The Most Wonderful City In The World
Nina E. Woody
© Copyright 2023 by Nina E. Woody
Image by Майя from Pixabay
Many years ago when I went to Helsinki, Finland, I thought it was the most wonderful city in the world. Making a return visit 30 years later, I was excited to see if it was as I remembered it.
My partner Matthew and I saved Helsinki for the end of a three-week trip through northern Europe. On our last morning in Tallinn, Estonia, we checked out of the hotel and headed to the port terminal to catch the ferry to Finland. It was mid-August, with bright sunshine and warm temperatures, and my spirits were high.
“I hope you’ll love Helsinki as much as I did!” I told Matthew as we waited in line to get our tickets.
“If it’s as nice as the other countries we’ve been to on this trip, I’m sure I will,” he said.
The gate area was full of people with combinations of luggage, strollers, shopping bags, and dogs on leashes. We also saw people pushing shopping carts overflowing with cases of beer and bottles of wine and spirits. Matthew and I looked at each other and shrugged. Didn’t they sell alcohol in Finland?
The ferry soon chugged up, and once it docked, a jet bridge similar to an airport’s extended from the terminal building to the ferry’s upper deck. It was fascinating to watch the flood of passengers stream out onto the jet bridge, while cars, vans, and large trucks poured out from a lower opening. Once we were cleared to board the ferry, it was a mad dash with the thousand-plus passengers jockeying for the best spots next to the windows in the various lounges, cafes, and bars.
Gulf of Finland was calm, and when we disembarked in Helsinki, we
went straight to the hotel, dropped off our luggage and went out for
a walk. I eagerly examined the landscape, attempting to recall if
anything looked familiar, but nothing stirred my memory. Matthew
walked with his hands in his pockets, a hint of a frown on his face.
next day, the skies became progressively cloudy and dull. I continued
to try to capture the feelings I had from long ago to no avail, and
disappointment crept over me. At the same time, Matthew became
increasingly disenchanted, finding little that impressed him. It
began to rain, and we were quickly soaked even with umbrellas. We
ducked inside a bar to get a respite from the foul weather.
should have never left Tallinn,” Matthew grumbled as we ordered
beers. “Tallin is where everyone in Helsinki wants to go to
“It’s good to be here and experience something different.” I objected. “But I do wish I could recognize something from that trip I took.”“Good luck with that,” Matthew said. He sipped his beer, gesturing to it. “And this costs over twice as much here as it did in Tallinn. Now I know why those ferry passengers had shopping carts full of liquor!”
“Let’s go to a different part of the city tomorrow,” I said. “There’s a park I want to check out.”
“Ok,” he said glumly. “Maybe I’ll see something redeeming about this place.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. After breakfast the next day, we boarded a bus and took our seats. Matthew gazed out of the window at the grey block buildings as we passed by.
“It sure is an ugly city,” he said.
“No it’s not—” I stopped my exasperated protest and slumped back into my seat. I was starting to doubt myself and my memories from thirty years ago.
What WAS it about Helsinki that made me think it was so wonderful? I started to reminisce, to find answers to that question.
Back then, I was a computer programmer in my late 20’s, working for a very large company with tens of thousands of employees. I worked in a small department of less than ten people who wrote custom software for large and small-format scanners, which were used by our offices and customers worldwide.
Normally, things ran smoothly, but one day our Finland office called corporate headquarters to explain that one of the scanners they used for their customer was not working properly. A technician from the California manufacturer was traveling to Helsinki to fix the problem. They demanded that someone from our group come at the same time to install a badly needed upgrade to the scanner software and train their engineers on it. Because the Internet did not exist yet, someone had to physically fly to Finland with a hard drive containing the new software.
This particular scanner’s software was complicated; it was developed by two men in our group. Unfortunately neither one was able to go to Finland the next week. Days passed and our manager, Frank, became desperate, as each person he asked to go either did not have a passport or could not make the trip. The higher-ups started to put heavy pressure on him to identify someone to make the trip, pronto.
On a Thursday, I happened to walk by an office shared by two of my co-workers where I saw Frank leaning up against one of the desks, gesturing wildly. I stopped at the door.
“… Someone has to leave on Monday, and I must find someone to go!” Frank exclaimed to Eric, a recent college graduate. “Please tell me you have a passport!”
