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By Colleen Friesen
For Travel Writers' Tales

You can't say we weren't warned.

Upon announcing our pending trip to Finland, the cautions came thick and fast. The well-intentioned advisories all ended up sounding fairly similar, the gist of which was this: people in Finland are reserved, rarely smile and like to keep to themselves.

Helsinki at Dusk

I'm not sure where those Finnish people were hiding, but in our four days in Helsinki we had to practically beat the helpful Finns off with a stick. The minute we'd stop with our map and our semi-functional compass, someone would stop to help us with directions. Maybe they couldn't stand how hopeless we looked, as we stood, mouths agape, in our futile attempt to try to pronounce some multisyllabic street name like Mannerheimintie or Nordenskioldinkatu, or while looking for Temppeliaukion Kirkko (a church hewn from solid stone with incredible acoustics and a stunning copper-stripped roof).


It is probably worth mentioning that every single person that helped us was female. Maybe it's because Finnish men, like men everywhere, can't tolerate the idea of giving directions any more than they can asking for them. Whatever the reason, by the second day we were comfortable knowing that we'd never be truly lost-there would always be another blonde woman standing by to assist.

Helsinki Harbour

Helsinki is a city that is stuffed full of museums and galleries but it was our visit to the centrally-located Ateneum Art Museum that felt like a clue to all this female help.

The regular collection covered wonderful moody Finnish art from the 1750s to the 1960s, but the special exhibit introduced us to Finland's most beloved artist, Tove Jansson. It didn't take long for us to understand why.

Tove's output was prolific, but by far, her most popular art was produced from her Moomin children's books. The series has been translated into 45 languages. Her art ranged from very brave satirical magazine covers that dared to make fun of Hitler, to incredible evocative oils and pastel self-portraits, novels, short stories and comic strips. Jansson was born in 1914 and died, after a lifelong love affair with cigarettes, of lung cancer in 2001. Her lifetime partner was Tuulikki Pietila. The two women often collaborated on artistic projects.

Perhaps the revered role model of Tove Jansson, who is often described as 'fiercely-independent', is one of the reasons all those Finnish women were so confident with their help and with their dramatic sense of edgy style.

Stockmann's might provide another clue. Stockmann's is the iconic Helsinki department store that covers everything from luxury brands to groceries, but the bookstore (oh my, that bookstore!) is where Stockmann truly shines. Combine a Finnish literacy rate of 100% with three floors of books and magazines that gleam on endless shelves, and you can see why Stockmann's books is a destination unto itself, and might be one more reason all those blondes have such a keen sense of direction and street smarts.

Then again, it could be all that coffee. Finns are one of the world's biggest coffee drinkers. Most Finns drink an average of six cups each day. Helsinki has an endless supply of independent coffee cafes to choose from. They also happen to be the biggest consumers of ice cream in Europe. Sounds like a pretty happy combination-maybe their habit of having a sauna (a daily habit for many Finns) melts off all that cream. Like many hotels in Helsinki, our stay at the fabulous Glo Hotel Art, housed in a former poly-technical house from 1903, had its own sauna in the turret. It's a gloriously restorative way to transition from a day of sight-seeing to your evening feast of reindeer.

Glo Hotel Art

Which brings me to the food; it's delicious and healthy brain-enhancing food. The dark Finnish bread is a meal unto itself, and the cloudberries, whether as a jam or enhancing a dessert, are a heavenly standard. Like the delicious renditions of reindeer, salmon is another menu staple. I have never seen so many fabulous ways to consume brain-smart Omega-3s as the endless variations of prepared salmon. Helsinki is simply awash in endless pickled, brined, and otherwise tastily-rendered salmon, whether in the wonderful wood market halls like Hakaniemi or on restaurant menus.

Salmon Selection

It made me wonder why we don't have as many creative ways to serve salmon back in Vancouver?

I think we could take a few lessons from the Finns. I'm pretty sure they'd be willing to help-especially the women.


For more information:
Glo Hotel Art:

PHOTOS by Colleen Friesen

1. Helsinki at Dusk
2. Helsinki Harbour
3. Salmon Selection
4. Blondes
5. Glo Hotel Art

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