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Posted by aaron at 01:00AM, Thursday, December 09th, 2004

Tourist impressions of Helsinki

I'm sitting in the park behind our short-term apartment. It's a sunny day, one of the last perfectly beautiful days of Summer. A chill, fallish morning has warmed, and now everyone's stopped to bask in some of the precious sun on her way home from Work.

From what I've seen, in what Brian assures me is Helsinki's equivalent of the Back Bay, the typical Finn is a young viking dressed to work in a cutting-edge dot-com in San Francisco or Vancouver. Everyone under thirty-five wears nice jeans now -- the über-hip European jeans that I can only barely afford -- Energie and Diesel -- in contrast to the last time I was in Europe, ten years ago, when jeans screamed "American!" Everyone wears the new slim Adidas or ASICS sneakers -- the "Bride" look from the first Kill Bill. And, in this weather, a nice fauxdidas blouson -- something slim-fitting and with a couple stripes down the arm. Guys carry man-purses. Everyone's thin. At home, I'm incredibly, almost unhealthily, underweight, and damn tall; I see very few people who look like me on the street, and fewer still on TV. Here, my weight and height are about average. Like I said, they're all skinny, fit vikings, with long, stringy, painfully (and, of course, naturally) blond hair, and narrow German glasses. There are a few older people, women mostly (I haven't seen a whole lot of middle-aged men), who look more traditionally European, and some eastern-Europeans who look a little different. There are also the occasional Finnish skater punk kids, wearing Vans and nose-rings.

People seem, for the most part, pretty well-off. There's not a whole lot of disparity in the quality of the clothes and accessories they wear, aside from the handful of crazy-looking street people I've seen during the day. (I'm told almost no one spends his nights on the street here, and I can't say I've seen homeless people sleeping on benches at night.) They're also agreeable rule-abiders. Everyone waits for the crossing lights at the crosswalk, unless there are clearly no cars coming this way for two blocks in either direction. Everyone has her dog on a leash, and takes it to the special-purpose dog park. Everyone parks in the correct parking spot for the time of day.

They seem to do this not because they're cowed into submission by fines or threats of retribution from the state. They do it, like good Scandinavians, because the laws dictate what is best for the health of society as a whole. There are lots of people on bikes, and bike lanes designated on most of the major sidewalks. (No bike lanes on the roadway here, which, in Boston, invariably turn into extra maneuvering space for cars, and bikes be damned.) Women in heels and nice fall jackets commute home on bicycles. Older ladies poke around on bikes, wearing transparent plastic doo-covers if it's drizzling out. There are some communal bikes sprinkled around the city: stick in a one Euro coin, and the bike unlocks. Drive it to the rack nearest your destination, lock it back up, and your coin pops back out.

People recycle. The soda bottles aren't single-use -- they're made of thick, hard plastic, and often have scratches and gouges from being processed and refilled after they're recycled. The plastic bags you get at the grocery store are about ten or twenty Eurocents, and they're thick. No crappy, thin, Target bag that bursts as you climb the stairs into your apartment. You're supposed to bring these back to reuse, next time you go grocery shopping. One pleasant upshot is that no one looks at you funny if you bring a bag or a satchel into a store. Shopkeepers don't seem to expect you to be a criminal as soon as you walk in, as they do in Manhattan and lots of stores on Newbury Street.

There's social space everywhere. I've figured out that, from where we're staying, you simply cannot walk more than two blocks in any direction without hitting at least one, and usually two, parks. People actually spend time in the parks, too, just as they do in Vancouver and Chicago, but not, sadly, in the Northeast. Groups of twenty-somethings congregate after work to play lawn games and drink a few bottles of beer. Ladies shepherd groups of little children for play-time. No one makes too much noise.

People are fit, not just because they eat sanely, but because they take action to keep in shape. I was surprised over the cold, gusty, rainy weekend to see joggers undeterred. Of course, a cold, wet August day here is probably still infinitely preferable to a black, frigid November one -- but one doesn't see average middle-aged women jogging in rainshowers at home. A little gale is blowing? Why, it's a perfect time to go sailing! We can catch some air in our little yawl!

People so far have been unfailingly polite, and all of the native Finns, as well as the vast majority of immigrants, speak at least passable English. There are countless kebab shops. I don't seem to see that many middle-eastern people whilst walking down the street, though. I do see a lot of Japanese. I'm told that they're tourists.

