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Seeing and Believing in Helsinki

I enjoy being invisible in a new place. It helps me adjust to unfamiliar customs. It prevents me from seeming like a neophyte while I reconnoiter the roads. It keeps me safe. Sometimes, though, going unnoticed works to my disadvantage. I was in line at a cafeteria style restaurant in Helsinki, Finland. It was lunchtime and the spacious hall was crowded with avid customers. I was hungry. I waited in line for a slice of pizza because it had the shortest queue. A tall drooping man transfixed by his smartphone cut me off to stand in front. I did not say anything. He received his food and clomped away. Even though I was next, the serving lady spun to the cross-armed woman behind me and asked her what she wanted. They exchanged pleasantries along with a slab of sausage and cheese. When the purchaser departed, the attendant turned to disappear into a back room. I was left to stare at a glass display of fifteen pies. I waited. A few patrons came to scan the goodies then, seeing no one at the counter, went away. I lingered alone once more, pacing in hopes someone would come out of the rear. A harried office worker laden with shopping bags arrived. We nodded at one another, ogled the pizzas. No one materialized to assist us. The business suit huffed, walking away while muttering. I followed. It was a trivial setback, yet I was deflated.   

Outdoors the wind chilled my ears. The sky was a sheet of lead. The red-tiled theater sneered. The clock tower of the railway station mocked me with its ersatz chimes. Drizzle started. The streets grew slick under my rubber soles. Umbrellas popped open around me, spraying droplets into my face. I huddled into my collar, my stomach growling. I ducked into a gloomy doorway for shelter. Through the opaque windows I caught a peep at white tablecloths. Heaving the ornate metal door, I stepped into a dim chamber of leather chairs and flickering chandeliers. The pinging of cutlery echoed against the walls. The diners looked macabre in the chiaroscuro. The waiters floated by with wooden expressions and dead eyes. I hastened out before anyone could confront me.

Back in the rain, I felt all of Helsinki was cold and unfriendly towards me. My invisibility cloak — which I had so proudly worn — now isolated me from the store-lined avenues, the dripping rowans, the scurrying pedestrians. The day was marred. Curiosity to explore abandoned me. I wanted to board the next train out of this unwelcoming capital. I longed to return to my hotel, but hunger kept me moving. Exiting from a soggy park occupied by circling pigeons who I sensed were readying to ambush me, I encountered a sedate summer-house. From its elegant paned glass siding streamed golden beams. The downpour stylishly cascading down its casements. I lurched up the porticoed stairs, through the open entrance, in a daze.

“Good afternoon,” the hostess said, smiling cheerfully, “a table for one?” I nodded. Light filled the interior despite the gray weather. Couples murmured at each other, friends laughed and clinked water goblets, a baby gurgled with pleasure. “I hope the wet conditions have not dampened things too much for you?” she asked as she led me through a maze of narrow aisles towards an alcove. Knotted into an unhappy mess, I managed a tight smile at her. We passed a mirror and it reflected me grimacing. “The waiter will be right with you,” she said, handing me a menu. I tossed it on my plate, flung off my wet coat, and exhaled into my seat. A wave of heat wafted from above. The aroma of baking drifted my way. I leaned back in my velveteen chair, sighing. I began to notice details again. A potted palm posed demurely adjacent to the large sashed aperture in my corner. I picked up the menu. While deciding between baltic herring or fruit soup, my server popped up. He laid a bread basket in front of me.

“Good afternoon,” he said in a soothing voice, “would you care to start off with a cup of hot coffee?”

“Yes, please!”

“Very good. Let me quickly refer you to our special today, the reindeer stew. Do you have any questions?”

“I was wondering about this fruit soup?”

“Yes, that is a cold soup of blueberries and arrowroot. We also have a toasty vegetable soup you might enjoy more today.”

“That sounds better. I’ll have that and the herring please.”

“Excellent choice.” As he left a second waiter arrived with a steaming pot.

“Coffee?” I agreed eagerly and watched him pouring the amber liquid into my cup. I drank several sips, allowing the beverage to warm me. The outer pane was spattered with drops in a picturesque pattern. A thin draft whistled through the sill, but it no longer seeped into me. I relaxed. The exterior scene appeared cozy. As I progressed through my meal my good humor surfaced.

