Back to Scandinavia. It started as an impulse buy. Gee, I thought to myself last Fall, it would be fun to take a real vacation again. At first, I thought about going back to the UK and see my cousin and maybe get there on the third weekend of the month so I could do the big postcard show, but that wouldn't really work. The problem was that my cousin had decided to become a breeder and in six month's time would either be severely encumbered with her spawn-to-be or be suffering from sleep deprivation from its cries and wails – neither situation seemed to mark a good time for a visit. So, then I asked myself, where haven't I gone lately? And that brought me around to good old Scand-a-hoovia. I hadn't disappeared there since 2002, when I'd still been legally bound to Jenn and trying to not count the days until my court date. So, taking a trip this time would be a very different experience.
Getting the ticket was the easy part (how many people travel to Finland in April?) but there was the complications of changing jobs (thankfully, my friendly new employers let me take my vacation), trying to bone up on the Suomen kielta again, and all those little things like “what on Earth am I going to do in Helsinki for a week?” But things eventually fell into place and while I didn't do everything I planned on, I sure did a lot of stuff and had a pretty nifty time all in all. It was a trip with lots of unique adventures and stories to tell. Nothing terrible happened. Some great stuff occurred. And there were pictures taken. So, sit back and relax and let me tell you the story of my trip.
It all began on Saturday, the day before Easter. A very very quiet day to fly. Who flies on a Saturday before a holiday? Kriss dropped me off at the airport and it was mostly deserted. My plane to Detroit was nearly completely empty. In fact, I had a row to myself. This proved to be a good thing because apparently Saturday was a busy day for flying to Europe and I was stuck in steerage on this flight. I wouldn't enjoy this much leg room again for the next 15 hours.
I had been dreading the long flight in a cramped coach section, but I guess all those trips to Hawaii had gotten me acclimated to the idea. And while I did my best to jockey for a seat where I'd have no neighbor, the plane was packed and I ended up with one in the end. She turned out to be a very nice school teacher from Brockley, and rather than sleeping or getting any of my books read, we ended up talking a storm about schools, parents, kids, and all the problems inherent in all of the above. But perhaps best of all, we eavesdropped on (and made fun of ) the ignorant American woman behind us who was loadly telling her neighbor that she was heading to India. God knows what she planned to do there, as she was terribly naïve about the world. Her seatmate, some polite quiet Turkish man, had to endure her sharply worded questions about why “his” people (i.e., Muslims) hated America so much and how “if they wanted to get anything done” that they should just stop doing that! Sigh!
So, without much sleep, I made it to Amsterdam an hour or so early with time to kill. I got through customs and then to a Royal Crown Club (KLM's lounge) to unwind, eat a second breakfast (travel food schedules were obviously designed by Hobbits!), and wait. I also bought 30 minutes of internet time to shoot off a few email messages. Then, I stumbled off to join the masses cramming into our flight to Helsinki.
That's the thing about flying in Europe, they don't believe in boarding planes in any sort of order. Everyone just pushes and shoves their way on. And when they get off, it's much the same. One thing I definitely prefer about Americans, we're generally pretty polite about plane travel. But European travel manners are nonexistent. I suspect it has a lot to do with all the discount flying going on these days, but I digress…
I made it to Helsinki in good time. My bags arrived as well. Nothing was damaged. And Tero was waiting for me at the airport. And, in case I had forgotten what Tero looked like, he was wearing his Drachenwald tabard, which made him hard to miss!
At this point, I was desiring sleep and a shower more than anything in the world, but we had errands to perform. Jaelle called to remind Tero that we should really pick up Annika while we were out. Not that she was all that conveniently located, living in southern Helsinki (with the airport way far to the north), but it turned out that she had a point. So, I got a quick tour of the city on our way to pick her up.
Now, why were we picking up Annika? And who is she anyway? I'll answer the last question first. Annika's a transplant from Sweden (who came here because she started dating a Finn) who's befriended Jaelle and was joining us on our trip on Monday to Estonia. And since we had a very early start on Monday morning (I'm getting a bit ahead of myself on the story), it made sense for her to come stay over so we could all leave together. So, we picked her up on Sunday afternoon.
When we got to the house, I was practically dying for a shower, so was definitely in the right mindset to take in their major bathroom overhaul. After yearsof negelect and some poor design, their bathroom had gradually started to come apart and renovating it had become the project to end all projects. So, I had my opportunity to finally see what all the fuss had been about. It was nice but a lot different from American bathrooms. More like a train shower, there is no tub. Instead, the entire floor is tiled and a corner is curtained off. Hard to describe. I should have taken a picture obviously. Anyway, the water was hot and I was in bliss.
After that, we had a fairly traditional Easter Sunday dinner (traditional, except that my body was screaming that it was about 8am after an all-nighter!). A lovely pork roast with great potatoes and that elixir of the gods: Finnish butter. I have no idea what it is about Finnish butter (higher fat content?) but it is the most amazing thing in the universe and I can't get enough of it. Throughout the rest of my stay, I did my best to scarf down as much of it as I could.
