Helsinki Notes


Just random notes to myself about trip to Helsinki. If you're from Helsinki feel free to correct anything. Sorry this isn't much of a "Here's my impressions of Helsinki as a tourist destination" type of post. It's just a random stream of thoughts added to over a couple of days.

Posted times are in 24 hours with no minutes. A store might list hours as 11−20. Open at 11, close at 20. Maybe that an EU thing but since Helsinki is my first stop it's new to me.

Lots of outdoor seating. I'm curious how that goes in winter. I assume no one sits outside in the winter but I wonder what months they do sit outside.

Stores close early. Most cafes were closing at 3pm on Sunday even though in summer and it's light until 10pm. They also close relatively early other days. 6:30 or 7. Maybe that's just a downtown thing vs the suburbs? Convenience stores close at 10pm. Again that might be just downtown but they're open 24hrs in the USA, Japan, Singapore...

College education is paid by the government if you pass the exams. Even foreigners can apply if they can prove they can pay living expenses.

Nice public transportation. Buses, Trams, Trains, Taxis. It's sad to me most places in the USA are so bad in this regard. For example finding a taxi in SF is nearly impossible. It seems easy here. Helsinki only has 600k people, SF has 800k, but Helsinki has like 10 tram lines that run every 15 mins. I guess they're slightly more expensive. $3 a ride instead of $2. But the excuse in SF for not having more is the population density is low. That might be true compared to Japan but Helsinki's is only 1/3 of SFs and yet they manage to have all this infrastructure. There's a train station with 20 platforms. The whole country only has 5.3 million people. California's population is 6x that. Heck, just the Bay Area's is 3x that. Why can't we have more trains going around the bay?

There's a lot more variety of food than I expected. Kebabs are everywhere. I'm curious where that comes from. Otherwise, on top of European restaurants like Italian, French, etc I've seen several Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Nepalese, etc... I even stumbled on a Singaporean place. No idea what any of these places are like (not planning to find out either) but if I lived here it seems like there'd be plenty of variety.

Went to Kuukuu for dinner. Should have ordered the Finnish meatballs but talked myself into the steak special because it was more expensive and the special. It was basically just a steak as can be had anywhere. It was good but not so special. For dessert I had the Finnish cheese plate which was interesting. 3 pieces of cheese and some fig jam, no bread or crackers. One cheese was very mild, one was really stinky but it tasted good. The 3rd was somewhere in between. I wouldn't order it again but I'm happy for the experience.

I also realized how much wine knocks me out. I drink it out of feeling un−adult not to. In fact my x−wife complained that I didn't drink. I realized I can order a sweet wine and at least that makes it drinkable for me but toward the end of dinner I start feeling like I'm going to pass out

My friend Nanna told me I had to try something called Neulamuikut. I think she said neula = needle and muikut is a kind of fish so they're needle fish. They're served battered and with potatoes, veggies, and garlic mayo. Yum.

I don't know if the hotel TV represents normal Finnish TV but I'm disappointed at how many American programs are on. Let me rephrase that. I'm disappointed at how many SHITTY American programs are on. Programs many Americans are sad exist and feel like America is getting stupider by the minute are also over here. I hope Finns see them as "damn, some Americans are stupid" and not as "wow, that's how I should be too".

I'm realizing how expensive this is all going to be. If I manage to keep the hotels to $120 a night I can still expect to spend another $80 a day on food etc. For example today I had breakfast (2 pastries, 1 milk, $6). I took the tram ($3). I got some snow peas ($2). I went to a museum ($13). I got lunch at a cafe ($14). Dinner will probably be €30−40 which is $39−$52. That's $80−90. Let's assume it's $80. So that means I'm spending around $200 a day or $73k a year. Not bad I guess. Add in a few more things like transportation and it will be more like $100k. Which is fine. I can afford that for a −little− while. It's just something to think about. The way to save money is to "live" somewhere. I could probably get an apartment for $1500 a month ($50 a day) and not eat out every meal. Of course I could also eat cheaper but cheaper generally = fast food as far as I can tell. That might be okay in SG or KL but over here I get the impression fast food = not local.

