The city smelled of coffee and the sea, and the streets were crowded with schools of tourists swimming through the sites and pleasures Helsinki had to offer. On many corners, local musicians added to the cacophony of the urban heartbeat that thumped to the steady sounds of the city. Gulls cried overhead, riding the soft summer breeze that swept through the parks and shopping centers. Upon my first day I was already taken with Helsinki, it had its own flavor and flare unique to any other Nordic city I had visited so far. It seemed to be playfully withholding a secret from me, one which it promised to reveal but not until it was sure enough to trust me with.
Located in the heart of the city at the Hotel Kamp, my sister, father and I ventured out waiting for the remainder of the Al-Yafi tribe to arrive. It was a hot summer day and I looked over at my sister with fevered skepticism grumbling, “I thought you said it was going to be cold in Helsinki, and here I am wearing a sweater and jeans!” She shrugged and reminded me that we warned of Finland’s temperamental temperatures. I had foolishly packed mostly winter clothes and cursed myself for not being better prepared. How was I to know that it would be almost as hot as Jeddah, from where we had just arrived.
We made our way to the harbor where a local farmer’s market was taking place. Stalls of fresh Helsinki berries and vegetables were put on display, their sweet aromas were intoxicating and I found myself immediately drawn to one of the stands to sample the local cuisine. I gorged myself on “samples” of plump strawberries and blueberries and soon my smiling lips were painted red and blue. The pretty blonde lady then handed me some fresh snap peas, or what I assumed were snap peas, which I gratefully accepted. As I bit into the deceiving delight, I found it to be chewy and mildly unpleasant. I then asked the lady quizzically, “am I supposed to eat the whole thing or just the peas inside?” she answered nonchalantly, “no, just the peas inside.” I stopped chewing and felt like a fool for not asking and reluctantly swallowed my failure and shame.
Moving on past my mishap I continued to make my way through the market to see what the local scene of Helsinki had to offer. It had a kaleidoscopic array of handicrafts from reindeer skins to amber necklaces, all of which embodied Finland’s wildness and natural beauty. My senses were overwhelmed with the colors and textures of funny woven hats, wooden cups and kitchenware carved from trees found in the lush forests surrounding the city. It was all so deliciously overwhelming and I lost myself in the blur of sightseers and kiosks boasting the best of local arts and crafts.
Once my brother and mother joined us we were truly ready to set out and discover Helsinki. Every morning, fueled with coffee and local berries that I would smuggle into breakfast, we set out to cover the cobbled stone streets of the city. In order to cover as much ground as possible we booked things like a two-hour walking tour to visit the city’s most noteworthy spots. The day of our walking tour was cold and rainy, again with this unpredictable weather, I thought. Luckily I was beginning to understand that in order to survive hours of walking around you would just have to carry around a sweater and umbrella and have on very comfortable walking shoes that you don’t mind getting muddied and wet from time to time when the sun suddenly decided to escape behind a flurry of rainclouds. And so we climbed the steep steps of the Senate Square to find our guide as the rain came down. Along with the falling rain, came doubt, maybe this tour in wintery wet weather was a mistake, but I soldiered on and followed my tribe. We eventually made it and found our guide along with our fellow foreigners who shared my look of dampened skepticism. Our chaperon was a sweet looking young lady wearing a silly hat with reindeer antlers who turned out to be Italian, not Finnish. My doubt deepened. So there we were, a tribe of tourists led by an Italian woman wearing a green hat with antlers comically sticking out from the top ready to set out and explore the wet city of Helsinki.
We snaked our way through the streets, stopping to take selfies and “ooh” and “aahh” at the beautiful architecture of churches, buildings and landmarks. Eventually, and without fail, the weather changed and the sun blossomed through the darkened rainy sky casting beams of sunlight fingers that stretched across the urban sprawl as if arising from sleep. My favorite area we visited was without a doubt was the world famous Temppeliaukio Rock Church. Carved into solid rock and crowned with a copper dome, it was a testament to the uniqueness of Finnish design. As we entered the cool earthly place of worship, the sound of piano and jostling tourists greeted us. Pews of dark rich mahogany faced the source of music and my eyes swallowed the scene around me. The raw face of stone looked back at us along with mighty organ pipes that stood in a line against the wall as if they were sentinels guarding the cavern. Sunlight spilled into the dimmed church through slanted windows overhead as tourists sat and watched, mesmerized by the grandness and splendor of this unorthodox place of worship.
