How I Survived My Sick Day in Helsinki
While traveling solo in Finland, feeling both ill and ill-prepared led one writer on a journey to uncover the smaller delights of its culture.
Illustrations by Ryan Johnson
I forced my eyes open, blankly stared at the ceiling, and groaned. This was not good. I had just arrived in Helsinki mere hours ago and the thought of even moving an inch was painful. All I wanted to do was melt into the bed, completely ossified. I had chills, but I was also sweating. My head was spinning and my throat was burning … and I was very much alone.
I’ve traveled solo extensively around the globe — from the Galapagos and Patagonia to Morocco and Romania — and I thought I had gotten it down to a sick-free science. The paranoid germaphobe in me packs a carefully curated first-aid kit stocked with a variety of antibacterial products including Wet Ones for my hands, Clorox wipes for the plane’s tray tables, and, of course, bottles of Purell just for good measure. The travel nerd in me studies every map and learns the key phrases of the local language I need to know to maneuver on my own. And the solo-meets-FOMO adventurer in me meticulously stitches together a fast-tracked itinerary to make sure I pack all the essential museums, restaurants, and landmarks into a short amount of time.
But my formerly foolproof method clearly had a glitch — and a few pesky germs had infiltrated, threatening my first-time visit to Helsinki. So there I was by myself in a strange country with no sense of direction and completely ignorant of the local culture and language.
The battle in my head began: How could I come all this way just to lie in bed? I only had one day — this day — to get to know the Finnish capital before meeting up with a group of solo travelers for a weekend in the woods. Growing up, my mother had drilled into me that I could only take a sick day if I had a fever. Meh, my forehead wasn’t that hot. Or was it? Did I even need to abide by that rule anymore? Logically, I knew what my body was telling me: You’re sick. Stay in bed.
But, less than two hours later, my hunger kicked in — and since I didn’t have anyone to fetch food for me, I was forced to leave the comfort of the bed to go on a quest for nourishment. I wasn’t even sure if soup was a thing in Finland, but I needed it. Any kind. And I was instinctively drawn toward a place on Yelp called Soppakeittiö — after all, “soppa” had to mean soup in Finnish. Or so I hoped.
I was feeling so icky, I could barely navigate the one-kilometer walk. The beautiful sunny weather felt too bright; the Finnish street signs with all their dots, double dots, and carets made my head spin; and the zigzag route there had me in a daze. But then, to my surprise, there was my destination: a cozy 115-year-old market transformed into a food hall called Hietalahti Kauppahalli. Thank goodness for the little blue icon on Google Maps for guiding me there. My instincts were spot on: Soppakeittiö means Soup Kitchen in Finnish. It was just before 4 p.m. on a Thursday, so the stall employees were winding down and cleaning up for their 5 p.m. closing. I scanned the wall and counter for an English menu. No luck. Yikes, maybe getting here was the easy part. My sudden fear must have shown: A young girl who worked there greeted me with a friendly grin and told me — thankfully in English — that they had asparagus-parmesan soup left. Perfect.
It was clear this was a serve-yourself establishment, but she gestured for me to sit down. Just how ghastly did I appear? She brought over a gigantic, steaming bowl — and a sympathetic smile.
I devoured every drop of the hot, soothing liquid — and, though I swore I could feel my fever start to finally break, I forced myself to resist my usual impulses to hit the streets to explore. So I sat there, watching the kind girl clean. At one point, she brought over two sandwiches she was going to throw out and let me take one, on the house. Once the chairs started going up, I realized it was time to get moving and get back into bed.
Instead, I found myself walking further into town. My trusty cold medicine wasn’t cutting it, so it was time for reinforcements. I quickly spotted a green first-aid sign and walked into a very medical-office-looking pharmacy.
It took about five loops around the tiny space before I even figured out where the cold medicine was. The only clue? One was called Coldrex (a Finnish kind, not at all like the one here), but for all I knew, that could translate to diarrhea medicine.
A pharmacist walked up to me, speaking in Finnish. She must have seen the panic in my eyes and switched to English, but wasn’t as well versed. (Hey, it was still better than my Finnish.) After describing my symptoms, she referred me to something that sounded like Zicam — which I had already been chugging for the last few days. She told me the Coldrex was Vitamin C and caffeine — and instead suggested cough drops.
