Hello from Helsinki. Acclimatised to the weather and time zone, I have not, so I am blogging this at four in the morning (unfortunately, with no connection to the Internet).
When I travelled abroad in the past – trotting from hostel to hotel, scenic hotspots to historic destinations, and Chinese restaurants to eateries designed for tourists – it was always about spotting the big, prominent sights and sounds. Where are the prominent landmarks? How should we pose in front of these buildings? Can we get the best photographs of these dishes?
I will still lapse guiltily into these tendencies, especially when I travel out of Helsinki. But at the moment the little things have made the difference here. Passengers in a wheelchair and one companion are entitled to free travel on public transportation in the region (also, commuters with prams), shoppers expected to bring their own bags to bag their groceries, as well as the absence of gantries or barriers at the train and metro stations (though commuters are required to tap within the carriages, and non-compliance fines are hefty).
These insights are some of the little perks of being a student traveller, not a tourist.
Using Singapore as a reference point is inevitable. In fact, both cities share broad similarities: public transportation is relatively efficient and affordable, the business and shopping districts are quite distinct, and there is a good emphasis on the safety and cleanliness of the streets. Like Singapore, given its proximity to the sea, Helsinki too developed from the south. Yet with the amount of land at its disposal, the city is expanding horizontally, not vertically.
Helsinki has a lot of charm. Simon, a Singaporean based in the city with his family, hosted me for a night, showed me around the city, and helped with my bulky luggage from point to point. Having been here for eight years, he has first-hand perspectives of the Finnish culture, and we chatted briefly about socio-political issues in the two cities (as we did in the past, over the Internet). He spoke about the transparent process of labour strikes here, the history and politics of the country, and the ability to lead a simple life here.
His son loves the day home. Not a day school, not a pre-school, but a home. With four sets of outfits, he plays and constantly explores the outdoors. Simon speaks about the concept of a sandbox. Without a fixed curriculum at the day home, the children are encouraged to create their own buildings and structures, to proactively tamper and tweak. Progressively, the young ones learn to respect the creations of others. Even when quarrels or disagreements happen within that space, the teachers get the children to resolve their conflicts amicably.
I have barely scratched the surface in the past two days, and there is so much more to learn.
Unlike the major cities in Europe where establishments have emerged to cater to growing Asian and student communities, these places are far and few between here. There is a “Singaporean Wok” stall in the city, though a plate of char kway teow is 10.90 euros.
So, adapting to the city will take some time. The language is the main challenge. I whispered a kiitos (thank you) quite incoherently – I think – to the cashier at the supermarket, who stared at me weirdly. Most of the signs and price tags are in Finnish or Swedish. It also took me a long time to pronounce Klaneettitie (very imprecisely) over the phone to the customer service officer, so as to get my Internet connection.
Klaneettitie is the name of my apartment building, which is situated in Kannelmäki, a quaint and quiet neighbourhood a few train stations away from the city centre. My room – at 396 euros per month – is pretty spacious, but the kitchen and its stoves, fridge, and oven are not in the best of condition. Accommodation is a perennial problem here. Prior to our hostel allocation, we were told that housing situation in the Helsinki region is “difficult”, so am thankful that it has worked out thus far.
School will only start next week. That gives me time to traipse around my new neighbourhood, make a few trips to the city centre, and settle properly into my apartment and room. The weather, I was told, has been pretty erratic, so no snow – yet.
I suppose that is that for the time being. I should concede that this writing style is relatively new to me, so it will take me a while. In the meantime, nähdään pian (see you soon)!
Check out The Finland Chapter, from start to finnish.