Now, after eating, I truly would have preferred a short snooze, but Jaelle, Annika, and Tero had decided that that was simply not to be allowed, so I did my best to stay awake and we watched a truly bizarre film (Phantom of the Paradise) while I tried a rye and cream dish that Tero assured us was traditional for Finns to eat at Easter (Jae apparently had had it before and passed). It wasn't bad but terribly rich and I was completely exhausted. Finally, around 8:30, they let me turn in for the night.
The next morning, it was a very early rise up call. We had to be on the boat for an 8am departure, which meant leaving the house around 7 (which would be 11pm to me still!). It was, in sum, so painfully early that it wasn't even worth thinking about.
The reason for the early departure was because we had to take the slow boat (about 3 and a half hours to get there) as opposed to the jet boats (about an hour). So, even though we left really early (and returned pretty late), we did not have much time in Estonia. The original plan had been to take a fast boat, but the weather had not cooperated. A colder than usual spring had led to a later than usual thaw and the fast boats couldn't operate in Helsinki's iced-in harbor. Oddly enough, Tallinn was completely ice free on Monday. And within a week, so would Helsinki.
The thing I remember being most struck by during the trip was that, after only being in the EU for about 20 hours, here I was leaving it again. And then, of course, I returned to it in the evening. My passport sure got a workout on this trip.
When we got to Tallinn, our first priority was going shopping. I kid not. Shopping is apparently the primary reason that most Finns bother with Estonia. They broke for the supermarkets that have sprouted up by the port. The supermarket was quite surreal. Picture a Super Kmart and then multiply it a few times. They had absolutely everything and me, having a somewhat Soviet-era image of the place, wasn't quite ready to accept what I was seeing. They had everything you would expect from a modern fancy supermarket (photo lab, video rentals, flower shop). They even accepted credit cards at the cash register. As I had promised to bring home ciders for a Baronial tasting party, my shopping list focused primarily in the liquor section. But I did pick up a bottle of Green Apple Fanta because I was just way too curious what THAT would taste like.
After that, we hitched a taxi to the Old City, where Tero joined me and Annika went off to fabric stores in search of cheap linen. Jaelle, meanwhile, has business at the US embassy for work, so did not join us.
Poor Tero! He was coming down with something nasty and viral and obviously felt under the weather but whether out of a desire to be a good host, or simply to avoid being stuck in the cabin all day, he trudged up and down the streets of the Old City with me.
The Old Town is a fairly quaint section of Tallinn, largely unscathed by years of war, Soviet occupation, and commercial development of the city of Tallinn, and home of most of the worthy tourist destinations that are not connected with shopping for cheap booze. Also a UNESCO world culture landmark, it houses plenty of cafes and antique shops. So, my mission was pretty clear: take lots of pictures and scour the antiques.
We started with the Alexander Nevskii Cathedral that was impressive on the outside, but as my guidebook put it “is of no architectural or historical importance” so I wasn't very inspired to enter it. We then moved along the row of towers that line the western edge of the Old Town and up to the northernmost end, then all the way south, then out to the northeast end, then back south, and east, then back southwards again. In sum, we covered pretty much every street and alley and saw. Why did we get so much walking in? Well, pretty much because everything was closed. It was Monday and museums and galleries are all pretty much shut on Monday. So, we could see the outside of places, but not really much of the insides. So, as you can see, I got lots of nice exterior shots.
We also dropped in a number of antique shops, but we didn't see much. For the most part, they were your fancy furniture and painting places, full of really nice, really old things that I'd never be able to afford to ship (even if I could have gotten the export permit). The prices, though, were really quite remarkable. A thousand or so dollars for an inlaid antique dining room table with chairs? Beautiful crystal and silver. Truly quite striking stuff!
Our shopping luck did change at the end of the day when we stumbled to a small second-story shop run by a middle aged Russian lady. While she mostly stocked Soviet kitsch, she did have a small collection of snapshots and early photo postcards, from which I extracted about 25 euros worth of stuff, and got the opportunity to practice my Russian and discover (to my dismay) that it was very rusty.
From there, we made the short jaunt to Vana Turg and the home of Olde Hansa, the medieval restaurant to which Jaelle provides consulting services (mostly on menu and cuisine). I've heard of this place for years, and seeing it was the primary reason for coming to Tallinn, but I really was not quite prepared for what awaited me.
Olde Hansa is a restaurant housed in an actual 15 th century building, which has been largely retrofitted to look like it did in the past (with modern conveniences carefully hidden away – for example, a computer/cash register is built into a medieval-looking lecturn). The lighting is from candles (with some indirect electrics hidden carefully in the sides). The walls are bare wood with lovely paintings. The tables are wooden. The plates made from hand thrown pottery, the glasses hand blown, the servers wear authentic looking clothing, and the dishes are documented to period. The entertainment is from live musicians and the ambience loud and boisterous and fun. Even the toilets (see below) have been designed to look like period ones (albeit with totally modern plumbing).
On the ground floor, they have the main restaurant and bar. And through a passage way, there is a store that sells the plates, glasses, and serving ware used at the restaurant, as well as garb, shoes, spices, and all sorts of other fun items. Upstairs is a private dining room (where we dined that evening) and on the third floor, another great hall (which I didn't get to see as it was closed).
