Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Finland

© 1992, 2018 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[This diary was written by hand in a spiral notebook during the trip in 1992. Now, I've transcribed and edited it.]

I was on my way to St. Petersburg, Russia, to give a series of lectures, and my wife, Jenny, and my 8-year-old son, Scott, were with me. We spent time in Finland at the start of the trip and then again at the end. This was our first trip to either country.

[Diary] Neighbor Joe, drove us to Washington National Airport (DCA). We stood in line quite some time at a counter at the new Delta Airlines terminal, waiting for an international check-in agent. Two young Italians were behind us, and they had just completed a vacation out in the Wild West. They had purchased a brand new anvil and were taking it home to Milan as excess baggage! [When was the last time you saw anyone traveling with their own anvil?] We also met an American couple who had recently visited Australia.

We rode a Boeing 727 to the JFK airport in the greater New York City area. It was an uneventful flight, and on landing we went straight to the gate of our international flight, where we had an hour's wait. During that time, I watched all the planes coming and going. They included the following carriers: Aeroflot, Pakistan International, Swissair, Lufthansa, Air Lingus, El Al, Tower Air, Varig, British Airways, Iberia, KLM, Alitalia, Air France (including a Concorde), Lan Chile, Egypt Air, LTU International, LOT, Garuda, Ladeco, Austrian, Dominicana, Air India, Turkish, Mexicana, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, plus seven US-based airlines. It was quite a collection, and that's just the ones I could see in one hour. Many planes were Boeing 747s, with some Airbus and Boeing 767s as well. It was a colorful and impressive display. To demonstrate how JFK is at a major international crossroad, the airport map/guide stations were presented in nine languages, including Russian.

It was a hazy day, but from the terminal, way off in the distance we got a glimpse of Manhattan Island. Scott could just see the Statue of Liberty, and he quickly identified the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and the Empire State Building. We boarded Delta Airlines Flight DL042, an Airbus going non-stop to Helsinki, Finland. However, once we were all seated, a 1-hour delay was announced, as there was bad weather out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Once we were airborne, we flew northeast over Boston; the coast of Maine; Nova Scotia, Canada; just south of Iceland; and across Norway and Sweden. Not long after we boarded, dinner was served, and we had a choice of Filet Mignon or Coq au Vin. Scott and Jenny had the beef, while I had the chicken. I enjoyed the meal, except for the part where I got icing from my dessert all over my jacket! The menu was printed in English, Swedish, and Finnish. [Officially, Finland is bilingual with both Swedish and Finnish being taught. In Finnish, Finland is called "Suomi," and in Swedish, it's "Finland."]

At 7 pm, EDT, we were informed that as Finland's time-zone was seven hours ahead, perhaps we'd like to advance our clocks. We did, jumping to 2 am, Monday. How time flies when you are having fun! We all tried to sleep, but I got only an hour or so. C'est la vie!

[Diary] Out the window, I watched the sun come up not too long after it set, but, of course, it was summer, and we were flying at a northern latitude. Scott finally fell asleep and lay across my lap for a couple of hours. I studied my Finnish-language phrase book, but only a few words looked vaguely familiar given my exposure to German and Spanish. It was hard work, and I came away remembering only one word, Kiitos, which means "Thank you," a good phrase to know in any language. Then I got sidetracked in German—the book covered 14 different European languages—where I felt much more comfortable.

We landed at Helsinki Airport (HEL) about 9 am, local time, a little ahead of schedule. It was overcast with low clouds, and the countryside was damp from early-morning rain. My first sight of the country from the air was of forest. [Paper and lumber are big industries in Scandinavia.]

Soon after, the sun came out, and once we cashed a US$100 traveler's check, we headed for downtown Helsinki—Helsingfors in Swedish—in an airport bus. (Like everything else in Finland, the commission on that check was expensive, at 25 Markka (FIM), about $5!) The bus tickets for Jenny and me cost FIM19 each, while Scott rode for free. We got off at the main train station. A young Russian woman, originally from Moscow, but now living in New York, needed some help with her luggage, and being a Good Samaritan, I gave her a hand. I phoned several youth hostels until I found one that had a family room for two nights. Then, rather than trying to figure out the tram system, we took a taxi.

