After spending almost a month in Helsinki, here are our top observations about Finnish life. Overall, we found life there to be enjoyable - the right blend of casual yet energetic, manageable yet interesting, modern yet conscious of its history. Finnish people we met were the right blend of friendly yet not overbearing.
Our top 6 take-aways, in no particular order:
1.Most Finns seem comfortable in their own skin, but see themselves as collectively socially awkward with others
Finns have a laid-back sense of style. Comfortable but colorful. Somehow they have managed to avoid the kind of judging of different body types and styles that is so ubiquitous everywhere else I've been. The downtown pool, built in the 1920s in Art Deco style, separates men's and women's swimming so that swimmers can take their laps nude. I'm told that in gatherings of friends and family, some wear clothes in the sauna or the lakes, and others don't. People accept this as normal. And, while friendly, they are not small-talk chit-chatters. They say what they mean in as few words as possible. One series of Finnish cartoons, called "Finnish Nightmares" by Karoliina Korhonen, pokes fun at this tendency to NOT interact with strangers.
2. Finns are known for design and love their famous designers
You can't walk more than a few blocks in Helsinki without seeing some version of a Marimekko design. Marimekko, founded in 1951, created bold, patterned clothing and household fabrics that became world famous. When we attended the ballet in Helsinki I counted at least 6 women wearing the Marimekko poppy design, each one in a different color. There were Marimekko products in the cruise ship gift shop (and of course, I bought a small item!) Almost as loved as Marimekko are the blue Ailto vases, designed in the late 1930s. Also, Moomins. Everywhere. Finns are very proud of their innovative design, even pointing out highway lamps designed for pleasing shapes.
3.You can eat lots of different food in Helsinki, from traditional Finnish fare to international offerings.
It wouldn't be Finland if you didn't try reindeer stew or eat Fazer chocolate. But we ate at a wide variety of places, including El Rey Mexican restaurant (fantastic house margarita, made with Hibiscus, and terrific guacamole and fish tacos), several Himalayan restaurants, and a sushi buffet called Moshi Moshi. If you have a hankering for a burger, we found excellent ones at Naughty Burger (although very pricey). We do not recommend the Finnish burger chain, Hesburger. Pretty greasy and loaded with mayonnaise. If I had to characterize Finnish food, I would say it leans toward extremely healthy (quinoa salad with hummus, for example, at the local coffee shop, or fresh asparagus at every restaurant) but also lots of chocolate and candy. Typical comfort food includes salmiakki (salty licorice shaped like fish), licorice pipes, and dark rye breadsticks flavored in garlic.
3. Finns love the sea and nature.
Finland is culturally connected to its Baltic neighbors, especially Sweden and Estonia. Finns often cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm (overnight there, one or more days in Stockholm, then overnight back) and from Helsinki to Tallin (just 2 hours each way). We did each. When you fly into Finland, you see endless blue water dotted with islands and pine trees. This is a country that lives on the sea and its many inland lakes. Sauna culture grew around these water spots. Many Finns have cabins with a sauna on a lake. We went to a city sauna on the sea, and a second pool on the sea. Common day trips are to islands. This is a land of beautiful blue water and big, tall, trees. We noticed that when Finns are dreaming in commercials, they are usually dreaming of being at their cabin by a lake in the woods, or on the sea. They seem to really love their land.
5. Finns have many shared experiences, and a shared attitude, "Sisu".
Maybe it's the long, cold nights with very little sun, or maybe it's the low population density, but Finns seem to share many common experiences. Take the Havis Amanda statue on the Esplanaadi. It is a site for many gatherings, both planned and spontaneous, since its installation in 1908. It is a place for celebration and a place for pranks. Every April 30-May1, when Finland celebrates Vappu, a student cap is placed on her head. Or take student activities. Students can be seen downtown frequently wearing their caps, each one signifying a different stage or type of study, or wearing special pants while they engage in activities. Every Finn I've met talks about the importance of a sauna for warmth, peace, and community. When they go into the ocean after a long winter, they call it "losing their winter fur," a demonstration of "sisu" - roughly translated as "hearty and tough" or perhaps, "grit". Sisu is what gets them through the cold winter nights with no sun. Sisu is what keeps them up all night in the summer when it is light. Sisu is what binds them in defense of their borders and their way of life.
6. Helsinki is easy to navigate and walkable.
We stayed in an apartment right in the center of town. From there, we could walk to numerous groceries and restaurants. We walked to the pier where we sailed to Suomenlinna and the two Baltic cruises. When it was too far to walk, we could easily take a metro or train widely within the region. Everyone spoke English, and while we prefer to at least try to say some Finnish words, this language was daunting. People are not chatty, but they are extremely friendly. If you strike up a conversation, they seem interested and pleasant. Service people tried to help as often as possible, and things did not seem overly bureaucratic. Maybe it's the low population density in a capital city, but whatever the reason, there was a lot to do and see and plenty of help to get it done. People seemed to take pride in their city, country and services. Our Airbnb host, while a man of few words, was extremely attentive, professional, and helpful. These are genuine people making genuine connections. We had the advantage of knowing a few people before arriving, but they really put on hospitality to make sure we had a good time. (Irena and Marja-Lissa, you know who you are!)
Thanks to our Finnish hosts, who made our stay there memorable. We hope to return!