Helsinki on my mind

The last ten days in Helsinki shook me up. If my experience is any indication, the Finns are not satisfied with the merely pretty. Showmanship or flashy flourishes have little currency. Instead, you’ll find clear-eyed design imbued with exceptional empathy and civility. One particularly famous architect even designed his hospital wash basins to minimize noise, so that patients might have a more peaceful space to recover. That generosity of spirit was on display everywhere I looked.

In the fragrance department at Stockmann (a kind of Finnish Macy’s, with an excellent “food court”) the only non-mass-market line was the minimalist and mostly dull Armani Privē. The Finnish furniture icon Artek have a perfume in a similar style made by Comme des Garçons, a crisp frankincense with emphasis on the citric qualities. Superficially at least, it’s a natural pairing with Artek’s blonde wood and spare calm. Elsewhere in Helsinki perfume was hard to come by. Boutiques carried the Comme des Garçons line, if they carried anything at all.  Whenever I smelled perfume in a crowd it was either something clean and mainstream or an ambery, woody snoozer. Finland, it seems, is not perfume country.

Thankfully, Finland also has little patience for scented cleaning products. Not once did I smell my personal kryptonite of musky soaps and shampoos. Nobody smelled like a freshly-body-sprayed teenager. Most things just smelled…quiet. All this olfactory white space made the little things shine brighter: fresh berries in an outdoor market, wood polish, good wool. Everything I smelled with connected to something else. Nothing was scented in vain.

With three days left in Helsinki a vicious head cold killed my sense of smell. Not only was it a crushing bummer to not smell or taste properly, but it really started messing with my equilibrium. Not being able to smell myself was bad enough, but I realized how much I rely on my nose to get my bearings. I felt half-blindfolded walking into a new space. I kept searching around for other input, trying to make sense of where I was, but no dice. I might as well have been wearing an eye-patch.

In the customs line in Philadelphia International the culture shock was subtle but apparent. Americans are at their most American while waiting in line, and surrounded by my haggard fussy countrypersons, I felt both a little sad and glad to be back. Although certainly comforted by the familiar, I already missed the gentle pace of Finland. Helsinki welcomed me without a second thought, was never less than patient with my loud American West style. There may be a place for me there. Now I just have to earn it.

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