Category Archives: Culture

INTERLUDE IN HELSINKI

To the tourist, travel is a means to an end; to the traveler, it’s an end in itself.” ____Marty Rubin

A breezy, sunny, morning on the Bay of Finland; my dramamine seems to be working while Tallinn, Estonia drifts away on the horizon. Helsinki arrival is in one hour and forty-five minutes. The Viking lines ferry is the size of a cruise ship with shops, bars and restaurants on multi-tiered decks but there will be no shopping or lunching for me. I am firmly ensconced at a table with a gentle tea before me and mental mantras to calm any potential motion sickness. The sea and sun pass outside the window and it is a pleasant, sleepy, short crossing.

1976 or thereabouts, Helsinki, the author.

This is not my first visit to Helsinki. I have some lovely memories from airline layovers in this city in the late 1970’s.  Then it was a unique, casual, no-drama town that was artistic and modern. To add to my daydreaming of a 1970’s heyday, an old friend, from those ‘flight attendant’ years, sent me a message on Facebook when he learned we were headed for Helsinki. Osmo, who is Finnish, cast a singular virtual net to introduce us to his dear friend, Sue, who lives in Helsinki. It was a grand, generous idea.  Over the last couple of days, I’ve become accustomed to her smokey voice on my cell phone. Sue calls herself a ‘dinosaurus’, an allusion to her personal disconnect from the internet and electronic platforms. Our ‘not always successful’ connections across borders via cell phones were peppered with her unorthodox humour.

The Hotel Grand Scandic Marina, a massive converted warehouse.

Soon after we check into our hotel, Greg and I ride down to the lobby with some reserve and trepidation to meet Sue. Exiting the elevator, we can’t miss the seated feminine figure holding a large hand-made sign consisting of a heart in the center of which is markered something like ‘We luv Grace’. In the vast industrial space of our hotel lobby, Sue greeted us with  a whimsical, warm welcome to break the ice with these strangers that have been put upon her. Her son, Matts, is waiting for us outside in the car. We all quickly get acquainted as Matts whisks us away to the Sibelius Monument.

Matts and Sue have a comedic repertoire as he teases his mother for speaking very bad Finnish (not the word he used but close enough). He tells us that as a child, he spoke only Swedish at home until he started school where he learned proper Finnish. Sue is a Swedish-speaking Finn or Finnish Swede or Swedo-Finnish. I apologize for not knowing the correct title for this group of Finns who comprise 5.4% of the population. They are Finns by identity with a parallel Swedish ethnicity, speaking the Swedish language with some distinct dialectical flourishes in Finnish. A unique cultural enclave, they maintain a strong identity as a separate ethnic group yet their sense of Finnishness is staunch and they have had a great influence on Finland.

As we drive by her childhood home, Sue tells us that she grew up in a Swedish community in the heart of Helsinki with a big family of Swedish-speaking cousins who ruled the neighborhood. I would love to time travel to that idyllic past Sue describes as I imagine groups of children running and squealing in the verdant city parks and the wide tree-lined streets in the heart of this unusual city.

More about Swedish-speaking Finns:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish-speaking_population_of_Finland

http://magma.fi/post/2012/2/8/swedish-tongue-finnish-heart

The Sibelius Sculpture

We arrive at an elevated park overlooking one of the many harbours and waterways that dominate the views on Helsinki horizons. At the top of a hill, peppered with tourists and locals, stands a dense cluster of silvery, etched, pipes which embody the airy, free-shaped sculpture that is the Sibelius Monument. Jean Sibelius, Finland’s beloved national composer, was instrumental in helping Finland to develop a national identity during the struggle for independence from Russia. The monument was the result of a two-stage competition which aroused an intense public debate in the 1960’s. It divided the Finnish populace into two camps, the traditionalists and the modernists. The prize went to an abstract (modernist) entry entitled Passio Musicae by Eila Hiltunen. The sculpture consisted of an arrangement of hundreds of tubes, superficially resembling organ pipes. A figurative element was added to satisfy the traditionalists. This figurative element is the sculpted head of Sibelius, placed away and to the side, on a stone wall border. The impression this element leaves is that he is deliberately disconnected and placed there to watch the observers stroll by. Perhaps he offers the occasional comment? Yes, the eyes from his disembodied head, follow you as you walk around the sculpture.

