Monday, August 24, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 2

Not too surprisingly, we got going rather slowly today, which didn’t matter at all. We spent the day covering more or less the entire downtown map of Helsinki. At the end of this we decided that the market we saw yesterday was indeed the one we remembered from a decade and a half ago, contrary to our impression yesterday. In part, it wasn’t as recognizable yesterday because it was the end of the day and they were packing up, but time had also distorted our memories of it a bit. Perhaps nothing on those long-ago trips is quite as we remember it, including the bill. We went into a store selling the same wooden sheep I mentioned, and it costs over 400 euros. Even allowing for inflation, it’s hard to imagine we were ever quite that captivated by it. They also come in bigger sizes though so we did exercise some restraint in that regard.

It was another warm but not scalding day today and Helsinki confirmed itself as a fine walking city. Throughout our strolling, we were tempted away from the street by a trail along the water, or an open-air market, or a patch of shade. There’s a park right behind the hotel containing a botanical garden, and behind that an inlet that defines the right shoulder of the downtown core, a few paddle-boarders calmly moving along as if on a non-urgent errand. We eventually circled round and walked back down to the southern end again, looping up with the beach we found yesterday. As in all Scandinavian cities, there’s an easy mix of transit – the volume of cars doesn’t seem too heavy, bikes are much more prominent than back home (although not as much as in Copenhagen say), trams and buses come and go regularly, and all of this seems to exist in a natural unstrained harmony. There’s a buried corridor right down the middle of town, seemingly on an old underground railway track or something like that, reserved solely for pedestrians and cyclists – I imagine most cities would envy that. The city certainly has its modern flourishes – a new concert hall, a modern art museum: it has plans for a new Guggenheim museum, although that’s been subject to controversy. Still, perhaps inevitably, the spaces surrounding those areas tend to be stark and rather unengaging, compared to the time-beaten old squares (and Helsinki has a lot of those).

We happened on several markets, both interior and exterior, and had lunch in one of them. Even by normal city standards, Helsinki seems defined largely by eating – every block just piles one choice on another. Fast food isn’t particularly prominent, but we’ve walked past dozens of open air cafes, and just about every kind of ethnic speciality (we’ve seen at least four Nepalese places, just for illustration). Local delicacies like salmon soup recur frequently – I’ll have to try that somewhere. Perhaps it follows that the streets aren’t necessarily bursting with physically attractive types as per the Scandinavian legend. Apparently the government has a plan to stamp out smoking within thirty years, but I’d say they have a long way to go on achieving that. This is all only to say though that the city conveys a very easy, naturalistic quality; it’s extremely easy to be in. I think we’ve been seeing more baby carriages than we do in most places, which gives an impression of normal life winding around the tourist attractions. Certainly more often than at home, these baby carriages are in the custody of men rather than of women.

Finland, of course, is one of the more expensive places that one might choose to vacation in, and we’re dealing with this issue by choosing not to think of it in the least. This seems all the more necessary because, the web tells us, our investments back home are being decimated by the ongoing market decline. Finland knows all about this, its economic situation apparently being rather dire, in part because of the decline of Nokia and of its paper industry. Of course, it’s hard to pick up on this when you’re just a tourist, but I suppose the easygoing qualities I’ve described above could be taken for a lack of economic vibrancy. I certainly don’t think we’re seeing quite as much forced cellphone activity as you do everywhere else – I don’t even know if we’ve walked by a phone store. Maybe people took the Nokia thing personally.
We returned to the hotel after five hours or so and both had a bit of a nap. Naturally, we checked in on Ozu via the Urban Dog webcam. He’s been licking and chewing on himself in recent weeks because of seasonal allergies, and although that’s mostly behind him now, I felt I should leave them his protective cone just for safety. Yesterday when we checked in, he was wearing the cone, which makes for a bit of a sorry sight. Today he’s back to normal. Later we went out in search of a restaurant called Juuri, specializing in Finnish tapas (or “sapas”) – we once again covered a big chunk of downtown in search of it (although we discovered on the way back that there would have been a considerably more direct route). They had just one table available, but that’s all we needed! It was a wonderful meal, and the only real caveat is that you just wanted the tapas to be bigger. I don’t know if real Finnish people eat them though – everyone in the restaurant seemed to be a visitor, and on the web I can hardly find the term "sapas" except in connection with Juuri itself. On the way back we returned to the Public Corner, agreeing we wouldn’t stay as late as last night. We managed that, but just by five minutes. Didn’t I say you can’t stop at one Karhu!
It doesn’t take long to immerse yourself in little local stories. We recognized several patrons from last night, one of them an Asian woman who spent hours on both nights sitting in the back of the place playing electronic poker or something. This can’t possibly be good and it seems to me someone should stage an intervention. I don’t suppose she’d appreciate it from us though…

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