Get high in Helsinki, find out why Finland is the happiest place on earth
This is the most uncongested city centre I have ever seen, but many Finns frown at Helsinki for being “too crowded.”
Well, the Finns are famous for their leave-me-alone attitude and a fierce quest for privacy. For them, a lake-facing cottage (Finland has more than 1.87 lakh lakes) is more valuable than an apartment near the harbour-front market in Helsinki. So the Finns’ obsession for solitude and silence makes for great folklore as well as guffaw-inducing jokes.
I hear this one in a Viking Line ship while crossing the Gulf of Finland:
Two friends meet after ages and go for a beer. After the first pint, Aapo asks Paivio, “How are you?”
Aapo, after the second pint: “How’s your family?”
Paivio mumbles again.
Third pint over. Aapo asks, “You’re still with Nokia?”
Paivio shouts: “Perkele! Have we come here to talk or drink?”
Jari, our host in Helsinki, adds, “Of course we are not like the Italians or those in Southern Spain. There’s a cultural difference.”
Vive le difference
This difference makes Helsinki a fabulous place to visit, but only if you know how to tackle the cold gusts of wind. If it’s too chilly, go to the harbour-front market and check out the blue fox coats or wear a moose hide hat for five minutes.
For heaven’s sake, don’t complain about the cold weather. They say in Finland: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
We arrive at the Helsinki Airport – Vantaa fully prepared. Our plan includes my morning walks for photography as my wife Ruchira has refused to wait endlessly during the day if I keep experimenting with my camera. Last year, she had to stand near Banco de España in Madrid for 45 minutes while I tried to capture the setting sun over the Gran Via.
I will not talk about the consequences here.
The first sight of Helsinki under a gloomy sky fails to inspire visitors. My romance with this Nordic outpost starts only when I delve deep into its narrow lanes and leafy corners.
There are superb sculptures tucked behind trees. Take a turn and there’s Huvilakatu – a street full of art nouveau houses, reminding us of Finland’s fabled world of design. Aged trams match the slow pace of this urban life. Pretty neighbourhoods such as Punavuori are full of small, cosy shops.
I barely start appreciating the charm of Helsinki when the unknown road brings me to the seafront. There, through the drapes of the morning mist, I see giant ships waiting to take wide-eyed travellers and beer-thirsty revellers to the fairylands of Stockholm and Tallinn.
I am so happy that I return home and fall asleep. Ruchira’s final warning that we will miss our planned tram tour somehow compels me to emerge from the layers of thick blankets.
The sound of silence
The deep green and pale yellow-coloured trams do not evoke as much nostalgia as their counterparts in Lisbon or Kolkata. Yet, they are the best option to reach important landmarks as well as simple residential areas.
We hop off tram No. 2 near a local market at Hakaniemi to eat pork pie and reindeer meat chips. Half an hour later, we are at the entrance of the fabled Finlandia Hall with no intention to enter the place (everyone goes behind the hall to enjoy the serene Toolonlahti bay). We take another tram to the unique ‘church in the rock’ amid rows of nondescript residential towers and an open space that looks like an abandoned quarry.
Less adventurous visitors flock to the two most important places of worship: The white Lutheran cathedral and the golden-domed Orthodox cathedral. The peace-loving Finns, not entirely satisfied with such magnificent, historic churches, wanted better experiences. So, right next to the busiest commercial plaza, the Kamppi Centre, they built a chapel with a brilliant design to offer just one thing. Silence.
Tired after a long meeting in office? Shopping for hours for the Christmas? Go to the Kampin Kappeli. I join the silent brigade for almost an hour. Staring at the emptiness and the curved wooden walls, I am so immersed in tranquility that I even forget to decide if I want a steak or grilled salmon for dinner.
No decent Finn can imagine a visitor making dinner plans at 4pm. Many locals are not even halfway through their bottle by now. “Here, people start drinking at 10am,” Jari quipped during our introduction.
The big gulp
With a short summer (witty Finns call it a week) and a bitter and long winter, one needs to take one’s drinks seriously. Thirsty locals guzzle craft beer and Koskenkorva vodka like the Rasna syrup. At the iconic Academic Bookstore (Akateeminen Kirjakauppa for those who want to learn new words) near Esplanadi, I pick up Päntsdrunk, a book on “how to drink at home, alone in your underwear.”
And before you laugh at the subject, please remember that a few years ago, Finland’s foreign ministry hailed the indigenous culture through emojis of a man and a woman, both drinking in their chaddis.
This fun-loving philosophy of life, the national obsession for sauna and silence, progressive mindset and the least corrupt tag are probably the reason that the 2018 World Happiness Report named Finland as the happiest country in this planet.
Meanwhile, a meal in Juuri, a small restaurant near our apartment, can make me the happiest visitor here. Juuri specialises in Sapas, the bite-sized portions inspired from local traditions. We order boiled vendace fish with artichoke in orange mustard sauce, grilled salmon with parsnip and pork sausages. Juuri means ‘just’. So, just for the sake of enriching my happiness I wash down the food with two pints of craft beer.
Lo and behold, the gloomy weather disappears. The sun is out in its full glory and Helsinki is beaming under the clear blue sky like a new bride. It’s the result of our trips to those churches, I boast.
The beautiful green patch of Esplanadi with the shops around it suddenly looks busier than before. The fancy buildings seem to have got fresh coats of paint. There’s love in the air. And you know it’s time to go to the Senate Square.
We reach the top of the stairs in front of the cathedral and soak in the full view of Europe’s best neoclassical square. Below us, the Prime Minister’s office and the University of Helsinki face each other.
The students clearly love this place more than their classrooms. The last bunch of cruise ship tourists are busy taking selfies before returning to the port. Fancy cars whizz past hop-on-hop-off buses that are waiting for passengers. The statue of Czar Alexander II, witness to this flurry of activities, waits for the night to fall.
The harbour-front market comes alive in the morning. We have grilled salmon, moose meatballs with baked potatoes and some very expensive raspberries. And then, while I examine handicrafts, an old lady selling home-made jam persuades Ruchira to buy a bottle of lingonberry jam, and keeps on wooing her to buy lots of other products.
Afraid of burning a hole in my pocket, I tell Ruchira in Bengali, “Chalo, let’s go to the other side.”
I didn’t fathom that old hawkers are expert in understanding what husbands of shopaholic wives can say, even if it’s articulated in a language unknown in Nordic region.
“You are just like my husband. Always in a hurry. You should be as patient as your wife,” she retorts, providing Ruchira the perfect incentives for buying two more bottles of jam from her.
A man must never try to dissuade his wife from shopping. More so, when the couple is in the happiest land!
From HT Brunch, December 2, 2018
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch