Memories of Life in Helsinki

view from rooftop of helsinki finland

Into the Unknown

In 2009 I went to live in Helsinki. It was a bit spur-of-the-moment and I’d never even visited Finland before but me and my (now) husband arrived in early February and ended up staying for 3 months. I suppose it’s debatable as to whether this was ‘living there’ or just an extended working holiday but it was one of the more unusual things we’ve done and one that had a lasting effect on me.

Other than the weather I really didn’t know what to expect from Helsinki. A few months before going there we’d spent the weekend in Geneva and found that unbearably cold. Going to the capital of Finland in the depths of winter when it was -11°C, however felt by comparison strangely comfortable.

Icy pavement and white van on Esplanadi Helsinki Finland

Not only had I not been there before, I’d not even really seen any pictures of the city. In my mind I expected the architecture to look a bit like cities in Germany or the Netherlands but it wasn’t really like that and seemed to be more influenced by Russia (which, geographically speaking, makes sense).

Helsinki_Orthodox_Cathedral

Typically Finnish

There are loads of things that Finland is known for: Fazer chocolate, Marimekko, Moomin Shops, Strindberg Cafe (and its selection of cakes), Suomenlinna, the underground shopping malls, trams, the church carved out of rock (which, actually we lived just around the corner from and didn’t visit at all in the 3 months we lived there…).

Four plastic Moomin toy figures

Obviously I remember all of those things and have a fondness for them (apart from the church that I didn’t see). I still recall times like when we climbed to the top of the Hotel Torni to sit at the outdoor bar, admire the view and drink hot chocolate with blankets over our legs.

Personal Memories

However, the anecdotes we laugh about and share with people are about totally different things. I suppose Finland was my first experience of travelling. Not just going on holiday for a couple of weeks and having a quick look at what’s there but slowly exploring a bit more, noticing things about the culture and the people. Experiencing what might just be ordinary everyday life, but ordinary everyday life in a different culture.

Bed, sofa dining table window

Home Away From Home

I’ve got happy memories of our slightly too-small studio flat that actually contained everything we needed. Of Sunday afternoons when we would walk down to the sea and cross the bridge over the ice to a cafe for tea and, of course, cake.

Kitchen and table and chairs

The municipal heating system that ensured we were kept warm and always had hot water. The discovery that it’s common to have your draining board inside a cupboard above the kitchen sink, and a tiny shower bidet attached to the underside of the bathroom sink (both genius ideas in my opinion).

View from Helsinki Market Square out to sea

Food and Studying

I remember seeing lots of people rush from the tram to a tiny tent near the harbour which, I later discovered, served salmon soup (as did the boat moored nearby). I remember learning to make salmon soup at home, cooking reindeer stew and buying Mämmi to eat at Easter.

I remember using the library at Helsinki University (when finishing the assignments for my London-based Masters Degree), being unable to find the Theology section as I was in the wrong building – and then sliding down the icy hill near the (white) cathedral on the way home.

Senate Square, Helsinki, Cathedral, statue Alexander II

I remember that it seemed to be impossible to buy a fresh chicken in a supermarket and that the stall holders at the indoor market, where you could buy a chicken (and a microwaved reindeer kebab, if the mood took you) all assumed I was Finnish. I actually found myself feeling a bit guilty that I wasn’t.

Language

We eventually decided against signing up for Finnish lessons. Instead we went to the Academic Bookstore and had a conversation with a shop assistant, who wore a flag badge to represent every language she could speak (there were a lot of badges). She recommended all kinds of books to us and we childishly avoided eye contact with one another as she repeatedly described the differences between the introductory level books and the ones we might like ‘if you want to go deeper’.

I am ashamed to say that I barely looked at our ‘Finnish for Foreigners’ books and sold them on Ebay when we came back to London. I am not ashamed to say though, that I picked up lots of Finnish words just from listening to and interacting with Finnish people, and using online translation tools to write my shopping lists and to help me decipher food labels.

