(This is an account of a vacation I took with my mother and younger brother M. at the end of May and start of June to Finland, Estonia, Latvia. As a title for this trip, I've compressed Finland and Baltics into "Fintics.")
May 25-27, 2008
Mom, M., and I had a wonderful time on our trip. If nothing else, we should get a prize for the intermodality of it: planes, trains, automobiles (as in the occasional taxi-ride), inter-city buses, urban buses, trams, small medium and large ferries, and for me (but not Mom or M.), a bit of biking. Plus, of course, lots of walking!
The brief version: I'm not good at brief summaries of trips. I guess the best thing I could say is that I most enjoyed and most felt at home in Finland, though Estonia made greater impressions on me. However, this one-paragraph summary makes no mention of FOOD, or 1001 other things, so....
Here begins, the not so brief version!
Mom started her flight in Sydney, Nova Scotia, I met her in the airport in Montreal for our flight to New York (JFK), and we met M. there in JFK.
In Montreal, I was selected for a "random" (?) check while going through security. This meant a thorough pat-down, and a complete check of my carry-on baggage. I travelled ONLY with carry-on, so this took some time. The guard was nice enough about it, but I really didn't expect that my plastic knife would be confiscated for the reason that the plastic blade was serrated. Sheesh! The said SERRATED plastic fork was replaced by a near-identical blue plastic serrated knife on our Finnair flight (but made of cheap breakable plastic instead of my sturdy lexan). Some people have an ex-wife; now I have an ex-knife.
Now, you may have noticed something special about that last paragraph: I travelled ONLY with carry-on. I am by instincts a packrat at home, and my instinct is "I must be prepared for X,Y,Z", so I am especially proud of this accomplishment. Some of our flights allowed only one piece of carry-on baggage, and I still made it. Well, a minor confession; toward the end of the trip, Mom took a very few small things in her luggage for me when I had more liquids than my 1-litre bag would allow. I am so glad I travelled that light. It was nice not to be burdened with too much baggage. It did mean having to do frequent laundry (much of the volume in my one bag was not even clothing), usually by hand, but for me that was a happy trade-off. If any of you out there are drawn to the idea of travelling light, but don't know how you could do it, I urge you to read http://www.onebag.com. Even if you don't decide to travel quite that light, there are a lot of great suggestions to pack better/lighter.
Anyway... The sky was beautifully clear as Mom and I arrived in New York. We circled around the city for a while and had a great view not only of the buildings and beaches, but also of the many boats in the harbour - a major naval (military) event was taking place that day; I think it's called Fleet Day.
If there are any plane buffs out there, our transatlantic flight (New York/JFK to Helsinki) was on an MD-11, one of the last planes with one jet engine on each wing and a huge 3rd engine on the tail. Finnair is one of the last commercial airlines that still flies MD-11s - I understand that they've been a victim of their own success with their Asian flights, and had to keep using the MD-11s a little longer than planned while other newer planes are being built for their fleet - I was therefore expecting something rundown, but it was a nice enough plane.
Helsinki is a relatively young city for Europe (it slumbered till the 19th century, when Finland went from Sweden to Russia, and the capital moved from Turku to Helsinki). It is not that large. I loved its neoclassical elegance (though Mom found it a bit cold and treeless). The red-brick Orthodox cathedral that overlooks the harbour is stunning, and its "onion" domes had recently been refinished in gold leaf; the gleaming white Lutheran cathedral, which dominates the skyline from the main (south) harbour, was much less ornate, but to my eyes, grand in a somewhat restrained way. We visited a third church on a bus tour, which had been carved out of the rock, and covered with a circular roof - very impressive. The buildings in Helsinki are mostly a mixture of neoclassical, art deco, art nouveau, some romantic-revival, and various modern styles.
On the Helsinki waterfront, we were surprised when our bus tour pointed out what looked like an odd sort of wooden floating dock with funny benches or picnic tables, but turned out to be facilties for Helsinkians to wash their carpets (area rugs) - yes, with the harbour water. Nearby were a giant ringer and giant drying racks. I was kind of skeptical about this; was it an old tradition, merely preserved to amuse tourists? That is, until later when we saw rugs actually drying on the racks!
