Finland: New Eyes Born

by Kenneth Rayman on July 4, 2017
While I technically didn’t put a whole lot of thought into my Finland stay, I’ve been intrigued by Scandinavia just as long as Russia. I knew St. Petersburg was a short train ride from Helsinki so when my travel agent asked where I wanted to go other than Russia, I threw a dart at the map; however, that’s also been one of my goals for my life, to be able to throw a dart at the map and say, “That’s where I’m vacationing this year.”

Since I knew I’d only be there for a few days I thought, I’ll just walk around and enjoy the sights. I even made the Facebook post that I couldn’t resist, the clip of Spongebob’s Patrick Star screaming, “Finland!!!” showing more that I didn’t really think about the destination. Immediately though, I felt that I had travelled back in time. The architecture was classic and timeless, making use of every inch of space and it was the neatest thing to walk on the cobblestone streets. It amazed me that I needed to take my coat off in an area associated with cold but I quickly learned once the sun goes down, you better have it on.

I walked around trying to decipher my map; I didn’t know to unlock my phone before leaving the US so I was left to my own devices, another reason I decided to just take in the sights. I was taking photographs when I noticed I was standing in front of a gate with a soldier in a guard shack. I felt I didn’t want to take a picture of something important for fear of protective precautions. I looked at my map and found that my hotel was a few blocks down from the Finnish Presidential Palace and was where I now stood. I felt like I was standing out the gate of my own White House and took in the moment. I found the people walking around me to be interesting in just the way they walked, going about their days the way anyone sure did. I wondered about the expense of living in the big city and whether it was the same as the US and whether it weighed on their minds the same way as mine.

That night I talked with the bartender a little about what to see in my final day and a half there. She gave me a few recommendations and obliged my cultural curiosity. I wanted to ask more but I wasn’t sure what to say so I just “people watched” until it got late. The next morning, I went for breakfast and tried a dish I had heard about ever since I studied European culture, pickled herring which was oddly good though not something I’d want every day. I wanted to try as much non-American cuisine as possible so I asked the front desk about some traditional food recommendations and got one for a restaurant on Senate Square.

I had lunch where they recommended and tried a dish of Bear and potatoes with lingonberry pudding and ice cream, walked around Senate Square and found some interesting landmarks. One of which was a statue of Alexander II of Russia. To my understanding Finland and Russia had a stand-offish relationship, from little tidbits I had read, former annexation I knew of, and of regional knowledge such as Sweden’s naval power of the late 17th Century.

That night, back at the bar, the same bartender was eager to hear what I had experienced for the day. When I told her about my lunch, she said that it wasn’t exactly Finnish but more Russian; when I mentioned that I was shocked to find a Russian Tsar commemorated in Senate Square, she smiled and asked, “Whhhyyy???” I told her that I just didn’t know much about Finland’s history with Russia and my knowledge of Alexander didn’t extend to foreign relations. Her answer spoke that I should research the reason for Alexander’s presence in Finland. She said however that Finland really tries to think about what it wants to do in the world, that they tend to think too much and when they decide to make a decision, normally it’s been made for them or it has passed. A kind of go with the flow mentally, I thought.

As I sat and thought about what I was seeing, experiencing and had been thinking (occasionally worrying about work), I reminded myself, I was in Finland experiencing life and not worrying about anything of consequence. I wasn’t worried about what was going on back home. I wasn’t worried about politics, religion, right vs left, Conservative vs Liberal, and anytime I was worrying about work I reminded myself, “You’re in Finland! Realize how special this is!” I was watching people go about their lives seemingly without a care beyond what was in front of them and I had just heard that was part of the Finnish ethos. Sure, they had the same worries as I did probably, but did they seem to concern themselves with something they couldn’t control? From observation, no; except for the Nationalist camp that had set up on the public square to protest the refugee immigration, theirs was a life of personal forward focus.

I had started the process of what they say happens when you travel, you see yourself and your home through new eyes. I would later realize on the way home, looking across the Dutch countryside, the wind turbines on the sea, and the conversation I was having with a retired Russian Neurosurgeon turned travel blogger, that I could make a start at this and experience a life that would benefit me immensely and possibly lend a glimmer of light in a very discouraged, agonized and somewhat antagonized and angry home. And it all started in Finland.