22-28 July 2013

At 6 o’clock on Monday evening I arrive back in Helsinki which I left a week earlier. Helsinki is the city where I grew up, except for my 3 earliest years when we lived in Vantaa, and it holds many precious memories for me. Technically I am not staying in Helsinki, since my aunt Pirkko (my mother’s other sister) lives in Espoo (part of the Capital Region), but it is Helsinki I have come to see. After my week of train travel I am happy to step off my final train for this holiday and settle my things at Pirkko’s place for a week. But no travel does not mean I do not have a busy schedule.

On Tuesday we visit my godmother Miikku at her allotment garden cottage in Oulunkylä. Miikku was my mother’s best friend since secondary school and is the person in the world who most reminds me of my mother. It is as if their long friendship made them grow alike. When my mother was alive they spoke on the telephone almost daily and competed who could complete the week’s Helsining Sanomat crossword first. Miikku has a direct and rather blunt manner which might be construed as rude if you do not know her, and she bosses her partner Juhani around mercilessly. Her storytelling skills almost match my mother’s, and we laugh as she entertains us with stories about her daughter’s and grandchildren’s adventures in Shanghai.

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Next day it is time to meet my childhood friend Maria. Me and my sister met Maria at our kindergarten after we moved to Helsinki, when I was 3 years old. We lived on opposite sides of the street for another 3 years and then two blocks away from each other. We went to school together until I moved to Brussels and have kept in touch for all the years we have been gone, although somewhat sporadically. Together with my sister, Maria and their boyfriends we take a walk down memory lane by visiting our old neighbourhood. Firstly we pass by our old primary school and walk through the park that we descended every day to come to school. On top of the park towers St John’s Church.

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From there we walk towards where we used to live. On the way we pass Café Success, famous for its large and delicious korvapuusti (Finnish cinnamon roll). We used to go to the café every year after the end of school to celebrate the start of the summer holidays. The café is also connected to a lovely memory from my childhood. Every day when passing it on our way home from primary school we would be drawn by the smell of the korvapuusti. One day the three of us (me, Maria and my sister) were standing in the doorway sniffing greedily when a woman passing by offered to buy one for each of us. In honour of all the good memories we have tea and coffee and korvapuusti at Café Succes before continuing our walk.

The neighbourhood of Ullanlinna where I spent my childhood is known for its beautiful Jugend Style (Art Nouveau) buildings. The buildings are decorated with decorative artwork, bay windows and small turrets.

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We always lived near the shore and used to spend our summer days on the small island of Uunisaari which is located just off the mainland. We would play on the rocks and go swimming from the small beach.

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Further along the shore we pass by a mattolaituri (carpet washing pier). In Finland it is still common for people to bring their carpets to these community owned piers to wash them. Using environmentally friendly soap and sea water you scrub your carpet and hang it to dry on the drying frame on the shore. Then you can come by and pick it up the next day when it is dry. I am not sure if any carpets or rugs are ever stolen, but knowing how law-abiding most Finnish people are, I assume it is quite rare.

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After a good while walking along the shore we walk through Kaivopuisto park and onto Tähtitorninmäki (Observatory Hill). At that point we receive a call informing us that Sirkka’s youngest daughter, Reetta, is at Pirkko’s place to see us, so our time is up. We hug and promise to keep in touch. Back at Pirkko’s place we have a nice meal, exchanging news with Reetta.

The following day it is time for me to meet another friend, Marie. I was best friends with Marie for the final two years of primary school but have not seen her since I left. Me and Marie were the two bookworms of the class; she tall with brown curly hair and glasses, me short with blond hair and only a squint to show my advancing myopia. It is 17 years since I last saw her and she has not changed much. She is still calm and caring and she has a family, as I always imagined she would. We sit at Café Esplanad and talk about our childhood days, her family and our dogs, and complain about work and neighbours. 

After seeing Marie I walk down towards Kauppatori (Market Square) where Jugend architecture gives way to neo-classical buildings. These are the quarters that inspired cold war era Hollywood movie-makers to use Helsinki as a stand-in for Russia, since access was quite a lot easier.

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The most famous building on the Helsinki sky-line is Tuomiokirkko (literally Judgement Church, known as Helsinki Cathedral). The cathedral, designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, was built in 1830-1852 in honour of Tsar Nicholas I, then Grand Duke of Finland.

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After this small sight-seeing I head for the bookstores. My favourite bookstore in Helsinki is Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, the biggest bookstore in the Nordic countries. It is designed by Alvar Aalto, and an example of the modern architecture Finland is famous for, although when I enter I do not so much see the building as I see books, books and more books. There are about 450 000 of them in total, including a large English language section and books in several other languages. Unfortunately they are renovating, and their Swedish section is quite meager at the moment. I am specifically looking for Nordic crime fiction in Swedish, to accompany the dark rainy autumn and winter months.

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Since I cannot find what I am looking for I head for Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, which is just a block away. It is not as big as Akateeminen and has a smaller Swedish section, and as I expected I cannot find what I am looking for. My last hope is the little Pocket Shop in the Central station, and to my joy it delivers. On the way I also mange to pick up some good winter shoes, so I am all set for the upcoming dreary seasons in Belgium.

My last two days in Helsinki are more relaxing and I mainly stay at aunt Pirkko’s place. My cousin Taina is also visiting from Kuopio with her son, and on Saturday three of Pirkko’s children arrive, with some partners and children in tow. It becomes a joyful reunion with lots of noise as five young boys play out on the lawn. I think it is a perfect ending to what has been a good holiday.