“Archaeology seeks answers to the fundamental question of existence. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why is the world such as it is?” – Quote from the Finnish National Museum
Part of the unofficial goal of 2018, is to really keep tabs on my travels because in the spirit of my official goal “do my future self a favor”, I’d really hate forgetting these fond memories abroad as time passes. Since getting hooked on traveling to Europe (I blame my academic exchange back in Nice), I have managed to visit new and familiar cities in the old world once a year but never writing any of those journeys down.
But as 2018 guarantees a fresh start (that + a 5 hour flight to Portugal and countless delays), I have found myself plenty of time to write about Helsinki! Or as I used to say “godforsaken Helsinki” because compared to its neighboring countries, Finland doesn’t seem too appealing. The last 2 days however, has completely changed my mind. Despite having spent only limited time in Helsinki, I have already a taste of how authentic, pragmatic and productive the Finnish people are, all incredible virtues that are so underrated in our generation.
Before I go into any details, I would highly suggest that you visit when it is warm because when it is -8 and it snows + you do not have proper shoes (or stellar balancing skills), you’re guaranteed to pok gai (Cantonese slang for falling, but really the imagery is more like slipping and slamming your face right on the ground).
I personally slipped every 10 mins but managed to stay upright at the cost of having muscle pain all the way from my lower back, to my butt, my thighs, my calves AND my feet. The silver lining to this though, is that I was forced to focus on landing my foot on solid grounds, tracing my footsteps intently, preempting any possible mishaps that involve getting my butt wet from falling on the snow.
Because I had to pay full attention to my walking, consciously and cautiously alternating my legs, my mind had no choice but to stay focus on the present, so captivated that I had no capacity whatsoever to think about the past or the future… that my friend, is meditation right there. My brain felt so refreshed afterwards; instead of the daunting and never ending worry of tomorrow and reminiscing of the past, I gave it this one basic, kindergarten level task of “not falling”. Instead of the default auto-pilot mode to walk while multitasking, those hours on the icy road was just my footsteps and my shadow. Sorry there were no shadows because there was no sun.
First day in Helsinki was a great day because I happened to land on a day with a strike so no public transport for me and my 20kg luggage+10kg hand carry and backpack! I mean from Madrid/ Copenhagen/ Paris/ to Chicago, I always land into cities right on the day they strike. That didn’t stop me from visiting the contemporary art museum on the only day of the month that it’s free though! Then I also happened to arrive at the national museum after 4pm which is ALSO free 🙂 Second day was great too if not better because all ticketing machines broke down so I had no choice but to take the Suomenlinna ferry for free. It was as if the whole of Helsinki is working together to help me save money to cover for my taxi fare.
First free entertainment is the Kiasma art museum. My favorite installment is the eerie room of the “sick” nature with black water flowing in pipes across the giant piece of…art. It made dragon noises and it was just out of the world cool. I just love how these arts are so eeeeeerie and almost alien like.
Second free entertainment is the national museum, I recognized right away the famous “baby box” that best demonstrate just how practical and logical the Finns are. Back in the days when they had high infant mortality rate, the government thought the best way to fix this is to give pregnant women body check early on. Given how vast the country is and back in the days when most people still lived in the rural areas, it was not an easy task to encourage them to visit the doctors.
So they came up with an incentive program where pregnant women who completed the body check early into their pregnancy will be handed out a “Baby box” with everything your baby need when they’re born. It includes diapers, baby clothes, milk bottles etc. all placed in a sturdy box that can be used as a crib too for the newborn! Not only is the box worth a lot of money, it simple took away the anxiety of being a parent for the first time! Although infant mortality rate is no longer an issue, the Finnish government still kept this tradition as it also brings a sense of belonging to the people. By sharing the color of your baby box, Finnish are able to identify the year they were born in 🙂
This got me thinking, there isn’t actually parenting classes or simulations, so how do you know how to be a parent when this is possibly the biggest responsibility anyone can have: to instill the right values, make early major decisions and provide for another human being YOU bring into earth? Here I’d like to salute to all parents in the world because even if you didn’t do a good job, it is totally understandable 😛 no one gets things right the first time.
Now back to Finnish culture. According to the museum, the Finnish people believe that there is an elf in every household’s sauna room. They’re supposed to keep your family safe and happy. However, they will only protect you if they’re happy so you certainly do not want to piss them off by 1) farting 2) talking too loud or 3) staying too long in the sauna! This reminded of how the Icelandic also believed in trolls that guard the land so Government will ask for permission before building a highway or something. In fact, can anyone tell me what’s the difference between a troll, a gnome and an elf?
The theme of the temporary exhibition is “Finnish treasures” where the museum invite locals to send in items they find to be of personal significance that best represent Finland. To me this was the most touching part because you see real life in someone’s wedding dress, christening robe that were worn by 3 generations and my personal favorite, a tool to pick berries owned by somebody’s grandfather. In a flash I imagined how my life would have been, if I grew up in the suburb of Finland.
My family makes a living by picking berries or tending to ewes. Every weekend, instead of going to the mall or dinning out, we will probably gather around the fireplace enjoying some homemade rye bread. You’re not defined by your college degree or your pay check, but how well you coexist with nature. It is not just a cozy dream because you can still raise a family like that if you so desire. To me, the purpose of traveling is to allow you to see possibilities, to see beyond your daily mundane routines and your own paradigm that there are, in fact, thousands way of living, of motivation and purpose in life that you can opt for.
May be it is the vast white snow or the freezing sea breeze, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude and content. Referring to the Art of Travel just a little, it is absurd to let ourselves be bound to where we so happened to be born and raised. In a world that is so well connected and informed, it is almost a sin to not fully explore what the world has to offer.
Now imagine sitting in an authentic bar with just the quintessential, no fancy redundant decorations like freakish fairies made of iron or nitrogen coming out from teapots or color changing ice; watching modest cars pass by the window while sipping Finnish G&T, listening to heavy metal music blasting in the background, this is Helsinki. I hope that the next time you’re planning a trip to the Nordic capitals to experience nature, artistic and design atmosphere or slippery grounds, do give Helsinki a thought, Finland has much more to offer than Santa Claus 🙂