What’s a 47-Letter Word For ‘Up’?

Winter Street Scene, Helsinki, Finland
Winter Street Scene, Helsinki, Finland

I’ve got nothing against the Finns. During my brief sojourn in Finland they were nothing if not polite, helpful and friendly. Their language however, is a different story. I have never seen so many characters in one paragraph than I did in Helsinki during December of 2011. Considering I arrived in the morning after an overnight flight from JFK, it is conceivable that my impressions were tainted by the effects of jet lag. But there’s no way around it: Finnish is a difficult language with an abundance of letters in seemingly every word. And don’t even get me started on the double vowels. For the rest of the trip, any time a waiter or customs official seemed to be taking a long time to do whatever it is they were doing, it inevitably led to one of us saying, “He’s probably doing a Finnish crossword puzzle,” which would likely use up the majority of daylight hours your average Finn has available in the winter months. I shudder to think at what a classified ad would cost. Probably $100 just to say: For Sale.


Linguistics aside, the rest of my Finnish experience was rather uncomplicated and simple. A 20-30 minute bus ride from Vantaa Airport brings you to the heart of Helsinki. Cable cars compete with other traffic through an architectural mix of modern and classic buildings all with that hard to describe Scandinavian look. The subway is clean and easy to navigate, with underground shopping venues that seemed a particularly wise location in December.

A Quiet Corner of Soumenlinna Fortress
A Quiet Corner of Soumenlinna Fortress

Just a short ferry ride from the harbor is a cluster of islands that make up one of the world’s largest maritime forts, the Soumenlinna Fortress. This World Heritage Site was good for a few hours of meandering the ramparts, giant cannons and support buildings, and if there were a few extraneous vowels, no one seemed to mind. When I left for India later that evening, I drifted off to sleep imagining what Wheel of Fortune would be like in Finland. (Contestant: I’d like to buy an ‘A’. Pat Sajack: There are 29 A’s)

My return voyage also brought me through Helsinki for one night, allowing me some time to do some shopping and walk the amazingly orderly streets, leading us to muse at how ironic it would be to navigate the traffic chaos of India only to get run over in a Finnish crosswalk. It also allowed me to participate in the quintessential Finnish experience of a hot sauna, which basically consisted of me sitting in a steamy wood-paneled room with five naked Finnish men. To combat the absurdity of the scene, I directed my eyes to the floor and my mind to trying to decipher what they were saying along with trying to conceive exactly what sound thirteen consecutive ‘A’s’ would make. When I felt my pores had released enough toxins, I politely gathered up the damp complimentary butt napkin you take in with you, and bid them all good night.

It’s been several years since my jitney to Helsinki, and while I don’t see a particular reason to return, I am glad that I saw it. I’m sure it is even better in the spring and summer months when the weather is warm and the days are as long as the words. There might even be enough time for a crossword puzzle or two. Just please…no more vowels!

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