So, on to Finland. It’s really not too far- I think on a clear day you can even see some of Helsinki from Tallinn. It was only an hour and a half ferry, but of course distance isn’t everything. The biggest and most obvious difference was the cost of things. I had heard the horror stories, but being a seasoned veteran on keeping it cheap, I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble. Well, it turns out to not matter how good you are at keeping it cheap- when EVERYTHING is ultra expensive the only way to keep it cheap is to not eat or drink anything and not go anywhere. So that’s what I did.
No, not really. Thankfully, yet again, we had some local friends, and with the cheap booze we brought across the Gulf of Finland they were sure to welcome us. Actually it was again friends of Pol’s from studying in Prague- Jaakko was there to meet us at the harbor and Lauri met us at Jaakko’s where we enjoyed some Estonian beer. Kind of funny- we certainly weren’t the only ones on the ferry loaded down with booze. A lot of people make the journey for that sole purpose- it’s just that much cheaper. I understand that since Estonia joined the EU, with its single market laws, their alcohol industry has boomed while in Finland the government has lost notable tax revenue due to decreased alcohol sales.
Anyway, yes Estonia and Finland are both in the EU, but they are also both in the Eurozone- where the Euro is king. That means that we knew right away how expensive things were (at least compared to Estonia)- no mental math required. But of course we didn’t let it stop us- a few drinks at the flat, a few in the park, some cheap (for Finland) food on the recommendation of the locals, and we were ready to party. Literally. See, in addition to the gossip about the cost of things, I had also heard a bit about the Finnish people. The stereotypical Finn (arguably Scandinavian in general), I understood, is very reserved, soft-spoken and shy. I certainly found that- you could be in a plaza full of people and hear a pin drop it seemed. Until, of course, they have the apt amount of alcohol (in any form as far as I could tell) upon which time the flood gates open, the feelings become expressed with volume, and the dance moves hit the dance floor. Hard. This, I also found. Our first night was a crazy one- ending with a nice morning beer, watching the sun creep down the masts of the sailboats in the harbor.
Our time in Finland was well filled. We happened to be in Helsinki during a hip hop festival, and if you’re looking for top-notch hip-hop, Helsinki is your place (not really, they’re all metal heads up there). Lauri kindly loaned me a bike so we could bike everywhere- even making the ~25 kilometer ride out to Espoo where another friend Katja kindly lent us her flat. Jaakko gave us a nice tour of the up and coming parts of the city- complete with a graffiti wall among the old industrial buildings and smoke stacks (so hip). We visited a very impressive urban garden- part of the Dodo agriculture project. It was an old train turntable converted into a greenhouse and some raised planting beds- very cool stuff. Of course we had to experience the sauna- a very important aspect of the Scandinavian culture. Then, by chance, we were there for Helsinki day- the 12th of June. It was Helsinki’s 200th anniversary as the capital and they celebrated with some live music in a few parks, among other things. So we did alright given our budget. Of course, as I mentioned, local friends who know the city and what’s worth it and what isn’t is paramount. It also helps to have Pol around to remind me that money is just money and that I may never be in Finland again, so might as well do it right. Well we did.
But, Helsinki is where we split ways- my new brother Pol-Ewen and I. I’d learned a lot from that crazy Frenchman in the 3 weeks we were together- things which I will certainly not soon forget. Traveling with someone is a crazy thing I’ve realized. Doesn’t matter who they are, with the life changing experiences you’ll inevitably find together, you form a bond like no other. Cheers Pol- miss you dude.
Pol was to stay in Finland for a while longer to be joined by more friends and to experience the mid-summer there- the year’s biggest party in honor of the summer solstice. For me it was a flight to Oslo, Norway where I was hoping to meet another brother, Keith, who made it to Europe only about a month after we’d planned, despite the healing collarbone. But, unfortunately, due to a miscommunication and my not wanting to miss out on a cheap plane ticket, I flew to Oslo too early. So instead of a rendezvous in Oslo we’d meet a little further down the road in Copenhagen.
I only spent one day in Oslo. Ironically, the flight there was the cheapest flight I’ve ever been on- complete with in-flight wifi. Yet if general prices changed from Finland to Norway, they went up. A bit confusing with the Norwegian Kronner in place of the Euro, but a little mental math doesn’t hurt. Of course I kept second guessing it thinking- no, it can’t be that expensive. Still though, I did alright. It helped that I only spent one day there, seeing all the free sights within walking distance and creatively finding meals in what was on sale at the grocery store. It was actually a really fun day despite me being one of many tourists as there were two massive cruise ships in the harbor. Many tourists, but I think I was the youngest by a couple of generations.
From Olso I took an overnight bus to Stockholm, Sweden where I went from rags to riches. Pol hooked it up, yet again (he doesn’t even have to be there to rock your world, that’s how cool he is) and put me in touch with his also-French friend Khaled who lives and works in Stockholm. By sheer luck I found barely enough wifi to get a hold of Khaled before he left for work- a huge win! See I had had about 2 hours of sleep my last day in Helsinki, done a full day of walking Oslo with a full backpack, then struggled through discomfort, unable to sleep on the overnight bus- all in the name of trekking hard. More than anything I needed a shower and a nap. I certainly didn’t need a day of walking Stockholm waiting for Khaled to get off work. Well, he interrupted his breakfast to meet me at the park near his building- with me looking as homeless as I felt and probably smelled. I followed him to the 9th story penthouse that his company puts him up in. It went something like this: Well, I have to go to work, but here is the key if you want to go out, there is the couch if you need a nap, here is a towel if you need a shower, and feel free to anything in the fridge. I’ll be back around 6:30. This is a guy I just met, you realize. But, a friend of a friend is a friend. I had trouble containing my happiness. Khaled, you are the MAN!
