Posts Tagged ‘helsinki’

Trish and I are celebrating our one year anniversary in Dallas….but this is just the latest stop in a long line of stopovers. As Canadians, we are considered an anomaly. Most people in my country tend to hunker down, build a nest and stay in that one place for life, in the same job, short term vacation, paint the house every five years, have 1.2 children, put a different car in the driveway, buy a house they can’t afford, spend thirty five years trying to pay it off, divorce at least twice…. and never leave their comfort zone until  taken out in a box. Canadians in general are sedentary unimaginative and predictable people. The banks and government love them for acting like sitting ducks.

Many people emigrate,  we are nor immigrants…. we wander by choice. We have zero intention to stay in one place, instead we float in a dish of cream. When the milk runs dry we will  be on our way. In the past ten years in particular, we have been ‘on the road’ so to speak, living in hotel rooms and long stay executive apartments. I particularily like countries that rent furnished apartments by the week, like Australia. It’s liberating to move from one great view to another. I do not want plants or animals tying me down. I have a beautiful wife …why would I need a little furry buddy to assuage my inner emptiness? Aside from Dallas we have lived/ worked in  Paris , Amsterdam, London, Bristol, Beijing, Singapore, San Francisco, Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York, Maui, Helsinki,Denpassar,  and visited many places in between…..prior to that..  long stints in  Fiji and Brisbane homeschooling our son on the beaches. For university prep we gave the boy a top boarding school education and he went on to spend six years living on the campus of a great university. He is very independent and we’re quite proud of that.

The travelers lifestyle got under my skin when very young. I suppose you develop a mindset after a while where ‘home’ becomes a concept rather than a place. Our circle of friends are living around the world rather than the house-frau and her balding husband across the cul de sac. I’m permanently tanned from too much time in the sun, whereas in Canada they’re sounding alarms against the idea of even 15 minutes exposure. My travel flesh is deep and dark. My rotator cuffs  joints in arms and hips are grinding like an old transmission from too much time spent in swimming pools and surf lines…my travel bones are worn. And still I have no want to return ‘home’ and begin collecting china or automobiles….or even worse….take up golf.  This a hell of a lifestyle…. but someone has to live creatively.

Canadians in particular are jealous to the extreme, they covet  and become angry when anyone has something they cannot. It’s a peculiarity of the culture. You’ll find  conversations with Canadians  begin with  identifiers ‘what do you do….where do you live, how much do you make.. where have you been on holiday’? It is a Canadian caste system that defines who you are financially compared to every one else. They’ll want to know if they’re ahead or behind so that they can either envy you or despise you. Vancouver , for example has been polled as being the loneliest, least friendly, and difficult to make new friends in as a city…. there is a large population of people reporting some form of depression and mental illness due to the social isolation. People there are so covetous of anything another might have that they can’t decide to ‘just be normal’.A visitor to Vancouver will notice a desperation to own real estate and a huge number of newly leased cars…. but no theater scene, no music scene, art scene, no cool neighborhoods…..just a lot of miserable people sitting around telling you how great their city is as justification for what they’re paying every month. In fact…it has to be the most miserable , covetous place I have ever been.

But I remind people that what you do in life is a choice. ‘Change your mind.. change your life’… is a phrase that popped into my head when I began my career as a traveler hitchhiking around North America and then branching off to spend decades wandering the world. It works for me…..and if you don’t like where you are…pack a suitcase and go somewhere you do. Hey…it works for us. I guess I’ll have to keep my crown as ….THE KING OF PAIN.

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A country that was once a far away dream has become a place  in my heart. The fact that Finland requires the visitor to discover the land and the people on their own terms is endearing. I like to be left alone to discover rather than be herded around by a guidebook itinerary.

the central plaza of tempere covered by a thick sheet of ice

a sudden snowfall traps a bicycle

the wilds of levi in the far north of lappi

reindeer butt heads outside my window

a winter sprite plays his delightful games on a stream’

the finns are profoundly spiritual

helsinki architecture can be solemn

helsinki railway stattion

two figures that dominate

cathedrals easy to get lost in

each lock represents a wish

she mans the gate

early morning exercise

My editor has requested that I try to keep my columns  to 2000 words or less. This is not normally an issue, but this week is different. I have recently completed a circumnavigation of the planet in the space of 30 days. I waited a lifetime to do this, 2000 words is hardly enough.

