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Tag: Helsinki

Start by learning ‘P’ is ‘R’, and the rest will follow

So, before I get into Russia, I just have to mention the rest of my ferry trip. It got way more interesting! After I wrote that last entry, I went up to the pub and got a very tasty pint of Helsinki Porter. I can’t have been sitting there 5 minutes, just about to bust out the kindle, when this older guy came and asked if, since I was alone, I wanted a chat. So I said of course! His name was Heimo, from Finland, and he was just on the boat with a friend for fun because, ‘hey, it’s cheaper than going to a restaurant!’ which, yes, the fare actually is.

Anyway, I told him about my trip, which was met with the usual expressions of disbelief, but he was totally into it. He’d done a bunch of traveling himself and he was super excited for me, which was lovely. He then INSISTED I come with him to the karaoke at one of the other bars. I was slightly hesitant because, ugh, karaoke, but then I was like, obviously, what else am I going to do, why on earth would I say no to this. So we went to the other bar where we met his friend and a group of girls about my age who were having a bit of a work Christmas do.

There were all of maybe 15 other people in this massive bar space with a stage and a dancefloor in front of it, and a whole lot of Finnish karaoke ensued. The girls and Heimo also sang some things in English (The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and of all things, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ to which I said surely it’s bad luck to sing that on a boat?!). They were all trying to get me to sing because, according to the girls, it’s just WHAT YOU DO on the Finnish ferry (this was backed up by Carolina and Johanna later). I said the only way it would happen was if they had ‘500 Miles’ by the Proclaimers, which they did not, so I was off the hook. But I did do some dancing with them! It was all very bizarre and wonderful. Just the sort of crazy shit I hoped would happen.

Anyway. After a day of bad weather and rest in Helsinki (and a lovely dinner with Carolina and Johanna) it was off to Russia. The border crossing was super easy as everything was done on board the train and all the train staff spoke Russian, Finnish, and English, so everything was explained perfectly. But then you get off the train in St Petersburg and it’s like the deepest deep end. They direct the international passengers directly onto the street, not even into the station. I’m SO GLAD my host Elena was there to meet me because I probably would have been a bit lost without her.

The main terrifying thing is having no grasp on the alphabet, let alone the language. So everything just feels ten times more confusing. I realise this will occur pretty much every time I enter a new country on this trip (Mongolia does use the Cyrillic alphabet but apparently it’s a little different) but maybe it’s because I’m so close to Europe that it feels that much more shocking. I have such bad memory for language learning, and even my very few words of Russian exit my brain when I’m feeling frazzled (I have had about 10 moments every day where I temporarily forget Спасибо (spasiba) – which is ‘Thank you’ and just about the only thing I know outside of ‘da’ and ‘nyet’). But I’m trying really hard to learn the alphabet so that I can at least read things properly. I’m about 3/4s of the way there. I basically just try to read every word I see to myself, and use the things that are in both Latin and Cyrillic to help me. Also, all the Western brand names are written in Cyrillic (Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, etc) which does help me fill in the blanks because I know what they say already.

It’s quite nice to witness my brain building new connections, because I’ve been here 4 days and I AM learning. Slowly, but it’s happening. Immersion! It works.

I also fully realise it’s ridiculous to expect myself to know all the languages I’ll encounter, but I have this native-English-speaker guilt that I don’t know any more than English. If I maybe knew ONE other language (HTML does NOT count) I’d probably feel a little better about things, but to be so privileged to speak a language that so many other cultures learn as a second (and sometimes third or fourth), it feels so lazy to not know more. I really, REALLY wish ALL English speaking countries required kids to learn a second language from the time they start school. The world would be a much better place. And it would be easier!

In any case, all I can do is make my best effort. And I do. And of course ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ are ALWAYS first.

That first day was immensely tiring. I did wake up at 5 to get the train, but that combined with brain-working-overtime and new country anxiety is a recipe for pure exhaustion. I didn’t exactly take it easy. Elena took me home to drop my bags and have a shower, then she made me an AMAZING breakfast of fried cottage cheese cakes with sour cream and jam, then some tea and meat and bread (this was the first of MANY incredible breakfasts). She then helped me out with maps and metro stuff and a few other basics, then sent me on my way into town to the Hermitage since it would be dark soon and I might as well do something indoors.

So, I was off. The metro is relatively easy as everything is colour coded and written in Latin and Cyrillic and it’s just a metro. I’ve not yet encountered one that’s not workable. But then I got off at Nevsky Prospect and luckily went in roughly the right direction because the tourist maps were not really computing in my head and everything was so jaw-droppingly gigantic and Russian. When I saw the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood down one of the streets I quite literally did a double-take. It was like seeing the Sydney Opera House for the first time in real life – you can’t quite believe something you’ve seen in a bunch of pictures is a real thing in your sight-line.

