Readers of my travel notes will know that I often use anecdotal evidence to support my conclusions about this place or that, meaning that I set out my personal observations based on a small sampling, but one which is entirely my own. At times, this sampling may not be truly representative of the given country or city. That is a calculated risk that is common in journalism. It usually pays off, but not always.
I write now to reconsider the dismal picture of Finland which I painted nine years ago following a lengthy visit to the country’s provincial eastern region of Karelia. This region, especially its southernmost district just across the border from Russia, had been described to me glowingly by friends in St Petersburg, who went there periodically to do shopping for smoked fish and other Finnish delicacies or who were crossing over to Finland at its nearest point to satisfy the requirements of the Schengen visas which Finnish consulates were giving out with abandon to Russian tourists for the sake of anticipated hard currency earnings during mandatory stops in Finland on the way West. These friends were greatly impressed by the smooth asphalt of the roads and high quality of infrastructure generally, by the cleanliness and orderliness of the towns and countryside. As one observed, “Finland is Russian landscapes plus civilization.”
My own visit to this eastern province of Finland was made in August 2012 when my wife and I went to the Savonlinna Opera Festival, which was marking its hundredth anniversary. The management generously accorded to my wife free tickets in her capacity as accredited journalist, which, of course, favorably disposed us to the festival organizers. What we saw there on stage and on our follow-on visit to the “black heart” of Karelia to the north, in Kuopio, a university town and center of environmental studies, was described in some detail in my unflattering essay:
Since Finland then, as today, figures among the most desirable nations on earth in which to live in the tables compiled by travel experts, not least of all due to the supposedly healthy life style, I imagine that readers of that essay may have been surprised by my remarks on the sickly or deformed specimens of humanity that we saw around us in Karelia: I called out in particular the high numbers of obese or grossly overweight ladies and gents, the high number of deformed or disoriented people resulting from alcoholism. And lest anyone would suggest that this was a lower class phenomenon from which I was generalizing, let me remind the reader that Savonlinna during the festival is the musical center of the country, attracting the prosperous audience of the Helsinki Opera as well as from the rest of the country. The dead drunk lady who was looking in vain for her seat in our row was holding a ticket that cost her 140 euros. The passengers on our river and canal cruise north to Kuopio had paid a handsome fee for the right to be served alternating rounds of sparkling wine, beer and spirits nonstop over the ten hours of the trip. And after we disembarked another restrained couple of fellow passengers went straight to the hotel bar before check-in and were in no rush to go to their room.
In the years since 2012, I have visited Finland a couple of times but in the mode of my 1990s travel to the country, not as a destination but as a stopping off point on the way to or from Russia. On one such overnight visit we stayed in a business class hotel in the Helsinki harbor before proceeding to Russia on the newly opened fast trains to Petersburg and Moscow. The impression of that trip was favorable but not sufficiently so for me to have bothered to reexamine my earlier published remarks on Karelia.
This summer is an entirely different case. Helsinki was our destination for a 12 day holiday and our impressions are so very positive that I am compelled to bring this to the attention of my readers so as to set right what may have been a spoiled or shall we say unrepresentative sample of Finland taken nine years ago.
Why Helsinki of all places for a summer holiday? It bears saying that our original plans for this July had been to spend a month at our country house 80 kilometers south of St Petersburg, Russia. We had been there in May, after a Covid mandated absence of 18 months, and, at great pains, had put the grounds in order in preparation for a relaxing stay in July. The meteorological reports indicated a Russian summer of unusual warmth, underscoring our sense of anticipation. However, Covid intervened yet again: in late June the third wave of the pandemic hit St Petersburg and Russia generally, a wave led by the Delta variant which greatly increased infections, hospitalizations and…deaths. It was clear that this was a risk to be avoided, notwithstanding our full vaccination records. Moreover, and decisively, we understood that any visit to Russia just now would place us in a social void, because we would not meet with our friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom were anti-vaxxers or as they call them in Russia vaccination dissidents. We had our fill in May of arguments over the benefits of vaccination, of wearing masks, as well as over the value of Belgian (not just Russian) official statistics that weigh in on these matters.
And so to enjoy the rare pleasures of White Nights and the unusually warm northern summer, we looked to Finland. The decisive point was that Finland from the start of the epidemic had very low infection rates and that has continued to the present, notwithstanding the Delta variant. Indeed, Finland is one of the very few “green” countries in Europe, with much better current indices of infection, hospitalization and death than our country of residence, Belgium, which recently moved up to “orange.”
Since we have no interest in driving, an indispensable feature of renting a dacha in Finland, and since we were not attracted to “fine urban views” from the windows of up-market hotels in provincial towns like Tampere, we looked more closely at Helsinki and discovered to our great pleasure a five-star Hilton hotel at comparatively modest room rates situated in a secluded shoreline residential area within city limits, at Munkkiniemi, the terminus of the number 4 tramline northwest of the city center. Here our balcony looks out directly at a protected inlet of the sea. Here the hotel’s private stretch of shore and the adjacent public beach measuring perhaps 250 meters each attract only a handful of swimmers, so that “social distancing” occurs entirely naturally.
The hotel itself appears to have a respectable occupancy rate, though it is certainly not sold out. The guests, as confirmed by Reception, are about 90% Finns, mostly young families, with an admixture of visitors from Germany and Estonia. The absence of foreigners generally is attributable to Covid travel restrictions. An international branded hotel like this in normal times would have a large foreign contingent of guests. The Finns staying here are not only out-of-towners, visitors from the hinterland, but also some Helsinki residents who were driven by the intense heat earlier this month to escape to the park-like surroundings of this residential district, about which they, unlike me, were long well informed.
