Helsinki & a ride in a Russian ambulance

Trip Start Jan 22, 2013
Trip End Jun 03, 2013

Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Friday, March 8, 2013

It's been an eventful couple of days in Finland but mostly Russia, as you can see from the title of this entry! For a start, just so you don't worry - I am fine - I did break my arm, super conveniently in Russia (where we only stayed for 72 hours, the one place on our itinerary with the least English spoken and probably the worst health care system) - but I am fine. I feel very lucky that it is only my arm, not my leg(!), and I have a wonderful travelling partner who is tying my shoelaces, washing my hair, and learning how to do a ponytail. I'm pretty lucky, comparatively! And my backpack has wheels :) I'm not about to let one broken arm ruin our adventure that easily!

Anyhoo, on with the adventure, as I type a bit slower with my left hand. From Munich we flew to Copenhagen, and then to Helsinki, Finland. We arrived in Helsinki in the afternoon where we immediately hung out in the Macca's and bummed off their free wi-fi before stocking up on food at the supermarket. Found out the hard way that in Finland you have to weigh and put a sticker on all your veggies first, using the correct codes, before you go to the register. Oops. We've been trying to save money and eat healthier by cooking in the hostels with kitchens where we can. This Finnish hostel wasn't so good though- we ended up sharing the kitchen with some Russian men who spoke no English and had to share one breadboard, one cutting knife, two working hot plates and one fork between us. (A bit awkward as we cooked our dinners and watched Top Model and Meet the Fockers with subtitles, but no worries).The hostel did have a Finnish sauna though, which was pretty great. Apparently lots of Finns have them in their homes, and they're really good for stimulating your sweat glands (something which is most unnecessary in Queensland). It was pretty nice and relaxing, although you're supposed to go in nude (something I was not going to do in our hostel - I know, I'm boring like that) but I could have because there was no one in it. (Funny story: hotel in Russia also had a Finnish sauna where I went in my togs, where a nude Finnish old lady came in to join and told me in Finnish I wasn't supposed to have my thongs on. Awkward. Left soon after).

The next day we used one of Steve's virtual tour guide apps to have a look at the architecture in Helsinki (pun intended). We saw some cool architecture, which we loved, because we've gotten pretty addicted to Grand Designs while we've been away. Only wish that Kevin could have been there to really explain the magnificence of each place with all of their bespoke, individual qualities. See the pics if you like architecture.

After that we had lunch in Vapiano (they have Vapiano's all through Europe! Yay!) and then we went ice-skating! They had set up a rink outside central station and it was so fun to go ice-skating in the outdoors in winter. I was pretty rusty since I hadn't skated for years, and there was no hand rail, but they had these little kiddy-sled things you could skate around and hold on to with if you were no good. (The poor Asian girls who had never skated before were loving these.) So was I, whizzing around on them to get my confidence up! After a while I graduated from my kiddy sled and skated around, getting faster and faster, until I perhaps got a little tooooooo confident, where I rounded a corner with a small and graceful one and a half turns around (involuntarily) before crashing straight down on my hands and knees on to the ice. I hear you thinking, oh that's how she broke her arm. Nooooo. Not quite. Got an okay looking bruise out of it on my knee and a good laugh, but arm was fine. Carried on skating regardless and ended the afternoon with hot chocolates before heading on the boat to St Petersburg, Russia.

Russia is a hard country to get into as a tourist, and usually requires that you pay them a lot of money and get "sponsored" to come in (someone has to write you a letter). Which means that you either have to know someone who will write you a letter, or go on an organised tour. Either way, it's going to set you back a lot of money and be a hassle. We had scratched Russia off our list of places to go, until Steve found this 72 hour visa-free deal, where you pay a reasonable amount of money for a boat in, two nights in a hotel, and a boat out of the place, ensuring you are only there 72 hours. Because St Petsburg was one of the top places Steve wanted to visit, we decided to take the 72 hour deal from Helsinki to St Petersburg.

