When you are about to move to a new country, especially one that you have never been before and is quite different than your own, you feel excited yes, but you also feel slightly nervous and maybe even scared. Five years ago, when I was preparing for my new life in Finland, I had all those feelings but I feared mostly to be alone; “what if I can’t make any friends there?”. But these five years proved me wrong, I made incredible friends here. And in last week’s Wednesday morning talk, I was with one of those beautiful friends, Melis, my dear half Turkish-half Finnish friend – who would rather call herself hundred percent Turkish and hundred percent Finnish.
It was an ordinary cloudy and rainy summer day last Wednesday in Helsinki. I woke up early, took my shower, had a small and quick breakfast and left home to catch bus 65A – all the way to Lauttasaari. Ok, in Helsinki, nothing is really “aaaall the way”, especially for someone who lived in Istanbul. The destination was Cafe Mutteri, a small cafe on Lauttasaarentie which looks slightly out of place with its cute but highly different architecture – different than the rest of the apartment building around.
I first met Melis in my first year in Helsinki. It was just a few months into my new life and a common Turkish friend of mine told me about her. At first, for a couple of weeks we only communicated through messages and then some time in late December we finally met in person. She was the person who sort of gave me my first job in Helsinki – she was working in the culture office of Turkish Embassy and while she was leaving her position, she recommended me and that’s how I got to earn my living in this expensive city. Over the next few years, we would become good friends and she would be one of my caring and inspiring women, especially during these hard times that I have been going through..
Melis lived her life in Istanbul until the age of eighteen. Her mother is Finnish and her father is Turkish. She visited Finland in summer holidays during those years and then moved to Finland to get her university degree. She tells that she did not want to study in a Turkish university and wanted to leave the country to be in Europe. Her first choice would be the UK but since it was too expensive to study there, she moved to her other native land. In the 2005, she had the fifth year syndrome in Helsinki so she went to the Netherlands for an exchange study to be a little away.
Nearing the end of her studies, she moved to the UK, to be with her then boyfriend Halil. They had a long distance relationship for a while but when she was left with only her thesis to do in Helsinki, she thought that it was worth it to try and see where the relationship would go: It would go to spending two years there, then moving back to Helsinki together and eventually getting married. And now their little girl is on her way. I am pretty sure she was listening to us!
The reason why she chose that cafe for our talk was that she is quite used to having morning coffee on her way to work with her husband, if they can wake up early enough. Until recently, Melis was working in Moniheli ry as a project coordinator. She has always worked in multicultural projects, on issues related to immigrants, and she even appears in my master’s thesis – I interviewed her while she was working on another multicultural project in Kassandra Culture Center a few years ago. Having both Finnish and Turkish identity, she can relate very well to both sides, local culture and foreigners, which make her a very competent in this field.
Mutteri is not her favourite cafe, but there are others that she may call her favourites: Cafe Regatta and Villa Angelica, to name a few. Villa Angelica is a cafe managed by an eccentric lady, close to Seurasaari and the house of Urho Kekkonen, former prime minister and president of Finland. It’s an old, wooden building from late 19th century and Melis says that it feels like visiting bohemian Finnish life.
Melis says that in the last 7-8 years the food scene became increasingly diverse in Helsinki. In 2007, the Finns going to “Ravintola”s (restaurant in English) to eat and not just to drink was big news in the newspapers. Until then, those places were just there to drink beer, therefore the name “Olut Ravintola” (literally translated as “Beer Restaurant”) was common. In a way, Melis says that the number of both cheap, or rather affordable, and maybe a bit hipster places like Kuja in Hakaniemi, and high quality fusion restaurants like Farang increased. It feels good to have many more options than before when you eat out, however, the food and eating out culture is not there yet. The number may be high, but most of them are low quality restaurants. For instance, there are many Chinese restaurants, but they are all the same, with same taste and even the same menu most of the time. Rather than having many places, it is more important to have good quality food and less number of restaurants in total. Still, there are some restaurants that step out of this identical ethnic restaurants, like Mei Lin among Chinese restaurants, or a few Turkish grill restaurants that are opening recently. Melis believes that after this restaurant hype calms down, the restaurants will be filtered eventually and those that are not good at services and food choices will disappear. Let’s hope that this really happens.
Besides the increasing number of restaurants and cafes, there are many food related events all around the city and Melis is an enthusiastic follower of some of those. Ravintolapäivä (restaurant day) is the leading event of course, and she even has some favourites now, which open at the same location in every restaurant day. She also follows beer and wine events and is looking forward to visit Helsinki Night Market which will take place on August 20th in Teurastamo. Even though she doesn’t like Teurastamo, thinking that it has a too forced hipster ambiance, she will still visit the market because this year there will be three chefs cooking crickets. I, on the other hand, will leave Helsinki for that day because I suffer from a really serious insect phobia!!!
But what are her personal food choices? Actually, anything and everything! Melis does not follow a specific diet, she just follows, or rather “listens” to her body. She can feel what her body lacks or needs at that time and eats accordingly. It is a very natural thing to her and she says that she thought for a long time that everybody was like that. However, there are many people who have no idea about their own bodies and close their ears to whatever it says to them.. Melis and her husband Halil never cut down on food and try to eat well and healthy. They buy their meat from halal butcher in Itäkeskus next to Alanya Market, it is both cheap and high quality. They also pay quick visits to Hakaniemi Kauppahalli to buy meat in small amounts if it is for an urgent dinner. Olive oil is another ingredient that has specific importance for them and they buy their olive oil from specialised Italian or Spanish shops. The couple love both cooking for themselves and for their friends. And having participated in many of their food gatherings, I can confidently say that they are gooooood… Another good thing is that she doesn’t eat junk food or many snacks – the last time she ate in a fast food chain was 2002!!! For snacks, she only likes eating “Kuruyemis”, a blend of dried nuts, seeds and more and they bring this with them when they come back from their trips to Turkey. You can find these snacks in oriental markets in Helsinki, and in local Finnish markets for dried nuts and seeds, however it is a better idea to buy them in Turkey because of the combination of high quality and reasonable price. I love these snacks too and I mentioned them in my blog post related to alternative Turkish food a couple of months ago (https://mydearkitcheninhelsinki.com/2015/04/23/the-alternative-turkish-food-eat-like-a-local).
We sat there in the cafe, in the same table for 5 hours. We always have a lot to talk about. We also had a third woman with us in that table, whom we will get to know better in a few months. Pregnancy, Melis says, changed only one thing in her appetite: she got to eat sweets more, while normally she hardly ever eats them. It was a very nice morning and conversation as usual. What I love most about Melis is how she can be both compassionate and firm. When I say firm, I mean holding it together for you, even when you are falling apart badly. I think she represents a high level of resilience for me. She is a few years younger than me, but I feel like she is the real mature one between the two of us. But don’t think that she is a boringly serious person. I know that woman quite well, she can dance, have fun, make damn funny jokes and crack you up! And she is a sure friend to trust, and this is not something that I say for many people but just for a handful of friends, but I can trust her with my life. I am looking forward to meet her little girl!
Links from this article:
Cafe Mutteri: http://www.cafemutteri.fi
Cafe Regatta: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cafe-Regatta-official/125305227553336
Villa Angelica: http://www.villaangelica.fi
Moniheli Ry: http://www.moniheli.fi
Kassandra Culture Center: http://kassandra.fi
Mei Lin: http://www.mei-lin.net
Kuja Bar & Bistro: http://www.kujabarbistro.fi