Finland: Day 1 – Helsinki

A Day of Travel

Our flight left Dulles at a very reasonable 12:17 p.m.  Given the size of the airport and the international flight, I wanted to be there by at least 8 a.m. to give me three hours before the plane started boarding at 11 a.m..  This is almost certainly excessive, but I always prefer to have a healthy margin of error just in case unexpected events cause delays.

In order to avoid a 3 a.m. wakeup, I booked a hotel not far from the airport for the night before the flight.  I also reserved the same accommodations when I returned to avoid driving the 4 hours into the night after being up for a full day, especially with the 7-hour time change.  I was able to leave my car at the hotel and take the airport shuttle to avoid the 10 days of parking fees, thus making the hotel only a minimal additional expense.  This practice was recommended to me by my father and was well worth it.

Our flight took us from Dulles to JFK, then to Reykjavik, Iceland, and finally to our destination in Helsinki, Finland.  The flight was efficient and uneventful, precisely as one would desire.  Not having traveled outside of the US in about 10 years, I was slightly surprised that I needed to verify my passport at JFK, but in retrospect, this makes perfect sense.  I was also surprised that my passport was stamped in Iceland but not Finland, as Iceland is not part of the EU.  After researching this topic, I discovered that passport and border controls are specified by the Schengen Area or by membership in the Schengen Agreement, not by EU membership.  Iceland, while not part of the EU, is party to the Schengen Agreement.

Icelandair Boeing 757, named for the Icelandic volcano Katla

Icelandair Boeing 757, named for the Icelandic volcano Katla

After traveling for 13 hours and being awake for 20, we arrived in Finland at 7:30 a.m. ready to start the day.

Meeting with Alumni at Café Engel

After making our way from the airport to the hotel, we were able to secure our bags until the rooms were ready and began a brief tour of the city to get our bearings.  We had a meeting with Averett Alumni at Café Engel where I learned that Finnish espresso is stronger and more bitter than the American counterpart, but still enjoyable.

We talked with Ilona, Anni, and Lydie about life in Finland and their experience with Averett University.  Averett’s connection to Finland traces back to a Finnish coach hired for the Danville campus who recruited from his home country.  As a result, there are a significant number of Averett alumni in Finland.  Averett also maintains relationship with the Lahti University of Applied Sciences (Finnish: Lahden ammattikorkeakoulu / LAMK) and with Pajulahti Sports Institute, a vocational high school for student athletes.  We would visit both of these sites later in the trip.

Anni works as a lab technician for medical research.  Though her role is not clinical, I inquired as to her perception of the Finnish medical system and her experiences with it as a Finnish resident.  She told me that most health care is provided by the state in the form of government-run facilities, which see people in order of need.  Acute or emergency cases are handled promptly while routine visits are scheduled after a wait.  Patients pay a small co-pay for each visit but the vast majority of the cost is paid for by taxes.

Anni also described after-hours private health care, often performed by state physicians following their normal work time.  These services were paid directly by the patients but a small fraction of the costs could be reimbursed by the state health system.  She also told us of physicians hired by private companies for their employees who handled routine issues.

Two Chapels

Following our meeting, we toured two Helsinki chapels.  The first was the Rock Church (Finnish:  Temppeliaukio).  Envisioned as early as 1906 but completed in 1969, the Rock Church has become a major attraction in Helsinki due to its unconventional design cut directly from the bedrock.  Controversial at first, the chapel is now popular for both weddings and concerts and is regularly used by the Töölö parish of the Lutheran Church of Finland.  In 2004, the chapel was designated as a protected site.

The Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki, Finland (Source: Matthew Duncan)

The Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki, Finland (Source: Matthew Duncan)

The Rock Church had an unmistakable feel of reverence.  The combination of natural and man-made materials bathed in filtered sunlight provided a fitting background to the worship services that occur.  I could not help but stand quietly and observe all that was around me for several minutes even as others came and went.

