International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Finland
Art & Craft of Being Helsinki
ten years ago, I'd thought of making that long trek across the North
Atlantic (some ten time zones from our west coast in the States)
to Helsinki, Finland. A vague yearning driven in part by admiration
for one Finn, an architectural master of the 20th Century: Alvar
two buildings from the Aalto ouvre were built in America. I'm lucky
to live near one: just over thirty miles south of Portland, Oregon is
the Mt. Angel Abbey Library at a hilltop Benedictine monastery. I'd
always thought it would be nice to see more of Aalto's work in his own
Less than six months ago, the economy reeling, travel getting desperately
cheap, I came up with the idea of spending a week in Aruba. Sitting
on the beach, being unplugged, doing nothing. My close associate resisted.
For starters, no museums. She asked, What about Finland? I immediately
agreed, recalling my long-held interest in that mecca for good design
(and we'd enjoyed two other contenders for that distinction: Japan and
Well, the big day came and we caught an Icelandair flight out of Seattle
(their second week of operation out of a new gate at SEA-TAC) and eleven
hours laterincluding one hour for a change of planes in Iceland--we
were in Helsinki.
is what we saw on the plasma TV when we got to our hotel room in
Helsinki: "Press any key."
Omenahotelli was not kidding. I surprised my close associate by
not telling her I'd paid for three nights at a Web-driven, online
credit-card-transaction-gets-you-a-passcode but no desk clerk, no
registration hotel. Same passcode for front door, elevator, and
room. My close associate got into a this-is-different spirit immediately
and began taking pictures. Very much functional Finnish design.
(I should add there is cleaning staff working a few hours midday,
but other than them, all you see is other guests.)
we were in Finland, the tech-savvy, most-wired nation on the planet.
Here, like everywhere else, people walk about, cell phone clamped to
ear, but hereas we watched a skateboarder on Bulevardi in downtown
Helsinki kickflipping his board to a perfect foot plant and not interrupting
his cell conversation modern telephony took on a special meaning.
For the vitality and easy-going confidence of Finns we saw seemed to
reflect national prosperity and pride. A lowfor Europe--unemployment
rate bolstered by the global success of a native timber products company,
sometime manufacturer of rubber boots for loggers, but now telecommunication
colossus, Nokia, headquartered in nearby Espoo, which has deployed some
two billion cell phones across the planet.
we weren't in Finland for technology. We went to drink in the
design genius of the place. Architecture as in Aalto and Saarinen.
Fabrics from Marimekko. Ceramics from Arabia. Bent-wood furniture
designed by Aalto and manufactured and sold by Artek, as in this
showroom on the Esplanadi, the park "spine" that runs
from the central core down to one of Helsinki's many harbors.
Geographically, Finland is not isolated, but sits in the world
landscape at a northern bridge between East and West.
culturally the Finns must benefit from past geopolitical confluence,
they've also suffered as the summer seasonal site for many past wars
between the Kingdom of Sweden and Tsarist Russia. Their independence
only dates from 1917 and post-1989, the Finns are finally out of the
shadow of the Soviets to the east and seeminglyas evidenced by
Nokia's world presence in our information ageat the top of their
the past is present in Helsinki, as shown by this, the Uspenski
Cathedral, the Finnish Orthodox church built during the years Finland
was a Russian duchy. Even if an autonomous duchy, the onion domes
are unmistakeable evidence of the sway of Russian culture. But one
only walks fifteen minutes to the west from this architectural treasure
to the Greek-columned Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral that sits before
a vast public square, which travel journalist Rick Steves calls
the finest Neoclassical public square in all of Europe.
Besides cathedrals and impressive public buildings like Eliel Saarinen's
central train station, much of central Helsinki is blocks of mixed
use six-storey-ish buildings. With many tree-lined streets, Helsinki
is sometimes called the "Paris of the North." But, I'd
add, Helsinki is much cleaner and reputedly much safer.
a more modern vein, architecturally, Helsinki is home to Finlandia
Hall, Aalto's masterpieceperformance auditorium, completed in his
mature years (1971), as well as the outstanding Kiasma museum of
contemporary art pictured here and designed by American Stephen
weeks in Finland went quickly, the days always busy. Art museums. A
day trip south across the Baltic Sea to well-preserved medieval towns
in Tallinn, Estonia. (Before boarding for the return voyage, we sympathized
with those returning Finns, who pulling collapsible shopping carts with
bungee-corded cases of cheap, low-tax alcoholic beverages struggled
with escalator-induced spills...) Lots of stops for coffee that made
me a believer in light roast for black-coffee flavor that satisfies
(I say that knowing most of the world is taken with lots of sugar and
cream in the "Charbucks" dark brew that begs for same...).
A mandatory visit to the design museum. And the serendipity of "running"
into, late one Saturday afternoon, the Helsinki Marathon, 6,000+ strong.
A fitting finish to a day I started with my own 6 am run of some three
miles along the wharves.
Or the serendipity of going to the Helsinki Flea Market earlier that
same Saturday and buying, for a friend, a pin featuring the lurching
coif of one Leningrad Cowboy. For as I told my friend, when I mailed
off this pin, who better shows the special Finnish spirit than the Leningrad
Cowboys singing "Happy Together" with a Russian Army choir.
Sure, it took a few tense generations of the Cold War and a nuclear
Balance of Terror, but the plucky Finns seemed to have the last laugh,
as whenever the irrespressible Leningrad Cowboys take the stage.
we all know, tourists march on their stomach. In this regard,
Helsinki did not disappoint. Pictured here is a chocolate fondant,
warm and made from scratch and the perfect finish to a fine Finnish
Charlie Dickinson September 2009
places to go
I talk about when I talk about running:
a memoir by Haruki Murakami,
makes Haruki Murakami-Japanese novelist, often suggested as Japan's
next Nobel Prize winner for Literature-run? Here, told in Murakami's
irresistible prose style, abundant with droll humor, is the straight
skinny on why this man of letters, who turns sixty next year, runs at
least one marathon every year.
by Christian B_k,
One given for creative work by an artist is acceptance of limits
(a discipline the work itself often imposes).
Charlie Dickinson reviews Sam North's ghost novel Mean Tide
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