I had always dreamed about circumnavigating the planet. I had coveted those ‘around the world’ tickets advertised in the newspaper travel section since I was a little kid. Some people read the sports page, others the comics, for me it was always the travel section. The idea appealed to me as being the keystone of the travelers Shangri-lah . I could be Cook or Magellan for a paltry $2500.00.It was the dream of a child, $2500 dollars was kings ransom and still is, an impossible dream.

 

It would remain my ultimate fantasy into adulthood. In spite of later traveling to 70 plus countries for business and pleasure over a thirty year period, I had never accomplished to circle the globe in one continuous flight-line. When the opportunity arose I leapt at the chance like a hungry tiger.

Fellow time traveler and captain of my heart Patricia and I spent several weeks plotting out our trip like two blue water sailors pouring over a chart table.We decided to visit as many favorite old favorites as  discover new destinations. We like to kick back in an old haunt and revisit a precious memory or two as much as making new ones. Travel is about relaxing, time on the road carving out new directions can be exhausting, a little ‘hammock time’ is good for your soul.

Admittedly, there are those special moments that make ‘hard travel’   worthwhile when something amazing appears out of nowhere after a long day beating the streets of a far flung capital or a trip through  bus travel hell to some jungle hideaway . One perfect photograph in the can or an idyllic sunset emblazoned on your conscious  is worth a million miles of trekking, bone cracking hours of riding a chicken bus, and the costs and effort of finally ‘being there’. If die hard travelers were a Medieval religious order we’d  be referred to as ‘fanatics’.

Our route would take us west across the Pacific, first to Hong Kong, then Beijing, down to Singapore, Shanghai via Bangkok, across the Russia’s to Helsinki, London, New York and finally to the back of beyond…Vancouver. We decided that we would accomplish all of this in 30 days. The confluence of time and budget were perfect but proposed certain limitations. We would be traveling on Air Miles , most accumulated from previous trips. The flights we booked and the hotels we stayed in had to be carefully picked as part of the ‘One World Alliance’ so that we could take full advantage of the discounts offered.

Day one was a flurry of activity, I was as giddy as a school girl skipping along on a summers day. This was the culmination of a lifetime of desire. My logistics coordinator and chief strategist had booked us on a flight leaving Vancouver at 10:00 PM Pacific Coast Time. This was designed to get us into Hong Kong with plenty of time to drop our bags at our favorite hotel, the Nathan, suitably named, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon and be in time for a great seafood meal under the stars at the restaurant nexus in the middle of the Temple Street market.

The plan worked out perfectly. The following morning, after a Melatonin induced sleep for jet-lag we hit the early morning dim sum tables in Wan Chai on  Hong Kong island and then sped out to Mong Kok for some quick shopping. We knew HK well enough to have decided to spend an extra day in Beijing instead of hanging around. Chep Lap Kok  airport is only a short cab ride away. Off to Beijing.

Patricia had got a fantastic offer from The Wangfujing Hilton in Beijing on a three night stay. I was impressed by the luxury our budget had been able to buy us. Wangfujing District is central to most of the walking tours that fill central Beijing with options. We decided against the expensive tourist trap called the Great Wall and decided to spend our time with the people of Beijing. We found the famous Silk Road markets to be extensive, the food far too laden with MSG to be healthy and the Forbidden City so fantastic that we spent two full days wandering around like two dazed aliens pumped up on some kind of happy serum.

Singapore is an old favorite. It is a layer cake city, one above ground and one below, each equally as packed with things to do and see as the other. The super humid ground level Singapore is of course incredibly beautiful. The sea wall allows people to enjoy the entire city scape while dining al fresco under the stars while listening to free concerts or watching international street performers entertain the crowds. It is of course , very hot and humid.

But there is nothing like the Singapore experience of taking a tin plate of steaming fresh food from Smugglers Cove or Clark Quay and eating under the view of the famous Merlion water sculpture, the city line and now the new Marina Bay casino with it’s roof designed to resemble an ancient Arab Dhow plying the trade routes which made Singapore what it is. I stayed across the street from the Esplanade at the Mandarin Oriental to luxuriate in their infinity pool and to relive the famous breakfast spread.

