The other day a promotional video praising the virtues of Helsinki appeared unbidden on my Facebook feed. I know not why, but could it just be that their algorithm has noticed that I still have friends in Finland, traceable to the many happy times I spent training TV journalists at the splendid YLE TV centre in Pasila, just a tram ride from downtown Helsinki?
If so, I find this more than a little creepy. And to reinforce my long held anti-Facebook prejudice, I couldn’t get the video to run reliably on this page. You haven’t missed much. So here’s a much better video, evidently shot from a drone, which does a pretty good job of portraying this great city, without a word of voice-over hyperbole, or even worse some trendy presenter mouthing trendy nonsense to camera:
My connection with Finland actually started not in the Finnish capital but in a hotel breakfast room in Montreal, at a conference of public service television training folk called Preput, circa 1993.
In the line of business as an independent TV trainer I had attended previous Preputs in London and Dublin, on the grounds that I might meet potential overseas clients. This had worked quite well so here I was once again, for much the same reason. The vast majority of delegates were paid to be there, but I thought investing my own money might pay dividends once again. I was right, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
The breakfast room was packed with jolly parties of delegates speaking loudly in various languages. They obviously knew each other well and I wasn’t keen on butting in, so I was a bit stuck for somewhere to sit. The only exception was a table occupied only by one lady, so I sat down and said hello. I learned quickly that she was part of a delegation representing the Swedish-speaking section of the Finnish state broadcaster YLE. (I didn’t know that there is a small but politically influential Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, with its own TV channel.)
It was a short and rather awkward encounter, but on the last day we got as far as swapping contact details. I thought no more about this until I was asked some time later to pitch to run a short course to improve TV journalist’s skills, which I duly did by slightly adapting the very popular course I had developed in the UK for ITV companies.
Initially that turned out to be problematic because although the course outline was acceptable, the price tag was not. I was discreetly advised me to rethink the fee so I proposed reducing it, but then it became clear that the original proposal was way too cheap, and would lack credibility with the bosses at YLE. This was a new one on me but I obliged by increasing the quote substantially. (Snag number 1)
Had I known then that the Helsinki job was to be just the first of many over succeeding years, I might not have come up with the daft idea of getting there by car, via Sweden. But I did, choosing a route which would allow me to see something of Sweden along the way.
The next snag was called Gothenburg. Driving off the overnight DFDS ferry from Harwich the only sign pointed left to Oslo, so I smartly turned right, only to get hopelessly lost in this seemingly chaotic port. Fortunately, most Swedes speak English (usually better than the English), so asking the way was no problem, but it must have been a good hour before I hit the main road to Stockholm, relatively undaunted despite numerous wrong turns.
The third snag was finding out the hard way that buying fuel in Sweden was only possible with a credit or debit card, and that mine didn’t work. Amazing – they just had no means of taking cash at the various gas stations I tried en route to the to the Stockholm-to-Turku Silja ferry, some 470 kilometres cross-country from Gothenburg. I had no choice but to keep driving and hope for the best, vowing never to drive in Sweden again, apart from the return trip. I figured that if the same ridiculous situation held true in Finland, at least I could call my YLE contact and get rescued somehow.
Happily, the fuel did last and I boarded the overnight Silja ferry to Turku. Not so much a ferry as a floating hotel, which serenely sailed east across the southern end of the gulf of Bothnia, threading its way through the 6,500 skerries and Baltic islands which make up the autonomous Finnish province of Åland, forming the archipelago between Sweden and Finland.
The shame is that by the time I had dined in one of the ship’s impressive restaurants, night was falling and all I could see from my cabin window was navigation lights and vague shapes floating by. I didn’t know at the time that I was missing out on a potentially memorable experience, not stopping off at Mariehamn, the capital city of Åland, on the largest island Fasta Åland, known for its beaches and streets lined with 19th century wooden townhouses, handicraft shops and cafés.
To my relief, my debit card worked fine at the gas station on the docks at Turku, when we landed early next morning, so I headed straight for Helsinki, with little idea of how to get to The Torni Hotel where I had been booked in by the YLE people. If I ever did this trip again, I would stay over for a day in Turku, the historic former capital of Finland and the home of the only Swedish language university in Finland. In Swedish the city is called Åbo.