As we had a short while before dinner, I went outside for more scenery and Annika took some pictures of me in the square and I got some pictures of this group of high school aged kids doing dancing outside the restaurant (more on them later).
After that, I dropped in to an amber boutique across the way from the restaurant to hunt for earrings for Kriss. I had promised her some Baltic amber and while amber is no longer cheap in the Baltics, this was my best opportunity to pick something up. And the place I chose turned out to be no house of bargains. In fact, it was probably the most expensive place to shop for amber altogether, but (after quite some searching through their broad collection) I ended up with a nice pair of amber cross-like earrings. And thanks to my gross underestimate of the exchange rate, I didn't have to worry about sticker shock at the time of purchase.
The buying of amber took so long that I returned late and immediately had trouble getting upstairs for dinner. The stairwell was clogged with the same kids who had been outside dancing. Except now, each one of them was being loudly introduced to the dining room one by one by a herald. Since it was all in Estonian, I didn't understand a word, but the herald appeared to be bragging about each one as he introduced them. With no alternative entrance, I had to slip through the crowd and enter alongside one of them, which caused no small amusement from the others.
The dining room is pictured here and hopefully, these pictures can convey what an amazing total immersion experience it was. The food was wonderful (especially a beef dish in a cream sauce) but it was the ambience that really made it magical. The feast was held to honor this group of students who had just “graduated” from the medieval studies program sponsored by the restaurant. Some of them had studied music, some martial arts, some other arts and sciences. All of them had made garb and developed personas. And tonight they were receiving their diplomas. But not before the musicians played and the kids put on a play. The play itself was all in Estonian so was mostly lost on me (and the rest of our party), except for the occasional cries of “vivat!” which I was able to join in on. I regretted not getting to try out the cinnamon beer (at the feast, they served spiced wine), but overall it was a fantastic experience. Certainly the most unique part of my trip and truly something memorable. Unfortunately, with our boat leaving at 6pm, we had to leave early before dessert was served, but we did get to see it – a wonderful subtlety.
All in all, my short visit to Estonia left me with lots of impressions. While I stuck to the very European looking parts of the Old Town and the newly constructed commercial zone, there were also signs of the Soviet years everywhere -- the dilapidated apartment complexes and somber administrative buildings in particular. Moreover, there were signs and plaques everywhere noting places of importance from the “years of Soviet occupation” like the site of the Estonian KGB (see picture to the left) in the Old Town. And the result of this split personality is a tremendous sense of tension. It struck me as no small coincidence that a bulk of the antique dealers were Russian – they were the ones stuck with the past, selling it off to rich Westerners. As Jaelle noted as we left, there is such a high level of tension between Russians and Estonians in the area, and with tremendous wealth pouring in, there is bound to be trouble someday.
That said, I would certainly like to return someday to continue my shopping and to be there on a day when the museums are open so I could see more. And, of course, to return to Olde Hansa and sample some cinnamon beer!
The ride home was long but uneventful. I went to the onboard shop and bought candy and a fresh bottle of Samiakki (salt licorice) Vodka and even some more cider. Otherwise, I read a bit and we passed the time. And when we got back to Helsinki, we dropped Annika off and she loaned me some beautiful books on Polish costumes, and finally we got home. It was after 11 when we got home and it had been a very long day.
Some other pictures of Talinn:
And one more final picture: I don't know about you, but this museum sounds...rather....painful....
The next morning, Jaelle offered to drop me off downtown on her way to work, so I was able to avoid the need to conquer public transit right away. But before we departed, I figured out how to buy my train ticket to Turku (for Wednesday) online. The trick being that you had to go to the train station to actually pick it up. Still, it was much easier to shop online, especially since they have instructions in English.
Needless to say, I was pretty worn out from the previous day but this promised to be a pretty grueling day as well.
Jae dropped me off on the west side of town, where I had found most of the good antique/junk shops last time I was here. There wasn't much left though. One very promising one was closed (and I went back twice during the week and it was still closed!) and the shop of my favorite old lady (where I had scored some great photos last time) was out of business. Moreover, it was hard to get around because there was construction everywhere. In fact, the entire city of Helsinki seemed to be under construction. Apparently, Finland holds the EU presidency this Fall and the public works people wanted to get everything completed before that happened. The result is that it is nearly impossible to get around places.
So, without much shopping luck, I made my way to the train station, where I picked up my ticket (actually, a bit tricky because the machines there only speak Swedish and Finnish) and I bought some postcards and filled them out at the station. Then made my way over to the central post office to buy stamps for them.
I then made my way over to Stockman's to buy books at the Academic book store. I resisted the temptation to buy another Finnish name book, but I did pick up a new Finnish for foreigners text book (with CD) and a beautiful copy of Nalle Puh (Winnie the Pooh) in Finnish – adding to my collection of foreign language Pooh! And I grabbed a sandwich at the Stockman's deli – which turned out to be one of the most convenient (and cheap) places to eat in down town.
Having now been fed, I continued heading east into the Kamppi district, which is also packed full of antiquarian bookstores and antique shops (and construction, of course!). My big destination was the Hietalahti Market, which is alleged to be a daily outdoor flea market. Unfortunately, not so in April! The outdoor stalls (as you can see) were abandoned, but inside the hall, there were permanent booths that were mostly open and I found some CDVs from a guy who didn't speak English (giving me some practice with the ol' Suomen kielta). Very strikingly, the big item for sale at this (and most other antique markets) were Finnish Markka. Now, with the Euro, these have become big collector items.