There were a few people I spoke to in shops who were very excited to discover I was English, so they could practice their foreign language skills (and ask me why it was that I would leave Yorkshire – the land of green moors and ‘Wuthering Heights’ for such a cold place).

Weather, Food and People

We saw another side to the usually very reserved Finnish people in the extremely drunk man who invited himself to sit with us at the end of our meal in a Chinese restaurant on Valentines night. He invited us to visit his home the following day and didn’t notice as we walked in the opposite direction when leaving the restaurant.

View across the frozen sea to buildings in the distance

I remember heavy snowfall in April and tiny snow ploughs that almost immediately cleared the roads and car parks. I remember May Day in Helsinki when we bought a brick for €1 from a drunk student on a tram, agreeing that we would take the brick back to the UK and email him a photo of it (we didn’t bring it back).

I remember sampling bear pie while listening to a loud English man tell some strangers how he’d cured his own diabetes. I remember the restaurant a few doors down from where we lived, that served mostly steak (including ‘Robbers steak’ which was served hanging from miniature gallows) and where, no matter what you ordered you would be given a large bowl of iceberg lettuce before your meal.

Frozen_sea

Finland was the first place where I saw the sea frozen solid. So solid in fact that people regularly walked across it (I wasn’t brave enough to do that). It was where I bought a pair of (very expensive) Ugg boots to give my poor feet respite from the walking boots that had given me blisters (story of my life – all shoes hate my feet).

Buoys in solid frozen sea

Finland was where, on a ferry, we met a Finnish woman who had lived through the Winter War and told us a few stories about the village where she grew up.

Ducks walking on frozen sea

It was also the place where, no matter where you bought it, a cup of coffee (or a bunch of broccoli) cost €2.50. Where there were ducks who had not flown south for the winter. Where we discovered Ruispalat and where we bought a huge block of cheese that we stored in our freezer.

Helsinki was the city I remember where people enjoyed being outdoors, no matter how cold the weather was. Where you could get a free cup of tea with a sandwich and where, on a visit, if your Father-in-law mentioned that he’d not seen a band of panpipe players busking in the street (obligatory in most European tourist spots) you could immediately walk outside and see, for the first time, one setting up ready to start playing.

Lost dog notice with photos of dog and flowers

It was where parents would take their babies out in prams and use a blanket to protect them from the falling snow. Where I found a homeless person asleep inside a coin operated toilet. Where, in the railway station we saw a picture of a dog, that I assume was missing. Where we first ate cloudberries and where, if ever we asked a fishmonger to recommend a traditional way of eating (any) fish they would, without fail, tell us to stuff it with cheese and eat it with potatoes.

Frozen sea cracking near the rocks

There were of, course, lots of things about the UK that I missed while I was away and that I was really glad to come home to: not needing to wear a winter coat in Spring, the busyness of London, being able to buy my underwear at Marks and Spencer‘s, but most of all being closer to family.

What this experience made me realise though was the difference between going on holiday and travelling.  Bertrand Russell describes how some people will travel to foreign countries but eat the same food as they do at home, have the same conversations, hang around with the same kinds of people and may just feel tired at the end of it from all the travelling. I’m not sure that I agree with him entirely about this but he compares this type of person to,

‘Other men [who], wherever they go, see what is characteristic, make the acquaintance of people who typify the locality, observe whatever is of interest either historically or socially, eat the food of the country, learn its manners and its language, and come home with a new stock of pleasant thoughts for winter evenings.’1

I think that trying to experience a city or country by finding the places that the local people hang out, talking to them and learning about their food and history means that, you’re likely to learn more, come away with unique memories that go beyond the typical tourist experience of a new place, and get closer to the reality of life there.

