Ten years ago I saw an empty city. The sun still glowed above the roofs, despite the hour, and brightened the grey streets that hardly anyone trod upon, apart from me, my family, and my friend. We looked for food and all that was open was a McDonald’s. I think I ordered an ice cream for dinner. And yet, in the photos I’m grinning, my cheeks almost uncomfortably wide, flashing a thumbs up. It was juhannus, midsummer, and it was my first time in Finland, in Helsinki.
My first impressions of Helsinki were a bit weird, being based on the unusual reality of the city’s population clearing out for the holiday. Finland drew me in, to be sure, but my first visits were centered around Seinäjoki, some hours away. My heart was captured, by the people and by the country, but by the capital – not quite yet.
Eight years ago, I was again in an empty city. I moved into the flat I’d be sharing for the summer on juhannus and my friend and I searched all around for something to do. We settled on visiting a not-so-appealing club – the only place that seemed to be open – after we’d wandered in the nearby park, picking flowers for some old juhannus folk magic. We walked home under the dusky light sky. That night, I think we slept in one sock each, petals under our pillows. Welcome, again, to Helsinki. This time I stayed much longer and soon was a regular, trodding my path to and from Finnish class, to and from the city center, to and from the nearby park. I grew to know Helsinki, weaving through the tourists lingering over stalls at the markets as I powerwalked by way to class. I was enchanted. As the end of my stay came round, with an autumnal glint already hovering in the August air, I wanted to cling, to stay.
A month ago, I touched down again for the eighth time. The smile I bore definitely made my cheeks sore. By now, Helsinki is rather familiar to me, though there is always more—new and old—to explore. And I can assuredly say this: Helsinki is my favorite. I’m still clinging to it.
It’s hard and it’s silly to separate a place from its people, but I’ll try for a moment, because not everyone knows my dear friends. And I think Helsinki would be captivating for me, even if I didn’t have them. I trust I’d make friends anyway, since it’s not terribly hard to get to know a Finn as a tourist (“What do you think of Finland?” – the ever-present question).
So what is it? I can’t quite put my finger on the glimmer that Helsinki lures me in with, but one element that has always struck me is the omnipresence of nature. In Finland’s capital city, you don’t have to try to find a park. And I mean a park with trees, with space. I took a run from my friend’s apartment and gave myself only one direction – head north – and I was on a trail through trees and raspberry bushes, I exited out onto quiet, slowly curving streets that deposited me in a park along the water, under the sun. Even on the busier streets, flanked by tall rows of gorgeous apartment buildings, with the trams gliding by, there’s greenery nearby. Helsinki is a capital city, with all of the bustle of cultural activities and business and buses – yet it’s calmer, more comfortable than most, maybe all, cities I know.
Then there’s the Helsinki edge. World Design Capital and all – yes, that element is there, along with the requisite fashion pushiness to the edges, the modernity, and the classic all intertwined. The buildings themselves reflect this spirit I think: pushing up against each other, are squatter brown brick apartments and elegant, engraved structures with towers emerging from the roofs. I rarely find myself so simultaneously comforted by and fascinated by buildings. There is an understated elegance to Helsinki, and it’s on a more human scale.
And there are the little things: the character of each neighborhood, small enough to traipse from one to another. The restaurant stalls popping up in groups – something new for me to try. The ease of getting around sans car, the lack of cars. The calm with more than enough activities to choose from. The glint of the summer sun on the blue water of the sea, which I plunged into after sweating in the sauna. The abundance of coffee – and the accompanying pulla. The rustle of the birch leaves in the breeze. The crispness that lingers in the air throughout summer. I could walk and walk through the city and the streets, and I do.
My friends embody this city for me in a way: they introduced it to me, I’ve experienced it through them. My love for the city is intertwined with my love for them. And yet, I am convinced that Helsinki really is a special place. After all, a place is made of its people and I know some great ones there. Under a blue summer sky – or even under a grey winter one – Helsinki enchants, excites, and calms, all at once. It’s a balm; it can give you the feeling that you need. Or at least, that’s it for me. I’ve been trapped in its net and allow myself to be lured in often – so I’ll be back soon enough.