FROM THE WILDS OF MANHATTAN
Scandinavia: The Great Escape?
Your intrepid New York cyclist gets off the bike to explore what one magazine called two of “the most livable cities in the world:” Oslo and Helsinki. True?
These days, some of the presidential “hopefuls” are sounding pretty darned hopeless. Who, besides a certain politician with bad hair, believes deporting millions of immigrants is a good idea? Isn’t building a wall to keep “those people” out something out of the 11th century, not the 21st? And who came up with the ingenious idea of eliminating Medicare for a generation about to turn 65?
Is it the end of days already?
With such ranting and ravings passing for political commentary, some of us more thoughtful citizens may be tempted to run as far, far away from America as our New Balance sneakers will take us.
But where on earth would we escape to? Canada? (Weather, too cold; citizenry, too blah.) New Zealand? (Too far and all they ever talk about is rugby, rugby, and hey, how about that rugby match?) Somalia? (Only if you want to live in a theocracy. Pass. )
A recent week’s vacation in two Northern European countries made me think that there may be such a refuge. A place where people are gentle, the climate is temperate, natural wonders abound, and politics does not seem as maddening as it does in America.
Those countries are Finland and Norway, two of the five wonderful countries that make up the Scandinavian Empire.
NORWAY. BEAUTIFUL. HISTORIC. BRING MONEY.
I didn’t see much more of Norway than Oslo, and while it’s risky to judge a country purely on the basis of one city, I’m going to do it anyway.
Put simply, Oslo is very pretty. Pretty gorgeous in parts. It embraces modernity, but doesn’t turn its back on the seafaring history, architecture, or immensely temperate climate that make it an exceptionally livable place.
Certain neighborhoods, like the revitalized island of Tjuvholmen, demonstrate clearly that Norway is an expensive place to live—a place where even Americans who regard themselves as comfortable might have to dig a little deeper into their pockets. Big, gleaming hotels and office buildings cover a small island that is separated from downtown by several small footbridges.
What struck me most about this island-within-a-city, however, wasn’t its wealth, but the fact that it didn’t seem very, well…foreign at all. Glance at the yacht-filled harbor and you could easily believe you were in Boston. Or in Pike Place Market, Seattle—except for the fact it wasn’t raining. Indeed, Norway seems prosperous, safe and extremely “one percent.” Just like all big prosperous cities in the world.
Oslo Opera House
What was a bit different was finding that in Norway,”wealthy” doesn’t equate to “greedy”. Norway is a country that still walks the talk on generosity and humanity, as evidenced by its very moving Nobel Peace Center, which showcases every winner of the prize since the early 20th century. On a more mundane level: If you buy an Oslo City Pass for all-inclusive traveling and sightseeing, nobody will ask you to show it every time you board and dismount a bus or tram. God forbid you should be caught without your pass, however. While Oslo is home to the Nobel Peace Center, I suspect the transit police could get rather warlike if you try and bum a free ride.
If the local constabulary does want a word with you, though, don’t worry about responding in Norwegian. Nobody speaks Norwegian, except Norwegians, and only among themselves. Everyone speaks English and is more than willing to give you directions in English–without an accent. Uncanny.
I know you’re dying to ask, “But what about the fjords?” Well, Oslo is actually built upon on a fjord, and the best place to observe it is to go for a long, leisurely stroll or jog alongside its perimeter. Don’t forget to carry your smartphone; Norwegians are always happy to take a snap of you if you ask them nicely—in English, not Norwegian. With the Oslo Opera House serving as your backdrop, you will have a photo, and an experience, light years away from braying American politicians.
If you still feel fjord-deprived, and you want to see one without taking an expensive cruise, grab your Oslo pass and head for Holmenkollen, a nearby 141-meter-high ski lift offering spectacular vistas and accessibility via the metro. Or, hop a 15-minute ferryboat ride to Bygdoy Island right across the fjord, and visit a museum that showcases the exploits of Vikings that do not include pillaging the local population.
So, could a New Yorker on the lam from bloviating politicians find happiness in Norway? If he/she were able to forego noisy, bustling, no-time-to-talk crowds and the feeling of being at the center of the world, absolutely.
Is Finland any more viable as a refuge? Since you never know who’s going to be next on the I-Don’t-Like-You List here in the States, I felt it wise to check this country out, too.
FINLAND. AFFORDABLE. ARTSY. FASCINATING.
Over the years, Helsinki has sparked more than an occasional eye-roll from travelers, who upon hearing mention of the city, are likely to sniff, “Oh, do you mean Hel-stinky?”
If you approach the city by airport train, you are likely to initially concur with this assessment. Step out into the heart of the train station plaza and you will be met by a riot of people, cars, noise, and people who seem to be competing in a Russian swimwear contest from the 1980s. Burned-out cigarette butts are tossed all over the street. People are dragging wheelie suitcases in all directions.
Toto, you say to yourself, I don’t think we’re in Oslo anymore.
But once you’ve gotten past the initial shock of being back in a major city, Helsinki will win you over with its Old World grandeur. The buildings, constructed mostly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are architecturally splendid, mostly Art Nouveau—very fin-du-siecle with intricate, imaginative linear designs and flowing curves. There is a semi-melancholy feeling evoked by the downtown skyline that may remind you of a Central European city, like Vienna, Prague, or Budapest. Of course, when you remember that world-renowned architects like Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen are both Finns, you realize these people have always gotten architecture right.
