The closest I came to Finland was a trip to Norway and Sweden by Interail, many moons ago, during my university years.
My next Finnish alert was not so much Finland as Helsinki – the Helsinki School is one of the best photography schools in the world, and leads the world in contemporary photography. I spent almost a year inspired by the school as I produced a series of images called The Pool of Life. Finnish-born Elina Brotherus, who now resides in Paris, is one of my favourite photographers.
I knew that Finland’s education and health systems were free, and that children didn’t start school until they’re six or seven years old, but I was unsure about politics, religion and – apart from being a long, thin country with endless summer light – I knew little about the geography.
One day I received a call out of the blue from Quality Hunters, an initiative from Finnar and Helsinki Airport to improve the travel and passenger experience for us all. Apparently they scan Twitter (good old Twitter) for people who love to travel, have influence and a good sense of humour to participate in their think-tank-style workshops. I knew that travel blogger Ana of @mrsoaroundtheworld had been on a previous workshop and she raved about it. I was sold – destination Helsinki; you even get HEL on your luggage labels. So from AGP to HEL – I was ready and willing to go!
It all happened so quickly and I had hardly unpacked from a photo trip to Dubai when I found myself on a Finnair flight to Helsinki. I had read nothing, just checked on the net which currency and adaptor plugs I needed as I packed. As it turns out, Finland has the same currency and plugs as Spain, which was a very welcome surprise
As soon as I arrived in Helsinki, at 6am (the flight time from Malaga is 4.5 hours – extreme south to extreme north of Europe), I recognized that diffused light where the clouds act as a huge soft box – great for complexions, no harsh shadows. Helsinki airport has free Wi-Fi for all – yes, bring it on! The airport was so easy to navigate it was like a dream, and I don´t know if it was a fluke, but my case came through first!
I took a communal taxi from the airport – Helsinki was still asleep, but I saw signs in Finnish, green grass, drivers who didn´t seem to be in a rush, and sweet sleepy faces in cars heading into the capital. Bicycling eco-friendly types, sporting chunky knitwear, were up with the larks.
The Klaus K Hotel was my abode for the next 48 hours. I arrived and was taken to my Mini-room – a designer´s dream Mini-themed bedroom, with Austin Martin décor, Minis on the door, a Mini bulldog teddy, Mini graffiti saying “Mini was here” and a custom-made Mini bed. Space was not at a premium – this was Mini-land – but I was exhausted and that Mini bed ticked all the boxes – it was so comfortable, and in no time I was fast asleep. There is only one hour´s time difference between my hometown near Malaga and Helsinki, but leaving at 1 am and arriving at 6am is a killer for the body clock. Yes, bring on the phantom jetlag.
I awoke in the early afternoon and ventured out into the capital. I passed slick minimalist designs, stacks of the latest Wallpaper magazine and a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a man wearing a smart jacket with reindeer horns, as you do. Apparently if you took your photo with him and posted it on Facebook there may be more Mini nights around the corner.
I soon realised that wearing heeled boots was a crazy idea – you could get them caught in the cobbles, or worse still in the tram lines. I wanted no Gaudi incidents (the Spanish surrealist was killed by a tram) and vowed to wear sensible shoes next time.
I headed out to buy a lens cap from a pro-photo store called Rajala. As the cobbles were uncomfortable, I saw a smooth area of road and moved onto that instead. Immediately bicycle bells rang – I jumped back onto the cobbles with vivid Dutch flashbacks: the Bike is King, then the dirty look from the skateboarder added to my grief. To hell with it, I wasn’t going back to the hotel to change the boots now, I would manage. Every shoe shop I passed had serious flat designer shoes – you see, they don´t tell you this stuff before you come. This is exactly why armchair travellers are so disadvantaged.
Oh my, what a photo store Rajala is: rentals, second-hand, printing, new gear, old gear – you could smell the clicks. Helsinki is uber-cool and right on the doorstep of the photo shop is the Contemporary Art Museum. When I saw some really interesting pipes behind the museum and went to photograph them, model-type faces appeared walking in the same direction. I looked ahead to see a marquee which said: “Helsinki Fashion Weekend”.
When I went to the marquee to go in, the security guy looked at the no-arguing camera around my neck. I smiled, he smiled, he opened the barrier to let me in, and within minutes I was at the end of the catwalk in my natural abode with all the other photographers. I recognized some of the Helsinki Photo School-type faces and enjoyed exploring their white skin, light hair and vacant, void glances, a totally opposite look to the passion and intensity of southern European faces. This is the very north of the north.
I left as I entered, smiling at the security guard, both of us no fools.
My Mini-bed at the Hotel Klaus K called. Walking back to the hotel, I was reminded that this is a country that can make your nose and toes feel extremely cold, and I looked forward to climbing under the duvet.
Some more observations about Helsinki and the Finnish
They love rules and obey them; they would never dream of jumping a traffic light. Pedestrians are king and cars stop for you. The level of English is superb, with most folk trilingual. Children walk to school in the city on their own from the age of seven or eight; the place is very safe. People are blond with fair skin and wear earth-toned clothes, with brightly-coloured knitwear dying to make its winter appearance. They love to get naked in the saunas. They eat reindeer (poor Rudolf!). Catwalk-type faces, the ones that don´t smile.
The chill nip of autumn in the air. The diffused sky, the late light nights. Bicycles. Eco-friendly, the coolest minimal designs – I was very tempted to extend my stay. This was the design capital of Europe, they have bags of style; the fashions seem very urban.
Your first impression of a county is the port of entry where you arrive. Whether by land, sea or air, the entry port acts as an ambassador for the whole country.
Helsinki Aiport is a microcosm of the country: organized, easy on the eye, democratic, and forward-thinking, with free WIFI for all. The Finnair lounge has minimalist design –the only splash of colour was from bright striped ceramic salad bowls. A plane-viewing platform, relaxing chairs, comfort and elegance. The airport is compact and so well-run. This is the country of the Northern Lights and I´m convinced I need to return.