Helsinki has always been on my radar, but it was always one of the trips I would eventually get around to. That all changed when I was invited by Helsinki Secret Residence to come and spend 6 days in Helsinki and explore what the city had to offer. I had no idea what to expect. But what I discovered was more exciting that I could have imagined and I one thing I can tell you for sure is that a week is not long enough to explore everything this beautiful city has to offer, nor is it enough time to explore the country of Finland, two different worlds depending on what season you visit it.
I arrived in Helsinki on a quiet Monday afternoon in a beautiful winter wonderland. I took the train from the airport right into the city centre. The HSL Travel Card allows you to take the train and use public transit and you can buy the pass for a week, month or however long you plan on staying. It’s extremely convenient. I stayed at Aallonkoti residence, just steps from the train station. The great thing about staying in an apartment is that you can live and explore the city like a local. You can also check out the grocery stores (one of my favourite things to do in a new country) and cook some meals at home. When you are constantly traveling like I am, it helps to have a place that feels like home for a week or two to keep you grounded and a home cook meal doesn’t hurt either. #HelEats was nice enough to bring me some groceries with all of the local goods including amazing coffee from Good Life Coffee, some of the best “healthy” chocolates I have ever tasted from Goodie Chocolate (They also have beautiful branding, and it makes a really nice gift), some polar night cap sleepy time tea from Nord-T, smoked salmon, cheese, yogurt and some of the best melt in your mouth butter I’ve had the pleasure of consuming. In case you didn’t know, it gets dark extremely early in Finland in November, so, I waited for my friend Jenn who was meeting me in Helsinki, tired from my flight and all of the traveling I’ve been doing recently we made dinner at home caught up on life. Afterwards I curled up with a cozy blanket and a good movie and drifted off to sleep.
The next day we got up bright and early determined to get our day started and not miss out on anything. We had breakfast at home and went to the University of Helsinki for a meeting with Milja Saari, she is an equal pay gender equality consultant with trade unions and workplaces and she has studied and published her PHD on equal pay in Finland, and Timo Valtonen, a secretary with the planning team on gender equality for the university, on gender equality, the wage gap and the current state of Feminism. The goal of this committee is to promote equality between men and women, strengthen pro-equality attitudes, opinions and structures at the university, prepare an equality plan, monitor development of equality and issue statements on basic issues pertaining to equality or discrimination. The challenge they face is universal. It is to raise more awareness about the issue and to get people to become more involved and active. Many around the world, and Finland is no exception, think the fight for feminism and equal rights and pay has been fought and won. While Finland is among the top countries (second most gender equal) it still has a little way to go and Milja is worried that this trend may actually start to regress. As she pointed out, with the current government there is actually a decline of women in politics. So what does equal pay look like and mean? Well to start with a mother and father should be able to share the burden of parental leave. There is not always a job to go back to after taking maternity leave if you do not have a permanent position and this is one way companies have been avoiding taking responsibility for their workers.
I has some burning questions I wanted to get Milja’s perspective on. These are a few of them. “It’s 2016 and women’s rights have not moved forward as much as we had hoped and in some cases they have regressed, what are some of the steps we can take to move the needle forward?” Milija pointed out that we need more grassroots feminist activism and women’s organizations. The biggest problem is that people think we have already achieved our goals but we haven’t. As a consultant and trainer her job is to make people but the gender glasses on. Because once you put them on, you can’t take them off. She wants to make gender issues more visible, have discussions and debates. She does this by using training and workshops that allow people to analyze things from their own surroundings and everyday life. This gives people the tools they need on how to analyze and pose the questions, and then you need to give them the time and space to have that lightbulb moment. Only then, she points out, can you begin to educate.
Ironically, Milja’s thesis is currently under attack by a men’s rights group (because we don’t live in a patriarchal society and men’s rights groups are totally necessary. *My eyes are rolling all the way back in my head as I am typing this). The main problem Milja points out is gender blindness. Take a moment to think about who makes the systems and who applies them. Feminism is a bad word in Finland (I assured her this is not just the case in Finland) We need to remove the stigma from that word. How do we push forward? Mobilize, organize and make loud protests. Another problem she points out is that a new generation of feminists are very critical of the old. They are fighting so hard against each other that they are failing to fight together. So another question we need to be asking is how can we all work together without insulting one another or being insulted?
I took up an inspiring two hours of her time, an hour longer than scheduled. I thanked Milja and Timo for their time and then Jenn and I went to wander around a few museums and check out the main shopping district before a delicious sushi dinner and sushi bar + wine. I had been craving sushi for a while and it was totally worth the wait. We headed back to the aallonkoti residence to enjoy the sauna before bed. I have to say that my favourite thing about Finland is probably the sauna culture. There are 5 million inhabitants in Finland and more than 3 million saunas, just to give you an idea of how ingrained this custom is. I mean, this makes total sense for a country that shares its landmass with the arctic circle. Fins think of sauna not as a luxury, but as a necessity. And before modern hospitals and health care facilities, almost all Finnish women used to give birth in the saunas. It is customary to shower, sit in the steam room naked (some public saunas will allow bathing suits), water is then thrown on hot stoves to warm the sauna. When you get too hot you then jump in the lake, a pool or the sea or you take another shower and repeat. This is also true in the winter where a hole is cut in the ice and you can take a dip in the freezing water or roll around in the snow before jumping back into the sauna. After sauna I’m always ready to take a shower, get cozy and drift off to sleep.
