The Travelling Trooper Explores Helsinki

It was time to say goodbye to Silvi. Aside from Silvi’s loving character, I think the hardest part was going to be saying goodbye to those delicious kombucha tea drinks that she loves. I’d never heard of them before Silvi, but she swears by their health benefits. Personally, I just think they’re delicious. I may or may not try to make my own batch when I get home. Though Perry and I still need to give the old mead thing a try first. (Don’t think I’ve forgotten, good sir!)

As a parting gift, she found me a place to stay with a former colleague of hers. Tomas and Cecile live about 30 minutes out of the city centre by train with their three kids. More on them later.

Before heading to their place, we decided to explore a bit of Helsinki with our old friend, Izi. We mentioned Izi before in Italy. It’s a great travel app that features free downloadable walking audio guides. We managed to see a fair bit in a few hours.

The central railway station was the start of our tour. These “stone men,” as they’re called, hold spherical lamps that light up for eighteen hours a day during December, which is the darkest time of the year in Finland.

The gentleman in the photo on the right is Aleksis Kivi. He is recognized as the national author of Finland for having written the first Finnish novel of merit, Seven Brothers. Apparently it was Kivi’s only novel, but it is still regarded as the greatest Finnish book of all time. If you’re only going to write one book, you might as well make it count, right?

This prrty granite building with its nifty arches and balconies looks like something from the Middle Ages, but it was actually built in 1902. It was meant to house the Finnish National Theatre for proper Finnish theatre. For a long time, Swedish was seen as the prestigious language of the elites; only the common folk spoke Finnish. But in 1872, playwrighte Kaarlo Bergbom had the cojones to envisione a proper Finnish theatre for Finnish people.

As a Canadian, I could totally relate to this! At least in terms of culture, Sweden is to Finland what the US is to us. We produce a little a fraction of the amount of programming, movies, music, etc. that the US produces, and little of it reaches beyond our borders. We stand in Goliath’s shadow.

And like Canada, which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year, Finland is quite young. They turn the big 1-0-0 this year. We have that whole English Commonwealth situation, while they were part of Sweden for some 700 years (hence why Swedish was seen as the prestigious language) until they became an autonomous part of the Russian Empire as a result of the Finnish War of 1809.

Soviet Russia would later go to war with Finland over land claims during the Winter War in World War II, and Finland didn’t become independent of Russia until 1917. That’s not long ago.

What with our short history, our ties to the UK and the US, and our rapidly evolving population, Canada is still trying to figure itself out. I think Finland is in the same boat.  They have a fairly complicated past that is inextricably tied to Sweden and Russia, and you still see shades of the history of those conflicts to this day. Apparently Sweden is contemplating giving Finland a mountain by altering a part of the Sweden-Norway border. I guess they see this as a sort of centennial birthday gift?

Canadians are so self-conscious about what it means to be Canadian that we have to explicitly shout it at the top of our lungs–whether it’s in the I. Am. Canadian commercial, or more recently, the KFC commercial in which a guy explains to his neighbour all the reasons why Canada is so great. If you ask me, though, if we really were that great, we wouldn’t have to keep telling people how great we are, y’know?

I think it would be awesome to see a Finnish equivalent to the I. Am. Canadian advertisement. I have no idea what it would contain, because after speaking with all of my hosts in Finland–a healthy mix of expats and locals–the consensus seems to be that the Finns are an odd bunch. Maybe it’s the whole lack of sun thing.

Take their traditions for example. Finland holds several annual competitions to entertain themselves. These are all true.

– World Air Guitar Championship.

– Who can sit naked atop an ant hill the longest.

– Who can carry his wife across the finish line first (the winner gets his wife’s weight in beer).

– Who can throw their Nokia phone the farthest.

– They used to have a competition to see who could sit in a sauna the longest, since every household in Finland has a built-in sauna; however, they stopped it after one finalist received burns and another one died.

– The play a game of soccer in knee-high mud.

Finns can also be very quiet. Even Anne in Jyvaskyla, who was very outspoken and sociable, admitted this about her fellow Finns. In fact, while waiting at the airport, there was a couple eating beside me. They didn’t speak the entire time I sat there. They either stared at their phones or at each other.

This is also surprising since apparently Finns drink twice as much coffee as Italians and the French. Where does all the energy go?

ANYWHO, that was quite the tangent. On with the walking tour. Aleksanterinkatu is the oldest street in Helsinki. There are heating pipes underneath the pavement to melt the snow and slush. Every year at 1:00, the street becomes “Christmas Street, and Senate Square is decorated with trees and lights and garlands. It’s also the place of their Christmas parade. People line up and block off the streets on November 25 to see the Christmas decorations on the window displays at Stockmann’s department store.

Stockmann’s was founded in 1862 by George Franz Stockman, a German merchant. The first store was located in a small historic building on Aleksanterinkatu. Today, the Stockmann chain is the biggest in all of Scandinavia.

Fazer is a heavenly cafe named after the Swiss confectioner, Karl Fazer. He opened his cafe in 1891. The interesting part is that his business didn’t take off until Finland imposed restrictions on Russian sweets that could be imported.¬† Even more hilarious is that Fazer hired basically all Russian employees who brought with them all of the best Russian tricks of the trade. The man knew what he was doing.

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I bought some amazing caramel chocolate at Fazer with the intention of sharing it with my hosts for the night, but sadly, I had not the will power to resist temptation, and I ended up eating the whole thing before I even got to their place. I am weak. But hey, at least I brought a bottle of wine as a thank you for their hospitality. Nobody can say I don’t show my appreciation!

This is Senate Square, anchored in the middle by the Helsinki Cathedral. The cathedral earned Helsinki the nickname “White capital of North.” The dude on horseback is General Alexander II. Helsinki also earned the nickname “Small Petersburg” due to Alexander I’s predilection for Russian architecture. I have to say, though, for such a grandiose exterior, the church is quite bare and simple inside. Apparently this is how the Lutherans roll. Lutheranism is the dominant religion in Finland.

The square is also home to the Finnish Council of State, where the Prime Minister and his cabinet meet every Friday at 1 pm, as well as University of Helsinki.

This is Mr. Snellman. He helped found the Bank of Finland, which issued the currency Finland used while they enjoyed their autonomy within Russia. This system was used until the country changed to Euros.

The oldest Orthodox church in Helsinki just turned 190 years old two weeks ago. So there’s that.

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And so ended day 1 of walking around Helsinki. Now it was time to meet our hosts for the next two nights.

Silvi, our previous host, used to teach Kindergarten with Tomas. Cecile teaches with him now. Both Tomas and Cecile are French. More importantly, they both love board games. It was the first thing I noticed when I walked in the door. Silvi had told me that I had to show Tomas Dobble because he would love it. No need, Silvi; they already had it–along with a library of other games I’d never heard of.

I think the first night we played a game called Dead Man’s Draw. I tried searching for it on Google, and there’s a game called Dead Man’s Draw that essentially sounds the same, but it features some slight variations on cards we played with. It’s a simple card game that requires just a bit of luck as well. It’s an underwater-themed game, featuring cards like octopus, spear, mermaid, and others. Each card has a corresponding number of points assigned to it, as well as a different ability. The game starts with all of the cards stacked in the middle. The first player starts flipping one card at a time. You can flip as many cards as you want, but if you flip a card that you already flipped, you kiss all those potential points goodbye. It’s like playing Black Jack; the trick is knowing when to quit. If you decide to call it, you collect all of the cards and earn those points.

Now as you’re flipping cards, you have to do the corresponding action for each one. For example, if you flip a knife, you get to kill one of your opponent’s points cards. If you draw a treasure map, you get to pick from the three most recent burned cards to add to your pile. If you pull an octopus, you must draw the next two cards, meaning you risk drawing a card that you’ve already drawn in that round. And so on. I think there are ten different action cards, all with points ranging from 2 to 7. That’s the gist of the game. We played several rounds of that game before calling it a night. Cecile and I tied the first round, and then I won a whole bunch of rounds–which was a nice change!

I immediately fell in love with Tomas and Cecile. They are loving, thoughtful, and compassionate human beings. I mean, Tomas agreed to host me when Silvi asked him without even meeting me! Their character is reflected in their parenting. Their kids are so respectful and well-behaved. Their middle and oldest sons were even nice enough to share a room for two nights so I could take the middle son’s room. Plus, they’re the kind of parents who you can tell still know how to be silly and goofy. They’re kids at heart. I mean, 1) they teach Kindergarten 2) they collect board games 3) Tomas acts as a clown for children at hospitals in his spare time, for crying out loud! How can you not love this family?!

And after two years in Abu Dhabi, it was nice to spend two nights with teachers who clearly love what they do for a living. It was nice to talk about relevant teaching issues. Between these two and Anne, who is an English professor, it was interesting to hear what people in Finland had to say about Finnish education. Their education system is highly regarded around the world, but it seems that there’s some question in Finland itself as to whether it really is good we all make it out to be.

Nonetheless, as a teacher, talking shop was something I sorely missed. It came naturally to these two. They have a genuine passion for what they do. They even have a chart of English verb tense conjugations right by the toilet. You don’t get more teacher-y than that.

Wine, board games, good conversations, and great people. I was in Heaven.

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