Eric shook his head, disappointed. Frank reluctantly turned to Sara, the other office occupant.
“I can’t possibly go,” she said. “My husband and I have our hands full with the kids.”
“I have a passport. I’ll go,” I said. The words left my mouth before I had a chance to think about it. Even though I had barely traveled outside the United States, I happened to have a passport “just in case.”
“Really?” Frank asked, looking at me for the first time. “Well, I guess I don’t have a choice. It appears you are the only option I’ve got."
Thanks for your vote of confidence, I wanted to say, but this was nothing surprising with Frank. He considered his two female employees less competent than our male peers, and I later learned that he had first asked all the men in our group one by one if they could go. Sara or I were his “last resorts.”
I have no idea why I piped up and said I would go to a foreign country thousands of miles away. I regretted those words “I’ll go,” but travel arrangements were quickly made, and I could not back out.
Truth was, I was terrified. Almost all of my life, I experienced panic attacks that sometimes left me barely functional, even causing me to be completely nauseated at the sight of food. I had hardly been anywhere by myself, and now I was travelling alone with no one else to turn to if I started feeling badly. Having a manager like Frank did not help matters!
Over the weekend, it was like cramming for a final exam as I studied the scanner software and made meticulous notes on how to conduct the software upgrade and training. Frank edited my notes again and again, while repeatedly making it clear that he had to talk to upper management to make a case for me to go. I had better do a good job, or else either one or both of us would be fired!
I spent Monday loading the software upgrade and training material onto the hard drive. Finally, that afternoon, it was time to go to the airport to catch my flight. I took a deep breath and walked out of my office. I was already feeling exhausted, and the trip had not even begun!
Down the hall, I heard Frank call out to me. “You better not fail! It’ll be MY butt and YOURS on the line!”
As the bus stopped at an intersection, I saw Matthew consult the city map on his mobile phone to make sure we got off at the right stop for the park. I then continued my reverie.
I had been on an airplane only a handful of times, much less a long ride over the Atlantic Ocean. My seat was at the window, and I thrilled at my first sight of Europe as we approached the coast of The Netherlands. After a three-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany, I flew to Helsinki and finally arrived on Tuesday evening, taking a taxi to the hotel. After I unpacked, the phone rang. I was glad to hear that it was the hardware engineer, Barry, from California. We arranged to meet for breakfast at 8 am in the hotel and travel to the office together.
Barry’s phone call allayed my fears slightly, but all through the night, the same thoughts raced through my head. What if the hard drive fails while installing the upgrade? What if the security scanner in the airport erased it? I’ve heard of things like that happening. Have I forgotten to do anything important?
The next morning, I met Barry in the lobby of the restaurant. He had a pleasant demeanor and immediately put me more at ease. At breakfast, I drank some coffee and picked at my plate while we made small talk. I was too nervous to eat.
The sun was coming up as we hailed a taxi to the Finland office which was on the third floor of a stylish building with expansive windows. As we entered the lobby, my stomach grumbled alarmingly, and my heart felt like it was hammering in my ears. The elevator doors soon opened, and two men stepped out.
“I am Eino, sales engineer,” one of the men said, “and this is Tuomo, hardware manager.”
“Welcome,” Tuomo said, nodding.
We shook hands all around and went up to the office. In a conference room, we settled in, and the two Finns and Barry discussed the upcoming work. I noted that Eino spoke much better English than Tuomo, who was a bit difficult to understand. Presently, an assistant entered the room and set down a silver tray holding cookies, a pot of coffee with China cups and two containers of real cream and sugar. I was impressed. Much different than paper cups and packets of powdered creamer we have at home! She poured coffee for everyone and disappeared without a word. I raised the cup of coffee to my lips, hoping that the men wouldn’t notice my shaking hand. So far, neither of my Finn colleagues had given me a second glance.
“Okay yes,” Eino said to Barry. “We agree today and tomorrow for you to fix problems.”
Barry nodded. “Then I will run test scans to make sure all is working properly.”
Eino abruptly turned to me for the first time and I jumped slightly. Good thing I had set my coffee cup down! “On Friday, you do software upgrade and train our engineers how to use it,” he said.
