From Tallinn, Estonia, our class began the trip to Helsinki, Finland, on the most idyllic of ferry rides–complete with an incredible sunset on the Baltic Sea and an all-you-can-eat buffet (life’s really rough).
If there is such a thing as perfect in this world, Helsinki is it (or at least is the closest thing to perfect). Despite the freezing cold winters (we all were wearing our heavy jackets there, and it was only the first week of October), the ostentatious modern architecture that engulfs this old city provides an alternative aesthetic. Helsinki looks a lot more like San Francisco or Seattle than an old medieval European city. Located right on the Baltic, Helsinki is a city that has developed around the water (though it doesn’t have canals integrated into the city, like Copenhagen). Even on freezing cold days, it is common to find Finns tanning on the small beaches scattered around the water’s edge, taking advantage of some of the few sun rays they get during the year.
Starting our 4-day Helsinki adventure with a guided bike tour allowed us to see Helsinki in its entirety. From the old opera house, we made our way along the water’s edge to the neoclassical Senate Square–the location of the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, and the main building of the University of Helsinki:
From there, our tour led us through busy streets and quiet parks with trees changing colors. Autumn came in full force in Helsinki. But this comes as no surprise, since it was already so cold in Helsinki in the early days of October. Eventually, we ended up in at the Olympic Stadium–the sight of the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. This was my second time in Europe seeing an Olympic Village (I’m on a role here). Aside from the Olympic Track, 3 euros will get you on an elevator that takes you to the top of the Stadium Tower–a 72 meter high structure that provides the best birds-eye view of Helsinki. Best 3 euros I ever spent.
We ended our bike tour at the Parliament building, located a block away from two of Helsinki’s architectural icons: the Finnish National Theater and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. I guess now would be a good time to mention that Helsinki was named the World Design Capital in 2012. No surprise there. What city wouldn’t get such an award with architecture like this all around the city:
The path we followed on the bike tour was so nice that the following day (probably one of the few sunny days in Helsinki), I decided to brave the cold and go running along the water. Though the cold was unpleasant, the scenery made up for it.
Much like in Tallinn, most of our time in Helsinki was spent at various health institutions learning about healthcare delivery in Finland. The main thing I took away from our visits is a clear understanding of why Finland isn’t considered a Scandinavian state. Many people tend to group Finland with Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Finns do not consider themselves Scandinavians, and the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians don’t see Finland as a Scandinavian state either. And that is for good reason: the Finnish state doesn’t operate like a Scandinavian welfare state, as we saw first hand at the various health institutions we visited. The level of centralization in the Finnish healthcare system was minimal in comparison to the health systems of Denmark and Sweden. Essentially, Finland’s healthcare system looks a lot more like the United States’ than a Scandinavian one in that Finnish hospitals are regulated and monitored by the local municipalities (much like local and state governments in the U.S.), rather than by the central government. Though Finland definitely has some elements of a Nordic welfare state (it’s definitely much more of a welfare state than the U.S.), the equity issues that exist in Finland’s health system are issues that exist in the American healthcare system and aren’t commonplace in Scandinavian health systems.
As I was saying previously, Finland definitely looks and acts like a welfare state. It has a national health insurance to which all Finnish citizens belong, and co-pay at primary care facilities is pocket change. The breathtaking public architecture projects and the efficiency and cleanliness of public transportation is a visible extension of the welfare apparatus. And when I mean clean and efficient public transportation, I really mean clean and efficient. Helsinki doesn’t have a subway system in existence (because the entire city is walkable and an existing cable car system suffices), but commuter rail trains transport people from the city to the surrounding ares/Helsinki suburbs. And these trains were borderline luxurious. I guess Helsinki citizens are seeing their astronomically high taxes returned to them in some fashion…
But the pinnacle of our trip to Finland was the final cultural excursion: a traditional Finnish sauna. If there is one thing to know about Finland before going, it’s that Finns are obsessed with their saunas. Doctors in Finland will even claim that there are no health risks associated with using saunas on a frequent basis (though only a few risks really exist). Once we arrived at the sauna (located in an isolated forest in Middle of Nowhere, Finland), we were handed towels by a staff member and were escorted to the sauna doors. These communal saunas are gender-separated, as they usually are in Finland. There have been very few instances while in Europe where I have felt completely out of place. And this sauna was unfortunately one of those instances. While our program told all of us Americans to bring bathing suits, every man in this sauna was completely naked. The only people that opted to “go native” were our professors. It was very obvious by the amount of laughing among the Finnish-speaking men that they were judging us heavily. Awkward doesn’t even come close to describing the situation.
The only thing more uncomfortable than the naked Finnish men laughing at the clothed Americans was the unbearable heat. Once the sauna reached the scorching temperature of 80 °C, my lungs had a difficult time taking in air, and I could feel some of the hair on my head beginning to crisp. It was time to leave. Yet, the only place we could go to “leave the sauna” was outside in the freezing cold rain. Apparently, Finnish sauna tradition dictates that after spending some time in the scorching hot sauna, you walk outside (in whatever weather condition) and jump into a lake to cool down. So now imagine a bunch of loud screaming American college students complaining about the heat jumping into a freezing cold lake…more screaming ensues. I felt really bad for all the Finns, trying to enjoy a pleasant, quiet afternoon at the sauna, who had to deal with all these obnoxiously loud first-timers. In my defense, however, I have never experienced that kind of heat and that kind of cold ever in my life. And probably never will again. No exaggeration, the second we all stepped outside the sauna doors, I noticed steam rising from everyone’s pores because of the dramatic temperature fluctuations. Oh yeah, and jumping into the lake was…an experience, to say the least. It felt great for about a milisecond. Then suddenly this sharp pain began to constrict my ankles and wrists, and the only thing my brain could register was “GET OUT NOW.” I couldn’t be in the water for more than 5 seconds. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that much pain from being so cold. Tremendous respect for all the Finns who were casually swimming around in the lake. I don’t know how their bodies (or circulation) could handle it. Despite the pain, the sauna experience was definitely one I’ll never forget and has given me so many stories I will never stop telling. It was all a sight worth documenting (of course I couldn’t because of the massive amounts of naked people walking around the sauna).
When I said that the sauna was our last cultural visit, it was literally our last stop in Finland before heading to the airport. We made a quick detour at a local restaurant serving traditional Finnish cuisine (lots of meat and potatoes). Definitely a great way to recover from the sauna. We went straight from dinner to the airport, with everyone still smelling like sauna. The entire flight back to Copenhagen people were complaining about the strong aroma of burnt hair that made its way from the rear end of the plane to the cockpit. What a week.
Warning to all: don’t plan going to Helsinki unless you’re prepared to drop a ton of cash. Because Helsinki was the most expensive city I’ve ever been to. 20 euros ($26 USD) barely gets you a meal. It was definitely a wake up call after coming directly from Tallinn, the place of all things cheap. So come prepared. Otherwise, it’s an incredible city that you could spend all day walking around just marveling (and not even care about the cold).