It is said that the choice of materials for the memorial was fortunate. “After 35 years, the Monument shows no signs of ageing, stress or corrosion. Its silvery pipes reflect the change of season and light, echoing birds’ song, sighing in the sea breeze and resonating furiously during a storm. People walk below it, place their heads to the tubes, pose for pictures or just choose one of the nearby benches to enjoy the season.”*

Not the typical memorial to a great historical figure, yet it embodies the country’s unique artistic temperament. The silvery-slate colour, the seemingly random etchings, and the pipes in staged clusters mysteriously ascending to their height all combine for a definitive and successful score.

*More about the Sibleius monument: http://www.eilahiltunen.net/monument.html

Church in the Rock: the Temppeliaukio Church

Matts drops us off on a busy sidewalk at the entrance to what is known as the Rock Church. Excavated directly into a natural granite formation, the deeply-alcoved entry actually leads into a large rocky cave. No soaring steeples or arched flourishes, there is a copper-lined church dome supported within the rock walls but it is not visible from the street. In 1968, when construction started, this was just a rocky outcrop rising about 40 feet or 12 meters above street level. The cave was hollowed out by being blasted from the inside and the church evolved from that excavation inside the massive block of natural granite.

In the vestibule, the ticket-pamphlet and greeting venue is set within craggy cavern walls moodily lit with natural indirect light. We are told that a concert will be held later that evening; the concert is free in just two hours but right now entry tickets are not free. So we pay and walk into the nave where the ceiling rises and soars to that aforementioned copper dome. The light filters down from a row of 180 vertical windows surrounding the roof periphery connecting the rugged granite walls to the dome. The intensity of the natural light as it flows into this open area leaves the illusion of an outdoor space. An ice-age crevice in the rock nestles the simple altar.

The cave is supposed to have amazing acoustics. And lucky for us, a gentleman in a beautifully cut black suit sits down at a grand piano placed in front of the sanctuary. He begins to play a beguiling, melodic piece that rises with an alchemy into the creviced walls. We sit down and quiet as if we were slapped into our seats. Before he can start the next piece, he is interrupted by a woman and drawn into a private conversation. We wait patiently but it appears the practice session is over. Reluctantly we leave. I hope Sue is happy with our impressions; I loved this place and regret there was no time in our schedule for the free concert.

More about the Rock Church:  http://twistedsifter.com/2012/06/temppeliaukio-rock-church-helsinki-finland/

Walking in Helsinki with Sue

Matt leaves us to walk the city streets with Sue. She is expert at sharing a running commentary in my favourite style: ‘non-tourist reality’. The crazy, changeable spring-winter weather pelts us with hail as we walk along followed by thick cold mists that settle on the streets. She points out an empty, outdoor cafe with tables set for customers which is now being pelted with light hail, drizzle, and a chilly breeze and exclaims: “Those optimistic Finns!”

 

We duck into a covered market, an old one with deep brown polished wooden stalls, high ceilings and vintage, mid-century modern light fixtures. Sue wanted to share the displays of Marimekko cloth. But it is late afternoon and most of the vendors have closed shop. Instead, we walk browsing over crafts and then retreat to the 1st floor where food vendors are still active and I’m itching to try everything but end up just admiring the variety of whole fish set up in dramatic, action poses.

We take a tram to dodge the wily weather. Arriving at another quarter, we duck into a covered mall which contains both an art gallery and a movie theatre side-by-side, Sue bursts out laughing at a sign that reads: ‘Art is Popcorn for the Brain.’ It is an imaginative, relevant phrase: art, popcorn and our ageing brains. She, a former actress with the Swedish Theater, is trying to find a new path in her life of retirement. We share stories of the puzzle of retirement, about forging new relevant working lives and finding new opportunities to profit us and maintain brain activity. Some solutions we conclude are travelling, acting, history, books, writing, art, and questioning the oxymorons and hypocrisy in life which are more evident at our age than when we were all younger.

Kamppi Chapel

As we hop off a tram in a thickly commercial area, we are in the Narinkkatori square at the entrance of a large shopping centre. The stores are packed in tightly and the area buzzes with that intense activity that is galvanized by a shopping culture. Squares made just for walking are strictly off limits to traffic but the walks are still full of people-traffic. Sue guides us expertly through the middle of the buzz and around a bend where she points, although she doesn’t need to, to a structure shaped like a gigantic, wooden, oval salad bowl positioned in the grey, black cityscape filled with the commercial colours and lights of retail. Like an extraterrestrial craft, the peculiar structure shines with rich amber wood tones and dramatic contours. Its unique drama sets it apart from the surroundings as if we had discovered Noah’s ark in the middle of Times Square.

