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From Copenhagen and Helsinki

By Sahand Rabbani

from Copenhagen and Helsinki

Dear Friends,

We arrived at the airport in Copenhagen shortly after noon on the anniversary of our country's birth. Far from the celebrations of fireworks and grilled hot dogs, Copenhagen experienced life as on any other unremarkable Thursday. But for me, this was the beginning of a short, albeit well anticipated, return to two of the Nordic capitals that had intrigued me during my first visit some eleven years ago. My memories of Copenhagen were faint, and those of Helsinki even fainter, but each had fascinated my youthful self enough to merit a return.

Our first day in Copenhagen was a painful struggle against jetlag. We connected with our friends who had already been in town for a few weeks, following them to the slick gourmet food market at Nørreport where I sampled some famous Smørrebrød, ornate Danish open-face sandwiches featuring local favorites such as smoked salmon and herring. The sampling was tasty if not dear. We walked to the picturesque pastel-colored harbor of Nyhavn and then to the island of Christianshavn where we climbed the spiraling tower of the Vor Frelsers church atop which we enjoyed panoramic views of the city. From there, we popped briefly into the nearby and somewhat self-governing district of Christiania, an autonomous community of hippies famous for its grotesque, psychedelic murals and its Green Light District on Pusher Street, an unabashed open-air marijuana market complete with vendors displaying thousand-dollar bricks of hash. Choosing food over sleep, we concluded the day with some inexplicably expensive Italian pizza and wine at the oddly named Mother pizzeria.

Following a delicious breakfast of bread and cheese at the hotel, we wasted away the next morning on Istedgade street, the main artery of the Vesterbro district notorious for its strip clubs and sex shops. The forthcoming vitrines advertised some curiously-shapen instruments whose applications were not immediately evident upon cursory inspection. We later walked through a series of parks including the botanical garden and Kongen Have (King's Garden) to the star-shaped citadel of Kastellet and the strangely popular Little Mermaid statue in the Østerbro district. For dinner, we had reserved a table at a nice restaurant for some new Nordic cuisine, the product of a culinary movement popularized by the famous Copenhagen institution of Noma. We sampled several small courses until we were full and then slid over to the impressively hip Mikkeller Bar, serving a wide selection of experimental craft beers including a limoncello IPA that we just had to try.

We reserved the following day for a sojourn to the lesser seen areas of town. In the morning, we rode the overground metro to the so-called futuristic community of Ørestad on Amager island. With the neighborhood not quite as impressive or accessible as promised, the Ørestad effort devolved quickly into a cup of coffee at Fields, the unremarkable American-style shopping mall that seemed to be the main attraction of the area. In the afternoon, we executed a more thorough traversal of the long residential stretch of Christiania along the water. We then made our way northwest to the cemetery-cum-park serving as the resting place of famous Danes such as the fairy-tale author Hans Christians Andersen and the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. We concluded with dinner at a modest Italian pizza kitchen, Le Quattro Stagioni, in a residential neighborhood in the northern part of town. I chatted with the gregarious and generous Albanian owner as we bragged over our knowledge of phrases in the other's native language.

We awoke early the next morning to a bright five AM as we made the short journey by train to the airport, which we discovered to be thronging with Danish families escaping for a summer trip on the first weekend after school was out. The lines moved quickly, but getting to the gate was hardly an enviable goal as the pin-headed design of the airport admitted no seating area prior to boarding. Our flight to Helsinki was brief and uneventful. A forty-minute bus ride had us in town. A short walk later, we were checking into the Hotel Fabian, a slick and modern boutique hotel that still retains a nice cozy warmth.

