I’m a weirdo. Most people keep early hours while working and use their vacations to stay out late and sleep in. I, on the other hand, turn into an early-to-bed-early-to-rise type, even though it’s almost impossible to get me out of bed before eleven most of the time. Maybe it’s because I have to make an early flight (or train, or tour) and fall into a pattern. Maybe it’s a perpetual FOMO. In Helsinki, however, I actually do know the reason – steam. The hostel sauna only runs from 7:00-8:30 in the morning for women, and there’s no way I’m not starting off my day without it. So I suddenly have an entire morning open to me.
This leaves me with a lot of unexpected time, so I’m trying to fill it up as much as possible. After the events of Pride, I was ready for a low-key day, and the weather seemed to agree with me – it drizzled all day. I decided to spend my time indoors, heading to Ateneum Art Museum for the Tove Jansson exhibit. Widely known in Europe as the creator of the popular Moomin franchise (books, TV shows, theatre, opera, comics, you name it), she’s basically undiscovered in North America, which is a pity. Her work is fascinating for all sorts of reasons.
First, we have the Moomins, a group of characters which look like hippos but are supposed to be trolls, and live in a paradise island. They’re considered children’s works now, but hold a great deal more complexity than you would think, about alienation and homecoming and all sorts of issues of identity. I’m going to get my hands on an English translation ASAP. (And if Art Spiegelman didn’t get some sort of inspiration from her I’ll eat my hat.) Furthermore, she created a vast body of artistic works, ranging from political cartoons (quite daring in WWII) to hundreds of self-portraits to landscapes to dioramas. She even illustrated the Swedish translations of Lewis Carroll and JRR Tolkien! Intense but whimsical, her work has a very personal inclination, and I walked away from the exhibit feeling like I knew her – or rather, wanted to get to know her better. In her day, she was known for her fierce independence, torrid love life and dedication to her craft. The museum also features lectures and workshops on her life. She’s considered quite the Finnish hero. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. It was an afternoon well spent, and if you’re going to be in Helsinki before the exhibit closes, I would highly recommend it. And I even got some Moomin merchandise!
After that was a brief walk to Sibelius Park to see the Sibelius monument. In the rain. Which was kind of gross, but it’s a nice park, and the ocean really does look beautiful when it’s foggy. I just hope it’s a little nicer on the ferry to Stockholm.
The next day was less rainy, but still drizzling on and off, though it of course cleared up the minute I bought an umbrella. I headed to the Forum mall to look for souvenirs, and stumbled upon the Moomin shop, where I acquired the salt and pepper shakers above. I have no use for them yet, but they won’t add too much weight, and they’re so CUTE! Downtown Helsinki is very vibrant and clearly booming, so it was a fun, relaxing way to spend the morning.
From there, it was another park (Kaivopuisto), with a charming sea walk along the Baltic. With a slightly better view than the day before, it was pretty nice. I checked out the sea birds, squinted at islands, and eventually found my way to the market building, which is full of delicious cafes and food stands. Perfect for a rainy day, though I managed to restrain myself from buying all the fish.
And following this was a night at the movies.
I am a major movie fanatic and even have a degree in the subject, and yet I haven’t been to the cinema in eleven months. Why? Simple – it’s Russia. Most European countries subtitle or dub, but Russia has come up with the dumbfuck idea of superimposing the Russian track over the English. It sounds terrible and you wind up unable to understand either language. It drives me batty, so I never bothered to go to the movies in Russia. Actually, I’ve never been to the movies in a foreign country at all (except for the USA, which functions more or less the same way as Canada), so this was both a new experience and a comforting return to familiarity.
Here are how movies work in Finland, as compared to the rest of the world.
· Efficiency: I suppose this is probably a Finnish thing in general, but no matter how long the queue, it moves fast. I got to the theatre very close to the start time and there was a long line. I thought I’d be late (I’m like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I can’t even miss a second of the previews), but nope, I got my ticket and even managed to buy snacks. Point to Finland.
· Reserved seating: Most of Europe seems to have this, if dim memories of my French classes mean anything, but I had never encountered it before. It’s actually kind of nice. No resentment and you know you can sit together, if watching with friends.
· The theatre itself: seats are way more comfortable, armrests are bigger, and the room is smaller – rather cozy, in fact. It was like watching a movie at home.
· Subtitles: I think Finland only dubs children’s films. This one, a Hollywood production, had an English track and Finnish and Swedish subtitles, run one on top of the other, as Finland is a bilingual country. It was kind of interesting to watch – I’m always trying to match subtitles and dialogue during the scenes, so having two languages to play with was even more fun.
· Price: the tickets are pretty much the same as in North America (about ten Euro), but the snacks are reasonable! I paid five Euro for a decent-sized popcorn and drink! Considering how expensive both Finland and theatre snacks usually are, it was a minor miracle!
· God, I wish I knew Finnish so I could have seen one of the Finnish films. Time to continue on my quest to learn every language ever.
For tonight’s feature, I chose The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was great! Set in a sort of alternate pan-Central European region (it follows a modified version of the area’s history, mostly in implication), it’s the usual Anderson quirky romp, a heist plot and prison story with a distinctively dark twinge. Even gory, sometimes. It has a huge ensemble cast, including Anderson favourites Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman in cameos. F. Murray Abraham does a great job as the hotel owner, even if he’s mostly voice-over. Adrien Brody is kind of overblown as the villain, but his hair is very talented. The standout, however, is Ralph Fiennes, who effortlessly pulls off the concierge character, giving him just the right touch of whimsy with impeccable comic timing. In fact, immediately following this trip I’m going to retreat to a fantasy world where he would have a chance of getting an Oscar nomination. It’s that good, but the Academy hates Ralph Fiennes so it won’t happen. I could see the film possibly getting nominated for writing, but its only real chance is in all the technicals, especially concerning art production and costuming. Anderson is famous for giving his films a distinctive look. Here, the compositions are gorgeous, running through several time periods and geographic areas, all with the right note of insanity running through them. It was a fine film, and worth it for Ralph Fiennes alone, though there are other reasons to watch (Tilda Swinton! Edward Norton! The trains!). If you’re looking for a night at the movies, this one is recommended.
And so my time in Helsinki comes to an end. I’ve had a wonderful time, exploring natural beauty in the parks and Suomenlina, and enjoying Finnish society with Tove Jansson and the Pride Parade. I didn’t expect much from this city, but really, it’s been fun. Tomorrow I will hop a ship to Stockholm, which is going to be a total dream-fulfillment. For years I have longed for Sweden. I’ve even considered moving there. I guess we’ll have to see what’s waiting around the corner. I’ve got such fun as the Millennium Tour (following in the steps of Lisbeth) planned, but mostly my schedule is free, and I can’t wait to get to know this country a little better. On to the next adventure!