Earlier last week, we caught wind of a major cultural event that happens annually in the Finnish capital Helsinki. Itching to soak more of the country’s sights and sounds, we got on the 5:07pm Friday train out of Tampere and in less than two hours, we were transported from somewhere rustic and laidback to a realm bustling with life and bursting, quite literally, with art. After all, we were joining the 19th installment of the Helsinki Festival’s Night of the Arts.
The Finns seem to have a very efficient system for traveling. Train rides from Tampere to Helsinki cost 22 euros per person, where you can either be comfortably seated in cabins for eight or in the general seating section a la economy section of a 737. The railway whisks you across quintessential Finnish landscape of lakes and fields, often punctuated by birch trees (the actual plants, not mere milk products which Kuya Germs gave away on GMA Supershow back in the day) and conifers. There’s a dining car and WCs (a.k.a. toilets) as well. No wonder less people choose the highways and more opt for trains.
We arrived in the Helsinki central railway station (HEL-sing-kee and not hel-SING-kee as what we formerly pronounced it to be) a little before seven. To say that this building, opened in 1919, is beautiful is an understatement. It was indeed a portent of things to come, in this our Helsinki sojourn.
On the train to the capital, Karolina, one of our classmates in the Global Health Course who in turn will visit the Philippines in September, managed to brief us about what were getting ourselves into. With more than 200 visual, performing, and literary events possibly unfolding simultaneously, it was great to have a Finn help us meander our way into the festival.
The general plan was to traverse Mannerheimintie where almost all major edifices of importance are accessible: the Finnish parliament, concert hall, national museum, etc. And consequently, we’ll be able to get lost in all the art, so to speak. But before feeding our souls and replenishing our art quotient, we had dinner at ZETOR, a very unique dining place just a block from the central railway station. Featuring tractors as dining tables and cheese graters as lampshade, I must say that this was a very interesting way to usher us into Helsinki. And for the first time, I was able to eat… I’ll tell you next time.
We stayed in Zetor for a good hour and a half or so. Much as the food was indeed yummy, we were in Helsinki to satisfy more than our taste buds. Even with Karolina’s briefing we felt a little lost so off to the tourist information center we went. (This is what I noticed about Finland: it is SO EASY for non-citizens and visitors to get tourism-related information- From the piles of guide booklets in at least five languages accessible from the airport to supermarkets, to ordinary Finns willing to give directions USUALLY in comprehensible English, to ample signages littering their major cities.) We initially got a really artsy guide to the Night of the Arts, but it was in Finnish so its beauty and quality layout was of no practical use to us. Lester managed to ask from the tourism office a computer print out of the August 24th schedule- nondescript but uber-useful!
We studied the list for a few minutes and ticked off the activities we- Johann, Lester and I- were interested in, looked at the schedule of the performances, and where the areas where in our map of Helsinki. We initially chose to see a puppet and shadow theater; the singing opera singers at a hotdog stand; the photo exhibit of a Finnish art club; a jazz event, and the open air cinema showing Gone With the Wind. We planned to stay the whole night and catch the first train out of Helsinki to Tampere at 6am. And so, off to soak in the arts we went.
Or so we thought.
It was so easy to get distracted in a city with events unfolding at every turn, not to mention the so-European architecture of many buildings. From the tourist information center, we planned to walk to Mannerheimintie and catch the puppet show at 10. But as we were walking along Pohjoisesplanadi, we just had to go into the European Union office and see the artworks of arguable the most talented gradeschoolers plus the free balloon, keychain, and bookmarker enticed us further. A few buildings after, we stopped again and watched a marimba-playing duo who drew a huge crowd around them. We walked back to the general direction of the central railway station and found ourselves always sideswiped by a cow pulling a cart on which a lady dressed in nothing but a long-stemmed rose covering her netherparts sat waving to the crowd. Mind you, it was around the air temperature was about 19C at this time.
Headed to the Hesperia Park where we were to watch the 10pm pupper show, we got sidetracked again by a HUUUUUGE mass of people congregating in front of the parliament building. The main thoroughfare was blocked by several police cars and vans and traffic was being re-routed to give way to some major performance. With all the lights and the set-up, I thought it was going to be some pop star’s concert, an opera even. But fearing a stampede may happen if the crowd turns wild, we opted to veer away from the parliament building. After all, it was just about 10 minutes til our puppet show began. But then again, people were POURING into every possible inch in front of the building we just left. SOMETHING major is supposed to happen.