1Bertand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness


24 thoughts on “Memories of Life in Helsinki

  1. marigold Reply

    This is a lovely piece of writing concretemoomin – I want to go to Helsinki tomorrow! It reminded me of a happy week I spent staying with a friend in Stockholm many years ago 🙂

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      Thanks M. I thought it would be nice to do a bit of a longer post for a change and this felt quite personal so I’m glad you enjoyed reading it :).

  2. Hayley-Eszti Reply

    I really really enjoyed reading this post! It sounds like a very lovely even if cold place to visit and going by the few things you have mentioned here you have lots of very fond memories and stories to tell – I particularly liked the one about the drunk student and the brick which reminded me of a time I met a (sober) 20 something office worker on the metro in Madrid who was so thrilled to have met a bunch of English people about to hit the town he offered to stay with us all night and be our personal tour guide as well as giving us his details to contact him any time should we need his assistance. Helsinki is now on my ever growing list of places I’d love to visit!

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      Hi Hayley. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading this and that it reminded you of your own travels. The student on the tram was a very unusual experience for Helsinki as the people are usually very reserved but May Day is when all the students have a great big part across the city. It’s like a total transformation – very busy, gets a bit messy and the younger people let loose a bit. The following day, everything gets tidied up and goes back to normal. It’s worth experiencing just to see the contrast.

      It sounds like the person you met in Madrid was also really keen to practice his English and show you the city from the perspective of a local perhaps. These are the memories that stay with you far longer than just ticking off a list of sites so you can say you’ve seen them (if that makes sense!).

      I would recommend visiting Helsinki if you get the chance. It’s a little different from the more popular European cities I think. Thanks for sharing your story :).

  3. Greg Reply

    Cathryn, Your post conveys a wonderful sense of place. You bring Helsinki to life with the precise details, such as the tent with the salmon soup, the library at Helsinki University, and the brick bought from an inebriated student, that says you were there. You made Helsinki more than just a city with historical buildings, a frozen-over ocean, and interesting people. You shared and conveyed a virtual experience for all of us to appreciate. Thank-you!

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      Hi Greg. I really appreciate your comments. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking hitting the ‘publish’ button so I’m really glad you enjoyed reading it. It’s also been lovely to meet and work with you and the others over the last few weeks on C.A.K.E, especially on Sunday and I hope we can all stay in contact.

  4. Fabian Reply

    Beautiful. Just plain beautiful. I like how this is a travel post that’s non-hypy, but at the same time showing such a deep appreciation for and knowledge of the destination. Two to three months has felt like the perfect amount of time for me during many of my own travels, especially when it came to “hub travel” (go to a place, live there, and use it as a basis to explore other areas nearby).

    I found myself left with one question at the end: Will you do it again? Is there any other place that would call you like Helsinki did?

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      Thanks Fabian – for your kind words and for the inspiration you and Milo have given over the last couple of weeks.

      I’d like to think that Helsinki won’t be the only place that I visit in this way so I’m definitely open to doing some more travelling and getting to know somewhere else in a similar way. Whether I definitely will do it I don’t know for sure but if I got the chance then I’d be open to it.

      1. Fabian Reply

        I hope you’ll get that chance for sure… And it was a huge pleasure to have you on board! 🙂

  5. Greg Reply

    Fabian’s comment about “hub” travel has inspired me to seek that out in contrast to touristy “sightseeing” travel that leaves me more tired than exhilarated. However, I don’t know how. You might share your experience of setting up such a trip so to help people like me. Who knows, you might even be able to earn commissions from some of the places and products you used. ; )

    1. Fabian Reply

      Greg, it really depends a lot on your work and family/mobility/finance situation. As an English teacher, opportunities abound to go to other countries for work. But you’d likely earn quite a bit less money, and of course you’d have to negotiate a sabbatical with your current employer. But it’s definitely a good career to move around a bit!

      1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

        Hi Greg. I think Fabian is probably better placed to advise on something like this, but as he says, a lot does depend on your situation and also where you’re interested in visiting I think.

        We didn’t really do much planning for our stay in Helsinki and being in the EU made things quite easy in terms of just being able to simply book a flight and turn up.

