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Marissa Lingen

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Helsinki for the con going nerd [Jun. 6th, 2016|05:41 pm]
Marissa Lingen

I know that a great many nerds will be heading to Helsinki for the WorldCon next year, so I wanted to say some things about my experiences there that might be helpful.

So many things are in English. So many. Sooooo many. I did not encounter anyone in a service role in Helsinki (and only one in Turku) who did not speak English. They didn’t seem to expect Americans in early May, but people from everywhere else were using English as the lingua franca, so: really you will be fine.

A great many things, including hotel breakfasts, had gluten-free and dairy-free options clearly marked, so if those are concerns for you, it should be quite possible for you to travel well with some attention and forethought. This was not an issue for me, but I have friends for whom it is, and I was very pleased to see how well things would be handled for them.

I am a morning person. Apparently so is much of the Norden. Specifically: do not expect to go sit in a little cafe or bakery or coffee shop in the evening in Helsinki. That is not a thing I could find that they do. A few restaurants are open late–not very late by my standards. In the summer you can sit in a park and it will be still fairly light and gorgeous. Otherwise, what is open late is bars. If you want to do something that is not sitting in a bar drinking, you will need to plan a room party, or you will need to go out to a park. It is very easy to misjudge how late it is because of how light it is. You can walk around looking at architecture and statues, and this will be great fun. You can hang out in the lovely parks, how wonderful, highly recommended. But what you cannot do is sit in a cafe with your friends and eat the lovely pastries or drink the lovely non-alcoholic beverages in the evening. You had better get that out of your system in the morning or the afternoon. Dessert comes with supper or not at all; stash some Fazer in your bag if you get peckish in the evening.

Speaking of which: go to the Fazer Cafe. Seriously, go. It is…look, it probably won’t be the intensely emotional experience for you that it was for me (I nearly cried, for historical political reasons), but it’ll still be lovely. The windows are full of glass globes of flowers and chocolates. It’s not just a chocolate shop, it’s an elegant sensory experience from the early 20th century. Basically from the time when Karl Fazer’s politics triumphed and the Russians were out of Helsinki for good. It is gracious. Go. You may think that the Finland 2017 bid parties were just being eccentric with all the Fazer chocolates. No. This is the chocolate shop where people gathered to conspire against the tsar. (A lot of people don’t know that even in Finland.) It is so fiercely Finnish it brings a tear to your eyes. Well, to my eyes. And this thing full of grace and beauty and good taste and opposed to the authoritarians won GO GIVE THEM MONEY FOR CHOCOLATE OR A BISCUIT OR SOMETHING I AM NOT JOKING. There is a buffet. They serve actual food. If I had known that we might have eaten it, but the hotel breakfast was so lavish I was full of mustard herring and blueberry soup and Karelian pastry.

(Just eat it, it’s good. It’s got rye flour on the outside and rice in the middle. I don’t know, I’m not Finnish, much less Karelian. That’s all much further east than me. But they’re little pancakey football things. You can get them in Finnish supermarkets and museum cafes and everything. They’re better fresh, though, like in the buffet of a nice hotel breakfast. You can eat them with egg butter or strawberry jam or what you like.)

There is a restaurant called Zetor in downtown Helsinki that is very kitschy in its decor. There is an actual tractor in this restaurant, in keeping with its Finnish country food theme. However. You can get Finnish comfort cooking. Its menu is in many languages, it marks dietary needs clearly, and you are in Finland. You should try some Finnish food. It is not dreadfully expensive, and they will serve you cloudberry wine with your pyttipanna. They will serve you reindeer or blinis, or mushroom barley risotto. They will serve you boar sausages or salmon soup. Go, eat the Finnish food.

You will see a lot of restaurants labeled Nepalese. In my experience with their menus, this is mostly what would get called Indian food in North America, very little of what I think of as specifically Nepalese dishes. It is, however, a really great idea to put Indian sauces on Finnish pike perch. If you eat fish at all and you eat Indian food at all: yes. Do that.

I hear that public transit in Helsinki is quite good. I didn’t take any. I walked and walked and walked. I went to museums and also many architectural sites, churches and modern things and 19th century building after 19th century building. (With jet lag, my American sense of “hey, that must be an important building!” misled me for…um…miles, actually. I kept seeing the something a block or two down and thinking, “That’s about 150, 200 years old, it must be important!” And no. Just that I had not adjusted to the continent I was on, architecturally. Then when we stumbled upon the President’s house, it looked…just like all the other unprepossessing 19th century Finnish buildings. Oh Finland.)

And we went up to the Sibelius Monument, which Tim has lovely pictures of over at his Patreon so you can see for yourself why it’s worth going there by some means or another. The Helsinki Art Museum was not really worth it except for the Tove Jansson murals, and is also hard to find how to get in. The National Museum is lovely, and Kiasma is alarming and great if you like really modern art. (I had to flee the terrifying art.) But my favorite Helsinki thing is honestly just Helsinki. Just walking and walking and looking at Helsinki.