Wasting little time, we embarked on the town, beginning with a short walk through the central, green Esplanadi Park over to Kauppatori (Market Square). This outdoor array of stalls by the harbor featured some delectable lunch options. We selected a few plates of fried salmon and vegetables from one of the many vendors. We then made off for the iconic Senate Square and the glowing white Lutheran Cathedral that is the linchpin of downtown Helsinki. From there, we walked up to the famous and self-describing Church in the Rock and then on to Sibelius Park, harboring the peculiar Sibelius Monument, a modern steely piece consisting of a series of welded tubes redolent of a pipe organ. We lingered in the park awhile, fighting off the temptation of a nap while also considering the [un]feasibility of a ferry ride to Estonia. After relaxing in the park, we worked our way back to the hotel via the picturesque Töölönlahti bay.

That night, we dined at Café Bar No 9, an eclectic local cafe serving an ethnically confused menu drawing from Chinese, Mexican, Mediterranean, and Nordic cuisine. A representative dish was the fried noodles with salmon, dressed with soy sauce and a sprig of cilantro. At nine PM, with hours of sunlight still remaining, we rode the ferry to Suomenlinna island, site of a well preserved fortress, and followed an annotated path through the citadel, culminating in an unforeseen but welcome sunset atop one of the bastions.

The next morning had us in search of a lesser-known Bohemian district off one of the metro stations a few stops north, but when we discovered that the particular venue that had drawn us there was apparently well out of commission, we settled in at an opportune cafe. I sampled the unique Finnish rye bread, which had come recommended to me, in the form of a smoked salmon sandwich. The flat, circular rye was dense and perhaps even slightly sweet, pairing very well with a touch of butter or cream cheese.

We spent the rest of the day window-shopping around Helsinki's famous design shops. While nothing among the furniture or kitchenware stores really impressed me, I was nonetheless entertained for the intervening period between lunch and dinner. We moved on a relatively uninformed choice of eatery, a modest diner named Kahvila Suomi. Skeptical at first sight, we came around quite enthusiastically when the generous portions of fried flounder, rice, and vegetables proved more than satisfactory. I even tried the free "homemade beer," inconspicuously available for self-serving from a plastic pitcher. The beverage was sweet and uncarbonated and did not have me going back for more.

I spent the final morning in Helsinki alone as I scrambled to fill some gaps, visiting the gourmet Hakaniemi market in the west part of town and then superficially exploring some of the architectural sites such as the parliament building and Finlandia Hall before ending up at the majestic central train station where I boarded the bus for the airport.

This recent traversal of Copenhagen and Helsinki triggered, at best, only faint memories of my first trip to the region in 2002. Somehow, I had remembered Copenhagen larger than it seemed to me now; inversely, I had recalled Helsinki smaller than it felt today. I will not dwell on my impressions from over a decade ago, but I will dedicate at least a few words to my impressions now.

While I thoroughly enjoyed both destinations of this trip, my enthusiasm towards Copenhagen is tempered by its ubiquitous self-involvement. Everything from the exaggerated and overpriced Nørreport market to the self-righteousness and vanity of Christiania (the archway leading out of the district reads, "You are now entering the EU") suggests to me that the city has gotten a touch ahead of itself. Maybe, too, its obsession with craft beers developed a bit faster than its taste, and the explosion of Noma-style restaurants, too clearly ogling a Michelin rating, just feels a little disingenuous. Put another way, I sense that Copenhagen has navigated itself into a vain post-modern culture of hipster-meets-yuppie.

On the other hand, Helsinki admits a certain venerable sincerity that is at once humble and confident. The city is welcoming and down-to-earth, clearly aware that its appeal is earned, not ordained, and should not be taken for granted.

Perhaps this distinction is a microcosm of a larger cultural phenomenon. After all, Denmark is well established among its Germanic neighbors, with Germany to the south and Sweden close by not just geographically, but also culturally. Finland, once dominated by Soviet influence and linguistically isolated from all but tiny Estonia and distant Hungary, has had to exert itself much more to gain acceptance among its European peers. Finland is, not surprisingly, the first and only Nordic country to have adopted the euro as its currency. These distinctions inform Finland's persona today, and they may very well explain why Helsinki has developed such an irresistible charm.


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