        Again, Fabian makes a great point about options for you in terms of teaching English in other countries. Maybe that would be something to start looking into, especially if you were able to take extended leave from your current job to allow you the time to travel. I’ll be interested to hear what you decide to do :-).

  6. Vilma Reply

    Hi, fun reading about how you as a foreigner experienced my current home town! You have manage quite a lot in only 3 months. Sad to hear you still find us reserved though, but hey, it must be true then. I do know I’ve been getting really tired of the constant expectation for small talk in other countries (and I am typically quite happy to chat), so I guess that is the other side of the coin then? 🙂

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      Hi. I’m glad you liked it and it’s great to get feedback from someone who’s actually from Helsinki. I hope you don’t think that the description of Finns as reserved was a criticism. I met a lot of Finnish people who were chatty – and by ‘reserved’ I definitely don’t mean ‘unfriendly’ by any means. Like you, I find the need for small talk exhausting a lot of the time so I enjoyed being somewhere for a while where this wasn’t really expected of me :).

  7. […] Kathryn, from London, published a lovely account of her time in Helsinki on her blog Concrete Moomin... mountainshores.net/the-c-a-k-e-method-course-1-celebration-day-round-up
  8. Bethany @ Journey to Ithaca Reply

    How beautiful! I love the clean simplicity of your flat there–and we have always thought that drying boards were brilliant!

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      They are! You save space that would otherwise be taken up with a draining board and can hide the drying dishes so it looks tidier. What’s not to like? 😉

  9. Munty Reply

    Really love your Finland memoirs. I have been Finland. A few of my friends whom I have known for many years are from Finland. I really like Finland. it’s where I did my first snow angel. After the doing snow angel, our friends, my husband and I found out we had locked ourselves out of the holiday cottage. We had to run to the nearest cottage barefooted and wearing just our swimsuits. By the time we got there, our teeth were clattering. Luckily the neighbours knew the landlord. Whilst we waited for the landlord to bring a spare key, the kind neighbours lent us some clothes and gave us hot drinks. I am sure they must have thought what idiots would leave their key in the cottage, shut the door and go out to do snow angels…. My experience of Finnish people has been pretty good. My Finnish friends have mentioned to me too that they often hear that Finnish people are reserved. Once you get to know them really well, they are quite warm and rather fun.

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      Thanks M. I love your story of Finland! It sounds like you had a lot of fun and I think illustrates your point about Finns being warm and friendly :). I think if we’d been there a bit longer we might have got to know our neighbours a bit better – they seemed quite friendly but unfortunately we only met them once and that was just a few days before we left to come back to the UK. Thanks for stopping by and I hope your Sunday blues weren’t too bad this week :).

  10. Joy @ Joyfully Green Reply

    How did I miss commenting on this before? I’m glad Bethany inspired you to repost it at our Facebook group because it really is a lovely introduction to the country. I’m half-Swedish and know so little about my Scandinavian roots, so this made me all the more interested in a trip to this part of the world. I loved the part about reindeer kabobs and bear pie, and your bringing Bertrand Russell into the mix. Loved the whole post, actually!

    1. Cathryn Worrell Reply

      Thanks Joy. I had fun writing this post and I’m really glad that you enjoyed reading it. As I’m sure you can guess, I would definitely recommend a trip to this part of Europe if you ever get the chance :).

  11. […] Memories of life in Helsinki by Concrete Moomin. I love the little details of her travels to Finland... notesfromthearena.com/sunday-sounds-and-reverb13
  12. […] we came back from Finland we’ve kept meaning to visit the Finnish Church in London because the... cathrynworrell.com/2014/11/26/i-went-to-the-finnish-church-fair
  13. […] you may know, I have a special fondness for Finland, especially Helsinki, so I really enjoyed being ... cathrynworrell.com/2016/02/07/creative-links-53-creating-sketching-helsinki-and-stillness

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.