He didn’t wait for a reply but stood up, the rest of us following suit. With the combined meeting and coffee break complete, we went to a room where the scanner was located. Barry immediately set to work, opening the scanner’s front panel, and getting out his tools.
I felt completely at a loss. What do I do for two whole days while Barry does his work? I felt the beginnings of a panic attack creeping in. No time for that now! You must buck up and deal with it!
First, I asked to borrow a computer and plugged in the hard drive. I had a fear that something had happened to it on the journey, and I wanted to see if all was well. Crossing my fingers, I took a deep breath and expelled it in one big whew! All of the files were still there!
Close to noon, Eino approached me. “Would you like to go to lunch? We have cafeteria downstairs.”
My stomach did a flipflop, but I needed to try to eat something. In the cafeteria, I selected salmon, mashed potatoes, and a salad with cucumbers and red cabbage with peas. After sitting down at a table, I stared at my plate wondering how I could possibly eat. Tuomo joined us, and my anxiety slowly receded as I listened while he and Eino talked about what their everyday lives were like in Finland. I managed to eat half of the fish and all of the salad. I considered that to be a great accomplishment!
After lunch, I made the most of the afternoon by talking with the engineers, asking what they liked and didn’t like about our software. I made notes to share with Frank upon my return home.
Mid-afternoon, the phone rang. “This is for you,” a colleague told me, to my surprise. I took the receiver.
“I haven’t heard from you!” Frank barked. “What’s going on?”
“Barry, the guy from California, is doing his work first. But I’ve been talking with the engineers and--”
“You need to keep me better informed! And when you do the upgrade, you need to remember to …” I bit my tongue as Frank reiterated steps we had already talked about. “Write up progress and questions, and fax them to me at the end of every day!” Frank ordered, before he abruptly hung up.
Our day lasted past 7:30 pm. I dutifully faxed my notes and questions to Frank, and our colleagues took Barry and me to a restaurant in the old part of Helsinki. It was small and quaint with beamed ceilings and dark wood walls. Every dish was made with garlic, down to garlic butter served with piping hot rolls. Despite my uneasy stomach, I went out on a limb and ordered a lamb stew. It consisted of a rich garlic gravy with chopped carrots, radishes, and garlic potatoes. It was one of the best dishes I ever had in my entire sheltered life, and I was able to eat only because I quickly became engrossed listening to Eino.
“There is a portion of Finland given or seized by Soviets after World War Two,” Eino said. “Some Finnish politicians want to buy it back. The problem is that 250,000 Russians live there and only 10,000 Finns live there and no one in Finland wants it. It is very rundown there, and it is estimated it would cost each Finn much in taxes to rebuild it.”
My fork hung in the air. “What is going to happen?” I asked.
“It is not popular subject to talk about,” one of Eino’s colleagues pointedly said.
Eino nodded and changed the subject. “Did you know Estonia is only 60 kilometers by water?”
“Doesn’t the Gulf of Finland freeze in the winter?” Barry asked.
“Yes, you can drive on it,” Eino answered. “Estonians very much enjoy Finland. Some people who live there get a visa to come to Helsinki to work for 3 or 4 weeks then go back to Estonia to buy a house with the money they made!”
I had honestly never heard of Estonia, and it was fascinating to listen and learn. How small my world is! How much is out there to experience!
“Isn’t this our stop coming up?” I asked Matthew. “I see a park ahead.”
“No, we have several stops left,” he said as he put down his phone and turned back to the window.
I continued my journey back in time, to the Thursday of my Helsinki trip. Frank and my colleagues back home weighed in on the questions and issues I had faxed the night before with a return fax that morning. I relayed their information to my Finnish colleagues, and we spoke more on the ways they use the scanner to support their customers. After another infuriating afternoon phone call from Frank, I wrote up more notes and faxed them.
Barry completed his task after another long day, and Tuomo stated that he wanted to take us to a special restaurant for dinner to celebrate.
The restaurant, called Sazlik, specialized in Russian cuisine. Once the three of us were shown to our table, I stared with wonder at the dark, exotic interior replete with heavy carpets, dark red velvet drapes, and ornately carved paneling. The paper placemats were heavily adorned with gold scrolls and flowers, with a menu printed in Russian and Finnish.
“I get Kalinka cocktails,” Tuomo said. “You will like.” The waiter came by and the Tuomo ordered.
“This place, good steak,” Tuomo told us. “It, uh, steak is hot on big plate, still cooking,” he gestured with his hands. “With potatoes and red cabbage. Ah, here we go.”
He smiled gratefully as the waiter brought Barry and me menus printed in English. In addition to beef, lamb, and seafood, they also served bear and reindeer! I didn’t know if I was up to that though.
The waiter returned with a tray on which stood three martini glasses. He set the drinks down, which I looked at dubiously. I knew they contained vodka, but each one also had a pickle slice floating on top! After we toasted, I took a small sip.
I was shocked. “This is delicious!” I exclaimed.
Tuomo beamed with pleasure. He and I decided to share a platter for two of Georgian pepper steak while Barry ordered a filet. When our food arrived, the steak was still sizzling on a hot griddle, covered with gravy over a mound of garlic potatoes au gratin, with sauerkraut and steamed cabbage on the side.
After our leisurely dinner that also included a bottle of French red wine, dessert, and coffee with cognac, we walked along the streets lined with trees dropping their leaves for autumn. We laughed and talked as if we were longtime friends. When we arrived back at the hotel, it was very late.
“Thank you for work to fix scanner,” Tuomo told Barry, who was returning to the States the next morning.
“Goodbye Barry,” I said. “Thank you for everything.” Barry had no idea how grateful I was. His easy-going presence was one factor in helping me to remain calm.
Tuomo turned to me. “I see you tomorrow,” he said. “No take taxi. I pick you up 9 am.”
As I went up the elevator, a surge of anxiety went through me as I realized that I was “on stage” the next day to do the upgrade and training. The next morning, I skipped breakfast, unwilling to go into the restaurant alone and too anxious to eat anyway. At promptly 9 am, Tuomo drove up in a shiny red American sportscar. With most cars in Helsinki being German or Japanese, I learned later that it was quite a status symbol to own such a car.
At the office, I reviewed the return fax from Frank and set to work. I held my breath as I started the software upgrade and concentrated as I went through the steps that I had so carefully prepared. Once the upgrade finished, I launched the software. The new user interface displayed. I continued to test the software to ensure it worked correctly. Everything went perfectly!
Tuomo and some of the junior engineers assembled around the computer as I went through the features of the new software. This took several hours. Late afternoon, I faxed off the last trip notes to Frank. I collapsed in relief in Tuomo’s car as he drove me back to the hotel.
At the entrance, Tuomo and I warmly shook hands. “Thank you for upgrade and training,” he said. “We are very happy.”
I almost skipped up to my room, where I fell back onto the bed. I could not believe that the day had gone so smoothly; it was a miracle to me. And I had held it together during the entire week! I reached into the minibar for a celebratory beer and toasted myself. I then realized that we had worked through lunch, and I was starving. I decided that I would walk around, and perhaps I would run into something that looked interesting. In an adventurous mood, I put on my coat, and off I went.
There was just one problem. The past few days, I had colleagues to go out to dinner with, but I was alone. Being with them was a distraction from my anxiety problems. Furthermore, I’ve never had a good sense of direction; therefore, it was no surprise that I became lost. Completely turned around, in a foreign city! Panic and tears simultaneously bubbled up. Maybe “finding something interesting” wasn’t such a good idea after all. So much for pushing myself out of my comfort zone! Calm down and try to retrace your steps.
Sure enough, a half hour or so later I recognized some landmarks, including an American fast-food restaurant that I knew was just two blocks from the hotel. I stopped in front of it, tempted to go in. No! I didn’t come all the way to Finland to eat a hamburger! I’ll go back to the hotel and order room service.
But when I entered the hotel, I gritted my teeth and entered the hotel’s fanciest restaurant, asking for a table for one. It was the first time I had ever dined by myself in such a restaurant. I felt terribly exposed, thinking that everyone was looking at me with pity. I remedied that by pretending that I was a cosmopolitan, confident woman. I enjoyed my dinner down to my dessert and coffee, while reflecting that this whole experience had been a culture shock for me. Everything was different than I had ever known in my suddenly humdrum life back home. If I never have another experience like this trip again, I will still be happy. I feel like I am finally growing up.
When I went upstairs to my room, the phone rang. To my surprise, it was Tuomo.
