Saturday, 5 March 2011

Helsinki: words and pictures

Helsinki in the summer feels almost like Barcelona. Running away from the waterfront is a delightful narrow strip park. Within it the Finns disport themselves in the sunshine. Opposite a beautiful antique coffee house a band stand plays host to all manner of music making and further along the park you can hear music students plying their potential trade. As Vivaldi is to Venice; so Sibelius is to Finland and here I have twice come across a violinist playing the Sibelius violin concerto; ambition and talent combining in each instance. The atmosphere is quite like La Rambla, but with only marginal chances of being pick pocketed.

Finland has a long established culture but is in a sense a young country. It has no royal family and evinces total fascination in the doings of the royalty of its erstwhile invaders Sweden. The royal wedding there last year provoked wall to wall media coverage and endless TV repeats of the wedding all over Finland.

Part of its deliberately 'created' identity, which dates back to the start of the 19th century, is its architecture. Here is a kind of spin on Art Deco with Folk edges. Although an invented style, it has produced pleasing and engaging architecture with a human face, often literally. Although not part of Scandinavia, Finland is Nordic, it has a love of nature and its most famous mythic literature, the Kullervo, parallels the Viking sagas of the further Western countries feeding strongly through into this created architectural style.

My wife and I have spent several holidays here and on one occasion went into a corner shop and got chatting to the black Frenchman who was running it. He expressed that the Finns were totally different in Winter from the friendly, jolly people we see in the Summer. Introverted, depressed, inclined to being spiky and guarded. He felt the whole country was schoitzoid.

This past winter of 2010/11 has been an exceptionally cold and harsh one. Snow lying literally for months. A throwback to the time when the old folk were young. In the Winter, one resort for some is alcohol. There is an acknowledged problem in Finland with drink; the hard stuff is reserved for sale through the Government controlled Alko stores, usually an adjunct to the supermarkets. The price of drink is kept high. But for those in Helsinki, cheap drink is a cheap boat ride away. On the way over to Tallinn you are surrounded by duty-free and in that city the drink is sufficiently cheap to attract both Swedes and Finns who make the trip to stock up in a major way.

In the heat, it was fun to visit a Vodka Ice Bar. Enveloped in boots, robe with hood and mits, we enjoyed the novelty of sitting in ice chairs and drinking from glasses made of ice. It was refreshing, but the place was empty apart from visitors. No doubt the locals get more than their fill of sub zero when the visitors have, like the birds, flown away and the harbour ices over.

The first time I visited Helsinki I was being shown round by my Finnish friend. We were on a tram and suddenly he hauled me off it and frog marched me uphill into a square. He told me nothing but indicated that I was to go ahead into a big concrete bunker. I was a bit irritated, what was this about? We had been heading to the sea front for a walk around.

I went in and I don't think I have ever had more of a surprise. I was in a vast underground church, the Temppeliaukio (Rock) Church is built into a rock mound, the inside walls are mostly the exposed rock. The roof looks like a giant wok set into the building by long narrow pains of glass. It is stunning, I was silenced and filled with the emotion of stumbling, unprepared into one of the great buildings of the world.

By comparison, the cluttered interior decoration of the city's outpost Russian Orthodox church looks second rate.  But the Temppeliaukio is a wonderful space, full of light and warmed by the purple chairs and use of bronzed metallic panels. It has an atmosphere both welcoming and deeply serious. I was very recently in the Protestant Cathedral in Belfast, started around the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries. It was austere and cold in both temperature and in its complete absence of a spiritual presence; a vacuum, a husk of a building. This Helsinki building has a diametrically opposite atmosphere.

Another building worth a visit is the modern art gallery, the white inclines and ellipses provide a setting worth seeing in its own right. Generally the modern architecture is adventurous and misses the brutalist styles imposed elsewhere. They can enjoy and be proud of a lot of their new buildings. There is a quirkiness, playfulness and eccentricity within their nature which can pervade their outdoor spaces and the architecture.

The light really is somehow clearer and cleaner there. Sibelius captures the atmosphere of the country, the light and its landscape. A country that managed to give Communist Russia a bloody nose; for which they eventually paid by losing Karelia. It is still a grief to the older people who were brutally thrust out of their ancestral homeland. Sixty years later and they are not over it.

The people have a great affinity with their land, more so than most other peoples I have observed. So the exile is a physical and spritual loss to them. Many enjoy a heritage of folk songs, most of which are about nature, the land, the earth, the animals. Most are very poignant. An emotional and sometimes austere people. I was told they are hard to make friends with, but when you become a friend, it is to be taken into the family. I can attest to that latter and value those friendships enormously.

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