My trip started off with a whimper when the ash cloud disrupted my original travel plans, so instead of spending a few days in Boston prior to a work trip to Helsinki, I flew the other way around the world, stopping in Singapore and continuing on to Helsinki. It’s a lovely city- beautiful buildings, parks, and a lot of coastline- the city sits on the Baltic Sea and is surrounded by small islands. The architecture of the city is dominated by two huge churches, a white, modern looking one and a red brick orthodox one. Since it’s close to midsummer, the light was constant so I never felt any jetlag, partially because I never had any idea what time it was- good thing I brought a sleeping mask. Visiting Finalnd in the winter would likely be a vastly different experience. I had been warned that Helsinki was expensive but it didn’t really seem any different than Melbourne to me.
I arrived a couple of days before my meeting so had a chance to explore the city a bit, mostly on foot. My favorite stop was the market along the waterfront right at the city center. Fresh berries, reindeer meat, furs, knives, and herring- all of your Scandinavian favorites! My prize find was a pair of clip-on amber earrings for my grandmother, who loves jewelry but never got her ears pierced. I also checked out some of the local landmarks and took a ferry out to Suomnelinna island, which has an old sea fortress and a brewery.
Monday afternoon was my big meeting, in which I gave a two hour presentation to a bunch of pneumococcal bigwigs and representatives from the Gates Foundation, who are funding the project. My supervisor is the project coordinator and since she’s on maternity leave I was tasked with giving our steering committee an update on the laboratory portion of the project. It went very well, so yay for that. The next couple of days I attended the conference, which was largely focused on pneumococcal vaccination. The amount of research, time, thought, and money that lays the groundwork for introducing a vaccine into a country and ensuring that it’s safe and effective is astounding. Since pneumococcal vaccines are now being introduced to developing countries (where they are most needed), a lot of scientists from places like The Gambia and the Thailand/Burma border were at the conference, so it was really interesting to hear about their experiences.
Aside from the science, the conference had some other highlights. The hotel we stayed in was a converted prison- the rooms were obviously modified and really nice, but the hallways had a distinct prison feel and the restaurant used tin plates and mugs. The Finnish organizers of the conference had arranged for two social activities: birdwatching at 5am and “traditional Finnish evening with sauna.” I skipped the birds and went for the traditional evening. I was a little suspicious about the sauna when I noticed that there were separate sauna times listed for men and women. It turns out that the in a traditional Finnish sauna, everyone is naked. I walked in wearing my bathing suit but felt like a weird foreign prude so I ended up slipping out of it and just going with the naked Finnish flow. These people seriously love saunas- nearly everyone has one in their house or apartment, and apparently one Finnish prisoners have the right to a daily sauna. The World Sauna Championships were an annual event in Finland until one of the finalists died last year.
After the sauna, we went for a dip in the Baltic Sea (with bathing suits on) and then played a few games of Mölkky, a lawn game that's apparently Finland's answer to cornhole. After dinner and drinks, we participated in another Finnish tradition- cooking bread over the campfire. Instead of marshmallows, they toast sweetened bread dough on sticks over the fire. Yummers!
Overall, I really enjoyed my few days in Helsinki- the city was pretty and clean with a lot of do, and the people were friendly, almost all blonde, and fond of nudity.