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!

Stockholm: Venice of the North

A museum curator in Stockholm told me that Sweden's capital is sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the North," as it is a city built on a collection of islands. Despite the cold, I prefer Stockholm to Venice.

Actually, it wasn't even that cold - or at least it didn't give that impression in comparison with the high winds in Normandy. After a train trek via Paris to Lille and then later to London for four days, I packed up my things from the flat we were staying in (near Buckingham Palace!) for Heathrow. It's funny writing this now - a few days after the European skies have reopened to air traffic - as the day I left London for Stockholm, it was a relatively normal travel day. I certainly got lucky with my flights over all...although I wouldn't have minded missing a few more days of work back in France.

The two-hour flight on Scandinavian Airlines was relatively routine, but I got into the city rather late (jumping ahead an hour again) at about 10PM. I just made it to the baby bullet train from Arlanda Airport to the city center by a hair as an English woman in front of me could not figure out the ticket machine.

Normally, when I disembark from a plane, I'm quite hot and don't notice cold temperatures so quickly. So when I exited the central train station in Stockholm, I thought it might not have been warm as it felt. Granted, I was wearing a long wool coat and gloves, but I really only needed the latter for the rest of the trip. I was quite fine with my short leather jacket and a couple of long-sleeve shirts throughout my jaunt in Scandinavia.

This was also the first time I stayed in a hostel by myself. The City Backpackers Hostel was very easy to find, being only five minutes walking distance from the station. It wasn't as spectacular as the Lisbon Living Lounge, but then again I don't think any other hostel is. This one was quite nice nonetheless, and it hosted a mélange of guests. Over my four days in the hostel, I met people from Norway, Germany, England, Australia, Spain, Chile, France, Belgium and a handful of fellow Americans. The common language at the hostel was English, as it was almost everywhere in Scandinavia, which was incredibly helpful. I always try to learn at least four words in the native language of whatever country I visit: the equivalents of "hello," "yes," "no," and "thank you."

I was exceptionally lucky that the weather was pleasant all week, especially the first day. I decided I better take advantage of my good luck and situate myself at the same time by taking a day tour. Like most things in Sweden, it was a bit pricey, but I saw quite a bit in two hours. I don't like feeling lost, so it also gave me a better sense of where everything was, especially the sites I wanted to re-visit later in the week.

Two of those sites were the Vasa Museum and the Nordic Museum. Conveniently, they're right next to each other and the latter is free after 4PM on Wednesdays, so I hit them both up at once. Two very informative museums in one day can be a bit exhausting (and it's usually my limit), but it was well worth the trip.

After having to switch between a couple of buses unexpectedly due to construction, I finally made it to the Vasa Museum. It's the home of a Viking ship that sunk on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbor in 1628. Talk about fail. But thanks to some modern engineering, it was resurrected in 1987. The ship was massive. There were several miniatures on hand to represent what the ship looked like before centuries of decay underwater, and it was quite colorful once upon a time. Now it's just a dark wooden brown that shins from the little available light in the museum.

The Nordic Museum surprised me more. From the outside, the building looked well enough. But inside, it looked like a palace, reminiscent of the Danish palace from Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet. And even though it bears the name "Nordic" Museum, it's really only about Sweden. Starting from the fourth floor down, it houses exhibits on Swedish history, culture, architecture, photography, fashion and an exhibit about the Sapmi, the native tribes of Scandinavia. There's even a short exhibition on Swedish doll houses. But what surprised me most (and maybe it shouldn't have) was the exhibit on modern Swedish furniture. I always thought that Ikea's popularity stemmed from the fact that their designs are so basic that they can work in most countries around the world. But I didn't realize that they're actually a reflection of how Swedish homes have been decorated for the last fifty years. So either Swedish style is extremely basic...or they're trying to take over the world from INSIDE the home. And you thought McDonalds was too much of a cultural influence.

One of the highlights of staying in the hostel was meeting people from many different countries and backgrounds. On my third night in the hostel, I went on a bar crawl with several other guests in the hostel. The crawl was a bit short with three bars total - four if you went to the karaoke bar, but I don't sing. I met two other assistants, except they teach Spanish and French in England. And given that all three of us knew at least some of each language, it was pretty fun discussing the intricacies of the languages and our experiences living in foreign countries. My proudest accomplishment was teaching them typical American phrases, especially, "I know, right?"

