Helsinki: Hel-Looks, a World Heritage Site, and a Potato Revelation

I checked the website for a month afterward, hoping to find my image staring back at me. I thought, this is the coolest story to go home with, and I searched, hoping.

I had been walking to the grocery store, getting fixings for a picnic that my friends and I would have in the park outside of the Finlandia concert hall, when two Fins approached me to chat. I don’t speak a lick of Finnish, so I had to stop them halfway through their introduction. They are the photographers for the website Hel-Looks, and they post photos of what the locals of Helsinki wear. After a moment’s thought, they wanted to photograph me anyways; they’d never had an American on the site before, maybe it would work? I laughed through this process, standing on the street corner in the most foreign place I’d ever been, being mistaken for a local. I remember being even more confused because they liked what I was wearing; I’d been traveling for a month already, hadn’t washed my clothes, was wearing black and white striped maryjanes, a skirt I affectionately referred to as “my cupcake skirt,” a t-shirt bearing New Hampshire’s dogged motto “Live Free or Die,” a vintage sweater that anyone’s grandmother may have knit for them, and a scarf, sent to me by an EBay seller from Abu Dhabi. I looked like a traveler running out of options. Nonetheless, they were complimentary and took a zillion photos. Alas, either my Americanism or lack of photogeneity prevented my Finnish modeling debut. Looking at the website though, I totally understand why they photographed me; all the people are dressed creatively, to say the least. I went on my way.

I had spent the morning waiting for a ferry to take me to Suomenlinna, a maritime fortress covering eight islands in the Baltic Sea. With a few hours to kill, I wandered the central plaza abutting the port. Here, vendors set up tents and tables, selling their wares and food, produce and memorabilia. It was a great mix of crafts; artisans that make hand carved children’s toys and woodblock puzzles, felt slippers and booties, pelts and furs, and lots of reindeer paraphernalia. On the next row, a farmers market. Fresh produce lay beautifully on the tables, locals walking through with baskets to do their shopping.

Giant hotplates with fresh food offerings

In the last row, tables and chairs surround hotplates with foods cooked to order. There was lots of fish cooking, a paella five feet wide, salads, meats, and what caught my hungry eye- tiny new potatoes sautéing with herbs and garlic, then dressed with aioli. This may be news to some of you; a new potato from the far north is unlike anything you’ve had before. These are the freshest, creamiest and most indulgent treats you’ll ever get in a root vegetable. In fact, I left this long, gastronomical trip talking about potatoes and strawberries as if they were new inventions. I have since heard Andrew Zimmern (of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods) talk at length about the beauty of a Finnish new potato. I ordered a bowl full, since thankfully everyone in Helsinki speaks perfect English, and sat confounded by their deliciousness.

New potatoes and herbs
Helsinki shoreline

I reached the ferry, full of potatoes and aioli, to meet my friends. The ferry ride took about twenty minutes, and as we arrived, we were ushered in to watch a quick documentary about the fortress. This is where I would tell you all about that film, had the potato-y goodness not lulled me to sleep. I awoke in time to see the Prime Minister, a woman who looks like she could be related to Conan O’Brien, thanking us for our visit. We exited the theater to the sight of rolling, grass-covered hills, bright sunlight, stonewalls and cellars, canons and, most beautiful of all, a rocky coastline down to the Baltic shore.

Suomelinna fortress

We walked the perimeter, realizing the hills were not hills at all, but underground shelters and lookouts. Suomenlinna, built in 1748 while Finland was under Swedish rule, shows its historical roots. The cannons are from the period of Russian rule in the 19th century, and now, run by the Ministry of Education and Culture, it houses the Finnish Governing Body of Suomenlinna. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, securing its preservation and history. It now is a functioning city sector, complete with renovated garrisons and fortresses made into homes and restaurants. My impression was that it was the most pristine and gorgeous parkland that offered the best views to the sea I had yet come across. Clearly, its founders felt as I did, deciding centuries ago to base their navies here.

Shelters and lookouts
The Baltic

We separated, each being drawn to our own rock near the water, grass for a nap, or a moment to sit on the shores of Kustaanmiekka. I dipped my toes in the water, making the distinct memory: I just dipped my toes in the Baltic Sea. I see to my right, Emily is meditating, and further up the rocks behind me a couple is sharing a bottle of wine, watching the sun play on the water. Many people are scribbling in notebooks. I am wary of doing the typical thing; writing the journal entry, look where I’ve found myself, where does it mean I’m going? and instead take photos  (which seems only slightly less predictable): me and the Baltic, my toes in the water, and one for Grandpa’s refrigerator. I succumb to the pressure, I write a bit, not wanting to lose a moment of this place. This is the furthest north I may ever come, the bluest water of a sea I may only see once, and the greenest grass lay behind me, covering centuries of history. Each breath felt weighted with excitement, gratitude and a desire to truly appreciate my place there.

Me and the Baltic Sea

This excursion could have ended philosophically, but knowing me, something else came along to reshape my experience. I popped into Café Piper on the way back to the ferry, and in their case was the most memorable sandwich I still to this day have ever seen: a “filled meat pie,” as they called it, a starchy flat bun encasing two hot dogs and a sliced hard boiled egg. I did not order it, but have thought about it many times since.

"Filled meat pie"

We would end the day on a blanket, hotel property borrowed and returned, eating preserves, fruit, bread, cheese and cookies. We sat beneath street lamps shaped like hands that didn’t need to turn on until well after eleven. Helsinki in July needs no extra light to shine as brightly as it does.

Streetlamps above our picnic setting
Lauren Bell

Lauren's interest in travel and food started young; she spent her childhood dreaming of living abroad, speaking foreign languages, and discovering the food of other places. While she's spent her time working toward attaining those goals, she has also gotten properly distracted at home in the US. She's lived all over California and New England: seeking out small farms, delicious eateries, and creative chefs and artists. She's enamored of all things artisanally made- be it food, wine, art, crafts...anything small scale, by hand and with love. She's the artisanal admirer. In an effort to emulate her talented friends, she has learned to make cheese, ran an urban, edible schoolyard garden, cooks, cans, and bakes pies. She dreams daily of moving to Europe to do the same there. Until then, she travels frequently, at home and abroad, works as a pastry chef, sells wine and cheese, and helps run a farm-to-table restaurant. She lives in Brooklyn with her Siamese cat, Henry.

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