Sunday, September 13, 2009

Helsinki, Finland

To get from Tallinn to Helsinki, I embarked on a 3.5-hour ship ride. The ship reminded of the ones in Greece as it was filled with facilities: restaurants, bars, shops and even a casino. On disembarking, I noticed most people were carting off boxes of alcohol purchased from the ship’s duty-free shop. The reason for this is that, as you might have guessed, alcohol is very expensive in Finland (and in elsewhere in Scandinavia).

Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is the northernmost capital in continental Europe. The city, similar to the rest of Finland, is green and clean. I did the usual touristy activities, visiting the Cathedral, Uspensky Cathedral (Orthodox) and Senate Square. I even went to the local Hakaniemi Market and participated in a tour of the Finnish Parliament, observing its Functionalist d├ęcor.

I stayed with CouchSurfer Paavo in the outskirts of the city and this was definitely a highlight. He lives in Viikki, a new neighborhood showcasing the best of contemporary Finnish architecture. Most buildings there are constructed using a combination of wood, stone, bricks and glass. The use of glass enables natural lighting to shine inside and the building materials allow the structure to blend in to its surroundings, which is a forest. Inside, the insulation was perfect as it was quite warm, as if the heater was turned on. Notable structures include the new school with its solar panels and a wood-and-stone church. I am very glad I stayed in Viikki as this allowed me to savor the best of Nordic design; I must say one of the reasons for me visiting Finland was not its old town (which there isn’t one), but its futuristic architecture.

Another highlight in Finland was my experience in a Finnish sauna. The sauna is a Finnish institution where people relax and socialize. The sauna I was in was in a student apartment building. Lucky Finnish students! Next to the main room were the shower and cold rooms. I must admit the sauna was very hot, steamy and sweaty!

There were several things that impressed me about Finnish society. First, it is very law-abiding with most people waiting for the light to turn green before crossing the street. Second, despite the reputation of Finns being reserved and shy, most of them were very friendly when I needed help. Third, the government offers a plethora of social services for everyone. For example, I went inside City Hall and find brochures covering everything including the city budget, libraries, parks, schools and even a newcomer’s guide to Helsinki. I have always had a high opinion of Scandinavia as I heard that society there functions well. While my visit was brief, I had a glimpse of the good stuff and will surely be back!

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