Sadly, the food isn't as spectacular as I might have hoped. All of it's been passable, and one or two meals have been quite good. I'm getting spoiled living in Boston; it doesn't help to visit places like Vancouver or LA, which combine America's trend for world cuisine with astounding local produce, fresh seafood, and outstanding sushi. There's a lot of fish, and I'm told that the salmon is actually safe to eat, as opposed to the East Coast U.S. farm-raised stuff, that's more or less mercury, lead, and PCBs wrapped in fish-skin.

It's really hard to get decent wine. The state-run liquor stores have some okay stuff. The restaurant lists are typically dismal. The beer's good, though, and the Shnapps (which is really Finnish vodka) is quite spectacular. I'll have to try to bring some home.

There seems to be a lot of hi-tech. Our apartment has a cable modem, and the office's broadband connection is pretty fast. Everyone, of course, has a mobile, and they're doing lots more text and multimedia and web applications with their mobiles (with standardized GSM infrastructure that blows the U.S. saturation out of the water -- I've never seen my phone's signal indicator fall more than one bar below maximum) than we are at home.

The cars are, of course, splendid: sleek and slick and shiny and low. They have Honda Civics and little Toyotas, but they're different here, and smaller. Every car's bumper is about the same height -- no decapitating SUVs here (the occasional Mercedes M-class and BMW SUV seem to ride much lower than at home.) There are many more truly small cars -- Smarts, and Smart Roadsters, and tiny Citroens, Renaults, and smaller Volkswagens than we have. There are low hulking Peugeot sedans, and trim, beautiful Alfa Romeos; Saabs, and little Volvo hatchbacks, Mercedes and Citroen utility vans, and Renault people-movers; cute little Skodas and Seats; bajillions of Mercedes hatchbacks -- the ones that just got discontinued at home -- and BMW 1-series, and the 3-series hatchbacks, which got discontinued close to 10 years ago at home. It's all about economy, I guess. Most cars are sticks, and a lot are diesel. It's not about intimidating your neighbors.

It's about what's sensible. The architecture is largely from the early 19th Century and the turn of the 20th, and looks like a perfect cross between what I've seen in St. Petersburg and in Stockholm (go figure, since Helsinki is right between.) But, adjacent to old slightly-eastern-looking stucco buildings with swooping turrets, or vaguely Jugendstil apartment blocks, or older neo-classical Versailles-esque palatial apartments with stunning stone detailing, you'll see something large and long, all glass and steel and aluminum. A brick beer factory has clear glass stairwells protruding from it. Like in England, the buildings seem to be living: the past hasn't died and been stuck in an unchanging museum. There aren't McMansions, attempting, unsuccessfully, to not progress, stylistically, from an incorrect reinterpretation of Colonial Classicism -- there aren't only old buildings, and new buildings that are supposed to look like old buildings, but don't. There are old buildings, refurbished with gleaming new metal roofs, next to new hi-tech buildings with energy-efficient aluminum louvers all down the side. It's just practical that the old stuff should be kept alive -- kept usable and efficient and well-used -- and that the new stuff should be as efficient as it can be. And practical becomes surreally beautiful. There's an old opera hall, with quoins all down the edges, and gables and intricate glass work. There's also a new one, by Alvar Aalto. There's a memorial to seafarers that's a brutalist modern masterpiece -- a tripod sculpture with three piers rising to a cleft at the top, where a flame burns. It's practically Isengard, the lair of Saruman in the Lord of the Rings, and it's absolutely fabulous.

As is the city in general, so far. Architecture museums, tea shops, opera houses, pleasant practical people astounded at the actions of our cowboy president, or our "Christians" who act un-Christian and uncharitable. Immigrants, natives, viking gods walking the streets to work for mobile companies and banks, goddesses in couture jeans biking to work, little old ladies and strange, two-tone crows. The sound of our neighborhood is of seagulls crying and the occasional rumble of blasting for new construction. People gather their friends to go mushroom picking in the forest on weekends, or simply to drop by for a sauna in their apartment building. It doesn't feel as magical as Vancouver, but it doesn't feel quite as changeable, either. This is a mature society, even if most of the mature, responsible inhabitants you see on the street are practical, earnest 25-year-olds.

It's remarkable, and a bit utopian. I see a bearded blond nordic man walking slowly out of the park now that the sun's going behind a building, carrying and kissing a baby wrapped in blue polartec. The young appear to have bought into all that's utopian and practical about this Scandinavian society, and to be ready to carry it on. There's a sense of continuation in history, rather than ignoring the past. This is a self-replicating social system that seems entirely benign.

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