The Eurohostel was very nice. Our room on the 6th floor had three long, single beds, a table with chairs, shelves, and lots of lockable storage. Best of all, there was no curfew, so we could come and go at whatever hours we liked. Also, we got a room right away, for FIM210/night, about $50. Sheets and down covers were provided. Each floor had a kitchen area with hotplates, sink, microwave oven, and refrigerator. The fridge contained small, lockable compartments, one per room, which was a great idea. [Don't you just hate it when strangers steal your food!]

At 11:15 am, we all climbed into bed having set the alarm for 3 pm. However, it took a long time to get Scott awake when the alarm sounded. The hostel was only a kilometer from the house of a woman, Leena, who we'd be hosting a month later. [The American Host Program allowed English-speaking teachers and librarians from numerous countries in Europe to visit the US during the summer holidays and to stay 10 days with each of three host families. From 1988–2000, we hosted 12 times.] We'd corresponded some time earlier, and she was due to meet us later that evening.

Late afternoon, we strolled around the neighborhood, which had newly renovated apartment buildings. We were located right next to the cruise-ship terminal that serves the major Baltic Sea ports. We found a small supermarket and were surprised at how expensive many things were. For example, a not-too-large bag of potato chips (my essential food) cost $4! Back in our kitchen, we made chicken-and-vegetable soup, which we ate with bread rolls. We shared the kitchen with a large group of Latvians, who'd brought a lot of supplies with them on the ferry (probably because of the high local prices). They all seemed to have US$ bills, which apparently was the "real" currency in the emerging Baltic nations.

At 8:30 pm, the sun was still streaming in our room window at an angle of 30 degrees! All of a sudden, a hot-air balloon soared above the rooftops nearby, and Scott followed it with his binoculars.

At 9 o'clock, Leena arrived. She was a delightful woman who described herself as bohemian. [She spoke six or seven languages, including Latin!] Basically, she does what she wants, when she wants! I could see right away that she and I would get along just fine. We walked around downtown Helsinki for two hours, stopping at Café Engel for cups of hot chocolate and dessert. At 11 pm, it was still quite light out although the sun had set. We were back home and in bed soon after.

[Diary] I woke at 3:15 am, and couldn't get back to sleep, so I went to the bathroom where I could read without waking anyone else. Outside, it was already daylight. Scott woke around 5 o'clock, and Jenny at 5:30. So, we decided to have an early breakfast of sardines on rolls, yogurt, juice, and hot tea. Other guests started surfacing soon after. In the kitchen, I met a woman from Estonia (a ferry ride to the south); she spoke a little English. She was making some very strong coffee that looked more like mud! To stop water wastage, the showers automatically switched off after only 15 seconds, so one had to keep pressing a button. However, there was plenty of hot water.

We left the hostel around 7 am and walked along the waterfront. All the ferries were out at sea. We came across a large open-air market that had lots of flowers, vegetables, and fish. One booth also sold furs and reindeer pelts. As it was overcast and cold, and my ears were quite exposed, I bought a multi-colored "Made in Finland by local craftsman" hat. The women working at the stalls were very pleasant and happy to talk to us. We bought some sweet pastries, as well as some containing potatoes and onions. We sat down to have a snack and saw that it was only 8 am! The city was waking up and traffic was increasing, but the main shops were still closed. Nearby, we saw an enclosed yard for people to let their dogs run free.

At 8:30, we headed to the main railway station to exchange our travel vouchers for tickets on the new Finnish train to Russia. [Although Russian trains ran regularly and were much cheaper, we had it on good authority that they were not at all comfortable.] We also bought an 8-day Finn Rail pass that would start upon our return from Russia. As the cost of the pass was less than one round-trip ticket up north, it was very good value. By mid-morning, we were starting to fade, so we headed back to the hostel and slept soundly for 5½ hours!