And so, maximizing presence of the friendly cops, we asked what the deal was. The cop seemed fluent in English (as most Finns are given that more than 90% of them receive college education) but he was hardpressed to say what the performance is about. He just said something about “dancers on poles”. We looked through our handydandy sched and saw nothing about dancing as one of the performance for the night. Read read read read read up to the third page. Still nothing on this performance drawing crowds reminiscent of EDSA II.
Then we found it.
STRANGE FRUIT – The Field it was called.
The very FIRST performance listed on the very FIRST page, on the TOP-MOST section of the FIRST column. The Field was to be performed by Strange Fruit, a Melbourne-based company that the Night of the Arts guide said will be a real head-turning experience with dance, theater, and circus ingredients.
Then it commenced, dancers male and female alike went up what seemed to be five-meter high poles from where they did their “dances”. I hasten to call their performance dancing since what they initially did was just move back and forth, back and forth while standing/sitting atop the pole, not unlike how windshield wipers or Mexican jumping beans acted. Then, from an initial back and forth motion creating an angle of 30 degrees, their swinging got wilder, with the dancers almost touching the heads of the crowds below, and soon after they began to… Almost fly…
Since we watched the 10pm performance of Strange Fruit, we missed our puppet show but still we resolved to watch the latter’s 11pm edition. With some 30 minutes to spare, we hastened towards Hesperia Park where it was to be held. On the way, we were happily distracted (again!) by an encounter with a beautiful Beauty-and-the-Beast-type building which had a stone-hewn bear as guardian (turned out to be the National Museum);
an amazing, amazing jazz-cum-overhead-projector-cum-film-in-reel presentation at the Finlandia Hall, and;
a wonderful, wonderful all-girl vocal ensemble Too Many Sisters and their rendition of traditional and contemporary Finnish folk music.
Opting to walk through the park rather than the main street, we peeked into a tent where traditional Finnish tales were being told; avoided running into some drunken Finns cavorting amongst the trees; a group of fire dancers; walked alongside some more carousing, beer-toting Finns; peeped as an 8-foot wooden creation- a blonde lady named Dr. Tina- swam in the Toolonlahti Bay, and; got our curiosity piqued further by three mysteriously floating park benches in the middle of the bay.
We saw a cohort of artists, but no puppet show. We saw everything BUT the darn puppet show.
It was around 11.45pm already when one of us said, “What if we just went home- now?”
Nothing in our plans came to fruition. We always got sidetracked and distracted.
But we were… Happy. It was an adventure. We were feeling… a tad like those Lonely Planet hosts, wandering in the big city, explorers with a busted compass. But we were tired- walking at least a two-kilometer stretch of Helsinki, soaking all the art that we could, and, speaking for myself, soaking in a thin later of sweat despite the cold- out of shape that I am.
We’ve had our quota of adventure for the day and it was time to go home.
We managed to locate the bus terminal in the map and started walking there. But on the way, we passed by the street where the opera singers where supposed to sing to customers buying sandwiches at the adjacent hotdog stand. But they were no longer there, the opera singers.
We plodded along to the bus terminal, arriving there at about 12.05am. The bus back to Tampere leaves at 1am! O joy! Homewardbound we shall be soon!
By this time we were so thirsty, from all the walking. The R-Kioski shops in the terminal, the Finnish version of Mini-Stop or 7-11, were all closed already. (Finnish law mandates the hours of operation of most stores. For example: most stores are closed on Sundays- even supermarkets- except during the summer months of May-September when they can operate for a limited period on the Lord’s day.) We went out of the terminal to explore the food court we passed by earlier as we hurtled to the bus terminal.
And there it was, the outdoor cinema.
And forming a ring around the food court, a series of photo exhibits of Finnish photographers. God truly makes a way, doesn’t He =]
It would have been more perfect had there been shorter queues at the food-sellers, but we just opted to buy from one of the 5 or so vending machines in the bus terminal complex. Coke Light, because of or in spite of its 2-euro value, NEVER TASTED THIS GOOD!
We descended to the underground bus terminal to wait for the bus. Our plans were almost derailed again by our drop-a-one-euro-coin-to-open-the-WC’s-door fiasco but we managed to escape what could have been an embarrassing event well before the bus left for Tampere.
Helsinki, with its mishmash of culture modern and medieval, is a remarkable, remarkable city. Maybe I’ve just stayed in Tampere for quite a number of days that the cacophony of this metropolis left me a bit out of breath. But the Night of the Arts was an amazing, amazing experience, because of or in spite of the fact that plans didn’t go as drawn.
But that’s life imitating art imitating life.