In my tourist haze, I made it to the Hermitage, which is pretty much the top of every St Petersburg list. And it is big, big, big. Bigger than big. There is so much art in the place I almost stopped seeing it. The detail in the doorknobs alone could fill its own museum. (My favourite was an eagle talon holding a red ball of glass. I don’t know why I didn’t take a picture. It was fucking cool.) The floors and the ceilings and every bit of each of the rooms were at least as interesting to me as anything they contained. And boringly, one of the things I kept wondering about is how on earth they keep it all so clean. And how it must cost a FORTUNE to heat, especially here. (I’m definitely British now.)

I don’t really do well with excessive museum-and-gallery-going, and I hit my saturation point in the Hermitage pretty fast. Tour groups with selfie sticks (AGH!) and people taking more pictures of the art than actually looking at it never help this. And then I start questioning how we as a culture make decisions about what to preserve, and why so much of it, and are people really paying attention to it, especially now that they seem to just take pictures of it instead. (Do they ever even LOOK at those pictures if they can’t be bothered to look when they’re IN the place?) This is not to say preserving things isn’t worth it, but where do you start and stop? We can’t save everything forever.

On the other hand, what I usually take away from such massive collections like this and the Louvre and the Met and all, is just LOOK at what humans are capable of. There is such unbelievably detailed and skilled craft and art on display in these places in such quantities. There is some bad shit going down in the world right now, and it’s nice to be reminded that we as a race are fucking amazing. Why any one of us could then decide to turn around and shoot someone capable of such creativity boggles my mind, but at least there’s plenty of proof in the world that we do some good stuff.

Speaking of which, THE FOOKIN’ BALLET. (Thanks to Billy Elliot, I can’t actually hear the word Ballet without that happening in my head. SORRY.) After a somewhat terrifying first experience ordering food (Russian fast food to be precise. Pancakes!), I went to the Mariinsky Theatre to see my FIRST EVER Ballet, Don Quixote. I, in my hiking shoes, jeans, and wool hoodie, had an amazing seat in an amazing theatre among all sorts of fancily dressed people. It was so impressive. It was 3 hours long! Those dancers have some superhuman talent. And muscles. I honestly thought some of them couldn’t possibly be real. And a full live orchestra is such a lovely thing. AND there was even a horse and a donkey! (They were not dancing.)

At the end of the night, I managed to find a whole different metro stop in the cold and windy rain and get back to Elena’s in one very tired piece. There was then fruit and tea. She has Twinings English Breakfast tea and did not tut at my request for milk. This cup solved all my immediate problems – further proof I’m a fully assimilated Brit.

I then slept like the dead for 10 hours on a golden couch. And that is how you do a first day in Russia.

No fixed… anything

I’m nearly at the end of my first full week of traveling, and it’s been pretty full of… traveling. The obvious never fails to astonish me.

It was always going to be about the moving around parts as much as the seeing places parts, but this first week was mostly a means of getting to Russia without flying. I’m really happy I didn’t opt for solid travel straight through, but even with the break days, it’s been a somewhat unexpected challenge adapting to a constantly changing schedule and environment.

I’m currently on the ferry from Stockholm to Turku (where I’ll catch a train to Helsinki and get in late tonight). I’d booked a space in a shared 4-berth inner cabin – the cheapest you can get – and I imagine it’s because of the time of year or something, but: AIN’T NOBODY HERE BUT ME.

When I boarded and no one else showed up in the cabin, I went to the info desk to check if I had it to myself and nearly did a (tired) little dance when they confirmed I’d have sweet, sweet personal space at my disposal for the next 12 hours. It’s a small space for 4 people to share, but not as small as a train cabin, and quite big for one person. And what it lacks in windows, it makes up for in a surprisingly good shower and a TV that I’ve tuned to the mast camera channel so I can see when it’s worth going to look out a window (and listen to the cheesy music they’ve got playing over the view).

I got zero sleep last night in the hostel in Stockholm – which was actually a great hostel, I’m just horrible at sleep, more on which later. But I’ve already taken the cabin-to-myself opportunity to have a nap, and I may even have another later. Luxury! I’ve also had a long hot shower and a reorganisation of my packing.

I’ve brought a bunch of food with me, which is good because everything is stupid expensive. I had a very tiny coffee in the cafeteria when I boarded and I may treat myself to a beer in a bit, but I’m trying pretty hard to keep the food spending down. This is one of the things that comes to the fore when constantly traveling on a a groceries-not-restaurants budget and not a lot of space. I am ALWAYS thinking about food.

