When I told my friends and family that I was going to study abroad in Sweden, they all asked me about my future travel plans and all of the other countries I would want to visit outside of Sweden. To be honest, I don’t have a set list of countries that I absolutely have to visit while I’m in Europe. One of the reasons I didn’t have any premeditated travel plans was because of the pandemic, and because DIS advised us to make all of our travel plans after arriving in Sweden because of the everchanging COVID-19 protocols and travel restrictions. However, when they said to wait to plan our trips, I don’t think they necessarily meant to plan them 48 hours in advance. Which is exactly what I ended up doing.
I left for the port of Stockholm right after class last Friday to board a weekend cruise to Helsinki, Finland. On Saturday, we arrived in Helsinki at 11:00, and were greeted by half a foot of snow on the streets, lakes covered with thick sheets of ice, and a constant stream of flurries coming down from a bright, white sky. I was definitely glad that I had planned to wear multiple layers that day. We had to be back on the cruise by 4:00, so we only had 5 hours to explore the city. The twelve of us trekked through the snow to the beautiful Helsinki Cathedral, one of the most popular structures in the country. The cathedral was situated at the top of a hill, and we clung onto the railings of the staircase for dear life to reach the top. Despite the ice and the cold, the view was stunning.
We spent a couple hours walking around the city streets, and I was able to see a lot of different perspectives on the city and those who live there. We walked through a street with red lanterns hanging from the buildings and an exhibit of tiger ice sculptures to commemorate Chinese New Year. After doing more research, I learned that Finland has a large Chinese population, and that they form one of the largest immigrant groups in Finland. As we continued to walk through the city, I noticed that there was a large number of Chinese restaurants, tea shops, and grocery stores. As an Asian-American student, I was glad to see more representation in Helsinki, and it seemed that Chinese culture was more widespread in Helsinki compared to what I’ve seen in Stockholm. I was glad that I was able to experience this celebration of Chinese culture, especially because we arrived in Finland only a few days after Chinese New Year!
After admiring that exhibit, we walked to another part of the city plaza, when a large group marched past us in peaceful protest of increased Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders. While we were sitting in a coffee shop, another group of protestors walked past the windows, dressed in all white outfits with white ski masks, holding signs that read: “obedience spikes the pandemic” and “the vaccinated are guilty.” While it was a bit unsettling to see these signs, it also goes to show that political and cultural issues affect every country in the world; similar anti-vaccination protests have also happened in Stockholm in the last couple of weeks. Despite knowing how polarizing of a topic COVID vaccinations have become in the United States, I was still surprised to see this conflict present itself in Helsinki and Stockholm, and other European countries.
After seeing the protesters, my friends and I ducked into the Ateneum Art Museum (tip: always ask if they offer a student discount, even if they don’t advertise it) and saw beautiful Finnish sculptures and paintings. I left with some great pictures, a better understanding of Finnish culture, and a handful of postcards to mail to my family back home. Reading about the different artists in the museum taught me some aspects of about Finnish culture. For example, I learned that Finnish society tends to be very relaxed, Finns often act politely and quietly, and they highly value the nature that surrounds them.
These values are also widespread in Sweden, as I have found that Swedes are very lax in their behaviors, whether it’s the way that no one rushes off of the metro when the doors open at their stop or the absence of strict government mandates regarding the pandemic. Swedes also highly value politeness in public like the Finns. For example, in grocery stores people typically do not reach around you to grab what they need off of the shelves; they prefer to wait behind you until you are done and then get what they need. Swedish culture also highly prioritizes nature and its preservation, similar to Finland. At the art museum in Helsinki, I noticed there were many paintings of landscapes, and a lot of the works reminded me of the frozen lakes and birch trees that I’ve seen in parks by my apartment. I love the emphasis on nature and the way that it is so untouched in both Sweden and Finland; it was interesting to see a few similarities between the two cultures.
Even though we were only able to spend 5 hours in Helsinki, I’m grateful that I was still able to experience different attractions that the city had to offer, and more importantly, get a little glimpse into the values and diversity within Finnish culture.