In Helsinki, we also visited Suomenlinna, the island fortress that was built over the centuries to protect Helsinki (and Finland) from naval attack. It's accessible by public-transit-ferry. The island (actually islands) now feature some residents, some artists with studios, and lots of fortress reconstructions. The scope of the constructions really impressed me - having grown up in peaceable North America, it is hard for me to imagine living in the war-like mentality that would have dictated building this sort of thing, with no end of massively thick, tall stone walls.
On Suomenlinna, we had a lovely picnic of bread, cheese, coldcuts, pastries, and such which we'd picked up back in downtown Helsinki in the deli and grocery store of Stockmann, which is northern Europe's largest department store. The amusing part of the meal was the mixed-berry "yogourt" I'd chosen; it turned out not to be yogourt at all but rather a grain-based yogourt-substitute. After that I started paying more attention to labels!
I had another food gaffe. M&M&me bought some fruit juice and snacks from a grocery store near our hostel, for breakfast purposes. I chose a rhubarb and currant juice. I didn't realise it was artificially sweetened (the sucralose kind perhaps, which tastes bad though not quite as bad as the aspartame kind). Fortunately Mom and M. fared better with their juice choices.
Finnish is impossible to understand. It is close to Estonian and distantly related to Hungarian (which my mother speaks), but about the only Hungarian-like words we found were voi = vaj = butter, and vesi = viz = water. For me, as an English-speaker with some German, Swedish was often decipherable. Only 8% of Finland is Swedish, but the country is bilingual, and schoolchildren learn Finnish, Swedish, and impeccable English (plus sometimes other languages too). So almost without exception, we only had to deal with Finnish (or Swedish) when looking at things in print, not in speech.
On the morning of our second day, I found myself wondering if the sun ever sets in Helsinki. When we got to bed between 11-12, it was just as bright as when we rose at 7am the next day.
One of our Helsinki restaurants, called Kynsilaukka/Garlic (on day 1), was a bit disappointing. Not all dishes were very garlicky at all! To make matters worse, Mom slipped on an uneven floor while sitting down, mucking up her foot and ankle a bit for the next day. We had better luck the next evening in a Russian/bohemian restaurant in our neighbourhood, where the food and service were both much better. These two restaurants introduced us to a common feature of eating out in restaurants in Finland, Estonia, and Latvia - expect lots of rich sauces with your meals. Other food adventures in Helsinki included our first lunch, on the waterfront open-air market, where we bought small fried fishes along with potatoes and veggies, and had to be very careful to keep the seagulls from eating our lunch for us. (Some of the gulls looked like our Canadian gulls, but most were a smaller white gull with a black or brown head.)
We also enjoyed checking out some of Helsinki's pastry-shops, either stand-alone cafés, or in the covered markets. Cardamom is prevalent, which suited me fine. I enjoyed cardamom danishes with rhubarb topping, cardamom danishes with gooseberry topping, pecan cinnamon rolled pastries [no cardamom!], and cardamom buns with a reservoir of butter/sugar at the top.
In Helsinki, we stayed in the Katajanokka neighbourhood in southeast Helsinki, very close to downtown, and right on a tram line. I'm a bit of a tram and train junkie, so that suited me just fine. We had some fun adventures exploring the city on trams. Sometimes we even went in the direction we'd intended! I tried many times to flag down trams, but never quite succeeded; tram drivers seem quite determined to pick up passengers only at the regularly-scheduled, clearly-marked (when you know what markings to look for) tram stops, not in the middle of a block when a tourist flaps his arms helplessly, but it did take us a bit of time to figure out what the markings for the stops were.
In Finland, the standard and generic greeting is "Hej", pronounced like "hey" in English. You could be greeted by a person much your senior in a very nice café or shop, and they would say "hej". Of course it's the local norm, but to English ears the juxtaposition is strange between the informal sound of "hey" and the slightly more formal setting. That often made me, well, smile.