Well, I did say I would be including my travel experiences in my blog, past and those still to come, so I thought I’d start with a series on my first, big overseas journey. This will cover the two, three month visits I made to Finland (because I was in a long-distance relationship… I don’t think it’s that random!), with the following parts in the series about the other places I went to from there, including a special one dedicated to the Finnish arctic-Norway-Sweden-and-back road-trip.
This journey and the time spent in Finland, and these other countries, was a majorly formative time in my life. If I hadn’t have made these trips, I would certainly be a different man and my world-view would not be what it is now! It’s true that, one who has not travelled the world is certainly blind to its true nature… It really leaves you wanting to see more, but, more importantly, it changes you and enriches your soul! So, I begin the series with where it started. My arrival in Finland in the (northern) Summer, July 2009.
First steps over the Horizon
This was a pretty nerve-wracking time, my first time travelling outside the relative ‘safety’ of Australia. The first time I would be in a place where I know very little of the language or what to expect culturally and, almost literally, the furthest possible distance from home that I could be. This had been delayed the year before, due to a cancer diagnosis the day before I was supposed to leave! So this was a big step, I’d shrugged off a major scare and was stepping out into the world to experience something amazing and different. It was almost like I was going to be seeing the real world for the first time.
A tearful goodbye (mostly due to nerves) at the airport and I was on my way to Finland via Tokyo Narita. I left in the afternoon, about 6pm and promptly ordered a bottle of wine (thanks Qantas!) and settled in for the 9 hour flight. One thing, as an Australian, which I was focused on, was the Southern Cross. Besides being hijacked by riff-raff as a tattoo, this is the quintessential icon of the Australian sky… So as the night came I opened my window and watched the Northern Australian coast go by, watching the lights of the cities pass and Cape York go beneath the plane, but I never felt away from home until I saw the Southern Cross go over the horizon. Knowing I’d truly stepped out of home, I put my headphones on, head back and slipped into a wine-assisted sleep.
Waking up only an hour away from Tokyo Narita (the more rural of the Tokyo airports), I kept my eye out the window, trying to see as much of the Japanese landscape as I could… It’s green and there are a LOT of golf courses! Narita was interesting… in a boring kind of way. I took the automated tram between buildings to my gate, following an air crew until they turned away… Arriving at my gate, I was the ONLY person, besides a security guard in the terminal… So I took a walk, stopping in the bathroom along the way… Here I realised the security guard was following me! That wasn’t at all odd, so a quick “how’s it going” and a smile and he left to his other errands. There were only so many closed stores to look at, so I did what any young tourist did… Lay on the floor at the gate with my head on my bag and went to sleep until I woke up (halfway in the line that had formed next to me) and joined my flight to Helsinki.
The Finnair plane was the first extraneous contact I had with Finland and a sign I was almost there. It was a slightly older plane, but that is no excuse for having ZERO inflight entertainment for a 9 hour flight over the vastly empty expanse of Russia! Still, I was too excited for what awaited me! Watching the travel map (so that was some entertainment I guess) I saw us turn down towards Estonia and circle up to Helsinki. The greenness of the tree-lined coast greeted me and I disembarked to a cloudy, but warm, Finnish summer’s day, instantly realising the air was cleaner, not at all humid. It was different, but somehow awe-inspiring.
From one home to the next
Walking out the gate, I was happily greeted by my then girlfriend. We went out to the car, put my bags in and I went to get in… Naturally on the wrong side, as Finns drive on the other side of the road/car to Australians. Driving out of Helsinki towards the central city of Salo, wide-eyed, I took it all in. The tunnels, the green fields and thick rows of Pine and Birch trees, I was wondering what exactly would be different, what’s going to happen while I’m here? And what are they saying on the radio!?
Turning off the highway, we came to the village I would be living in. Muurla is a small town, but it’s home to Muurlan lasi (a globally present glass manufacturer), with a school, library, small shop, church, sports field and an amazing lake. Coming down a long driveway into a small open field among the forest, we came to the house. It was exactly like a Finnish postcard, beautiful, simple. The welcome I received from this family was like coming home. I didn’t speak much Finnish, but my girlfriend’s mother was able to speak some English, her father spoke only Finnish but one always knows a welcoming face and handshake. Her brothers (one married with children) spoke English well, as most younger Finns do, and I was promptly ignored by what is surprisingly still only the second largest house-cat I have ever seen. Straight away I was tasked with proving my Australian-ness by helping put together a new barbecue and helping to cook the lunch for day 2 and the ‘getting to know you’. Sitting in the garden (with the biggest herb and berry variety I’ve seen! Among tonnes of other fruits and vegetables!), the best way to describe this is that it was like a big hug! I felt automatically at home and welcome.
Discovering the land of 1000 lakes
There are simply waaaayyy too many things that I could go on about with my discovering Finland, so I thought I’d keep it to a list of highlights which stood out to me on this first trip (this doesn’t include other trips we took, though, which I’ll cover in later posts). So in no particular order… (Click on the pictures to make them bigger!)
