Did I mention I went to Europe for hockey? Oh, my bad. Well, in case you didn’t know, my parents and I went to Russia and Finland to watch the Carolina Hurricanes open their season. Some people choose to go to France for romance, others to Tuscany for wine, still others to Africa for safaris. Me? I bet you can guess what determines my travels.
Finland, if you haven’t been there, is downright awesome. It seems they have it all – culture, the arts, hockey and a group of genuinely nice people collectively called Finns. These Finns speak a language I’ll never master. All I managed to pick up was “kiitos” (thank you) and “ana paula Canes” (let’s go Canes!). I’m really good with languages, which is the frustrating part. Spanish, French, German…I get those. Finnish? I think one’s mouth needs to be double jointed to produce those sounds. Exhibit A: Tuomo Lisakki Ruutu.
“Suomi” is what natives call their country. Know what that means? Swamp. (No, I won’t bog you down with my bad jokes). It makes sense considering the 187,888 lakes Finland. It’s no wonder the country produces so many amazing hockey players. There’s not a lot to do in the winter except skating on those frozen lakes, relaxing in saunas and drinking Koskenkorva (a 170 proof vodka-like liquor that keeps the brutal chills at bay).
Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Helsinki, couldn’t have been in a better location. One step out the door and you were in Helsinki’s (Finland’s capital) city center. Now, don’t expect a New York City in Helsinki. The entire country has six million people (6.25 million if you include reindeer), most of which are in southern Finland within a few hours of Helsinki.
One of the best features of the hotel was the bathroom. It had heated floors. Let me repeat that. It had heated floors. No more frostbitten toes during the middle of the night. Thank you, Suomi! The rest of the hotel was very much Scandinavian. By that I mean it was small, environmentally-friendly and modest. If you’re looking for a five star hotel with all the westernized touches of America this isn’t it. I’d put this in the same category as a Hyatt in the States. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice but not special.
The first evening we unpacked and went to Ryan Thai a block away. Hey now, don’t be judgmental about my choice. I wasn’t interested in explaining to my young cousins why I ate Rudolph for dinner. “Santa made me do it?” Let me warn you – Finnish Thai is HOT! I think my mom burned a hole in her esophagus. No worries, she was fine thanks to a shot of Koskenkorva. Speaking of Koskenkorva, if anyone is going to Finland could you bring me back a bottle? I’m fresh out.
We made it an early night because we had a lot of hockey on our schedule for the next few days. We needed to be on top of our games. The following morning we had breakfast in the hotel’s dining room. There was a vast spread of meat and cheese, Danishes, fruit, yogurt, bread and pretty much anything you would want. I think Rudolph was there, too, but I didn’t wait around to find out.
It was after breakfast our hockey vacation kicked into high gear. A coach bus was waiting outside to take us to the Hurricane’s morning practice. We drove through Helsinki, which gave us an idea of where to shop, eat, etc. while we were there. Helsinki has a lot of public libraries by the way. It’s totally normal for Finns to go to their local library for research or to check out the newest work of fiction. What a novel idea! (Sorry…)
We arrived at Hartwall Areena (that’s not a typo; Finns love vowels) and went in to see our boys. I’d go into detail about checks, blue lines, the crease, off sides, etc. but I have a feeling I’d just end up with a lot of confused readers. I will say one thing about our team though. We’re a strange market. In a sport that dominates the Canadian psyche (remember the Vancouver Olympic’s gold medal hockey game?), it seems strange to many that southerners love hockey. Well we do and our boys know that. Many of them have said Raleigh is the best city ever and they actually mean it. Many eventually retire here and become North Carolinians full time. The Caniacs (fans) treat them like family. We show southern hospitality at its best and support our boys whether its during the Stanley Cup Finals or on a 14 game losing streak. To show their appreciation the Canes saluted the Caniacs in the way we understand,
the way we know, the way that gives us chills – they lifted their sticks in a collective “Thank you, we love ya’ll.” Then, of course, the 300 Caniacs who traveled halfway across the world to see our boys, stood and applauded them right back (because that’s how Caniacs/southerners roll). One more hockey piece (for now)…this season opener was especially important to three of our players, Ruutu, Jokinen and Pitkanen, as they’re Finns. They were able to play in front of their families, friends, former coaches, teachers, etc who saw their son’s teammates and fans at their best.