I could sense her frustration. Here she was so diligently using her limited English to prescribe the right antidote, yet I wasn’t abiding by her advice. After some insistence, she begrudgingly let me buy the Coldrex (and kindly translated the dosage) and cough drops and leave behind the Finnish Zicam. Armed with medication, it was time to go to bed.
But when I stepped outside, I saw a sliver of sunlight hitting the glistening bay in the distance. I had to see the full view. After all, I was already so close, so I kept walking.
It was the kind of idyllic, mild day when locals were out in action on the serene waterfront: bikers were speeding by, couples were slowly strolling, and children were playing with a carefree spirit. Maybe I should go for a run! Wait, you’re sick. You need to rest. My need to explore continued to play tug-o’-war with my need to sleep.
On my way back, I popped into a grocery store and grabbed three giant bottles of water. If anything, I was going to flush away this sickness.
When I reached the cashier, she kept pointing to the labels on the bottles, but I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to communicate. Finally, she got another cashier to help. He walked me over to the shelves and pointed back and forth between the labels until I realized there were bubbles on one and not the other. Did I really want still water? It didn’t seem to make sense to them (the shelf looked like it hadn’t been touched in ages!). But they let me pay for the ridiculous amount of water and be on my way.
Just a few blocks away was the Temppeliaukion Church, which had opened in 1969 and was literally carved into stone — in fact, the slab that makes up the altar dates back to the Ice Age. How could I not swing by? The uphill climb made the trek longer — and I was met with a sign that the church had closed 20 minutes ago. Sigh. All my effort was for naught.
When I got back to the place where I was staying, I realized there was a sauna. (Later, I learned in a country of about 5.5 million people, there are between 2 and 3 million saunas.) Surely that would expel all the toxins.
The room was warm, but it wasn’t steaming. There was a ladle and a bucket of water. Was I supposed to do something with it? What if I set the place on fire? So I just sat in there, enjoying the lukewarm heat.
I started feeling so good that I thought I should go enjoy a nice meal. At 9:30 p.m., my options were limited, and over the course of the next 40 minutes, I was turned away from half a dozen restaurants.
I ended up in what felt like the Times Square of Helsinki, complete with a Hard Rock Cafe. I guess I wasn’t going to get my authentic Finnish meal, but at this point, I just needed food. I landed at a cheeky and cheesy spot called Zetor that was open until 4 a.m., so I knew I wouldn’t face rejection.
The red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths were the only constant in the bar-restaurant, which was eclectically decked out with random skis, tractors, and even a gigantic cow. In an attempt to have a true Finnish experience, I ordered the pyttipanna described as a “harmonious combination of fried potato, onion, meat, and sausage” and treated myself to a dessert of mustikkakukko, which the menu said was a “traditional Finnish blue-blooded nobility of desserts: bilberry bake in tin cup with vanilla ice cream.”
Whether it was the ice cream, the Coldrex, or all that water I was drinking, I was feeling strong. Surely the bottled water wasn’t hurting, so I stopped at another market for more. Again, the cashier pointed at the label and looked at me quizzically, confirming this was what I wanted. I nodded. He shrugged. Lugging another two back with me, I downed an entire bottle and jumped into bed just shy of midnight.
I felt a million times better than I had laying in the same spot 12 hours before. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d have felt better if I hadn’t moved at all in that time. But then I wouldn’t have had this day packed with charming discoveries, which let me experience Helsinki in a far more organic way.
If I had followed my usual hectic travel itineraries, I would have simply hopped from one touristy landmark to another and checked off a bunch of items, but not really dug below the surface to understand the community that gives a culture its heartbeat.
While each experience may have felt mundane at the time, I later learned that the Finns are generally known to skip the small talk, so from their perspective, all the people I met may have been pushing themselves out of their comfort zones to assist a poor American traveler.
From the waitress offering me food and the pharmacist striving to get me back on my feet to the cashiers ensuring that I wasn’t spending my money in the wrong places, I had inadvertently stumbled upon the underside of the Finnish persona that so many of us don’t get to see shine — their honest dispositions to help strangers in need.
As for all those odd reactions to buying bottled water? I later learned that Finland has long been known for its clean drinking water right from the tap. Ah, maybe that was the secret elixir all along.