Here’s an idea of what I missed:
I suppose the lesson here is that it’s very difficult to mix business with pleasure, especially when the business takes you overseas. Later, I travelled to Barcelona, Madrid, Athens, Lisbon and Banjul – all on paid assignments, and found it was near to impossible to explore these cities while working, so I learned to regard these trips as opportunities to research potential holiday destinations, often by means of the ubiquitous open-top bus tour.
Snag number 5: finding the hotel. No problem nowadays, but before satnav finding your way on your own to any unfamiliar city destination was likely to be a nightmare, even with a map. You try stopping on a six-lane urban highway to check the map and figure out the road signs. In the event, what made it work was my UK number plates, the total kindness of Helsinki drivers and the help given by pedestrians when I did manage to pull over. After a few wrong turns, I was led directly to a parking space near my destination, by a driver who went out of his way to make sure I got there in one piece. It was at the rear of the forbidding Torni Hotel – possibly the most famous (or as it turned out, infamous) hotel in Finland. Even when I tried to put Finnish small change into the parking meter, I was told not to bother, as I was a welcome EU visitor. I guess people figured that anyone daft enough to drive from the UK deserved a break.
Torni means tower, and the hotel is well named, as the former tallest building in Finland. Outside, it looked a bit grim to me, but when I was shown to my room – ridiculous luxury. A vast suite in fact, capable of housing a very large family, with three huge beds and two enormous tiled wood burning stoves called Kakelugnen (in Swedish). Sadly I didn’t have a camera with me and I can’t find a picture to show this; they later refurbished this amazing relic of the thirties, probably to conform to international standards of hotel blandness, to judge by recent publicity photographs. Character destroyed, job done.
I was later told that this building had been used as a watchtower by Russian and German occupying forces, and one of the modern delights of the hotel is to visit the ladies toilet on the top floor, where you can experience what the watchers watched, in the form of a panoramic view of the entire city. I reckon I was billeted in the Gauleiter’s suite.
Next morning I thought about changing hotels as, on advice, I took a tram to the YLE national TV station at Pasila. Set on the edge of a suburban housing estate this struck me as a cross between the BBC TV Centre at White City, and any modern small university campus. I immediately felt a home. They had even given me a temporary staff pass to get in and out, so I found my way to Nina’s office and I started setting up the training course.
The first job was to get a hand gun.
To explain – the course always began with an exercise to challenge the delegates, usually experienced journalists, by using the TV medium to tell a story without words. Shock treatment for wordsmiths. So the course started with a drama exercise, to visualise and direct a film sequence in which someone finds a gun in a drawer, using no more than 5 shots and no voice over. I had stolen this scenario from my own experience as a trainee on the NZBC producers’ course in 1971, itself stolen from a BBC training course, so it ticked all the boxes.
The problem was that I could not bring my usual fake gun (a starting pistol) into the country, for obvious reasons. So I had requested a suitable gun beforehand, and I was invited to get one from YLE’s drama props store, which turned out to be a hangar on the periphery of the campus. I was led to the armoury and got the surprise of my life. Enough weaponry to fight a real war, all spoils of a real war.
Tanks, field guns, machine guns, hand guns – you name it. I was spoilt for choice but eventually settled for a Tokarev Standard Red Army self-loading pistol used by the Red Army during WW2, much to the delight of the props man. Appropriate really, given those Finnish world war two shenanigans.
Much to my surprise, I was subsequently invited back to Helsinki at least once a year afterwards, to deliver this course to other Swedish speaking YLE journalists, and to a few Finnish speakers too. I also did some consultancy work on newsroom organisation (no gun required,) and a ran a course for regional documentary makers.
I grew to love working in Pasila, where I found a much more congenial temporary home at the Sokos Pasila Hotel, only walking distance from the TV campus. Often my wife would come along for the ride so we managed to combine work with pleasure; while I was at work she hit the streets, becoming something of an expert on Helsinki, a city we both came to love.
A few other Finland memories: dining out with friends in Helsinki, staying with friends in Porvoo, a memorable holiday near Savolina, staying with a friend on Tunhamn, a remote island in the archipelago, celebrating Finland’s independence day in downtown Helsinki, breakfast at the fish market (Kauppatori), tranquil time out in Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden, Vorschmack, meeting up with old friends on a return visit to Helsinki as a roadie with the Leeds Philharmonic Society in 2007…………………………….
Postscript: It seems “Pasila” is now better known as a computer-animated cartoon sitcom billed as a satirical view of daily events in Helsinki at a police precinct in the suburb of Pasila. Here’s an episode with English subtitles.