After practice we jumped on our bus and went the Helsinki Harbor. What a beautiful place! The water surrounding us was like icy blue glass. The wind blowing off the ocean was just enough to make you shiver for a moment. There were collections of old-fashion wooden boats with billowing white sails strewn about the harbor. I felt like I’d momentarily stepped into the Viking era. At any moment I half expected a 250 pound man with silver armor, an illegal sword and a horned helmet to come running off the boat screaming Viking obscenities. I was mostly happy that didn’t happen, not because I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but because I wasn’t interested in assisting the police in their hunt for a psychotic, sword-wielding Finn. No one would have believed my anyway. In that case….
We had lunch with the Hurricanes today. Let me repeat that for the shock value. We had lunch with the Carolina Hurricanes team and management staff today. As a thank you from the organization and the NHL we were invited to enjoy lunch at a waterfront restaurant. My parents and I sat with the coach, Paul Maurice, and mostly had him to ourselves for two hours. The other six people at our table were too nervous to open their mouths. Us? We talked about everything and are now privy to secrets of the organization, unlike our unlucky counterparts who were busy chowing down as an excuse not to talk.
As business owners my parents dove into the hockey world and how the organization functions on a corporate level. Pretty interesting stuff. You’ll have to kill us to hear it. Wait, that doesn’t make sense.
After lunch we walked around the harbor to really take in the sights. Our first stop was the Uspenski Cathedral, a stunning eastern orthodox cathedral built between 1862 and 1868 that’s set upon a hillside on a peninsula overlooking the city. The exterior’s deep-red brick is striking against the ocean beyond it. As it was designed by a Russian you’ll immediately pick up on what I call the “Russian Feel.” It’s large and in charge. In fact, it’s the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe. I know, I know, Finland is actually in Northern Europe. I don’t make the rules here, I just tell you about what I
learned. Admission is free to the 520,000+ annual visitors but the cathedral is closed on Mondays (as are most churches and museums).
One of the most interesting things about this cathedral is a carved placard mounted on an exterior wall. It’s in Russian. The Finns aren’t very happy about that but they keep it as a testament to their resilience during the dark times they were seized by the Russians. I can’t blame them about not being happy. I guess I wouldn’t be happy if America was seized by Canadians. Wait a second! What am I saying? I’d be thrilled if that happened. Hockey would be our national pastime and our flag would have a puck amid the stripes. Anyway…
Next we walked downtown, which is only a few blocks away from the harbor, and stopped when we saw hundreds of bears. No, no, not that type of bear (though I wouldn’t be against seeing a Finnish bear). These United Buddy Bears are about seven feet tall and painted to represent the country they came from. The USA’s bear was the Statue of Liberty, South Africa’s was dedicated to the World Cup, India’s was covered in henna tattoos and Canada’s was a hockey puck *kidding.* They’ve traveled the world since 2004 promoting peace and tolerance between countries. It’s a pretty cool idea and Helsinki seems like such an appropriate place to continue this tradition.
The bears were in Senate Square along with the Helsinki Cathedral (1830-1852), a large white church topped by one enormous and four smaller mint green domes. The cathedral has a Greek feel to it due to the cross-plan of a square central mass and arms of equal length growing from it. Originally the church was a tribute to a Russian Tsar but that’s not widely talked about nowadays
We did a bit of shopping this afternoon and ended up with a good bit of jewelry. The necklaces I bought were made of Finnish glass and represented Finnish nature (blue for the ocean, green for the forests, etc.) I’ll warn you if you decide to shop (you’re welcome in advance!) not to visit the department store. It’s a six-story building with everything in it. You can get furs, china, jeans, soccer balls, anything else you could ever want in that store. It’s terribly crowded and once you’re in you’re on your own. Imagine the Atlanta airport on Thanksgiving. Have an image? It’s worse than that. Go to the local stores in the downtown area and you’ll avoid the claustrophobia-inducing crowds.
Dinner that night was below average at Amarillo. It was a Tex-Mex restaurant a block from our hotel and looked like it did pretty good business. It’s one of the larger establishments we saw for dinner. Our fajitas had herring in them. I just had to put that out there. I’m used to Mahi-Mahi in my fajitas, not stinky herring. I don’t mean to be ethnocentric but I much prefer the way we do it here. I cried a little when I had to swallow the slimy, furry little buggers. The best part of the restaurant was the fact they sold Texas Pete (woohoo!) by the bottle. I laughed when I saw they charged $20 per bottle. People pay for it because it’s that good. Admit it, you’d do the same for Texas Pete.