“Please, I invite you to see countryside tomorrow,” he said. I pick you up noon and we drive. Outside of city. Will you go?”
I hesitated. Despite the odd request, it was tempting to see what Finland looked like outside of Helsinki. I wasn’t going home until Sunday, and I didn’t have plans for the next day. I weighed the possibility of feeling uncomfortable and anxious on the excursion, but curiosity won out.
“Thank you, Tuomo. Yes, I will go.”
The next morning I again ventured out by myself, and this time I didn’t get lost. I walked around a park with a beautiful rose garden and wandered onto a farmer’s market where I saw a large variety of vegetables and flowers. I went to a harbor where I saw boats pulled up with fish for sale spread out on the back. I watched as the locals haggled prices with the fishermen. I ambled on the streets and did some window shopping.
Tuomo arrived at noon as promised. “We go to Lahti,” Tuomo said. “It is popular sports place.” He explained that every weekend in the winter, Lahti has ski events. When we got there, I was awed by the enormous ski jumps looming in the sky, where the skiers did their jumps to the bottom, then rode an elevator to the very top for more jumps. As it was still autumn, Lahti was quiet and peaceful.
We drove through charming villages, with centuries-old churches and houses. Sauna houses were common features by the side of the road where locals took sauna on weekends. We also drove by a large lake that ran north to south.
“Boats go up and down in summer. Lake so long it take 24 hours to go from one end to other. There is much dancing,” he said, smiling.
In the early evening, we stopped at a restaurant to get something to eat. Tuomo ordered a pizza topped with baby shrimp, ham, salami, whole green olives, and Swiss cheese. Despite this unlikely combination, it was quite tasty.
We finally returned to Helsinki around 7 pm. Tuomo drove up to the hotel entrance, and I turned to him. “Thank you for a wonderful day. I enjoyed it very much,” I said.
Tuomo smiled and reached behind his seat, producing an object wrapped in tissue paper. I unwrapped it carefully to find a small plaster bird painted in red, black, and white.
“It Finnish bird. It made by woman here,” he said. “Thank you for work you did for us.”
I stared at it and swallowed. “Thank you, it’s beautiful.” Tuomo gave me a light hug and I exited his car.
Twenty-four hours later, I was home. The Finland office expressed their gratitude for my work, with Frank barely acknowledging my achievement. I never saw nor communicated with Eino, Tuomo, and Barry again.
Life resumed to normal. Well, almost normal. Like a seed that takes root, the impact of that trip grew and started to change me from within, although it was a gradual process.
For example, my life had been ruled by my own self-limiting thoughts and behaviors, but after I went to Finland on my own and did a difficult job, I realized that I could accomplish anything that I wanted to.
I learned to assert myself with managers like Frank and believe that I was as smart and capable as everyone else. I gained the confidence I needed to become successful in what turned out to be a long professional career.
I recognized the need to get help for my anxiety issues and to learn tools to manage it.
Finally, I developed a thirst to experience more of the world. I have now visited 75 countries, some even solo, and plan on visiting many more.
All because of that trip to Finland.
That is why I had trouble with Matthew’s opinions of Helsinki. Even though I know that my beliefs about Helsinki were through the lens of a younger and more naïve self, a part of me still believed that it was the most wonderful city in the entire world.
“Here is our stop,” Matthew announced, interrupting my reverie.
We disembarked and walked down the sidewalk toward the park. Pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles, and trams rushed by. We crossed an intersection and in the cacophony of the busy city, I almost missed it.
Sazlik! A sign above the door announced its presence. I approached it slowly in wonder and peered inside the open door with delight. It appeared that nothing had changed in all those years. There was the same dark paneling, carved woodwork, and velvet curtains.
I smiled as I remembered slicing into a rare Georgian steak sizzling on a hot platter and sipping a Kalinka cocktail with a pickle slice floating on top.
And when we return home in a few days, I’ll pick up a little plaster bird that sits on a bookshelf in my office, and it will remind me of how very far I’ve come.
Nina Woody is a semi-retired software and systems engineer. She lives in Huntsville, Alabama and when she is not traveling around the world, she is busy writing on her laptop. She is currently working on a book based on her father’s service in WWII and her relationship with him as a teenager.