Helsinki : CITYSLICKER

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Most ubiquitous item of clothing: Heavy winter coats and boots, relieved this winter by tactile velvet in bright, warm colours for indoor and party wear. As the chill, damp winds from the Baltic send temperatures plummeting, the greyness of the st reets is unrelenting, particularly when it snows: snow is not cleared from the pavements but strewn with gravel, which turns it to freezing slush.

Shopping: Rich tourists from St Petersburg and farther afield come to Helsinki to buy luxury goods, particularly furs. Finnish companies are also increasingly active in Russia: Stockmann, the leading department store, once a welcome source of Western goods for diplomats and journalists on postings to the Soviet Union, now also operates lucrative outlets in the former Soviet Union, and cheap mail-order firms circulate their catalogues in Russia. Other newcomers to Helsinki's commercial life include topless bars and rip-off currency exchange boutiques. Welcome to Europe.

The meeting place: By the statue of the Three Smiths outside the main department store, Stockmann, or in one of Helsinki's profusion of cafes. An explosive growth of cafe life and a proliferation of glittering shopping malls since the mid-Eighties has transformed the city into an urban playground, a place for looking and being looked at.

Old-established cafes include Ekberg, austere and waitress-served, on Budevardt, and the deco splendours of Fazer on Kluuvikatu; more recent arrivals are Cafe Aalto, in the famous architect's Academic Bookstore on Esplanade, and Cafe Engel on Senaatintori, where glances are exchanged between significant others reading small volumes of poetry. Shopping flaneurs prefer Forum, a busy city-centre mall; young men with greased-back hair spend Friday nights cruising the streets in enormous, lovingly polished old American cars.

Latest fad: Paranoia about EU membership. What will it mean? The major issue in October's EU referendum was security: of trade, jobs, welfare services, and of the eastern border with uncertain Russia. ... Will Finland's high standards of environmental and welfare legislation survive? What will happen to Finnish farming? Will food prices come down? Will Finns be able to buy wine from the corner shop (and not just from state-run liquor stores)? Will Finns ever be able to learn the European way of life (whatever that may be)?

Hottest nightclub: In a country whose state alcohol monopoly keeps liquor prices high, cheap beer tends to be a priority. Students head for Happy Days - long queues, and a bit of a cattle market - or Erottaja, whose coolly minimalist interior, designed by architecture students, makes it less obviously a drinking den. Stylish intellectuals (and intellectuals are stylish here) are to be found at Corona-baari, owned by the film-making brothers Kaurismaki, above their own cinema, where snooker tables are pr ovided.

A kind of officially sanctioned alternative culture exists at two bars, Tex-Mex Cantina West and Zetor, both run by Sakke Jarvenpaa and Mato Varonen of the Leningrad Cowboys (the pop group immortalised in Aki Kaurismaki's film of the same name). Ironic, those-were-the-days (one of the songs which the Cowboys played in the concert they gave with the Red Army Choir to celebrate the Russian withdrawal from Berlin last summer) decor, complete with ancient Czechoslovakian tractors.

Hottest restaurants: Alvar Aalto's Savoy restaurant, with its age-darkened Forties interior, serves comfort food, such as Baltic herring and mashed potatoes - just like mother used to make - to rich businessmen. Other famous eating places include Kosmos,where male Finnish writers can still be seen destroying their livers with alcohol, and Kolme Kruunua (The Three Crowns), with its sad waiters and non-stop television.

Publication of note: Helsinki's free listings magazine, City, founded at the height of the economic boom in the Eighties during Finland's days as "the Japan of the north", presided over the emergence of a new, urbanised generation of young people. Today City has lost its radical cutting edge, but it remains the central directory of what to see and where to go in the city, and runs a painfully earnest, and often hilarious, lonely hearts column.

Catchphrase: Finns sprinkle their conversation with English words and phrases, part of a campy spirit of sending up the minority status of their own Finno-Ugrian language (which has less than 5 million speakers). Favourites include "Who cares, anyway?" (whose attraction lies in its un-Finnish air of insouciance), "No problem" and "Vau!!" (Wow!). Deeper incursions have been made into the language by such appropriations as shoppailu - meaning the new entertainment of going to the shops, not to buy but tobrowse, chat, sip a coffee and people-watch.

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