From Georgia Hesse’s column in the Foreign Travel Club of San Francisco’s October newsletter:
A SENSE OF TRAVEL . . . With Georgia Hesse
One June day in 1984, I winged away from Moscow aboard a Finnair flight, headed for Helsinki en route home to San Francisco. Following a 12-day train trek across Siberia and Russia, it seemed appropriate to enjoy a little R&R in a city I remembered as spotless, unblemished, spick and span, Rinso-clean and even clinical but scarcely compelling. I would reboot my personal batteries.
Arrival in Helsinki was like settling into a stylish Heaven. I hadn’t pondered it in the past, but in Finland everything tends to work. It’s not old Europe with culture calling from every castle, Roman ruins waiting to seduce you around every turn in the road, an endless oratorio of obligations, and kilometers to go before you sleep. It’s an almost contemporary suggestion of “entirely modern” America, as the respected German Baedeker guidebook suggested back in 1914; of an “almost paralyzing perfection,” as prolific English poet James Kirkup commented in 1968.
Like jazz singer Pearl Bailey (“What the world needs is more love and less paperwork”), I needed a little rest. Indulging in what the French call lèche-vitrines (window shopping, more accurately window-licking), I sought out that Marimekko magic in fabrics of a winning whimsy; ogled Kalevala jewelry as old and bold as the Vikings; coveted Iittala crystal that traps light with the lucidity of ice, and ambled around in Akateeminen Kirjakauppa at Stockmann’s, perhaps the biggest English-language bookstore on the Continent.
Monuments to immortal men often rank, sadly enough, among the least stirring, the most banal. That to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) takes due place among the most elegant exceptions. At Sibelius Park (Sibeliuspuisto) in the district of Töölö in Helsinki, it swells above the ground in a series of 600+ hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave from which you all but sense a sound. Designed by one Eila Hiltunen and unveiled in 1967, it sparked a debate over abstract art so severe that an effigy of the composer was added to the work in order, one supposes, to better humanize it.
Sibelius’ home, named Ainola after his wife, sits quietly in a forested setting about half an hour’s drive north of Helsinki near solemn Lake Tuusula. You need to go there. The trip of half a day or a full day may be arranged through the tourist office. Be certain to book one that promises a pianist.
Any afternoon could bring peace to a harried soul at Ainola, a shelter of pine wood left almost as it was when the great man died on Sept. 29, 1957. Having been exhilarated by a flock of cranes approaching following his morning walk two days before, he died at age 91 at Ainola and is buried in the garden. I do not remember what the pianist, dressed in a white suit such as Sibelius often wore, played on the autumnal afternoon when I sat in Ainola: Impromptu in B Minor, possibly, or the tone poem “The Fir.” It was as silvery, as shimmering as the few snowdrops flitting from the sky or the sun filtering through clouds over the lacy-green lake.
I flashed back, for a moment, to the endless forests of Russia and “Dr. Zhivago.” Who but Sibelius could make a piano sound like a forest of white birch?