Silja Serenade, the overnight cruise ship from Stockholm to Helsinki, is a floating shopping mall. It carries two thousand passengers, mostly Swedes and Finns looking for getaway weekends in the others’ city. On board are numerous duty-free shops, a movie theater, a Broadway-esque show (Grease), a casino, and several restaurants and bars.
I checked into my below-deck cabin with the Irish immigrants, then lounged on the sun deck as the ship picked its way through Sweden’s archipelago and into the Baltic Sea.
The water was calm. In the setting sun, the islands were peaceful and picturesque, evergreen, each with red-and-white summer houses huddled around docks. A few small islands, white with guano, teemed with birds. After a dinner of, what else, Swedish meatballs, I went topside to watch the sunset. The pub erupted in cheers every time the Finns scored a hockey goal against Belarus.
Woke up in Finland and lost an hour. The ship was now navigating through the islets outside of Helsinki. On the main deck the crew were cleaning up last night’s indiscretions—empty bottles, cigarette butts, and vomit. Inside, a massive buffet breakfast was underway.
Once docked, I rolled my bag several blocks to a hotel near the Design District. Yes, the Design District. You may not know the names of Finland’s industrial designers, but you know their work. Marimekko’s printed fabrics, Iittala glassware, Arabia ceramics, and every conference-room and doctor’s-office chair you’ve ever seen.
Run, Rudolph, Run
For centuries after the Viking Age, Finland was part of Sweden. (The country is a little smaller than Montana.) Russia and Sweden used it as a battleground during multiple wars. In 1809, Sweden finally lost Finland to Russia.
In 1917 while Russia was distracted with a revolution, Finland declared itself independent.
Still, twice during World War II, the Finns had to fight to keep the Soviets on their own side of the border.
I’m not sure what I expected from Finland’s capital city, Helsinki. A gritty, dismal, Eastern European outpost perhaps. It is, instead, clean, vibrant, and artsy.
The warm, sunny weather surely helped my impression. I strolled down the city’s wide green esplanade, the trees in leaf, the cafés packed with people-watchers. In the market square by the harbor are tents, the white ones selling wool sweaters, mittens, and socks; the orange ones selling food.
Trams glided by. A street musician played an accordion. A woman sold fresh fish out of the back of a boat.
Most of the street-food vendors were grilling fresh herring, salmon, onions, and potatoes. Some served meatballs and sausage made from reindeer. I had the salmon, served on a paper plate.
I sat at a picnic table next to an obelisk, the Stone of the Czarina, topped with the double-headed eagle of Imperial Russia. It was erected in 1835 to celebrate a visit by Czar Nicholas I and Czarina Alexandra.
Helsinki is a late-bloomer. Unlike many European cities, it does not have an old town with narrow, dark, twisting medieval streets. It skipped those years. The city was not much more than a fishing village until 1809 when Russia took charge and made it a regional capital. Today, the population of greater Helsinki is 1.4 million.
Decor by Ivan
Russia’s fingerprints are all over Helsinki. Because Helsinki’s urban planning was provided by the Russians, the city looks like Saint Petersburg, I’m told. Helsinki is easily walkable so I toured its downtown landmarks on my own.
The grand former hotel facing the harbor (which once accommodated the czar and czarina) is now the city hall. The multi-domed Uspenski Orthodox Church was built for the Russian military in 1868. Today, it is Finnish Orthodox.
The facade of the nearby train station is socialist-realism in style with bulky emotionless statues representing peasant workers. They’re holding giant light bulbs.
I walked up the esplanade and over to Senate Square. The statue in the center honors Czar Alexander II. At the top of the grand stone staircase is the majestic Lutheran Cathedral, commanding the cityscape. Students from the nearby university sprawl on its steps. The university was moved to Helsinki by Czar Alexander I.
The statue of three naked blacksmiths with their sledges reveals bullet damage from one of the Soviet incursions during World War II. Baron Gustaf Mannerheim successfully led Finland’s defense against the Soviets. Twice. In 1944, he was elected president. He is revered as the father of modern Finland.
Throughout Helsinki, modern Finnish architectural wonders are mixed in with Soviet leftovers. I visited the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, a church shaped like a large upside-down beehive. Its warm tones and curved surfaces are comforting. The chapel holds no services, but invites shoppers from the nearby mall into its roundness to meditate.
In a quiet neighborhood I found the Temppeliaukio Church, “the Church in the Rock.” This missile silo of a church was blasted out of a granite knoll. Perfectly cylindrical in shape, its inside walls are solid rock.
The stunning concert venue, Finlandia Hall, sits next to an inlet of the Baltic Sea called Töölönlahti Bay. (One never has to buy a vowel in Finland.) Across the water I could see sports venues left over from the 1952 Summer Olympics.
Metal bands and Ball Chairs
“Finland has perhaps the most heavy metal bands in the world, per capita,” President Obama said at a recent state dinner, “and also ranks high on good governance. I don’t know if there’s any correlation there.”
Supposedly, for every two thousand Finns there is one metal band. (I would have guessed one NHL player.)
The editor of a Finnish metal magazine explained, “I’m sure the two hundred days of bone-crushing winter have something to do with it.”
The never-ending darkness of Scandinavian winters may have inspired another artistic contribution—the design style called functionalism.
Functionalism emphasizes the practical over the beautiful. Except that the Scandinavians somehow made functionalism beautiful in its simplicity.
For Finns, practicality comes naturally. Throughout history, their survival required it. And living in near isolation, they were used to working with limited resources.
After World War II, as their industrial revolution finally kicked in, the Finns established themselves internationally for innovative industrial design and architecture. Making use of vibrant colors, clean lines, and futuristic shapes, Finnish design was embraced by popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming synonymous with pop art.
I toured the Design Museum, which exhibited many of the household items I grew up with, such as Olof Bäckström’s orange-handled Fiskars’ scissors.
The library where I went to college featured Eero Aarnio’s ball chairs, a cushioned sphere one sits inside of. The ball chair has been used as a prop in countless TV shows and movies set in the 1960s, such as Austin Powers, Men In Black, and Zoolander.
Aarnio’s furniture was displayed on mobile stands, programmed to follow visitors around the exhibition like robots. I was stalked by a couple of chairs. Creepy.
(Slogan courtesy of Helsinki Tourist Information.)
According to a recent U.S. News & World Report list of the happiest countries, Finland ranks sixth.
This is perhaps because the Finns invented the sauna. Most homes have one.
Or because they are blowing off steam playing Angry Birds.
Right now, the country is plastered with posters promoting the recent release of The Angry Birds Movie, the animation inspired by the most-downloaded video game of all time.
Finnish designers invented it.