When I exited the restaurant the Helsinki sky was limpid blue. The green domed cathedral called to me from its dizzying heights. The alleys gleamed with anticipation. The droopy park I had traversed was alive with bird chatter. The boutique fronts had transformed from spartan to chic. Each crooked curve revealed a quirky beauty: a moss-covered vehicle, cartoon hippopotami clambering brick facades, delicate curlicue of adorned lamp posts. The city was sprouting color. There is an adage that says, “Seeing is believing.” I began to understand in Helsinki how believing could also warp into seeing. A single disagreeable incident had tainted my perspective, turned me hostile to an entire destination.The more obstacles thrown my way, the more I was convinced this trip was a mistake. Evidence stacked up as if it were scientific proof. In my angst, I failed to distinguish between reality and my impressions.

As I was slogging through Helsinki after the vexing episode at the pizza depot, a question kept looping through my head: “Why?” It had pursued me as I replayed the event, first to critique my actions, then to blame the attendant. I rearranged the scenario, dissected it, parsed it for clues as to what I could have done differently. Wandering the leafy neighborhoods under a sunnier ambience I realized the reasons did not matter. What I should have been examining was my internal response. This is, after all, what determined my subsequent judgement of the city and my attitude. How I react to the slings of adversity, large or small, impacts my view of the world; it shapes me as a person; it guides my future behavior. Though I do not want it to influence me, others’ directives often determine how I conduct myself. Helsinki has taught me to always check: how do I wish to be influenced by a particular situation? As a traveler, as a storyteller, and a participant of digital media it is imperative I continue to question what I see and what I believe.


How design improves society is of great consequence to Finnish culture. The art of constructing everyday, timeless, functional structures with care towards its beauty, singularity, and usability is crucial to Helsinki’s layout. Finlandia Hall, built by the renowned architect Alvar Aalto, features an optical deception you have to see to believe: viewing the venue from the eastern shore of Töölö bay it appears as if Finlandia Hall is joined on one side to the National Museum’s tower. In actuality the museum resides across the street.

What do you do when circumstances or people sour your travels? How do you rebound from an unpleasant experience? 

119 replies »

  1. I really enjoyed reading and being in Helsinki with you. I think over our years of travel we have come to expect that things will not go the way we assume they might. Often it is us not knowing where to queue or what to ask. So not too often do we get upset or in dark moods on the road. We know that to travel means to learn and often that learning is about our own attitude. It’s not always easy and in all honesty much easier I think because we have each other to discuss things with.

    • Thank you. It must be wonderful to have a continuous, trusty, travel companion with whom to share not only all the joyous moments but also the tribulations. Times when I have traveled with friends or family, I have certainly benefited from being able to discuss painful situations with them or hear their differing perspectives.

  2. I can relate to your well-told experience. I have felt invisible at times too but without wanting to and it has put me in a bad mood. I call myself the ‘queen of fair’ and have often spoken up when someone butts in front of me or fails to provide the service I deserve. I’m glad you were able to turn the experience around and will remember this the next time I let a situation alter my mood.

    • Thank you. It’s situations like this that remind me just how interconnected I am with other people and the environment in which I find myself. It all influences my mood, how I react, what decisions I make, what judgements I place.

  3. Thank you for sharing yet another of your detailed experience and senses. Glad you found a nice place for lunch after the unpleasant encounter. 🙂 I suppose travel is not only taking in the beautiful but also the less pleasant experience. It sure makes a traveler tougher and gets to learn about patience. Usually I shrugged it off if these happened and I learned to bring snacks in my bags too. Once I was served with BBQ meat that was accidentally garnished with sprinkles of cow dung that I can taste it in my mouth. My reaction was to declare it organic and have a glass of vodka followed with giggles. 😀

    • 😱 How horrible for you! I admire your positive reaction to the incident, though. I don’t think I would have been able to recover from that one. As you stated so well, travel is all about “taking in the beautiful” and learning how to deal with the not-so-pleasant. Thank you for telling me about one of your own travel setback experiences.

  4. I think what you experienced happens to all of us. It is why each traveler has a somewhat different experience in the same place. Our moods, the weather, our thoughts, past experiences… it all influences how we feel about a certain place, based on that exact moment we visit. If it wasn’t for the negative experience at the pizza place, you would not have stumbled upon the nice restaurant you had lunch in. I’m glad the sun came out for you, in the sky and in your mind – well, the blue sky might have prompted the better mood as well. And, a full belly! 🙂

    • 🙂 Yes, that sky and the lovely warm lunch helped change things around. I agree with you that everyone’s travel experience is not only heavily influenced by their personality and cultural background but also more tangible issues like weather, safety, and hunger. It’s why I think we should explore everywhere and see what happens for ourselves.

