I’m out for the evening in Helsinki. My guide, Hanne, explains, “We call Wednesday our little Friday.” There’s an energy in the streets. Our mission: to visit the restaurants I recommend in my guidebook and find new, better ones. I find Helsinki the least expensive of the Scandinavia capitals–the restaurant scene is affordable and fun. And there are plenty of distractions.
A huge demonstration fills the main boulevard. (The street is actually named “boulevardi”–given that grandiose title two hundred years ago. Back then–in Europe’s then newest, now youngest, capital–the concept of a grand boulevard in Helsinki was somewhere between absurd and wishful thinking.)
Then I realize they’re not demonstrators…but choral groups. From all corners they converge on the massive steps of the Lutheran Cathedral which normally overlooks Europe’s finest neo-classical square. Today the steps overlook thousands of locals, dropping by to hear this massing of the choirs. Eight hundred singers fill the steps–each group represented by a placard–to sing a rousing set of anthems. While I can’t understand a word, the songs are sung with a stirring air that must tell of a hard-fought history and a thankfulness to be who they are–the people of Finland. Then, the balloons are freed, and the groups disperse kicking off a festive week called “art goes to the pubs.” Each choir sets off to an appointed bar…and the city’s drinking holes are filled with song.
Leaving the crowd for our evening’s work, we pass a poster of a demonic-looking rock band. Hanne explained “hell froze over this year.” Europe’s biggest TV event is the annual Euro-vision Song Festival. (Most famous to boomer travelers like me as the event Abba won back in the 1970s with their breakout song, Waterloo.) Finns are perennial losers in the event and locals have long said, “When Finland wins the Euro-vision Song Festival hell will freeze over. This year, people from all over Europe telephoned in their votes and Finland’s Kiss-inspired heavy metal band “Lordi” (led by a soft-spoken charismatic Laplander) won with a cute little number called “Hard Rock Halleluiah.”
At the curb, there are no cars. I get halfway across Boulevardi boulevard and look back at Hanne still waiting. As if in needless defeat, I return to the curb. She says, “In Finland, we wait. It can be two in the morning and not a car in sight, but we wait. That’s why we have such low crime.” I said, “Germans respect authority too.” She said, this is different. “We buck authority…but follow the laws…even little ones.”
Finns seem to have a fun-loving confidence. I asked, “All of Scandinavia is so prosperous but only Norway has oil. How is this?” Hanne said, “Norway has oil…Finland has Nokia. It’s like Microsoft for you in Seattle.” Then I asked, “What then, is Sweden’s trick?” Hanne shows the standard Scandinavian envy of the regional powerhouse saying, “They never get in a war. They’re always rich…just collecting money all the time. The Swedes are like our big brother. They always win. Like in ice hockey. We won only once…back in the 1990s. The Swedes–assuming they’d win–already wrote their victory song. But we won. We Finns still sing this song. It’s the only song Finns know in Swedish and every Finn can sing it…even today.”
The Finns are so prosperous that they’re the first Europeans to do away with the Euro pennies. Prices are rounded to the nickel and the one cent and two cent coins are now officially out of circulation. (I am particularly happy today. Each Euro country has its own versions of the Euro coins and I’m filling my coin book with a set from each country. I have an ethic that I only take coins out of circulation. My big trick is befriending a waitress and getting her to let me paw through her change purse to find missing coins. The only gaps I have now (not counting the collector sets from Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City–which go immediately out of circulation when minted) are Finland and Luxemburg. They mint so few compared to the behemoth countries that you don’t see them outside their home countries. I dropped by a coin shop and purchased the Finnish penny and two cent coin (at €3, that was 100 times their face value). In the shop, I commented “it would be difficult to find these in circulation and the keeper said, “you are wrong…it would be impossible.” (So I didn’t break my ethic.)
Of the many restaurants we surveyed, the most elegant had a dining hall perfectly 1930s–Alvar Aalto-designed Functionalism. The kind of straight design and practical elegance Finns love. A private office party was raging–a crayfish party. It’s crayfish season–at $10 each, it’s far from a budget meal. But all over town Finns are doing the crayfish tango: suck and savor a big red mini-lobster, throw down a glass of schnapps, sing a song and do it again. With a “hundred bottles of beer on the wall” repetitiveness, it just gets more fun with each round.
Hanne shows me the table of Mannerheim, the heroic George Washington of modern Finland who led their feisty resistance to the USSR and is likely personally responsible for artfully keeping Finland free during and after WWII. No Finnish military leader will ever again hold Mannerheim’s rank of “Field Marshal.” But any one can sit at his favorite table…and suck a crayfish.
We step onto the rooftop terrace with a glorious 8th floor view of Helsinki. The late-setting sun is gleaming on both the Lutheran cathedral and the golden onion domes of the Russian orthodox church. They seem to face off, symbolizing how east and west have long confronted each other here in Finland. (Europe’s second mightiest sea fortress–after Gibraltar–fills an island in the harbor…the reason for Helsinki’s birth.)
Below us on the neighboring rooftop, six bankers wrapped in white towels are enjoying a sauna. In all great office buildings–whether banks, insurance companies, or research institutes–a rooftop sauna is an “elemental and essential part of the design.” (Free snacks and drinks at the sauna after work from 5:00 to 9:00 is an almost expected perk.) One big fat guy was so pink from the heat that–with his white towel wrapped around his waist–he reminded me of a striped pool ball.
The Finns seem happy. Their woman president, Tarja Hallonen–just re-elected for a second 6-year term–has an 80% approval rating. And they are proud of the way they tackle challenges confronting their society. With the coming of bird flu, they tented their famous market and everyone here seems to crow about how those Swedes had a case of bird flu…and the clever Finns did not.