This is Kamppi Chapel, a solace of peace and quiet in the centre of Helsinki. Literally. When you step inside the cradle of the wooden building, it is as if the door of a vault is locking out the streets and the world. In the chapel, it is a safe, curved, wooden womb enclosed in complete peace except for the rustling of people entering and leaving.

Kamppi Chapel was intended to be a gift: an opportunity for people to calm down in the middle of the busiest area in the city. The external walls are made of horizontal spruce strips bent at different radiuses. They are glazed with a special type of wax that incorporates some kind of nanotechnology. The ceiling of the chapel contains plasterboard which has a sound-proofing effect. The gentle, atypical lighting comes indirectly from the heights of the ceiling. Construction materials are warm, pleasant yet starkly simple with inner walls lined with alder-wood milled into an awesome, remarkable curvature.

The chapel is run by Helsinki Lutheran churches and the Department of Social Services and Health Care to provide a place for anyone who needs to reach out for a talk or advice from available support staff. There are no formal functions, services or weddings organized here. It is a drop-in place, a refuge, a solace. That concept works; the interior of the Chapel embraces the visitor in a curving cocoon of safety.

We sit, touch the walls, take photos, amaze at the curves of the walls, absorb the aroma of wood which still lingers there somewhere in the crevices.  This is a place I wrote about in college in an essay abhorring the continued building of rich, arrogant churches dedicated for the adoration of God. I was promoting for drop-in places of worship in shopping malls and public places where God resided as one in and of the people. The Kamppi Chapel is a man-made place like no other. For me, this is a dream made reality in 21st century Helsinki.

Designed by architects Kimmo Lintula, Mikko Summanen, and Niko Sirola, the Kamppi chapel was awarded the International Architecture Award in 2010 by The Chicago Athenaeum. There is more about the chapel here: http://www.helsinginkirkot.fi/en/churches/kamppi-chapel-of-silence

Sunday at the Suomenlinna with Sue

The Sea Fortress

The city ferry departs from the Market Square on a regular schedule just like a tram or subway. It is public ‘water’ transportation in Helsinki. On this morning, we are casting off across the straight to a mighty Sea Fortress called Suomenlinna (translates ‘castle of Finland’). It was constructed in 1748 when Finland was a part of the kingdom of Sweden. From its position on a cluster of islands, the fortress has stood for more than two centuries. Today it is a unique example of old military architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As we drift away from the city center, the hulking red-brick Uspenski Cathedral spies fiercely from it’s dominion of the hill on the Katajanokka peninsula. My 1970’s memory of Helsinki is distinct with a skyline featuring this Orthodox Church, the largest in Western Europe and the facing opponent nearby, the sparkling white Lutheran Cathedral from Helsinki’s Empire era. They stand stalwart and iconic in their individual legacies. The Uspenski Cathedral as a symbol of the Russian impact on Finnish history; the Lutheran Cathedral, a symbol of the whole city of Helsinki.

The immense, irregular bastion that is Suomenlinna is constructed on hilly, rocky terrain on separate islands joined by bridges over which visitors can walk. Home to a community of 800 residents, it promotes a tradition of island artisans and crafts including experts in the restoration of traditional sailing ships. The fortifications, walls and earthworks stretch over several kilometeres and they include some cafes and ice cream venues to ease the trek. There are massive cannons, interesting bulkwarks, armories, spooky tunnels and ancient bunkers.

From the ferry slip, we make our way to King’s Gate for a healthy stroll across the islands. King’s Gate is the iconic symbol of Suomenlinna and the ceremonial gateway to the fortress from the sea. As we stroll the island, enjoying an uncharacteristically beautiful day, Sue tells us about childhood picnics and visits to family on the island. We pass churches, parks and greens, military strongholds, modern museums, shops, quaint wooden dwellings with porches, and the iconic wooden bridges traversing the waterways that join the islands.

