Finland: Mugged, then my attackers took flight

By John Nathan, September 7, 2010
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Helsinki’s Three Smiths Square, looking down Aleksanterinkatu

Helsinki’s Three Smiths Square, looking down Aleksanterinkatu

I was mugged in Helsinki. In broad daylight, they came. I am a Londoner and we Londoners have a confidence about walking around the world's great cities. Strange urban landscapes do not scare us, and we have a radar that can usually detect trouble before trouble detects us. On top of this sixth sense, as a journalist I've been to war zones. Well, one. The point is, I like to think I am one savvy, streetwise dude.

So strolling along as I was in what was recently declared to be the second safest city on the world – the first being Luxembourg where apparently danger doesn't so much as lurk as lie down and take a nap – my sense of safety bordered on arrogance.

I was holding a cardboard tray, brimful of freshly fried whitebait. To one side, a quarter slice of lemon sat in a big dollop of garlic mayonnaise. Looking back, I remember now that the kindly young girl who served me did say something in broken English about being careful. But I only half-heard the warning. She was looking over my shoulder and up at the sky. I thought "rain", nodded and smiled. But there was not one cloud in the sky.

As I walked around Helsinki's Market Square, browsing the stalls selling a rather eccentric mix of souvenirs and fruit, I jabbed at my delicious lunch with the wooden fork that came with it. At three and a half Euros, Finnish whitebait is about 50% higher than the price you would expect in say, Whitstable. Like I say, I am well travelled.

It is not just the price of fish that makes your eyes water in this Nordic (not Scandinavian) country whose southern shore is lapped by the Baltic Sea in Summer and lined with ice in Winter. Everything costs. The summer sales are on and the clothes displayed in the shop windows that line the North and South Esplanades - the elegant parallel boulevards that shoot away from Helsinki's South Harbour - have been slashed by 50 per cent. To exaggerate, though not by very much, this makes them about 50 per cent more expensive than in London when there is not a sale.

I pause at a stall selling strawberries. The woman on the other side of the fruit mountain tells me in perfect English - not because I look English, but because I sure as hell don't look flaxen-haired Finnish - that these are the sweetest strawberries in the world. I take up the challenge.

"Sweeter than English strawberries?" I ask. "Are you joking?", she says. "These strawberries get 20 hours of sunshine a day. Twenty hours! How many hours do English strawberries get?"

Getting there

The Hotel Seurahuone, Helsinki (www.hotelliseurahuone.fi; 00358 9 69 141) has double rooms from 108¤ (£90) per night. Hotel Lasaretti, Oulu (www.lasaretti.com; 00358 20 757 4700) has doubles from 82¤ (£68.30) with breakfast. John Nathan flew with low-cost Finnish airline, Blue 1 (www.blue1.com; 00358 20 585 6240), which has Helsinki flights from 72.66¤(£61) one way

She has a point. This is my second day in Finland and in that time there has been no darkness. This is the time of year when darkness only exists behind a blackout curtain. In Oulu, the northern Finnish town where I stayed the previous night, the sun had been in the sky not for 20, but 22 hours. In summer, the further you go, the more light you get. The strawberries there must be even sweeter. This is the land of the White Nights.

The university town of Oulu is Finland's northern most city. Local economy: Information technology. Main Crop: not strawberries but potato. Population: 140,000. Latitude: no idea, but it is located about 200 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle and can be reached most easily via a one hour flight from Helsinki. Despite the cost of living here it is said that the disparity of wealth on either side of the border that separates the wealthy Fins from the poor Russians is the greatest in the world.

During the flight you get a rare impression of groundspeed from the sun's glint as it races over Finland's inland archipelago of lakes. There are nearly 200,000 of them in a land with a population of just five million.

In June, Oulu White Nights are even whiter than those in Helsinki. The sun dips teasingly below the horizon, then rises only two hours later. The light is never too dim to read a book.

The glaciers that levelled this flat land are long gone and for the past few millennia Finland has been rising about one centimetre every year. There are people in Oulu who can see islands off the coast that were not there when they were children.

This is a place where our English daily rhythm of light and dark is stretched out over an entire year. In December the days last for the three hours or so that the sun shines. Fields merge with frozen lakes. Food that is not sown or born locally is delivered by sea on icebreakers. A bad winter here means no snow. No snow means less light. The world is different in Oulu. So different that in the white night sky I half expect to see a ringed planet hanging in the sky like a cover from a science fiction novel.

For Holidaying Norwegians, this is the southern riviera. They come in their caravans and pitch tents in camps among the pine forests. You can see why. The beach - better for a stroll than a sun bathe - is a few seconds walk away. The soft wind that blows in from the Straight of Bothnia, is palpably sweet and without a trace of pollution. And camping under a starless white night exposes you to the strangeness of unending days much better than sleeping under a roof or behind a hotel's black-out curtain.

For good eating a cycle ride to the log cabin restaurant on Pikisaaren island is worth it just for the bread cheese pudding. The traditional Finnish dish is served on a piping hot plate with jam made from arctic cloudberries. It is so tasty, conversation is almost impossible until it is finished.

There is a quirkiness in Oulu that exists beneath the well-ordered surface. You can imagine the Coen brothers making a movie here. The cultural highlight is the World Air Guitar Championships. Every year, thousands gather on Oulu's Market Square to watch grown men head bang and strut, and play air guitar with air plectrums. This is also the town that gave rise to The Shouting Men, a choir whose choristers don't sing but shout. And a bit like the bread pudding, they are surprisingly good.

In Helsinki, a mecca for design that is reflected in the neoclassical and art nouveau architecture, they take their culture more seriously. The city has been designated World Design Capital for 2012. Followers of fashion, whether it be architecture, furniture or jewellery, even have a design district of 25 streets around which to stroll, browse and buy.

Today the city's entire tiny population of 580,000 appears to have taken to the streets. Cafés are as brimful as a newly ordered cappuccino and every patch of park is being lunched or lounged on. I buy a punnet of strawberries; the stall-holder is right. They are gob-smackingly sweet.

I am killing time before my excursion to Suomelinna, the world's largest historical maritime fort. Built in the 1700s it sprawls the Unesco site that spreads out over six islands and is saturated with the Russian/Swedish history that so informs Finland's past.

Local families go there for picnics and in high summer, they swim from the island's coves. I will get there by boat. This is Helsinki's version of the Statten Island ferry, a cheap, beautiful ride that gives the best view of capital's skyline. The biggest building on view are the huge liners bound for St Petersburg on the other side of the Baltic.

As I tuck into my strawberries a man who has just bought himself an ice cream is swooped upon by a seagull. The ice cream is knocked to the ground and a marauding gang of gulls converge on it. I look with no little awe at this airborne military operation. And then from over my shoulder, a winged robber attacks my lunch. He goes for the whole carton but only gets a single fish. He circles but I'm ready for him this time, and he can see he's going get more than a sprat if he gets within swatting distance. So he circles again, climbs altitude and craps on my head. A woman looks at me with appalled delight. I stand there with my tray of whitebait in one hand and my strawberries in the other while she wipes me down with a tissue produced from her handbag. Somehow, I don't feel so streetwise and savvy anymore.

    Last updated: 11:18am, October 5 2010