HELSINKI, Finland — In the prelude to summer, when the midnight sun floods its festive pubs and music-filled harbors until the wee hours, Helsinki exudes the spirit of Europe in the 1990s: low necklines, gourmet fast food, new-found political unity and all.
In the years I lived in Moscow, a city still lingering somewhere in the 1950s, Helsinki was the place I went for a quick fix on what was happening in the modern world. It was two years ago in a glitzy hotel room there, surrounded by voice mail and push-button room service, that I first learned of the massacre in Tian An Men Square, an event that went largely uncovered in the Soviet press.
Even visitors from fast-moving American cities will be surprised at how sparklingly newfangled the capital of Finland is. As much as any Northern European city, it is ably riding the crest of Europe's new wave--right down to the fancy taxis that are summoned, directed and paid by computer.
Walking Helsinki's streets is the closest I have come to a foray through Wonderland. At one corner, natives are wearing hair that is dyed pink and spiked. At the next, they are wrapped in strapless evening gowns from Christian Dior. They all speak fluent English and are anxious to use it--in conversation about things such as John Updike's latest novel or Madonna's latest video or any other latest book, record or trend.
With a population of less than half a million, an abundance of lakes and birch trees and a language that bears little resemblance to any other known tongue, the capital of Finland has all the makings of a quaint backwater. And yet spending a holiday in Helsinki is like wandering into a forest and stumbling on a cultural smorgasbord.
The skyline alone, blending Ferris wheels and other man-made wonders with the surrounding Gulf of Finland, captures the city's distinct mix of modernity and nature. And even in a three- or four-day stay, an industrious visitor can get healthy helpings of both the old- and the new-fashioned Finnish charm--by balancing, say, a tea of cloudberries and other local delicacies with a visit to one of the afternoon strip clubs popular among Helsinki women, or by topping off an evening of Finnish folk dancing with half an hour of water-skiing off the coast.
At night, downtown is a sea of neon lights, drawing attention to the sale of every consumer good from Big Macs to mink hats. "We like to be on the forefront of modern European living," says Teuvo Tikkannen, an executive at Finnfacts, a Helsinki-based information service. "Maybe we're not quite there yet, but not for want of trying."
By far the most up-to-date aspect of the city is its contemporary approach to design, including everything from clothes and flower vases to icebreakers used in the Arctic Sea. Apartments often are furnished with chic Finnish home decorating: slender black metal lamps, chairs crafted from chrome and leather and delicately sculpted glassware. Functionalism continues to influence local tastes; furniture and buildings alike are pared of decoration to the point that they often look undernourished.
Curling up with a beer in a steamy sauna is perhaps the most sacred of all traditions in Finland. "When a Finn buys a house or an apartment," a friend in Helsinki once told me, "he first puts in a sauna and then he tries to figure out if he has any money left for furniture."
For visitors who scratch a bit beneath the shiny surface of Helsinki, these aspects of life that are delightfully Finnish--business conferences held in steamy saunas, ballroom dancing, cocktails in the middle of the afternoon, some of the best music festivals in the world--are wonderful antidotes to the newfangledness that hits you when you first arrive.
For an Old World capital, Helsinki is quite new. Even in American terms, the construction of the heart of the city took place recently--mostly since the beginning of the 1800s. And the process of making it an authentic capital only began in 1917, when Finland gained its complete independence from Soviet Russia.
Like any small European country, Finland is trying to carve out a place for itself that is different. Combining its natural resources with a knack for design is one way for Finland to compete with the rest of Western Europe, for instance. Another reason Finns always seem to be in fashion is that contemporary Finnish designers carry a very high profile among natives.
Marimekko, the maker of bold fabrics and brightly colored housewares that pledged in the 1960s to change the way Finns thought of fashion, has gone far toward fulfilling its promise. Products made by such famous Finnish firms as Arabia, which specializes in glassware, and Lapponia, one of Europe's leading jewelry makers, are considered accessible to the highbrow and the average Finn alike.