Friday, August 16
My friend’s house was both huge and central. She stayed at home recovering from an early start getting her husband and stepson out to the airport and – once Mr. Waffle had nobly returned the hired car – we ventured out into Helsinki. We took ourselves to the market for lunch.
On the recommendation of our hosts, after lunch we went out to one of the islands in the bay called Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg in Swedish). Herself pointed out that if, at home, you were told that instructions were only available in Swedish, you would say, “How useless!” However, in Finland where the two official languages are Swedish and Finnish, the Swedish translation frequently saved our bacon as you have some hope of working out the Swedish but none at all of guessing what the Finnish might mean. I digress.
The island was rich in military museums and also boasted a submarine which we visited.
There was a lot about Mannerheim and the Winter War and we became reasonably expert. I was dimly aware that the Finns had fought the Russians alone at the start of World War II (or the Continuity War as it is known in Finland). I am now very aware that Russian invaded and the Finns fought back in 1939/40 and basically fought the Russians to a standstill. Apparently the Finns said, “They are so many/and our country is so small/where will we bury them all?” While numbers are a bit difficult to establish the estimate is that the Finns lost 20,000 men and the Russians some 230,000. Herself read a book on it in my friend’s house while we were there and she was a mine of information. She described how the Russians had so many men and were so indifferent to their welfare that they used to send rows of them across the land mined by the Finns. The Russians would walk along in rows and sing songs of the revolution until they got blown up. After a while they stopped using men and started using horses which, apparently, the Finns found very upsetting. Anyhow Mannerheim led the Finns and they loved him. He was very old and had been part of the Russian army in the Russo-Japanese war. He didn’t like the communists much though. Finland was a duchy of Sweden for 700 years and then part of Russian for 100 years before becoming independent in 1917. There was a super guide who told us all about the Winter War, basically the Finns defeated the Soviets and should possibly have bailed out at that point but when the Germans were fighting Russia on the basis of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they supported Germany. In the longer run this was poor from a tactical point of view and they lost parts of Finland to Russia in the post war settlement. Did you know that the Russians still have Karelia? Who knew? Well, the Finns I suppose. Our guide’s grandparents were evacuated from there to Helsinki and never got back. They had some Russian equipment captured in the Winter War in the museum. Our guide said that a Russian visitor once asked whether they would give it back. Our guide replied, “When you give back Karelia.” Stubborn bunch the Finns with a difficult neighbour.
I said I would make dinner that evening (as there were five of us and only one of our hostess, it only seemed fair). It was a bit on the late side when we got back and I made a raid on the corner shop for dinner ingredients. I got chicken, green beans, potatoes, meringues and ice cream. How much did it come to, gentle reader? €118. I was not the better of it. Herself said it was the first time she had ever seen me check a receipt. I will tell you now, chicken is dear in Finland.
Saturday, August 17
My friend took us to a wonderful outdoor pool right in the centre of town. Herself opined it might have been the best thing we did on holidays. There was a heated pool and a sectioned off bit of baltic water as well as a sauna (obviously). We swam around in the pools for ages admiring the architecture of central Helsinki. I cannot recommend it highly enough. This photo is in no way representative of the extent of the pools or the delightfulness of the location but it’s something.
Encouraged by my friend, I took a big step and left the boys on their own in the pool for a bit. Call me over-protective. I had a grand old chat with the life guard who turned out to be from Gran Canaria which was a bit of a surprise.
Quite a while into our odyssey – I’d tested both pools, I’d showered outside, I’d sat in a deckchair – I put a hand to my waist and I thought, how odd, I didn’t know there was a seam there and then realised, to my utter horror, that I had left my underpants on outside my swimsuit. It turns out it is true, nobody looks at women over 50 particularly not their family who resolutely assured me that they hadn’t noticed at all.
It was our first time testing a sauna with real live Finns inside. Exciting. They get grumpy if you leave the door open we discovered.
We then went to the nearby market for lunch which was successful beyond my wildest dreams as everyone found something for lunch. Although it does not appear so from the photo, the boys were delighted with the classic ketchup, squid and chip combination.
We polished off the day with a wander around looking at art deco buildings and a coffee in the square above the fancy art museum. We didn’t go in but the children climbed on top of it which must be worth some mild art points.
Then back to the house where Mr. Waffle and the children stayed home and my friend and I got dressed up and went out. I have to say, it was lovely to spend so much time with her and have the children get to know her as well. She is my oldest friend and we have so many people and memories in common we spent ages reminiscing and I was quite pleased to have so many of my stories verified in front of the children by a third party.
Alas, we did all manage to get sunburnt though which is an achievement in Helsinki. There I am with herself looking pinkish. Has to be said that no matter what way you slice it, I am at least twice the size of her. Sigh.
Sunday August 18
I signed myself up to the Helsinki scooter app and scooted to mass. I was very proud. Mass was in English (happily) lengthy and crowded and, bizarrely, the missalettes were imported from Dublin.
The electric scooters were a hit with the children also.
In the afternoon, we went to the funfair. Probably not the cheapest outing we’ve ever been on but my friend came too and we sat around and had tea while watching the children undertaking death defying rides and ourselves went on the mildest possible roller coaster.
Monday, August 19
My poor friend went off to the office. Herself and myself went out together. We had breakfast in a local cafe and then took ourselves off to Stockmann (big Department store) where I indulged myself by buying multiple Moomin mugs all of which I got home safely.
We picked up unusual presents in the food market. Reindeer crisps at €8 a packet anyone? My father got the moose pâté. I await his verdict with interest.
In the afternoon we went to the design museum which was not a massive hit with the children other than the chair in the entrance hall which they loved. I quite enjoyed exploring the VR version of the Finnish installation at, if memory serves, the Venice Biennale but they didn’t really go for it. I had a lot of VR on this holiday and, for what it’s worth, I quite liked it when I wasn’t inadvertently walking into walls in the real world.
We went off and had a sustaining cup of tea before heading home for our last evening in Finland. My friend was a really wonderful hostess. She was calm and relaxed and this was more notable as she has a very busy job and she was moving to Brussels the next month (in fact next week will see her in a large house in Brussels which she may yet have the thrill of hosting us in).
Tuesday, August 20
We were up at the crack of dawn for our very early flight. My friend was up to as she was, ironically, flying to the Åland islands that morning. She reported that it was picturesque with great cycling infrastructure. Another time, perhaps.
Meanwhile, we were in very good time for our flight.
Inquiring minds will be delighted to know that I finished the last edition of the LRB which I had brought with me on the plane and stepped off in Dublin unencumbered by any back issues.
We got home to find the cat not displeased to see us; an embarrassingly generous present from our Hiberno-Dutch friends who had very briefly stayed in our house while we were away (they can stay anytime); a copy of a magazine in which Daniel and Michael had their poetry published together with royalties in the form of a €10 book voucher each and, of course, a new issue of the LRB.
Also, we’ve discovered that Mr. Next Door Neighbour’s brother is married to a Finn and lives in Helsinki and so does the brother of the man who cut the boys’ hair on our return home. There’s a lot of it about.
How were your own holidays?