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The trip from Helsinki’s Vantaa airport to the central station is not very inspiring, nor is the primarily utilitarian feel of the large plaza itself. If you’re a photo junkie or an Instafreak, you might think you've made a mistake in coming. But make a small effort and you’ll find that you just need to tease the charm out of Finland’s capital, much like you need to do with it’s people. It’s not a place where strangers smile at you on the street, but it is a place where anyone will help you, if you ask.
Just south of the central station is the historic center, where you’ll find Helsinki’s slightly muted contribution to the brightly colored, ornately detailed architecture typical of Scandinavian capitals. Amid world-class markets, visiting yachts, and photogenic wooden ships, there’s no shortage of stimuli; like the modern boats next to historic ships, though, Helsinki is characterized by strange, almost confused juxtapositions that don’t always gel. Competing architectural styles present a not-quite-cohesive smorgasbord of elements jumping from classical and romantic to functionalist and ultra-modern without a clear transition. It’s not that the buildings aren’t admirable and photo-worthy individually; they simply don’t play well with each other on the surface.
You’ve got to dig into the city’s heart to appreciate its mashups. Finland’s history includes both Swedish and Russian control, so it’s no wonder the streets are labeled in Finnish and Swedish, or that Russian influence abounds in art and architecture, alongside more noticeably Scandinavian foundations. Helsinki has character aplenty; it’s just not easily defined by one influence. This is one city where you shouldn’t try to see the forest for the trees.
My hosts in Helsinki were Risto Aho, 44, and his partner of 14 years, Joni. They’re hard-working men who are just as comfortable studying and working in silence all evening one night as they are laughing and chatting away over tea until bed another. Here, Risto tells about his life in Finland, with some input from Joni, including some insight into just why the Finns don’t say hello on the street.
Out Traveler: How long have you lived in Helsinki?
Risto: 5 years.
What do you do for a living?
I’m studying to be an architect (and Joni works for the University).
How long have you been out?
I’ve always been out. I don’t mention it to people first, but if it comes up I don’t lie about it!
How is it for a gay person to get along in Helsinki?
It’s quite easy. It’s well accepted.
Two places a visitor should go with just one day here?
Have a picnic in Suomenlinna [sea fortress] and go to the Linnanmäki amusement park. Or rent a bike and just cycle around Helsinki. There are lots of routes to choose from and it’s relatively cheap.
One thing that every visitor needs to know about Helsinki before coming?
If you want to interact with a Finnish person, you have to initiate the contact. Finnish people think it’s respectful not to impose on other people. We speak English very well and are happy to help people but you have to be the one who speaks the first word. We don’t initiate chats on the tram or bus, but that doesn’t mean we’re antisocial. And silence is not awkward in Finland. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to talk; it’s just that we don’t have anything important to say right now!