There's a lot of museums in Helsinki, over 80 according to one of the tourism sites. Today I went to the Finnish Design Museum. I love beautiful design but I'm also mixed on it. I learned a little about Alvar Aalto and Kaj Franck, two famous Finnish designers from the Helsinki Design Walk tour. I guess Alvar Aalto's most famous design is his 3 legged stool. His design is super simple although apparently it took a long time to design the tech for making the legs. If he actually came up with the process for making the legs that's amazing. But otherwise it's hard not to look at the stool and think "stool". Kaj Franck is also very famous for a mug that equals "mug" as in it's nearly as simple as possible and still be a mug. Now I love both of those designs but if you go back to older mugs I wonder how many were just as simple originally. Did these guys really "design"? Of course they chose to be simple whereas other designers might have chose ornate. But, how do I know they aren't famous because they managed to sell them (best sales force, best marketing) and not best design. In other words, maybe 1000 other designers also made similar or exactly the same designs being so simple but these 2 guys are the successful ones and so going backward we're crediting them with amazing design whereas their actual achievement was in distribution.

Similarly I learned Marimekko is Finnish. I love their designs as well. Many are bright and colorful and relatively simple. But again, is it that their designs are amazing and appealing or is it rather that they've been amazing at sales, marketing, expanding their market etc... They come out with a new design and it's all over the world in days and by sheer presence it's a new thing. Again, is it the design that's amazing or is it distribution. How many other designers have had similar designs but don't have the machinery in place to make it a worldwide brand? No idea.

I'm not trying to take away anything from these designers. I love the designs. I'd like to own their products. I'm just thinking out loud. The tour guide claimed that the most famous Marimekko design, the flowers, was originally hated by the owner of the company. He vowed never to ship a flower pattern under the Marimekko brand but the designer persisted. They eventually shipped it and it's their #1 most famous pattern. Similarly Alvar Aalto's Stool 60 was not expected to sell over 8 million units.

I went to the Kiasma museum which is contemporary art museum. I never quite understand the terms for art. I usually enjoy contemporary art museums although I'm often conflicted as to which things are art and which are pretentious bs 😛 For example one of the pieces there was a high school gym sized room. The artist scraped the paint off 2 of the walls to make 2 large nonsense words in a very plain block style. They left the scraped paint on the floor next to the walls. The description said it was up to the viewer to make up a meaning for the words. There was impact to the piece. Such a large room with nothing in it except these giant words. But .... really? 2 nonsense words in simple block letters? Reminds me of Edward Ruscha's word art. I like them but I can't tell if there is any talent or if it's just all about the chutzpah to decide to do something so simple. Most people wouldn't consider things that simple to be enough of an effort to actually pass off as a project. Where do you draw the line between art and just pretense? I still enjoy going to those kinds of exhibits though. It helps that's the building itself is very interesting architecturally.

Other random things about Helsinki. A few of the roads downtown can have 4 or more separate "lanes" each with its own crosswalk signals such that the signals might say it's safe to cross the first lane but not the second or 3rd for example. Imagine a 6 lane road divided into 4 parts. 2 parts are car lanes. 2 parts are train lanes. The signals might say it's okay to cross the first car lane but not the train lanes.

Another traffic thing, a few roads have real bike lines. Not just a line painted on the road like in California but an actual paved lane specifically for bicycles separate from the sidewalk and separate from the car lanes. There are even places where the lanes cross an intersection and have a crossing separate from the cars and pedestrians with their own set of signals. I don't know how common this is and if it's just a downtown thing or something that's all over Finland. I know SF has at least 1 bicycle specific light at Market and Valencia. Unfortunately cyclists in SF are assholes and ignore all the traffic rules so almost all of them are unaware of that signal and ignore it. I got into an accident with another bike there as I crossed when the bike signal turned green for me and another cyclist going down Market completely ignored the red light for him and crossed my right of way.

There's often no air conditioning. Given that it's rarely hot enough to need it it makes sense but there were some buildings that, at least for me, needed it. For example one of the museums was getting pretty hot on the top floor. Maybe they just needed to open some windows.

It watched some taxis pull up the curb to wait for fares. They would just drive their front wheel up over the curb a little and then slide it back off to get the car close to the curb. The curbs are only about 3 inches high so that's easy where as curbs in the USA at least in most places I've lived are more like 6−7 inches high so you couldn't do that and you have to back in to get close. I know that's a pretty random thing to notice. I guess it's because I was sitting outside eating dinner and it turned out to be right in front of a cab stop. Interestingly the first cab was a BMW. The second cab was a Mercedes with an add for Mercedes on the side. Seems like a good idea. I hate cabs in the USA. They are always filthy inside and the drivers rarely have any sense of service. Sigh.

