Susanne and I got a solid 11 hours sleep Saturday night, but waking up was a bitter challenge; the first morning after a trans-Atlantic flight is always the worst. Fortunately, the coffee was strong at the Lord Hotel (no apparent religious affiliation, despite the unusual name). Breakfast was served in the hotel’s vaulted basement, with rows of cheeses, cereals and juices to choose from as they piped in Finnish pop songs from the 1940s. A few tables down from us, I tried to listen in on a trio of people so I could get a better handle on what Finnish sounds like; it took me at least five minutes to realize they were actually speaking English, with Russian and Scottish accents, no less.
Following breakfast, we walked northeast to the esplanade — a long, tree-lined park with boutique shops and ritzy hotels from end to end. Even though it was just after 10:30am, the extreme southern position of the sun made it feel like dinnertime was just around the corner. Our first goal was to visit Helsinki’s famous fish market, but we couldn’t find it. Perhaps the map in our Lonely Planet book was wrong; or perhaps it was closed, despite the book’s claim the market would be open seven days a week. Either way, some editor made a mistake. Rather than get frustrated, we decided to visit the next landmark we could find, which conveniently happened to be on a hill just five minutes to the east.
The Uspenski Cathedral is Helsinki’s biggest Orthodox church. Given Helsinki’s century-long occupation by imperial Russia, it didn’t come as a major surprise that a sizable Orthodox minority still lives here. But Finland’s Orthodox church is actually more of a close cousin to the Russian Orthodox church, so I was eager to poke my head inside to see if I could spot any obvious differences.
We crossed a small, almost unperceivable bridge to an island lying just off the Helsinki peninsula, and followed a steep staircase to the cathedral. The plaza in front of the cathedral was deserted, so we wondered whether Sunday services were going on or not. Before we reached the door, someone exited the church, so at least we knew the church was open.
As soon as we entered the church, our ears were filled with the haunting harmonies of an Orthodox chorus. Reminiscent of the music of Estonian composer Arvo Part, this stunning a capella choir featured some of the deepest bass voices I’ve ever heard. The chorus made me flash back to the churches I’d visited in Moscow nearly three years ago.
We walked further into the church, into the main sanctuary; a crowd of around 100 worshippers were gathered in a tight group, standing directly under its grand, vaulted dome. The congregation appeared mostly Finnish, but a surprising number of East Africans took part as well — Ethiopians, perhaps? At the front of the church, a priest led the service as the choir stood to the far right. The acoustics of the cathedral made their beautiful voices echo and swirl all around us. No recording can ever come close to the magic of an Orthodox choir performing live in a big church.
Susanne and I spent about 20 minutes inside the service, standing unobtrusively along the right side. When a group of Japanese tourists came inside, we took that as our cue to give up our space and exit the church. In the hallway, I checked my phone to see if Suzanne Stein had called, since she said she was interested in exploring the city with us. (She’d just moved to Helsinki last month and hadn’t had time to play tourist yet.) I got a text message from her asking where we were, so I texted her back saying we were at the Orthodox church but could meet her at Senate Square if that was easier. She texted back saying she was “at church” and we should look for her along the way. Not knowing exactly what she meant, I started to text her back as we stepped outside; just as I began to send the text I looked up and saw Suzanne huddled over her phone. “You should have said which church you were at!” I yelled out to get her attention.
The three of us ventured west a few blocks until we arrived at Senate Square. Built in the early 19th century during the Russian occupation, the square was designed to look like the square behind Catherine the Great’s Hermitage in St. Petersburg; in fact, several movies including Reds had been filmed here back in the days when Soviet Leningrad was off-limits to Hollywood. Three sides of the square were lined with neo-classical government buildings, their yellow facades broken up by graceful, white columns. To the north, on a small hill, stood Helsinki’s Lutheran cathedral. Despite being an Evangelic Lutheran church, it was oddly reminiscent of a cathedral I’d visited in Moscow. From the inside, the similarities continued; the architecture was very Orthodox, yet its adornments were strikingly spartan, its walls and dome nothing but whitewash.
“Uh oh,” Suzanne said as I looked around. “The police are here.” I looked up and saw a shady looking man staring at us, his hands deep in his pockets. I was about to whisper to them and ask how long he’d been watching us, but then I heard several people talking near the end of the aisle. A woman was standing there talking with several uniformed policemen. Oh, those police. That other guy must have just been a tourist. Silly me.
