Impressions of Helsinki

Gulf of Finland – Särkinienem Puisto

I recently travelled ot Helsinki, Finland to attend the Central and Eastern European Schools Association directors meetings. It was my second time in the city, the last being 13 years ago. I have also been to Copenhagen, Denmark and Helsingborg, Sweden. Scandanavia is one of my favorite places to visit.

Finland has a special significance for me because my adopted mother was a 100% Finnish-American. Her maiden name was Heikkila which means coming from the household of “Heikki” or “Henry” the patron saint of Finland. Her mother’s maiden name was Laitinen, a common surname from eastern and central Finland. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan where her grandfather immigrated has many people of Finnish ancestry. I think the Finns came to the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes region of America because of the similar climate and topography. If it was today, I wonder if they would choose a warmer climate like Florida or Arizona. 🙂

My first impression of the city is how active and outdoors-oriented are the Finns. It puts American cities to shame. There were bike lanes all throughout the city and people were walking everywhere. There are lots of parks and well-developed public spaces. It reminded me of an advanced, better-funded, city version of Marquette. I rented a bike from Stadi Bicycle after our meetings on Friday and had time to complete the entire Helsinki Inner City Water Front loop. The ride is a beautiful mix of scenery with historic buildings, coastline, parks, apartment blocks and forests. Most American cities by contrast are designed for cars with no sidewalks or bike trails.

Clarion Hotel in Jätkäsaari

The city also excels in the “third places”. This is a concept of places for people to spend time that are not home or work. People in America spend too much time at home or work because the third places (public parks, libraries, etc.) are not developed. Taxes are extremely high in Finland but you can see your taxes at work. There were many well-maintained parks with soccer fields, beaches, and playgrounds. We toured the award winning designed Oodi (Ode in English, as is Ode to Joy) Central Library. It is an amazing 3-story building in the shape of a ship. It is modern library with recording studios, 3-D printing labs, sewing machines and poster-making machines, besides book. The central swirling staircase is an architectural gem with words suggested by the public. I chose the word höpöttäjille for our guide to translate because it had a lot of dots over the vowels. It means “people who babble”. The Finnish language, like its relative the Hungarian, is a complicated language with lots of long words. I love libraries and the amount of planning that went into this one is impressive. It was quite busy on a Saturday morning.

The Finns spoke to me in Finnish first, I guess assuming I was Finnish. Everyone spoke fluent English so no problems getting around. I noticed the women wore too much makeup, which was unexpected. I thought living in a country with not much sun, that they would have smooth skin and not need makeup. Scandanavians excel at architecture and design. We toured the International School of Helsinki and I saw the elements of light, nature, and space that makes places feel calm.

Selfie during a walk in Helsinki

I would definitely like to live in Finland and would like to travel to the far north of the country. Lapland is on my bucket list. I love nordic skiing and I think this would get me through the long, dark winters. It would also remind me of my childhood growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Suburban Helsinki

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