I have quite a special relationship with Helsinki compared to other European cities I visited. Taking a Finnair flight from Hong Kong to Manchester means that it was Helsinki where I first landed in Europe, which was why I wanted to leave this amazing continent I spent 7 months of my life departing from Helsinki. I laid over in Helsinki twice until in August, I got to seriously visit Helsinki thanks to a lovely lady called Laura.
Laura and I met when she was an exchange student at HKU and she educated me about the incredible things of Finland. As a matter of fact, she is very incredible herself. Extremely hard-working and knowledgeable, her precision and insistence on perfection earned her the best lawyer jobs in Finland even when she is still a student. She is so good that she funded her three exchange-years completely by herself (USA, Germany and HK, all are expensive locations in the global scale). I do not mention this so you think she is rich, I mention this because I see an impressive sense of responsibility in her that I can learn from. (Many young people in Hong Kong take it for granted that their parents pay for their extra-curricular activities.) As a person, Laura is also very sociable (which is unusual as a Finn lol), kind, active and is of course a great friend. She once said that Finnish people don’t just go around and make a lot of acquaintances. They might have very few friends, but they are forever. Although Laura is indeed a bit older than me that she has naturally more experience, it is not what she has today that make her incredible, it is the long way she went through and hard work she paid.
Laura kindly let me stay at her place and even showed me around which I am very thankful of. You may think that an excellent person like her must be dull and doesn’t know how to enjoy life. You are wrong… She guided me to explore the best things in Finland (including literally, everything) and let’s start with the nature.
You don’t have to go to the forest to enjoy the nature … wait, maybe you do. But my point is, it is not that far away. Many islands are less than an hour away from Helsinki and are definitely beautiful. One of the most popular is Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is a sea fortress, that has more culture and history but also great site for picnics. What’s amazing about it is that there actually are people living on Suomenlinna, making it a town within a town.
That was only for the day. In the evening Laura, her friend and I went to the Vantaa forest for blueberries picking which was something I have never ever done before (I know I sound silly. But it’s blueberries.) I was super excited because first, I couldn’t imagine Finnish people could just go to the forest and pick however much blueberries they want and second, if we didn’t pick the blueberries that day they would be too watery soon. I had a lot of fun because on the way Laura and her friend had been speaking in Finnish which the sounds and speed of speech was very enjoyable to listen to. Also Laura is a care-picker who insists to pick every single berry by hand and I am just as happy to use a berry picker even though it will give me a lot of leaves as well. That night we used the blueberries to make milkshakes. It was great.
Aaand at the late evening after dinner, we went for a run, with another friend of Laura’s, in a real forest. I have to be honest. I haven’t ran in ages but that night I exercised for an hour or so non stop and I felt awesome. I never liked running but if I were in Finland I would run every single day. The temperature and humidity level were appropriate and I almost felt the air was too clean to inhale. Of course, when you are with friends, you are more motivated. But the environment was encouraging too. That night I slept extra well.
Last but not least is the Seurasaari which is an island reachable by bus. It is mainly an open air museum and has a nudist beach (which I only found out later). I regretted when I saw the beach that I didn’t bring my swimsuit because I have been wanting to re-tan after Nida but now I regretted that I regretted. Seurasaari is extremely peaceful and easy to explore for ashamed city girls like me. The many wooden houses and simple architectures echos the calmness and human connection with nature. It was a great place to sit down, relax and in general reflect on the meaning of life…
Finnish cuisine is all about being natural. When the raw ingredients are already in such pure quality, honestly nothing more needs to be done. Even though the dish is cooked, the cooking style is also very basic and nothing needs to be too complicated. Does that make my taste buds feel dull ? No. It was refreshing to eat something, well, fresh. Does this simplicity means Finnish people are lazy ? No. It is wisdom. Even the French will agree because they only eat the truffles raw or at most, with fried eggs as an omelette.
We did go to a traditional Finnish restaurant which is decorated like a country side house. Their selling point is traditional home cooking which is slightly more complicated than what most Finnish people eat at home now. They have all the really vintage stuff as furniture and a tourist-friendly menu so I took the opportunity to study the Chinese translations, haha. It was the first time I had reindeer meat and it was a good savory experience. (Restaurant Zetor, Mannerheimintie 3-5, Helsinki)
I also loved the salmon soup which is another signature dish in Finnish cuisine. In Ravintola Kuu (Töölönkatu 27, Helsinki) they serve the dish with a special twist by using smoked salmon and less-thick soup. That’s probably the most savory thing I have eaten in Finland and I had a great memory in that restaurant.
