Helsinki 2021: Part 2
It’s certainly raining a lot today. We’re going to try waiting to see if it will calm down a little before heading out, so I figured now would be a good time to do some more writing.
After taking a tour of the icebreakers, we walked back towards Helsinki Cathedral, and passed Uspenski Cathedral on the way. I didn’t know that Finland was Lutheran. I didn’t even know enough to talk about it with Ilona. I wondered if the Lutherans and the Russian Orthodox clergy have stand-offs on the roofs of their churches, because you can see each of them from the other easily. Out the front of Helsinki Cathedral is a statue of Aleksander II of Russia, because ‘he’s a citizen’ according to the Finnish Tourism Board. He did a lot of good things for Finland, including basically building modern Helsinki, accepting Finnish as the official state language, and allowing them their own currency. The Finns love him. The Aleksanders of Russia were good; the Nicholas’ were bad. The Orthodox church was one such building project of the Tsar. Apparently, the touristy thing to do is sit on the steps outside the of the cathedral, and so we did. It’s specifically used as a place to sit and drink, according to Ilona, and although there were few other people there at the time, all of them were indeed drinking. Two guys were sat on the very bottom step, and whilst one was rolling a ciggie, his mate was taking swigs from his bottle in between retching as if he were about to throw up, and even staggered about for a bit. There was also a group of girls who, as was explained to me, were taking part in the Finnish equivalent of a Fresher’s event. They were all wearing uniforms for their club too. I’d seen the same thing in Denmark and Sweden, so I guess that uniforms are pretty common in the North. We didn’t get no uniforms for the Classics Society, boo. We soon discovered the cathedral was closed, but I loved the sparing decorations it had. Something about simplistic churches makes it being inside a much more personal experience. Having said that, I was disappointed that some of the scenes depicted were repeated around the outside of the cathedral. If you are going to decorate something, at least don’t be lazy about it.
Sorry, just had a day out, and then dinner, and then a long chat about bad writing with Ilona. I swear I’m nearly done now.
We were effectively out of daylight by the time I’d finished looking around the place, so we walked by the man practicing his ollies off the top of the staircase and went home. We stopped at the supermarket on the way to pick up some more stuff for dinner. Finland has altogether too much liquorice and its quite upsetting frankly. Ilona bought a few for me to try back at the flat, but I’ll tell you now that I got more enjoyment out of her reaction to me to me eating liquorice than I ever will from eating liquorice. By the time food was ready, it was too late to do anything other than sleep, which I failed to do for the fifth day in a row. We did talk a lot during that first night, to be fair. It felt like a sleepover, with us talking on our mattresses about stuff in the darkness whilst looking straight up at the ceiling. I felt like a child again, it was so fun!
Yesterday, I was utterly baffled by how awake I felt considering I hadn’t slept all night. I’d been lying in bed waiting for sleep’s tender embrace, but to no avail. Then without any break in my memory I remember talking to my dad about something and this journal being destroyed when I walked under an edge and it got caught on a branch, so I guess I must have? It was very disorientating. Ilona had been patiently waiting for me to wake up since 8am, and it was now nearly 11, so I felt guilty about oversleeping, ironically. I grabbed a shower and cowered in the back corner of the “bathroom” to avoid the water hitting the wooden door. Still managed to soak a sizeable amount of her toilet roll, however. We shared a breakfast of yoghurt and granola, and Ilona brought out some blueberries. Blueberries are a prolific part of Finland, something I had no idea of before arriving just a few days ago, but now it seems impossible to be ignorant of it. They were quite tasty. Had been grown by her grandparents. The defrosted fruit juice was also made by them. Both very good additions.
And then the day started! First things first: finding a jacket for me to wear. We were going to be outside and on boats a lot, so I’d likely cry frozen tears with no coat on. Luckily for me, the first charity shop we visited was selling everything for €5, and there was a pretty great, pretty worn-out leather jacket just sitting there waiting for me to take it in my arms. It put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. Our destination was Suomenlinna, a sea fortress and World Heritage site a short ferry-ride away.
Oh no, it’s happening again. I’m falling behind.
Picking up from where I left off, we just missed the ferry, so we killed time for the next hour by wandering around the street market next to the dock, and then on towards Uspenski Cathedral. The market had your standard fare: fish, cheese, jams etc. The jam stall intrigued me because there were several flavours I’d never tried before, such as an infamous sea-buckthorn (a flower I’d tried in ice-cream form in Malmö last week) and rowan berry. The sea-buckthorn had the better taste. Rowan berry was bitter and crunchy, a word you definitely don’t want to use to describe jam. The cathedral was closed, so after trying to take some snaps through the sea fog, we boarded the ferry and set off.
The fog was far more intense on the water; there was nothing to see except whatever happened to loom out of the nothingness. Without the loud pumping of the engine, you may have imagined you were gliding along the edge of the earth. There were a few small islands and rocky ridges that gasped for air enroute. The larger ones were inhabited, and even included churches.
Fortunately, the fog had let up by the time we reached our destination, so I could see the general layout. It’s almost exactly how I’d imagined a sea fortress to look, save for the shorter walls and the mini supermarket by the dock. Cobbled streets, courtyards, and plenty of room inside the walls in case a military parade breaks out. It’s still in use by the Finnish navy as a school, at least partially, and a sizeable amount of the rest of the site is occupied by civilians. Whilst the fortress isn't exactly primed for activity anymore, and much of the site has been adapted for visitors and residents, it’s still a bit of a contrast to see kids playing football next to a cannon.
