Dark Helsinki Days

When I first arrived here, my eternal optimism ruled my determinism to not allow the weather or seasons to affect my upbeat nature. That was a long time ago.

I kid you not – 9.30 am.

I have often wondered about Finns that leave their mother country behind for warmer climes during that time of year when not even Santa Claus can lure them back. Doesn’t one get used to the darkness and cold? Surely after spending most of one’s life in a place like this, one should have found coping mechanisms to alleviate the onset of gloom? Since snow seems to be more of a rarity than typical precipitation in Helsinki these days, the shadowy skies reveal dusk most of the day and night time shamelessly descends at around 3 pm. There is no light and whatever the Bible says about people loving darkness instead of light, taken out of context but anyway, it just ain’t true. We stumble along and try to find our way through these long, dark days and if we can afford it, we leave for Spain or Portugal where it’s all a lot jollier and friendlier and lighter and warmer than organised, well-run Finland can offer us. We live here because we work here and there’s no denying the fact that this angle of life is well taken care of in this egalitarian society. But it’s still ultimately the weather that has the upper hand and makes us dream of sunnier skies and smiles on the faces of the people walking by.

Still not kidding – 4 pm

No wonder the bars are full and no one’s laughing.

Violetta Teetor is a freelance journalist in Helsinki and President of the European Journalists Network, the Finnish section of the Association of European Journalists.

Fair and free democracy

Credit: www.quora.com

Most of us will agree that democracy, in whatever broken shape or form, is preferable to other ideologies that have been promulgated over the past few hundred years. There is a point though, where the noble narrative of the empowerment of every eligible citizen can be taken a step too far. We’ve just seen a bawdy Christmas party spree called ‘pikkujoulu’ in the vernacular, in which it has once more been demonstrated that not all elected officials are worthy of the trust imbued in them. Take for example Teuvo Hakkarainen, the truest Finn of the Finn Party formerly the True Finn Party, who has once again demonstrated his complete lack of self control and good manners. The Parliament of Finland joins in on the jollifications of the festive season by throwing a party. What should he do but grab no less than former Taekwondo Olympic athlete and MP Veera Ruoho of the National Coalition Party to firmly plant a French kiss on her. Needless to say, alcohol was the driving force behind his passion. This incident was and probably will not be the only one that can be blamed on the odd tipple too much. Two weeks before this, his expensive Audi came to blows with the barricading pillars at the entrance of the parking hall to Parliament House. He claims they ‘suddenly rose up and lifted the front of the car’.

Seriously, who votes for people like this? And he’s not the only one. The buffoonery that is politics has become the laughing stock in more than one country. Surely some basic education should at least be a premise for adding your name to a ballot? Teuvo Hakkarainen was first elected in 2011 which means that he’s not been elected once, but twice!

International House Helsinki

Now there are no excuses! It’s easy, simple and quick. Everything you need to know for your new life in Finland.

Under one roof

The bureaucrats have come up with a brand new idea which is brilliant. If you’ve just moved to this country and you’re totally confused as to jobs, registering, taxes, pensions, whatever the case may be, just pop over to the Magistrate’s Office at Albertinkatu 25 where you’ll find International House Helsinki. All the services you need to make a smooth transition into society, are here, under one roof.

A friendly face to answer your immigration questions

No more stuffy government office

The staff are friendly and seem like polyglots with the number of languages they speak. The atmosphere is fun, colourful and so simply laid out that even a monkey can find its way around the procedure. Services that are covered include:

Multilingual information and counselling

Advisory and counselling for employers

Registration, personal identity code and change of address

Tax card/number and tax info

Social security and benefits

General info about TE (employment)

Registering as a job seeker

Pension insurance and A1 certificate from abroad

Employee rights advice

Where to learn Finnish

Step by step instructions to get you through the process

App

Use the app to make an appointment and find out what documents you will need to bring along. Go to App Store and look for Service Advisor App.

Moving at the best of times is a stressful operation and moving from one country to another can test your limits. With help like this, you are assured of the fact that everything is in order and that you’re doing the right thing. Relocating to Finland’s a breeze, if you can stand the weather.

Link:

International House Helsinki

A Walk on the Wild Side

A train and bus ride takes you a world away from the hustle and bustle of Helsinki city where you can experience Finnish nature, virtually and physically. Haltia Nature Centre transports you within its environmentally friendly wooden walls to the treasures of Finland’s natural wonders. Everything is well done and attention to detail is stunning.

Nou hätä – no panic but the real caption says, “If anyone asks, you haven’t seen me.”

