Helsinki Fulbright Orientation
Trip notes by John
30 August – 2 September 2001
Thursday morning we were up at 0515 and out of the house at 0600 to catch
the bus to airport. The airport is two kilometers from our house. We flew
into Helsinki and took a cab to the
Next time we will take the bus since the center is one block from the central
train and bus station. Often, during our travels, we find a better way to do something.
The Orientation covered many of the things mentioned in Washington, D.C.
but now specific to Finland. One of the
speakers was Kurt Rice, Regional Security Officer for the
U. S. Embassy Helsinki. Finland
is very safe – he had only two warnings. Be careful with your personal stuff,
especially in Helsinki. You do not have to worry about the Finns but people
come from other countries during the summer to ‘work’ the tourists. The
other warning was about Saint Petersburg; we should go in groups with
organized tours. I read an article in Reader’s Digest where they “lost”
wallets in public places and watched the wallets to see what the finders did
with them. I recall that 100% of the wallets “lost” in
Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland) were returned intact.
The K-12 teachers were there along with graduate students
attending universities in Finland, exchange professors, Finnish citizens
who had participated in prior Fulbright Exchanges and even a New York City
detective from the upper east side of Manhattan. One of the other K-12
teachers said, “I feel for the Finnish detective going to New York”.
Thursday night in Helsinki was ‘Night of the Arts’ so after checking
into the Best Western Seaside
Hotel the K-12 teachers (and the two spouses) went to the downtown area
to check it out. We walked about for a few hours and then enjoyed dinner at
Iguana, a Mexican-style restaurant. The restaurant had two bouncers at the top
of the stairs. (Something about bouncers – they look the same in any country!)
There were seven of us around a big table. To others it looked like Dave
and I had lots of female company. A couple of the teachers were “hit on”
while we were there. Then we walked some more to see more of the downtown
area. We found one outdoor club playing “torch” songs from the 1940s and
1950s so we stood in one of the entrances and listened for a half hour.
They must move the bar, music stand, tables and chairs out and in every
Friday morning we gathered at the Anna Hotel for the 1000 departure
of the bus tour arranged by the Fulbright Center. We visited
Square and the Helsinki Cathedral there. Because of the Russian influence in Finland and survival of the older buildings some movies have been filmed in Helsinki.
While riding to the Uspensky Cathedral, the largest Finnish
Orthodox church in Finland, we saw the President of Finland, walking along the
street outside her offices. That was a shock to most of us since she was
alone, no entourage or bodyguard.
The streets are narrow, often one-way, and the bus driver was excellent. I am not sure I would want to drive a Suburban
in Helsinki let alone a tour bus. Sometimes I thought we were going to go
straight through an intersection and then we begin to turn, seemingly just
clearing the parked car on the far side; and with a seven-speeds-forward manual shift at that.
One of the churches built recently (well, in the last thirty years is recent
here) is the Temppeliaukio 'Rock'
Church. The circular church was carved out of solid rock and then
covered with a copper mesh and glass roof. Elegantly simple.
Unlike the United States, church and state are mixed here.
85% of the population is Lutheran and religion is taught in the schools. If you
are not Lutheran then ethics is taught. The state helps support the church.
The Finnish Civil War, World War II, fighting with Russia and Germany,
remain fresh memories to the Finns. Some of the places we passed still
carry the bullet and shrapnel holes from mid-century as a reminder of times
passed and sacrifices made. A sign of the Finnish culture is that the Finns
have paid their war debts and reparations while many other countries have
I have walked in the church yard of the Lutheran Church in
Oulunsalo. There is one row of headstones near the entrance where
the final dates are in the early 1940’s and the ages are all between 20
and 40. Every country has earned its place at the table of peace.
Then we went to the memorial for composer
Sibelius in one of the numerous Helsinki parks.
The tour ended when we were dropped off at the American
Ambassadors Residence for a luncheon. In addition to the Fulbright
members and those involved with the program, the Embassy staff was
there and the charge d’affairs introduced the various groups. The luncheon was
highlight of the day.
After lunch Mary Ann and I walked along the waterfront
back to the hotel. We walked through some parks and then watched
sailboat races and practice. At one place they were practicing racing
starts. The observers were riding in inflatable boats with outboard motors.
Multiple pairs of sailboats, about 10 meters, or 33 feet long, would
maneuver to be at the starting line just as the gun went off but one
of the boats would be deliberately blocking (legally) the other boat,
to force the other boat to maneuver. At one point we saw two boats
that were about eight feet apart and spinning in circles, twice a
minute, with the sails shifting sides every 180 degrees (tacking every
fifteen seconds!). It was fascinating to watch.
Helsinki includes 350 islands within its boundaries and the
sea is very much part of Helsinki’s life. Yacht clubs, ship builders,
freight docks, ferries (that are ocean cruise ship in size), sailboats
and powerboats are everywhere you look. Across the street from our
hotel was the
Pride, a new cruise liner being built by the
Kvaerner Masa shipyards. Lots of
scaffolding on it and tarps to protect the work areas from the weather. It is
supposed to be finished by December. When we first approached the area I thought it was a building where the street dead-ended.
