Universitas Helsingiensis

Helsinki on my mind

Helsinki  on my mindWhen living in a foreign city one can easily feel like an outsider and a stranger. Lieven Ameel from Belgium began to befriend Helsinki by walking its streets; later this relationship turned into a scientific study.

For the young exchange student, his first impressions of Helsinki were rather confusing. “I found it strange and alienating,” says Lieven Ameel, MA. “Only afterwards I realised that I must have felt that way partly because I was living in Itä-Pasila, like so many other exchange students. Itä-Pasila is sterile and bleak, a gloomy example of harsh urban planning.”

Today he sees Helsinki quite differently. It is a rich and exciting place where the changing seasons and interaction between the sea, city and forests create new sensations every day. “While Helsinki is suitably small and cosy, it contains everything a capital city should,” he says. “In Belgium, by contrast, the economy and culture are not centralised but are dispersed throughout different cities.”

Ameel has been living in Helsinki for various periods over the last six years. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on Finnish Literature entitled Koettu ja kuviteltu Helsinki suomenkielisessä proosakirjallisuudessa 1900–1945, studying what Finnish literature in 1900–1945 reveals about how people experienced and imagined Helsinki. He chose this particular period, as the city started really to grow in the latter part of the 19th century, and extensive descriptions of city life only entered Finnish literature at the turn of the century.

The streets of Helsinki

When Helsinki’s city centre was built in the 19th century, huge amounts of rock were removed and the Empire-style centre was erected on a levelled and tamed land. Bogs were drained to yield to a constructed cityscape. It is hard to imagine how the area must have looked in its natural state. It was only towards the end of the century that people began to respect the natural forms of the terrain, which can be seen in the street plan of the Töölö district. With incredible speed, Helsinki developed from a small fishing village into a European city. This fast development makes Helsinki a particularly interesting topic for research.

“As I have always enjoyed reading and walking, I wanted to find out what people have written about Helsinki and how they saw the city,” Ameel says. “I read cultural geography and the research by one of my tutors, Sirpa Tani, about Helsinki films as mindscapes. My research combines literature and geography. I am also interested in the routes people take in Helsinki, how they move about.”

Ameel has also walked many other cities. What does he see as being typical of Helsinki? “Granite,” he says. “Novelist Leena Krohn has written that stone is the seal and fate of Helsinki. I agree with her. Besides rocks, the sea also has a strong presence in Helsinki.”

As a side project, Ameel has published an article with Sirpa Tani entitled Säröjä kaupunkikuvassa (Re-interpreting Urban Public Space − Parkour) in which they study parkour, a new urban activity and way to take over space. In parkour, the entire city is a playground. Young people create their own cityscape by jumping, climbing and running over obstacles. But anyone, young or old, can widen and deepen their cityscape by deviating from normal routes.

“It is worth investing in the city and sometimes taking the road less travelled,” Ameel says. “It makes the city cosier and increases a sense of belonging.”

Alienation and solitude

Lieven Ameel speaks fluent Finnish. This is worth mentioning, as Finnish is reputed to be a difficult language, and Ameel’s mother tongue, Dutch, is completely different. “Yet I felt that Finnish was somehow familiar, as if my mind was ready to absorb this new language," he says and laughs: “I know this sounds a bit para-normal.”

Even if he knows the language, Ameel has not settled down yet. He has lived in many parts of Helsinki, often subletting someone else’s flat when the actual tenant has been abroad. Living in someone else’s home, with their furniture and things, feels sometimes strange.

“At times I have strongly felt that I am an outsider,” he says. “The same applies to the people in the literature I have studied. The first-generation Helsinkians are outsiders, their idea of home is defined through nostalgia and their life is built on alienation and unrest.”

People who moved to Helsinki were often rootless, such as tenant farmers who had left their homes. “Young women who came from the country particularly felt that Helsinki was a strange and alienating place,” he says. People who now move to the city often have no real home left in the emptying countryside. Nostalgia is everything they have. Equally rootless are the refugees who end up in Helsinki."

Extreme sensations

In early 20th century literature, Helsinki is often portrayed as a kind of Babylon that people had to be saved from, a city of sin where decadence prevailed and people could lose their personalities. This biblical theme has been widely interpreted, and many of the titles refer to it, such as Sodoma (Sodom) by Unto Karri and Ni-niven lapset (The Children of Nineveh) by Maila Talvio.

In the 1920s, urbanism was fashionable, and the novels of the era praised the city and the modern times. In them, the city was a space where people could live life to the full and express themselves in both the streets and the restaurants, cafés and salons. This admiration of modern, urban life is apparent in – amongst others – the works of Mika Waltari and Olavi Paavolainen.

“My relationship with Helsinki has gone through the same phases that are found in literature,” Ameel says. “Right now I am in the 1930s, I think.”

Attitudes towards Helsinki gradually changed. “By the 1930s, the city dwellers had created a much more positive relationship with their city, they felt that they belonged to Helsinki or even that Helsinki belonged to them,” he says. “The strategies people adopted when creating a relationship with the city, the ways they used the cityscape and moved around, were much more mature in the 1930s literature than twenty or thirty years earlier.”

Today Helsinki offers a variety of ways to move about and take over space: you can walk, cycle, go by boat or take a tram.

“I love the way you can go for a stroll at the seaside, get lost in the historical wooden house quarters, sense Helsinki’s grand ambitions – and pretensions – in the design district, admire the successful city planning in Arabianranta and spot birds from the Lammassaari bird tower – all in one day,” he says. “But I’m equally inspired by the four seasons and their effect on the city character and how people experience it.”

Arja-Leena Paavola