By Alan Mattli
A lot of people will tell you that they are “not good fliers”, by which they mean: “I feel the same kind of reservation as everyone else when entering an airplane, which is perfectly natural, given that I am entrusting my life to a steel monstrosity that shouldn’t be able to fly. However, unlike most others, I don’t keep these feelings to myself”.
As for me, I’m not really sure whether I identify as such a person. Do I worry about flying? Of course I do. But since I essentially view life as one long chain of things trying to kill you until one of them finally succeeds, I feel it would be presumptuous to align myself with otherwise perfectly rational human beings who just lose their marbles twice a year when their respective families force them to fly to Ibiza. Suffice to say that, for all intents and purposes, I don’t hate flying. On a good day, I even find – much to my own surprise – that I am able to enjoy it.
Placing my apprehension of flying into the larger context of everyday things that might suddenly bump me off (cars, trams, wasps, toothbrushes) allows me to focus on the more important aspects of life, which is why I asked Howard (who is an excellent flier, by the way), at an altitude of roughly 10,000 feet somewhere between Zurich and Berlin, the following question: “Why are there holes in this pretzel?” I don’t know why this seemed like such a pressing issue at the time but I had never seen a pretzel before that sported three small holes on its sides.
With an unexpected sprightliness in his voice – unexpected because we had arrived at Zurich airport roughly at sunrise –, Howard answered: “That’s where they put the butter in, I expect.”
“Butter?”, I said doubtfully. “Why would they butter a pretzel through holes? That sounds like one of those American inventions that are designed to maximise the cholesterol content in foodstuffs. What ever happened to simply cutting them open?”
Howard shrugged. “Air Berlin”, he said, as if that would somehow explain it.
We continued to chat about how the holes might in fact only be partially filled with butter, sharing the space with helium to make sure the plane stays afloat, but we were forced to abandon our potentially groundbreaking scientific discussion when we touched down in Berlin Tegel and had to find a place where we could have an early lunch – one that didn’t have holes stamped in it, if at all possible.
We concluded our search at a rather standard-looking food court where the individual stations seemed to deal primarily in hamburgers, fries, and fruit, of all things. It was an odd combination but it did draw quite a crowd, so we each went our separate ways to find the item that struck our respective fancies. I settled for a burger whose display image made it look fairly edible (it was, albeit no more than that) while Howard purchased something so mundane I can’t for the life of me remember what it was exactly (pizza?). The only reason I have committed my own choice of dish to memory is that said burger’s price and advertisement made it look like a sandwich of relatively sizeable proportions. Much to Howard’s amusement, however, I ended up appeasing my hunger on a burger whose volume roughly equated that of a deflated tennis ball.
A few hours later, after yet another uneventful flight – save for our seats, which were located directly behind three very Finnish-looking gentlemen, allowing us to regale our ears on that beautifully weird language for the very first time that week –, our second plane of the day landed in Helsinki. Or rather, in a vast forest containing the city’s airport, which makes the landing approach a somewhat arresting experience (“Um, why are there trees all but grazing our plane’s belly? Is that normal? Should we panic or… Oh look, a runway!”).
Like most airports, Helsinki’s is a non-descript run-of-the-mill complex that isn’t actually located anywhere near the city whose name it so proudly bears. In this case, though, the dislocation is quite spectacular, especially considering that Finland is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe. Still, probably in an effort to anticipate future surges in urban population, it takes 40 minutes to reach the city centre from “Helsinki-Vantaa” by cab (or maybe our deviously non-scruffy driver just conned us, since the bill was horrendous), a time I spent half-asleep after I realised that most of the scenery would be restricted to the odd line of trees flanking a medium-sized expressway.
We reached our hostel – the no-frills-value-for-money Eurohostel in the Katajanokka (“Skatudden” for Swedish loyalists) neighbourhood, a lovely little sub-peninsula of the larger Helsinki peninsula – and, after being informed by a snappy receptionist that the process of paying bus fares in Helsinki revolves around little boxes (we’d get the hang of it, we agreed), went for a stroll.
Helsinki is a curious little city. It boasts an urban population of roughly 600,000 people but you’d never guess it, as most of the actual city life is restricted to an estimated two-kilometre radius. This includes the vast harbour esplanade, whose proportions bring to mind the stereotypically outsized squares of communist dictatorships – an understated reminder that just 20 years prior, this was the capital of the “free world’s” easternmost border. But make no mistake: even though Helsinki would probably not make my top five list of Places Where I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life, I can think of few other sensations as appealing as stepping out into the glorious afternoon sun after flying over half a continent (even if it is only Europe) and strolling through a neat, safe, friendly, and unbelievably cosy Scandinavian town. If you travel despite the efforts it takes to get to a place, Helsinki on a warm summer late-afternoon is one of the most satisfying experiences you will ever make.
Walking into the heart of the city from Katajanokka, me and Howard first passed the impressive Uspenski katedraali, a beautiful Eastern Orthodox cathedral with striking red walls, imposingly placed on a little hillock on the sub-peninsula’s northwest corner. A few minutes later, we found ourselves in front of the presidential palace, which seemed to come out of nowhere and looked endearingly out of place amid its surroundings; cold hotel buildings, office blocks, and harbour warehouses. After a further 200 metres or so, we turned right and beheld for the first time the city’s most famous and most prominent landmark; the Helsingin tuomiokirkko, the beamingly white Helsinki Cathedral. Apart from it adorning the cover of our guidebook, Howard and I both remembered it being featured in a Donald Duck story at one point but neither photographs nor Don Rosa’s drawings can really do it justice. Completed in 1852 by one Carl Ludvig Engel, the neoclassicist church with its white pillars and turquoise domes is much bigger than it looks on any pictoral representation, a fact that is helped by the ridiculously steep flight of stairs one has to climb to properly see its base. But after we had mastered them (I was sure to check my pulse after that unexpected bit of vertical exercise), we were treated to a fabulous view over the vast cathedral square and over the roofs of the adjacent buildings. Pleased with our choice of travel destination, we both sighed contentedly. “Dinner?”, Howard asked. I nodded.
So we ventured into the modern business centre of Helsinki, which is a much more agreeable place than the description makes it sound. Shops and restaurants line the pedestrian areas – broad enough to avoid the build-up of a crowd, narrow enough to retain a certain cosy charm – and the warm daylight, which, at this time of the year, persists long into what central Europeans would call the night, is reflected in the windows of the building to quite a lovely effect. We chose a restaurant more or less at random – though we were childishly giddy when the waitress at the entrance greeted us with the Finnish “hello”, namely “hei hei”, which to this day is my favourite way of saying hello – and ate our way through three acceptable if standard courses, which included a dish called “Grandma’s Meatballs” (oversized Ikea meatballs with noodles).
After dinner, we continued our exploratory ramble through the city streets until we found a bustling bar called “Kappeli” near the harbour and settled down for a drink, all the while admiring the fact that the sky was still a healthy azure by 10.30pm (the rather strong line of sunlight at the horizon would remain until long after midnight). We talked long about this and that, drifting in and out of conversations about how we weren’t able to understand a single non-pictoral street sign – some things we were able to piece together thanks to Finland catering to its minuscule Swedish-speaking population by writing down every piece of official information bilingually –, about how we would adopt the Finnish way of saying “thank you” (“kiitos”) for the week, and about how much we liked this curious place so far.
To be continued.