 

The underground level of Singapore takes many first time visitors by surprise. In air conditioned comfort it is possible to commute from one side of the city to the other through and underground shopping concourse the likes of no Canadian city has envisioned. Singapore is also a city of neighborhoods. The Indian district centered on Serangoon Road host some of the finest Indian cuisine in Asia. Try the Masala Dosa.

Bangkok is a second home to Pat and I. We would never fly to Asia without staying for a few nights. For this very short visit we stayed in Bang Rak at the Best Western affiliate. The area gives you excellent access to the Chao Phraya river transportation and other transport options, like the Skytrain, to whisk you all over the city in air conditioned style. One train will take you north to Chat a Chak , or JJ market as its called locally.

This fantastic open air retail carnival offers one stop shopping for everything made in Thailand. Bangkok is an international design center and an array of clothing seldom seen in the west can be had for very reasonable prices…quickly. I love BKK for the food and Pat buys eyeglasses  because they are six times cheaper than in Vancouver for styles ten years in advance…’nuff said. Bangkok is a shoppers paradise.

A pollution warning over Shanghai caused us to change our plans at the last minute. We saw why when we landed in Shanghai , the entire city had become enveloped in ‘Brown Cloud’, a recent phenomenon in China where smog is so thick that the levels of toxic particulate in the air become ‘officially’ dangerous to your health. This is a good lesson about traveling anywhere, be flexible and ready for change. We didn’t mind missing Shanghai, it had been one of those ‘new ground’ choices and now we got to reschedule our time in places that meant much more to us.

I was fixated for 15 hours the entire time we flew over Russia. The geography is stunning. I became ‘the leaning man’ on the emergency door beside the rear washrooms, an unmoving sculpture with my face pressed against the double pane of plexiglass looking out at the scenery. Every once in a while the topography would change and I would rush back top my seat and click on the flight map to see which country and mountain range we were passing over. I felt childish, as if I were Marco Polo retracing the Silk Road east to west.

Our destination was Helsinki, Finland, a country we had visited previously and had fallen in love with. Pat and I had sworn to return and travel into the interior to discover the rue face of the Finnish people. The capital Helsinki had been built by an occupation force of Russians and Swedes. The Finnish soul was represented inland we had been told. Finland is an entirely under rated and under visited country.

By nature it has it’s solitudes and it is up to the visitor to discover Finland on it’s own terms.From the tropical heat of South East Asia we landed in Helsinki and it was snowing. We’d packed for this. Like the Boy Scouts, a good traveler is prepared. Our immediate destination in Finland after a jet lag rest in Helsinki was the northern resort town of Levi where were treated to reindeer tethered outside out window and Patricia getting her first case of frostbite. My camera batteries had to be specially adapted to the the polar freeze…what fun! Next we would train to Tempere, the second city of Finland.

London greeted us in the form of our friend ‘Ginger’, a cabbie we always call when we visit. He has ‘the knowledge’ and always knows the most interesting ways to Camden Town where we call home when here. There is no place more characteristically British than Camden Town, or should I say that Camden is more like a caricature than a true representation.  Either way, we love this microcosm of English life. Camden is ‘in the moment’ as they say. Wildly fashionable and derelict in the same moment. The High Street is lined with eccentricities that the average Canadian can’t imagine.

The restaurants and museums of London are truly spectacular. Most grand entertainment is free if you are a gallery, park and museum bug as I am. This trip I trod along the foot path beside the Camden Canal that leads to the London Zoo. I had always wanted to see this first in the world Victorian marvel.

 

I was getting settled in and headed out to Marks and Spencer for more Cornish Cruncher cheese and Hot Chocolate sticks when Patricia reminded me that we would be leaving for New York in the morning. “Anything you buy,” she said, “Is going to have to be eaten between here and there”. I love Cornish Cruncher more than I need sleep so we dined on this delightful specialty into the wee hours of the morning. I’m glad the Americans won’t let me bring any cheese into the country. All the more for me.

Flying into New York is a process, not an event. The security has become onerous. I am an extreme bug-a- phobe and ‘The Big Apple’ is suffering an infestation of bedbugs in every star of accommodation. I chose to stay a half hour away in the AKA White Plains suites which had not had a single reported instance. The quaint town is on the rail line direct to grand Central Station, an easy ride from our hotel.

