Rick Steves writes in his Scandinavia guide that “to do the city justice, two days is ideal.” Nonsense — twice that time wasn’t nearly enough to even skim the surface of the surface. Helsinki is a puzzle box of a city, with something new revealed at each turn. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than inside Stockmann, the 80-year-old, eight-story department store that anchors the city center. Downstairs are toothbrushes and other toiletries; upstairs is high fashion selling for thousands of euros. In between are floors hawking everything from suits to sushi, with bakeries and fast-food joints tucked into the corners.
Next door is one of Helsinki’s unheralded wonders: the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, a mammoth expanse of books, most in Finnish and English — three stories’ worth, with a restaurant perched on the second floor. The Academic Bookstore, as it’s known in English, has been around for more than 100 years. There are several other smaller outposts scattered through the city, but this is the mother ship. “We are proud of our store,” the burly man behind the register tells me.
We speak for awhile about how stores like this have all but disappeared in the United States. The man, a jolly giant, suddenly looks sad.
“I had not heard of that,” he says. “The Kindle and the e-reader are not popular here. We love our books.” Sure enough, when I think about it, at every local coffee shop I’d visited, everyone had a book. In fact, several Helsinki-based publishing houses are open to the public. Tomes here are not inexpensive — hardbacks sell for upward of 30 euros — but they are gloriously designed. As Anna would later explain, Finns like to give books as gifts, and the decorative covers almost eliminate the need for wrapping paper.
If the Finns are indeed a modest people, they do take great pride in one thing: fashioning the eye-popping out of the everyday, turning a mundane nothing into a special something. It’s more than an idea; it’s an “ideology,” to quote Nils-Gustav Hahl, who, in 1935, was among the four self-proclaimed idealists who founded the furniture-design company Artek, which still has its flagship store at Eteläesplanadi 18, just across the street from the four-block park that sits in the middle of the city.
Artek still sells pieces designed by its founders and its early designers — a curved birch-wood chair based upon the 1936 design of Alvar Aalto; Aalto and first wife Aino’s brass bell-shaped pendulum lights originally commissioned the same year for the city’s Savoy Restaurant; and Ben af Schultén’s sleek, cozy white sofa that dates back to the 1960s. On the day I visit, an IKEA truck is parked just outside the window. I suggest in jest that perhaps the Swedish furniture company is spying on its competition — a meager joke that gets no response. I was told later: “IKEA is what you buy before you grow up. Artek is what you get after.”
That same great pride is on display at the Arabia factory on the outskirts of town, where dishes are treated like museum pieces — even those that aren’t, in fact, kept behind glass in the on-site museum. Several artists are kept on staff, allowed to work on their own personal pieces when they’re not putting some decorative touch on a children’s cereal bowl or fashioning a water pitcher to look like a curled-up sheet of paper. The guided tour of the factory, where the tunnel kilns run several hundred feet long, is a must during a trip to Helsinki; the 137-year-old brand name is revered more than anything else in town.
And if you’re looking for the perfect Helsinki dish to eat off your Arabia dishware, that would be reindeer meat. The stuff is everywhere — from the market near the docks, where it’s sold fresh, to airport stores where it comes in pop-top cans for in-flight dining. On my final night in Helsinki, I’m sent by locals to Juuri Keittio on Korkeavuorenkatu street, a relative newcomer on the dining scene that serves sapas — Scandinavian tapas — in addition to main courses.
Among the tiny tastes offered: a slow-cooked minced mixture of elk and wild boar meat (surprisingly underwhelming); charbroiled vendace (a tiny freshwater fish, not unlike a minnow); lamb sausages with homemade vodka mustard (slightly bigger than a Vienna sausage); and other things seldom found in, say, Texas. But the smoked reindeer heart is a revelation — a simple thing so utterly rich and complex, a little plate is not enough. And so I order another plate, then another, trying to fathom the flavors.
And then I realize: There’s no need to decipher it. This one simple dish, like Helsinki itself, is at once uncomplicated and unfathomable. It’s a small thing that, once you experience it, grows more and more mammoth the longer it lingers on the taste buds and in the memory. I will return to Helsinki in summer. Winter too. Whenever it will have me.