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“Boarding will begin shortly,” said an overhead female voice as passengers in the Helsinki Airport collected their things and made a line in front of gate 16 on an evening in December. It was, however, not my flight, as mine was to leave 12 hours later.
I had never stayed for more than a few hours at an airport before, but I have always enjoyed them. There is something fascinating about airports: souvenir shops that try to gather the country’s essence, strangers that will sit together for hours in order to reach a common destination, couples who are united at the airport’s entrance and couples who argue about carrying heaving suitcases.
As I looked around at my immediate surroundings, I thought about Ryan Zhu, the Chinese man who spent 30 days living in that very same airport and the movie The Terminal, where for unfortunate circumstances, Tom Hanks ends up living at JFK Airport. I wasn’t going to live here but I thought that night was going to be the longest of my life. I was wrong.
As part of a marketing campaign of Finavia, Ryan Zhu got to experience the airport’s services and complete daily challenges that in the end resulted in a trip to Lapland. His experience was mostly targeted to China, since Helsinki Airport is the main connector between Europe and China. That immediately became clear as a crowd of Chinese emerged from security control and headed for the last flight to Shanghai. As they hurriedly walked past me, I was able to see that most of them were carrying Finnish souvenirs like chocolate bars, gloves and reindeer stuffed animals.
As I strolled around the airport, I noticed that it seemed to be divided into different spaces that looked like part of a Nordic interior design magazine. Tall comfy chairs with built-in tables were placed facing each other inside a wooden structure that defined a very Finnish-looking workstation. Sitting there, a young blonde woman and a man in a suit typed laboriously into their laptops.
Past the workstation, a small wooded area next to Exit 2A provided benches and hanging sockets where young passengers stood holding their charging cellphones. From a general perspective, the airport looked clean, organized and highly efficient. There was free wifi everywhere, plenty of sockets to plug in electronic devices and restrooms equipped with sounds of chirping birds!
Just weeks before I was there, the airport accomplished an important milestone. On December 13th, 2017, the number of passengers reached 18 million. Next year, the airport is planning to grow even more. Finavia is investing 900 million euros and as they expand in physical space, they will also provide 5,000 new permanent jobs. As I read some other airport facts — it has won best airport awards — I came across my favorite place.
It was the book swapping station located in the Kainuu Lounge. Enthusiastic bookworms like me sat in sofas reading books left behind by previous passengers. The bookcases on the wall held books from all over the world, waiting to be read by international passers-by.
To the right, a Scandinavian-looking family sat on a rug, a toddler sitting on his dad’s lap while his mom showed him different books. The airport’s own mini library is something I hadn’t seen before at other airports and it was the perfect place to relax and take a look at books in Chinese, Finnish, English and a ton of other languages.
As for sleeping arrangements, Helsinki Airport has the famous GoSleep sleeping pods in Terminal 1. Here you can rest in specially design, stylish beds that look like small spacecraft. They can be rented for hours or for the whole night. They include a place to store your hand luggage and even have movable shades that hide the light of the airport. Despite all their appeal, I decided not to stay in one and instead walked to the other side of the airport where the shops are located.
Coffee places, a bar, restaurants, souvenir shops and sitting lounges stood on each side of the corridor, expelling a scent of coffee and cinnamon rolls. As soon as I saw the Moomin Shop I knew it was a better idea to spend that money on getting my sister a variety of unnecessary Moomin products instead of on a one-night accommodation.
“Do you want to get the pen that goes with that notebook?” the lady who worked there asked politely. I nodded and headed to the cashier with a Moomin cup, a puzzle, an apron for my mom and the notebook and pen. All was packed in a nice white Moomin plastic bag.
At midnight I ended up making myself comfortable on the set of chairs located at either side of the airport’s main corridor. Next to me, a German couple did the same as they shared their Lapland adventures with me.
“You know, we thought we wouldn’t be allowed to stay here all night,” said the German man.
“But since we are, we already bought our dinners, and now I can’t wait for it to be morning and go see Santa in person!” his wife said.
Finally, at around 02:00 in the morning everything became quiet. There were no more passengers coming out of the gates and the staff had already left. The shops had closed and besides from the usual sound of vending machines, silence reigned both terminals. That didn’t last for long as at 05:00, the airport was fully awake again and new passengers walked past me as staff opened each shop.
As I finally walked to my assigned gate, I took one last look around; Helsinki Airport has made it a point to have everything you can think of to make your travels easier and I can’t wait to see the changes they bring in 2019.