Early evening, we walked to Leena's house where we met her mother, a delightful lady who was a retired English teacher. We had coffee and blueberry pie. When we left at 8 o'clock, the sun was still streaming inside the windows although it was quite cool outside. We walked around the neighborhood with Leena and came across a public rug-cleaning place. There were large wooden frames on which to drape rugs for beating out the dirt. There was also a large deck floating in the water with wooden tables for washing rugs. We watched several people hard at work. As we have wall-to-wall carpet back home, the idea of cleaning rugs was quite novel to us.

We ate a late supper at a German restaurant. We shared a Weiner schnitzel, veal cordon bleu, and vegetables, while Scott had a bowl of Hungarian goulash. We ate and talked for 90-odd minutes. Leena walked home with us and came up to see our room. We said "Good night" at 11:30 and were in bed by 11:45. The alarm was set for 4:45 am!

[We spent two weeks in Russia. See the September 2020 posting, "Travel: Memories of Russia."]

[Diary] Back in Finland, we got off the train at Riihimäki, the final station before Helsinki, where we waited for the 22:17 train that ran to Rovaniemi, at the end of the line, just south of the Arctic Circle. Except for a few short stops and one long one, it was straight through, arriving at 9 am the next morning.

After a night with little sleep, we were sitting up by 8 am. The countryside rolled past, but we couldn't see much for the dense forest on each side of the track. There were only a few low hills, and it was rather monotonous; flat, with trees, trees, and more trees, with an occasional lake and some houses.

We arrived in Rovaniemi at 9:20 am, about 15 minutes late. Rain clouds threatened. We left our big/heavy case at the station luggage office, and set off for the youth hostel a km away. Light rain fell as we walked. We got to the hostel at 10:05 to find it closed at 10 o'clock. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) Fortunately, there was a bell, and a staff member let us in, got us registered, and gave us a key to the room and front door, so we could come and go at all hours. Once inside, we rested a while, unpacked, and headed out in light drizzle to explore the town.

On the first corner we found a bank, so we changed US$500 in travelers checks to Finnish markka. By this time, Scott was dreaming of a home-style breakfast, and we found a nice little restaurant nearby. As it was close to noon, we had brunch. Scott had a double-decker hamburger with extra ketchup; Jenny had lasagna, and I had strips of reindeer, mashed potato, and some kind of berry sauce. We finished off with tall glasses of milk.

We toured a supermarket and checked out the prices. Most things were quite expensive, but unlike in Russia, at least they were available! We finally found the tourist office and got a map and information from a nice young woman whose English was excellent.

The town is at the confluence of two large rivers, and we went to the bank of the main one. The water was flowing very fast and was very cold. The skies cleared a bit and the sun tried to shine through. Every so often, a delta-winged fighter jet flew over. Presumably there was an air force base nearby. We crossed the river on a very interesting, new bridge. Scott and I climbed on some rocks, and visited a nice, sandy beach. We also came across an 18-hole mini-golf course.

Afterwards, we sat in the sunshine at an outdoor mall eating pastries and drinking a liter of milk. We watched the locals until the dark clouds returned, at which time, we moved indoors. Right then, a folkdance presentation began, so we sat down to watch. There were singers, and players of violins, bass, cello, and clarinet. Almost all musicians were no older than 15, and the dancers probably around 9–11. They were of Czech descent and that was their theme. After 45 minutes, a Malaysian dance troupe performed. At a supermarket, we bought hot food as well as supplies for breakfast the next day.

We managed to stay awake until 8 pm. Unfortunately, the drapes didn't block much of the daylight!

[Diary] We all slept soundly until 8 am, and then ate cereal with peaches and milk. We then prepared to catch the 10:05 bus to Santa Claus Village. The trip was only 10 km, and took us right to the Arctic Circle. The bus left from the railway station. We were joined en-route by two elderly Australian women.