The Kauppatouri (or Market Square) is picturesque and unpretentious, situated on the main harbor and lined with food stalls and Filipino merchants selling everything from “I heart Finland” sweatshirts to cloudberries. Leading up to the harbor is the Grand Esplanade, the great boulevard that is upmarket and gorgeous, bisected by a long, rectangular park lined with trees, iron-wrought kiosks, and five-star hotels, such as the legendary Hotel Kamp and superb restaurants, one of which promises you an 18-course tasting menu, euphemistically referred to as a “journey.” An expensive journey, mind you, but one you’ll remember more than a snapshot in a photo album.
The quality of life, to this casual visitor, is as high as Oslo’s; indeed, the city could prove to be perhaps even more livable because the prices are not as extortionate as Oslo’s. Although New Yorkers used to dining at Michelin-starred restaurants and on 12-course kaiseiki feasts will feel right at home in some of Helsinki’s swankier dining spots, where the tab can run as high as $600 for two, with wine (and where the servers need to be conversant in at least six languages, just in case someone doesn’t speak English).
Culturally, Helsinki has Oslo beat. The streets of the city’s Design District, while not particularly great or design-y, are chock-a-block with old-school bookstores, art galleries, kitchen stores, and other home furnishing establishments. Around town, for your cultural amusement, you can visit a city museum detailing Helsinki’s early years, where you’ll have the dubious pleasure of seeing black-and-white photographs of Finns prancing around in 1920s swimsuits. (Better than it sounds.) Need a spiritual uplift? Then scale a long flight of steps to gaze upon 17th century Lutheran churches or 19th -century onion-domed Orthodox cathedrals—but do leave time to see modern architectural temples like Kiasma, a cultural complex showcasing the most avant-garde of the avant-garde.
Man-buns in their natural, hip, habitat: Oslo
Geographically, Helsinki is right in the middle of all the action, on the majestic Gulf of Finland, a location which has no doubt made it so attractive to invaders over the centuries. A 15-minute ferry ride from Helsinki harbor takes you to Suomenlinna, the island fortress built by 18th-century Swedes to fend off attacks from Czarist Russia, and the scene of a number of historic battles between the Swedes, Finns, Russians, and various other Northern European populations. Nowadays, the only fighting you will encounter at this UNESCO World Heritage site is the rush for a seat on the upper deck of the ferry. No wonder, because on a clear, sunny day, there’s no greater pleasure in Helsinki than wandering around the tiny island, through the remnants of the ancient fortress, climbing on top of ancient cannons, or even just catching a short film at the visitor center that will tell you more about Northern European politics than any biography of Peter the Great ever could.
Helsinki is a mere two-hour boat ride from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, another UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is not to be missed, as it is generally thought to be one of the most beautifully preserved medieval cities in Europe. Tallinn has definitely shed any ties to the former Soviet Union, although since you arrive by ship, you may be tempted to post on Facebook that you can see Russia from your (cruise ship) window. (Ex-Governor Palin, are you listening?) Once onboard the massive Tallink ship, you will see tourists like yourself, poring over guidebooks, as well as a lot of Finns and Russians who travel to Tallinn to cart home truckloads of beer and booze, where it is far less expensive than it is in Helsinki—evidence you will see when you order a miniscule cocktail at a Helsinki bar and ask for the check.
One thing you will never have to worry about in Helsinki is speaking Finnish (or Suomi, as it is referred to in Finland). Impossible to read, challenging to even the ablest linguist, the Finnish language has Finno-Ugric roots, which makes it similar to Hungarian. (If that doesn’t clarify matters, you’re not alone.) But not to worry. Everyone speaks English. And maybe with just more of an accent than in Norway.
So Helsinki or Oslo as political refuges? They’re certainly got a lot of potential. First-class cultural attractions. Great food—who can argue with dishes like whale teriyaki or reindeer porridge? Friendly, helpful, caring people—no Northern European country, it seems, has been more accepting of Middle Eastern migrants than Norway. Livable weather conditions—at least in autumn, summer, and spring (winter may be another story.) A sense of integrity—as expressed in a social welfare state complete with high taxes for those making above USD 90,000. And the informality, for someone who lives in suit-and-tie Manhattan, is startling at first, but eventually wonderful.
But. But, but, but…
Admit it. Wouldn’t you eventually miss Jazz at Lincoln Center? Could you live without a renewable Metro Card? What about riding your bike around Central Park in autumn? Dare you miss the latest cutting-edge restaurant opening in the trendiest Brooklyn neighborhood? Unthinkable not to have the New York Times delivered to your doorstep each morning? Would you really, really relish spending New Year’s Eve…in Helsinki?
As much as I hate egotistical politicians given to making nonsensical statements, I think that in the long run, I do prefer living in the good old U.S.A. Particularly in one large cosmopolitan American city at its eastern periphery.
But I definitely plan to go back to Scandinavia. Because if another candidate promises to “make American great again,” I just might make for the exits.
Taken in Oslo
August Cosentino is a professional writer who cycles passionately, eats discriminately, attends theatre religiously, Facebooks constantly, and as the photo indicates, is as good to his mother as he was to his father who passed away in 2012. He lives in Manhattan with his two carbon-fiber bicycles, and G.
ARTICLES BY AUGUST COSENTINO
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Fifty Shades of Pain: Cycling the Pyrenees, One Mountain Pass at a Time
Go West Young Desk Jockey
Greece: It’s a Riot
How Many Facebook Friends Are Too Many?
Marylebone and Me
The Sandwich Generation: Eldercare and Me
Scandinavia, The Great Escape
Welcome to the Jungle: Is Mad Men Really About Advertising
Work Like Wall Street: Earn Like Main Street