I mean, ok, that’s not actually much different from the normal state of Kate affairs, but now I’m just thinking about what I can buy that’s cheap and portable and perhaps most importantly, healthy. It’s pretty easy to eat a lot of crap, and I know myself enough to know that if I eat that kind of crap for even a few days I’ll feel horrendous.

I’ve done pretty well so far, but doing pretty well has nonetheless consisted of a lot of cheese and rye sandwiches. And fruit. And chocolate. My stomach is going, ‘WHERE IS ALL THAT HEALTHY SHIT YOU USUALLY GIVE ME?’ I’ve put in as many vegetables as possible, but they’re not always as easily portable. I was feeling a bit greens-starved yesterday so when I found someone had left a whole bag of kale in the free/leftover food fridge in the hostel kitchen, I flash-fried it all in garlic and butter for dinner. A dude from California who insisted I have one of his beers (nice!) gave me some stick for this, but I’m ok being the kind of food nerd who gets excited about someone’s leftover kale.

On the sleep front, I’ve found the hostel thing pretty tiring in general. I’m really looking forward to the couchsurfing parts of my trip because of that. I even think I might find it easier to sleep on the trains than in hostels. We’ll see. I’m so rubbish at getting to sleep in unfamiliar places in general, and it’s nice that I never really have anything like work to worry about the next day, but being tired when you can’t go home and take a nap really does bring a day down, no matter where you are. And if I’m tired enough, I actually just start feeling sick. Hopefully by the end of this trip I’ll have trained myself to be able to sleep absolutely anywhere at the drop of a hat, but right now I’m still the same as ever.

All of this falls under the self-care umbrella, and one of my main goals for this whole trip is to be better at that in general. If I can achieve it while moving around strange places, surely I’ll be able to keep it up in a home setting. But one of the biggest lessons I’m constantly learning is that I really don’t HAVE to do anything. I can do or not do whatever I want and whatever makes me feel ok. And I realise that sounds stupidly obvious, but when you’re going to all these cool places, even ones you’ve already been to before, I find there’s this weird pressure to Go See And Do All The Things You Can. And that is mostly self-pressure, but it’s there, and it takes a while to be like, actually, while I love the hell out of Stockholm and I’m excited to be back, all I feel like doing is finding a suitable pastry provider, wandering around for a few hours fairly aimlessly, then sitting in the hostel in my pajamas, drinking a few local craft beers, reading, and doing some life admin. This may be a holiday, but it’s a long one, and holiday mode now just means taking care of myself in whatever way I decide to that day.

So the break days between full-on transportation days were a totally good call. I’ve already had my share of delays and rushing around. I love sitting on the trains (for the most part) but the business of getting yourself on and off them and between transport and accommodation is pretty draining. I had a 2.5 hour layover in Brussels on Sunday and I didn’t get my act together enough to go find a place to have a nice Belgian beer. And I was slightly hungover from all the prosecco I drank the night before at Seema’s anyway, so I gave the booze a miss completely and bought some fancy chocolate instead. And it was good I treated myself when I had the chance because my third train of the day had been cancelled so I ended up on a not-as-nice train that was like sitting in a strip-lit office for 4.5 hours (WHY DO THEY MAKE IT SO BRIGHT). I distracted myself by watching Dear Mr Watterson on my computer, but I was ready to be off of trains altogether.

Monday was the first day I was really excited about specifically, because it was the TRAIN ON A BOAT day. Ever since I read about it on Seat 61 I couldn’t wait to see the business of getting an ICE train on a ferry. It’s one of two places in Europe that this happens, and it’s just freakin’ cool. In fact, it’s probably the thing that sealed the deal on me choosing the Scandinavian route to Russia. So that was awesome and we had brilliant weather for the journey too.

On that train I also had my first Meet Interesting People From All Of The Places conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He was a political scientist from Afghanistan who I think was some kind of diplomat. He’d traveled quite a lot and even lived in India for 12 years, but this was his first time in the West. He’d been in Copenhagen for a panel on something and then went down to Hamburg to visit a friend at the university and was on his way back to the airport to fly home. I didn’t get his name, which I feel a bit ridiculous about, but I guess when you’ve been talking to someone for a few hours and neither of you ever bothered to ask, it just never happens.

Anyway, he had all sorts of things to talk about. He was completely thrown off by the sun coming up so late and going down so early so I told him about how that’s all even more drastic in Scotland. He showed me loads of gorgeous pictures of Afghanistan and his family on his phone, which made me realise I really need to load a few more of Scotland onto mine to show, because there aren’t enough.