You can pay for almost anything with a credit card. I guess that's semi common in the USA. Lots of people pay with their ATM card. I guess it's mostly just me that's not used to paying for $2 or $3 things with my card. Even cooler IMO is all the restaurants I've been to have a handheld gadget they bring to your table to pay. The slide the card in and in a few seconds they're done. No waiting for them to take your card back to the register.

That brings up one thing I'm not sure of. Some guide I read said no tipping needed or expected but, every restaurant receipt had an "extra:_______" spot on it which made me feel like I should be tipping even though the guide said otherwise.

If you come to Helsinki, off the top of my head, a few things I wanted to know but didn't realize I wanted to know it till I got here.

Using the tram: You can just get on the tram at the front door and pay the driver. At the time of this writing it's €2.80 if you pay the driver and only €2.20 if you get a ticket beforehand. Some of the stops have a ticket machine. You can buy a single use ticket or other ones as well.

Riding the train: I needed to take the train to Hartwall Areena for Assembly. It's just one stop. I got to the station and tried to use the ticket machine. It told me there are no trains going there even though ALL trains go there. I went to the ticket windows and was told I should have just gotten an HSL ticket, the same ticket used for the tram (and the bus). A single use ticket lets you ride any and all public transportation for 1 hour, train, tram, or bus. Knowing that, the next time I tried to use the machine I ran into a new problem. The machines don't take cash. They take credit cards but your card must have a chip in it. Mine only has the magnetic stripe on the back which is apparently old tech and all the cool countries use the chips now. I called my credit card company and they don't offer cards with chips so I'll have to go to the ticket counter which the first time I went had a 10 minute wait 😞

Once you get on the train there is a box you slide the ticket in to get the ticket stamped. They only do spot checks so it's possible no one will check your ticket.

At Pasila, the station for Hartwall Areena just walk to the end of the station (the same direction the train is going). That end of the station goes directly into the arena.

Coming back there was a machine on the platform that took cash. The first time I rode the train back I got a ticket from the machine. The second time the train pulled in before I could get to the machine. I got on the train and crossed my fingers. 2 conductors came by and I paid them. I'm not sure if that's how it's supposed to work or if I just got lucky being a foreigner that they didn't fine me for not paying before I got on (since otherwise I could have gotten by without paying).

Nanna suggested I ride the 3T tram around the city as it's a circular track. It's actually a figure 8 track and the train is known as the 3T or the 3B depending on which part of the course it's on. Apparently in a few days they are renumbering them to train 2 and 3 but the point is you can jump on either the 2 or the 3 and ride it around its entire course and get an idea of Helsinki. It's about an hour to go around the whole thing. I'd choose a weekday if you want a seat and I'd catch it directly in front of the main station as lots of people get off there.

I found it interesting there's no barrier between the train and the outside. What I mean is I guess I'm used to Japan where first you have to buy a ticket. You put the ticket into the turnstile to get onto the platform. No ticket = can't enter the station. In Helsinki there are no turnstiles. You can just walk into the station directly onto the train. That's not that unusual, buses and the muni are the same in SF for the outdoor stops. Both are basically an honor system where they do spot checks and if you get caught there's a fine hopefully large enough to make it not worth your while to risk it. Nanna claimed the Finns generally feel a social obligation to do the right thing whereas, at least IMO many Americans try to get away with whatever they can. I wish I knew where that attitude came from and how to fix it. But, that brought up another interesting thought. Nanna claimed Finns are fairly honest so they don't need a more strict system. I'd say Japanese are considered pretty honest too. But Japanese have the most un−trusting system. They have way more ways to check that people aren't cheating. If they're so trustworthy why do they need all the security cameras etc.... No idea. Maybe the # of people make a big difference.

So, would I recommend coming to Helsinki as a tourist? Yes but I'd qualify that by I haven't been anywhere else yet. It's nice place. The downtown is very small so you can walk almost anywhere. There's tons of tours to take. Bus tours, boat tours, walking tours. Tons of museums, lots of restaurants and shopping. 3−4 days is probably enough but it's certainly nice here at the beginning of August.

Helsinki, Assembly 2013