Manhattan is timeless, we walked the chilly streets downtown towards Washington Square and Greenwich Village for coffee and the street life. Just for fun we visited the Guggenheim in the afternoon. A friend invited us for dinner in Chinatown and we finished with desert at the McDonald’s Time Square to catch the neon displays still there in an area that has transformed itself.

As we looked out at the garish lights Pat and I admitted to one another at how exhausted we were after an entire month on a high speed gambit around the world. Would we do it again, you bet. And that my friends, is how you write an article about traveling around the world in 2000 words or less. 1989 words.I just made it. Whew, I’m exhausted.

On a recent trip to Europe I was impressed at how established the bicycle was in the everyday lives of people. So much so that these innocuous vehicles are often left by the side of the road in stacks unused as viable community conveyances. One of the things that stops people from using bicycles in Canada for many months a year is the inclement weather. I found that in Europe that this impediment is not universal. There are instances of people using bicycles in every weather, even in the snow. I remember an interview with Bob Dylan where he advised us to stop talking for a second and observe the street corner we were on, “Because we might never be here again”. Those words stuck with me and I try to remain observant of every detail in my daily life, taking nothing for granted. Life is a gift, don’t deny it.

Tempere Finland

the timeless streets of Paris

Tallinn Estonia

Helsinki Finland

Brussels Belgium

Amsterdam Netherlands

another ‘Bridge of Sighs’

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

When Patricia suggested that we  visit Helsinki, I think my first reaction was , ‘Why’? With her inimitable smile she said simply , “It looks charming”. I can attest to Patricia’s instinctive appreciation of everything ‘charming’ , after all, she married me. I answered , “Let’s take a look?” As it turns out, her instincts were  correct, Finland is charming, Helsinki is  under rated , under visited, a northern gem.

What  I liked  most about Finland and  Finnish people was the  experience of visiting a country and interacting with a people who are both so absolutely understated. Finland is a  place for  experienced and sophisticated travelers to enjoy. The fact that none of the usual tourist hype is evident is truly refreshing.

There is no Disneyland atmosphere . There are no crowds, no  streets lined with multinational food franchises.  There is no mind numbing list of ‘must see before you die’ hot spots with hours long line ups of desperate ‘bucketeers’. Helsinki has it’s own distinct vibe, self assured,  that’s cool, as cool as the weather.

You’re not going to Helsinki to sun tan. They have a brief summer in late July  but it’s generally chilly and windblown. Pack sweaters and windbreakers. I’ve had enough beach vacations to appreciate the weather in Scandinavia as equally  inviting. Arriving in Helsinki airport was my first introduction to a people who are referred to as  ‘ Silent Finn’s’ . The immigration officers were stereotypically stoic, but that’s where it ended. We weren’t met with any ‘attitude’ after  hopping into our taxi  or checking into our hotel. The ‘Silent Finn’ is a myth.

Everyone we met was delighted  we’d chosen Finland as a tourist destination  We’re a rare breed apparently. Most visitors fall into the category of commercial travelers. People we met were  proud to regale us with stories about the homeland. Fins are  proud  in the quintessentially understated Finnish way . I found it charming that  conversation was about home and family rather than possessions and positions.

I was an instant fan of the  Finnish breakfast. I woke up to tables laden with fresh and prepared fish, salted, smoked, baked, fried, pickled, rolled , pasted and marinated .  It must be the Scandinavian  in me but I love fish for breakfast. There were baskets of fresh breads and rolls, pastries and crackers. The kitchen presented a fantastic selection of gluten free breads .

I loved the offerings of cheeses, yogurt and nuts. The ‘piece de resistance’ were the  wild berries and  forest mushrooms , an obsession in Finland . Where else could someone breakfast on ‘cloud berries’? I found  I had to cut back on the Finnish coffee. They brew it  strong , a  caffeine sensitive novice wouldn’t sleep for days after two cups .