The weather alternated between sunshine and dark clouds, and was quite cold. Scott spent much of the day on the inside and outside playgrounds. We browsed in tourist shops for several hours, and saw lots of interesting things made from reindeer hide. There were also many knives of all shapes and sizes. One could even buy reindeer paté! Scott visited Santa in his house, and bought some Christmas tree ornaments. Santa said he received 500,00 letters each year from children in 150 countries! At a table, I made a picnic of bread, cheese, ham, and salami. We washed that down with cups of hot tea. Everything on sale was quite expensive with sweaters running US$100–400! And the beautiful leather coats were outrageously expensive. The best part of the leather store was the log cabin in which it was housed.

We rode the 4:30 bus back to town, and toured a bit. Then we bought hot food at the supermarket for supper: spaghetti for Scott, and ground beef with cabbage for Jenny and me. We finished off with a bottle of Pepsi we'd brought from Russia. [Click here to read about the rivalry between Coke and Pepsi, especially in the Soviet Union.]

[Diary] We were woken at 5:30 am by guests in the next room making noise. After I knocked loudly on their wall, things quietened down, and we slept some more. At 6:20, we checked out and walked to the train station. I managed to check the large case through to Helsinki where it would be stored until we got there some days later—at least we hoped so—as the luggage attendant spoke little English. Anyway, he sent it off somewhere, but the claim check he gave me said "Helsinki Station," which was encouraging. We boarded the 7-am train and spread out over four seats, two lots of two facing each other. We had brought our own breakfast, so I set up my kitchen. There was cereal with milk and peaches, ham, cheese, salami, and bread. Morning tea followed later with sandwiches and a banana.

At 9:30, we changed trains at Oulu, from where we raced south down the center of Finland through the lake district. While Jenny napped, Scott and I played the UNO card game in the café car. He and I shared a Finnish-made Texas-style pizza and a bottle of Coke, and talked about all the food from back home that we were missing!

The day passed rather quickly, and it rained a lot. Finally, the thick forests gave way to more open country and lakes, more people, and buildings. At 3:30, we transferred to a bus for the 2-hour ride to Savonlinna. In the process, we discovered that the train ticket did not include the bus portion! Although the bus was a luxury coach, we started out in the back row and got a little queasy from the motion, so we moved nearer to the front. We arrived in Savonlinna in light drizzle. Our guidebook said there was a tourist office at the train station, so we went there to find it had been closed; bugger!

Although the town had a population of 20,000 people, it was quite compact and walkable. Once we found the new location of the tourist office, we booked a room at a hotel/youth hostel a short walk away and right next to the town's main claim to fame, Olavinlinna Castle, built 500 years earlier for Sweden by a Danish knight. [We had no idea that we'd arrived in the middle of the town's busiest time of the year, so getting a room at all was surprising, let along one so central!] I located a supermarket and stocked up on supplies. The prices were very expensive!

The hostel had men's and women's dormitories with eight single beds in each. Scott and I shared with two young Frenchmen from Paris and two others from Dresden in the former East Germany. I got a little German workout. The kitchen was small, but adequate. All the staff and guests were very friendly. Our dorm had 15-foot ceilings with large windows and no drapes, so the room never ever got dark at night! In any event, our fellow guests were very considerate, and it was quiet during the night. After a walk around some islands and the castle, we went to bed around 10:30 pm.

[Diary] We were up at 8:30 am and joined other guests for breakfast. At 11:15, we left the hotel to find it was raining. We joined a 12-o'clock castle tour in English, and had the guide to ourselves. He had been to Adelaide, Australia. The castle courtyard had a permanent framework on which is suspended a roof that is removed in winter. Now, the annual opera festival was in full swing. (In August, there would be a big beer festival.) The castle was impressive, and was warmer now there was built-in heating. We ate our picnic lunch in an indoor café, and accompanied that with hot tea and pastries. The rain continued.