They would know, as I didn’t, that this district is home to the official residences of both the premier and the president of Finland, as well as of the Guest House where foreign dignitaries are put up. When you consider the beautiful natural setting of mixed pine and deciduous forests and the vast expanse of the sea inlet which these houses border, the location speaks for itself. Meanwhile there are also two noteworthy tourist sites here. One is the former official presidential residence, now a museum open to the public (Tamminiemi), where the country’s longest serving president, Urho Kekkonen lived most of his 27 years up to 1981. The other is the Seurasaari Island, fifteen minutes walk from our hotel, which is one of the main tourist attractions of Helsinki thanks to its open air “museum” of architecturally interesting wooden buildings of various usage moved here from all around Finland and dating back mostly to the late 18th and 19th centuries.
I was once a frequent visitor to Helsinki going back fifty years. It was, as I said, a transit point to the Soviet Union. This ceased in the 1990s when both Finland and the new Russian Federation, headed in different directions and redefined their commercial and political identities. I had been a visitor to Helsinki in the late 1990s when I had business partners in the country for whom I was performing consultancy. But all this time I had stayed downtown in business class hotels and knew well only the area running from the main railway station to the Finlandia concert hall and nearby Hotel Hesperia and similar. Now, just 25 minutes away by tram, I discovered this other Helsinki that is a splendid resort with conference facilities as well.
The 90% of guests in our hotel as well as the visitors we see on the beach, the folks playing at the nearby clay-courts tennis club, riding their bicycles or taking their morning jog are decidedly healthier looking than the people we saw in Karelia, even if they also line up at all the ice cream kiosks and order a lot of pastries and other sweets in the cafes. I would say that no more than 20% of the adults we see are seriously overweight, of which perhaps a third are classically obese. In this day, when Americans and Brits tend to need two chairs on an airplane to be comfortable, the weigh-in of the Finns I see around me is not exceptional.
Meanwhile, the restaurants and cafes that we find here in our hotel complex and also in downtown Helsinki, are definitely offering healthier food than I remember from the past. They nearly all feature salads consisting of greens to which are added “toppings” such as baked salmon that are perfect for the diet conscious. Moreover, these offerings are taken up by many diners. And in the supermarkets, boxes of healthy salads kept fresh in controlled atmosphere are put out daily, meaning that they sell out.
Hamburgers with fries are almost nowhere to be seen outside of specialized fast food outlets, of which there are relatively few. In the cafes, soft drinks are available but generally passed up. Instead, most everyone takes advantage of the free water. Among alcoholic beverages, we see only beer and to a lesser extent wine enjoying favor. Few take more than one glass of wine. In our 10 days we have not encountered a single drunk or a single instance of exuberant drinking.
The Finns we see around us have other remarkable features that we did not notice so clearly in Karelia: the men in particular are very big, very tall. A great many males are over two meters. A great many of them also have wide frames and developed musculature. Women, when they are fit are very fit.
But the real kudos goes to the kids, who are almost without exception slim and well proportioned from toddlers through early adolescents. They are well-behaved, quiet and cute.
This observation about the kids reminds me of the comment made by one Russian taxi driver in St Petersburg at about 1995 who said that he would not buy a Russian car because his countrymen were not good at manufacturing anything, though to their credit they “produced very cute little kids.” I don’t think his point about poor manufacturing has any relevance to Finland, but his remark about kids does.
At 1.3 million residents, Helsinki is about the size of Brussels. It goes without saying that it has a more limited cultural offering than the Belgian and EU capital. In this regard, my observation from the past about Helsinki being quite exciting when arriving from the East and quite boring when arriving from the West still holds. Nonetheless, what high culture it does offer is of good, international quality. The musical life in season is worthy of respect. The musical establishment includes very well respected
schools such as the Sibelius Music Academy. The cultural calendar which restarts in late August features in particular symphonic music, opera and dance.
And the national art museums are today under good management, as we understood at once upon visiting the ongoing temporary exhibition of Ilya Repin at the Ateneum.
This exhibition has to be called the cultural event of this summer in Helsinki. The Ateneum’s website urges visitors to buy tickets in advance online and they are very right. When we arrived before the museum’s entrance this past Tuesday we found a line stretching around the corner, meaning a good 45 minutes to get in and buy a ticket. However, the effort would be worthwhile. The exhibition presents 130 paintings and drawings by Repin, including several that are signature pieces by the artist known the world over.
At the entrance to the exhibition, Repin is identified as “a Finnish-Russian painter.” To Russians, this may seem peculiar, though it is truthful: as from 1918, following the Revolution, the Finnish-Russian border north of Petersburg was moved several dozen kilometers to the south and Repin’s residence cum studio Penates at Kuokkala, just 30 kilometers from Petersburg, fell within the new Finnish state. Repin lived out the remainder of his life there, to 1930.
Though Repin donated several of his paintings to his new homeland, the Finnish holdings of his works are clearly very few. Nearly all of the paintings and drawings come from Russia, mainly from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in Petersburg, who are co-organizers of the exhibition together with the Petit Palais fine arts museum, Paris. Smaller museums across Russia such as in Saratov and in Irkutsk and elsewhere also have contributed paintings.