Sunday, June 22, 2014

Living like the locals in Helsinki

Summers on the Baltic are unpredictable, probably more so these days than ever before. A popular joke that we heard both in Helsinki and Tallinn goes, "We have a beautiful summer here. Too bad I was working that day." This year, the heat wave came through the area in May, and by the time Dave and I got here, the rains set in and the temperature hovered around mid- to low- fifties. For us, this was not too unlike San Francisco winter, so we "dressed like cabbages" (as they say in Russian) in layers and borrowed an umbrella from the hotel. We also made use of the hotel's swimming pool and sauna. They say that saunas in Finland outnumber the local population; nearly every Finnish dwelling, from a flat in a highrise to a country house, includes a sauna.

Panorama of a small part of Helsinki archipelago
For the second part of our stay in Helsinki, after my family left, our friends Olga and Ron kindly hosted us at their home, and Dave and I got a chance to live like the locals. We shopped for funky European-style clothing, rode bicycles through several small islands connected to the center city by bridges, tasted the local brews, took long midnight walks under the never-setting sun, and eventually ended up in Tallinn, Estonia, where many Finns go for cheap entertainment. Our new friend Leo, a transplant to Helsinki from Venezuela, invited Dave to go paddle boarding in the Baltic, apparently a fairly popular activity. I was nearly seduced by the idea on Dave's behalf, but for some reason Dave decided to abstain.

Dave at Cafe Regatta (a popular paddle boarding location)
Cool bicycle stand
One night, Ron showed us around the Katajanokka neighborhood that boasts an unusually high concentration of Jugendstil houses with intricate facade inlays and small details on doors and windows. One of the main attractions of the area is a historical prison, recently converted into a hotel, Best Western Katajanokka. We walked the hallways for the experience, not unlike if Alcatraz were converted into a hotel--spooky enough, but nevertheless doing great business.

Dave and I noticed that most of the historical buildings downtown Helsinki were in a very good state of repair, and Ron explained that each building is mandated to take care of its facades. Each tenant contributes to the building's accounts (similar to a condo fee), and tenant boards run the overall finances. Certain buildings own the storefronts on the ground floor, and the income from the lease helps to assuage the cost of building maintenance.
Lenin stayed here

On our first day in Finland, Dave spotted that the local department store Sokos used font styling identical to the Gap. This discovery prompted investigation on our part (including buying shirts on the premises), and though we found no relationship to the Gap, we did learn that much of the retail business in the country is controlled by two competing conglomerates, the S Group (to which Sokos belongs) and Kesko Corporation. Until recently, the supermarkets of the Kesko Corporation were identified as K, KK, KKK, and KKKK based on the size of the stores, but it seems that recently Kesko rebranded and K-sized stores became K-citymarkets, and KKKs turned into K-markets. Ron, disturbed by the standardization this arrangement brings to the lifestyle, commented that the loyalty cards of each of these groups could take care of anyone's everyday needs, from grocery shopping to gas stations and household and gardening supplies. Of the two, he seemed to prefer the K shops, as their franchising agreements with the store owners are looser and allow for more initiative and differentiation between the stores.
At Olga and Ron's apartment, cool Finnish design

Like Swedes and other Nordics, Finns celebrate Midsummer. The public holiday always falls on a Friday, between the 19th and 25th of June. Most residents of Helsinki go to the islands, stocking up on food and alcohol ahead of time. Come Thursday night some shops and restaurants started closing early and others were completely booked as people gathered together to party. We chose that night to board the ferry and take a short two-hour ride across the Baltic to Tallinn. Kostya's girlfriend Danya joined us on that trip.

View of Tallinn port from Fat Margareta, tower on the city wall
First mentions of Tallinn date to the 12th Century, and for much of its history, it has been associated with the Hanseatic League. Though bombed during WWII, the old town, including parts of the town wall, has been well preserved and qualified as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The old town is fairly small and well-suited to day trips; many cruises stop here and by day the town seemed overrun by tour groups speaking Russian, English, Finnish, German, Spanish, etc. By night, the tour groups left, and the locals flooded in to the Estonian and Russian-speaking bars and clubs. Midsummer celebrations caught up with us here on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, as we were leaving for the airport, we spotted some of the same characters milling in front of the closing clubs.

Dave blogs here about the last few days of our travels.

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