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Helsinki: Winter in the City

This is the first article in Kristian McCann’s four-part series, “Adventures to the East,” in which he describes each season of his first year living in Helsinki, Finland.

Finland! Known for Moomins, Sauna, Santa, and not much else, if it’s even known at all.

About seven months ago I decided to leave my glamourous life of midweek clubbing, own brand spirits and coffee shop shifts to focus on starting my future life and career, so what better way to do it than to move abroad to a new place where everything is fresh, exciting, and mine for the experiencing. After sorting out my affairs in London, I packed my bags and took the next flight to Helsinki, the pearl of the Baltic.

Arriving in Helsinki was less than captivating as it was winter and the snow had not yet fallen. No gentle white illumination softened the bitter winter darkness and the thick, cold air. After getting my stuff sorted and jumping into the taxi to my booked apartment, I realised that there were almost no cars on the journey to my place; a capital city and no cars to be seen. Seeing as I landed at 10pm on a Tuesday, it occurred to me that Helsinki wasn’t exactly going to be the Rio Carnival.

Waking up on my first morning of my new life, I was filled with adventure and a childlike excitement to see my surroundings and try everything new and foreign. With haste I dashed to the nearest subway station and, after deciphering the totally alien names—Herttoniemi?—I found the right track and headed into the city. On the carriage I was first welcomed to my new city by crossing the sea to an explosion of colourful buildings and beckoning towers, the coexisting of old and new side by side. It surely was a spectacle. I hadn’t seen anything quite so peculiar. But our romance was abruptly interrupted when the carriage delved into the subways below.

The city itself is small in size compared to other European cities. Compared to London, where you feel like a small collection of particles, it was quite a refreshing change. Helsinki is small enough to feel comfortable but with just enough to give it an exciting vibe. However, winter surely made it feel like a ghost town. If you’re not familiar with Scandinavian weather, the norm would be a solid – 5° C before snowfall and after… well, let’s just say three pairs of underpants won’t cut it. It’s no wonder that people prefer to be in their saunas rather than lingering on the streets. It’s not an empty scene, but one gets the feeling that the people were at a place for a purpose rather than to idly meander and have a day in the city.

The modern architecture of this extent and caliber sure is a unique thing for a European city. Helsinki’s historical town center isn’t noteworthy. and the city lacks any sort of epicenter save the train station surrounded by a rather modest gallery and an opera hall. Helsinki Is the only city in Europe with no medieval history, so perhaps a main center wouldn’t organically define itself. Instead there are two or three small centers where vibes radiate outward. These don’t generate the  magnitude or vibrancy of a central square, but each offers different feel and atmosphere based on their surrounding districts.

Being a fish in a new pond is great, but fish like to swim in schools. So, having a loose contact in Helsinki, I decided to see what kind of life the night the city might provide. I hoped it would not be as barren as the day’s.

The clubs in Helsinki are varied and scattered around the city. Being a rookie to the place, I didn’t know where all the cool spots or the underground places were, so a generic, mainstream, faceless club was the destination for tonight. One of my advantages of living in a Scandinavian country is that everyone speaks English, so you’re never totally isolated from anyone. I also learned that an English accent can turn any frog into a prince. I felt like the bell of the ball, confident from the Dutch courage. It seemed that a peculiarly pronounced English word would get anyone and everyone interested in you and your story: “Hey, you’re from England?” “OMG, I love your accent!” Admittedly, I may have had some weak moments in which I massaged my story to include my attending Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry and having been a flat mate with Prince Harry, but that is beside the point. I could have told a rather plain and unarticulated story about my background and my reasons for being in Helsinki, and the patrons at the night club would have been just as eager to lap up my story. I was exotic and quirky, and I fit their preconceived stereotype of an Englishman.

The nights were hard, or rather I should say the days were hard, as day and night made a swift transitions into one another. It was tough getting used to what seemed to be perpetual darkness. I can see why people prefer the comfort of their homes in the winter. However, within a week of my arrival, the blackness was shattered by tiny flakes of white, drifting down like liberators from the gloom and sorrow.

With the snowfall, the land and people alike awakened, as if some of the burden of winter had been lifted off their shoulders. People were happy and playful, enjoying the return of the snow again, as if they were being reacquainted with an old friend. This breathed life back into the city. Ice rinks appeared, Helsinki’s Night of Lights was readied for its annual performance, and the ghost town in which I had arrived seemed to have been buried under the silky white flakes. Sure, winter is tough, but the welcomed change of scenery and white nights soothed the pain of winter… if just for a while.

After my first few months in Helsinki, I was happy with my new home and all I had experienced. I looked forward to the coming months and the changing of seasons. Autumn was due for an early arrival, as was all of the national festivities and scenes associated with it. I waited anxiously for these new experiences as I knew my adventure had just begun.

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