He had a picture of Kabul in the 60s. Everyone was wearing bellbottoms and it seriously could have been like a US college campus the way everyone was dressed so casually. He talked about how everything is completely different now with women wearing headscarfs and people being more formal and closed off in public. He seemed pretty bummed out about it, and I wish I’d asked him more about that but I’ve not quite hit my asking-strangers-deep-questions-about-their-cultures stride yet.

We talked a lot about languages too, and he told me how hard it had been to learn English because it was outlawed during the Taliban regime, so he’d go to this woman’s house with a bunch of other kids and they’d learn it in secret. Imagine learning a language you’re not allowed to speak. How freaking hard that would be!

If everyone I end up chatting to is even half as interesting as that guy, this trip is going to be pretty amazing.

That train was late getting into Copenhagen. My seatmate was worried he’d miss his flight out and I was convinced I wasn’t going to make the connection to the Stockholm train because it was originally 15 minutes in between and we got in as it should have been leaving. I wasn’t too fussed about getting rebooked on a later train if it meant I’d get myself a proper Danish cinnamon roll, but as we pulled in to the station, they announced that the Stockholm train would be waiting for us, so hurry to track 6 where it was. Except it WASN’T, it was at 7, so I went up and down a lot of stairs very quickly and jumped on the Swedish train just as the doors were closing. I don’t think anyone’s ever spent less time in Copenhagen. But I made it. And that train was then half an hour late into Stockholm so I really never would have made the University Lindy Hop Monday social I’d wanted to go to. Instead, I went grocery shopping and chilled out in the lovely City Backpackers hostel common room, planning my first day without the need for setting an alarm.

Today will be my last full day of transportation for a while, which is nice. I have a day in Helsinki tomorrow and then a high speed train to St Petersburg on Friday, where I’ll be seeing the ballet that night. I’ve never seen any ballet and now I get to see it in Russia. Hooray!

Atlas Obscura

This is the bit you might notice at street level.

This is the bit you might notice at street level.

I figure out where to go and what to see when I’m traveling by a combination of friend and interweb recommendations interspersed with a lot of local wandering and asking locals about stuff when I’m feeling bold. (I’m not often feeling bold, but I’m better than I used to be.) The interweb bit can sometimes be a lot of the same thing over and over, but I found Atlas Obscura last year when someone posted a link to the swimming pigs and I now check it all the time when I’m deciding what to do on my next trip. (Because: SWIMMING. PIGS.)

Granted, it does have a lot of the usual touristy stuff scattered in with the truly bizarre and unusual, but that’s no bad thing considering there are usually better write-ups on those things than you’d find in a guidebook or official tourism site. Plus, as it’s all mapped, you can find bizarre things next to the normal tourist trail things, so you can get a bit of everything.

I hit quite a few of its recommendations when I was in Helsinki, and my favourite thing was the Pohjola Insurance building. It’s just an office building in the middle of Helsinki, but it’s got all these absolutely amazing stone carvings all over it. And despite having lived there all their lives, Carolina and Johanna had never noticed all the crazy things all over it, because, as Ferris Bueller is fond of saying, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. And with this place, you have to look UP.

I’ve been having a poke around it for stuff to look for in Paris, and the Arago Medallions seem like something on par with the Pohjola building, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for those. And how could I NOT pay good ol’ Nicolas Flamel a visit?

In any case, I definitely recommend putting Atlas Obscura on your usual travel research list. You can even find stuff in your own city, or better, POST really weird stuff in your own city so we can all find it!

Anyone have other good sources of strange travel planning?


The need to sometimes be alone in the world

Fife Coastal Path

On the Fife Coastal Path. Photo © Duncan Blair

During my recent overlong travel day, I had quite a few moments when I thought how WONDERFUL it was going to be when I finally got into my flat and got reacquainted with my own bed and, perhaps, a pizza or other convenience comfort food. But with my ultimate travel goals on the brain, my longings for home automatically led to wondering what I’d do with those feelings on a much longer trip. One where a very long delay in an airport (or three) may not end in my own flat. Or my own room. Or even in accommodation, let alone a private space.

As travel delays go, my day in Helsinki airport wasn’t really all that bad. It was simple to put myself in a bubble most of the time, and there were plenty of comfortable places to sit and get lost in a podcast without disruption. But it’s not always like that, and even in that fairly good situation, I still wanted out. Most of it was just being tired, but that kind of fatigue makes you susceptible to feeling, physically, like crap. And also to emotions. The kinds of emotions you don’t really want to have a chat with in public.

Quietly getting through the day in full view of a strange public for hours on end seems to get me thinking about my life’s big issues. Past present and future, they’re all fair game. I can’t just shut it all off while I read a trash magazine or something. It’s one of the cruel tricks my brain plays on itself. I am bad at relaxing and I’m bad at being quiet between my ears. This has a way of building up, and it’s harder to manage when I have nowhere to be my bizarre, alone self. (YOU KNOW you have a bizarre, alone self too, so, don’t pretend I’m talking nonsense.)

