...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

We survived Hell-sinki

Part 2 or 3 of our Finnish cruise story

photo taken from our boat as it approached Helsinki.
In the distance, the Lutheran church on Senate Square


Musse: We're here to find out the meaning of the Finnish sisu.
Can you explain that to us?

Finnish martial artist: It means guts.
You have it to, but of course, you're not as tough.

- from Rallarsving, a Swedish martial arts show (season 1, episode 8)


Finland's reputation in the Philippines says more about the Filipino taste for cell phones more than it says anything about Finland. When we think Finland, we think: original (read: not made in China or Korea) Nokia phones. With this logic, you'd think that Sweden should be associated with Sony Ericsson phones, but it's not. That's because it wasn't really the country of origin that's important in cell-phone choice (you don't hear Filipinos raving about "superior Finnish technology", for example); we really just want trendy-looking phones that don't have tacky chinese characters on them. In fact, besides Nokia phones, we know little else about Finland – not even the fact that Nokia originally used to be (and still is) a rubber tire manufacturer.

I never thought of it this way before, but that itself is characteristically Finn. No matter how trendy Nokia phones get these days, it has a rubber-tire soul that remind – even almost smell – of macho-sweat and garage grease: in short, just the tough, manly things Finns are known for up here. Finns, after all, are not only reputed for their sauna endurance contests, but also for their tar-flavored candy.

So, they say that if there's one word to describe Finns, it would be sisu: it's Finnish for guts, tougness, ki. It's something that the Finns believe they are born with, and which allows them to remain tough against all odds. The Swedish host Musse from Rallarsving has it, and perhaps Marcus and I have it too. But of course, sadly, we're not as tough. Because if there were three words to describe how our Finland trip had been, they would be: cold, miserable, and disappointing.

Our camera has no sisu whatsoever

One of the down sides of the Canon S2IS, we discovered, is that it doesn't like the cold. When it reaches a certain temperature, the batteries freeze and the camera hangs, displaying "Error 18". For a frustratingly long time, it then becomes impossible to turn the camera on or off or even to retract the lens. The band-aid solution is to pop in pre-warmed batteries, but those too are soon cold before the spares have time to warm.

In Helsinki, the dreaded Error 18 appeared in record time. Although it was only a "measly" -4 degrees, winds up to 16 m/s coming directly from the Baltic put the windchill factor down to -25 degrees. On the one hand, we already expected this and took on the whole set of thermal undergear for our city walking trip (only to see some bearers of the Finnish sisu dressed in slit jeans or nylon stockings, and even ball gowns!). Unfortunately, on the other hand, our camera didn't cooperate with the effort. Even when under my jacket when not in use, it couldn't stand 10 minutes of the cold and died just after we reached our first walking tour stop, the Senate Square. It died again even shortly after the battery replacement. To think that we were planning to be in Helsinki for 4 hours at least, and perhaps even write an article (with pictures, obviously) for a magazine. I would have written about how the Russians built the great church there (Finnish: Toumiokirkko, Swedish: Domkyrkan, formerly called Nicholas Church after Tzar Nikolai I) and put up a statue of Tzar Alezander II in front of it, as a symbol of their power when they took Finland from 800 years of Swedish rule. Indeed, the most recognizable structure in Helsinki would have made terrific pictures. Now, however, when I look back at how it felt like to be on top of its steep steps, the only feeling that rushes back is the urge to hurl our camera down the road below, where frustratingly, everybody else was taking photos and grinning. I only managed to take the picture above, before the inevitable Error 18 happened.

Throwing all plans to the wind

With the first stop as the precedent, things didn't get any better. On the square where the open market should be ("a way to start the the day in Helsinki," our guide book said), only a few hardened Finns dared to set up tents to sell their wares. What's even more depressing were their selling points: "Come in, It is +18 degrees in our tent".

We walked a few hundred meters on the Northern Esplanade (Finnish: Pohjoisesplanadi, Swedish: Norra Esplanaden), one of the main avenues, but the wind was just like a cold shower of reality on us. We couldn't, no matter how tough we imagined ourselves to be, possibly follow our planned walking tour, where I'd imagine we would have been out walking for about 3 hours and visiting 7 stops. It was just going to be too much suffering! We came upon this while warming ourselves (and the camera, whose lens still hadn't retracted) indoors at Stockmann, the oldest shopping mall in Finland. It was here in the 1930's where Finns drank their first Coca-colas; now we watched a breakfasting Finnish lady drinking champagne with her morning newspaper. We had to re-haul our plans to save us from further disappointment of not being able to follow them through, so we decided to take the trams instead of walking, and stick to indoor destinations to increase the chances of our camera doing its job. 7 stops were stripped to 4, the last of which we didn't even go to in the end.

Choosing a tram line was easy, at least. The 3B/3T line goes in a figure-of-8 around Helsinki, passing through most of the landmarks we were thinking of walking to. A day card, which we already bought at the ferry terminal as a plan B, set us back 6 Euros each, and it wasn't a bad kind of tourist experience either for that money. It was even almost like being in a tour bus, only there was zero commentary. As most of Helsinki's sights passed by our window, the Finns inside the tram were poker-faced and soundless. They would have made Swedes sound like chatterboxes.

Eating a Kerrosateria at Hesburger

One of the stops we followed from our original plan was walking through Kamppi Center down to Tennispalatsi and eating lunch at Hesburger. Hesburger is Finland's answer to McDonalds, and like Jollibee serving rice, Hesburger also carries traditional Finnish food, i.e. rye bread. Ruisfilehampurilainen, the Hesburger specialty, is pork chop and lettuce on two pieces of very dark rye bread, which in the picture actually looks like it could have been strewn with bark. Even the local McDonalds had to think of a competitive equivalent and came up with rye bread burgers themselves. Honestly speaking, I was wiling to try this out just to have something more interesting to write about, but after being through so many ordeals during the trip, I simply didn't feel for it anymore when we reached the counter.