Well fortified, Patricia and I walked out of our ex-dairy  hotel on the lower harbour  and headed ‘up town’. A stiff wind was in our face , we muffled into scarves and pushed  uphill towards the Esplanadi .  ‘Kave’ or coffee shops dot each block as you progress through the quaint city. People had developed the custom of ‘popping in’ to  warm nooks during the coldest months to count their fingers and toes. Helsinki’s Russian designers chose to lay out the city streets on a grid.

We walked across town in  twenty minutes, from  lower commercial harbour to the older  harbour, on which the city was originally founded . Boulevardi Street  takes a walker through the ‘design district’ where  city fathers  group business licenses to display art, clothing, furniture, photography and other artistic endeavors in one area. There are plenty of  hair dressing salons,  ubiquitous throughout the city. Finns enjoy having their hair cut by the look of it.

We came across a flea market  and couldn’t resist joining the crowd. Tables and chairs snugged around a wooden building called a ‘Kaupahalli’ which in Finland is a covered market place to shop during the bitter days of winter. Trinkets , baubles, dishes , clothing and Soviet era  posters were in  abundance ;  souvenirs unique to this part of the world. Polite bargaining was allowed,  we purchased  keepsakes  fit for carry on luggage.

Finns are  fluent in English . It’s easy to interact with people ,  Finnish  is a challenge. Learn to say good morning ‘ Paiva’, and thank you ‘Kiito’s,’ people will love you. We  engaged in conversation, mostly about the weather. Finns have a thousand expressions for ‘inclement’.

It began to get  chilly after a couple of hours , we decided to do the Finnish thing and ‘pop inside’ to  ‘count our fingers and toes’. By good fortune we chose the most interesting cafe in Helsinki, the Fazer Cafe,  flagship shop of the  Fazer Company, makers of the delicious chocolate Finland is famous for

The interior was dreamy, stacked  with chocolate boxes, pastries under glass and  cakes on revolving pedestals.   I thought I had taken a  step into Willie Wonka  factory. We were welcomed  with impeccable manners and service. The hot chocolate was to die for. European cafe’s have an understated vibe about them, places of ambient calm,  conversation , unhurried, homey.

Out the door we spied the imposing Lutheran Cathedral, a vision in white  atop the highest point in the city. Helsinki is not a city of skyscrapers. The tallest building  is the Torni Hotel at fourteen stories,  built in 1931 and never bested. We chanced upon several small museums and galleries that caught our interest ,  free to enter.

Craft furniture galleries  show a creative drive among Fins. The picture galleries present  interpretive  art and express a love of colour that one doesn’t immediately match to the inconstant weather. Travel agencies are popular fixtures. Apparently Finns love to flee a dull winter as much as anyone.

The war history of Finland is represented in stark terms at the museum. The  territory was historically coveted by two competing empires ,  autocratic Swedes and  czarist Russians. Finnish  life was unenviable in the early days. The villages and towns were  sacked and burned,  crops razed , people slaughtered or enslaved. The  history of the country’s Medieval period  was wiped out by  bitter rivalry .

That doe’s not mean that Finland is devoid of Finnish architecture, you just won’t find it in Helsinki. The capital more resembles St.Petersburg  than  Espoo, Tempere , Turku or Oulu, cities  too far removed from  trade routes and the Baltic to be of any interest to the imperialists. An interesting legacy is the polyglot nature of  Finnish people. No matter which store you  go into, clerks wear flag pins  identifying which languages they speak, Russian and Swedish figure prominently.

Helsinki harbour is steps away from the shopping concourse of Esplanadi  which ends at the entrance to the Lutheran Cathedral Square,  the nexus of tourism, such as it is, in Helsinki. This intimate pocket of water is  large enough for only one cruise ship at a time. Cruise lines stop in Helsinki,  part of the Scandinavian tour which includes Tallinn,  and St. Petersburg . While  I was there the  National Geographic research vessel was docked. Had I been younger I may have stowed away for an adventure.

The weather is challenging in Helsinki,  few cruise tourists venture far from the dock. The icy  wind can set you back on your heels unless you’re dressed for the assault. A   group of hardy dockside vendors wait patiently for trade, local and foreign, in the cold and  rain, along seawall . They sell  uniquely Finnish handicrafts of woven wool and leather , fresh fruits, vegetables and  fish of great variety. Salt herring  is popular. A short walk away there are masted wooden sailing vessels tied to the dock that work  the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.

