A young woman strode forward, her cello strapped to her back, to join a gangly young man with a red thatch of hair. The gate personnel announced we would soon begin boarding for the flight to HelSINKi, and the young woman shook her head in contempt. She was Finnish, he was Latvian, and she spoke in English. “These Americans. They don’t even know how to say HELsinki.” The young man nodded with a world-weary air.
In my time away, I tried to say at least that one word correctly. Yet even when I remembered, it didn’t come out right. Far too much “hell” in it for a city that gave us such delight. (For proper pronunciation, listen to the first audio here.)
When we arrived at our rented apartment, the proprietress looked at us as if to say, why come here, when you could be in Miami Beach (from whence she’d recently returned). “You must have brought the sun with you. It’s been cold and rainy all of June,” she said. And, indeed, it proved to be sunny and mild for the whole of our stay.
Tourism is fantasy, only fleetingly engaged with any semblance of “the real.” I don’t like being a tourist, yet there is often little choice. The question is how to avoid the worst of tourism and get beneath a place’s skin. Helsinki, or so it seemed to me, helped us along, for it went about its business and simply absorbed camera-toting gawkers in its midst. The sun was out, summer had begun, and, come early evening, café tables filled with working people in conversation over a bottle of wine.
Helsinki and Finland drew us to it for many reasons. On the most basic level, unlike our proprietress, Miami Beach doesn’t strike us as an inviting summer destination. Better the cooler climate of the North and the light of its nearly endless sun. We were intrigued, also, by Finland’s proximity to Russia and the cultural crosscurrents between the two, as well as learning more about what, for us, felt like a through-the-looking glass perspective on the cataclysms of twentieth century history. Above all, what drew me to Helsinki wasn’t Helsinki proper, but what could be found nearby: Ainola, the home of Jean Sibelius.
As is true of the best vacations, we went in with a handful of set ideas and came back with a bounty of memorable, unlooked-for impressions.
Helsinki is said to be the only European capital—so unlike Tallinn, just across the Gulf of Finland—without any medieval past. I thought that might be a handicap; how wrong I was. The city is full of fascinating buildings, including “the largest concentration of Art Nouveau [Jugendstil] buildings in Northern Europe.” While it can add to your enjoyment, you don’t need to be an architectural expert to revel in what you see.
Sometimes the story of a city, or a country, is revealed most strongly in its art. So it was at the Ateneum Art Museum. I went in eager to see paintings to which Sibelius’s music had led me, notably Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s depictions of scenes from the Kalevala. I wasn’t disappointed: Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen, Kullervo, all were there. But the greatest revelation was on another floor. On the centennial of her birth, most of the museum was given over to the work of Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, about which I knew nothing and in which I thought I’d have little interest. Wrong again. It wasn’t, in the end, the Moomins that captivated me so much, but the cover art Jansson created for Garm Magazine during World War II. Courage and whimsy aren’t often close companions, but Jansson had the gift for both. Photographs weren’t permitted, but one of my favorites, Mer Kaka (More Cake) may be found here.
Many of Jansson’s covers for Garm featured childhood at Christmas distorted by war, like the one of a child beneath a Christmas tree holding, as I recall it, the gift of a weapon. The significance of Jansson’s choice of images for wartime Garm covers is magnified by words from her book, Sculptor’s Daughter:
The smaller you are, the bigger Christmas is. Underneath the Christmas tree, Christmas is vast. It is a green jungle with red apples and sad, peaceful angels twirling around on cotton thread keeping watch over the entrance to the primaeval forest. In the glass balls the primaeval forest is never-ending; Christmas is a time when you feel absolutely safe, thanks to the Christmas tree. [p. 151]
Her inaugural Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was first published in 1945. “It is said that Tove Jansson had already begun to write this story in 1939 when the Finnish-Soviet Winter War broke out, in order to escape, even for a moment, the gloominess of the war.”
The following day, Jansson’s images of children and wartime resonated in another way: we visited the fortress islands of Suomenlinna, a fifteen minute ferry ride from Helsinki Harbor. It was a glorious weekend day, and we joined many Helsinki residents and their families who’d come to spend the day in what is now, among other things, a spectacular public park. A favorite place to pose for a photograph is at the mouth of a now-silenced cannon.
Of Suomenlinna’s many uses and incarnations, toward the end of the Finnish Civil War,
. . . the Whites set up a prison camp in Viapori [now Suomenlinna] for Red prisoners, up to 8,000 of them. In the prison camp, Red prisoners were executed and some died of diseases due to the poor conditions in the fortress. The last prisoners were released in March 1919.
As Wisława Szymborska wrote in Reality Demands, “Maybe there are no fields other than battlefields,/those still remembered,/and those long forgotten.”
We ended each day at Market Square, where we bought fresh peas, strawberries, and new potatoes from overflowing vendor stands. In the Old Market, we bought pike perch, fresh salmon, or marinated lamb chops, and once, a lingonberry tart. We walked, purchases in hand, to our apartment. We ate, glass of wine in hand, watching the late light grow ever more golden, savoring what we’d experienced so far and what was yet to come.
Ahti Sonninen: Wedding Waltz of the Mice from Pessi and Illusia, a ballet for orchestra, Op. 39 (1951) for which Tove Jansson designed the sets and costumes for the 1952 production.
Jean Sibelius: Kullervo, Op. 7 (1892), Introduction
For more information about Sibelius’s Kullervo, click here.
A synopsis of the opera, and thereby Kullervo’s story, may be found here.
Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post. The photographs are mine, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated.