When I walked by the Fazer chocolate shop and teahouse, there were two young women standing outside, shivering in heavy coats and aprons. “Do you have hot chocolate?” I asked them in English. They nodded enthusiastically: yes! And for free! So I had some hot chocolate and drank it while looking for the Kappeli, where I was meeting my afternoon appointment, a professor from the Greek Institute.
What a great welcome to Helsinki. And in February, too.
My first full day in Finland was a busy one. At breakfast I met Teemu, who came with two of his children. He was to be my “barefoot” (as the Helsinki locals call themselves) guide. But a last minute situation meant we could only visit over breakfast. “I love Thunder Bay,” he confided. “I go there often. Canada is a good country. Almost great.” He smiled, that same quiet, ironic smile I’ve seen on so many Finns. Waiting for me to get the joke.
I bought a one-day transit pass and hopped the #9 streetcar to the Kallio area. I was treated to lunch and my first Laskiaispulla, or Shrove Tuesday bun, by Heidi R., a pastor, journalist and passionate interfaith worker. The pulla was amazing – but really, really hard to eat! And hard to eat during a radio interview. We spoke about Finns in Canada and the USA, my two documentaries, and the Camino de Santiago. The interview, once edited, is supposed to be aired on Finnish national public radio at some point in the next few months.
After, Heidi took me on a quick tour of a building I’d passed and wanted to see, the Kallio Church. The style, inside and out, is “Finnish Art Nouveau”, says the pamphlet. It looks a lot like Art Deco to me. It’s beautiful, and I loved the altarpiece of Jesus with the local working people of the neighbourhood.
Then it was back downtown by metro to meet Mari R-S, an academic whose work I had seen in the library and whom I had contacted. She brought her new four-month baby, and I managed to steal some time to hold him while we talked about tourism and pilgrimage. We also talked about rashes, and allergies and how much babies sleep (or don’t)! There was more Laskiaispulla, which of course had to be eaten.
After Mari left I walked up to the Cathedral. There was a pastor sitting in the corner, to whom I introduced myself. She seemed a bit confused, but friendly. “You’re what? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?” I told her I wasn’t quite sure how it works, but that it does. She smiled and shook my hand. I’m not sure she believed me, just showing up like that, unannounced. Finns would never do that.
On the way back to my hotel I did some tourist shopping, and then had just enough time to change before meeting Kati B, a former church council member from the Finnish church in Montreal, and Mari T, a journalist who worked at Isien Usko and Kanadan Sanomat, for dinner. Both have now returned to Finland. Over salmon burgers and fish we talked about Canada and Finland, about how long one can be away before they ‘stop being Finnish’ and how long it takes to be Finnish again after coming home. “Maybe our generation is more used to this in-between feeling of never completely belonging in any one place,” said Mari. I believe that in our globalized world, that might be true of many people.
After dessert I walked the two of them to their tram. Tomorrow I fly to Rovaniemi. I’m thankful that the Suomi Conference has sent me here “to experience Finnish culture”. There seemed to be quite a bit happening, even in what was just my first day!