When I have an end of the day or a destination in sight, I can usually keep this stuff in check with the promise of isolation on its way. But what about when I don’t have a definitive end? What about when I’m on a multi-month trip and may not even know where my next bed is because I’m being adventurous and not always planning that far in advance? What happens when I need to cry or nurse myself to health or just simply be AWAY FROM ALL OTHER HUMANS?

It’s hard enough to do the inner-self-maintenance required to be an outwardly positive or even just pleasant person without worrying about privacy. Sometimes the weight of certain kinds of loneliness, nostalgia, or your own particular madness is such that you need a place to implode without the world watching and wondering and occasionally trying to help. Because there’s no help for having to let yourself be a mess sometimes. You just have to purge that shit by letting it run through you.

So how do you make space for that when your home is on your back? How do you store it up without letting it ruin you? I mean, in my experience airport bathrooms can be good for this stuff in a pinch, but you can only feel so much better about life in a tiny cubicle with a hard, incomplete seat.

I think the simplest answer, as a wise fish once said, is just keep swimming. Easier said than done, particularly in the over-dry air of the most public of public spaces. But it’s the only option, really. The good thing is, at least I’ve found, the more experience you have with the swimming on, the better you get at being a courteous citizen of the sea and doing it without stirring up the shit around you in the water.

Pool in a hole in a giant rock

It may not look like much, but in my lifetime, this pool will be hard to beat.

Speaking of swimming, there is a somewhat positive flip-side to this. Needing to be alone isn’t always about purging the bad stuff, it can be about processing the really, really good stuff. I spent a blissful 15 minutes swimming in the dark in a pool cut into a giant rock looking at the stars in the spectacular African sky after one of the best days of my life in Zimbabwe. It was almost too much happiness to handle at once, and I managed to snag this tiny window of time away from everyone else on the trip to let the circuits in my brain calm down while I floated between the universe and a land that was so fantastic it may as well have been another world. (Why no one else wanted to go swimming at that point is beyond my comprehension. And I probably could have had longer than 15 minutes, but dinner was on and I was also a little worried about being alone in a place where it’s not rare for hungry cheetahs to roam around at night. (TIA, MF!) Sometimes life edits itself to perfection.)

Anyway, when I’m really struggling with a GET ME OUT OF HERE WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PEOPLE AND WHY WON’T THEY GO AWAY HOLY CRAP HOW ON EARTH AM I MEANT TO JUST KEEP FUCKING SWIMMING situation, I’m hoping that I’m at least building up some karma for one of these alone-time bonuses. Actual swimming or not. It’s nice to have an image to work with, and it makes the bad stuff worth enduring now and then.

So I’m figuring the challenge of having no fixed destination is probably all about adaptation. Ten years ago, 10 hours in an airport probably would have made me a lot crankier, but now I put myself on autopilot and just kinda let it wash over me. That definitely makes it easier to handle. Perhaps learning to give zero fucks is the real answer to this problem, and sometimes you just gotta be a wreck for all to see if there’s nowhere to hide it and no ideal pool to go nightswimming in.

But thinking about it certainly makes me value the fact that I do currently have a place to come home to, even if there’s no pizza waiting.

Finland 2014

Suomenlinna island

Suomenlinna island

Here’s the final rundown of my Finnish adventure. This trip grew out of my trip to Africa. That’s where I met Johanna and Carolina and they were awesome enough to invite me to stay after Carolina told me about how great the Flow Festival was. They truly spoiled me! Finland was absolutely amazing and I hope I can go back, but that’s not surprising given my love of the Nordic countries and culture.


My full Flickr set for Finland.


I used the Trail Wallet app for the first time on this trip, which I will review in more detail in another post, but it definitely made it easy to keep track of what I was spending.

Trip total: £651.13

At 9 days, 8 nights, that’s an average of £72.35 per day, which is pretty high, but not outrageous considering the amount of stuff I did and the high cost of everything in the country where I was. I also offset this by renting out my flat for the week for £150 and putting £125 of some freelance income towards the trip.


£207.68 on food and drink. I didn’t actually do as much drinking on this trip as I usually do on holidays, but that’s because alcohol in Scandinavia is notoriously expensive. I was no worse off for it though. I had one night of beer variety which was part of the most expensive day, and the rest of the time I just had one here and there. The food was absolutely amazing all the time. Johanna and Carolina also did a lot of making stuff for me, which was so nice and VERY much appreciated.

£178.60 on transport. Including flights and local transport in Helsinki.

£163.64 on entertainment. Mostly of which was my two-day Flow ticket (£122).

