Island Home with sea plane
Happy in Helsinki, Finland
My hotel resembled a low rise medium secure unit and was in a suburb that seemed to be Helsinki’s equivalent of Croydon. Torrential rain didn’t help my grey tinged disappointment.
Inside, however, the hotel was bright and spacious and it seemed my hurried, pot luck online booking had secured me a massive discount on a self catering apartment with its own sauna.
I decided to spend the evening in the sauna rather than venture out to the nearest restaurant - through a long, dark subway into a shopping centre that came up on internet searches as the place a gunman ran amok and killed four people in 2009.
I examined my private sauna; it’s not something I’ve gone in for but here I was in Scandinavia… I must have used one in a health club but never been responsible for operating one. I turned a switch that made artificial coals glow in the heating unit. I found the wooden pail and scoop for throwing water onto these electrical coals but suddenly I was scared. In all other walks of life throwing water on an electrical appliance is not wise. Obviously, sauna manufacturers may have thought this one through but it still felt disturbing. I told myself to stop being ridiculous, then immediately started a new fear that the minimally staffed hotel might have neglected the maintenance on this sauna unit and I’d die alone in the Croydon of Helsinki…
Bravely I threw the water on and didn’t die. I just got too hot and remembered why I’ve never gone in for saunas. Red faced and alarmingly red mottled in the legs I threw myself under a cold shower, went back into the furnace, got red, showered… This went on for what felt like hours but may only have been ten minutes of hysteria. I lay down on the sofa feeling I hadn’t benefitted in any way and fell asleep watching a Finnish subtitled Russian television adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s, The Idiot, which felt appropriate.
The next day the sun shone. The receptionist was beamingly helpful in perfect English; the train into Helsinki central was clean, swift and arrived in fifteen minutes at an impressively monumental station.
I made my way along wide streets to the harbour, where a little market sold handicrafts and reindeer pelts. It also sold hats and shoes made of reindeer, reindeer meat kebabs - I half expected a man handing out free newspapers to tell me they were made from reindeer.
Beside the sparkling sea watching women sell fish from small boats moored at the harbour wall, I began to warm to the city.
A sightseeing boat tout persuaded me aboard. I sat up top despite the Arctic nip in the breeze. I was with a crowd of Spanish tourists who seemed nerve-janglingly vociferous in restrained Finland. They were consoling themselves against the cold with brandy from the bar at eight Euros a measure. One of them shouted; “We’ve paid all this money for brandy, now we have to stay up here however cold it gets!”
The guide pointed out the exotic and melancholy looking Russian Orthodox cathedral overlooking the harbour and ferocious looking ice breaker boats, able to break through five metres of ice.The boat meandered a maze little islands where city dwellers had holiday homes. These were sometimes basic wooden cottages; sometimes luxury, architect designed wonders, with sea planes parked at the jetty.
Every island house had a small building by the jetty. The sauna. The guide told us the pronunciation was ‘sowna’ and there were around two million in Finland. He told us people would have their sauna then jump off the jetty into the sea, even if they had to make a hole in the ice first. “I guess you could say that we Finns are sowna crazy.”
I was quite invigorated enough from the boat trip and would leave the whole matter of saunas as a pleasure that eluded me.
I walked away from the pretty harbour, around the charm of cobbled streets lined with cream and pastel coloured buildings. I saw the Aladdin’s cave of icons in the Russian cathedral and strange, brooding mythological paintings in the National Art Gallery. In the crisp sunshine, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me I was the same person as the sulky, irritable woman of the night before.
In a square outside the Lutheran cathedral a choir was on a half built stage, singing harmonies that stopped me in my tracks. I joined the small crowd that had gathered to listen.
Apologising for being a dim, language restricted tourist, I asked a woman beside me if this was a religious festival?
“Ah no, it isn’t hymns, it is folk songs.” She answered in friendly, only slightly accented English. “But this is just a rehearsal. Come back later when there’s special lights and they wear costumes, you’ll enjoy it.” She suddenly pointed to a group of teenage girls in bright clothes at the edge of the crowd. “Do you have this in your country?”
The girls had high heels, feather boas, tiaras and so much make up on their young faces it was a wonder they could hold their heads up.
They were accosting couples in the crowd, handing them pens and pieces of coloured card.
“One of the girls in getting married, so she goes with her friends and asks couples to write down advice for a happy married life. They’ve started early. I expect they will be quite drunk by the time they’ve collected enough advice.”
She smiled fondly. I wanted to ask her what advice she’d give them but the choir began a new song.
Upstaged by the choir, the giggling girls drifted away. The music echoed around the butter yellow buildings on the square as trams slid by in the afternoon sun.
“I must get home.“ The friendly woman said. “But come back later, you’ll be happy you did.”
I would, but I was already quite happy enough with Helsinki.
Annie Caulfield www.anniecaulfield.com
Annie's book Travel Writing: A Guide is out now. Visit www.localbookshops.co.uk to buy a copy from your nearest independent bookshop.