Around noon we walked a few blocks down the Esplanade until we arrived at Café Strindberg. Strindberg had been somewhat of an inside joke between us because of the hilarious website Strindberg & Helium, so it seemed like the perfect place to stoke up on caffeine. Even though it was now lunchtime, my stomach wasn’t on Finnish standard time yet, so rather than get a full meal, Suzanne and I split an almond meringue cookie while Susanne ordered a gingerbread man.
As we waited for our coffees, we walked over to a table and put down our coats and backpack. “Yes, you may join me,” a middle-aged Finnish man said to us unexpectedly; he was actually at the next table, but apparently we’d entered his sphere of influence. We all smiled and thanked him, but he continued to speak loudly.
“I am the colonel,” he boasted. I soon caught a whiff of the alcohol on his breath. “At least I was the colonel, but they call me the colonel to this day. And before I was the lieutenant.” The three of us all smiled and nodded awkwardly, not knowing how to react. “But you may call me the Tiger, because pretty ladies like to say I am the Tiger.” Meanwhile, all of our stuff was planted on the chairs below us, and we were afraid the Colonel/ex-Lieutenant/Tiger would react in some unsuspected way if we suddenly turned tail. Fortunately we still had to pick up our drinks to talk it over.
“I think we should grab a table on the opposite side of the café,” I said, not very comfortable with our inebriated soldier.
“Oh, he’s harmless,” Suzanne replied, shrugging it off.
“Yeah, he probably is harmless, but I doubt we’ll be able to have a conversation of our own if we stay there.”
Indeed, when we returned to bring some glasses of water to the table, the Colonel waste no time addressing us. “I see you are back, my lady friends,” he said, paying no attention to me. “Yes, you may call me the Tiger, though I am a colonel as well….”
By now, our coffees were waiting for us on the counter, so we all had another opportunity to step away for a moment. “Okay, I don’t know if I’ll be able to take this,” I said. “Let’s grab that table and I’ll walk back to the old one, grab all our stuff, and wish him a nice day.”
“What if there’s too much stuff for you to carry?” Susanne asked. “Make two trips?”
“Nah, I should be able to carry it all,” I replied.
I arrived at the old table and was horrified to realize that I actually couldn’t carry all of the stuff we’d left there. Fortunately, Susanne appeared from behind and gathered up the pieces I couldn’t fit in my hands. The Colonel was now talking to us in Finnish, slurping down another gulp of his beer. Trying to make this painful as possible, I tried to act as if we were leaving the café altogether. “It was nice meeting you,” I said to him, with a polite finality.
“And you as well,” he replied with a throaty laugh, before polishing off the round with an enormous gulp.
Safely surrounded by a group of more typically taciturn Finns, the three of us got cozy with our coffees and slowly tore into our meringue and gingerbread cookies. The coffees were sizable enough to give our extremities time to warm up from the early winter chill, so by the time the café’s lunchtime crowd arrived to take our table, we were sufficiently heated to go back outside without complaint. The sun was now as high as it would get in the southern sky — high enough to produce a rusty orange daylight but still too low to peak above the three-story buildings along the other side of the Esplanade. The mid-day dusk had warmed the air somewhat, and the morning breeze had vanished, so we decided to take a ferry from the eastern harbor to the island of Sveaborg, home to the massive Swedish imperial fort now known as Suomenlinna.
We reached the ferry docks and went inside to buy tickets, but the office was closed on Sundays; instead, the three of us would have to buy tickets from a vending machine. On one side of the building we found instructions in English recommending we buy a round-trip ticket for 3.60 euros. On the exact opposite side of the buildings, we found the vending machines, but none of them seemed to offer any kind of round-trip ticket. However, there was one type of ticket that was offered for 3.40 Euros; was that the price we’d just read on the other side? Rather than run around the building and check, we bought three of them. After the tickets popped out, we went inside to sit on a bench. Just above the bench, I spotted the same signed we’d first seen outside. As I feared, the roundtrip ticket was 3.60 Euros. None of us could figure out exactly what our mistaken tickets were for, but at least they were more expensive than a one-way ticket; hopefully that would be good enough for the ticket agents on the ferry. Otherwise we could always plead North American ignorance and hope they wouldn’t fine us.
By now, a crowd of around 50 people had gathered to board the ferry, which was pulling towards the dock. All of us piled onto the ferry as soon as its previous passengers had cleared away. As tempted as I was to suggest that we sit on the outer deck, the inner deck seemed like a more sensible course of action, even though the ride itself wouldn’t be much more than 15 minutes.
The ferry took us past several small islands dotted with a handful of late 19th century buildings before arriving at Suomenlinna. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Suomenlinna is spread over two islands: a smaller, northern island where the local church, brewery and residences were located, and a larger, southern island that serves as home to the primary fortifications.
The ferry dropped us off at a dock along the northern island, just across from the old brewery. The long, thin building had been converted into an art gallery, café kiosk and buffet restaurant. We were getting a little hungry so we checked out the buffet — a typical Scandinavian smorgasbord with pickled and smoked fish, meatballs, salads and a variety of potatoes. Suzanne and I were happy with it but Susanne didn’t seem as thrilled, so we decided we’d check out the adjacent café. But since we were already inside the main hall of the brewery, we decided to step into the art gallery first.
The gallery of modern Finnish art was spread out over two rooms. The first room featured mostly paintings and mixed media work. The most interesting piece was a low, rectangular copper table with several dripping glass funnels suspended above it. Each funnel had a valve on it, so the water would drip out at different intervals. The copper table was connected to a heating element, so each water droplet would burst and evaporate upon impact, accompanied by a sizzle as valediction. Hours upon hours of slow dripping had left a series of concentric circular stains on the copper plating.
The second room’s collection was even more unusual. Upon entering the room you were greeted by a collection of baby dolls crawling on the floor, with a kitten doll appearing to climb up the side of a wall. Upon closer inspection I realized they were actually demons, half human and half animal. To the right of the demonic babies was a large façade featuring a portrait of a woman, interspersed with glass lenses that poked through the portrait. On the opposite side of the façade I found a large sheet of acid-etched glass with a rough, translucent surface. All over the surface you could see eerie, upside-side down apparitions of the opposite side of the room, including the demonic babies and other gallery visitors. The lenses and the etched glass were acting as a camera obscura, like an array of photo lenses reflecting upside-down inside their cameras. Across the room, Susanne stood below a giant hooded cape suspended in the air; the cape was comprised solely of pine-cones, reminiscent of the creepy creatures in M. Night Shyamalan’s film, The Village. Contributing to the overall creepiness was a film projector playing a reel of surreal images accompanied by a haunting soundtrack. The soundtrack pervaded the entire room, probably causing few more hairs to stand up on the back of my neck each time I looked at the demonic babies — particularly through the camera obscura.
Leaving the gallery we walked north along the long side of the brewery until we reached the café, hoping to find a light meal. Instead, we discovered was what actually a mini-mart that sold groceries, six packs of sodas and stale pastries. Since most of the fort’s restaurants were closed for the winter, we concluded it was better to eat at the smorgasbord than traipse halfway across the island in search of other good options. So we returned to the restaurant and dug into the buffet. The smoked salmon and meatballs were particularly delicious.
After lunch, we took a brief walk to the fortress on the other side of the island. The next ferry was departing in about 45 minutes, and we didn’t want to stick around for another hour waiting the next ferry, given that darkness would set in soon after 4pm. We walked up and down the hill of the northern island, past the old church and a series of old wooden houses, sloping down to a bridge leading us to the fort. The fort itself was enormous; we could have easily spent hours exploring its nooks and crannies, imagining regiments of Russian soldiers withstanding British bombardment during the Crimean War. Instead, we had just enough time to walk through the bowels of an underground passage, featuring a series of dark hallways with only a handful of windows granting us light.
It was just prior to 3:30pm, and we had about 15 minutes to get to the ferry dock. At first I was a little concerned we were cutting it too close for comfort, but we arrived with more than five minutes to spare. Suzanne took advantage of it by running over to the café for a couple of coffees to go, while Susanne and I bought ferry tickets from the vending machine. We then boarded the ferry for the 15-minute trip back to the harbor, which was more than enough time for all of us to get a little sleepy. The chilly walk from the harbor back to our hotel did little to energize us; Susanne was eager for a nap. So we split off from Suzanne and made tentative plans to grab dinner sometime after 7pm.
Back at the hotel, Susanne wasted no time falling fast asleep, while I jumped on the public Internet terminal in the lobby to take a break from going online through my mobile phone. After checking email and posting a short update on my blog, I came back to the room and decided to take advantage of the whirlpool bath, a surprisingly luxury in what was otherwise a rather modest hotel. The water was steaming hot and filled the tub quickly; just for fun I through in a bit of shampoo for a bubble bath, which seemed like a good way to relax and warm up my chilled feet.
At first the bath didn’t foam up very well, so I added a little more shampoo, then turned on the whirlpool jets. Everything went as expected for a minute or two, then suddenly the bubbly surface of the water began to rise. And rise. I suddenly realized the combination of shampoo and water jets were turning the bath into a soapy volcano science fair project. I jumped up and shut off the water jets but the foam continued to rise, poking well above the rim of the bathtub and sloshing down the side. Now on the verge of panic, I fumbled through the suds like a blind man at a foam party until I found the drain valve. Finally, I managed to get the drain open, but this only stopped the foam from rising even higher; rather, the foam remained well above the rim of the bathtub, stubbornly refusing to flush down the drain.
Now I was in a bit of a pickle. There was no water left in the bath, yet I was sitting in the tub with three feet of foam. I could have been wearing a prom dress and knee-high clam digger’s boots for all anyone would know, but the foam was so thick all you could see were suds. Sitting up in the tub it nearly reached my shoulders. After a few minutes it became clear that the foam wasn’t going to disperse on its own, so I slowly turned on the shower and began to spray the shower head systematically in neat little rows, like I was mowing the lawn. At first it seemed like I was making no progress, simply relocating the foam from one position to another, but eventually I began to see the level drop, a fraction of an inch at a time.
After 20 minutes, most of the foam was now down the drain, though some of it had seemed from the drain to the bathroom floor, due to a design flaw in the drainage system. (It drained water perfectly well, but they must have never envisioned some American tourist wanting to take a spur-of-the-moment bubble bath.) Before shutting off the shower I had to rinse myself several times, as I could still feel small bubbles bursting in my ears. I felt like I was being cleaned after a hazmat incident. Even once I’d thought I’d gotten myself completely clear of the bubbly evidence, I stepped out of the shower and saw a mass of foam on my shoulder. The bubbles insisted on having the last laugh.
Susanne was still fast asleep, so after getting dressed I got on my laptop and journaled for about an hour. I woke her up around 6:45pm and called Suzanne to see if she was available for dinner; we had a hankering for Thai food. Our guidebook gave a strong recommendation to a place called MaiThai, so the three of us met in the hotel lobby and walked several blocks to the restaurant. We quickly discovered that it was fully booked, its half-a-dozen tabled reserved for the rest of the night. The restaurant was so small there was no room for us to stand around and figure out our next move, so we stepped outside in the cold night air while I thumbed through my guidebook trying to figure out another option.
“Can I help you at all,” asked a young Finnish man who was smoking a cigarette with his girlfriend.
“We’re looking for another Thai restaurant, since this one is booked,”
“There is supposed to be a very good one several blocks from here, but I haven’t tried it because it is very expensive,” he replied.
If even a Finn thinks it’s expensive, God save us, I thought to myself. “Sure, we can check it out,” I replied.
“Walk three blocks until you reach the Boulevard, then go right; it is not far from there.”
“Thanks,” I said to him; “Kiitos,” Suzanne added.
We walked towards the Boulevard, wondering aloud just what he’d meant by “expensive.” I guess we’d find out in a few minutes. But by the time we reached the restaurant, the darkness emanating from inside made it painfully apparent that the restaurant wasn’t open on Sundays.
By now, the three of us were getting rather cold, somewhat hungry and a little desparate. I’d remembered that one of the pamphlets listed another Thai restaurant a couple blocks south of the Esplanade, up the street from last night’s Russian restaurant, so I offered a plan. “Let’s try this one other place. As we walk there, if we see any other place that looks good, let’s just go there. If we see other places that look adequate, let’s just make a mental note in case we have to backtrack. But otherwise I think we should give it a shot.”
There were no objections; Suzanne knew of a few places in that neighborhood, so at least we’d have some options. The three of us walked another 10 or 15 minutes, passing one of Suzanne’s recommendations — which actually turned out to be closed on Sunday as well. I was getting a little nervous, since Helsinki kitchens often don’t stay open terribly late, particularly on Sundays, and I really didn’t want to have to eat Finnish pub grub if we could avoid it. Finally, we reached the street where I was hoping we’d find the restaurant. Third time was indeed the charm for us, for the Ryan Thai Restaurant was open for business, with tables available.
Freezing and famished, we ordered two batches of spring rolls for us to nosh on while we thumbed through the menu. The three of us split an order of pad thai, chicken with basil and shrimp with vegetables, served was a generous portion of steamed rice. We spent the evening lounging the restaurant, splitting our conversation between work and travel adventures, until we realized it was approaching 10pm. As soon as I handed the waiter my credit card, lights began to shut off across the restaurant. The three of us were in such deep conversation the whole time, none of us had realized that we were the last customers in the restaurant, and they were waiting for us to leave so they could shut down for the night. Somewhat embarrassed, we offered apologies simultaneously in English, Finnish and Thai, each of which the waiter responded to in the appropriate language.
We returned to the hotel just before 10:30 and said our goodbyes to Suzanne. Tomorrow Susanne and I would catch a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to our next destination, Estonia’s medieval capital, Tallinn…. -andy