£41.65 on gifts for other people. This was largely things for Carolina’s birthday and some hostess gifts. (I had no accommodation costs on this trip because she very kindly put up with me in her flat for a whole week.) I also got little stuff for my parents and candy to bring to work.

£35.52 on gifts for myself. One wooly reindeer hat and one cushion cover from Marimekko!

£24.04 miscellaneous. In this case it was sunscreen and the trail wallet app.


Not being early is not the same as being late

A hat for the next ten years

Work in the wilderness

The (unexpected) neverending day

Being a touristy-tourist in Helsinki

Coveting design, eating fish, and havin’ a sauna

Flow Festival 2014

Or: ‘How on earth is the food at a music festival THIS GOOD?!’

Such a brilliant setting for a festival

Suvilahti, such a brilliant setting for a festival.

Seriously. Flow was my first ever real festival experience and I think I’m spoiled now. I saw such amazing music and ate so incredibly well. There was no camping and no one was super drunk or rowdy. People were polite and happy and up for a good time. Maybe this is what an ideal society really looks like. Feed people well and provide excellent music, civilisation of the highest degree will follow.

Add to all this a fantastic location and visual landscape and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty perfect event.

First, the food. THE FOOD! There was a dizzying array of choices, and I was never disappointed. I don’t even think it was particularly overpriced considering the extremely high quality.

And the music! Saturday I saw Bill Callahan, Manic Street Preachers, Little Dragon, The National, and Poliça.

Little Dragon were great and dancey, and I stayed to watch Poliça mostly to experience the Balloon 360 stage which was enhanced by the full moon hanging around behind it.

Little Dragon in the Lumia Blue Tent

Little Dragon

Poliça on the Balloon 360 stage

Poliça on the Balloon 360 stage

Sunday was Tuomo, who’s Finnish and does kind of electro soul. He was one of Carolina’s favourites and I thought he was fantastic. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures.

We took a break before Janelle Monáe, who was just a powerhouse of badassery and awesomeness. The woman is a force and her music is so, so good.

Janelle Monáe on the main stage

Janelle Monáe on the main stage

And the icing on the festival and holiday cake was OutKast, which was pretty much the main initial draw for me. They were super fun. Did all the hits and kept me dancing and yelling for nearly two hours.

Outkast on the main stage


Coveting design, eating fish, and havin’ a sauna

DUNE by Daan Roosegaarde at Designmuseo

DUNE by Daan Roosegaarde at Designmuseo

I’m a big fan of Scandinavian design, so my one museum on this trip was always going to be Designmuseo Helsinki. Wednesday was Carolina’s birthday, so while she prepped her party, I went to wander around the Museum and the Design District in town.

The Designmuseo is perfectly sized for my lack of attention span for museums. The main floor is a permanent installation of the history of Finnish design. Super informative and really well-curated. All the descriptions are in Finnish, Swedish and English, and they manage to do all that without making anything look busy or flooded with text. It’s a really good overview with lots of eye-candy.

There were some design classics I knew were Finnish, but I had no idea Fiskars was! I have few brand loyalties but my Fiskars scissors are THE BEST. I’ve got a pair for paper and a pair for fabric, and they have both stayed with me for ages. When I was buying a multi-tool 10 years ago, I settled on a Gerber because the scissors in it were Fiskars, and to me, that meant the thing would be excellent forever. And thus far, it has been. Anyway, this was pretty exciting to me. I LOVE good design. And the thing is, they’re so good that despite really loving the Fiskars with Moomins on the handles in some of the shops, I totally couldn’t justify buying another pair because the ones I have are still going strong.

But I digress. Back to the museum. The top floor was an exhibition on Ilmari Tapiovaara whose name I didn’t recognise but I DID easily recognise some of the chairs he’d designed. And this man designed a LOT of chairs. He did loads of other things too. I was a big fan of the designs he did for Finnair, which included both the interior and exterior of the planes as well as things like departure lounges. He also did a set of dorm room furniture which was incredibly clever and probably way better than anything I ever had to deal with in college. Most of what was on display included background on how the designs came about and how they were developed, including sketches and photographs. This was endlessly fascinating to me.

The last stop was the basement, where there was an installation called DUNE by Daan Roosegaarde. It’s an interactive piece made up of a bunch of lights and sound that react to your movements. It was in a room almost completely in the dark, and there wasn’t anyone else down there when I arrived, so it took me a while to understand how it worked. But once I realised the lights were coming on and going off depending on how fast I walked by, I started swooping my hands around over them and playing with how the sensors worked. I basically played with a room full of lights for 15 minutes. It was brilliant. And the sounds that it used reminded me a lot of the weird clinky noises the frogs in the delta in Botswana made, which I loved.