Look up, look down, look around you as you go through a winter wonderland where a bear is feeding on the meat of a ‘fallen’ reindeer, where you can listen to the sounds of nightlife in the forest and experience the rush of rapids and see what goes on underneath the water’s surface. The panorama display keeps on changing, revealing all 5 seasons from polar night to summer. Enter the giant Duck’s Egg and see Osmo Rauhala’s installation of white swans playing chess on a randomly-changing board. Pat the snoring, sleeping bear in its den and look through the bird hold to see who the next visitor might be.

‘Now this sucks’ – part of an hilarious exhibition at Haltia.

It makes you hungry for the real thing which is easy to find since the Nuuksio National Park is right there surrounding you. Lake Pitkäjärvi is large and when the water is open, you can rent a canoe from Solvalla Sports Centre to see the forest from a different angle. The reception staff at Haltia will be happy to help you book one. Cycling, sauna, swimming and feeding reindeer at the Nuuksio Reindeer Park, are all options whether you’re there for a day or overnight. But it’s hiking that’s really the thing to slow you down, get you meditating and communing with nature. The slow pace brings peace and calm within this cathedral of birch trees with moss-covered primary rock and its here where you’ll listen to that inner voice that brings rest and a healthy mind. Stumbling upon a barbecue is not uncommon and wood is usually in plentiful supply. Take your own sausage and dry matches with you.

Osmo Rauhala’s swans playing chess
Cosy up to baby bear in his den

This paradise is easily reachable from downtown Helsinki: https://aikataulut.reittiopas.fi/linjat/en/b245.html

Haltia Nature Centre is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30 – 5 pm: https://www.haltia.com/en/

A comprehensive guide to facilities and activities at Nuuksio National Park: https://www.nuuksioresort.fi/en/

 

Colour, Coffee and Art

It’s bright pink, purple, yellow and orange that catches your eye when walking by the supermarket shelves dedicated to coffee. This one’s Paulig’s Presidentti Special Blend 2017 made with coffee beans from Sumatra. To make it even more intriguing, there’s an art exhibition to go with it in the deli at Stockmann Department Store with pictures of Presidents of Finland done in WPAP style by Indonesian artist Arif Wicaksonon. You may well ask about the connection…

President Tarja Halonen in WPAP style

Every year Paulig produces a special blend that celebrates a different taste from a different country and always an exotic one. This year, it’s Sumatra’s turn to shine and this balanced yet striking mouthful of liquid is quite unusual. The edges are soft but the flavour is wild and together with a macaroon it’s a perfect afternoon break enhancer.

Six Presidents, the sixth year of Presidentti Special Blend. And how were they selected? Easy, they all have a coffee story to tell. President Tarja Halonen only started drinking coffee at the age of 18 but fell passionately in love with the brew and has a favourite spot at Hakaniemi Market Hall where she partakes of it with relish. President Kekkonen on the other hand, was alive and well and even had a hand in roasting the first blend at the then new Paulig roastery in Vuosaari where the head office is currently located. He was also known to take Presidentti with him on his travels.

President Kekkonen loved Presidentti coffee

The WPAP art was developed by Indonesian Wedha Abdul Rasyid and stands for Wedha’s Pop Art Portrait. This highly colourful, geometric style has spread outside of his home country and to other parts, now to be seen at Stockmann’s (city centre 28-5.3 and Tapiola 15 – 19.3) and at Narinkka Square at Kamppi Shopping Centre (16 – 19.3). More importantly, the coffee is for sale in every major supermarket in Finland.

Let’s Play at The Yard Concept Hostel, Helsinki

You couldn’t get more downtown than this brand new hostel opening its doors at Kalevankatu 3A in Helsinki. You can literally pick up a stone and throw it through a window at Stockmann Department Store or at the plethora of bars and restaurants downstairs.

You couldn't get any closer to shopping and night life than this spot.
You couldn’t get any closer to shopping and night life than this spot.

Besides its 10/10 location, a big shout out to Matilda Sankamo, the young owner, who has done a splendid job of turning this space into a tasteful playground of colour and comfort both in the living room and the dorms. The wooden framed beds, specially designed, are cosy with huge lockers underneath. Choose from a six-sleeper to a two-sleeper or a private family room for four with its own balcony toward the bustling street below. Strangely enough, the place is quiet thanks to the heavy glazing of windows required by law in Finland.

dsc05444There’s no sauna, but why would you need one if there’s a nude-only swimming hall with oodles of character a hop and a skip away at Yrjönkatu around the corner? Don’t worry, designated times for men and women set your mind at ease for the more bashful among us.

Simple but nice finishing touches
Simple but nice finishing touches

Cooking is not an option but the use of the microwave, kettle and utensils are available for free use. You’ll be happy to know that breakfast, however, is included in the price of €40/bed. It also doesn’t have a liquor licence, a big plus in fact since it enables you to bring your own. According to liquor laws in this country, both options are not allowed. Besides, it’ll cost you a lot less.

dsc05445Gone are the days of hostels with dodgy beds and strange characters skulking about. This one’s stunning and stylish and best of all, it comes with a big, friendly smile.

