Travels Part 3: Helsinki and Home

Colourful benches in Helsinki FInland

On our penultimate day in Edinburgh, I was woken at 6am by a soft, rustling sound in the hallway. It wasn’t, as I first thought, a wee mouse. It was DorkySon tip-toeing around the flat, gathering his belongings, and starting to pack.

It seemed that he was ready to keep moving.

In the cab to our hotel in Helsinki, we realised that it was DorkySon’s first time in a country where English is not the first language. We were throwing him in at the deep end: Finnish is very pretty and melodic, but the linguistic rhythms are so different to the romance languages we’re familiar with that we found it a real challenge.

Judging by the cab driver’s bemused look, I completely mangled the name of our hotel and the neighbourhood in which it stood. Over the coming days our embarrassment grew further. Even a simple thank you – Kiitos – took many attempts before we mastered it.

We persevered though – all three of us – because there was a lot to say Kiitos for.

Unicorn on Helsinki street sign

Helsinki is a beautiful city, and two days was barely enough to scratch the surface, but we did our best.

The hotel we were staying in – Hotel Katajanokka – was a converted prison. It was a red brick building near the ferry terminal, and an easy walk to the city centre. There was also a tram stop right by the gate. There were enough of the old prison features incorporated to give you a sense of the building’s history, but not so many that it became creepy.

The hotel provided our first introduction to the excellent European practice of two single duvets on a double bed. SUCH a good idea to avoid fighting over the sheets. It was also the comfiest hotel bed that DorkyDad or I have ever slept in, anywhere in the world. Our first night there we managed a solid twelve hours of sleep.

Thankfully we woke up in time to enjoy the fantastic breakfast.

Finland – with its strong coffee and ten kinds of bread with every meal – is my kind of place. The crispy rye bread with salmon and dill cream was delicious. The soft, sweet, gooey, malt bread which left melted butter trickling down my wrists was delicious. The Karelian pies – palm sized pastries with a rye crust, stuffed with rice or mashed potato – were REALLY delicious, and I had to be dissuaded from filling my pockets with them to snack on throughout the day.

The food in general was excellent. DorkySon slurped blueberry or lingonberry juice everywhere we went. We ate one lunch in what was obviously a local spot overlooking the harbour, and another in a surprisingly good Tapas bar. Dinner at the hotel was also very good, although eye-wateringly expensive. The buffet lunch that DorkySon and I had there on our last day was much better value, and equally yum. Our only real miss was an uninspiring meal in an Estonian chain steakhouse, where we ended up purely to avoid a hangry meltdown from DorkySon.

It was a reminder that city breaks – especially when you’re in a hotel rather than self-catering – can be tricky with kids.  Without a fridge full of snacks to fall back on (or a pocket full of Karelian pies…) we had to settle on compromise meal times that were usually too late for DorkySon and too early for us.

However, there were far more positives about this city than there were negatives. DorkySon – with Formula One never far from his mind – was thrilled to discover that our hotel was just around the corner from the karaoke bar owned by Kimi Raikonnen, so our first walk took us in that direction. There was also lots of activity to watch in the various harbours, interesting architecture, and a couple of very cute little bridges covered in love locks.

Helsinki skywheel and ferry boat

On our first full day, which was warm and sunny, we took the tram up to Linnanmäki, a huge amusement park in the north of the city. The park itself was closed, but DorkySon was keen to see Sea Life Helsinki, and they’re on the same site. It was a pretty small centre, but well maintained, with staff who seemed passionate about marine conservation.

Unfortunately, on our second day, the weather took a turn for the worse. It wasn’t just cold and it wasn’t just wet, it was that combination of the two that makes your cheeks ache. We pulled the puff jackets out from our suitcases, but when we ventured outside it wasn’t for long. Grateful for the warm, comfy hotel room, all three of us scurried inside after an hour and buried our noses back in our books.

We didn’t fly out until late evening on the third day, so there was plenty of time for another good walk around. DorkyDad popped into a specialist hat shop for some browsing; DorkySon found a shop full of Christmas decorations and chose one to bring home; and I annoyed them both by stopping every few hundred metres to take a photo of another brightly coloured bench, cute bicycle, or interesting street sign. My iPhone shots didn’t do much justice to what is a really unique city, which I suppose means I’ll have to go back one day and do it all again.

Eventually, it was time to pack up for the last time and head out to the airport to begin the long journey back to Hobart.

Sitting at the gate and slurping down one final blueberry juice, patting my bag to make sure I’d still got the painted shark stone we’d found in Edinburgh, I found myself strangely emotional at the thought of leaving Europe. Helsinki had reminded me of the early days with DorkyDad when we used to jet off every few months to Prague, or Paris, or Barcelona. We had both loved living somewhere where it was possible to experience an entirely different culture just by travelling an hour or two, and I hoped that all the young people growing up in a post-Brexit Britain wouldn’t miss out on it. What a loss that would be.

Love lock reading 'you are home to me' on bridge in Helsinki

We have been home from our travels now for more than six weeks. The laundry basket is finally empty. The souvenirs have found shelves to live on. Gifts have been given, and the fridge is full once more.

In that time, DorkyDad and I have both had a decent amount of work to keep us out of mischief. The weather hasn’t been great, but it’s been light enough in the evenings that I’ve started running again, and he is back to weeding the garden. DorkySon is making his way through the last term of Grade 3, and looking with ever-increasing excitement towards Christmas. His letter to Santa this year included an apology to Rudolph for trying reindeer in Helsinki – I am pretty confident he will be forgiven.

It doesn’t take long to return to the daily routine, to all that is familiar and comfortable. But like all holidays, this one has left its mark. I think all three of us have taken time to reflect on how lucky we are to have friends and family who we stay connected with, even if they are scattered very widely across the globe; we are lucky that we are able to travel; and lucky that we have a safe, warm house to return to, in a place that we now call home.

Most of all, I think, we are lucky to have each other. As Ernest Hemingway said:

Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”