Autumn in Helsinki is mostly cold winds accompanied by showers. But to the residents of the city, the changing season is one last excuse to enjoy the outdoors before the long winter sets in and the sun disappears for the next four months. Cyclists wrap themselves up in layers before braving the increasingly nippy air, while runners squeeze out time for the afternoon sun. In the summer, most residents head towards small islands around the city for picnics, and it’s a practice that continues well into fall. Even as the light begins to fade earlier, the residents persist, determined to enjoy every minute of sunshine that they can. They barbeque by the sea, and forage for the last of the year’s berries and mushrooms in the forests. Everyman’s right in the country’s forests allows you to pick almost anything your heart and tongue desires.
To me, preparing for my first year of Finland’s winter, the changing season felt like a promise. The yellowing leaves on the trees, the hint of frost in the air and the increasingly pale sunshine — they were all leading up to the vision of an autumn wonderland, filled with flame-leafed forests and cold, blue skies, which would light up with aurora borealis, or northern lights.
This is the time when snow has already hit northern Finland and Lapland, and with it, the sightings of the northern lights. I’ve been instructed to download an aurora-spotting app that notifies me of my chances of spotting the northern lights. On a day when the activity was particularly high, some friends and I bundled ourselves up, took some hot tea in a flask and headed to the nearest pier. What we forgot was that fall in Helsinki is usually accompanied by a thick cloud cover. We would have to wait for the clear skies of the winter to be able to watch the northern lights. The disappointment was enormous.
Of course, Helsinki found a way to make it up to me. The city is ringed with forests and little woodland creatures are not an uncommon sight, much to the fascination of non-Finns, such as myself. I was just beginning to get used to the sight of the occasional hare bounding out of a patch of woods, when one night I spotted a little fox crossing the road. This was the first time I was seeing one outside a Grimm Brothers story. I had to follow it. Quietly, my friends and I walked towards it, stopping every time it stopped, admiring how it softly padded on, its distinctive coat blazing against the backdrop of the dark forest. In those minutes, it felt like the forests that loom around Helsinki — dark, quiet and enticing — will do anything to keep you from not thinking about them. Just as you get used to them, they ensnare your attention, whether with the changing colour of the leaves or the silent silhouette of a wild creature, as it slinks in and out of the wooded depths.
Helsinki is a city for all seasons, be it the brief beautiful nights of summer or the snow-covered landscape of winter. But that evening, I realised that it is in the twilight season that Helsinki truly works its enchantment. The long summer days may exhaust you and the winter may get too harsh, but in the fall, Helsinki will make you its own.