#MnOrchTour: Adventures in Helsinki


I nearly puked during the descent into Helsinki. Which was weird, because I’ve never been airsick before. But something about the exhaustion, the time difference, the pressure change, the thin canned air, the claustrophobia, the unsteady descent, the blindingly bright sunshine, the hunger, and the multiple layers of clothing I had arrayed on my lap all conspired to roil my guts.


Thankfully, the nausea subsided after we stopped moving, and I joined the musicians at the baggage carousel, maybe a little paler than usual, but otherwise recovered. My suitcase was the first one out, and then the carousel just…stopped. I volunteered my toothbrush as a communal grooming device, but it turns out Icelandair had not actually lost every piece of luggage besides mine, and soon everyone was reunited with their bags.

At that point the musicians left for their bus. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an official member of the tour party, and I was in charge of getting myself to the hotel. So I passed the folks carrying Minnesota Orchestra signs (while proudly thinking to myself, “that’s my band”) and set off for the train. The escalator down was so deep it looked like it might descend into hell itself, but it turns out it only led to affordable and reliable public transportation.

Our hotel in Helsinki is very nice: the Radisson Blu on Mikonkatu. (My Finnish is nonexistent, but I think this might rhyme.) There are some quirks for a Midwesterner to get used to. The lights won’t go on unless you keep your hotel key card in a holder by the front door. (It took me a long time to realize this must be due to concerns about energy conservation, because I am from ‘Merika, where we leave hotel lights blazing so we don’t have to grope the walls looking for switches.) The toilet has no water in it, and if I leave the bathroom door open…wafts materialize, and I can assure you that those wafts are not mine. Perhaps to distract from this, there is an TV embedded in the bathroom mirror. (I was briefly and deeply concerned when I opened the bathroom door to find a remote on the back of the toilet.) Other things, however, feel much more familiar. For instance, there are chilled drinks in the fridge. The only difference from America here is that you get ripped off in Euros instead of dollars. Also, hilariously, there are Pringles chips for sale stored in the fridge next to the vodka. So if you like vodka AND refrigerated Pringles (and really, who doesn’t?), come to the Radisson Blu on Mikonkatu!

This hotel’s main advantage is its location. It’s one block away from the train station; there are lots of shops, restaurants, and landmarks nearby; and the harbor is a brief brisk walk away. After I’d texted violist Jen Strom about my nauseous near-miss, she offered me a spare roll to settle my stomach and a walk to the harbor to clear my head. It was exactly the prescription I needed. On our way, we saw flute player Wendy Williams and English horn player Marni Hougham from a distance. Even though everyone is out exploring on their own timetable, it’s not uncommon to turn a corner and run into a friend. It feels like a high school class trip, except everyone here is talented and actually has a future.

Jen and I took the ferry to the island of Suomenlinna, which is a word I still can’t spell without Google. And it was exhilarating. The weather was perfect: brisk, windy, blue. Dramatic clouds bunched together on the horizon, but they never made good on their threats of rain. The sky itself served as natural Instagram filter. Suomenlinna itself was fascinating, too, with its mishmash of eighteenth century architecture along cobblestone streets. Coming back to Helsinki proper, I was struck by how the city looks like I’ve always imagined St. Petersburg must: white and pastel and gilt. (Why am I surprised? St. Petersburg is only a little over an hour away by air.) I think any lover of Sibelius thinks about what it means to be Scandinavian, and especially what it means to be Finnish. To actually be here helps to clarify those questions.


From the harbor, Jen and I continued wandering, taking pictures of the Helsinki Cathedral and its staircase, and then ducking into Stockmann’s department store for a late dinner. This was a good idea because A) I’m cheap and B) I don’t care much about food, especially on those days when I come close to puking all over the Minnesota Orchestra’s plane. The food was cheap and simple and wholesome. And I got to weigh my bread.

It is humbling to be monolingual here. Everyone speaks lovely English, and they savvily, immediately switch to it as soon as they hear me say a word. But after they’re done dealing with me, they go back to their Finnish. It is disorienting to go down a street, hearing everything, understanding nothing. And it’s very strange to see signs with letters that make sense combined into words that don’t. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read; until the last couple of days, I had no clue how anxiety-inducing it is to not be able to gather information on your own. (No wonder little kids cry all the time…) Violist Megan Tam did tutor us briefly in the hotel lobby on the basics of Finnish pronunciation, and that helped, but I’m still cringing whenever I end a conversation with “kiitos!” Partway through the stay, I started reading words to myself in a fake Osmo accent. That maybe helps.

Or not.

Today Jen and I visited Ainola, the picturesque countryside home of Jean and Aino Sibelius. Both are buried on the grounds, their grave dappled by the shade of tall trees. The gift shop has a CD section, and literally half of the discs are Osmo recordings. The trip deserves more than the time I can give it tonight. But until I can describe the place in words, check out my Instagram account for some of my favorite photos from this afternoon.

I’ll admit that the last 48 hours have felt more like a vacation than a work trip. But the orchestra is here to work, and I am here to watch them work. Tomorrow we take the hour-long journey north to the city of Lahti, where Osmo was music director of the orchestra there for twenty years. I would say Lahti is his Finnish Minnesota, but now that I think about it, maybe Minnesota is his American Lahti. In any case, it will be an amazing and no doubt humbling experience.

The Nordic sunset has faded from a rosy dusk to black.


Filed under Minnesota Orchestra

4 responses to “#MnOrchTour: Adventures in Helsinki

  1. Nancy Murphy

    You’re such a great writer. I’m looking forward to experiencing the TOUR through your words. Kiitos.

  2. I agree with Nancy M. And I don’t know any Finnish either. Happy Helsinki!!

  3. Woo hoo! Glad you’re enjoying it! Good catch about the similarities between St.Petersburg-Helsinki… Helsinki served as a stand in for the city in the movie “Dr. Zhivago.”

  4. The major difference between Helsinki and St. Petersburg is electric lighting. A famous journalist once described Russia (then USSR) as the “40-watt light bulb country.” You get used to it, but then arriving back in Helsinki where the light bulbs are considerably brighter is a startling contrast. Glad you’re enjoying the trip so far, and please do not fly on an empty stomach again! I have had a similar experience with flying and empty stomach and can relate to your distress. It has more to do with your inner ear than your stomach, although if you have a full stomach your inner ear is happy. Go figure. Take care of yourself so you can continue with your reportage! Kiitos!

    P.S. I managed to catch the last half of the intermission interview and the Lahti concert on Finnish Radio today. The Beethoven was stunning. I do think the Hungarian Rhapsodies are “interesting” choices for encores.

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