Nordicaa: Travels in the Nordic Lands – Helsinki

I’ve been to Helsinki a couple of times now, but it still feels distant, as if I dreamt the whole thing. I wrote a book set there, and it is the voice of that story which clouds my mind. If I focus, think about the Havis Amanda, the Market Square, the Senate Square, I can take my mind back there. But it is a struggle. The first rumblings lead to stronger reflections: traditional and experimental food; riding a tram, just for the sake of it; getting caught in the rain and sheltering in Kallion Kirkko. Once I feel the wind whipping through my hair, sat on the ancient tram, I’m back, rumbling along cobbled streets.

I got sunburnt on the Baltic. I get sunburnt everywhere I am not supposed to. Oslo was the worst; I even bought a hat in Oslo. The light bouncing up from the waters around Helsinki caught my cheeks, and rendered them crimson. The skin felt like it was cooking; I knew the string of sensations which were to come. Once back, jealous colleagues told stories of rain-soaked holidays on the Costas.

The liver was crisp and charred on the outside, but perfectly pink within. It came served with a hot blast of sweetened, air-whipped cream. I could understand the berries on the plate, but the cream was a mystery to me. Then I started to eat, and stopped questioning the choice. I only wish we had stayed for desert. However, the next time we’re in Helsinki, Juttutupa will be our first port of call.

I sat in a busy cafe, eating curry, worrying about whether I was allowed to help myself to another glass of Coke. The food was perfect, the antidote to my isolation on that holiday. It was the first time I had taken myself off anywhere alone, and its rhythm would come to define my preferred type of holiday for years to come, with or without company. Yet the main thing I remember of that meal is the sullen face of the Orangutan staring at me from across the street, painted on scruffy wooden boards. The next time I was in Helsinki I looked long and hard for that restaurant; the Orangutan was long gone, the boards removed to show the gleaming face of a shop or a bar, but I could not find it.

It turned out that she wanted soup. We were soaked through, uncomfortable in wet plastic, and only a steaming bowl of Bouillabaisse would do. We backtracked through the labyrinthine saluhall, to the soup stall we had so cruelly overlooked on our way in. The sign confused us initially. The word had been there earlier, but now it was gone, only a mist of chalk in its place. We stood, for a while, open-mouthed, and more than a little lost. Once a decision has been made, and it feels right, to find that it is no longer possible is crushing. Then, in a moment of inspiration, we remembered the other saluhall, and ran for a tram. We made it with moments to spare, rewarded with the last two bowls.

The chatter continues all through the night. They are gathered outside of our window, drinking and smoking, and no amount of pleading, begging, complaining will get them to stop. Is there an air of violence about the situation? They assert that they’re just having a quiet drink, that they’re not harming anyone; we explain that we’re trying to sleep. There is an impasse, and hotel security will not do anything about it. We usually stay in apartments when we travel, and the nostalgia of my last visit was the only reason we stayed here. But the charm is lost now. Worn away by convenience.

I wore my feet to blisters the first time I was there. I walked across the city in every direction I could, only to find that I should have taken the tram instead. On my way back I hobbled through airports, in bleeding, suppurating agony. It took weeks to heal, but it set the benchmark of how I enjoyed to be when on holiday: The room was a base; being out on the streets, in the city, was the thing I needed.

The corridor was dark all of a sudden. I wanted to look at the prints on the wall, but I could no longer make them out. I had opened a door, and made my way through, expecting to still be in the public side of the gallery, but I was starting to suspect that I was not. A member of staff walked by, giving me a very odd look as she walked by. I bid a hasty retreat from whence I came, back to the light.

Helsinki taught me to read again: I will always credit it with that. I had taken a couple of books with me to cower behind in restaurants. I didn’t go to any restaurants. Not on that visit; takeaway food is far more convenient for the introverted solo traveller. I started on the first book, standing in the departure lounge, waiting to board the plane, and I couldn’t put it down. Every evening then fell in to the same formula: back in the room, at the table, eating takeaway, and reading. First that book, then more, subsequently bought at the academic bookstore. My appetite for reading was voracious from that day on: I credit Helsinki, and Robert Rankin, with that. You can’t write if you can’t read.

In all seriousness, who the fuck carves an enormous – and beautiful – church out of a rock? The rock in question was clearly an obstacle, and one in need of a creative solution. But blowing it up, or just ignoring the thing, would have been the more traditional methods. Blasting the insides of it out, and then topping the void off with a dome of wound copper is not something I ever would have thought of. Then again, I am glad that someone did: the place is a study in contemplative beauty. If I were a believer, this is where I would want my faith to take me. Instead, I dodged in, between bus tours.

In the window of a hairdresser is a figurine of Queen Elizabeth II, and a pink corgi. I know not why.

One of my favourite things to do in any new city is to go on a guided tour, either by bus or by boat. Yes, it’s over-priced; yes, it is the most obscenely touristy thing to do; however, a guiding hand in exploring a place you have never been is priceless. In Helsinki, we did both. Most tours of this kind follow a simple route around a city, with an informative – if slightly stilted – audio commentary to give you some basic facts about where you are passing through. The boat version even has a bar, from where you can buy Finland’s finest “Long Drink”: fizzy gin and grapefruit juice in a can. Superb.

That said, the tour of the city which I would recommend is the 2 and 3 tram routes: far cheaper than a tour; shows you much more of the city; much closer to the people of the city; and you can get on and off as much as you like. The 2 and 3 are, essentially just one route, occasionally changing name.

The sound of drumming caught us by surprise. We couldn’t quite place it at first, but then it came in to focus. They were chasing each other, racing around the trunks of the ancient trees, up and down, up and down. Squirrels: playing, running around us, unaware of our presence, chasing each other about, frolicking in the unspoilt wilderness of Seurasaari. It had just been a boring Sunday afternoon before that. Once they started hopping about at our feet, all thoughts of our boredom evaporated.

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