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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Helsinki Orientation

I must admit that, as I typed that title, I was laughing: that's me, orienting people to a city I've lived in all of two weeks.  Then again, I though that you guys might like to have a general sense of the layout since I'm going to be referring to some places all the time and I know that I'll forget to orient you.

Since I'm a map person--one of those weird characteristics that I'm grateful to have when I travel!--let me give you a map of the downtown area, which is basically where I spend my life in Helsinki.

The red dot on the left side by the street called Mechelininkatu is where I live, the Töölö Towers (I can see I'm going to be an expert at typing umlauts by the end of the year!); the other red dot is where the Collegium is in the University area.  The areas in black here are some of the main tourist areas, while the names in brown are just a few of the "neighborhoods" in Helsinki.  I say "just a few" because it seems like every 3 block square area has its own neighborhood name.

One of the most striking things to me when I first got here is how deceptively large this map makes the center of Helsinki look.  The city itself has c. 600,000 people and the metropolitan area c. 1.2-1.3 million, but given the population density, those numbers can give a false impression of the size, especially of the city center.  The core of Helsinki is really not particularly large--lovely but not large.  Quite manageable for a pedestrian, in fact.  To give you a sense of its size, I can stroll from my apartment to my office at the Collegium in c. 1/2 an hour; the tram ride takes all of about 10 minutes with a 5-minute walk.  I can walk Ted to the beach near us in all of 10 minutes.

Well, before I brought Ted to the Collegium, I decided to test him on the tram and generally spend a day wandering around Helsinki.  (Yes, I realize I'm out of chronological order on my blogs. :-)  )  So after a stop at the lovely park across the street,

we headed to downtown, where we got off at the mecca for ex-pats and wealthy old ladies with designer dogs: Stockmann.

Actually I make fun of it, but it's a great department store and wonderfully convenient, considering that it has almost everything under one roof and I walk near or by it everyday I go to the Collegium.  Think of it as a cross between Macy's Union Square or New York and the Harrod's food hall.  In fact, the grocery store in the basement is lovely, if expensive.  It has all different types of food, a great selection of meats, fish, veg, and fruits, and even has stuff that I can use to make my traditional "tacos for Christmas" dinner!  (And the dog crack is because Stockmann does allow dogs in the store, just not the food areas.  The only people I've seen take advantage of this are ladies from the "appropriate" classes with the appropriately small dogs; I've been tempted to bring Ted in just to watch people's reaction, but that's just a wee bit too evil of me.)

One of the things I find interesting about Helsinki is the mix of older-style European buildings in stucco, stone, and brick and the very modern steel and glass ones as you see here.

While I know intellectually how to appreciate the very modern ones, they're just not my style.  I also keep imagining the contortions people must go through to keep them from rusting with all the rain and snow.  Then again, I suppose some rust is part of the look, but I'm just too traditional stylistically to appreciate it.

In any case, Ted and I headed down the Alexsanterinkatu (one of the main shopping streets)

towards the Collegium and, after a few blocks, cut down another block to the Esplanades.  Basically those are two streets with a big park in the center (kind of like what I have across the street from my apartment), but these are the ones that have very posh restaurants and shops on them.  They also seem to be a hang-out for huge numbers of workers and students during the day.  It makes perfect sense; they're beautiful right now.

If you follow the Esplanades to the water, you run into one of the big open market squares and to several of the main ferry docks.  The market square is really interesting, although I wonder how much business it does with locals versus people just off the boats, so to speak.  The stalls seem to alternate between vegetables, fruit, and fish with some places to buy cooked food and coffee; I learned from one of the vegetable ladies that there's a law that a vegetable stand can't sell fruit and visa versa.  

While wandering through with Ted--he can go in the outside areas, just not the covered market--I ran into two nice ladies running a stall, one of whom had a daughter who lived in Florida.  They were very friendly, so they've now become my vegie stop (and source of information about the market law).  They were big dog fans and loved the fact that Ted liked their green beans.

The fish stands look interesting, although I haven't yet gotten enough moxy to try them.  I can't tell if the fish is actually coming from that boat and that fisherman or if they're just playing the part to sell things to us touristas.  The next time I see the nice vegie ladies I think I'll ask for a recommendation.

One thing I have tried are some of the berries here!  By dumb luck I arrived in the middle of Finnish berry season.  Although they are far from cheap, boy, are they delicious!

But enough food!

Like I said, right next to the market are several of the big passenger terminals for the boats going around the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland.  From there I could take boats to Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and a lot of other destinations.  Since I had Ted with me, I didn't go exploring around the terminals but headed along the big sidewalks that are right next to the water.

From there we wandered alongside the water from the Kauppatori (market square) all the way around Kaivopuisto Park at the far south end of central Helsinki.  (See, I told you I'd refer to places on the map!)   It's actually quite a lovely stroll with the Gulf of Finland and a series of small islands to the left and these granite outcroppings and very pricey apartments to the right.  When we hit the bottom, it turns out that there's this cool looking cafe, which I must try someday when I don't have Ted, and a huge crane that people bungie jump off of.  Several people did it while I was there, and all I kept thinking was, "Better you than me."  Ted meanwhile tried to mooch ice cream off the parents of one of the jumpers.

Once we got around the far end of the park, we clearly hit the nice mooring areas for private boats and the posh residences.

Out of curiosity, I went online to see how much homes in this area sold for: a ca. 2,500 square foot residence in the building pictured here was between 3-4 million Euros.  Definitely a place I'll have to visit, not live!  (although it does explain some of the wild rental prices I ran into)

BTW, I can tell Ted is really interested in my blogging; he's laying next to me snoring!

In any case, one of the cool finds down here was a little cafe where they'll let dogs sit; they even provide a water bucket for them.

Of course, I don't think it'll be open in the winter--then again, who knows--but I'll sure take advantage of it while the weather's good.

After refreshing ourselves with the snack of champions--Fanta and potato chips for me, water and potato chips for Ted--I took pity on a pretty pooped Golden and, after some r&r in the park, we headed back up to the center of town.  In the process, we walked through a lot of the areas where I'd looked at potential apartments, and I became even happier with the arrangement at the Towers; it wasn't that the neighborhood we were walking through wasn't nice--it was!--it was just much more cement and stone.  It kept imagining what a pain it would be taking Ted outside in the winter!

Finally, once we got back into the center I loaded Ted onto a crowded tram with the approval of a group of tram inspectors and practiced my tram balancing act.  It's funny; I used to be so good at moving trams and buses that I didn't even need to hold anything.  Guess it's another of those "childhood" skills I have to relearn. :-)

In any case, that's more about Helsinki and our wandering than you probably ever wanted to know.  Next post will be mainly pictures of our more personalized and much messier apartment!

BTW, Ted's tummy is much better now. Thanks to all of you who asked about him!

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