As a profiler of the weird and wonderful, I couldn’t wait to get to Finland, a country that stages world championships in phone throwing, wife carrying, mosquito catching and air guitar.
Where else would you find speeding tickets based on the offender’s income? Once, the director of Nokia revved up his Harley a bit too vigorously and was issued a ticket for 116,000 Euros.
I knew Helsinki, Finland’s capital, would not disappoint my passion for the one-off, quirky and unique.
Here are the top five things you can only find in Helsinki, a city that regularly doubles for St. Petersburg in movies:
1. Its Parliament House has its own sauna chambers. Although the impressive 200-seat Parliament House is currently being revonated (MP’s are meeting in nearby Sibelius Academy until 2017), you can bet that they won’t leave out the sauna chambers, a popular forum for debates.
In Finland, the sauna is a point of a national pride, a weekly ritual practice by 99 percent of the population. There are more saunas than cars in Finland and, unlike the rest of us who view a hop in the sauna as a luxury, the Finns consider their weekly sauna as a necessity, right up there with food, rye bread and vodka. Any business worth its credit rating has a company sauna as do most passenger and cargo ships, every home and apartment building. A popular Finnish Finnish TV talk show that ran for two years featured hosts in a sauna chatting up celebs and government officials. Even former president Tarja Halonen (the Conan O’Brien look-alike) was interviewed wearing nothing but a towel.
2. Per capita, Helsinki has the world’s most heavy metal bands. The normally underground head-banging, double bass drums and suicidal lyrics of heavy metal are “out” and widely celebrated all over Finland. It’s hard to find even a small town that doesn’t have at least one heavy metal group: there’s 53 for every 100,000 people, according to The Wire.
Helsinki streets are crowded with metal theme clubs, the Tuska Festival (Tuska means agony in Finnish), a three-day open-air festival draws tens of thousands of metal maniacs from all over the world and The University of Helsinki offers a class on heavy metal music in contemporary society.
There’s a heavy metal children’s music band (It’s called Hevisaurus and members dress in dinosaur costumes) and if you go to the Helsinki Rock Shop, you won’t find gems or minerals but a wide selection of official band t-shirts (black and heavily-studded, of course) of Finland’s most successful heavy metal groups: The Sperm, Wigwam, Children of Bodom (named after a famous massacre on the quiet shores of Lake Bodom), Hanoi Rocks (reputed to have inspired Guns N’ Roses) and His Infernal Majesty, HIM that headlines a midnight show most New Year’s at long-time rock stalwart, the Tavastia Club.
3. It screened the world’s longest running movie (so far). The Lord of the Rings Trilogy has a running time of 558 minutes, but that’s a drop in the cinematic bucket compared to Modern Times Forever, a movie that ran in Helsinki for 240 hours. This ten-day movie was projected onto the side of the Stora Enso Building, an appropriate venue since well, the riveting plot revolved around what would happen to modern architecture (specifically the Stora Enso Buidling) if humankind disappeared. But alas, Helsinki will hold the record for only five more years as Swedish director Anders Weberg just released a 72-minute trailer for his proposed 720-hour movie, Ambiance.
4. Travelers can lose their wallets without worrying or having to call the embassy. Reader’s Digest, in a test to find the world’s most honest city, dropped 12 wallets in 16 cities around the globe. The wallets, each with a cellphone number, a family photo, business cards and the equivalent of $50 were left in parks, on sidewalks, near shopping malls. In Helsinki, 11 out of 12 were returned.
5. There’s a proposed law in Helsinki that will forbid schools to start before 9 a.m.. Not only do kids in Finland stay home until they’re 7 years old (compare that to the U.S. push for earlier and earlier education), but the school day doesn’t start typically start until 9, there’s twice as much recess and the kids go home earlier with little or no homework. While the U.S. sometimes struggles to find good teachers, in Finland, teacher wannabe’s are turned away. Only the top 10 percent are selected, they’re given status on par with doctors and lawyers and, most opposite to the U.S., they’re actually trusted to know the best way to teach their students. Probably most important is Finland consistently performs among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world.