In one of the parks with one of the largest wooden churches in Finland
a couple walked through and began an argument. This went on for
several minutes as they walked through the park. Sometimes they would
include passersby, but mostly kept to themselves. Definitely not
the reserved Finns of the guidebooks. The "give-away" was that the couple
was in costume, wearing paper maiche oversize heads with comic
faces drawn on them. We never did figure out if they were
advertising a play, store or just having fun.
One of the K-12 exchange teachers has a student whose sister lives in Helsinki.
She joined us for the evening and we walked about fifteen minutes from
our hotel to a water taxi. A two-minute ride to the
Saari restaurant on
Sirpalesaari island and a one-minute walk to the restaurant. Our table,
though lively with conversation, was overshadowed by the other tables guests
who were enjoying crayfish, a seasonal specialty, and schnapps. One crayfish
and one schnapps seemed to be the order of things. After a while, it became
one crayfish, one schnapps and one song. Later still, it became one schnapps
and one song.
We are trying the Finnish cuisine and I had reindeer with a wine
sauce. The meat was lean and like pot roast. Everyone tried different
things. We all ordered different desserts and everyone tried a bite.
The ‘hit’ of the evening was tar ice cream. It is vanilla ice cream
with tar flavoring from the pitch of trees. Reminded me of the odor
of roofing tar pots.
Saturday morning we started to use our two-day Helsinki Expert passes
for tram rides, ferry rides and museum entrances. If you are like us
and visit several places in a few days you save money. The trams are
two-unit narrow street cars with four doors that everyone uses, whether
getting on or off. If you have a valid pass or transfer you can get on
at any door. They use the honor system here.
Four of us elected to visit
the castle fort of Helsinki. It is located on two larger islands in
the bay. The ferry leaves from the Palace area near the marketplace. We arrived early so
we wandered through the Saturday flea market for a while. The weather
gods were smiling on us – it was ‘shirt-sleeve’ weather. After the
ferry ride and visiting
one of the Suomenlinna Museums and watching the Suomenlinna Experience
introductory video we crossed to the second island and walked to the far
side. We bought our lunch at the
Piper and sat at a table overlooking the bay, ferries and sailboats.
More walking on the fortress walls, visiting the Coastal Artillery
Museum and eventually the return ferry. History in Europe is a mix
of the old and the new. The island’s dry dock is used in the winter
for the repair of wooden boats by their owners. Many of the old
buildings are used for museums and displays. But strung through part
of the island is a Frisbee golf course. In the states we try to recreate
history when we have allowed it to be destroyed or else freeze it in time.
In Europe it will always be a mix of the old and the new – or else they
would probably run out of room!
Once ashore, we visited some more museums. Many museums in Helsinki
are small, often share space in office or apartment buildings and may
be spread across several floors. One may not be able to read all the
signs but, like music, good art is universal and you do not have to read
Finnish to appreciate it.
We all met at the hotel. It turned out the other group, although they
did not go to the castle fort, were nearby most of the afternoon. We had
walked the same streets and visited the same museums within fifteen minutes
of each other. During our tour and walks we had seen a wonderful glass-walled
restaurant along one end of the Esplanade. Earlier, when passing by, one of
the other teachers had made reservations at
Kapelli. Delightful food (we
tried the Scandanavian hash with reindeer and potatoes; delicious). Besides
hearing what everyone had seen or done during the day we were there during
sun set and it was fun to see the change in the lighting outside.
After dinner we walked up the Esplanade and went to the
Mary Ann and I had seen it earlier. There is a gorilla on the top floor,
appearing to hold up a one-floor sized yellow coffee cup. Never did find
out why it was there. One of the other teachers had read or heard about
the hotel-top bar. Anyway, the tenth floor has a lobby with windows to
the east, south and west. Great views of Helsinki. We were able to
point out many of the places we had visited during the last three days.
The churches are the most notable because they are usually on the top
of a hill and/or have tall spires. Then you climb a narrow spiral
ladder (shades of the down staircase at Blarney Castle in southern
Ireland) to the top floor and a small bar with inside seating for,
perhaps, twelve people. We found tables on the outside patio and visited
from dusk to dark. Definitely a place to visit.
Sunday morning Lori and David had to catch their train. We joined
Marie-Camille to visit the Museum of Modern Art and then met Jennifer
and Rheda for lunch near the Fulbright Center offices. We tried Molly
Malone’s but they didn’t serve lunch so we ended up at Wayne’s Coffee.
We went back to the hotel to collect our bags and caught the tram
back to the train station, which is also a bus station. At the next
stop after we got on the ‘ticket police’ boarded the tram and started
to check everyone’s tickets. We were all OK. If you didn’t have a
valid ticket the fine is the fare plus 250 FIM or about 40 USD.
Everyone went their own way and we caught the bus to the airport. We
had just missed the earlier plane so no chance to get home early. We
had a leisurely dinner at the airport before our flight. When we
landed at the Oulu Airport we had to wait thirty-five minutes for
our bus. Unfortunately the road and walkways are under
construction / reconstruction otherwise we would have walked the
two kilometers home. After all of the walking in Helsinki the walk
home would have felt very short.
In summary: Helsinki is a wonderful city. Clean, plenty of things
to do and to see, good food, fun shopping, lots of history, easy to get
around and enjoyed by everyone.