Helsinki: Summer Sun



August 12, 2014


Many years ago I had an American-Hungarian friend.  She insisted that Hungarian was “different” and resembled no other language in Europe.  Since I was a young man who thought he already knew everything, I doubted my friend’s characterization of her language.

Hungary lies in the middle of Central Europe.  Certainly the language is in some way similar to her neighbors’.   Surely Hungarian is related to Slovakian Slavic, or Romanian Romance, or Austrian Germanic?

Well I was dead wrong!

My research revealed that Hungarian is not associated with any of the Indo-European language groups such as Slavic (Slovakian, Russian, et al) or Romance (Romanian, French, et al) or Germanic (German, English, et al).   

Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language that is descended from the languages that emerged from beyond the Ural Mountains in Central Asia.  The Mongols brought these languages with them when they conquered much of Eastern and Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century.  The closest cousins to modern Hungarian are Finish and Estonian that are also part of the same language group.

So here in Helsinki, I cannot understand a sign or speak one word.  I did learn to say hello – hei, and thank you – kiitos.


(At one time, Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden.  Although only about six percent of the population of Finland is Swedish-speaking, they exert considerable influence.  Consequently, both Swedish and Finish are official languages here and most of the signs are in both languages.)

Fortunately, from the earliest age in primary school, all Finns study English.  They read, write and speak it fluently.  So it is no problem for me to ask directions or to order food or to make purchases.  For example, in a well-stocked electronics shop in a huge shopping mall, I replaced a shattered camera lens protector and my Kindle micro USB cable.

In between shopping and eating, I managed to visit several important Helsinki sites:  churches that dominate the skyline, a non-sectarian chapel and the waterfront.

An hour’s train ride outside Helsinki, on the shore of Lake Vanajavesi, I climbed around the Häme Castle in the town of Hämeenlinna, the birthplace of Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer.

Helsinki is a modern city - spotlessly clean and orderly.   There’s an efficient bus, subway and suburban train system, and a fleet of Mercedes taksi cabs.  Cyclists scoot around town along clearly marked bicycle paths.   In the outdoor cafes and parks, everyone revels in the late afternoon and evening sunlight.  This summer is the warmest in forty years. 

Finally, near the waterfront, an indoor market offers local sweets, delicacies and specialty foods.  Reminded me of Faneuil Hall in Boston.  I resisted the pastry but succumbed to a local beer.  In the display cases of the fish shops, I have never in my life seen so many varieties and flavors of smoked salmon!  Zabar’s, take note!

Reindeer kebab, anyone?

Näkemiin ja on onnellinen päivä,