Most of my last day I spent shopping, which apparently the Swedes really love to do. Stockholm goes right up there in the list of great shopper's paradises like Paris and Tokyo. Although, it's not exactly cheap. But there certainly is an H&M on almost every corner, and I nearly got lost in the shopping mall, so I left after 10 minutes. I didn't feel like spending anymore money in another foreign currency when I could buy the exact same thing in Finland in Euros.

On my last night in Stockholm, me and the other assistant girls plus one of my 12 roommates visited the Absolut Icebar. Being that I'm from California, the two girls were from France and Spain and the fourth guy was from Chile, a bar made out of ice was extraordinary. Stockholm's is the world's first location, with others in London, New York and Barcelona. While we were all bundled up already, we were all given thick blue capes with white woolen lining. The girls and I joked that we looked like Belle from Beauty and the Beast in that winter scene, but I felt more like Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory when she blows up into a blueberry.

As it's the first location, it's quite small and tucked inside of a hotel near the train station. It was packed when we got there, but as we managed for 40 minutes in there, the number slowly dwindled. The temperature inside was -5 degrees C (23*F). It actually didn't feel that cold, and my theory rests on the fact that there was no wind, which is common when it's very cold outside. But we were also bundled up plus the furry ponchos. I can't even imagine visiting the one in Barcelona, as it would probably be warm inside, so all you'd have to protect you from the cold is the cape given to you on the way in. All of the drinks are served in glasses made out of local ice as well. Apparently they last very long - although not forever as a group of German guys brought their ice goblets back to the hostel the night before and they were a puddle in the morning.

After drinks, we headed for Max, Sweden's version of McDonald's. For some unknown reason, I'm really intrigued by other countries' equivalents of America's famous burger chain. For example, I find Quick in France to be deplorable, but Jollibee's in the Philippines to be satisfactory. But Max beats out McD's. My favorite item off their menu was the falafel burger, which didn't feel greasy at all. Plus, the restaurant was immaculately clean (even being inside a train station), and there was free tea and coffee.

Overall, I really loved Stockholm. Everyone I met was really friendly, and it was quite easy to communicate with locals if I ever needed help since most everyone was fluent in English. I'm very impressed by the nations of northern Europe by how bilingual they all seem to be. I wish that trait was common in the United States - and France as well, for that matter. It doesn't have to be English - but just something else!

Unfortunately, getting out of Stockholm was not quite so easy. After reading daily about the experiences of stranded travelers all over the world due to that pesky Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, I feel a little bad about complaining. But it was just one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong - precisely because I woke up a few minutes later than I had planned. Thus, I seemed to be thrown off and on edge for the rest of the day. While I caught the train to Arlanda quite easily and everything went smoothly at the SAS check-in counter as I checked my bag for Helsinki, something still felt wrong. And by the time I was about to leave the security checkpoint, I realized what it was.

When the inspector pulled me and my purse aside, I couldn't figure out the problem. Then he said it, "Miss, do you have a small knife in your bag?" I groaned. I forgot that my Swiss Army knife was still in my purse and I had forgotten to pack it away in my suitcase. Given that I bought it in Brussels and spent quite a bit of money on it, I wasn't willing to just throw it away. He suggested I go back to the check-in counter to see if I could get my bag, and in vain, I tried that. But the clerk said no, offering me two options. One, I could mail it back to myself. Or two, for free, I could check my purse. My purse. I didn't really know what to do, but for some reason, I went with checking my purse, removing my wallet, passport and my camera, but then filling it with items to fill out the bag that I didn't mind losing (all that much), such as my scarf and a water bottle. Then I had to bring it to the "Special Luggage" counter, where I handed it to a very amused gentlemen who handled the purse like it was going to explode.

Finally, I went back to security, where I got another funny look from the man who scanned my boarding card and said in an Indiana Jones-movie villain type way, "You've been here before, haven't you?" I said yes, and not really bothered by hearing my explanation, he waived me through. On top of it all, my one-hour flight to Helsinki was two hours delayed, which isn't helped by the fact that Finland is one hour ahead on Eastern European time. At some point that day, I finally boarded a plane from the tarmac itself given it was a tiny plane with two seats on each side of the aisle and only about 10 rows long. I hate tiny planes. And on top of it all, I was right next to the external propeller. PROPELLER! Apparently, instead of Helsinki, I was traveling to the 1930s.