The dorms have huge lockers for all your stuff
The dorms have huge lockers for all your stuff

Links:

The Yard Concept Hostel

The Yard on Bookings.com

Yrjönkatu Swimming Pool

 

Cosily Comfy – Fabian Hotel, Helsinki

It’s found its place in the corner of downtown Helsinki, close to everything but just a step away from any noise that might disturb your beauty sleep. Hotel Fabian is small, tiny in fact by hotel standards, but its heart is big and it enfolds you with warmth and comfort from the time you step through the main entrance.

The bar area at Fabian Hotel
The bar area at Fabian Hotel

Let’s begin with the staff. If it weren’t for them, this gem would not hold its value. It would just become another impersonal encounter. The manager has a broad smile and welcoming manner and runs a tight, professional ship, the hallmark of her staff being friendly and accommodating. Sure, you’ve heard this before but it’s that extra little bit of information or help that just puts the people that work here ahead of their game transforming your stay from ordinary to extraordinary.

Generous smiles from the manager at Fabian Hotel
Generous smiles from the manager at Fabian Hotel

The hotel doesn’t have a bar so to speak, it doesn’t have a restaurant but it does have a living room with soft, enveloping sofas where you can sip a drink. This flows into the little dining room where the included breakfast is served. If you choose to eat in for other meals, an option is a Lux room with a kitchenette and table. Standard rooms are plush with modern features like metal bedside lamps on wooden stairs setting a playful tone to the surrounding elegance.

Plush rooms with modern details
Plush rooms with modern details

It’s rare to find a commercial home-away-from-home where you feel so at ease, where your eyes are soothed by the gentle browns and whites and where everything just falls into place, like it should do.

A cosy living room in stead of a cold lobby
A cosy living room in stead of a cold lobby

 

Modern touches with a traditional feel
Modern touches with a traditional feel

Passion, Play and a Girl with a Gun

Niki De Saint Phalle – Kunsthalle, Helsinki 20 August – 20 November 2016.

It’s impossible to tell what your child is going to grow up to be. The process of bodily creation is over and the newborn is set free in a world largely made up of their parents’ circumstances. When Niki de Saint Phalle was born in 1930, the world didn’t know what had hit it. She was going to make a splash and a big one at that.

 

Les Trois Graces - fat, flourishing and flaunting the rules!
Les Trois Graces – fat, flourishing and flaunting the rules!

Art became her therapy, creativity, her life force. As she put it, “If I didn’t have art, I would have to be pregnant all the time because I can’t live without creating something.” At a time when the bourgeois female was expected to be, putting it crudely, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, she was out there sculpting voluptuous females, both black and white, in colourful bathing costumes, dancing away to their hearts’ content. She called them ‘nanas’, a derogatory word corresponding to ‘broad’, or in Émile Zola’s eponymous novel, ‘whore’. Her rebellion against the slim female figure, a throw back to her time when she herself was working as a fashion model, was blatant. At a time when Black was hardly beautiful, she was not ashamed to colour her figures dark or couple them with white men as in her Le Palais. And then the guns and the shooting. Not the archetypal feminine activity one would associate with the women of the day, she excelled at it and became the first performance artist, shooting her works to bits with precision and planning and skill, allowing the paint to explode at exactly the point where she wanted it to happen. The process was as much art as the finished work.

 

Piercing deep into the heart of tradition and the status quo.
Piercing deep into the heart of tradition and the status quo.
Le Palais, the utopian dream as expressed by Niki De Saint Phalle
Le Palais, the utopian dream as expressed by Niki De Saint Phalle

In other words, don’t be fooled by the vibrant colours, the naivety and playfulness you encounter when looking at her pieces. She is dead serious about joie de vivre and wants everyone, including children, to exclaim with delight when they see her sculptures or explore her Tarot Garden in Tuscany. Her message is clear, art for all and all for art.

Diana's Dream - a gun, a swastika and monsters emanate from the woman on her back.
Diana’s Dream – a gun, a swastika and monsters emanate from the woman on her back.
Sex symbol of the 60's, the pain that is Marilyn.
Sex symbol of the 60’s, the pain that is Marilyn.

A Long, Long Road to Freedom

Hennala Reception Centre near Lahti, Finland, is one of 100 accommodating approximately 15 000 asylum seekers.

Hennala Reception Centre is in disused army barracks near Lahti, Finland
Hennala Reception Centre is in disused army barracks near Lahti, Finland

It’s quiet at the centre. The leader of the camp Markku, calls it Hilton Hotel Hennala. His sense of humour seldom wanes and a good thing too. He and his team of Red Cross Workers, face people with tragic stories on a day to day basis.