- Helsinki – The capital of Finland, Helsinki is an awesome place. Peak-hour is not something you’ll need to worry about here and the metropolitan feel is that of a city which is truly representative of the country, while connecting with the rest of the Nordic/Baltic states (A short ferry ride to Estonia is a good day trip!). There’s plenty of history in the cathedrals and Suomenlinna, an old, island fortress, turned arts (and navy!?) hub. A visit to Linnanmäki theme park is also a pretty fun break and the many parks are a great spot to relax with a good coffee and people watch.
- Turku – This is one of my favourite Finnish cities! There are theatres, boutiques, cafés and hipsters aplenty. This is a stylish and creative town on the west-coast, I saw an outdoor Elvis musical, which is funny when the guy playing Elvis is just so Finnish, and went into the historic castle that once dominated this old port city’s landscape. After a good walk around this town, head to the river, pull up a chair on one of the river boat bars and have a nice Karhu beer to relax!
- Rovaniemi – Definitely my #1 city, Rovaniemi is the gateway to the Arctic Circle and, of course, home to Santa’s workshop. Alvar Aalto designed this university town to be laid out like antlers, which makes getting around a bit of a challenge (seriously! antlers do not translate to city planning!), but the place has a vibrance and energy to it, with many cool bars and the central town square bustling with restaurants and cafes and a main square, Lordy Square, named after the eurovision winning band! If the city isn’t your thing, book a day trek out into the forest and check out the base of the arctic wilds. My Finnish friends will laugh at this next bit about a certain bridge, supposed to represent a Lumberjack’s candle (look it up) it actually translates to “Dude’s” candle (i.e. a dick) and looks more like the eye of Sauron than anything, but is one of many good bits of architecture porn here.
- Music and Culture – Finnish people might be seen as a reserved and perhaps blunt bunch, but they are far from boring! I spent a lot of time at events, both times I went. A jazz & soul festival in the southern most town of Hanko brought musicians from all over, including New Orleans, Sime Rock in Rovaniemi showcased the best in Finnish rock and how not to get people to your festival! And the sheer availability of art and history in Tampere, Helsinki and Turku is enough to keep you busy for a lifetime! There’s basically no excuse for not doing something fun in Finland.
- Villages and keeping it local – The outdoors is a huge part of life in Finland! Everywhere you go, there are usually markets to see, with plenty of great buys (and the best strawberry pancakes you’ll ever find), keeping people outdoors and in the nearly endless, summer sun. Riding a bike is better for getting around than driving (I bought one for only 50 euros!) and nothing is a long drive away, be it the local swimming hall or one of the many thousands of lakes to swim in. There’s plenty of volleyball tournaments to get your sporting fix and if you’re a fan of Cross Country Skiing (as all Finns seem to be) you can go to an indoor snow-track to get the hang of it before winter sets in! I never did though… Cross Country skiing is the devil! Also, trekking. There are countless tracks for walking or cycling and all will bring you to a scenic lake or hill.
- Food, Drink and Sauna – Food in Finland is simple. Fresh, healthy and unprocessed. There’s a lot more fish and vegetables, with red meats a once or twice a week thing. Bread is typically a dark rye, I remember one specifically tasting like a cake, and very good for you. Finn’s are pretty big drinkers when they want to be… Funnily enough, a lot of wine that was being drunk was Australian wine! But the beer is good, my favourites being Karhu (awesome bear on the label) and Lapin Kulta (Lapland Gold) and these go down very well! And the Sauna! Finns are definitely not prudes, so public saunas you can expect some mixed nudity (it is what it is, the sauna is a place of relaxation, nothing more) and it’s a big thing to be brought into someone’s sauna. You can sweat out the stresses of the day and take a quick dip. Pro-tip: rather than putting water on the hot rocks in a sauna, use beer! Beer steam, need I say more?
Land of Pleasure
This first trip was an important time of my life. I saw a whole lot of Finland (as well as a Greek Island, Tallinn, Rome and had a big roadtrip to Norway and back, but those are for later posts) and in that I learned a bunch of interesting things about the place (in particular that socialism is not a dirty word!) and found a great appreciation for the natural beauty of the country, the friendliness of the people (who will always accept any attempts at speaking Finnish and help you along), the historic and modern culture of it all.
The main thing is that Finland feels like home. There is next to nothing about this country that can’t be loved. In particular, the summer is a time of celebration and getting into the outdoors and using the most of the near endless sunlight. When I left the first time, I wasn’t so sad because I knew I’d be back 3 months later to experience the winter. When I came back, Australia, as good as it is, seemed in a way backwards and so many times I wondered “Why don’t we do that like the Finns do?” But obviously, Australia is pretty great. But Finland is a place where everything just works, it’s hard to describe, but if you spend some time here your perspective of the world will be vastly different.
As mentioned, I skipped over the trip to Kephalonia, Rome, Tallinn and the roadtrip… Within a few days of arriving and having continuous, cold and cloudy weather, we decided to head to Kephalonia in Greece for clear waters and sunny 40 degree celcius days, for a dose of true summer! I’ll cover that next!