In Helsinki

Monument to Alexander II, Senate Square

Monument to Alexander II, Senate Square

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.

Jugendstil Architecture

Jugendstil Architecture

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.”

A Favorite Pose at Suomenlinna

A Favorite Pose at Suomenlinna

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Listening List

On Spotify: In Helsinki (Music of Sonninen, Sibelius, Madetoja, and Sallinen)

On YouTube:

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.

Aulis Sallinen: Short Excerpt from his opera Kullervo, Op. 61 (1988), performed at the Savonlinna Opera Festival this July (sadly, a bridge too far for our travels)

A synopsis of the opera, and thereby Kullervo’s story, may be found here.

Kullervo's Curse by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1899)

Kullervo’s Curse by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1899)


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.




20 thoughts on “In Helsinki

  1. Brian Long

    Lovely writing, Susan. I had no idea of Helsinki’s jugenstil riches. So that was a welcome detail for me. Thank for the post.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Brian: Nor did I. The neighborhood that had been identified (though only in a passing phrase in one of my guidebooks!), in which the photographs were taken, is rich with it, and all beautifully renovated. The photographs don’t really do the buildings justice, which are stunning down to the last detail.

  2. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    what a lovely, lovely post, thank you! You brought Helsinki to life again for me (we were there on our honeymoon). As to Tove Jansson: as a blogger who so very often mentioned and quoted her I don’t seem to be a success :) The best are her texts (though the illustrations in her books are fine too – I have some problems with her comics). Hans made a whole seminar about her (Philosophy in children books) – and our son still quotes a lot by heart (and I divide people I met into Hemuls, Gaffsas, Sniffs and Moomins…) Have a great holiday over there! Britta

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: I seem to remember now you’d been in this part of the world for your honeymoon. And as for the Moomins, apologies are due from me for being such a forgetful reader! (A brief Google search uncovered one of your posts immediately, you may be happy to know.) I did very much enjoy her book “Sculptor’s Daughter,” which I was able to find in English in the wonderful bookstore in Helsinki. We have indeed had a wonderful holiday!

  3. Curt Barnes

    Glad I checked in at the right time! A really enjoyable post, Susan, and educational in multiple ways. Q: wonder if you saw any monuments or plaques commemorating the great bass, Martti Talvela. Would think there’d be something, maybe in the Opera House… Continue to have a great trip!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: Of all the monuments and plaques I did see, I didn’t spot any to Talvela, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more exists. I feel sometimes as if we only skimmed the surface of what this city has to offer. So glad we had a chance to visit there.

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    Now THAT’S a vacation! Sounds like you ate really well while you were there, too. ‘Kullervo’s Curse’ is a striking painting. I’m glad you showed us the painting in its frame.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Yes, it was an extraordinary vacation, I must say (including the food–I did love that Old Market, as you can see!). So pleased you were struck by Kullervo’s Curse. I’m familiar with–and like very much–a few of Gallen-Kallela’s works based on the Kalevala, but this one was new to me, and I thought it quite affecting.

  5. wanderer

    Ah, you are back home then? Too much to digest, as usual, in one read, but how lovely that you had such splendid summer weather in the design capital of the world, no less, and glorious photos to refresh memories of a very strange place indeed, I felt, with the Russian border very close literally and figuratively, still.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: It is such an interesting place, isn’t it? One really can feel the proximity to the Russian border, yet its character is completely its own.

  6. T.

    Thank you for sharing your trip with us, Sue. It was lovely to look at your photos and read your thoughts. Hope you are well.


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Well, I certainly like the nomenclature “travellers” over “tourists” . . . though I certainly had my camera at the ready throughout, as I think you can see. But then, I do that at home quite often, too.

  7. David N

    Would that all tourists/travellers were as open to experience as you two are. I love ‘we went in with a handful of set ideas and came back with a bounty of memorable, unlooked-for impressions’ because I know exactly what you mean: preconceived notions from photos and guidebooks can’t begin to prepare one for the topography of a place, the rich minutiae of city life, especially. I half agree with Robert Byron’s ‘travel is an armistice with the truth’: rather, we see facets, slivers of the truth of living in that country if we’re lucky enough to meet the people and break the language barrier.

    How I love Helsinki, but I just can’t imagine it in the summer (though I had an hour there one July changing trains for St Petersburg).

    Ainola next? And then our bit?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Love that quote from Byron, as well as your phrases about the “rich minutiae of city life,” and “slivers of the truth.” As for what’s next, certainly Ainola and certainly our lovely “bit,” though, be forewarned, there will be some additional stops along the way. As a PS: I have just finished v. 1 of Linna’s Under the North Star and ordered the rest of the trilogy. Magnificent how he builds up a complex picture from the vantage point of a set of well-drawn characters in a small rural village. A wonderful way of revisiting, not to mention adding to the lovely store of “slivers.”

  8. shoreacres

    There are so many little resonances here. Tallin, of course, from your trip, but also some memories for me: lingonberries at Christmas, my favorite professor’s Finnish accent, a big basket of red wooden apples, also at Christmas.

    I’d not heard of the Moomin, either — or of Tove Jansson. I did find a Moomin Trove, that provided a few delightful minutes of browsing.

    Travel is such a delight, and you do it so well. I’m always glad to be traveling along behind you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Such wonderful memories you’ve added here. And I’m surely glad not to be the only one who hadn’t known of Tove Jansson and the Moomins (though Britta has rightly shamed me for my insufficient recollection of the delightful little quotes and images she’s posted from time to time–I just didn’t connect the dots!). (Sculptor’s Daughter, by the way, is a lovely little book, should you ever run across it.) I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the “virtual traveling” so far. In preparing the next post, I definitely have you, particularly, in mind.

Comments are closed.