plastic handles — the result, the company says modestly, of a thrifty move to use up leftover orange plastic from their juicer product line.
Another highly popular Finnish product is, of course, beer. The beloved golden beverage has been brewed in Helsinki for nearly 500 years, since the days when the town had just two thousand residents and 39 beer merchants. Heather took us to one of the hot new microbreweries, Bryggeri, where we sampled four freshly made beers and Bryggeriwurst, a sausage created specifically to compliment their beer. Heather introduced us to the brewmaster, Mattias, and we made a fuss and said nice things about his work until he started staring at his feet, and then we let him go.
“I get clients,” Heather confided, “who tell me their travel agents advised them to skip Helsinki because there’s nothing to do.” I just don’t get that at all. Rich and I loved the people, the architecture, the shops, the museums, and the fabulous food. Would we go back? As the city’s promotional campaign puts it, “HEL YEAH!”
THE TRIP SO FAR. Our three-month train trip began when we landed in Paris on June 28 and immediately hopped on a train to Lille, France. Two days later we visited friends in Amsterdam, then continued by rail to Germany. After a brief stopover in Osnabruck, we arrived in Lübeck, on the edge of the Baltic Sea. After some culinary adventures there, we took a ferry north to Sweden, landing in Malmö and continuing on to Stockholm. After the Stockholm disaster, we moved on to Helsinki, Finland. Tearing ourselves away from Helsinki's great culinary scene, we're currently enjoying the friendly city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia. To follow our adventures as they unfold, subscribe to this blog, like my Facebook page, and find our current location on the map.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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