Finnish Sauna and bath
You have never been to Finland if you didn’t go to the sauna !! I am so grateful Laura brought me to a traditional one because otherwise I would have never known how to enjoy the sauna like a Finn. Also, finally I got to enjoy the bath as I have missed in Budapest and Istanbul. Of course before you enter the sauna, you take a shower and remain naked (I know people are shy but if you wouldn’t wear clothes to shower why would you inside the sauna ?).
Laura also bought some birch branches (vasta) and demonstrated how to use it. Turns out you beat the skin with the vasta so it stimulates circulation and relaxes the muscles. It was a really good feeling because it is relaxing and more fun to have some movement in a hot room than just to sit. You also help your friend with beating their back which I think is an extremely simple move that can lead to a strong social bond.
When it gets too hot you go outside, sit in the streets (with towels, of course) and cool down before the next cycle begins. Some people drink a beer and eat some sausages. I heard that in winter people jump into a frozen lake lol. I honestly would try it if I ever had the privilege to.
I really liked the sauna and I think it is the most magical experience by far. It is in the sauna where we loosen up as human beings and release the stress from basically anything. I wouldn’t doubt that going to the sauna is the best thing to do when Finland is always so cold but it certainly has developed to become a lot more than that. Before health facilities babies were born in saunas because it is the cleanest environment. If the negotiations have gone well, business people also invite each other to the sauna. Of course, I am not a Finn and I shouldn’t say that the sauna is so important to me as if I were. But the best that I can say about it is to recommend everyone to go to a sauna themselves. And if you were ever invited by a Finn, never refuse !
After the sauna we had a lady to clean us because (I was) too lazy and relaxed to deal with myself anymore. It was great, I felt very clean.
Finland being a great country has a lot to do with its people. Surely, the nature is beautiful and the food is fresh etc. But if you put the suddenly-rich mainland Chinese people who were born after the Cultural Revolution in Finland, there is a high possibility that Finland will be destroyed in 10 years (and it would take a century to restore). I appreciate that the Finnish people (Scandinavian people in general) always pay respect and attention to their connection with the nature. They also uphold their standards and never sacrifice quality for anything. This is literally why Nokia is so successful and is always a legend.
Thanks to Laura, I had the privilege to interact with some Finns. One of them is Johannes. When I arrived in Helsinki from Tallinn, it was him who kindly picked me up and showed me around. It’s always a little awkward to meet new people but we managed because at the very least, we could talk about Laura (haha). As we were waiting at a very long line to buy tram tickets from that one ticket machine outside the pier, we talked a little bit but suddenly Johannes became quiet and took out his mobile phone.
The first thought that came into my mind was “shit, did I say something wrong ? why is this awkwardly long silence ?” After a few minutes, Johannes turned to me and said “I sent an email and complaint that they should make more ticket machines at the pier because they should have expected that a lot of people travel to and from Tallinn here and they will buy the tram tickets”. I almost burst into laughter at that moment because it was so unexpected. Now that I think of it, I was very convinced and became impressed instead. Johannes taught me two lessons: silence doesn’t mean anything bad, it just means there is nothing to be said; and we should always take action instead of just talk.
Speaking of which, Finns’ language skills are exceptional although they don’t speak a lot. Laura, as a law student, of course; Johannes (also a law student) speaks perfect German and helped out a German tourist couple on the tram; even the lady at the sauna could speak English even though she is around 60. One time Laura brought me to her criminal law lecture (which was funny as I imagine the teacher must be confused of what the hell I was doing there) and introduced her classmate who went to HK for a 1-year exchange during high school. After so many years her classmate still remembers how to speak Cantonese, showed off his skills with a simple sentence and left me with a completely shocked face.
And if we pay enough attention, we observe how interactions secretly take place. One time I was waiting for the bus by myself under rain so I went under the roofed bus stop. A Finnish lady later waited outside the stop despite that it was still lightly raining. A few steps away I saw an ice-cream stall so I went to buy a scoop, and as I turned my head, the lady was inside the roofed bus stop. So she was also waiting for the bus, but she didn’t want to be too close with a stranger under the same small space. I didn’t know if I should walk in again but fortunately, the rain stopped and I waited outside the bus stop.
Another time was when I had an accident and I sat on the road before the ambulance arrived. Some Finnish passers-by walked to us and asked if everything is ok. Despite that Laura explained this phenomenon from the legal perspective (that if you see an accident, you are obliged to see and if you can offer help), I believe the people came out of self-initiative and kindness.
According to the Finnish standards, I am already writing too much. These are all anecdotes but it is from the micro perspective you see how the big picture is put together. Like Hobbes said, to study the nature of society you break it down to study the nature of humans first. There are so many more things I could write about the amazing Finnish people and Finland, but let’s keep it for next time because I look forward to going back soon.