It was dripping rain and grey when I left the airport for the city and I was really wondering if I wouldn't be better off just sitting cosy in an airport lounge during my 12-hour layover between Kyiv and New York. But by the time I got to Helsinki proper at around 09:30, the rain had stopped and it was clearing up.
The area around Helsinki has a real northern feel to it, with clustered colorful rock formations and evergreens scattered among low-lying, rambling hills, a spare kind of beauty. I had decided to do a city tour by bus at least, and as I looked through a tourist booklet (proof positive that they work), I also decided to check out a harpsichord concert at 16:00 in the Cathedral, possibly take on the museum of modern art, and maybe even go to a nearby island.
The sun started to come out and it was a beautiful, crisp and bright blue November day, with clouds at a pretty but comfortable distance. The tourism bureau opened only at 10:00, by which time there were about ten of us itching to get in and get going with our day's plans. I had a hour until the bus tour started, so I went into Cafe Strindberg and had some leek quiche. It was actually a bit bitter for my taste, but I was hungry.
The bus tour stopped, among other places, at this most amazing church built into a rock quarry. From the outside, it looks like a flying saucer buried in the ground, but inside, it is the most spectacular church I have ever seen. The roof was raised airily on translucent strips of glass rising out of an uneven wall of rocks piled up along the periphery of the church space. There was even water trickling out of some of the crevices. Organ music was being piped into the place, and I felt just awed standing there. There were no religious symbols, icons or other paraphernalia other than a very simple maltese-style hewn cross on the altar that did not stand more than about a foot and a half high. I was so impressed, I can't even convey it. But I did buy a small booklet in color about the church, and at least I can look at it from time to time to remind myself. The Finns really are the most amazing group of people when it comes to design!
Right after that, I took the ferry over to Suomelinna Island (Sveaborg in Swedish), which has some fortifications and an ancient town. Unfortunately, it was out of season, which I had failed to notice in the fine print schedules which hardly any tourist is likely to look closely at. The boat was actually quite full, probably other people who also didn't read the fine print. So the two things I wanted to see, a house museum and an English tea house on a hill overlooking the sea, were long closed for the winter. But as I wandered away from the ferry terminal in search of them, I happened into a church on another hill, a tall thing and quite large inside, with a central dome, but spare as spare can be. There was not a single image, not a picture or icon, not a statue or fresco, no stained glass, not even a crucifix: just two plain crosses, one on the altar and one at the pulpit. There were about 10 people at Mass and they were singing Amen to music from a pipe organ. That was lovely enough. Then, they sang a beautiful hymn, which I hummed along to, it felt so good. But the best was to come. When the service ended, the organist played Pachelbel's Canon. I tell you, I was transported. I think for me, music is a spiritual experience. There's nothing else that gives me that feeling. I stood there with tears in my eyes, you know. Then I went out again and off to look for the two places that weren't, of course, open. It was very windy and cold, and I could not imagine spending a winter in such a place. Made me thing of the Orkneys, which some friends once described to me.
There was a little time left before the ferry back, so I stopped into a charming restaurant with a barn-high ceiling and communal cloth-covered dining tables to have a tea. Unfortunately, I was down to my last 8 markkas, but when I asked the woman how much tea was, she said "10 markkas." I asked her if they took dollars or if they had anything less expensive and she shook her head. When she saw my crestfallen face, though, she asked how much money I had. I said, only 8 markkas. She thought for a minute and said, "No problem. I'll give you a cup of tea for 8." My jaw nearly dropped. I had never experienced that kind of flexibility in a restaurant before. I thoroughly enjoyed that hot cup of tea, along with a couple of dozen other visitors waiting for the ferry.
When I returned, time was running out a bit, so I skipped the harpsichord concert (had I known about the seasonal stuff, I would have left the island an hour sooner and made it for that too), and took the No. 3 tram, which does a figure eight around central Helsinki. I was dozing a little, but when it completed its tour, I got off by the Museum of Contemporary Art and took in a huge exhibit called Ars 01 (meaning 2001, actually). It was also quite an amazing experience, covering five stories of a very unusual building with stairs and ramps lacing in and out and providing all kinds of interesting spaces for everything from paintings and photos to figures and installations and video shows. Some of the stuff was uninteresting, but there were about 20 artists whose work did impress me. One of the best was a Canadian, Brian Jungen, who deconstructs sports shoes (adidas, nikes etc) and turns them into Haida-style masks. It was really awesome, I tell you, complete with the strands of hair down the back. He called them "prototype for a new understanding." I actually bought the hardcover catalogue in the end. The show took about two hours to walk through, then I skipped over to the train station to catch my bus back to the airport.
This day taught me just how much wonderful experience I can pack into a single day! I still can't believe how much I managed to do, and to think I was seriously thinking of just sitting around in the airport lounge... Sometimes I think many of us spend much of our lives doing just that, sitting around in a mental airport lounge.