A massive plate of Muikku fried in butter in Market Square. SO TASTY. So many fishes.

A massive plate of Muikku fried in butter in Market Square. SO TASTY. So many fishes.

After the museum, I went to the Market Square to get a plate of Muikku for lunch. I’d been told that it was the thing I needed to try. Muikku are just little white fish, but they fry them in butter and give you a huge pile of them. I got mine with potatoes and veg and they give you garlic sauce to dip them in and you just eat them bones and all. They were REALLY good, but I couldn’t nearly finish the whole plate even though I was starving my head off by the time I sat down.

Sufficiently fueled up, I spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the shops in the Design District. I went into the big name shops like Marimekko and Artek and had many small internal crises about why I wanted some of these gorgeous things so badly. The furniture in Artek is stunning, simple, and EXPENSIVE. And regardless of the fact that I know it will last forever, I found myself arguing WITH MYSELF about whether or not spending upwards of €3000 on a chair is a justifiable thing. And I think it is, in some cases. But there were so many other things I saw in shops that day, big and small, that if money and space were no object I would snap up in an instant. Part of that is being a sucker for that kind of design, but I feel like the other part of it is something slightly uglier and unnecessary that has more to do with consumer culture and the need to BUY STUFF. Which I’m really trying to get away from. But in the meantime, I can just admire all this stuff and wonder if I’ll ever have a room that contains an Artek chair.

In stark contrast to my day of coveting design, we spent the next day at Johanna’s family’s summer cottage on a lake in southern Finland. When I booked this trip, going to the cottage was the first thing that was discussed, by way of this brilliant song by Ylvis:

We didn’t have spaghetti, but there’s no running water so we filled a bunch of bottles to bring up ourselves. I washed the potatoes for lunch in the lake (which was actually much better than washing them in a sink). And there was indeed a ramshackle collection of cutlery and dishes. But there was also a gorgeous lake, a hammock, a sauna, sunshine, good company, and hours to chill out and do a lot of nothing.


This must be at least one of the definitions of paradise.

I went for a swim. I read about the horrendousness of the industrial food chain (I make strange holiday reading choices) just before being served a spread of food so far from industrial production it nearly made me weep with joy. I had a proper Finnish sauna experience, sitting in the heat for a while, going to dive into the lake, lather, rinse, repeat a few times. With a sauna beer on one go-round even. It was such a good day. I could have spent a full week there easily. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay the night because Johanna had to work the next day, but because there were so few distractions, the 8 or so hours we were there felt like ages and ages, in the best possible way.

Back in Helsinki on Friday, I was introduced to the Moomins via YouTube, and then Carolina and I took a bike ride to Arabia, which is the area where a lot of Finish design comes from. I avoided buying more stuff. Narrowly. And then we went to the amusement park Linnanmäki to ride the 64-year-old wooden rollercoaster, which was, of course, fantastic. The rest of the day was pretty low-key, because Saturday and Sunday were going to be full of food and music at Flow Festival, so we were storing up energy for the weekend.

Being a touristy-tourist in Helsinki

View from the rocks on Suomenlinna.

View from the rocks on Suomenlinna.

My first day in Helsinki consisted of a lot of wandering around the city centre, seeing lovely things and dodging the sun. We then got on a ferry to Suomenlinna island (which is part of the regular transport network so included on my two day ticket (!)), had a picnic, and then sat on the rocks and stuck our feet in the Baltic sea and soaked up the sun while eating fresh Finnish raspberries. Then I had beer brewed on the island and went back to Carolina’s apartment and crashed for some happy, happy holiday sleep. It was a damn fine way to start a vacation.

The second day, I decided that the city bus tour Johanna had suggested was a pretty good plan. I’ve never done a bus tour of any city before, so I thought I ought to experience one. This wasn’t the usual hop-on-hop-off city tour either, this was a pricier 2-hour cruise in an air-conditioned coach with commentary in all sorts of languages and the clientele you’d expect on such an offering. I usually like to experience a city on foot and just discover things, and you can’t really do that on any kind of bus, particularly a big fancy one. However, it was hot and we’d spent the previous day walking for quite a while, so it turned out to be a really good way to get an overview of the city while relaxing and not sweating.

I know full well that for a lot of people, this kind of tour is what travel is. It’s the only way some folks will see cities, and then they’ll go back to their hotels and probably pay too much for everything they eat and drink and not catch little details like the carvings in the Pohjola Insurance building or try lots of crazy different Finnish candy from a salmiakki kiosk. And you know, I guess that’s ok. Not everyone sees the world the same way. Not everyone wants to get into the cracks. They’re still seeing a new place and learning about it. And I think it’s worthwhile for me to see the more touristy side of travel sometimes, even if only to better relate to how other people like to get around.

