People move to Helsinki every year to study, work and live. They come from just outside the city limits, from the East, from the West Coast, from Central Finland, from the North and all the way from Lapland. Others make the journey from different countries. What follows are the thoughts and experiences (edited by yours truly from written accounts) of three students, including me, and one professor.
With every new city, you have start with people and places. For someone who comes from a small town, it’s the scale of the Helsinki that can throw a person off a little. When I moved here two years ago, I expected a city much larger than Kajaani and, boy, did I get it. I absolutely dreaded public transport. A student from Imatra, who now lives in the greater Helsinki area, says he found it really confusing at first. The number of lines and the different modes of transport from the metro to trams to buses to trains are enough to make the inexperienced frown and worry. My first bus ride in the city consisted of me sitting at the back, hoping I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself and thinking please, someone push that red button, I’m too scared to do it.
I was also too shy to talk to anyone at first. The student from Imatra recalls that his first impression of people in Helsinki was that they had ‘a sort of reserved quality to them.’ I also found their behavior completely different from what I’d been used to. I called this kind of aura ‘city cool’ as I watched people stand within inches of passing traffic, impatiently waiting for the light to change, not even blinking as ambulances and police cars went past, sirens blaring. Then again, I’m from a town where five cars at a junction counts as congestion. Later I’ve found out that in most cases, the seemingly guarded exterior is only skin deep as the people I’ve talked to have been friendly or at least polite. The indifferent or vaguely bored attitude to traffic comes with getting used to it as I’ve learned.
It’s impossible to talk about moving from one place to another without bringing language or speech into it, especially, when we are talking about individuals who study or have studied language. There is definitely a Helsinkian way of speaking. ‘I hate to say it but they speak a bit weird. It’s a sort of intonation thing, I guess, and a sort of nasality,’ the student from Imatra suggests. ‘And at times the weirdest dialect words that you could think of.’ Personally, I’ve had to ask more times than I care to admit from a born and raised Helsinkian friend what this or that word means (the first was ‘flaidis’), but I’ve also had the pleasure of confusing them by using words they don’t even recognize (like ‘pahki’ which really is a very useful word). The way I talk now changes depending on who I’m talking to, but I don’t think that since moving to Helsinki and adopting the speech style, I’ve ever gone back to my old dialect. Initially, I was reluctant to say anything in a Helsinkian manner for fear of sounding insincere or fake, like I didn’t belong, but as I’ve opened up to the city, so has the city opened up to me.
The student from Imatra says he sometimes misses the way people talk in his hometown although he admits to noticing that when he visits home, the people sound ‘more hick’ than he remembered. It is something I can agree with and I’ve often asked myself if I actually used to talk like someone from Kajaani. The answer is yes, of course.
He goes on to sum up the appeal of Helsinki: ‘I think the impression that’s proven most true is that there’s pretty much everything here. Well, perhaps not if compared to major cities abroad, but still in comparison against small town Finland, there’s a lot of stuff to do, see and try.’ As I’ve expanded my knowledge and map of Helsinki, I’ve become more interested in what lies beyond the very heart of the city. I’m eager to find more places that don’t get a mention in city tour books. I read from somewhere that only when you’ve found a favorite place in a city and it’s not in any guide book can you say you have found a home.
So the cliché that you can only know a city once you have lived there for a while seems to ring true. Helsinki is one of those places that may not charm you immediately, but once it shows its beauty, you are hooked. A student from the close-by Espoo admits to having had short-sighted view of the city, thinking of it as an urban center to his hometown. ‘Only after moving to Helsinki did I suddenly realize the scale of the city,’ he says. ‘It was quite a shock to actually come to terms with the fact that Helsinki does go on beyond Kallio.’ He adds the past few years that he has spent in Helsinki have been a learning experience.
One of the contributors of this article offers an interesting story about a changed Helsinki. She moved into the city in the mid-1980s from the United States. At the time, Helsinki was still a relatively isolated European capital with a largely homogenous (or white) population. So when she was walking down the street with a Namibian friend and they passed a mother with a small girl, the child asked in Finnish, very innocently, of her mother ‘what was that?’, meaning the dark-complexioned friend. Today such a question is probably not a common occurrence, but children always ask about things. The child she saw in the 80s has grown up and may have a child who asks his or her own questions. The city has changed and it is changing right now, quickly and slowly at the same time. The Helsinki we know now is not the same city it was a hundred years ago or fifty years ago or even twenty years ago. It’s continuously expanding and becoming more and more heterogeneous, enriched by immigrants and their cultures.
I eagerly wait to see what the coming years have in store for Helsinki and my experience of living here.
I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to offer their input. You rock.
Editor’s Note: Both images used with permission from the copyright owner, “’cause he’s awesome like that.”