Finland: The Land of Snow

Thankfully, the one-hour flight from Stockholm to Helsinki was relatively smooth and didn't involve any time travel. (While that might seem fun, 1930s/1940s Europe is somewhere I'd want to avoid.) However, given the delays and the one hour jump in time, I was now running behind schedule as I was planning to meet my friend/former Mansueto Ventures co-intern Laura in downtown Helsinki for dinner.

By the grace of the airline gods, my purse turned up on the conveyor belt quickly with everything in tact. I proceeded to take a 30-minute bus ride into the city and then transferred to the tramway at the Central Railway Station (or as Laura described, the building with the four guys and glass balls). It turned out that my hostel for one night was conveniently located in the city's design district, which reminded me quite a bit of either SoHo for New Yorkers (but less commercial) or Valencia Street in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it was not nearly as nice as the hostel in Stockholm, but then again, it was only for one night.

After dropping my stuff off and not getting to shower, I met Laura in front of my hostel. It was definitely good to see a friend again. She took me to a very trendy restaurant that specializes in Finnish tapas. Given that I've never eaten Finnish food before, I was definitely up for some experimentation. I was certainly put to the test when I sampled reindeer heart, which actually wasn't so bad. It tasted more like smoked ham that one would eat at Christmastime...except then you remember what you were eating.

We had to call it a night after dinner, as we were getting up early the next morning to meet at the train station to go to Jyväskylä up in central Finland, about three hours away from Helsinki. There were only three other guests in my hostel room. The first one I met was a very nice German girl traveling with her brother staying in another room. The second was a French girl living in London, who was nice but very talkative. The third I didn't really meet, since she came in after we were all asleep already and I saw her when I was leaving early the next morning.

I was blessed with good weather in Helsinki. While it was definitely a few degrees cooler than in Stockholm, it still wasn't too bad and I didn't need to wear my big wool coat. Not to mention, it was quite sunny starting on Saturday. When I arrived on Friday, it was fairly overcast, and combined with the sullen/communist-block architecture I saw on the way from the airport, I wondered if I was behind the Iron Curtain - which is weird considering Finland never was.

The train system in Finland is set-up very well. While not as high-speed as the trains in France or Spain, they still moved at a good pace (better than Amtrak). The only downside was the price. But that wasn't going to stop us from going to Jyväskylä, which when pronounced sounded like a bit like a disease, making both Laura and I giggle. But the town is lovely. Surrounding a river and framed by mountains (some of which was still frozen over), Jyväskylä is a lively college town. It's also the farthest north in the world that I've ever been.

We were staying with Laura's boyfriend, Matti, who kindly let me (a complete stranger from America) stay on his couch for the evening. And then he even drove us to a small ranch nearby where Laura and I went on a pony safari. While it didn't involve much trekking into actual wilderness, the ride was quite picturesque.

The last time I rode a pony was when I was eight or nine years old somewhere near Pacifica, Calif. Like almost everyone in Finland, the instructor spoke English fluently, and she was happy to give me a crash course (and we even taught her that expression).  I was paired up with a Finnish pony (seen in the photo) while Laura took a slightly more daring partner in an Icelandic pony (this was pre-volcano). Unfortunately, given that my Canon 1000D is prone to an "Error 99" problem (even after I installed a firmware update that was supposed to correct that), none of the photos that the instructor took of me actually riding the horse actually came out. Nonetheless, I still had a great time. I got a little nervous when trotting, as I almost lost my balance. I can also see why female equestrians suffer from reproductive issues. But once in a while, it's fun activity. And the settings were absolutely beautiful, with the landscape still blanketed in snow but shimmering from the sunlight. It was also very remote, so there was no one else around. Just peaceful and relaxing. It must have been one of the most fun things I've done in Europe and/or on vacation ever.

To continue my Scandinavian adventure, Laura and her friends took me to a restaurant reminiscent of The Rainforest Café, but instead with a Viking theme. I really wish I could have worn the hat. After sampling reindeer heart and reindeer cheese (basically something like cheddar with bits of reindeer in it), it was only natural to sample some reindeer sausage, which was the clear winner. Also surprising was that cocktails are really good in Finland. Not only did we have some good ones at the Viking restaurant, but also at another trendy bar around the corner. The best were the smoothies. (It's been so long since I've had a smoothie! France needs a Jamba Juice.)

