Think Helsinki doesn’t have much more to offer than hip places, ice hockey, saunas and the random, casual assortment of Saturday morning drunks? Well, here’s one we can with absolute certainty guarantee you never thought about – a 72-year-old crocodile wrestler straight from the heart of Helsinki. Crocodile wrestling, at the professional level no less, is maybe not the first job of choice for everyone, but Vänskä decided to embrace her roots early on.
“I grew up in ten swamps of Helsinki,” she explains of a profession not instantly associated with urban life in a city that embraces the innovative and hip more and more with each passing year.
But for Vänskä there was never a question of not taking up the profession.
“It runs in the family,” she explains.
Once she wrestled her first crocodile at the tender age of 2 1/2, there was no turning back.
“There’s something deeply gratifying about the whole thing,” she confirms. “It’s a deeply spiritual experience.”
Taking all this into account, it comes as no surprise that the question Vänskä wants to ask the next person in line, is, “what would be your superpower?”
Still as spritely today as she was when she first started, Vänskä is optimistic about years to come. While others panic and fret, the future poses no threat to this bundle of energy.
“I see myself cross-stitching in the Amazon,” she states when asked where she thinks she will be five years from now. And knowing this energetic lady, missing the cuisine of her younger years while subsisting on the fares her new location will have to offer, won’t be a problem either.
For Helsinki is not without its culinary delights. From ethnic to local, you can pretty much find everything your heart might desire, and then some. Though, of course, some tastes are more acquired than others. When confronted with the previous person’s question of whether she likes licorice, her answer is a quick, “no! It’s too black.”
If you really want to do it Hellstinky Style, shark fin soup is the way to go.
“For the full experience you have to have shark fin soup from a styrofoam cup. With plastic cutlery, wrapped in a plastic bag. You should go to a national park and find a lake, feel the breeze, enjoy and relax. Once you’re done with your meal, you should dispose of it immediately – straight into the water. Recycling is so last season.”
Time spent in Finland without sampling any alcoholic beverage, is time not spent here at all. Of course, there are drinks, and then there are drinks. For that full-on Hellstinky Experience, if you really want to know what it feels like living, breathing and just being here, but don’t have much time or energy to invest – or are lacking the patience – for a quick and immediate experience, Vänskä suggests her own special drink, Paranoid. Guaranteed to supply the ultimate experience with a concoction of gin, lingonberry liqueur, Parfait d’Amour and Vänskä’s own very special, super-secret ingredient. It goes without saying that the effect is even more exacerbated when you sample it while listening to the one song that immediately evokes Helsinki in Vänskä’s mind.
Though even closer to Vänskä’s heart is this particular gem.
Asked why, her answer is as touching as it is simple. “He’s my father,” she says. “My biggest hero.”
Of course you can work your way around town by visiting all the tourist sites. But this will merely give you an idea of what the city has to offer. To get to know the capital, to really find out what it’s all about, you have to go deeper, explore the places not many have seen before, some deeply restricted, others less so. Some of them, while not exactly off the grid (though some might beg to differ), definitely very well hidden; the kind of places that, if they were children, only a mother could and would indeed love. And who better than a local to point you in that direction.
Vänskä has one such discovery to share, which she emphasizes with conviction. “A bar called Flemari 13. It has the worst toilets in town.”
Discoveries are of course not merely about places in town. There are other issues, that one moment of divine intervention, a seemingly random occurrence that takes you to unknown, (yet) unexplored areas, perhaps even lands, especially when thinking outside of pre-defined borders. For Vänskä that moment came when, at the age of 71, she broke with family tradition and sailed to hitherto unknown, unexplored lands. It was a journey that would change her life forever, leading to a Eureka! moment of indescribable proportions.
“You can get cheap beer from Tallinn.”
And judging by the many passengers on the No.9 tram – providing you time it just right – who are all lugging an assortment of bags, cases and trolleys with utmost care, negotiating that tram ride back home, this is, while not exactly a secret tip per se, at least a very handy one. Seeing them, you know the party’s coming. And it’s going to be a good one. But how can you make sure the male specimen staring at you from across the couch – or, if you’re really lucky, even across the room – isn’t just wishing a hangover away but is actually very much totally into you?
Finnish men don’t kiss, speak or dance. Or so the saying goes. Yet, there are countless couples, some with children, some without. And merely walking down the promenade during the summer, one look at most ladies will clearly tell you that somehow, on some level, some people at least have clearly managed to work things out to the point of readily establishing families. So how has this happened? How can someone not in the know even attempt to try and work it all out? Vänskä’s advice is sure to pull people out of the deepest, darkest despair and provide some much needed hope.
“Men in Finland party without their trousers,” she says. “So you’ll notice when they’re into you.”
Having spent 72 years, and counting, on the face of this Earth, what words of advice does this sage lady have for the rest of us? What wisdom can we learn from her, who has pretty much seen it all, based on her own life and experience? Her advice is as simple as it is sage.
“Always wear a bulletproof vest and a helmet.”
If that doesn’t make you feel safe, no reason to despair. Vänskä has taken that into account as well by offering up some more words of reassurance.
“Machetes are always a positive thing.”
And of course to feel super, extra safe, “always carry a rifle with you. Just. In. Case.”