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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Finland

The Art & Craft of Being Helsinki
Charlie Dickinson

Nearly 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 Aalto.

Only 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 land.

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 Italy).

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 later—including one hour for a change of planes in Iceland--we were in Helsinki.

This 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.)

Obviously, 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 here—as 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 low—for 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.

But 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.

And while 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 seemingly—as evidenced by Nokia's world presence in our information age—at the top of their game.

Still, 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.
In 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 Holl (1998).

Our two 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.

As 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 dinner!

© Charlie Dickinson September 2009

More places to go

What I talk about when I talk about running:
a memoir by Haruki Murakami,

Charlie Dickinson
What 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.
Eunoia by Christian B_k,

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One given for creative work by an artist is acceptance of limits (a discipline the work itself often imposes).

Mean Tide
Charlie Dickinson reviews Sam North's ghost novel Mean Tide


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