Tallinn, Estonia was on next on our to-do list. We arose early on a Saturday morning, coffee in hand of course (Finnish are the largest consumers of coffee in Europe drinking as much as 12 kilograms of coffee per capita yearly), and headed towards the harbor where the ship awaited. It was a quick two-hour entertaining affair, quickened by an eager Estonian hostess who was adamant about feeding us during our brief seafaring endeavor. A hop, skip and a ferryboat ride later we arrived in Tallinn harbor where the city awaited us. The first to welcome us were the great grey steps of Linnahall, a looming concrete symbol of the city’s past SSR life and was covered in graffiti and memory that led to the city where Old Town Tallinn, a stark contrast to the former Soviet structure, awaited. It was like venturing into the Middle Ages, what with its uneven cobblestone narrow winding roads and castle-like structures, most of which was awash in the sunlight making the town even more fantastical. We explored the city and its many churches and ‘ye old’ buildings that still stayed true to ancient European designs. My family and I, being a tall group of Al-Yafis, found that we had to duck our heads down from time to time inside a number of these old buildings (people were clearly a lot smaller back then). By the end of our day trip, the sun began to become listless and quietly vanished behind a storm of clouds heavy with the threat of rain. It was time to return to Helsinki.
One of the best ways to really enjoy Helsinki, or any Scandinavian city for that matter, is taking a nice long bike ride. Not only is it time efficient, fun and healthy, but you get to experience a very local activity, since many people who live in the city use bikes as a form of public transport. My brother and I have always made it a point to go biking in any Nordic city or region we visit and it is definitely one of my most cherished traditions. He being an avid rider, usually leads the way, and I, like his little shadow, follow him around mimicking his hand signals to alert those around us if we are stopping or turning left. On our last day we borrowed two bikes from the hotel and embarked on our adventure together. The hotel was located at the heart of the city so we headed down the main artery towards the park nestled by crystal blue lake. Skimming through the streets, sometimes joined by other bikers, Helsinki had finally told me her secret. She was a place where you could truly be yourself without worry of being judged or looked at sideways. A city where art is embraced and ego is unwelcomed, a place that honors the slow life and a laisse faire attitude, encouraging you to stop and enjoy the little fruits of life before they spoil. This was the secret of Helsinki, humbling and silent.
After four days of hastened tours and crammed sightseeing, my tribe and I decided to shift into first gear and take a break from the holiday. For some, the thought of a family vacation can seem like the complete opposite of a holiday, what with chaos of closeness and relentless bickering, there are moments of absolute joy and love that reinforce the bond of blood. I experienced such a moment in Sibelius Park on our last day when my tribe and I went to pay tribute to the Finnish violinists and composer, Jean Sibelius. At the heart of the park, by the sun-catching blue crystal waters of the lake, stands the Sibelius Monument, 600 hollowed steel pipes welded together like a silver chorus gazing heaven bound towards the sky that capture the wind to sing. Tourists flock here like a hive of hungry bees to the monumental flower hidden away in the Sibelius Park, and we were there to collect as much memorable nectar as possible as well. Once we had had our fill of photos, we ventured just a short distance away to a cozy little cottage by the shoreline that had been converted into a café that sold mouth-watering cinnamon pastries. Five coffees and three pastries later, we congregated around a small table overlooking the park, reflecting on our trip and everything we had experienced, seen and tasted. Although I hold many memories of the trip close to my heart, this is by far the best one yet—sitting with my siblings and parents, sipping on hot coffee, for once not worrying about the race of life, because I had made it to the Finnish line.
Written by Laila Yafi