From the castle, we set off on a walking tour of several small islands with bridges, that led to some casinos. At a supermarket, we bought a few things for supper. Back home, we ate minestrone soup with potatoes, a jam roll, and tea. As I started food preparation, other guests arrived at the hostel. Troy was from Calgary, Canada; Gabriel was from Vienna, Austria; Margaret was from Townsville, Australia; Pam was from San Francisco, USA; and Mary Anne, an older Finnish woman (who according to her roommates, "snored something fierce"). There were two other young Finnish girls who kept to themselves. We all joined forces in meal preparation and sat together eating and talking from 6–10 pm. Everyone swapped travel stories and gave suggestions for what to do and where to go next. It was a great evening, just what hosteling is all about!

Scott made friends with two elderly Finnish women. And as there was a piano in the hotel dining room, and he told them he could play, they asked him for some entertainment. He obliged.

[Diary] I started getting breakfast at 8:30 am, and other guests joined me in the kitchen. Most of them were leaving that day. We paid for another night. Scott played piano for some guests, and generally entertained them with stories, games, and a puzzle.

At 10 am, we left for the marketplace, where we strolled among the stalls. We bought several small pizzas and a large pastry before boarding an old steam boat for a 1-hour cruise of the castle islands and around the town. As it was cold outside, we sat in a lounge cabin and I worked on this diary. Scott went off to explore the decks and to chat with anybody and everybody. The cruise was pleasant, and the rain had stopped. We sat in large cane chairs hanging on the aft deck, and chatted with a very nice lady from Antwerp, Belgium, who lived in Paris.

We went back to the hostel for afternoon tea, and found a playground on the waterfront. I left the others there and went back to the hostel to fetch the makings of a tea party, which we had while sitting on the edge of a large sand box in which Scott was building a castle, complete with moat.

In the evening, our Austrian friend returned, two nurses from Stuttgart, Germany, checked in, as did three English girls, and an American guy from Honolulu, Hawaii. We all got along well. As we planned to take a 7:50-am train next morning, we packed our gear before going to bed.

[Diary] We were up early and out the door at 7:20 am, and thanked the young woman at the front desk for all her help and kindness during our stay. She was married to a Bulgarian, and they spoke English at home. Besides Finnish, she spoke German, Swedish, and French.

The train was right on-time, and the weather was really nice, but, unfortunately, we were leaving the area, bugger! After an hour, we changed trains to an inter-city express. Although we had no reservations, there were plenty of spare seats. At our seat tables, we ate cereal and fruit after which Scott and I played cards and read. A nice Finnish lady who spoke German sat next to Scott, and joined us for some cheese. The train trip was interesting now that we could actually see something other than forest. There were fields of yellow mustard, and lakes, lakes, and more lakes.

At Helsinki central station, I managed to locate the case we'd sent along for storage some days earlier, but I left it there. I called the hotel we'd stayed at on arrival, and we got one of the last rooms for the night. We rode a tram there, and unpacked, and had a lunch of sardines with bread and cheese, hot tea, and chocolate.

Late afternoon, we sat at the waterfront near the main produce market. Nearby were four huge cruise ships tied up, along with smaller passenger and car ferries that serve the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The hydrofoil from Tallinn had just docked. Tourist passengers were all around us.

I wrote three postcards, including one in Spanish to a friend in Chile. Then two men walked by, and I recognized them from the hotel. They were from Czechoslovakia. One spoke Russian and Greek as well as Czech and English. As we sat there, seagulls flew around us when suddenly one dove down and stole a large hamburger from a patron's hands just as he was about to take his first bite! However, as the food was too large to hold, the bird dropped it. The guy was furious, as he'd paid quite a sum for the meal, and now it was all over the ground!

We headed off for the narrow park that runs through the town, looking for a place to eat. We came across a group playing steel drums for a large audience. At a McDonalds, we had our first "real" French fries in three whole weeks! We walked back home via the cruise-ship terminal stopping at a playground for Scott. Back home, it was lights out at 10:30 pm.