From there, I headed north into the Toolo district to my favorite merchant, the Helsinki Antikvariaatti, which has a good selection of photos at reasonable prices. There, I managed to reap in about thirty Euros worth of all sorts of photos – my biggest haul of the whole trip!
By this point though, I had walked several miles and I was completely exhausted, so I trudged back to the metro, where oddly enough I was picked out by two Italian tourists who wanted directions to the Stone Church. Luckily, since I had just walked by it on my way back downtown, I was able to give them directions to get there.
Having done that good deed, I made my way home, where I checked my email and put my feet up to rest. Dinner was leftovers and I managed to fall asleep pretty easily in complete exhaustion.
Turku hadn't been in my original plans, but had come as a suggestion from Jaelle when I started trying to figure out what I would do during the trip. In fact, aside from taking the train from Helsinki to Russia, I really had not seen much of Finland the country, and I'd never really visited another Finnish city.
Turku has much to recommend it, especially its marvelous history (being the oldest city in Finland). Getting to there involved an easy and comfortable two-hour train ride, and very sturdy feet, as I would set something of an endurance record that day for walking! I also swore by midday that I would spend at least a few days during my vacation NOT walking myself to death. My only misadventure was nearly getting off at the wrong stop on my way there (everyone else seemed to be getting off so I nearly joined them) – that would have added to my walk considerably!
Since this was another long trip, I wanted to get an early start, so I had a 9am train, which meant getting up early and heading downtown. Getting to the train station turned out to be way easier than I thought it was going to be and I had nearly an hour to kill before the train left. That required a bit of fancy footwork as a zealous proselytizer was making rounds to anyone who stayed still trying to convince them of the virtues of everlasting life (in Finnish of course). And unfortunately my knowledge of the language does not include such useful phrases as “take a hike” or “buzz off!”
Finnish trains are remarkably smooth and clean and efficient and it was a pleasure to take it. The scenery wasn't much to speak of – lots of farms and small towns. The snow had just started to recede, so everything was muddy but not quite green yet.
I'm not sure what I expected when I arrived, but Turku was basically a smaller version of Helsinki, except further in-land. I had been told that it was a more Swedish section of the country, but I didn't notice any more Swedish here than in Helsinki. I did notice that the real estate was more affordable, with houses going for only slightly more than they do in Madison (so I guess that I could afford to live there).
In addition to window shopping at a real estate shop, I also noted a promising looking antique shop and stamp store and made plans to drop in on them on my way back if time permitted. All this I passed on my way from the train station to the river. I then walked along the river down to Turku Castle, a modest fortress formerly on an island (but now solidly on the mainland thanks to a receding shoreline).
By the time I made it to the Castle, it was past lunch and there were not a huge number of dining options, so I ate at the Castle's own cafeteria, where I had overcooked lasagna (never one of my favorite foods), but one of the things I have learned is that it isn't worth being too picky about what you eat when you travel.
Now properly fed, I went into the Castle itself. The place was huge! They've restored large sections of it and have a carefully scripted path that you walk through to see all of the rooms, most of which are bare, but very pretty. I was definitely there in the off-season as the place was very quiet and peaceful. At one point, a guide tried to explain a painting on one of the walls to me, but since he didn't speak English, it was rough going.
After making my way through the castle, I emerged into an exhibit on Mannerheim, featuring all sorts of artifacts of his life and then innocently walked into the Bailey of the Castle where there was an entire museum with over thirty rooms in it. Each room was devoted to a different subject: fashion, coins, toys, tools, decoration, plates, etc. It was a collector's paradise, but at some point it just got to be a bit much and I ended up making a break for it and fleeing outside where I sat on a bench for a bit and just decompressed. There's only so much museum-ing a person can take!
Some more shots of the exterior and interior:
Having walked all the way to the southwestern corner of Turku, my next destination was Turku Cathedral – completely on the other end of town. And not knowing the public transport, I walked the whole way, albeit I did it pretty slowly.
The Cathedral is a massive building (my picture does not quite do it justice – check out the size of the door – which was a huge door – to get the overall scale of the place) with a stunning interior. Turku is the center of Finnish Lutheranism so this is the primary church of the country. It is thus suitably ornate and rich. It was also a lovely place to just stop for a few minutes and meditate.
After resting physically and spiritually for a few minutes, I backtracked to Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova – a combination art museum and archaeology museum. It had started as just an art museum, but when they started digging for it, they uncovered some of the oldest ruins of old Turku and decided to preserve them. The result, is the rather eclectic combination of a modern art museum built on top of ancient Finnish ruins. I was reminded quite a bit of the Jorvik Center in York England.
The archaeology section was, of course, the most interesting to me and the reason I went, but having paid the admittance, I decided to visit the modern art side as well, which featured an exhibit by Kimmo Ojaniemi – a Turku-based artist who specializes in steel and industrial junk-based mechanical sculptures. That is, these are hunks of metal that come to life when you approach them (courtesy of mechanical eyes that sense movement around them). Some shoot water, some rock back and forth like eager puppies, and others just make loud banging noises. Exploring the galleries on my own, I had little warning of when something was going to start banging and smashing around me. A very interactive experience!
After finishing up at the museum, I started to make my way slowly back to the train station (I didn't have to be there until 7pm to catch my train). I stopped at the Orthodox Church on my way back, but it closed at 3pm, so I wasn't able to go inside. And then I walked up a real steep hill to the Turku Art Museum. While it was still open, and it would have given me something to do, I was so tired that all I wanted to do was to sit on the bench in the park around it and just unwind, so that's what I did.
Once I caught my wind, I went back to those shops that I had passed along the way but they were already closed (it was after 5pm now), so instead I slowly walked back to the train station, where I killed the time writing postcards and eating dinner in the café.
The train was punctual and got me home on schedule. And Tero picked me up at the Metro station when I got out to his part of the woods (saving me from waiting a long time for a bus). The only down part was a bag of candy I bought from a vending machine. Called, “Lady”, I expected it the hard pink balls to be fruit-flavored sour balls. And they were until I got to the center and found a nasty surprise: they were laced with samiakki . Now, I like samiakki in my vodka and as a straight candy, but it's a rude surprise when you're not counting on it. [Note: samiakki – salt licorice -- is flavored with molasses and ammonium chloride].
After all these exhausting days of walking, I intended to take it easy for a few days before we headed to Sweden over the weekend. So, I slept in and lounged around the house until after 11am. My plan for the day was to go to the Zoo and to Sea Life (a new aquatic exhibit that had been set up). And, if possible, hit a few more antiquarian bookstores. I didn't quite manage to get it all done, and it turned out to be the one bad weather day of my entire trip.
Getting to the Zoo on the weekend is fairly easy. There's a bus that goes there directly from the Metro. But on weekday, it only runs once and I figured that coordinating with that would be just too difficult, so I didn't bother. Instead, I rode the Metro to the closest station (Kulosaari) and walked. From Kulosaari, you have to cross a bridge to Mustikkamaa, a nearly deserted island, where the parking lot of the Zoo is located, and from there you cross to the other side of the island, where there is a check point and ticket booth, and you buy your ticket and then cross another bridge to Korkeasaari, where the Zoo actually is located. The animals have it pretty nice: they live on an island that can only be reached by boat (during the Summer) and a bridge from another island. That leaves the place very quiet and tranquil and the animals are far removed from the noises of the city.
The Zoo was pleasant enough, with a good collection of animals, including some beautiful Snow Leopards. The bears were highly touted, but a bit of a disappointment, and the tropical pavilions felt sufficiently out of place for what was otherwise a fairly gray cold day.
By sheer luck, while I was leaving the Zoo, the single bus of the day came along, and I gladly caught a ride back to Kulosaari station, thus saving myself another long walk.
By this time, it was past 1, so I realized that I really didn't have time for Sea Life today. Instead, I figured that I would focus on finishing up the antiquing. So, I stopped at McDonalds for lunch (what better way to celebrate nature and preserving the environment?) where I had to deal with the humiliation of ordering in Finnish but having the clerk read my order back to me in English! After that, I swore that I would avoid fast food the rest of my stay.
I headed up Mannerheimtie to upper Toolo and did a bunch of book stores up there, gradually working my way down south to where I had been shopping on Tuesday, and finishing off my survey of downtown Helsinki. And it was while I was doing this that it started to rain, giving me my one and only major opportunity to use my umbrella during my trip there.
That afternoon, I also had my most embarrassing moment of the trip, when I walked into a used book store and the owner started to talk to me. I don't know why this causes me such flustering, as I really should just come out and say that I speak English, but somehow I always try to speak a few intelligible words of Finnish and fail miserably. He wanted to know what types of books I was interested in and I told him, but in such broken speech that he switched to Swedish (assuming I was a Swede). At which point, I was so embarrassed I basically fled from his store.
And back out into the rainy cold day. I gave up on finding any more good places to buy antique photos and instead heading to the Silja terminal, where Jae was picking me up so that we could go out to see Antti, Lea, and Katju for the evening (they live so far out of town, that it was just easier to rendezvous downtown and the Silja terminal was near the Embassy where Jae works and also good practice since I needed to go there the next day for our trip to Sweden).
Since I had aborted my shopping a bit early, I had time to kill, so I went to terminal's café and ordered a tea and chocolate bar and had a very civilized time sipping, reading, and watching people board the boat. When the boat left, the place emptied out pretty quickly so I went outside and Jae came along and took me out to Antti and Lea's.
Antti and Lea are among my oldest Finnish friends (I met them back in 1992 and they've been very good to me over the years so I was happy to see them). Unfortunately, they were all rather sick, so they weren't feeling so much in the mood for company, but they soldiered through as best they could. It did give me a chance to see their apartment – a really huge (about 2000 sq foot) single floor apartment with large rooms. We ate odd pizza (frutti del mar pizza?) from Koti Pizza and excused ourselves early. Poor Katju hid out in her play house in the living room, not feeling up to dealing with company, let alone company that didn't speak her language.
Having finished up most of my shopping expeditions, there wasn't a lot on my agenda for Friday. We had to be on the boat for Stockholm by 5pm, but basically I had the whole day in front of me. My major item for the day was going to Sea Life, since I hadn't gotten to it on Thursday. But that made for a fairly uneventful and quiet day. I started it off by sleeping in and sitting around the house until after 11.
Sea Life is located up north, in the neighborhood of the Stadium, where the Metro doesn't run and one has to rely on trams to take you places. And there are two core trams in downtown – the 3B and the 3T. They travel the same route, but one goes one way and the other goes the opposing direction. And the path is a large looping figure eight through both southern and northern Helsinki. The problem is that their routes get a bit confusing in downtown itself. As luck would have it, I got on the 3T when I wanted the 3B and I ended up taking the very very long way, going all around the south and then finally back to downtown and then back up north. It's a nice way to see the city, but I was on the tram so long that my transfer (only good for an hour) expired. Thankfully, no transit cops go on board that day to check tickets. Although I suppose that I could have played the dumb tourist!
After a while traveling north, we started turning south and I was so sure that I had missed my stop somehow that I got off the tram and started walking. As it turned out, I had actually gotten off one stop too early and I ended up just stumbling over the entrance to the place.
Sea Life is a slightly expensive, but very nice exhibit of fancy fish tanks, but there is also a great shark tank where you can walk out to the middle (and see sharks sitting on top of the glass a few inches away!) or walk through a tunnel where they swim over you. I've seen similar displays at other zoos, but they remain very impressive and breath taking. Unfortunately, my pictures can't really do it justice since the lighting was low and fish tend to move pretty quickly!
So, despite being a bit expensive and small, it was a wonderful exhibit and worth seeing. Certainly one of the nice new sights of Helsinki!
Sea Life is located in the midst of an amusement park, so I ate lunch at the café of the park and watched the families and kids (not so many on a cold weekday) eat and wait for a clown show to start in a nearby theater.
Afterwards, of course, there was still a few hours to kill, so I stopped at a few shops I had passed on my ill-fated tram ride around the city. I didn't find anything, but it helped me at least reach some closure with my primary pastime on these trips: looting!
Then it was back to the Silja terminal (this time to actually board the boat). Tero got stuck in traffic, so they were late getting there – a bit of a nail biter as we didn't actually get on the boat until about a quarter to five, which made us one of the very last cars in the hull. But we did make it!
Once on board, we had time to kill, because we had a late sitting for dinner, so I went out on deck and took some pictures leaving the harbor. Since I got these same pictures on my trip in 2002, I didn't bother taking a lot this time, but I did snap these unusual clouds that we saw on the horizon as we left the bay. You will also notice that the ice (that had been so present on Monday when we went to Tallinn) was now almost completely melted away. All in less than a week. Spring was finally here!
Saturday was our day in Stockholm. We had a few more hours than we had had in Tallinn, but I really did not have a very ambitious agenda. In 2002, we had come through on a Sunday and the shops had mostly been closed. This time I wanted to shop. And while I suppose we should have visited the palace or done a museum or two, I was feeling pretty tired of sight seeing. All of us were tired. Jaelle in fact decided to simply stay on board, and never disembarked, so it was another day of Tero loyally escorting me around.
At the very last minute, I realized that I didn't really have a clue what I wanted to do in Stockholm so I went through the ship's complementary map of Stockholm and guide to sites and identified the used book stores (and likely antique photo sources). This, on top of the information that Annika had given me (that there was a shop near the Old Town Metro stop that had lots of photos) was my primary guide. Most of the prime shopping would be in the Old Town area itself, since that was a big tourist trap, but the map from the ship indicated two additional places to check out. So, we started with those first.
With Jaelle happily ensconced on the ship reading books, Tero and I drove off and parked the car out at the Ropsten station (end of the line near the ship docks), fed the meter, and took the subway into the city. The thing about the subway is that the interior is a striking blue and yellow – obviously to match the national colors, but the overall effect is to make the subway look like the inside of an IKEA store.
Our stops at the book dealers were less than successful. The first one we stopped at didn't open until 11 am (it was only 10) and peeking inside I could see that they had some cool looking books, but not really any photos to speak of, so probably not worth waiting around an hour for them to open. The second place we dropped in on looked more promising as they certainly had postcards visibly for sale (although they turned out to be modern reproductions) but they were closed on weekends altogether, so that wouldn't work either. So far, it wasn't looking very good!
It was a beautiful day though, so we walked from our second stop on Kungsholmen towards the Old Town, passing numerous famous sites along the way including the Stadshuset (where the Nobel awards are given) and the Riddarhuset (House of Peers) (see above). Once in the Old town itself, we pretty much walked up and down every street on the island, although less than systematically, so that by the end of the day, I don't think we missed any opportunity.
These pictures (on either side) give a pretty good ide of the schizophrenic nature of the Old Town, undecided between whether it wants to be a tourist haven or a quaint part of Stockholm. I'm personally rather more partial to the right side....