Most of our time, sans physically walking around the complex (it’s actually two islands, connected by a bridge) was spent inside the War Museum, where I got my first real taste of Finland’s history. Until then, I’d only really known Finland for a few things: it’s the place that’s constantly voted “Happiest Place in the World”; and that it wasn’t independent until relatively recently; there’s the Winter War that they won, the Whites were the ‘good guys’ in the civil war, and Finns like saunas. That was the limit of my knowledge.
Now I see Finland in a totally different light. I now know that in less than 50 years – no, less than 50 years – three wars, including a civil war, and all of those men, women, and children affected by so much death and uncertainty in such a short space of time, created a cultural trauma for several generations. . The national scarring of that turbulence is suddenly so much more prominent.
When we’d finished the tour, Ilona called it propaganda. That made me even more unsure of what to feel about it, but what I do know is this: Finland is not the happiest place in the world. Ilona told me as much several times, but now I’ve drawn that conclusion myself. Their independence came from a background of aggressive “Russification” in the dying days of the Russian Empie, after slow-burning Finnish nationalism and an eternity of stagnation under the Swedes. The Finnish national anthem was originally in Swedish because nobody in the government spoke Finnish when they first gained independence. They lost the Winter War, and the “Maiden of Finland’ is now an amputee. The Whites carried out extra-judicial killings en-masse. Ilona’s hometown has a story about prisoners of war being executed in the middle of the frozen lake, but I had no idea of the nationwide scale of it. She doesn’t see them as the good guys. At least the Reds were on the side of the people, she said.
Did you know that of the 300,00 or so Finns involved in the Winter War, a quarter of those who came back had serious health issues? So many were missing limbs. All those with PTSD had no help, which led to a lot of substance abuse by the same people. You start to wonder if it is in any way related to Finland’s drinking and gambling problem. Karelians (people in a region of what used to be Finland) weren’t even allowed to apply for Finnish citizenship by Russia until very recently; the rest of the Karelian refugees in Finland never returned to their homes. Imagine what that much loss of life in so short a time does to a national consciousness. I can’t believe how little I knew before. Finns loving saunas is certainly true: even Ilona’s block of flats has a shared sauna, although she cautions against using it, as she knows from experience how infrequently they’re cleaned.
On a less sombre note, there’s a working prison on the island too. That was a surprise. The fog had lifted greatly by the time we left the museum, so much that you could clearly see the fog bank concentrated over the city on the horizon. It also meant I could wave at boats in the hope they would wave back, which they sometimes did. Ilona did not join in the fun. She was sceptical of the tunnel I wanted to walk down, repeatedly affirming that it would just empty out into the same spot we’d just come from. She was 100%, of course. Should’ve seen her face when we had to walk back up the hill again.
We were quite hungry by this point, and it was quite late into the day considering we had plans afterwards as well, so I followed Ilona back to the dock. Or that was the plan, at least. We’d managed to turn back on ourselves following a straight road somewhere. When she realised our mistake as we arrived back at the start, she looked so defeated that I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d sat down and wept. Jokingly, of course. I hope. Fortunately, we made it to the dock on our second try. I have to say that the readymade supermarket sandwiches here aren’t that great, but the salted caramel peanuts weren't bad. Ilona misses Tesco meal deals a lot since she came home.
That was it for Suomenlinna. “Sheep Island” was our next destination. I was promised sheep, and I wanted to see sheep, so we slapped our cheeks to wake ourselves up, and got onto the tram. I didn’t even remember closing my eyes, but it wouldn’t be on-brand if I’d actually slept. Ilona still had to nudge me to say we were getting off. It felt so weird to only be 20 minutes up the road from a capital city and be in the middle of a marsh. Imagine taking a bus from Whitehall and 20 minutes later being in a bog with all the skyscrapers far off in the distance. Imagine that, but there’s also a graveyard of wheelbarrows too, for some reason. Don’t know what that was all about.
Whatever the case may be, the general dampness from the day-long fog paired with the salt water marsh surroundings made for a comfy, familiar atmosphere. Maybe I just miss Autumn in England. This is my favourite time of year right now: early September, warm and cold at once. The fallen leaves on the forest floor made me nostalgic for older homes. It felt very much like a familiar forest; large branches and twisty trunks, no pine trees to disturb the mood. The entire path was a raised wooden walkway. This created interesting dilemmas for oncoming traffic. Our joint brainpower was focused on the best way to cross each other without anyone stepping off into the head-high grasses. No significant incidents to report, but if you paused for too long then fleets of mozzies would come out on the attack, which didn’t pair well with birdwatching. It was a great location for it, too. We watched a heron get caught in an updraft and carried higher than we’d ever seen one fly before, and watched it slowly come down again. All was peaceful. There were even cows! Finnish cows! With a cream-coloured stripe from head to tail. Ilona pointed out how high the mud must be for it to reach so high up their legs. Not good cows for bogs, she seemed to think. I thought they were pretty cute regardless.
This particular track terminated at the bird-watching site, so we turned back to find the mythical Sheep Island. Lots of people have cabins just by there. Never seen so many in the wild before. Sheep Island was unfortunately underwhelming. It was a small island that had maybe three or four sheep on it. And just in case you forgot you were close to the city; from out over the water, you could hear some Deep House music playing loudly Not the best accompaniment to a quiet lakeside scene in the early evening. Altogether though, the woods and the water were a nice break from all the cityscapes I’ve visited recently, but we were firmly finished with our day after that. I think we were in bed by 11.