Somewhere between bites of korvapuusti and glimpses of the Baltic Sea, Finland’s capital city stole my heart.
Pictures + Words by Kate Doyle Hooper
There are several cities around the globe that live on my personal “obsessed list” and, until I landed in it, Helsinki wasn’t one of them. In the spring, I emerged from the Finnair terminal into a cold, grey dawn, staggered onto a Helsinki-bound train and prayed that I’d at least find the place, um, interesting? Desperate for a change of scenery, I’d come at the insistence of close ex-pat friends, who knew that after more than two years of being all but sealed inside a New York City apartment, a bit of time spent outside it might be in order.
The idea of Finland as a squeaky-clean Nordic Shangri-La—a clean, safe, rational social democracy—seemed, at best, sort of admirable if not exactly high season in Ibiza. I needn’t have worried. Within minutes of checking in at the nine-story high-rise (by Helsinki standards) Crowne Plaza and rolling into room 903 with its unobstructed views of the city and a front row seat to the just-starting-to-bloom Hesperia Park, I was a goner.
What stole my heart wasn’t the wispy greenery budding beneath my window or my usual touchstones of architectural marvels, design museums and outdoor public artworks—nor was it the fun fact that women make up a substantial 45 percent of Finland’s Parliament or that the prime minister is a smart, sassy 37-year-old mom (though major props in the equity department for that).
The real heart-stealer was the light. It was the awe-inducing three rainbows that welcomed me on that Day 1 and the puffy clouds that vanished each morning thereafter to make way for a sun that never quite set. It was the beams of sunlight dancing on the ice-cold Baltic Sea well past 10pm. It was pinpricks of light sneaking past blackout curtains as the sun rose high and bright by 4am. With only a handful of buildings rising higher than 20 stories (and then not by much) it’s like Helsinki is making sure to let the sunshine in—and in startlingly beautiful ways—a phenomenon which my friends tell me doesn’t happen much during their light-starved winters.
In the long days of spring, all that light makes Helsinki buzz, bustle and bloom. Outdoor cafés line the streets and people-watching is in full swing. And Strindberg, the town’s see-and-be-seen café, is ground zero, but eventually, it’s time to move on. Walking for hours through Helsinki’s grime-free streets and its vast network of middle-of-town nature parks, there’s one quality that’s undeniable: tranquility. Horns rarely honk, brakes seldom screech. Calm is king (despite the 800-mile border with Russia). Perhaps all the natural beauty that’s woven into the fabric of the city helps keep anxiety at bay, but I like to think the profusion of korvapuusti (cinnamon bun) purveyors might have something to do with it. Pass on a korvapuusti, particularly the cream cheese frosted ones at the St. George Bakery, and you might as well stay home. Same goes for the ubiquitous comfort food lohikeitto (salmon soup), a must on every menu in town.
Unlike the bombast of Rome and the showy, look-at-me-ness of Paris, the decidedly understated charm of Helsinki sneaks up on you before you know you’re in love. And Helsinki doesn’t mind at all—it just gets on with the business of living life and enjoying it, inviting you to do the same. Here, work/life balance is the norm, with work much after 5pm being frowned upon, all of which leaves plenty of time for enjoying (in-town) nature and, of course, a good schvitz. Say “no” to the latter and you’ve missed the heart and soul of an entire nation, as well as the joy of its egalitarian attitude toward total sauna nudity regardless of age, shape or size. Inside the sauna, the normally retiring Finns morph into convivial cocktail party guests, chatting, sweating profusely, hitting their water bottles hard and letting it all hang out, charming even this slightly stand-offish New Yorker into conversation.
Taking another little piece of my heart? The sun-dappled Baltic Sea. Every other day or so, I’d pick up a coffee and wander down the Esplanadi, Helsinki’s 156-year-old garden promenade, to gaze at the sea. At the water’s edge, I’d lose track of time, watching tiny tourist boats making their ten-minute roundtrips back and forth to nearby island parks, weaving around massive car ferries pulling into port. I’d watch as they disgorged hundreds of cars, 18-wheelers and throngs of day-trippers returning from Estonia.