People keep asking me if I’m going for the Helsinki WorldCon. My dears: I have no idea. The vertigo is not kind enough to let me plan things more than a year in advance with travel of that magnitude. So: while I would love to make some kind of plan that involves striding around Helsinki with some of my favorite nerds in tow going, “Look! It’s a statue of this writer! and here’s why that’s important! and here’s who built this church!”, I honestly don’t know. I wish that you would all stop asking. I will say when I know. But in the meantime: the Sibelius Monument! The Fazer Cafe! Zetor! I am telling you the things as best I can.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: landofnowhere
2016-06-06 10:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you -- I have no intention of going to WorldCon, but Finland is on the list of places that I might like to go someday, and it sounds lovely. (Also, I have dairy issues, so it is useful to know that it marks non-dairy well.)
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2016-06-06 11:08 pm (UTC)
I really don't have any idea what Nepalese food is like: San Diego doesn't seem to have Nepalese cuisine (I don't think we even have Indonesian, which I would like to try some day). I'm impressed that you have it so well benchmarked that you can say "not really like Nepalese food." What distinguishes real Nepalese food?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-07 02:34 am (UTC)
So--I am not such an expert that I'm saying that I can distinguish the truly authentic from the approximate. Someone with a really keyed-in palate could probably say "this was cooked in cow butter and this dish would be more likely to be cooked in yak butter." I can't really say that.

I am saying that some key items like momos and dhindo that distinguish Nepalese from its overlap with Indian are missing--that I didn't see yak or goat anywhere--and that basically everything I saw on the menus was from the overlap with Indian. None of the hill cuisine.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2016-06-07 05:00 am (UTC)
There's a substantial enough Nepalese and Tibetan expat community in Boston for us to have a good Nepalese place in every major neighborhood, so. The distinguishing features of Nepalese food as far as I can tell: wheat, not rice, so you get steamed bread as a side, and no biryanis or other rice dishes; yak, goat, and yak butter, in a lot of preparations, when available; butter in tea, which tastes eerily like movie popcorn; a lot more dairy than Chinese food, but more of a resemblance to Chinese in texture and prep than to a lot of what I think of as Indian food. The place we usually go has a yak meat stirfry I like with sliced bell peppers and onions and capsicum, and the spices are what you'd expect in a curry (turmeric, mace, cumin, etc.), but there's really no sauce, as such, because all of the spices have soaked into the meat and veg. Also they stirfry in butter, not oil. Vegetarian options center heavily around lentils, and all of the restaurants around here give you a mug of a particular seven-spice lentil soup as a free starter. Desserts aren't really a thing. Seafood is not indigenous, and around here they'll do fish specials based on what's good at the markets, but you can tell their heart's not in it and they just feel obliged because of Boston's seafood reputation. Tsampa, which is roasted barley ground into flour, is in basically every dish, even if you can't tell. And the other iconic beverage is hot apple cider mixed with homemade cottage cheese, which is much nicer than it sounds and is supposed to be the non-alcoholic version of their national beer.
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[User Picture]From: sam_t
2016-06-07 08:37 am (UTC)
That sounds different to the Nepalese restaurants here, but then they are specifically Gurkha (families of men in regiments stationed here), and I suspect they're structuring their menu to make it easier for people familiar with North Indian/British restaurants to put together a satisfying meal.

Here's a menu for one in York: http://www.yakyetiyork.co.uk/download/da1fe7cc-0948-11e5-ac46-1106480993bf/
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-07 11:26 am (UTC)
The butter tea was one of the things I missed but could not remember last night when trying to articulate. Steamed bread: yeah, I saw none of that in the "Nepalese" menus I looked at in Helsinki, and I would expect it. And there were a ton of rice dishes.

They were quite good rice dishes. But. You, being used to Boston, should decide whether to go to Finnish Nepalese restaurants based on whether you want Indian food that day, not whether you want Nepalese food.
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From: athenais
2016-06-06 11:18 pm (UTC)
I enthusiastically second the Karelian pastries (Karjalanpiirakat) and highly recommend avoiding anything in Finland that purports to be Mexican food. It will be food, all right, but you will be so baffled if you think there is a hint of Mexican cookery about it. I am pleased to hear about Zetor since my own favorite Finnish restaurant Suomi seems to no longer exist. I will certainly try the Fazer Cafe next summer. I can't think how I came to miss it! Except as you say, there is just so much to see and do in Helsinki.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-07 02:35 am (UTC)
We saw a couple of Finnish Mexican chains and gave them SO MUCH SIDE-EYE.
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[User Picture]From: pisica
2016-06-16 09:12 am (UTC)
I can't speak for Mexican food throughout Europe, but I can definitely say that Mexican food in Scotland is....

Let's just say haggis burritos are a thing.

These places are okay if you're willing to accept what they are, rather than what you are expecting/hoping for them to be. But what they are not is Mexican, nor even Tex-Mex.

I save my Mexican food cravings for trips back to the states. Keep the greasy tortilla chips coming.
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2016-06-07 12:50 am (UTC)
The Fazer Cafe will definitely go on my list - it will make Daniel so happy. (I mean, it will make me happy, too, but I cannot think of anything better calculated to please Daniel than chocolate AND anti-tsarist plotting.)
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[User Picture]From: rachelmanija
2016-06-07 01:30 am (UTC)
I had no idea that food might be a reason to go to Finland, but you've convinced me. It would be a tax write off, so if things have improved for me by then I might consider it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-07 02:37 am (UTC)
I haven't even gotten to all the variations on mushrooms and cloudberries I had further north. And I want to get around to writing restaurant reviews in English for a couple of restaurants in Turku and Vaasa and Oulu and maybe Rovaniemi, because we would have found them useful when we were trying to figure out out own food.
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2016-06-07 02:19 am (UTC)
This is the best enticement to go to Helsinki that I can imagine.

Only -- egg butter?

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-07 02:35 am (UTC)
Chopped up hard-boiled eggs whipped into butter with black pepper. It's a very specific condiment for some kinds of bread and pastry.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2016-06-07 04:43 am (UTC)
I was going to ask (the phrase does not Google well), and ooh, I am very pleased to know about that and will have to make some. That sounds absolutely lovely.
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[User Picture]From: ruthi
2016-06-07 06:37 pm (UTC)
That sounds delicious.

Also beautiful.
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