Of course, with such a cool host I stayed longer than planned. I saw a lot of the beautiful city- tons of archaic buildings situated on a network of islands. We watched a few Euro Cup matches, seeing France beat the Ukraine (quite nice considering France’s current national team, that the Ukraine was at home, and that I was hanging out with three Frenchmen). And got a taste of the Swedish night life- which a lot of people were bashing, but I thought was a lot of fun (it’s who you’re with that makes it, really).
But duty called. Keith and I had made a plan to meet at the southern corner of Orsted Park in Copenhagen, and I wasn’t about to miss that. So, yet another overnight bus (they just make so much sense) from Stockholm- south through Sweden all night, across an incredibly long bridge back onto continental Europe the next morning, and into Copenhagen. Right in the center practically, which, as Keith flew in, wasn’t the case for him. This proved to be problematic. He ended up getting off the train into town a couple stops early and took a stressful self-guided tour of Copenhagen searching for me all morning. Meanwhile, I was between the meeting point, the supermarket for our breakfast food items, and McDonalds for some McWireless- confused as to where he was and assuming that he’d message me if something had happened and he wasn’t going to make it. Finally, there he was.
What a glorious reunion (not too tight of a hug with the healing collarbone), there in that fine park in Copenhagen- we had already had our first adventure. We enjoyed some very cheap muesli and yogurt before embarking on adventure number two- meeting up with our host who had a couch for us to surf.
After finally finding a phone to use, but getting no answer, then getting dumped on by the most insane downpour I’ve ever experienced, we finally made it to Jibriil’s flat. He wasn’t around but his roommate Kristopher let us in and helped us out with some hot coffee. We actually ended up hanging out with Kristopher the whole night- watching the Danes lose to the Germans in the Euro Cup and checking out a reggae club where Kristopher works (the only fun place in the city on a Sunday night).
We finally met Jibriil (technically our actual host) the next day, and he gave us an awesome tour of the city- checking out some impressive royal buildings, the wonderful canals, an opera house, and of course the infamous Christiania. We had the pleasure of meeting up with Sanita, who I met in Riga, and some of her friends for a picnic and some drinks. Our time in Copenhagen was entirely too short. Our host was awesome and the city seemed like it had plenty of adventures in store. But again, duty called. Keith and I had made plans with the wonderful Kate Lennon to meet at the bus station in Berlin the next day- no way we were missing that. The epicness that we found in Berlin is to come.
A couple more things. First, Scandinavia is WAY far north. As far north as I’ll probably ever go, to be here just before the solstice was incredible. The sun takes hours to set, and only finally disappears after 11pm. It never actually gets dark though- just the whole sky turns sort of a darker blue, and then the sun pops back up about 4 hours later. So very cool to experience it, but it really makes me want to experience the opposite- 20 hours of darkness and never quite daylight during the winter solstice. Of course it’s insanely cold around then- I’d probably need some more clothes, but I think it’d be awesome.
Second, I LOVE that all these Scandinavian cities are so closely tied to the water. All three of the cities I spent time in were right on the ocean, with different parts of the city on different islands and canals every few streets. I think it really gives a peacefulness to the vibe of the city. There is inevitably so much vast open space, just around the corner from downtown. It was something that I didn’t really anticipate, but really enjoyed. Maybe some cause for concern with that whole rising sea-level thing though.
Third, I HATE that everywhere in the world is under construction. In London it was insane, but I figured it was just in preparation for the Olympics. In Warsaw as well- this street and that plaza closed for construction, but they had the Euro Cup coming up. Well it hasn’t just been those places, it has been EVERYWHERE! And it’s getting incredibly annoying. I don’t know what the projects are and why there are so many, but all the cranes in seemingly every skyline view has really got me wondering.
And again, I have to mention the prices once more. It’s so interesting because even when there are things that you think are cheap the world over- they aren’t cheap here. I think I paid like $7 US to take the metro in Stockholm- and that was a set price, no matter how far you go. A half-liter beer in a pub would cost like $10 US. Things in the supermarket, bus rides, coffee, bread- everything seems double, triple or even quadruple the price in the states. I can’t imagine what a hostel costs and I’m very thankful to not have had to find out. Of course if you live here and work here it’s another thing. I understand that salaries are inflated by a similar percentage. Plus you can pay for longer term things like monthly transit cards which make the transit affordable. And yeah, we did find ways around some costs- searching supermarkets for sale items and biking instead of taking public transport. Still, just another crazy experience I wanted to share which I didn’t expect to fascinate me as much as it did.
Finally, another thank you to my hosts. Jaakko, Katja, Lauri, Khaled, Kristopher, Jibriil- you guys let me into your homes and showed me a kindness which helps to restore my faith in humanity. I not only owe you for the hospitality, but for that hope as well. Thank you again. You have friends in California.
All the best.