The air’s thick with cold, and dark as chocolate when I arrive one early winter morning in Helsinki. Before I reach the confines of a warm car, wind with the sting of nettles teases my exposed checks. The crunch of snow beneath my boots serenades me as I rush for shelter.
I wonder for a moment: why am I here? It’s warm back in Texas — even in winter. I’m cranky from the long flight, and beneath my many layers of sweaters, my muscles ache. I consider I’d rather be sweating at home. But as I drive into town, the sun rises like a stage curtain. Unveiled, the city dazzles with a surreal, fairy-tale quality. In the first rays of amber light, mixed with an ephemeral fog from the sea, the buildings look gray and ominous — yet strangely beautiful.
Not Baroque Vienna, Helsinki boasts romantic architecture of another sort. Mystical and profound, these Finnish Art Nouveau structures are topped with impish gargoyles, sort of post-modern monsters from the not so scary nightmares of our childhood.
I think of iittala, Marimekko, Artek, Arabia and Nokia — all Finnish brands. Occupied for centuries by other cultures (Russians, Swedes and more), the Finns have clung relentlessly to their own culture, while borrowing the best from others. All this historical baggage, this innovation of survival, flows into their design. It’s lighter now, and this Finnish penchant reveals itself in the shop windows we pass as we drive slowly through the streets of the newly-created Design District.
From furniture to teapots to coats, the displays hold angles, colors, shapes distinctly Finnish. Difficult to describe, Finnish style evokes mid-century modernism and futuristic high tech, tinged with a touch of ancient gravitas — kind of like those gargoyles.
I find those nuances again, when I reach my hotel, the chic Klaus K. Abstract interpretations of snowy landscapes adorn the lobby. Above the reception desk, a hanging chandelier suggests hanging icicles; lots of glass and accents of cobalt blue emulate winter shadows and the sun’s frozen glare. Chairs are modern thrones made from enormous trees.
I emerge from the hotel on a Sunday afternoon. Quiet streets have morphed into highways of people. Today, in Helsinki, it’s cold as heck, but the sun is out and the entire world comes to worship it. I join the throng, stepping into the sidewalk and letting the flow of people carry me. I don’t know where I march, but I trust these residents of this coastal town — they must be heading somewhere.
Soon, I pass a frozen lake and stop to watch people of all ages skate across the ice. Later, I stumble upon a hillside, alight with families and their sleds. I can’t tear myself away from the theater of laughing children clinging to the backs of their daddies as they fly down the slope, barely missing one another, tree stumps, and other untold hazards. At last I reach the sea.
Stunned, I stop walking and exclaim out loud. Before me is a vision so captivating I can barely process it. I stumble a few steps forward then stand at the edge of a horizon of chunky ice. Floating glaciers sail by like boats. Ships and yachts sleep for the winter, submerged in beds of ice. I follow the path around the bay, while many Finns simply shoe skate across the ice, unafraid of falling through. I keep hiking to reach the edge of the sea, beyond the moorings. Slipping down a short cliff, I roll into the edge of the ocean, to watch water pop from beneath the white frosting, before breaking with a sizzling sound on charcoal rocks.
I can’t resist ripping off my socks and boots to dip my bare feet into the water. After freezing my toes, I consider heading to the public sauna where Finns meet to sweat before jumping into a hole cut into the icy sea. Not quite brave enough, I return to the hotel and use the sauna there. The Finns claim to have invented the sauna, and have, on average, one in every household. Per capita, there are more saunas in Finland than in any other country in the world. Finns convene in saunas, meditate in saunas, flirt in saunas.
A sauna is where friends and loved ones gather to tell stories, and to share joy and suffering. A session inside one is as important to Finnish culture as enjoying a meal or indulging in a morning walk in the park. In Helsinki, you encounter them everywhere — why, there’s even a SaunaBar. Now that’s what I call Finnish ingenuity.