[Diary] I woke at 8:30 am, and read until 10, when the others woke. After a breakfast of cereal, tea, and cheese omelet, we packed for the day's adventure. It was raining quite hard, and was overcast; a rather dreary day, in fact!

As our rail-pass ended at midnight, we decided to take a train to the port city of Turku to the west. We rode the tram into the city, then walked through a mall to the railway station. We caught the noon train, and the ride lasted 2½ hours. We found a carriage dedicated to kids, which had a playroom with Lego and toys. There was also a change room for babies. We read while Scott played. As we left Helsinki, the weather improved, and soon was quite warm although threatening clouds stayed around.

We arrived at Turku at 2:30, and walked to the tourist office to get a map and some brochures. We bought drinks and pastries, and sat on the banks of the small river that ran through the town, feeding our faces and some birds. Then Scott and I went to a large playground while Jenny went to a craft market to watch craftsmen at work. Next up was the large cathedral, for the Lutheran Church of Finland. Then it was on to the main plaza where a large market was in full swing. It had fruit, vegetables, coffee, pastries, and many flea-market-type stalls. Oddly, one was selling sew-on patches for Northern Territory and Ayers Rock, Australia!

We found a large supermarket that sold hot food, and we settled in for a good feed of spaghetti, rice, and pork. We worked our way back to the train station to catch the 7:35-pm train back to Helsinki. Scott got hungry, so we stopped at a Pizza Hut where he had an expensive slice of pepperoni pizza (costing around $6). We rode the tram home, and after a late drink and snack, we hit the hay at 11 o'clock. The hostel was full of many noisy students.

By the way, the Turku Cathedral clock tower had only an hour hand on each face. Curiously, it was designed that way.

[Diary] We were up at 8 am, then showered and packed. We finished off most of our food and gave our leftover groceries to other guests. We caught a tram for the railway station where we'd catch the airport bus. I retrieved the case we'd put in storage the week before. On the way to the airport, we saw many police near several buildings. A big international conference had begun the day before about the future security of Europe, and many heads of state, including President George H.W. Bush, would arrive the next day.

At the security place, we were subjected to the most thorough and long check ever! The stated problem was that we'd left our case in storage for a week and only that morning had retrieved it. Plus, we'd been in Russia. In any event, I had to empty the large case and it was X-rayed empty. The security guy checked our hand luggage, and X-rayed the cassette-tape player and camera, after taking out the batteries. It was quite an ordeal, all conducted in a space way too small for all of us. Disorder continued at the gate where we were supposed to be kept separate from the incoming flight's passengers, supposedly for fear that we'd exchange something illicit with them.

As a result, we took off an hour late, but the trip was uneventful. I slept a bit and sat behind Jenny and Scott. The man next to me didn't seem to have ever flown before, as he had no idea how things worked, including his seatbelt, and he spoke no English. The food was very good and the service outstanding. By the time we got to New York City, we had made up most of the lost time, and customs and immigration was a formality, especially as they allowed Green-Card holders like us to go through the citizens' line. However, we waited a good while for our luggage.

By the time we got to the gate for our domestic flight, we had an hour to spare, during which time Scott and I played UNO with another young passenger. The flight to Washington National Airport (DCA) was on-time, and we landed at 7 pm, local time. The temperature and humidity were high! Unfortunately, our luggage was delayed 30 minutes by the fact that a checked luggage carrier got jammed in the carousel.

Neighbor Joe was there to meet us and to drive us back to Reston. It felt good to be home. Of course, we were all dog-tired, but Scott was determined to stay up and watch TV, having had none for more than three weeks.

[Diary] I was wide awake at 4 am, and soon after I got up and went to the local supermarket to shop. Surprise, I was the only customer at that hour, but there were a number of workers stocking the shelves and baking pastries. I gleefully bought all the things I'd been missing, including potato chips, cream soda, and sugar-coated peanuts. And best of all, the prices were much cheaper than in Finland!