Crowds gather, excited to hear the annual choir mass in Helsinki.
There is a certain energy in the streets of Helsinki tonight. My friend Hanne explains: âWe call Wednesday our ‘little Friday’. “
People fill the city’s main boulevard. There are so many people that I wonder if this is some kind of demonstration. Then I see their dresses and their scores and realize that they are choral groups, each represented by a sign. From all corners of the country, some 800 singers converge on the massive steps of the Lutheran Cathedral, overlooking the neoclassical Senate Square. Crowds gather, excited to hear this annual choir mass.
The crowd calms down and the singers begin a series of catchy hymns. Although I cannot understand a word, the songs are sung with such a moving tune that I imagine they tell both the hard story of the Finns, their strong faith and their gratitude for being who they are – the Finnish people. At the end of the last hymn, balloons are released and the singers disperse, launching a festive initiative called âArt Goes to the Pubsâ. The city’s water points are about to be filled with songs.
Leaving the square, we stop at the edge of the sidewalk. There is no traffic, so I cross the street on foot. I cross half the boulevard before turning back to Hanne, who is still waiting for a signal to march. In defeat, I return to the curb. She says: âIn Finland we are waiting. It may be two in the morning and not a car in sight, but we wait.
I see that the Germans also respect authority.
Hanne says it’s different in Finland. âWe are shaking up authority. But we follow the laws … even the little ones. This is why we have such low crime.
Hanne signals an elegant restaurant with a perfectly preserved 1930s dining room. Its Alvar Aalto-designed functionalism is the kind of rectilinear design and practical elegance that Finns adore. Inside, a private office party rages on – in particular, a crayfish party. Crayfish are in season, but at $ 10 each it’s not an economical meal. Yet, across town, Finns practice crayfish tango: suck and savor a mini red lobster, throw in a glass of schnapps, sing a song and start over. the 99 Bottles of Beer the repetition just gets more fun with each turn.
Hanne shows me the table where Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, Finland’s sixth president, was still seated. He was the heroic George Washington of modern Finland, who led the fiery resistance against the USSR. Many Finns hold him personally responsible for keeping their country free during and after World War II. No Finnish military leader will ever hold the rank of “Field Marshal” of Mannerheim again. But anyone can suck a crayfish at their favorite table.
We continue to walk to return to our starting point, on the main square of the Senate. The city seems to be a tale of two cultures. The setting sun shines both on the Lutheran Cathedral and on the golden domes of the Russian Orthodox Church. They seem to clash, symbolizing how East and West have long clashed here in Finland. The second most powerful sea fortress in Europe – after Gibraltar – occupies an island in the harbor, which has enabled the village of Helsinki to become a booming capital.
Finns like to have fun and seem to be living well. I ask Hanne how Nordic Europe can be so prosperous when only Norway has oil.
She replies: âNorway has oil, Finland has Nokia. It’s like how Microsoft is for you in Seattle.
“So what’s the Swedish thing?” ” I ask.
Hanne sighs, showing the standard Scandinavian envy of the regional powerhouse. âThey never go into a war. They are always richâ¦ they just collect money all the time. The Swedes are like our big brother. They always win. Like ice hockey. We only won once, in the 90s. The Swedes – assuming they would win – had already written their victory song. But we won. We Finns always sing this song to give the Swedes a hard time. It’s the only song the Finns know in Swedish and every Finns can sing itâ¦ even today.
Our conversation is interrupted by a different song – a catchy hymn. Across the square is a church choir, marching towards another Helsinki pub as if it is going to fight a war for music.
– This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.
Rick Steves writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and arranges tours in Europe. You can email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.