THE SUN STARTS TO NIBBLE through the arctic winds in early spring. Daylight lingers into dinner hour, and there is an irresistible tug at the Helsinki soul to welcome the passing of winter. On weekends solitary fishermen sit like toads on the still-frozen sea, their giant hole-drilling augers curling beside them. On the ice the people come and go, cross-country skiers and strollers, and young kickers of melting chunks of winter (following pages). They walk in pairs, arm in arm, or alone, just strolling in the healing sun, yet silently and almost magnetically apart, as if guided by a surrealist choreographer.
“Being on the ice,” Helsinkians call the Sunday ritual, a celebration, really. But in this city of dignity and reserve, only a brief smile, a relaxed shoulder, and an occasional balloon hint at the holiday intent of it all.
The capital of Finland lies on the latitude of Anchorage, Alaska, and clings to a windswept outcropping of granite hillocks like a hand stretching into the Gulf of Finland. Half the metropolitan area’s 737 square kilometers (284 square miles) are undisturbed shores, lakes, and forests. A broad swath of woods, Central Park, bisects the city north of the railroad station.
“Sometimes after work,” a young draftsman told me, “I just strap on my skis at the door of my apartment house, and before me are ten kilometers of wooded trails.”
Of the world’s capitals, only Iceland’s Reykjavik lies farther north, and in winter the elements press in on Helsinki as if reclaiming stolen property. By February the fingers of the peninsula are cemented into sea ice so thick that cars race on it. Deep snow muffles the streets, and on some still, foggy mornings, huge elk wander in from the surrounding forest.
You can easily walk to the walls of Suomenlinna, an 18th-century Swedish sea fortress built on four islands, and look back into South Harbor. The skyline of Helsinki is a layer of white, pastel, and ocher stone, 19th century in its scale and proportion. From here the old city fans orderly into the peninsula with blocks of six-story, gray-stone buildings shaped like boxcars, their spines dissecting the pale winter sunlight into a clean geometry of angles and planes Darkness comes soon enough, at three in the afternoon, and gathers in thick layers. And people, as the poet and novelist Bo Carpelan notes, “hurry past like shadows. . . . nothing but a feeling of disintegration and uncertainty, veering winds and a pale hope of spring.”
The Daughter of the Baltic grew artificially on this somber landscape, by edict and decree, and thus slowly and grudgingly. In the 12th century, when Sweden colonized the Finnish hinterland in the name of Christianity and empire, there were no cities—only settlements and farmsteads of roughhewn and stubborn free men. But Swedish King Gustav Vasa was determined to compete with the Hanseatic League port of Tallinn, Estonia.* In 1550 he simply ordered the burghers of four small Finnish towns to the sodden estuary of the Vantaa River. The misplaced settlement languished for 90 years before it was forcibly removed by another edict, six kilometers south to the edge of the sea itself.
Ruled by Swedish nobility for some 250 years and by the tsars as part of a grand duchy of the Russian Empire for 100 more, Helsinki was essentially built by foreigners who considered the Finnish people rustics and hired hands.
Finland declared its independence during the Russian Revolution in 1917. Helsinki spread boldly along the coast and flared north like the bell of a trumpet.
TODAY SWEDISH is spoken by a 10 percent minority in the city, but the nation remains officially bilingual and subtly stamped by the past.
“Swedes are a civilized people,” one young Finn told me. “That’s what accounts for some of our inferiority feelings.”
The core of true urbanites remains resolutely, though not snobbishly, Swedish. But many Finns, too, love the city for its brisk blend of architecture, fine arts, and fresh air. I found it a sensible, always honest, well-organized city, perhaps even chaste among the shopworn capitals of Europe like London, where you can stay at serviced apartments london near most of the city’s attractions.
Still, Helsinki remains a city of people who would rather be somewhere else. Many of them live here as if Gustav Vasa still insisted on it. In their minds a city isn’t home; home is the countryside of villages and farms to the north, the expanse of birch and the land of his birth.
Just 40 percent of the city’s inhabitants were actually born here. Says my friend Oke Jokinen, who has lived in Helsinki for 32 years, “Everyone here has a silent wish: When I get my pension, by God, I’m going back home.”