Normally, things in Helsinki are always in two languages, which you probably already noticed reading this entry. Street names, city district names, tram stops, product labels, window signs and even advertisement catch-lines are both in Finnish and Swedish. I read that the reason for this was that Finland's Swedish-speaking minority (about 6% of the population) remains a very influential group there. Notably, however, the Finnish Hesburger only had menus in Finnish with no Swedish translations, despite it being a big fast food chain. Perhaps it's another nationalistic stake after being able to compete with the American burger giant? At any case, I stayed clear from the rye bread and ordered a Kerrosateria, which seemed to be the Big Mac menu equivalent (it was hard to tell; all except two of the burger menus cost the same). More correctly, I had to whisper my order in English to the cashier as I pointed at the picture of the burger. Any more noise than that could have attracted the negative attention of the 10 other people in the Hesburger joint. They whispered their orders too.

In the same food court as Hesburger was a Pizza Hut
that sold red wine with pizzas in the middle of the day.

After lunch, we planned to have coffee at Helsinki's "grand old dame," Café Ekberg, the city's oldest and supposedly poshest café. I was even willing to be extravagant and waste 4 Euros (250 PhP) for a cup of coffee there, in a city where cafés aren't exactly in shortage and where people drink more coffee per capita than anywhere else in the world. The coffee break there wasn't to be, though. When we got there, the place that I expected to look so dainty and cozy just looked... well, old, like an Aristocrat restaurant that had seen better times. If there was anything "grand old dame" about it, it would have been the old ladies whose voices and soup spoons echoed in a unrelaxing racket around the room. In short, Ekberg really wasn't what I thought it would be, and even the rich coffee smell that I expected to waft out the door was overpowered by the smell of their soup-for-the-day. And why would I pay so much for a coffee in a place that wasn't even a proper coffee shop? Thankfully, Marcus was of the same mind and we decided in frustration to enter the first coffee shop we'd come across instead, whatever that would be. It turned out to be Wayne's Coffee, a Swedish chain. Coffee was half-price of Ekberg's too, so we each had a cinnamon bun as well.

Hell-sinki, and the unexpected highlight of the trip

In the tram back to the boat, we talked about what a let-down Helsinki had been. Remember Dante's Inferno, where the worst parts of hell was a frozen pit? Well, Helsinki was so cold that there was "snow smoke" on the streets, like an arctic version of tumbleweed. We stopped joking about Finland being Fun-land and instead played names on the city capital name. Everything from our camera to our well-laid plans just went to hell in this trip, and we had to trudge back into the boat freezing and feeling disappointed, but also several hours ahead of schedule.

Although I hate to pass bad judgment on our neighbor, there isn't much to admire in Helsinki as a place either, unfortunately. There were wide tree-lined avenues that brought Paris to mind, impressive buildings that looked and felt Russian, angular Gothic architecture that looked somewhat New Yorkish, but these eclectic landmarks are splattered around the city without creating a feeling of wholeness, without contributing to a Helsinki feeling. Even the church on Senate Square, which as I said was probably Helsinki's most recognizable building, stuck out like a sore thumb amidst an otherwise featureless city. In the end, you leave Helsinki feeling kind of lonely, gray, and even a bit aged, a little like the city's old ladies, fur-clad and smoking. No wonder some call the Helsinki experience "Eastern Europe lite".

The unexpected highlight of the day in Helsinki was strangely, a church. We heard about it from our friend and also read about it in the guide books: a church literally blasted from a mountain of rock, called Temppeliaukio (Swedish: Tempelplatsens kyrka). From outside, it looks like a simple bunker, with a dome-shaped roof visible from the surrounding buildings. Inside though, the church truly is impressive, with the jagged rock walls contrasting with a ceiling of glass and copper, all made in 1960's aesthetics. They played good music over the speakers too. Being non-practitioners, it was rather unexpected that a church would leave the best impression in all Helsinki, but it did. And even if underground churches really aren't unique to Finland, that particular one left a mark in that it was one moment of relaxation in a trip that had gone awry.

Despite being in a mountain, the church is not bomb-safe, and arrows still lead the way to a bomb shelter below (they must thought they needed it during the cold war).

Of course, the calm didn't last and after taking a series of pictures in the church, the camera played a new trick and made disturbing noises as the lens struggled to retract. I really thought it was letting out its dying coughs then. (In Wayne's Coffee, I left the warming camera on our table while we ordered at the counter, and after worrying that it might get stolen – though thefts are uncommon in Helsinki – I let it be, thinking "good riddance!"). Well, our camera definitely had zero sisu, and having reached the end of our patience ourselves, it was soon back to the boat with us, where strangely, it felt better than in any of the Helsinki landmarks.

All's well that ends well

I'll sound like Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear here, dissing a car to pieces then taking back all that's been said by proclaiming the car to be a good ride despite the horrible flaws. The thing is, even though the day in Helsinki was one of the most horrible tourist experiences I've had so far, I'm still glad we went there. Would I recommend it? No. Would I go there again? Not likely. I'd rather go to Estonia, or buy Finnish products online rather than go there again. But for all the frustration, in the end, it's a good story to tell. Besides, at least we got to experience the basics: Finnish hamburgers (though not in rye bread), and coffee in a land of coffee guzzlers (although in a Swedish café chain). But best of all, Marcus and I were a team and didn't get frustrated at each other even when things weren't working well. The best thing you can have in times like these is good company :-)

I would love to write about the cruising experience in itself, but that will have to wait another time. So stay tuned!

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