  5. You describe wonderfully that feeling of being invisible and detached from your surroundings – and how that can spiral into a way of perceiving the world. I was glad to exhale with you in those more congenial surroundings and to experience Helsinki refreshed 🙂

  6. Oh, this is marvellous writing. I could share each moment with you. I’m glad I read this today, on Finland’s 100th birthday and will share it with my Helsinki blogger friend Snow that luckily Melts Somewhere else. 😉

  7. I love how you captured the abrupt swing in emotions that is such a shock at times, when we interact with a new environment, and how it taints our perceptions and experience. I am so glad you found your special lunch spot, and sharing your experience, as I am sure it is one that resonates with many travellers.

    • That fear of not being able to adjust, of being the inexplicable outcast is always present alongside the thrill of learning about new places. You relay it so well in your own essays about adjusting to life in the UAE.

  8. I love this post! It’s a reminder to stay in the flow … that when things don’t pan out as expected, it’s often to release us for something better and more aligned with our imagination, if we remain open to it and keep looking. Brilliant!

  9. Interesting reflection and so true how a fairly ordinary setback can have such an impact on our perception of a new place. It reminds me of arriving in Siem Reap airport and being driven to our guesthouse by an unfriendly tuktuk driver. It really tainted my first impression of the place, and I was downright upset. Luckily, as in your case, my subsequent encounters were much better. Great post.

    • We have such a profound affect on one another. A smile from a stranger can change our outlook just as deeply as a sunny day or a full belly. I really appreciate your telling about your Siem Reap experience.

  10. You are a good sport. That pizza thing would have had me cranky all day but I turn into a gremlin when I’m hungry. So glad you found food. I’ve learned to pack extra snacks from traveling to countries where I wasn’t that into the food. I just need something familiar and satisfying to keep me going through a trip where I’m not happy with my food.Other than the pizza thing, your trip looks great!

    • I turn into a gremlin when hungry too! Everything and everyone seems against me at that point. 😆 Other than the pizza incident my trip was great. Helsinki is very easy going and architecturally pretty. I bring dried fruit with me on nature treks but will follow your example for my city explorations too. What type of snacks do you usually carry?

  11. You recreate both a scene and a mood with great detail and passion. I understand completely how a series of small negatives can adversely affect our mood and ultimately how we feel about a location. That’s exactly what happened to me with Florence many years ago. I hope someday to have a do-over.

    I’m glad you ultimately got food and it was a positive experience! I’ve heard Helsinki is a beautiful city, but I can see on a wet and gray day, she wasn’t showing her best.

  12. It’s so true that our subjective impressions and mood can influence how we feel in a new place. All we need is one person to be kind and our impressions can change in minutes! Thanks for the reminder!

  13. This is among my favorite posts in your blog! As humans, we’re often tempted to judge things too quickly based on our initial impressions of it, treating them as ‘scientific’ proofs, as you said. Yet, we’re also constantly confronted with situations which force us to think deeper and more objectively about whatever happens to us. Some people handle it quite gracefully, but for some it’s a lifelong learning process.

    • What a compliment! Thank you so much. I’d like to pretend that as an adult I’m unaffected by other people’s words and actions, or by the weather, or my animal instincts — that I am “strong” and “independent” and “make my own decisions” but it is not true at all. I keep relearning this lesson, but hopefully each time I come to it from a deeper understanding of myself.

  14. I know that feeling all too well. More often than not, I’m invisible in markets, shops, etc, whether traveling or at home. Eventually, I find someone who would like to take my money. 🙂 It’s good to notice the reactions that arise and try to keep them from ruining the day. Not always easy. I’m a total grouch when I’m hungry. 😀 But the attitude changes once my stomach is full.

  15. One again your words have brought me right to the scene with you, sharing the depth of your emotions, the hurt and the rebound, the shift in your viewpoint of this city based on the aloofness or kindness of strangers. Your posts always make me feel like I have my nose in a good book that I do not want to put down :-). Gorgeous visuals as always.

    That cafeteria style restaurant situation would have brought out my New York ‘in-your-face I will not be ignored’ (not the prettiest) side of myself, but I would have gotten my sausage and cheese :-).

    • Aw, thank you for such a sweet compliment. ☺️ I love the idea of you reading my posts as if they were a book.

      😆 You, and your New York attitude, would have been so helpful to me on that day!

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