It was with some trepidation that I took my son to Finland for a week. We were not going North to Lapland to visit Santa (who he still thinks is real, I am pleased to say, at the grand old age of seven) as it was too far from our base in Helsinki. I had some initial concerns that nothing else we did would make up for the absence of that jolly bearded gentleman. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We found enough kids’ activities to more than fill seven days, and kept so busy that not only did Noah fail to mention his missing dad or siblings once, he didn’t even ask what he was getting for Christmas, an event that is usually a daily occurrence in our household from mid-April on.
I packed the obligatory northern hemisphere sartorial items of fleece and length (long-sleeved shirt, long trousers), and so was rather pleasantly surprised to discover when we landed that Finland was going through an abnormally balmy period (global warming has its advantages) and temperatures hovered in the high 70s every day. The one day it did rain, we took the very efficient Finnish public transport system to the Heureka Science Center and learned that dry ice freezes plastic gloves and deflates helium balloons. Noah also got the chance to fly like an astronaut – if you believe that astronauts are attached to long elasticated string and bounce up and down on the moon, that is. He had a blast.
On the other, sunnier days, we explored land and sea – frequently sea, as the country is mostly underwater in the form of lakes and inlets, with land protruding every now again in just enough mass to build brightly-colored paneled houses and small wooden waterside huts. The latter, we found out on our Helsinki sightseeing tour (24 euros for the two of us for ninety minutes, but nothing’s a bargain) are actually saunas. At a grand total of two million of them, Finland has more saunas than any other country in the world. It even has a Sauna Museum in Muurame, but unfortunately that place is 300 miles north of Helsinki and too far for our patience, even given fast and regular ground transportation options.
We took boat trips everywhere, and when not on the water, we climbed towers to look down over it. Korkeasaari Zoo is a fifteen-minute cruise from Kauppatori (the marketplace, from whence all tour boats depart) and the cost of 8 euros for the boat ticket includes entry. It doesn’t however include the purchase of a small stuffed toy (a furry leopard, henceforth to be known as Jag Fire) which we bought in honor of the newborn leopard cub twins at the zoo, and which set me back 9 euros. Finland is not cheap, or even reasonably-priced, by any standard. The zoo was a bizarre adventure as the cages have been overgrown with shrubs and weeds in order to give the animals more privacy and comfort. This strategy has worked incredibly well from the animals’ viewpoint as they are now so comfortable and private that it is actually impossible to spot most of them. We went from cage to cage with Noah shouting “another invisible koala bear” as we spotted absolutely nothing at all. We did manage to see the snow leopard, the afore-mentioned cubs, a rather handsome tiger, several uncaged pigeons and a reindeer (I insisted on this, it is Santa-land, after all), before calling it a day and heading back for the twice-hourly ferry, which left precisely at quarter to five. You can set your watch by Finnish boat schedules.
We also cruised over to Suomenlinna, the ancient island (what else?) fortress, set a few miles offshore. It’s a large complex of multiple officers’ houses and barracks that have now been turned into a variety of museums (historical, military, geographical, political – you name it, they have it). The highlight of the morning’s adventure was the museum of World War weapons, not for the alliteration, but rather because I took pictures of Noah in front of several old tanks and trucks to his delighted announcement: “Daddy will be so jealous!” It was the only time on the trip when he wanted to see the digital photo afterwards to make sure it was suitably framed. Luckily, I passed the Annie Liebowitz test.
On other days, we hung out in town and visited Gio’s for the best gelati in Helsinki and Stockmann’s (bang in the centre of town) for everything else. Stockmann’s is the Finnish equivalent of Neiman Marcus or Harrods and appeared to have everything we wanted to buy at prices we had no intention of paying (so no toys for Noah this holiday – I got him the leopard cub, that’s enough already surely). Whenever we needed something practical, we would chorus “Let’s go to Stockmann’s” and sure enough it would be there. Croissants? Stockmann’s! Fill-your-own candy? Stockmann’s! Fresh fruit? Stockmann’s! They even had diapers for our friend’s two-year-old son, when she found she’d left her supplies back at the house. Luckily, downtown Helsinki is small enough that you can walk everywhere, so my child’s obsession with this department store did not seriously cut into our tourist time.
We didn’t want to spend the whole trip in Helsinki and its environs, so we took a train a couple of hours and/or 150 km away to the small partly neo-classical town of Tampere. Of course, we were not there for its wealth of museums or pockets of attractive architecture (although it does have them). No, indeed. On arrival, we took a five-minute taxi ride – because no one could give us the right bus number – (10 euros, eegads!) to the Saarkanniemi Amusement Park to visit its trove of treasures: dolphinarium, planetarium, children’s zoo, rides, and observation tower. We started by going up the tower – ostensibly to allow Noah to pick his favorite rides, but actually because Mummy likes views and I was damned if we weren’t going to do anything for me this holiday. I had never realized how flat, wooded and watery Finland is before – nor quite how many of the rides suitable for a seven-year-old were closed, making the 21 euro (each!) entry fee seem even more outrageous than it had when I paid it at the front gate.
The rides were a wash-out – in particular due to the Airplane Adventure ride. Noah did this alone (at his insistence) and smiled happily as he got into his aircraft. Then he completely freaked out as the airplane went up and down at bizarre angles. He kept screaming “Stop the ride! I want to get off!” to no avail (it is easier to stop the world, apparently), as Mummy hung her head in shame and whispered “Not my child! Not my child!” After that experience, he was put off the remaining options. I wasn’t too unhappy about this as they generally consisted of roller coasters that flung your body from side-to-side, upside down, round and round, or combined all three movements in one great adrenaline rush, and I have never been a fan of being hurtled through the sky without a parachute. An injury-free car crash has never held much appeal either. So we did the only other ride that didn’t look likely to make us vomit. It was the good old-fashioned water tube experience. As we clambered aboard a large orange plastic tyre and sat in the puddles of water left from prior rafters, I knew I was not going to escape this one without my skirt limply clinging to my bum. Sure enough, after the grade IV rapids, waterfall, whirpool (alas, no spa) and tube twister, we were suitably soaked. Fortunately, the sun was out so we could dry off quickly. Unfortunately, the park was pretty empty so there were no lines and I had no easy excuse not to do the whole thing again, so we did.
Then, it was on to the children’s zoo, where Noah showed far greater interest in the two bounce houses and playground than the guinea pigs, rabbits, llamas (I think, Do they even have these in Finland? Isn’t it too cold?) and horses, even though the pony rides were fully available.
The planetarium had a show running when we entered the building and the entry doors were locked, so we couldn’t take a peek. I don’t think we missed much as the instructions and content is all in Finnish and it’s not one of the six languages I speak or either of the two in which Noah chooses to converse. I was bemused to see a large wall illustration of all the planets that had Pluto crossed out with a big black “X” made from packing tape, and no further justification. I’ve never quite understood what poor old Pluto did wrong to get eliminated from planetary status and was rather hoping to learn something – which I wouldn’t have, even with an explanation, as we are back to the only-in-Finnish thing again.
The dolphinarium more than made up for the astrological weaknesses experienced earlier. They had a gang of five unruly dolphins (Bessy, Tessy, Messy, Leslie, and Nessy, from what I could gather) that performed very well for the circus. Jumps through series of hoops, leaps to knock balls with noses, surface waddling with flippers in the air and games of catch were all executed with great aplomb. They even applauded themselves with loud squeaks and flipper-claps. Unfortunately, they had no audience participation. More unfortunately, I had told Noah that they did (as I had seen a photo of a kid touching a dolphin, I didn’t just make it up, really), so we sat in the front row in order to get him into dolphin-land and me with a photo to show off back home. We kept waiting for his opportunity and only when the last dolphin had left the building did we, the groupies, give up on the after-party and head back to Helsinki.
Summer is a marvelous time for unusual events in the city. One evening, they had Formula One Ferraris parked in the market square and were offering racetrack simulators to those brave or foolish enough to want to know what it feels like to be Michael Schumacher. Another evening, there was a display of modern military equipment, cordoned off in Parliament Square. What is it for?, asked Noah. I suggested he ask one of the unusually ubiquitous soldiers milling around the machinery. The cadet explained that the display was due to the war as it was Veteran’s Day the next morning. “Oh, are you doing a war in the morning?” asked my son excitedly, to everyone’s amusement. He got the last laugh, though, as I persuaded the initially-unwilling young lads to hoist him into their armored vehicle and got a fabulous picture of him at the steering wheel. The Finns are so friendly, you can get them to do anything. “Oh come on, it’s not like there’s a war on!”, I had said enthusiastically. I bet they were made to do a lot of push-ups later by their Corporal for allowing that one.
Our final visit was to the Serena Waterpark in Espoo, half-an-hour outside of town. Our Finnish friends took us to the bus stop, and when I had the audacity to question the regularity of the bus, they told me sternly that all city buses come within twenty minutes. An hour and ten minutes later, we boarded the Number 339 and headed to the park. The bus was not, of course, late. It came according to the schedule: once every 75 minutes. Luckily, the waterpark was fantastic and more than made up for the delay in getting there. Four large slides, two pools with waterfalls, several little slides and a long, crazy and not-at-all-lazy river. I was miserable, which has a large part to do with me not liking to get my face wet. I braved it all for the sake of my child: I went down the twisty open-top turquoise slide, through the waterfall, and down the tubeless lazy river where my body was battered from side-to-side (and, yes, below the surface) and you had to pull on ropes so as not to get stuck forever circling round and round in the two whirlpool sections. I slithered down the yellow enclosed slide and into the sieve at the bottom, where I shot round and round, gradually getting lower as with the pennies one drops in the open tubes at arcades, and did not even panic (much) when I found myself sliding into the centre headfirst and falling precipitously through the two foot drop to the pool below. I refused to do it a second time, though. I also skipped the completely dark black slide as I explained to Noah that since I had shut my eyes throughout the yellow slide experience, I had therefore effectively done a pitch black slide already. He was unconvinced. This was his best experience of the trip. How could one not do everything a million times? It took three and a half hours, a hot dog, ice cream, and a large bag of candy to get him to leave. He slept well that night.
I feel I ought to write something on the food in Finland: it’s expensive. I can’t say much more as Noah is a picky eater and every day he had spaghetti at Rafaello’s (Aleksanterinkatu, behind, joy-of-joys, Stockman’s) or Papa Giovanni’s (ground floor of the World Trade Center) for lunch, and three meatballs at Maya’s Bar and Grill (off the square by the railway station) for dinner. At least, he was eating, which wasn’t a certainty before we came. Thank God for Stockmann’s for fruit and croissants at snack time. It also has a Kids’ Club (6 and under, but they don’t check), so I could even get half-an-hour off and do a bit of shopping myself, while Noah amused himself building with Lego and making friends with young Finns.
On the shopping front, I picked up some nice (and actually not too expensive) ceramics on the Esplanadi (Helsinki’s Champs Elysees) at Taitu (south west corner) and Artesaani (north west side street). I also got a few splendid T-shirts in the market stalls at Kauppatori, and allowed Noah to splurge 45 euros in the same location for a small painting of a dog on the moon by a local artist.
Then it was time to leave this green and pleasant land, before I broke the bank and ended up cutting into the fund for Noah’s school fees. It’s “only” thirteen hours flying time from Los Angeles (ten to London, three more to Helsinki, is the quickest route), which I had been dreading, but in fact Noah slept most of the way and didn’t complain at all. In fact, he wants to go back next year. I had better start saving now.