On Wednesday morning, we got up and went to Ateneum museum, just down the street from where we were staying and then we had a fabulous 3 course lunch at Pihka. After lunch we I had an interview at Radio Helsinki (I feel a bit like a big deal) you can listen to it here:
After the interview and some amazing ice cream across the street we decided we would warm up at Löyly an amazing sauna on the Baltic sea. Do Not! I repeat, do not leave Helsinki without visiting this place! It’s absolutely beautiful and you will have a new found appreciation for the sauna culture. The Fins are onto something here. Make sure you make a reservation as spots, even on a Wednesday night, fill up quickly. We loved the sauna but we were not brave enough to dip into the freezing cold Baltic Sea. Instead we sat by the fire and sipped on Lonkero or Finnish long drink a fermented drink which tastes similar to a gin and grapefruit in between saunas and then we went home and slept like babies.
Thursday was a busy day filled with more museums, galleries and delicious food. The highlight of Thursday for me was the museum of modern art, Kiasma. I absolutely loved the exhibit by Meeri Koutaniemi and Arman Alizad – After the Turmoil. It is an exhibition about survival. It is about people who have endured great suffering yet who refuse to play the role of the victim. Instead, they have become proactive change-makers in their community. There are photographs by Meeri Koutaniemi displayed in three rooms on the first floor that focus on portray violence targeted at women in India and Kenya and refugees in Thailand and other parts of the world. They focus on individuals that have risen up despite the violence inflicted upon them and have become change makers in their communities. The exhibition is based on research that was conducted for a documentary series directed by Arman Alizad that aired on Finnish Television in autumn 2016. The exhibition also includes When the Hate Vanishes, a short film about the 2011 massacre in Norway. The exhibit was powerful and beautiful and I spent an hour on the first floor alone, soaking it all in. The second floor is filled with interesting modern art exhibits and on the third floor there was an exhibit by Mona Hatoum who was born in Beirut, Lebanon to Palestinian parents. Her work is characterized by conflict and contradictions. She creates a lot of her art out of hair which I found a bit disturbing. To continue with our theme of culture and the arts this day we attended a concert at the Helsinki Music Hall.
Friday morning we were up before the sun to visit the construction of the new Think Corner at, facilities at Yliopistonkatu 4 part of the downtown campus of the University of Helsinki. The Think Corner is a co-working space and innovation centre and it is free for everyone! The facilities are scheduled to open in 2017 and will include a centre for scientific events, a café, a restaurant, and meeting rooms and open work spaces. It will also include a water fountain. Finland has some of the purest water in the world, so tourists and locals alike can stop into the think corner, learn more about the university, get some work done and fill up their water bottles, all in this central downtown location. The design of the building is made from wood and recyclable material. During the renovation process 93% of the materials were either recycled or reused. Everything was locally sourced, except for the double glass, large windows, which are coming from Germany. As someone who works as a digital nomad I am always looking for interesting, innovative and cost effective places to work when I am in a new city. I cannot wait to come back and visit Helsinki again when this project is finished.
After the meeting we grabbed some coffee and a snack and went to catch the 10:30am Tallink ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. We took the beautiful Tallink Shuttle Superstar and spent the day exploring Tallinn, eating a an amazing lunch at Vegan Restorn V and drinking Glugg at the Christmas Market, before getting back on the ferry and returning home.
Saturday was our last full day in Helsinki. We spent the morning having a traditional Finnish brunch at Ekberg and exploring the market and the waterfront. It was pretty chilly that day so we decided we would take a dip in the Allas Sea Pool and Sauna. We spent a few hours warming up in the sea pool and then went to the roof top bar at hotel Torni to admire the best view in the city and enjoy a few drinks. It gets dark around 3:30-4pm in the winter time so after admiring the view for a while we went to have late lunch at Puttes bar a trendy pizza joint in the design district. They have amazing pizza and a few local beers on tap to choose from. After lunch we wandered the downtown core and eventually ended up at Meripaviljonki a beautiful round glass restaurant on the shoreline of the Baltic Sea. We tried some traditional Finnish food and a wine pairing. I had reindeer for dinner, and Jenn had Arctic Char. I would absolutely recommend bringing clients there for a business meeting, having a nice family meal or going for dinner to impress a date. The restaurant has a beautiful view and the food is delicious.
Sadly, Sunday was our last morning in Helsinki. A week is not enough to explore all of the interesting museums, the cozy cafes or the foodie scene and although I was flying to a slightly warmer destination I really didn’t want to leave. I went to have a final lunch with Jenn at Naughty BRGR and had one last meal before we both had to catch our flights. I will absolutely be back to Helsinki. I would love to discover Finland in the summer time. It is possible the Helsinki is Finland’s Best Kept Secret and I can’t wait to discover it again.