16 August 2008

Helsinki

It’s only 40 minutes by Finnair Embraer from Stockholm to Helsinki, flitting across the Gulf of Bothnia and over the Åland Islands. Next time you’re passing this way, I recommend you just sit back and enjoy the complimentary International Herald Tribune like I did, pretend global jet-setter that I am. As Helsinki filled my cabin window and the plane came into land, I planned my brief Finnish interlude. Another hot Scandinavian summer’s day beckoned!

I quickly hopped a bus to the main train station in the heart of the city, and after admiring its stern-looking statues I navigated my way to my hostel about 10 minutes away. After dropping my bag (top bunk again, dammit) I set out to explore the neighbourhood.

The nearby Finnish design shop impressed with its modish and relentlessly clever objets, particularly its fun artificial snowballs, which would be ideal gifts for friends in hot climates, or for people who like throwing things at people but don’t actually want to hurt them (much).

As the afternoon merged into dusk I ate watermelon slices in a busy city park, and in the evening I returned to the hostel to read my Iain Banks book (‘The Algebraist’, recommended) and also chatted to the elderly Englishman in the dorm who lives in Spain but takes his holidays in Finland every summer to avoid the heat. There’s no pleasing some people…

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It proved to be the first proper night’s sleep lost to snoring, but it wasn’t the English chap’s fault: rather it was a middle-aged American guy who proved to be suitably apologetic yet annoyingly chipper in the morning when challenged by his grumpy, sleep-deprived roommates.

I walked in the bright sunshine through Helsinki’s inner suburbs to the former factory housing the Museum of Photography. It wasn’t a big place but I enjoyed the exhibits, particularly the collections of quirky shots of Finnish social scenes, including a punk-ish youth sledging down a snow-clad slope in a half-opened suitcase. There was also a strong collection of international photojournalism images, including a wall-sized print of a famous image from 2002 of a white horse dragging its chain along a Gaza street, galloping to elude an Israeli armoured personnel carrier, and an exciting photo taken by a helmet-mounted camera on a base-jumper hurling himself off a cliff at Chamonix: past the fluttering fabric of his jumpsuited arm you could see his fellow basejumper plummeting ahead of him, and the onrushing earth looming closer and closer…

I jumped aboard Helsinki’s extremely orange-coloured metro for the quick ride back into the central station, and then tracked down Steve and Fiona, newly arrived on the morning ferry from Tallinn in Estonia. They were lunching in the Kauppatori market on the waterfront, which was thronged with shoppers eyeing for bargains or admiring the feats of street gymnasts or a sprightly marching band.

After their repast we visited the nearby Senate Square, with its northern side bordered by steep stairs leading up to the city’s white shining Lutheran Cathedral, the Tuomiokirkko. As we admired the view several busloads of Russian naval cadets from St Petersburg arrived and proceeded to do the same thing. They proved popular with a gay American tour-group, who had their photos taken with them. What was the old saying? ‘All the nice boys love a sailor’?




While Fiona went to take a look around the shops, Steve and I visited the National Museum, which was strong on Finnish pre-history and medieval times, but didn’t seem to feature any tales from the bitter Winter War against its Soviet neighbour during WW2. Besides a clutch of medieval swords, one display depicted a reconstruction of a 12th century matron’s garb to good effect. There was also an impressive ceiling mural in the entry hall illustrating scenes from the Finnish national legend, the epic poem known as the Kalevala.





After a tasty kebab dinner in a stylish shopping centre we wandered the sunny streets of Helsinki for a while, admiring the shops and noting the presence of hundreds of excited Finns and other visitors crowding the capital for that evening’s massive Iron Maiden concert. The Scandinavians love their hard rock, you know. Every other person seemed to be wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt. It was quite like visiting Glendene in Auckland's western suburbs in that respect.

After some supermarket shopping for supplies we parted company for an early night – because the next morning our brief stay in Finland would end as we boarded an early morning train bound for the Russian border.

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While I’d set my alarm for 6.20am I woke up at least an hour before that time due to the ever-present Scandinavian sunlight. There had been no repeat of the noxious snoring of the night before, thankfully. As I walked to the train station I was careful to avoid the odd broken beer bottle adorning the footpaths in the wake of the Iron Maiden concert, but the street cleaners were already busy tidying up the city before the Saturday morning shoppers hit town.

Soon it was time for the 07:23 express to St Petersburg to roll out of town, and we waved farewell to Helsinki. As the pine-clad and lake-dotted Finnish countryside fled past the windows I enjoyed a delectable Finnish treat: yoghurt-coated dried banana chips, or ‘valkosuklaajogurttibanaanilastu’ to you and me. Ask for it by name!



After a few hours we slowed to a halt at the Finland-Russia border town of Vainikkala, where stern-looking (but were we just being judgemental?) Russian border guards collected all the passengers’ passports and took them away for processing. It always makes me nervous losing sight of my passport! But there were no problems at all, and the train was allowed to move slowly off, gradually increasing its speed as it crossed the border and moved onwards into the heartland of Mother Russia, where the next stage of our travel adventure was about to begin…
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