Having arrived from Riga in the morning, I only had a few hours to see Stockholm before setting off again. It turned out that it was Sweden’s National Day that day which meant the city had turned a little dysfunctional. Cancelled buses, clogged streets and lots of flag-waving – not what you expect from the efficient Swedes. Still the atmosphere was good.
In the afternoon I, slightly embarrassingly, boarded a “cruise” to Helsinki. I’m not generally the cruise sort, and it hardly seems the backpacking spirit, but I had a good excuse. Scandinavia is absurdly expensive – £6 for a sandwich is common and hostels start at £20/night – but for some reason a two-night cruise to Helsinki costs just £40 (actually £40 gets you a cabin for up to four people). Suddenly I don’t look like such a lunatic.
The cruise left me in Helsinki for just over seven hours, enough time to have a look around and get a decent impression. The place surprised me. I had anticipated ultra-modern steel, glass, and wood buildings, efficient public transport and cafés full of latte-sipping architects. Instead my first impression was of a slightly Russified city. Bland streets, antiquated trams and dour residents.
I’m not the first person to notice the Finn’s are a little gloomy and who can blame them, given the long, dark winters. I got my haircut there by an Albanian woman who enjoyed having someone she could moan about the place to. “No one talks here. Maybe at the weekend, when they drink too much, they shout, but other days they are silent.” In Riga I had met a British PhD student studying in Helsinki and he told a story to illustrate the national psyche:
A tourist is invited by a Finnish man to come and drink vodka with him. The tourist accepts, not wanting to miss out on a cultural experience, and as they raise their glasses he proposes a toast. “To Finland” he says politely. The Finnish man turns and looks at him disdainfully. “Are we talking or are we drinking?”
If this all sounds a bit depressing then I’ve got good news. Things took a turn for the better. I found some spectacular architecture, worthy of Helsinki’s claim to be a design capital, and most importantly the sun came out and with it so did the smiles. The Finn’s really know how to embrace good weather. Soon heavy metal was blaring out from some distant venue, a folk concert kicked off in the market square and the cafés became heaving with coffee and vodka drinkers. You’ve never seen so many sunbathers in fourteen degree temperatures! There was also some fantastic street food on offer in the harbour – mostly too expensive to buy but I sampled everything from Lapland salmon to Russian venison.
Finland is not somewhere I would like to live. The long, dark winters just sound too depressing. However I hadn’t appreciated what an interesting place it makes to visit. The culture is some sort of intersection of Russia and European with that unique Nordic twist. It’s definitely very different to Norway or Sweden. And when the sun’s out Helsinki is just plain nice. Certainly a place to go back to.