Most of the evening was filled with sharing travel stories, inappropriate stories and Laura throwing herself against a poster of Taylor Lautner in between bars. (Note: She likes him, not Twilight. She has taste in movies.) Kindly, Laura and her friends all spoke in English throughout the evening for my benefit, or else I would have been totally lost. While Swedish is a wee bit like English (at least on paper), Finnish is something completely different. Although I did learn how to say hello, goodbye and thank you, like usual.

The second miracle of the weekend was that I didn't wake up with a hangover. Although, I don't think the same could be said for Laura. Nonetheless, we took the three-hour train ride back to Helsinki on Sunday afternoon, followed promptly by a stop at McDonald's. There are three reasons that I am thankful for McD's all over the world: 1. Hangover food. 2. Open on Sundays everywhere. 3. Free Wi-Fi.

We didn't eat all that much as we had already planned to make tacos for dinner. We bought everything at the grocery store and took the bus back to Laura's fabulous house on an island that I can't remember the name of. But it's quite near Nokia HQ, and the most hilarious part about Laura's house is that she's right next to the Mexican Embassy. So Californian. I learned a lot about Scandinavian houses this weekend, namely the showers are quite different. Rather than doors or a tub, there's just a nozzle in the wall with a drain in the floor itself, and you can square off the shower area with a curtain. Everyone also keeps a squeegee-looking mop in the bathroom for clean-up afterwards. I also learned that Finnish houses have heated floors, which must be necessary in the winter when it gets -20*C.

Monday was my last real full day of vacation in Scandinavia, which I was quite sad about. (And maybe if I had planned to leave on Wednesday of that week rather than Tuesday, I could have stayed for a lot longer!) As Laura had work all day, I spent the day roaming Helsinki. Again, it was a perfect day to be outside and walk around. One thing that is really great in Helsinki that most tourists might not realize is how great the shopping is. Helsinki's Design District is very up-and-coming, full of mid- to high-end designers of fashion, furniture, art and other unique items.

I got a bit lost, however, when trying to find the "church in the rock" which is literally what it means when translated into English. (The Finns are right to the point when they speak and name things.) After checking out the Helsinki Cathedral, I tried looking for the church, but I got a little turned around by my map, which is unusual for me since I have a good sense of direction. However, I only got lost for about five minutes, and then I was well on my way. After seeing the cathedrals and other sites that Conan O'Brien visited when here (he really is popular there still), I did a bit of shopping before meeting up with Laura for dinner. My farewell dinner was delicious. It's quite rare that I get to eat anything but French food in France, so I definitely wanted something more spicy. We went to a Nepalese restaurant, which did the trick for me. We were both stuffed by the end of the meal, and then hopped on the bus back to the island while the sunset on the water surrounding the city. It was a little bittersweet, since I didn't want my trip to end. I had such a good time in Scandinavia. It might be more expensive than France, but it still has very nice people and beautiful sights.

I had to get on the bus to the train station early, as my flight was at 10AM. This time, I remembered to take my Swiss Army knife out of my bag, especially since I had to change planes - coincidentally in Switzerland. I got through security alright at this airport, and I actually slept most of the 2.5-hour flight from Helsinki to Zürich. The seats next to me on both flights that day were empty. I'm sure that's quite a different scene than one week later on European flights - or even right now still. My ticket was a great price considering I was going through four different airports (London Heathrow, Stockholm, Helsinki and Paris), and I only had to change planes once - this time in Zürich. Yet the layover was four hours. I ate, shopped and had a drink for the first 90 minutes...and then I was quite bored after that. I was even too lazy to write this post then.

But eventually it came time to board my Swiss Air flight to Paris-CDG, which felt like France as soon as I stepped onto the plane as the flight attendants greeted in me in French. It was like I was already home! Not only was most of the plane empty, we even got free beverages. On a 55-minute flight. At one point, the flight attendant tapped me, and I was a little surprised, especially when she held out a packaged muffin...for free. I couldn't believe it. Maybe I had traveled through time! Flying was fun again!