On a journey, a day seems to stretch to a week - even more so when you are in a place where the sun sets at 11pm and rises again at 3am. That is exactly how I feel when I first touch down at Finland - the concept of day and night retreat into irrelevance as my latitude takes a leap upwards. Situated so close to the Arctic Circle, much of the Helsinki area – including the city of Tampere where I’m currently living – experiences something similar to polar days during summertime, and polar nights in winter. Day one feels exotic, exhilarating, awe-struck and disorienting– just how often do you see bright skies practically 24 hours a day? Almost magically lit, the sky strangely reminds me of the Emerald City – unreal, unseen, totally awe-inspiring. And just imagine how medieval it would feel in wintertime, when you pass one day without seeing any sunlight (depressing like medieval times too)!
Outside of constant daylight in summer, Helsinki or Finland in general is a curious place to begin with. Finns are mostly introverts (or at least compared with our standards), yet once you approach them or gulp down a few drinks together, they can be so talkative and hilarious, exuding a sense of weird Nordic humor (“Hey you are going to that company event this Wednesday? Please try not to drink before the event, but afterwards” or this: Q: What is the difference between Finnish weddings and Finnish funerals? A: At the funerals, there is one less drunk).
Right next to the high-rising modern glassy shopping malls in the Helsinki centrum stands various neo-classical or Art Nouveau towers and columns and buildings triumphantly overlooking the entire city, perfectly fitting the old into the new. Not to mention the lax working hours (capped at 37.5 hours a week with two paid days off every month) coupled with Finns’ extreme seriousness and exacting work attitude and craftsmanship – yet this oxymoronic combination somehow achieves a rare harmonious state of equilibrium and productivity. Oh, did I mention that it just snowed here this morning, in the middle of June? Mind you, we are still outside the Arctic Circle in the Northern Hemisphere! Winter? Summer? One thing is for sure: if you want a chilly June/July, come to Finland!
Perhaps due to this unique set of natural conditions and history, Finland offers a great selection of distinct, stunningly beautiful architectures and cultural heritage. It’s been said that a visit to Helsinki is never complete without touring the Helsinki Cathedral, or Helsingin tuomiokirkko as known in Finnish. The Cathedral stands at the highest point in the Senate Square, with four equilateral arms extending symmetrically in four cardinal directions and each arm's façade featuring a grand and decorated colonnade and pediment, and a tall, green dome surrounded by four smaller domes, pinched with little golden crosses. There is no way you can miss it when you wander around the city center in Helsinki – and when I first saw it, I was completely blown away - just like suddenly encountering a breathtakingly beautiful lake upon emerging from a rainforest, like climbing over the top of a mountain and seeing the hidden valley of Maya, like taking a deep dive and changing breath and unexpectedly seeing a huge, bright moon – I am startled by its magnificent beauty captured in pure, white, immense marble. There are moments in my life that bring my brain to a stupor so that it is taken away by stunning grandeur…and when I look up and glance upon the Helsinki Cathedral, it is one of these moments. Its purity, splendor, tranquility and natural authority instantaneously overpower me, leaving me marveling at this stunning beauty, speechless, helpless, delighted, and tremendously touched.
While the Cathedral perfectly embodies the splendid grandeur of Finland, Suomenlinna, the sea fortress that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and lies just 20 minutes off the coast of Helsinki, represents the war-filled history and the determination of the nation. To my surprise, I found that it resemble Old San Juan: irregular network of bastions, spotty rock walls, little ports, earth-filled sandbanks and lots and lots of seagulls and salty-smelling sea breeze piece up the modern impression of this chain of sea fortresses. Quietly overlooking the capital city, Suomenlinna connects four isles in a complex defense network with its inconspicuous stony walls and hidden rusty guns. It refuses to give up its original job of protecting the city despite the time-wrought irrelevance, and stills firmly and humbly. Its solemnity resonates with Finns’ sense of the history and their serious and down-to-earth characters.
There are still residents on this sea fortress today, and I happen to visit on a day when they have a traditional style ball – where young girls dressed up in traditional gowns with wide puffed sleeves. The heartwarming scene washes down the heavy shadow of wars and history, and reinforces the human message in the entire picture: people love and enjoy life here, they dance, they party, they embrace the unique beauty given by nature and the unique culture bequeathed by its rich history. Witnessing this festival, I just can’t help but wonder if I am in an actual, medieval, Nordic Wonderland.
Robert Louis Stevenson said “there are no foreign lands” when you travel, and I wholeheartedly agree – though I am still getting used to no darkness, my mind is just as exciting as ever. Every day this little Nordic country manages to surprise me with its food, people, customs, architecture or even just the plain awesome lakes and woods. And I enjoy this all alone, living in a newfound solitude. Just as Freya Stark puts it, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”
But I’d rather not wake up, and remain within those countless Fennoscandian midsummer nights’ dreams.
~Eddie Chen '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler