Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, June 25, 2007

Helsinki is possibly the most easy going capital city we have had the pleasure of visiting. It is modern, easy to navigate and stylish, with the pace and attitude of a friendly town, rather than a bustling capital city.

The Upenski Cathedral stands proudly overlooking the city's harbour

The installation of the Cathedral's freshly restored domes was an interesting spectacle

Although it's not really a 'must see' city loaded with architectural and cultural gems, there are enough sights to draw the visitor in for a few days. The Upenski Cathedral stands out with its gold onion domes. We were also impressed by the Helsinki Cathedral and its majestic steps upon which we saw the President of Finland address a crowd of soldiers and onlookers. For music fans Helsinki's Sibelius monument is a magnificent salute to the composer. Last but not least, there is Esplanad Park and the harbour market, providing enjoyable strolling and people watching opportunities in the heart of the city.

The Helsinki Cathedral on flag day

The President of Finland's shock of red hair stands out as she speaks to an audience of soldiers, dignitaries and spectators on Flag Day.

At ease!

The biggest highlight of our time in Helsinki, however, was seeing our Finnish friends Pauliina Huurtela and Peter Ohtonen. I first met Pauliina in the Netherlands back in 1995 when we both worked as Au Pairs for Dutch families in Gouda. We were friends for a summer and have kept in touch ever since, although this reunion in Helsinki was the first time we'd seen each other in twelve years. Any anxiety on either side about meeting up again after so many years quickly dissolved as we got reacquainted, enjoying the qualities in each other that fueled our friendship in the first place. Actually, the long absence simply gave us more to catch up on. Jason and Peter hit it off immediately, and the four of us spent a great few days together. Pauliina & Peter were enthusiastic guides and generous hosts. They treated us to a picnic on Suomelinna, a pretty island close to Helsinki, as well as an evening at Seurasaari, Helsinki's open air museum with old Finnish buildings, pleasant wooded trails and low-key beaches.

Enjoying the summer breeze with Pauliina and Peter on the ferry to Suomelinna

An old Finnish phone box in Seurasaari, a reminder of life before Nokia took Finland (and the world) by storm

Clock tower in Seurasaari

We had great fun doing some distinctly untouristy things with Pauliina and Peter too. Perhaps the least conventional activity was visiting a Helsinki dog show with them. Tarek, Pauliina and Peter's Afghan Hound, was competing and we went along to meet Tarek's breeder and to cheer him on. The showground was an unusual but lively scene. We walked by scores of green tents, peeking in to see keen Afghan owners, breeders and extremely furry dogs full of excitement about the canine contest. We watched a couple of rounds of striking hounds being run around the ring and poked about by the judges.

One owner displaying her dog's fine form for the judges

We saw winners and losers being announced, and the ensuing delight and disappointment. We enjoyed the people watching as much as the dog watching, as Afghan Hound enthusiasts are as interesting as their pets. Many of them spend every summer weekend in green tents showing dogs and accumulating ribbons. The show was a one of a kind experience for us, and seeing Tarek win a blue ribbon for second place in his class made it an even more memorable occasion.

Pauliina and Peter with prizewinning Tarek

We soon discovered Pauliina and Peter enjoyed good food as much as we do, and they went to great efforts to introduce us to new and interesting Finnish culinary treats. Starting with delicious smoked salmon, Pauliina and Peter fed us everything from lingonberry pasties to reindeer stew to rye porridge (mammi) served with sugar and cream to cloud berry (lakka) schnapps. We enjoyed great food, company and conversation in Pauliina and Peter's home way past everyone's bedtime on several occasions. They even sent us on our way with a beautiful cookbook so we can continue the Finnish feasting back home!

Reindeer stew with lingonberries. Good stuff!

When we weren't busy eating with our hosts, we also spent evenings at their local pub, played with Tarek and even had a session in the electric sauna, which was much different to the wood one, but still pretty sweaty! We are extremely grateful to Peter and Pauliina for the great hospitality and fun times.

The five of us during an evening stroll
We certainly packed a lot into our three weeks in Finland, especially as most of it was spent with good friends Matt & Elina in Jyvaskyla and Pauliina & Peter in Helsinki, which enriched our experience and added plenty of fun. We learned quite a bit about Finnish culture, and the country made many lasting impressions. Here are a few of them.

Greenery & Scenery
Finland's landscape is consistently beautiful with woodland everywhere, complimented by picturesque coastline and lakes.

Travelling in Style

Getting around has been a pleasure, on clean, speedy trains and reliable buses.

Finland has a thriving music, art and dance scene. We experienced it all over town on Helsinki Day. Heavy metal music is something of a national passion. Rock on, HELLsinki!

This is where the party was really happening on Helsinki Day: the rock stage

Cinta Hermo performing in Esplanad Park on Helsinki Day

Social Democracy in action
Finland is a social democratic country and Finns tend to have a strong sense of fairness, favoring an egalitarian approach. For example, Finnish workers are afforded employment benefits US workers dream about, in areas such as maternity & paternity leave, health and unemployment benefits. They also have an admirable commitment to work/life balance.

No breaking the rules
Finland is a surprisingly regulated country in some ways. For example, there are such tight rules about the sale of alcohol that you have to go to Alko, the state-run liquor monopoly to buy it.

Finnish youth enjoying a lazy summer afternoon in the park

Light & darkness
Finland is light in summer and dark in winter. The winter gloom (it only gets light for a few hours a day) may contribute to Finland's unusually high suicide rates. The snow covered beauty of Lapland must be magical though. Our next visit to Finland will be in winter time, for sure. We found the long summer days wonderfully uplifting. There's something great about it still being light in the dead of night.

Hungry, anyone?
Finnish food is delicious. Did we mention that already?

All in all, we loved Finland. This country has definitely made it onto our 'highly recommended list'.

Jason and I in front of the Sibelius monument

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Next on Donkey Crossing: a quick day in Estonia and on to Russia, with love!


Blogger Matt said...


Spot-on comments regarding Helsinki and about Finnish culture & society.

A few rebuttals/extensions might be in order. First, the no-rule-breaking aspect, while it is generally true, is a way that many Finns would like to see their countr. However, a few national sports scandals have shown the country (a doping scandal in cross-country skiing and a fixing one in baseball) to be like the rest of the world. I bring this up not to poop on the party, but just for perspective.

Two, many Finns would love to have option other the state-run monopoly for buying alcohol. Prohibition also had its day here, and so did the obligatory speakeasys and backwoods gin mills. So, I think there's often a feeling that if the rule is an unacceptable one, bending it might be in order.

Take all this with a grain of salt, as I am neither a Finn nor an expert on its history or society--just an expat poking holes in the underbelly!

3:27 PM  

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