I arrived with a mission to complete. This is the broad sweep of it: go to Helsinki; live for a month on an island sea fortress in a studio complex for international artists; meet with children's book writers, publishers, advocates as well as teachers and librarians to learn about the Finnish literature scene; complete a large chunk of my Work In Progress, the final book in my historical fantasy trilogy.
When you stand on the brink of an adventure, especially one that has several important strands to tend over four weeks, it's easy to get a little nervous. Will my contacts have time to meet me? How will I make sure I get my own writing done when there are fascinating things to see and learn? Helsinki is World Design Capitol 2012 and the city is bursting with events that interest me.
I decided to try setting my first week up so there would be a creative flow and rhythm, knowing that in an unfamiliar place everything I planned was subject to change. This meant, roughly, a couple of days of exploration and orientation, then down to writing. A few days of working in isolation would stoke the desire for more exploration and inspiration, while giving my contacts time to return my emails.
My first day in Helsinki set the tone for what has come since. The gripping fifteen minute ferry trip to the mainland, cutting through sea ice in freezing temperatures, inspired a fascination with Suomenlinna's slow dance into spring and the comings and goings of snow and ships. A chance meeting with two fellow HIAP artists took me to the Tourist Office where I happened to pick up a leaflet about the first ever Children's Book Cafe at Annantalo Arts Centre and decided to make it my first port of call.
The first thing I saw at Annantalo was an installation about reindeer herding by the Sami people. Again, I was struck by the relationship of people with the land, animals and yes, snow. The wonderful Children's Book Cafe happened to have an exhibition of children's books published by Tammi Publishing, one of Finland's largest children's publishers. I went next to the Academic Bookstore, a large and busy shop connected to Stockmann department store. I have written up the serendipitous story of how I came to meet children's author Esko-Pekka Tiitinen there on my blog, which you can read here.
I brought home a copy of The Kalevala, Finland's great national epic with prehistoric roots. The stories were collected and published in the 19th century by Elias Lonnrot and became hugely important for the Finnish independence movement. I have been reading it with enjoyment and am beginning to get an insight into the Finns' relationship with the earth, the seasons and each other.
Day two brought snow to Suomenlinna and I explored the island in this blog post. Over the subsequent few days, as I got down to writing, my break time was spent wandering over the hills, ramparts and bastions, investigating tunnels and stumbling upon a 1930's submarine. This island has been bombarded, defended, invaded, has housed prisoners of war and now, become a place where artists and artisans work. On Friday evening I attended a HIAP's New Art Contact event in Gallery Augusta, a 19th century barracks building converted into an airy three room space. A friendly and receptive international crowd watched and participated in performances by artists from Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Germany.
I visited the Association of Finnish Illustrators in Helsinki and saw an exhibition of Janne Harju's work. I found out that I'll still be here when the Design Museum hosts an illustration festival in mid-April and left with illustration magazines and other info, some of it pictured here. Speaking of the Design Museum, I was impressed with its current show, Designworld: Designing the New World, on sustainable design using recycled materials and its permanent collection on the history of Finnish design, which you can learn about here. Highlights: lamps made from gold-plated rifles and huggable atomic bomb soft toys.
There were so many things that just 'clicked' during my first week in Helsinki. Some of it was down to luck and some was down to the help of the very friendly people at HIAP and acquaintances I have made. And what of all my contacts? I have several appointments beautifully arranged for the coming week and more for the week after. And the Work In Progress? Fine, thank you, and growing by the day. Suomenlinna's quiet is perfect for concentration.
I also learned a few key phrases in Finnish this past week. The Finns are multi-lingual and speak good English but I believe it's polite to try and speak Finnish. I've got the basics: hello, goodbye, thank you, pardon, do you speak English? Yesterday I conquered "I don't understand". Finnish is a great language to curl your tongue around!
I'll end with a note on my weather obsession. Helsinki swings between sun and snow, doing a backwards and forwards dance. Just as the mud and grass are revealed, a new coating of snow appears. Just as the sea ice vanishes from the water, it's back the next day (though I have been reliably informed that it's about to vanish until next winter). As I write this, Scotland is enjoying a spell of lovely spring weather, but I don't mind. I like watching the ebb and flow here, knowing that one day, hopefully before I leave, Suomenlinna will enjoy its first flowering.
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