To Hel and Back :: Edit your Template To Hel and Back: January 2005

Friday, January 07, 2005

An email from Hesburger

When my mother was carrying me, she was so keen on Wimpy’s egg burgers, that had I been male, I would have been called Egbert. Consequently I have always had a preference for fast food outlets that rival the Golden Arches - Wimpy’s in the UK, Hungry Jacks in Australia and in Finland, the very tasty Hesburger chain.

It would be appropriate then, that I write these lines to you from what I think is the world’s only Hesburger Hotel… Yesterday when I arrived in Turku, the former capital of Finland and its oldest city, I could not bring myself and my technical laptop, GPRS, satellite dishes and other equipment to share an 18 bed room. So I found myself standing in a queue of the Hesburger founding city’s flagship store, and while others asked to “go large” or considered whether to get fries with it, I ordered a single room for two nights.

The room service menu consists of nuggets and cheese burgers but the hotel is better quality than its budget price tag would suggest, and best of all, it has free internet access. Which is why I am sending you an impersonal group email – because it’s not costing me anything. At least I am honest…

First of all, I must answer those queries about whether I still have all fingers and toes – Finland or at least south Finland is warm. Today I walked about without gloves and hat. All day. True I left my gloves at the hotel alongside my happy meal, but it was really warm.

Unfortunately warm can have its down sides, because at some stage it is cold enough to freeze the whole place in a sheet of ice, like stubborn cling film and the rain causes the paths to get bloody slippery, and for me to walk like a penguin (more than usual), to fall on my arse (sober for once) and to moon walk like Michael Jackson.

Two interesting things about Finland.

The Finns get naked. A lot. “Swim suits are optional” is the sign outside the local pool. Wearing any clothing in a sauna is bad practice.

Despite this openness with their bodies, the Finns aren’t great at conversation. I spent my last hours of 2004 in a bar alone, plied with whiskey and couldn’t raise a smile from a hunting male.

Mobile phones are currency here. You can buy a bus ticket by SMS (just show your confirmation message to the conductor!), purchase petrol and choose items from a vending machine. It all gets added to your bill. You can get a mobile phone contract by simply smiling and giving your name, unlike England where you have to pass over the rights to your first born.

Despite this, Nokia’s are bloody expensive here and waving your phone in the air in the town of Nokia (yes really) unfortunately does not charge its battery.

Well that’s enough of the time of you good folk who have made it this far. Thanks for listening you have been a marvellous audience….

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The best day yet

I feel like an explorer again. This time, forces dictate a drop off I will come to know as Kaivopuisto. I am set alive by the light of the setting sun behind Uunisaaret. It is like lightning pushing the sun down and forcing the clouds and darkness to rise. It is magical and I come to learn that the light here is just that - magic.

I love the snow falling, the red boat sheds, the patterns, the ice, the coils of rope, the anchors. I am like a thrilled child. I walk right to the end of each pier, each rock. I weave under the keels and bows of boats looking for ways across back to the mainland.

I am entranced by the large wooden villas on the islands, by the islands themselves. Who is there, who goes there, who lives there? I wonder who the bare foot statue is.

At the brightly tiled Kaupahalli, it is the turn of other senses to be satisfied. I smell cakes and coffee. Sausages hang and spices waft. Christmas lights blink behind glass, icy sugary pastries beckon. The fruit is bright with illumination. I choose carefully but cheaply and am sticky fingered delighted.

At night we date. A night of garlic martinis, reindeer soup, pickled garlic, garlic bread and garlic everything. It is wonderful but all night our stomachs growl as if angered. Inside hearts tonight at least is peace.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Above Helsinki, not in it.

We climb the Stadium tower and between cold ears I can see the city. The landmarks are a blur, months later, I will take the elevator again and notice that in the warmth, smell has returned and be able to point the direction to my house.

But now, it's some church spires amongst the sports pitches and a disbelief that you can really see Tallinn.

It is how I feel about Helsinki and Finland in general. The cold tells me I am here. The snow crunches underfoot so it's real even if it melts quickly. But I don't feel yet I am in it. There is much going on. My tour guide is as cold as the air around me and other events propel us to drop off points in the city so I can sightsee and he can take worn tape to the damaged edges of his life. It's a weird time to be here, and I try and offer friendship and strength to combat the rejection that greets me.

I get lost on the 3T and 3B trams, and months later, still do. It's a way to see Helsinki if nothing else. I am joyous when I recognise the Stadium Hostel again.

It's home, with noisy Italians, double glazing holding my juice, the laptop playing Kylie, "I believe in you".

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Toddler steps in Helsinki

A petrol station breakfast starts the day. Petrol stations here are something else. They are community hubs, they are where news comes from and leaves. They are also good for lounas buffets and occasionally, karelian pastries. They house arcade machines that old people, bored teenagers, everyone plays. They are places to be. It is Parisian cafe society in practical Finnish style. You can buy beer in them, even though you can't get wine in a super market...

I take my first tentative steps in Finland alone, retrace the steps we took in the car on my arrival, Senate Square, Kauppatori ... then I didn't know their names.

I watch a small child place flowers on the large crucifix in front of the church. Candles line windows and melt wax onto the cold steps.

I fill my needs at the tourist information, and take a weighty supply including the swimming halls "bathers are optional" and ice swimming.

I meet Amanda and slip and slide on the seals around her.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Welcome to 2005

I am reunited with karelian pastries, which I love. The hotel's egg butter is passable.

There are hundreds of flags in this city.

They all fly at half mast.