Lost in Helsinki

22.08.2007 at 15:18 | Posted in HSS | Leave a comment

by HSS student Audrey Faye Henderson

Helsinki Central Railway Station

Since 1 August, I have contributed to the temporary urban growth of Helsinki by residing in a student apartment in the Pilajamäki area. I was one of hundreds of strangers from around the world who travelled to Helsinki for three weeks of intensive study, with time for a bit of tourism and meeting new friends thrown in, just because it is summertime. A group of 22 from four different continents were enrolled in the Helsinki Summer School (HSS) class Planning a Growing Urban Region. Our final assignment was to choose a location in the city or the surrounding area and comment on how it contributes to urban growth or growth pains, as well as why it was personally particularly interesting or intriguing.

My choice, unoriginal though it might be, is the central railway station. The central railway station seems to be a logical choice for commenting on the subject of urban growth in Helsinki. Trains to and from every corner of the country converge in the central railway station. In Finland, all roads (or rather, all tracks) lead to Helsinki. As such, newcomers from the rural areas of the country make their way to Helsinki via the efficient local trains or the very fast express, the Pendolino. The building itself is also an imposing archtectural specimen.

In addition, both the Finnair bus and the regional bus travelling from the airport have the railway station as their endpoint in Helsinki. Many newcomers to the area arrive by plane, of course. The railway station is also extremely close both to the regional bus station and the ferry docking points, which are also important entry points for newcomers.

Beyond the obvious surface, however, the railway station, its central location and its excellent connections contribute to sustainable urban growth by making it possible for residents to live and work in the area without purchasing a car. It has also contributed to the concentration of services, commercial establishments and entertainment in the Helsinki city center, all essential magnets in drawing new residents and maintaining the vibrancy of an urban region.

Indeed, like many urban areas worldwide, Helsinki is growing. It is growing within its own boundaries by means of “in-fill” development — the building of new housing and commercial facilities in open lands or at the sites of demolished structures inside the city limits. The area is also expanding outward, in a development which in many areas of the world (such as the United States) frequently results in urban sprawl — an uncontrolled, undirected chewing away of green areas and irreplaceable fertile soils.

This does not appear to be an imminent danger in Helsinki, at least from my own naive viewpoint. Many of the newer developments seem to be reasonably accessible to the center city by public transportation, even if they are not actually focused on the center city in their sense of identity. That said, I was surprised to see the far-flung, car dependent development of Sundsberg, with its uniform rows of identical detached homes and townhouses, during a field excursion for our class. If not for the signage in Finnish, I might well have been standing in the midst of a suburb of Chicago.

The central railway station has also held personal importance for me during my time in Helsinki. The bus which has carried me from my apartment complex into the center of the city has the central railway station as its final stop. From there I have spent the past weeks attempting to navigate the city and surrounding area.

The classroom for our course, along with the main office for the HSS program, are both located in the main building of the University of Helsinki, which happens to be a five minute walk from the railway station. Nonetheless, on my first day in Helsinki, I required a map, two telephone calls to the HSS main office, directions from a heavily tattooed man who saw me wandering helplessly by the front entrance, and 20 minutes before I finally arrived at the information desk to register and obtain the keys for my flat.

Did I mention that I possess absolutely no sense of direction? Or that Americans have no conception of the metric system? Therefore, having someone helpfully instruct me to “walk east 500 meters and it’s right there,” becomes translated in my addled brain to “blgx yulw 500 bazqrm hak wo’t cwpzt lifwa.”

This is, as one might imagine, extremely frustrating. Also frustrating has been my discovery that my usual method of gaining my bearings is of no value here in Helsinki. In Chicago, I follow street signs and building addresses to figure out where I am and how to get to where I need to be. Also, after years of residence, I am an expert at navigating the public transportation system.

Following street signs and addresses doesn’t really work in Helsinki, at least for me. The streets seem to change names every block or so, a fact I discovered after somehow winding up in Esplinade Park while (unsuccessfully) trying to find the meeting point for our class near the Tower Bar.

The plan was that the class would go to the bar, take the lift up to the top and observe Helsinki from a high point. We were to meet at 7:45. I arrived at the railway station 7:10 and finally gave up at 8:30. Ironically, I wound up at a bar where the HSS program was staging its welcome party. I had previously decided to skip the event, but wound up staying, so that afterward I could walk back to the railway station with someone who actually knew where he or she was going.

As time has passed, I have learned that if I can see the railway station or I know which direction it is from where I am, I can usually figure out how to get to where I need to be. It has served much the same function as Lake Michigan does for me in Chicago. Even if all else fails, everyone in Helsinki seems to know where the railway station is, and from there I can start over, if need be. This is not as much of an inconvenience as it might seem, as I have also discovered that the railway station is ridiculously close to so many landmarks and locations in the city center.

On countless occasions I have stood on a street corner or in the corridors of the central railway station, map in hand, and have been approached by a helpful stranger who has inquired in English, “Do you need help finding something?” Besides being an absolute lifeline, this is quite impressive. I am, like most non-Hispanic Americans, fluent only in English, although I can get by in French.

Not many people in Finland speak French.

However, nearly everyone speaks English, which I believe will be advantageous in directing the future growth of the Helsinki region, as immigration becomes more and more a factor in population growth. In my own experience, being able to communicate has made a tremendous impact on helping me to feel welcome and safe, even when I have otherwise been totally frustrated. I am confident that other newcomers to the area do or would feel the same way.

In this respect, I believe much of the rest of the world, and Finland especially, holds a distinct advantage over the United States. I was especially reminded of this fact in my summer school class. During the first session, I was surprised to discover that I was the lone representative from the United States, and thereby carried the burden of representing the entire North American continent.

Right away I was struck by the polylinguistic abilities of my fellow classmates and course instructors, who spoke as many as four or five languages fluently. It reminded me of an incident some years ago when I was sitting in a classroom with a friend of mine, located in a downtown Chicago university which caters to first-generation university students, who oftentimes are immigrants to the United States and have English only as a second language.

I tapped my friend on the shoulder and whispered urgently, “Richard! Do you realize we are the only ones in the room speaking English?”

He responded with a big grin on his face. “Yes. Isn’t it great?”

At that moment I realized, yes, it was great, and again every day in class this summer, and again in the central railway station, where Finnish and English are only two of many languages spoken by newcomers and residents alike. Call me an idealist, but I truly believe that understanding languages can carry a person a long way in understanding different cultures. As the world becomes smaller, such understanding can be the key to peaceful or at least civil coexistence.

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