We DID find the shop that Annika had recommended back on Monday. It turned out to be a very cramped military antique shop, featuring mostly Nazi paraphernalia, but also some CDVs, cabinet cards, unbroken family albums, and a good stash of amateur stereocards. Now, while I had been shopping for photos, I had pretty much ruled out the possibility of finding stereocards since stereography was never very popular in Scandinavia. But here they were! Around 100 obviously amateur cards taken mostly in the 1930s and in excellent shape. The scenery ones did not interest me as much as the ones of people, so I focused on those and still there were quite a few. There were no prices on the cards and the owner (sizing me up as a foreigner) probably took me for a bit of a ride by asking for 75 SEK (about $10) a piece, but given the rarity of the find, I was more than willing to pay. I just had to run to an ATM and withdraw a lot more SEK since I never would have expected to have hit such a mother lode. We found a few other stereocards that day (one shop was selling cards and a viewer but wouldn't break up the set), but this would be the shopping highlight of my entire visit. And worth all 2800 SEK that I ended up spending there!
Stockholm was also the day that I performed my most important rite of travel: the ritual sushi outing. I had been planning to try a place in Helsinki but hadn't gotten to it, but since Tero was a fan, we agreed that we would stop at a sushi bar for lunch. The fish was good, but I would not go so far as to say that anything about lunch was particularly memorable.
Anyway, we passed the afternoon browsing shops, looking briefly into the Storkyrkan (cathedral) and making sure that I had down the lay of the City well. And since I had blown my shopping budget early, we were both tired, and there really didn't seem to be much reason to stay, we returned to the ship fairly early around 4pm. But not before stopping for a mandatory visit to the Science Fiction Bookstore (see right).
That evening, we ate in one of the ship's bistros were the service was (as usual) a bit poor, and the food OK, and I hit the duty free to use up spare SEK on some amazing Italian chocolate and sundry candy.
I think by now, my energy level for walking, shopping, and museum visiting was pretty much exhausted. For the rest of the trip, my list of accomplishments would dwindle as I spent more time relaxing and being a bum. But there was one major site that I wanted to visit during my trip and that was the Suomenlinna fortress at the mouth of the harbor to Helsinki. And we had also decided that I would treat Jaelle and Tero to dinner out on Sunday night, since I wanted to thank them for their hospitality and it seemed as if it might be better to do all of this on Sunday, in case something came up my last night in town. Originally, this would not have been possible, as we had planned to spend Sunday afternoon and evening at a Baronial meeting, but the meeting turned out to be cancelled, so Sunday ended up being a fairly open day.
Suomenlinna is a lot of things: it is the Finnish naval academy, it has numerous museums (mostly devoted to war and military topics), and it has a thriving bohemian art culture. More mundanely, it is a series of island, heavily reinforced to prevent invasions that never came (or at least, never came quite in that direction). It was built by the Swedes and the cannons and mortars ringing its exterior were made by Russians. It has changed hands a bit!
While we sailed by Suomenlinna on our way into port, the ship did not stop there so there was no way to go there directly. Instead, I had to take a ferry from the market square in Helsinki's downtown out to the island. Technically, the ferry is part of the mass transit system and I had read conflicting advice on whether I could use my regular Helsinki transit pass to take the ride. Not seeing anyone else using their passes, I decided to be safe and buy a ferry ticket on the way out (although on the way back, I decided to live dangerously and use my pass instead).
On the ferry, I noticed a group of teenagers wearing garb, cloaks, and carry boffer weapons. They didn't look like SCA, but they seemed to be heading out for an event at Suomenlinna. I lost track of them when we landed but eventually stumbled into them again around King's Gate (at the far end of the island). Unfortunately, by the time I did so (really less than an hour later) they had finished up whatever they were going to do and were packing things in and going home, so I didn't get a decent photo of them to include here. Still, it was pretty neat.
In terms of missed opportunities, I also skipped a flea market that I saw advertised as I was boarding the boat to return back to Helsinki. I almost certainly had the time and could have gone (I just would have had to wait for the next ferry), but I guess that I was so tired of shopping by then and figured that my chances of running into anything I'd want were pretty slim.
I also managed to have my most insignificant lunch of the trip: sufficing on an ice cream bar I bought at a grocery store. Suomenlinna has a good assortment of restaurants, but there wasn't as much in the self-service café types of places that I preferred.
So, what DID I do on Suomenlinna?
Well, mostly I did a lot of walking around and I got a lot of cool pictures. By not sticking to the paths, I accidentally nearly walked into a penal colony (among some of the many various “sights” in Suomenlinna). I went out to King's Gate, mostly so I could say that I went out as far as you can go and I explored the walls, tunnels, and passages. I skipped all of the museums (since military stuff doesn't do much for me) except for one.
The Suomenlinna Doll and Toy Museum is a bit of odd man out on the island. It would probably be the first one voted off the island in fact. Basically founded by an artist living in Suomenlinna named Piippa Tandefelt, who was also an avid collector, in 1985, it houses four rooms of display cases packed full of toys. Unfortunately, they won't let you take pictures, so I had to rely on these postcards instead that I've scanned here. The toys date from the 1830s to the 1960s with a heavy focus on Scandinavian toys, but there are a few American ones in the mix. And while dolls and teddy bears proliferate, there are also board games and tin soldiers and trucks and horses. If you're a collector or at least can appreciate a fine collection, it is worth seeing.