The second site we visited was the Kamppi Chapel.  This was a modern construction within the Kamppi shopping center. designed and built by the city of Helsinki to be a place of meeting and quiet reflection.  It is not open to church services or events such as weddings and baptisms but instead is available from morning to evening for meetings and reflection.

Kamppi Chapel (Source: Helsingin Kirkot)

Kamppi Chapel (Source: Helsingin Kirkot)

In contrast to the Rock Church, while the Kamppi Chapel’s award-winning design created a pleasing architectural space, it was more reminiscent of a contemporary library than a house of God.  The building’s essence was sterile and lifeless in a practical demonstration that peace is not simply the absence of noise and distraction but a deeper state of being beyond one’s circumstance or environment.

The history of both buildings underlies Finland’s long history of integration with the Lutheran church.  This dates back to Finland’s origins as part of Sweden before Russian rule and subsequent independence.  Though no longer unified, the Finnish government and Lutheran church remain partially connected.  Church taxes are levied with the help of the Finnish state and distributed to the Lutheran church or other registered churches and religious groups within Finland, though not all groups accept this funding.  This relationship is not immediately obvious with casual observation but is easily discoverable in conversation with Finns of different beliefs.


As the afternoon progressed, we visited the main esplanade (Finnish: Esplanadi) in Helsinki.  The Esplanadi is a linear park which was created in its current form in the 1840s.  At that time, it was mainly patronized by Helsinki’s upper class but was later used by all levels of society.  In 1918, the Esplanadi was used as cultivated land in order to grow cabbages, potatoes, and rutabaga during the food shortages of the First World War.  Today, the Esplanadi is decorated seasonally and is a popular recreation area for the citizens of Helsinki.

Kappeliesplanadi, Helsinki (Source: Mahlum)

Kappeli Restaurant on the Esplanadi, Helsinki (Source: Mahlum)

At the East end of the Esplanadi is the Kappeli (or Chapel) Restaurant.  Sources conflict on the origin of the name.  The restaurant’s website references a vaguely church-like building constructed to sell pastries and lemonade on the site in 1840 that became known as the Chapel (Finnish: Kappeli).  That building fell into disrepair and was replaced with the original version of the current structure in 1867.  An alternative explanation found on an Esplanadi historical sign contends that the area on which the restaurant now sits was formerly used by local herdsmen to sell milk.  Deriving from the Latin, the herdsman was known as a pastor (pastori) and his milk stall as a chapel (kappeli).  In either case, the restaurant continues to use the name.


At the Kappeli Restaurant, we were introduced to a young man named Mostafa.  He is Iranian by birth and traveled to Finland after his parents petitioned the government to allow the family access to the country due to Mostafa’s sister who has a degenerative health condition.  Mostafa is an Averett alumnus who had studied both in Finland and the United States.  He was in the process of joining the Finnish Defense Force which is compulsory for male Finnish citizens but I believe optional for non-citizen residents.

We spoke at length about his experience in Finland and about contrasts between Finland, the US, and Iran.  Mostafa relayed stories about daily Finnish life, his academic pursuits, and his family.  He was full of joy and optimism despite his family having to overcome several challenges.

I also asked him about his experience coming to Finland given the reportedly high degree of nationalism that can sometimes manifest as being anti-immigrant.  He said he felt nothing but welcomed in Finland though added that his family applied for permission to come to Finland for medical treatment and did not enter the country until permission was granted, a situation different from that of  many current refugees or asylum seekers.

As our final unofficial Finnish ambassador for our first day in country, Mostafa left us with an almost infectious optimistic expectation for what was to come in the remainder of our trip.

A Long Day

When I finally settled into the hotel for a night’s sleep, it occurred to me that between the three flights, the time change, the Nordic summer sun, and several espressos,  my body had very little concept of the time of day.  Fatigued but still fairly awake, I checked the time and realized that at 11:30 p.m. local time, I had been in motion for over 40 hours.  The trip I had planned for so long had now begun and I was looking forward to every minute of it.


Sources:,, Nordic Journal of Religion and Society,,

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