We walk by a submarine, the Vesikko. It appears like the vestige it is: small and listing with its flags still waving proudly. It is the last of its kind, built in the 1930’s and serving in WWII. When all the other subs of it’s kind were decommissioned and destroyed, the Vesikko was saved, restored and now functions as a museum. The small portals and tight spaces of a vintage submarine make it interesting but not welcoming.

As we gape at the massive cannons that were erected during the Russsian rule of the 19th century, I spy, dubiously, behind a gated area, in front of a buried armoury, a dog rolling in the sandy path. It does not run away as we near, so maybe it is a dog, but the erect upright ears give it away. It is: “A Hare in the Sand” The animal looks up at us with apprehension but then rolls over again and, up again to check and see if we are still there. This is my first introduction to the species and since then, I have learned that a hare is not a rabbit. It is a much larger animal. When it stood, it was the size of a full grown standard beagle. The hare in the sand finally hops away with a lanky, lopping yet graceful gait, more like a kangaroo than a rabbit.

We reach the Kings Gate after winding through bunkered hills, around man-made caverns and near underground tunnels all grown-over with sea grasses and the fauna that grows on sandy mounds. The gate is a massive granite arch with enormous gates and steps made for giants. Perspective is difficult as this area drops off into the sparkling sea. It was a place where arriving ships were moored, an impressive entrance for the use of kings and generals. Now, with an aura of something profound, it is a place to climb, explore and breathe in sea air.

 

As we head back and finish our sunny, comfortable walk, I regret yet again that we did not plan for more time in Finland. There is so much more to Suomenlinna. We have been tourists today: grappling with time and frenzied to absorb too many sites. Being a traveller means scheduling space for learning, walking off the beaten path, and vanquishing the confinement of time. After coffee and sweets, we head back to the ferry where a fog is quickly settling on our beautiful sunny day.

About Hares versus Rabbits:  http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-the-difference-between-a-rabbit-and-a-hare

About Suomenlinna:  http://www.suomenlinna.fi/en/fortress/

 

Have you ever Heard of a Moomin?

Our conversations and treks with Sue were sprinkled with references to Moomins. Where have Moomin’s been my whole life? How have I been able to exist deprived of the awareness of Moomins? A Moomin is an adored Finnish icon and, supposedly, a worldwide phenomenon. The white, hippo-like Moomins are Finnish literary characters created in the 1940’s by the much‐loved writer and artist, Tove Jansson. Moomins have become a movement, a cult of sorts. Did you know that Moomin characters adorn the wings of the airline, Finnair? Their images appear in the Helsinki shops on mugs, postcards, magnets, key chains, and books. They are sold as lamps and garden ornaments. In Finland, the Moomins have their own hotel rooms and Moomin Story theme parks. There is a Moomin Museum, puppet animations and Japanese-style cartoons. Numerous Moomin gallery and museum exhibitions are opened around the country every year. How did I not know this?

The Moomin books were only recently translated into English. And Sue, with a characteristic generosity, gifts me with a Moomin book before we leave Helsinki with the admonition: you must read it out loud — together — aloud. I promise.

Au Revoir Helsinki. We will be Back.

Did we short change Helsinki with only 48 hours? I think so. We spent more time in Tallinn because it was lauded so highly as a beautiful, medieval city. It was also full of tourists, souvenir shops and kitsch. Helsinki was regular,comfortable and brimming with rich, unique culture. The iconic churches visible on their respective hills, the chapels in the city center, the wharfs, the island of Suomenlinna, the wide even sidewalks, mid-century modern buildings alongside colorful structures of Russian classicism, old city markets, Moomins, the museums that we did not visit, the crafts that whisked us by, the restaurants that are still waiting, and always the water in the distance with distinctive ships and harbors. These experiences are still waiting for these two senior travellers.

Whether driving, walking, bus, tram or ferry, it was Sue, our gallant guide and host who instilled and incited our curiosity and admiration for Helsinki. We had to draw on every energy molecule we could muster to keep up with her. She changed the tenure of our Baltic road trip with an adventure that flung tourism to the wind.

“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.” ___Tove Jansson, “Fair Play”

 

For more of Greg Spring’s photos from our travels in Europe, see Assignment 2017 at the following link:     http://bit.ly/2oGmtX6

 

Wanderlusting Dreams is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring.  Kraków, Poland 2017. Please let us know how you like our travelogues.