Travel: The warmth of the cold | So Good News
On either side of the main entrance to Helsinki Central Railway Station are two statues, each holding a spherical lamp that lights up at night. The railway station is not only a landmark in the city, where the train from the airport will leave you as you enter the city; it is also the starting point for the longest railway line in the world, the 9,200km Trans-Siberian Railway – currently suspended due to the Ukraine war – which makes the 21-day journey from Helsinki, Finland, across Russia to Irkutsk in Siberia.
“Don’t get distracted,” says our Finnish guide as we stand with her in front of the station. “Look at the expressions of the four statues in front of you. One is happy, the second is sad, the third is anxious, and the fourth is ecstatic. Since everyone says that we Finns only have one expression to express each emotion, these include the poker-faced statues all of them!”
In addition to making bad jokes, our guide is also an opinionated lady. “See the building across from the train station… the one with the rounded balcony on the second floor like a sausage around it?” she asks. “We call it Helsinki’s ugliest building!”
Helsinki Central Railway Station, we learn, was built in 1904, and the design was chosen on the basis of a competition. Of the 21 entries received, the winning architect belonged to Eliel Saarinen (whose son Eero would go on to design the TWA Flight Center in the 1960s, which to this day is referred to as a building comparable to those by Zaha Hadid of today times! ).
Eliel’s design of the station abandoned romanticism and nationalism for a practical, rational approach, which is important because it paved the way for the Scandinavian design aesthetic as we know it today.
The four statues that look like Oscar Award trophies, wear soccer jerseys on important match days, and wore masks during Covid, demonstrating my point to my guide: Finns are funny, and not the cold, expressionless people they are supposed to be.
Unfortunately, the only people who disagree with me are the Finns themselves!
Up in the air
On my Finnair flight to Helsinki, I encountered a larger number of Indian crew on board than usual. Typically, foreign airlines employ two to three local crew per flight: one is stationed in First and Business Class, and the other two are spread throughout economy. These people are supposed to help with announcements in Hindi or help passengers who only speak an Indian language, etc.
I’ve flown Finnair half a dozen times before, mostly from LAX to DEL in an attempt to fly east and save 12 hours of travel time, but never before had I encountered an all-Indian crew. What had changed?
“You’re right, we’re all Indians,” the cabin crew member informed me. “The only Finnish crew are the pilots in the cockpit.”
Is this to save money? Maybe local Indian crews are paid less than their European counterparts? And how will an Indian crew member recreate the Finnish experience that will differentiate Finnair from a Vistara or an Air India?
I understand that Finnair implemented this in 2019, after trying out this experiment on their “culturally sensitive routes” to Japan and Singapore. And on the flight, I could see the Indian staff handling the desi guests with ease: one gentleman wanted to video call his family to show off the bright, minimalist Business Class cabin, and asked the flight attendant to say hello… “My daughter says you is very beautiful,” he said to the female crew member after he hung up, with an innocence that only an Indian would understand. (I wonder how a European crew member would take that – certainly not with the humor I harp on.)
A Finnair employee I chatted with later had a completely different attitude: “We Finns are not as service-oriented as we are with other jobs. And we know that Indian customers expect a high standard…”
Strike two! I still don’t agree.
Hey, looking good!
A stroll around Helsinki’s design district can convince you that Nordic and Scandinavian design is simple but wonderful.
You will be pointed to the Finnish designer Markmekko more than once, whose circles and other geometric shapes have the power to eliminate excess forever. And among the local design shops you’ll find the most forward-looking idea of them all: thrift stores.
The center of Helsinki is littered (no pun intended or intended) with shops selling everything in love, from clothes to shoes, books, accessories and tools. Not only are these a great buy, they are a great act in the name of sustainable living.
An activity many people skip in Helsinki is a visit to the botanical garden, also known as the city’s “central park”. Foraging in public spaces, such as these gardens, is open to all, and is the most underrated activity of all time.
The most overrated thing to do is visit the sauna. Finns who crave sunlight love to sweat it out in the saunas you can find around every corner. It is a social activity that is both established and encouraged. We tried hot yoga in a sauna and given that we are from India, the whole exercise was unimpressive. What was impressive, however, were the social interactions a sauna offers; Hanging with your clothes off is another mental block that is easily broken.
One thing only meant for the brave of heart in a sauna is plunging into the sea’s sub-zero temperatures. If cold water can stimulate the skin and the brain, seven dips later, I must be the smartest guy on earth!
Case for the defence
It is interesting to note that Helsinki is only two and a half hours behind India, in the same time zone as Istanbul and some countries in the Gulf. While the Finnair flight between Helsinki and Delhi used to take just six hours – one of the shortest to India from Europe – it now takes over nine, because all planes have to fly south under Ukraine and avoid Russia entirely.
On my way back to India, while self-tagging my checked luggage, I saw my Finnish guide helping another family nearby. The machine wouldn’t accept a bag weighing 24 kg, so our opinionated, expressionless Finnish friend repacked an Indian person’s suitcase!
The next time I hear someone tell me that Finnish people are cold and inexpressive, I’ll think about this experience and know: These guys don’t know what they’re talking about!
Wander Boy says, “When I used to travel abroad, I was often asked, ‘Which part of India are you from?’ Now I get asked, ‘Are you an Indian from India or elsewhere…?'”
The non-reclining business class seat
Finnair debuted a long-awaited, first-ever luxury aviation business class on the Airbus A350 just a few months ago.
Before the launch, #AvGeeks were curious: how will a non-reclining business class seat work? Was Scandinavian minimalist turning to Scandinavian frugal?
It turns out they don’t need to have sorted. Because the new seat was a hit from the start. The capsule seat in bright Nordic colors may not have a backrest, but it does have a support for the back of the leg that bridges the gap between the seat and the footrest. For your back, the airline provides pillows, which you can prop up to sit and eat, crawl to the side when watching a movie, or push down and put under your head for a good night’s sleep.
It’s almost like adjusting on the couch at home, most reviewers have said, calling it a simple solution that no airplane seat designer had anticipated.
Unfortunately, Finnair doesn’t fly these flights to Mumbai or Delhi yet, but if you connect to the US, you have a good chance of getting one.
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From HT brunch 19 November 2022
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