But by far, the most precious cargo emerging from those ships were small groups of Ukrainians, dazed and exhausted, being welcomed with warm smiles, open arms, Red Cross teams and translators, and the promise of safety and refuge. If ever there was a moment to fall deeply and profoundly in love with the fundamental humanity of a city and its people, this was it, no turning back. Helsinki, I’m all yours.
Antigua: Shhh! I’m At The Beach
Seen from 30,000 feet, Antigua is one of the tropical specs in the Caribbean island chain that runs from Puerto Rico to Venezuela’s northern coast. Unlike its more symmetrical neighbors, Antigua, bounded by coves, bays and craggy points, resembles an abstract starfish, jagged arms outstretched. Touch down on terra firma and those arms point the way to 28 miles of open-to-the-public, white-sand beaches—365 of them to be exact—that make memories of one’s stressed-out life back home disappear.
Maybe I’m a pushover or have been stuck in one place too long, but as soon as my toes curl into the sands of Pigeon Point and my eyes fix their gaze on turquoise waters and Monserrat in the distance, the love affair begins and I’m ready to apply for citizenship (well, in my mind at least). This postcard pretty island nation, known officially as Antigua and Barbuda (its neighboring island), is, blessedly, the land that crowds forgot, so solitude and seclusion are yours for the taking, between dips in the sea and snoozes under a swaying palm. But wait. Is that a tiny beach bar in the distance? Is that the whir of a blender I hear? No hurry, but let’s investigate. Then we’ll nap. And take a dip, then nap again and repeat.
Marrakesh: An Offer I Can’t Refuse
“Promise you’ll hondle!” demanded my roommate. She knew nothing was more foreign to my Irish soul than the idea of paying anything but full retail. It’s just what we do. However, that’s not how the game is played in Marrakesh, where haggling is virtually the national pastime.
With my roommate’s words ringing in my ears, I stepped into the exhilarating exotic chaos filling the narrow streets of the souk just off Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, and left a few thousand years of my heritage behind. Wading through throngs of shoppers in flowing robes and men on donkeys and diesel-belching scooters, I found my haggle grail—an eight-foot-wide storefront with walls covered in a rainbow of handmade, pointy leather babouche (slippers). I began the hondling cage match with an aggressively low opening bid.
They waved hands, I waved hands. They shook heads, so did I as we play-fought in broken English and French. With no mic to drop, I staged a walk-off which won me respect, plus a pair of well-priced, flaming red leather slippers and nascent haggling skills likely to baffle my Galwegian ancestors, but hopefully, make them (and my ex-roommate) proud. So, this is where I leave my heritage—in the souks of Marrakesh. A deal’s a deal.
Reykjavík: Midnight Snacks As Therapy
Travel anywhere and certain moments become images that imprint themselves on the camera roll of your mind. Iceland is one of those places where the snapshots come fast and furious, starting the moment the plane breaks through the clouds and you catch a what-planet-am-I-on? glimpse of vast black rock lava fields set against a dark choppy sea. Just beyond, there are waterfalls to marvel at, mountains (though modest) to summit, glaciers to climb, hot springs to steep in, whales to watch and geysers to Instagram. Say the word “Iceland” and my mind’s eye fills with a flip book of stark, awe-inspiring images, combined with visuals of things I’d not normally do, like hang off a snowmobile doing 40 MPH across a glacier, slurp down a live sea urchin (when in Rome and all that) seconds after it’s reeled in or make a helicopter landing on a slightly active volcano.
But say the word “Reykjavík” and the heavenly scent of sizzling hot dogs—made from a secret family recipe with lamb and spices—instantly teleports me back. Standing in front of Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand well after 1am in the twilight glow of the midnight sun, savoring our lamb dogs, all is right with the world, at least this corner of it. Heaven can be found eating a hot dog in the late nights streets of Reykjavík. There, I said it.