Monday, July 05, 2010

The Country Where I Quite Want To Be

I have now reached Helsinki, which marks the end of the western Europe leg of my trip and in a couple of days I will head across the Baltic Sea to Estonia. This first stage has been a relatively gentle start to get me warmed up with no major difficulties: everybody speaks good English; the culture shock is, at most, mild; and things, generally, work. The biggest challenge was keeping costs down (which is working out better than expected - so far I've spent an average of £12.50 per day, all included). That's not to say that it has been boring or mundane, but it is time to move on to pastures new and push myself a little more.

Evening on on of Finland's many lakes.

In the week since I've been back in Finland I have been visiting the "historical region" of the southwest of the country. To be honest, if you're looking for grandiose monuments, vertiginous cathedrals and ancient ruins Finland really isn't the place for you. Even Turku (Åbo - and pronounced oboe - to the Swedes), the capital for 600 years, only has a pretty pathetic castle and mediocre cathedral to show for itself. I suppose that's what made Monty Python write their Finland song which was meant to be gently mocking with the lines "a poor second to Belgium when going abroad", but, having now been to Belgium as well, I can safely say that coming second to it it in terms of holiday destinations is pretty damn good. Although Finland's charms are very different to the cultured gems of Flanders: here it is the enchanting call of the Great Outdoors that weaves its spell. Be it hiking, kayaking or fishing in summer, or skiing and snowmobiling in winter (which I have now added to my list of "things to do"), there is always something to get you moving. And if you want culture the Finns have that too, but of an eccentric and unique kind. Last weekend Finland was host to the Wife Carrying World Championships, where they managed to retain the crown they had won back from the (equally eccentric) Estonians last year; next month sees the annual air guitar championships being held in Oulu; and the (possibly not so) well known sport of mobile phone throwing also originates from Finland. Helsinki has proven to be a relaxing place where I could finally say that summer is here: the weather has been gorgeous with barely a cloud in the sky, people are out and about enjoying the sun and the many free, public concerts that take place around town. I've come across everything from jazz to heavy metal, the latter being especially popular in Finland where a propensity to wear black and grow your hair long is almost the rule rather than the exception. Whilst here I've been staying with an old friend of my fathers who treated me to a truly authentic Finnish experience by taking me to his lakeside cabin with a proper wood-fired sauna and the obligatory grilled sausages - a great way to spend the last day here and recharge the batteries.

In Helsinki I met up with Lukas, a friend of mine who I first met in Lebanon some three and a half years ago. I made it just in time because Lukas's feet are just as itchy as mine and today he is leaving for Germany to start cycling round the world. For those of you who are interested his website is here - and I must admit that I am a little envious of the slick visuals and sponsorship that he has, although my lack of corporate selling out does mean that I am pretty free in what I can write, where I can go, and how I change my plans. Not only was it nice to see an old friend and swap travel tales, but I had an altogether more utilitarian reason for meeting up with him. When travelling to so many places it is good to be informed and have a guidebook of some sort to give you some basic data and pointers (though you do not need to follow it slavishly). I managed to print out a few excerpts from various guidebooks before setting off but I did not want to carry all that paper with me, so I sent various bundles to a few friends I have scattered around Europe and whose general area I would be traversing, so that I could pick them up along the way.

One final thing that I want to comment on, and that I haven't been able to find a subtle way of segueing into, so will have to crassly append it here, is a phenomenon that I have come to call the Scandinavian Merry-Go-Round (even though it doesn't form a circle, but rather more of a cascade). Nordic people, despite their various differences and rivalries, are united in their love of drink. Not a nice glass of red wine with dinner mind you, but a couple of six-packs followed by a handful of shots to get rat-arsed ending up with passing out in the gutter kind of drinking. Successive governments across the region have dealt with this propensity for drink by limiting sales of alcohol to state-run shops that have reduced opening hours (i.e. they definitely won't be open on a Friday night) and slapping on punitive taxes on booze. Although this has limited alcohol consumption somewhat, it has also pushed people to be tea-total during the week and save up all their drinking for a binge-fest on the weekend. As for the purchase of alcohol, well this is where the Merry-Go-Round happens: Norwegians hop across to Sweden to buy cheaper drinks, Swedes get ferries to Denmark to take advantage of the slightly more lax licensing laws, and the Danes pour across the border to Germany, like a modern-day (yet slightly more civilised) Viking horde and stock up on crates of beer at cheap discount stores (the Finns do the same with Estonia which they generally regard as one huge liquor store). Nobody goes to Norway to buy anything. Well, it is getting late and I have a ferry to catch tomorrow, so I will leave it at that.

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