So I enjoyed the tour. It made two stops at two places I really wanted to see (the Sibelius monument and the Temppeliaukion kirkko), and for the rest of the time, it took a nice leisurely drive all over town with pretty varied commentary on not just the buildings and sights, but also the culture and history and social structure of Helsinki and Finland. They covered how healthcare and school works and what sorts of living arrangements people have, and there was a good sprinkle of anecdotal detail, like how Finnish UN troops have even been known to build saunas when posted in the desert because the Finnish LOVE their saunas.

There was also, of course, a bit of marketing for the tour company tossed in. And the English track was read by what sounded like a very polite older British gentleman. They were definitely playing to their core audience. Some of the phrasing and light humour was pretty amusing at times, mostly because I knew I was NOT the type of person it was aimed at.

Overall, it was a nice way to get out of the abnormal Nordic heatwave and do some leisure learning. Carolina came with me and she said even she learned some things she didn’t know about a place she’s lived all her life. And later in the day, after a trip up the Olympic Stadium tower, I did my more usual tour of the beers (and whisky!) of Finland with the help of Johanna and her work friends Maria and Esko, who steered me to all sorts of very good places, nearly got locked in a legendary Finnish rock club, and taught me a useful yet slightly ridiculous Finnish expression to use after an excellent meal. (Stay tuned, I will get it in writing.)

Eating and drinking
Restaurant Suomenlinnan Panimo
Feltbay Bar
Ravintola Ilves

On the kindle
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

A hat for the next ten years

New hat!

New hat!

I have so much to say about Finland already, but this will be a short one because posting from a phone after midnight just isn’t going to deliver quality.

Earlier this year on a tumblr project started by my friend Sara, I briefly described the loss of my beloved sheep hat.

Since then, I’ve been looking for my next signature winter hat. I thought when I went to Gothenburg in December, that surely I would find a suitable Swedish-made wooly hat, preferably involving some kind of antlered creature design. But I found nothing! In winter! In Sweden!

So imagine my delight when today, in the market square of Helsinki, in a 30 degree heat wave, I found a PERFECT wooly, Finnish reindeer hat. Which I bought without even thinking. I love it and I hope it lasts me at least another ten years.

Not being early is not the same as being late

Today was supposed to be my first trip on an Edinburgh Tram. I was TOTALLY looking forward to this. But then I failed to do my normal obsessive planning and checking ahead, and I ended up overheated and slightly harried. And on the Airlink bus.

I will back up.

I have friends of friends staying in my flat while I’m in Finland, and we all went to eat lunch and do some leisurely Sunday afternoon day drinking at Serrano Manchego before I headed off to the airport. I had two glasses of wine and a lot of fancy ham. I was feeling jolly holiday-ish indeed. Then I realised I needed to leave if I did not in fact want to miss my actual jolly holiday altogether.

I had bought my tram tickets the day before on the ever-so-useful mTickets app, but I didn’t check transport updates before I went trekking up the hill to the end of the tram line. Had I done so, I would have taken a bus and ended up on the tram eventually. But herein lies my ‘ALWAYS check’ lesson.

The trams were only running from the west end because of some march on Princes St.

Hell if I was gonna walk all the way to the west end. And I’m too stubborn to get on a bus to the tram FROM THE ACTUAL TRAM STOP. So. Airlink bus.

I should say that I actually love the Airlink. And I’m pretty sure it beat the tram we passed on the west end anyway. Plus free wifi. But I should have checked before I left. LESSON LEARNED.

Because I like being early. It calms me. It gives me time to eat things and have a ‘it’s holiday time’ overpriced airport beverage. It’s what I do. But not today. Today was a get-to-the-airport-as-late-as-comfortably-possible sort of day. Not late, mind you, but to me, that’s usually anxiety time.

I think I handled it well though. And then I handled it well again when, on landing in Stockholm with a fairly tight connection, the plane waited ages just before getting to the gate because the automatic guidance system wasn’t working. They had to wait for a human to guide the plane in. Quite literally 10 extra feet straight on. SAFETY. But what was I gonna do?

I got off the flight with just enough time to go back through passport control and security, trot to the other end of the nearly deserted terminal, make use if my very tiny Swedish vocabulary to buy some chocolate for dinner, and get right back on a plane. Again: not late, but not early.

But you don’t have to be early to get the job done. Sometimes you just gotta make it. And I did. And I’m in Finland!

(And I’ve also just written my first entry on an iPhone. WE LIVE IN THE FUTURE.)

Eating and drinking
Serrano Manchego

On the kindle
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

In the headphones