“It’s because of Ramadan,” he says. “Most of our people are asleep during the day and wake up in the evenings to eat. The restaurant caters for non-Muslims during the day and opens again at night at 22.30 to make sure everyone is fed after sunset. They get a package for suhur, the meal just before sunrise.”

The centre was opened in September when the influx of migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria mostly, needed a place to reside while waiting for their interviews. In Finland, it takes 3 interviews before you know what your status is. The first is with the border control, the second with the Finnish police and the third with immigration officers.

The classroom where Ilkka teaches the adults Finnish language
The classroom where Ilkka teaches the adults Finnish language

“It was chaos when they first ones arrived. The bus drivers in Tornio, north Finland, where most of them crossed the border, were told to drive south by the border control people. When they got to Jyväskylä in the middle of Finland, they were given further instructions on where to take the people. We received 650 people here at these empty army barracks and had to arrange for mattresses and bedding within 9 hours. The Red Cross logistics centre supplied us with what we needed,” he explains. “Nowadays, the situation is easier. There are only 350 living here and we are better prepared for a new wave, if it should happen.”

Lunch is served in the restaurant and consists of lentil soup and dates, in line with Ramadan practice, hot vegetables, breaded chicken, spicy sauce, rice, salad and chillies. Spices to perk things are up are on the side. Complaints had been made in the past about Finnish food and the Finns decided that while integration is necessary, it doesn’t have to extend to bland food. And if you don’t like what you get there, you’ve got the option of cooking for yourself in a communal kitchen. But on a budget of €92 per adult per month from the Finnish government, you would have to make it stretch pretty far to cover your food bill. Only some small extras can be added.

The chefs do their best to cater for people with different tastes
The chefs do their best to cater for people with different tastes

Integration however, is high on the agenda and the only teacher Ilkka has his job cut out for him. He teaches Finnish to the adults who can come 3 to 4 times a week. It’s not obligatory, they can choose to work in stead where they will also pick up the language. The children get basic tuition and are then sent to regular schools.

“It’s brutal to start off with. I only speak Finnish to them because few understand English and that would only be a barrier,” he says. “There are several mixed groups in which both genders participate but I also do a women’s only session so that everyone has an equal chance to learn.”

Ehsan Haidari is a 24 year-old Afghanistan male who travelled for 7 months through 7 countries to reach Finland. He left his homeland for security reasons and misses his family. He has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and is awaiting his third interview with immigration which will make or break his plans for the future. These include studying economics. Staying in this country is what he wants to do and his hopes lie in the hands of the officers he will meet in hopefully the next month or so.

Ehsan Haidari from Afghanistan
Ehsan Haidari from Afghanistan

Khaula has a sadder story to tell. She’s originally from Iraq. She and her husband moved from Iraq to Syria in 2006 to escape the war and were then forced to leave Syria for the same reason. They are double evacuees. Her husband is in dire need of medical treatment provided by the nurses in the clinic at the centre and the doctor that visits there once a week. He has been injured and has scars on his body and no left hand. She says it makes him irritable and difficult. I ask her what she misses most and she bursts into tears and “Everything” is her barely audible reply. Especially at this time of Ramadan when her family would get together for the feast, it’s particularly hard, added to the fact that they can only eat after sunset which is 10.30 pm and before sunrise which is 2 am, it’s such a short time to eat and get to the mosque and pray. She is frustrated and stressed while they wait for their interview which will either fulfil or dash their dreams of living in a stable, secure country.

The ladies-only lounge
The ladies-only lounge

We meet another lady just outside the women’s lounge where there is a place for them to relax, make music and do exercise classes. She wears a chador and has two small children. Her husband was killed in Russia and she managed to flee across the border. A decent education and future for her little girl and boy is what she longs for.

Every room has its own fridge
Every room has its own fridge

When we leave, everyone has suddenly realized that we’re a group of journalists and come out of their bedrooms to talk to us and tell us their stories. Some have been denied asylum and have very little option but to return to their own countries, something they fear. They want the press to work miracles. Since Finland does not have an extradition treaty with Iraq where most of them originated from, they cannot be forced to go back. All that can be done is for them to use the one-way airline ticket and the €1000 in cash provided by the Finns and hope for the best.

Who knows what the future holds for this young family?
Who knows what the future holds for this young family?

As I walk back to the bus, I chat to Markku, the leader, about the psychological make-up of the people working there. It is emotionally draining at times and he says that the hardest thing you have to learn to do is to say, “No”. In the meanwhile, both the Red Cross volunteers and employees keep their spirits high and absolutely, unequivocally love what they’re doing. It’s almost part of the job description and it certainly lightens the load of the people they serve.

Links:

If you would like to volunteer your time, or donate money in Finland, please see: https://www.redcross.fi

For blood donations: https://www.bloodservice.fi