Helsinki is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Here you can experience many different worlds within the same hour. That’s the richness of Helsinki.
Meriam Trabelsi and Caroline Suinner together form Pehmee, aka the Soft Collective, which campaigns for body peace. Their mission is to create safe spaces and promote the representation of marginalised bodies. As the base for Pehmee, Helsinki is a place where the collective can nurture its own community and work on social change.
The experience of Helsinki has been central to the friendship between Trabelsi and Suinner. They both share a suburban identity, the harnessing of which as a resource has been part of both of their growth stories. In the suburbs, brownness and blackness are more strongly present than in the city centre. As a result, they do not have to feel like they stand out from the crowd all the time because of their skin colour or identity.
“Kontula and Tapulikaupunki have long been thought of as immigrant districts where lots of people of colour live. Once you are able to break free of the shame of brownness, you can begin to appreciate your own hometown," Meriam Trabelsi says.
Helsinki is the place where they have fallen in love, built a home and countless times returned. The socially organic city resonates especially during the summer, when it offers endless opportunities for being together outdoors. The compact size of Helsinki also lowers the threshold for unexpected encounters.
In addition to sharing a proud suburban identity, the duo describes themselves as “art grannies”. Museums, theatres and staycations are a central part of Helsinki’s cultural life. The maritime nature of their hometown with its islands also appeals to them, and the feeling of space offers the chance to experience many different environments in a seemingly small city.
Although Helsinki can be stiff and things tend to change slowly, the changes are often positive. The Helsinki Central Library Oodi in particular reflects the mentality behind the development of Helsinki, one that favours more inclusive and humane urban planning.
The Kontula Shopping Centre is an interesting crossroads where an old-school Finnish shopping centre meets shisha cafés and the best shish kebabs in town. The location is full of memories from childhood and youth, as the nostalgic eateries are still there, albeit some with new owners. Suinner illustrates the down-to-earth nature of the place as follows: “I love Tuesday afternoons when the gang comes home from work and we all go to the K-Supermarket”. Apparently, Kontula has the best K-Supermarket in all of Helsinki. Another favourite is the Museum of Impossible Forms, an art space that features works by BIPOC artists in particular. The Kontula Library and Youth Centre are also in the immediate vicinity.
The Violanpuisto park in Hermanni is an iconic meeting place for Pehmee and holds countless wonderful memories for the collective. In winter, the park has a sledding hill and skating rink, and in summer it has a perfect grilling spot up on the rocks. The breathtaking natural haven in the heart of the city also has lots of playing areas for kids. Both Suinner and Trabelsi have lived near Violanpuisto, and they consider it an element that calms the entire residential neighbourhood.
Especially at the start of the pandemic, Haltiala Animal Farm and Tapaninvainio Swimming Beach became important places for the collective. The duo warmly remembers their walks there and sitting by the Vantaa River. Haltiala Animal Farm has horses and sheep too in summertime, making it a wonderful experience especially for families with small children. Situated on a hill, the farm also offers the chance to experience new perspectives, as you can see all the way to Vantaa.
Caisa supports cultural products by members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) community and hosts a lot of non-mainstream art and events. Caisa offers workshops and performing arts, and in the words of the Soft Collective, “the space has been taken over.” They have fond memories of Good Hair Day, which empowered the Afro-Finnish community, as well as the Q/BIPOC ballrooms organised specifically for people of colour. In addition, the cultural centre hosts events connected with the World Village Festival (“Maailma kylässä”) that let you get to know different cultures, regardless of your own awareness. Trabelsi warmly recalls the childhood experiences of wonderful cultural evenings organised by actors representing the Middle Eastern and North Africa region that combined food, dance and music.
Mustikkamaa is without doubt the collective’s base in summer. The open-air parties have a great atmosphere, and if you’re not interested in partying, you can still enjoy the peace and beautiful nature of the island, especially at night.
Evin Pizzeria serves the best pizzas in Tapulikaupunki. Tapuli is a suburb in northeast Helsinki and the childhood home of Meriam Trabelsi. It is worth visiting just to “feel the atmosphere.” As you get off the local commuter train, you can’t avoid the stunning graffiti in the underpass painted by local youth. After the modest shopping centre, a new reality opens up where you can enjoy the nature, several playgrounds and the sports field on Salotie. There is also a nice youth centre and library, and Evin Pizzeria is itself a strong attraction
Hertotoniemi Manor Park is a beautiful place where the Soft Collective has gone to take photos. The park is a great summer destination, as it is close to the Tuorinniemi Swimming Beach and skate parks. Suinner remembers partying in her youth at the old warehouses that have since burnt down. “I’m yet to go back,” Suinner laughs!
Liikuntamylly is a sports centre where diversity is more the norm than the exception. As a young person of colour, you will certainly not be the only brown person there. The best thing about Liikuntamylly is its affordability and location next to the Myllypuro metro station. As a municipal sports centre, Liikuntamylly is not hierarchical or commercial. Suinner used to train there in the mornings when she was young, and Trabelsi went to summer camps there. Since then, they have played tennis and badminton there. The facilities are also suitable for working on performances, and even bread queues are organised there. The Soft Collective emphasises the importance of making these activities visible for normalising the support and care provided by society.
This legendary bistro at Harjutori in Kallio is the “first petit Paris in Helsinki.” Harju 8 has a unique atmosphere, but what makes the place really special is how multifaceted it is. On summer Sundays you can listen to jazz bands playing outside, and in winter you can experience Kallio in the light of red heat lamps. Harju 8 is Kallio's living room, a place where you can work, read, play cards with friends or enjoy a fine date – at a reasonable price!
Hämeentie is the base for every brown person in Helsinki. Whether you are looking for a hairdresser, clothes or groceries, you will find it on this street. Next Century Fashion, one of Helsinki’s first black hairdressers, can also be found on Hämeentie. In Suinner’s childhood, Hämeentie was where “my father came to look for things that he couldn’t find elsewhere.”
“Our family has always gone to Puhos,” Trabelsi admits. The Puhos Shopping Centre is the pearl of Itäkeskus in East Helsinki. Originally built in the 1960s, it now offers a wide range of shops. The Soft Collective hopes that the regeneration of the place does not destroy the places they love. Puhos is an important place for locals, and like Hämeentie, it is culturally rich and diverse.