Friday, March 11, 2011

Message from the Frozen Sea

A month ago it was minus 20 degrees and even the Finns were complaining. I landed on a misty Tuesday afternoon at Helsinki airport, with snow all around, but the runways and roads clear and the cold no more than a winter day in Manchester. Arriving at Helsinki bus station, there's something subdued and utilitarian about the city around you, near Soviet-style grey blocks, enlivened with a mix of American, German and Finnish brand names. Everywhere in Helsinki is in on itself, a reflection on the long dark winters, with the entrances to buildings hidden away, or anonymous. The city has been built against the weather it seems, double doors everywhere, and even the grand facade of the central railway station only to be entered through wooden doors more appropriate to a Lutheran chapel than a major transport hub.

The second thing I notice about the city, after these cloisters, is the care taken with design. If the buildings from the outside are austere, everything inside is modern, designed, intricate. Finland seems to work like a single organism, that mixes that northern collectivism with an independence of spirit. A couple of times during my visit, for a meeting about "digital clusters", I encountered disagreements between Finns, or someone going the wrong way; there seemed a certain irritation about these things, as if a perfect system had got a minor flaw. Design, I began to see, was the Finnish way of improving the systemic. Imagine, I thought, if England worked well, rather than hardly at all. I think that's why we admire Finland.

For would you live here? At the top end of Europe, nearer St. Petersburg than Paris, with a history that mixes isolation and invasion, and with a language that is by all accounts one of the hardest to learn. On Wednesday I walked through the city, taking the couple of hours of spare time I'd got to orientate myself. The night before the streets had all seemed similar, the maps had been incomprehensible to a pedestrian, and the street names blurred into one; but, with daylight, and a sense of which direction I was going in, the city seemed perfectly well organised. No-one jaywalks, cars stop as soon as you are anywhere near to a zebra crossing, and there's a constant stream of buses, trams and even pedestrians.

Usually you can tell which direction the sea is in, from the colour of the sky, the sound of gulls and the smell of salt air, but here the sky is either a breathtaking blue or a stubborn grey, and the sea offers no clues. Turning a corner the port area is laid out before me, the boats tethered not just to the dock, but to the water itself, a frozen sea, with, in the distance, a brief glimpse of blue open water of slowly encroaching spring.

Finland has a remarkably quiet modernity about it, whilst the city itself looks locked into 20th century austerity. In the hotel, in the city hall, in the airport there is free fast wi-fi, and though the Finnish language remains a hieroglyphic to outsiders, most people speak (and seem happy to speak) English, even their websites being in dual language.

At the old Ford factory on Wednesday night, we are given a presentation on "Helsinki Cruise to the Future" where the city is encouraging the large leisure cruise ships that are a growing part of the city's economy, to disembark more of their passengers. Compared with other destinations Helsinki looks uninviting. Art, culture, shopping, restaurants, leisure activities, and, of course, saunas, are going to be the carrots to encourage the world's wealthy leisure passengers to sample Helsinki. They should do. Beyond its slightly soviet style architecture, and the drabness of the endless winter, is a vibrant hidden town of style, shopping and sophistication. Look closely, and beyond the hats, gloves and overcoats, and the Finns are immaculately dressed; and though I'm sure there are pockets of poverty here as elsewhere, the sense was of a well-behaved, cultured city. Finland's population are growing older, yet unlike some cities, you notice babies being pushed around in prams or on the trams.

The cold means that the public areas aren't the outdoors, the public squares - at least not at this time of year, but in the academic bookstore, a large crowd are stood listening to an in-conversation between a Finnish author and his interviewer. The English language poetry shelves (heavily devoted to American authors, and American editions of European authors like Cafavy or Lorca) are twice the size of those in the Arndale in Manchester. Every restaurant we go into is full; and the food belies the city's isolation, fresh and inventive. Next year Helsinki is European capital of design, and the range of boutiques and shops selling high quality clothes, homewares and furniture is impressive. At a presentation about the programme, there are a few technical teething problems. In the land of Nokia, whoever decided to use an Apple to give the presentations faced that company's universal non-compatibility, and we struggled with videos that didn't start or a slideshow that didn't fit the screen. It was kind of reassuring to know that the Finns can be a little amateurish on occasion. I imagine they're already working out how to fix it, however. A strange, abrupt, and not entirely successful piece of performance art by three young women, going under the name Nutty Tarts, brought that evening's presentations to a slightly perplexing close.

I'd arranged to leave in the early morning, as though flights to and from Manchester are regular, they fall differently on different days. Waking at 5.30pm this morning, I was half regretting not having another day or two here, and thinking that the snowfall from the previous night might have impeded the road to the airport as it surely would have done in the UK. At that time of day, Helsinki shouldn't be up and working, but it already was, and catching the fast shuttle bus directly to a busy airport, and a full plane back to Manchester, I left the city certain I'll be coming back some time.

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