I took a seat under a tarpaulin  fitted with gas heaters for a cup of thick steaming coffee ( to heck with sleep,  the arctic sun doesn’t set this time of year) and get out of the incessant wind. On the other side of the pier , I spied another antique Kaupahalli and realized it might be more comfortable to go inside. The Finns may be weatherproof and hardy but I am not. We made a dash.

This Kaupahalli was  different from the last. This was a cornucopia of fabulous foods.  I compare it to a  deli counter with  eighty individual vendors selling  unique Finnish favorites and specialty regional foods. These Kaupahalli’s are reminiscent of a time in Finland before supermarkets ,  they have a boutique atmosphere.

People crowd under the  turn of the century arches to get in touch with themselves. The seating in a Kaupahalli is quite un-Finnish, who can be sticklers for line ups and appointment times, instead the festival seating of egalitarianism  predominates. This is something I  observed   traveling around the country;  rules pertaining to personal time are different from those of the workplace. When it’s time to relax, Finn’s relax. As  I entered the market through the heavy iron clad double doors I was met with thick slabs of fresh and cured Atlantic salmon prominently on display.

Cheese , coffee , candy, pickles ,  baked breads, cafeteria nooks ,  charcuterie style meats  , butchers,   canned or jarred, were all in a line on  two parallel concourses of this  foodie’s paradise. I sat for a delicious bowl of hearty soup with thick dark bread smothered in creamy butter, just the thing after  hours in the cold. For dessert I tried a piece of Finland’s famous black liquorish , Salmiakki,  actually not candy but salt ammonium chloride coloured with liquorice syrup for a ‘tougher image’. Salmiakki is an acquired taste and  hard acidic agent on tooth enamel. It is  popular among Scandinavians. The heartland of this bitter tasting cult is Finland.

Once warmed, Patricia and I performed what we call a ‘wander’. We walked the city, found little lanes leading to  surprises and nothing. We ‘popped in’ and engaged in conversation with locals and immigrants,  asked  their stories ,  told them ours. In department stores we discovered  ‘blondering . Finnish women are fanatic about blond. We chanced on a book shop giving away pieces of poster art to passers by. The more we ‘wandered’, the more we were intrigued about this  under rated  city and it’s inhabitants.

I enjoyed the sedate security implied by peoples active stoicism  towards the quirks of living in this northern latitude and rugged geography. My last night in Helsinki was spent in a  local restaurant we were assured we would find  Lappi foods. Lappi  are the indigenous peoples of Finland’s arctic. We took a ‘when in Rome’ approach to the ‘new to us’  cuisine and ordered  reindeer steak prepared with red onion and blueberry sauce settled on a mountain of mashed potato’s. The flavours were  unique, unexpected , delicious.

During our meal a delightfully inebriated older gentleman, , insisted on telling us a story in Finnish , of which we couldn’t understand a word .  I surmised that the sudden appearance of foreigners in a local establishment  inspired him . He spoke sincerely  , as if we were long lost friends.

The Finns are famous for their love of drinking vodka, this man was far  from objectionable  . I’m a story teller myself, I’ve listened to stories in tongues and gestures I didn’t understand. Sometimes it’s the presentation of a story where the true impart of the tale is projected . I saw the waiter coming over  , perhaps to ‘shoo’ the old man away, I waved him off and let the guy speak.  He was certainly animated while  in full flight.

When I thought it appropriate I applauded the tipsy mans efforts . I broke the  alcoholic trance as I knew I could, with a simple gesture. He laughed and winked , sauntered back to his seat and plate of herring. He’d given me a glimpse into the heart of  Finnish people . I caught the eye of several patrons , they nodded  and smiled, I suppose for the respectful patience   shown to an old man out for a lonely meal. I felt as if I had done something a Finn would do . The storyteller had become lost in his plate of fish.

Helsinki is quiet and reserved. It doesn’t bombast with bellicose jingoism. People go about their busy lives with a sense of self confidence. I found Helsinki to be worth the effort it took to go there. The city of Helsinki is charming.  It took patience  to unlock a few of the hidden secrets of this pleasant  city. Patricia and I were convinced by this first trip to Helsinki to revisit and travel inland to discover more of the country. We have subsequently returned to Finland several times .