Some more pictures of Suomenlinna....
Returning to Helsinki, I was confronted by an odd scene. Hundreds of scouts on parade. Boy scouts and girl scouts from all over Finland had converged on the city for some reason – a most public manifestation of which was seeing them march through downtown. Unfortunately, by the time we disembarked, the parade was basically ending, so another great photo op was lost, but for the rest of the afternoon, I would see them walking around in their uniforms.
I decided to do a bit more wandering of downtown and ran across two stores that looked promising. One of them a junk store that had some photo albums in the window, and another a used book store across the street with photographs in plain view. Of course, since this was Sunday, they were both closed but I could just come back on Monday and check them out since I really didn't have any plans for my last day in town. I made sure I knew the location and then headed back home.
The final decision on dinner was that we would do the Garlic Restaurant, a place where just about every dish had garlic in it. The garlic bread came with garlic butter, all the entrees and appetizers had garlic in them. My beer was garlic beer. And while the guide book had promised that they had garlic ice cream, I had to settle for ice cream with garlic syrup. The food was quite good, and actually the unifying theme of the restaurant worked just fine. It was also surprisingly cheap for fine dinner in a European city.
Monday was my great no-ambition day. My accomplishments were meager and the day basically relaxing. But really, after all the travels and adventures, didn't I really deserve a day of not much?
I got up late, hung around the house late, but eventually grabbed a trip downtown around lunch time and stopped at the Stockmann's deli for a sandwich. I then grabbed the 3T tram like the seasoned Helsinki urbanite that I had become in a week here and checked out those two shops I noted the day before. Neither one actually worked out. The junk shop turned out to be something of a consignment place. You walked in and asked the guy for stuff and he told you what he had. I wanted to browse so that was no fun at all. Plus I really didn't feel like going through the trouble of explaining what I was looking for in broken Finnish. So, I slipped out about as fast as I had entered the place and tried that bookstore across the street. It was locked and that's when I noticed that the place had no hours. You were just supposed to call the owner (his phone number was listed) if you wanted in. Given that I really wasn't sure that there was much there at all in the first place, it didn't seem like this was the way to go either, so that was a big goose egg.
Instead, I returned home, but managed to have a few adventures on the way. An elderly guy accosted me on the tram but I couldn't figure out what he wanted at all. But once someone intervened on my behalf, I realized that he was asking how to make the mass transit card readers work (Helsinki has a honor based system where you scan your transit pass against a reader and it debits the card – mine had gotten a pretty good workout). How odd to realize that – even if I couldn't articulate it to him – I probably knew more about Helsinki's mass transit than he did!
And my honesty and the transit pass finally got a workout when an army of transit cops descended on my subway car on the way back home to check every one's cards. I had a brief moment of panic when the officer could get my card to scan. I figured that I had been doing something wrong all week and I would now be dragged off of the metro in disgrace, thrown in jail, and some cranky consul would have to bail me out 8 hours later (although actually, all they do is give you a 60 euro fine and make you pay the fare). All of this was moot though as my card was apparently fine.
Once home, I packed my bags, evenly distributing the weight and making sure that I didn't exceed the weight restrictions for the flight. Jaelle sent Tero out shopping for some things for dinner, so I went along to buy some beer to bring home to America. And so my last great Finnish cultural experience was seeing a giant supermarket – a combination grocery store and department store (like a Super Wal-Mart). It was surprisingly similar in organization to an American grocery store, except for the smoked and pickled fish section!
My flight home left at the excruciatingly early time of 6:15am, which meant that I basically had to leave the house around 4am, taking a cab. And while the cabbie got a bit lost picking up his other fare to the airport, we got there just before 5am and I got all checked in and to the gate with enough time to go to duty free one more time. The rest of the trip home went pretty much according to plan, although I was pretty beat by the time I got home around 5pm.
So, of course, my biggest thanks to Jaelle and Tero for being such fantastic hosts. Not simply for letting me stay with them for ten days, but doing so in the midst of Tero being so sick. They escorted me to Estonia and Sweden even though I'm sure they would have liked to have spent those days at home. And they were generous to a fault.
On the downside was the exhaustion of so much walking and so much semi-functioning in a foreign language. In some ways, it was easier in Sweden or Estonia because I had no real knowledge of the language, but after two years of studying Finnish, you really think that you ought to be able to hold down a minor conversation, yet it frequently let me down. And the times when I thought I was doing pretty well, the person I was with would switch to English and I'd lose the opportunity to try to speak Finnish. In the end, it just got pretty tiring to be in a non-English speaking country.
As for the trip itself. I had been in Finland plenty of times before, but almost always as a way station to someplace else. Even the last time I visited Jaelle, we ended up in Sweden for most of the time. I had never really taken the time to explore Helsinki or go into the countryside and visit other Finnish cities. That was all a lot of fun. But of course, the biggest highlight was Olde Hansa in Tallinn. What an amazing and magical place – sort of the dream of every SCA person: to set up a restaurant where you can really lose yourself in the past.
If I go back, I think the Fall would be better than the Spring. I will certainly want to spend more time in Tallinn and I think that spending more time traveling around the country would be fun. Going to Tampere, for example, or maybe someplace exotic like the far north.