Helsinki, Finland

When: July 2009; 5 days

With: R & J
Helsinki sits on the edge of the world; or so I felt when I spent five days there. The sun never tired and the air tasted crisp and clean. As you read more about my journeys, you will know that I don’t plan very long sojourns into new countries. I take what I can get. While a handful of days are not enough to experience any city in its entirety, they are just enough to whet my appetite, so I can make solemn promises of return.

Helsinki was a birthday gift planned artfully by R and my sister. Even though our flight was delayed from New York, we made it in good time. R and J are not the kind of travels that enjoy roughing it out – so its my default that if I’m traveling with them, we end up at amazing hotels. I’d be hard pressed to convince either one of them to hostel it out with me. This trip as no different – we stayed at the fantastic four-star Hotel GLO. It’s strategic location (now I sound like an ad for Hotel GLO) allowed us to walk everywhere. They sweetened our stay by offering us free access to laptops, bikes, a SmartCar and (thank God) breakfast. And what a spread it was! Freshly baked breads, sliced tomatoes, rocket, variety of cheeses and jellies. If you eat meat, your breakfast just got ten times better with the assortment of cured meats, eggs and other goodies they offered.

My more permanent memories of Helsinki are 1) a panoramic view of enormous cruise ships bayed at its port on the Baltic and 2) a design sensibility so strong and so tangible that it put Helsinki on the global map as the World Design Capital for 2012.

Helsinki Cathedral

My favorite place in Helsinki was the “Helsinki Cathedral.” It is an awe-inspiring magnificent white structure, with tall green domes. Although it is one of the most popular tourist destinations, it was relatively empty the morning we paid it a visit. I remember this church in particular because it’s neoclassical architectural influences had me confused. Its entrance is a close replica of the Pantheon or the Green Parthenon, which made sense when I wikipediad it and learned that it was built by Carl Ludvig Engel, a German architect known for his neoclassical style.

R and J rented bikes from the hotel and I walked. After spending a few hours at the Cathedral, we visited the Uspenski Cathedral, a clearly Russian church designed by a Russian architect. I was charmed by the unusual golden red color of the Cathedral, but both the interior and the exterior were extremely overwhelming and impossible to process in one visit.

But most favorite adventure in Helsinki was when I convinced the two of them to take the train with me to an industrial suburb of Finland in search for the Marimekko outlet. Because the trip was in honor of my birthday, they couldn’t possibly deny me my madcap request. So we boarded a bright orange subway and made our way to this mythical outlet. Thirty minutes out of Helsinki and our surroundings began to resemble those of suburban Pennsylvania. My throat constricted and I felt a little sick. You see, travel puts me in a slightly disjointed frame of mind. When the newness of it begins to remind you of the trivial you left behind, the magic dissolves. “Fuck, this is just like the burbs!” The ugly freeways, squat industrial buildings, not a soul on the roads. So eerily similar. Upon on closer introspection, I thought, why wouldn’t it be? It wasn’t like I had traveled through time or that I sought an experience that was nestled in mostly in fantasy. And yet, the stark reminder was jarring.

Uspenski Cathedral

We got off at a nondescript station and in the scorching heat, began trying to negotiate our way through the freeway traffic. We asked anyone we met on our way if we were headed in the right direction. Most had no idea. At one point, we even contemplated walking back. Eventually though, we found the outlet. It was a small flat building with no signs on it. We knew because we watched a car laden with Marimekko bags drive past us. I want to say that it was worth it or that I ended up buying just what I had in mind. But the truth is, it was a strictly OK experience. I might have acted extra happy then to avoid the collective wrath of my travel companions, but secretly I was a little disappointed because even though we were at the outlet store, I couldn’t afford a whole lot more than at the actual store!
Nonetheless, I dug, rummaged and found a couple hundred meters of affordable and stunning fabrics for home (which by the way, took me a little over two years to stitch and upholster my pillows with) All in all, it was an incredibly unique adventure and opened my eyes to an alternate reality of travel.

(PS: Marimekko is a Finnish textile company that is world-famous for its bright fabrics used both for high fashion and home furnishings. If you’ve watched Mamma Mia – the movie – you’ve glimpsed at Marimekko fabric which was all over the movie: on Meryl Streep’s clothing lines, in her bedroom, even on the boat. Marimekko Stateside fame, however, is attributed to Jacqueline Kennedy who wore Marimekko dresses throughout the 1960’s Presidential campaign.)

At the ridiculously overpriced Ice Bar

With the prime purpose of our trip achieved, we spent the rest of our time in Helsinki drinking, partying, saunaing and in general merriment. We met a few travelers at the Absolute Ice Bar (which is a total waste – a 10×10 room made of ice-blocks; barely fits more than three people at a time and costs 10 Euros to enter! Definitely not worth it.)

Helsinki has an incredible night-life. If you can stay up that late, that is. It only begins a little past 1a.m and goes on until early morning. We just didn’t last. We’d been up since 6am and by midnight, were ready to call it a night.

Midnight, according our watches. If you looked were outside without one, you could never tell what time it was because the sun just never set! Our hotel room had thick black-out curtains that simulated darkness, the only way we could fool our bodies into believing it was night and time for bed.

There’s probably more I could write about Helsinki but I didn’t take notes then and now it’s too late to rummage through my head for stories.

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