I think I must have had a bit of culture shock first getting to know Russians and their culture. I know that Australians often find many Europeans to be overly straight-forward, to-the-point, even bordering on a little rude, but I don't find them that way. Maybe it's a result of having Dutch grandparents and having a lot of friends with Dutch ancestry, but I'm used to that sort of directness. The Russians I met at first (to be fair, it was mostly the men) seemed to take it to another level. At breakfast on our cruise, I went to get some orange juice and there was a man there who couldn't get the machine to work. He barked something at me, and I said I didn't speak Russian (and couldn't fix the machine), and so he yelled across the room angrily at the waiter to fix the machine immediately. Rightiooooo.

When lining up for things, the Russians seemed to see nothing wrong with pushing in in front of others. You would line up for ages (the lines were so slow), and there would be people on the outside, deciding which line would be the quickest to cut in on. They seemed to have a friend in every line who would let them in.

Rules don't seem to matter too much either - but then again, it worked to my advantage when hopping on the boat. Steve and I had brought our own food on the boat (fruit, cheese, bread) and when getting on, the customs sign clearly said you were not allowed to bring food on board. Fearing being thrown overboard by the scary customs staff, I quickly confessed to the guard that I had food in my bag before putting it on the scanner. He then pulled my bag off the conveyor belt for scanning, and replied, "that will not be a problem", and let me go through. Dodgy :-)

The metro was also a fun experience - it's "peak hour" all day long, and you have to shuffle like a penguin with your body pressed against about four others from the entrance, down the long escalator, to the platform. If you're lucky there won't be someone behind you pushing you hard to try to make you go faster. Once you get on the train it's Penguin City again where you again get to cuddle up to a whole bunch of strangers. Yay. No wonder the people seem grumpy. Same story coming out of the escalator. The traffic, also, is terrible - even at a crossing you are not sure if you might get run over by an angry driver who doesn't want to stop. The footpaths too are very dodgy - you would not want to have a disability in St Petersburg.

Having said that, St Petersburg has some amazing sights that I don't think you would get to see anywhere else. The first afternoon we spent in the Russian museum, which had some amazing artwork from different periods of Russian history. We walked past some amazing looking churches, and saw in the distance the amazing Church of the Saviour on spilled blood. (Cool name, hey? Someone was assassinated on the grounds). We went to Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg's most famous street and saw the Kazan cathedral and the Singer building. That night, we went to the St Petersburg Philharmonic to hear them play Shostakovich which was awesome (in one of Steve's top 3 concerts - "I just want to hear Russians play Russian music." It was a really beautiful concert. I love Shostakovich.

The second day we headed out later (after I visited the amazing free spa area in our hotel - got to lap up the luxury while you can!) and went to the Hermitage museum. WOW. This is probably the most amazing, incredible museum or even place I have ever been to (made by humans, that is). It is an ornate, ridiculous, over-the-top, palatial building chock full of treasures, many from the time of Catherine the Great. (At a time I guess when the rich really did take everything and the poor had nothing). Gold trimming galore, intricate ceiling decorations with detailed paintings, each room was different and amazing. To be honest, I was more taken with the interior design and furnishings than the treasures. There's so much to see and we powered through it, trying to see as much as we could. I didn't know you were allowed to take pictures in some of the best rooms, so I apologise, but I think you'll be able to see the essence of the place.

That night we went to dinner at a place called "The Idiot" where they give you free vodka with your meal, before we headed to the amazing Mariinsky theatre to see a ballet. We really enjoyed the ballet, although we had no idea what was happening in the plot, and we thought it was over after Act Two (we tried to get our coats back where the Coat Lady informed us, "Not over yet. No coats." (What if we really wanted to leave?) Then we were informed we had been sitting in the wrong seats for 2/3 of the show (oops. Dodgy numbering system and unhelpful ushers). Oh well. We enjoyed it anyway. The dancers were amazing, although the orchestra could have been a bit better (or just fired the brass section).

After the Coat Rush (where there's a mad rush for everyone to get their coats) we decided to walk back to the hotel rather than take the metro because it was about the same walking distance overall. It hadn't snowed that morning, but it had started during the show, and so of course the sludge had refrozen, making the paths really slippery. Unfortunately, as I walked down a mini-ramp near a bridge, I heard Steve say, "Careful, that looks slippery," as I had already hit the group. Stupidly, I had put out my right hand to break my fall, but instead it broke my arm. It hurt a lot and I couldn't really get up so I just lay in the snow/ice with my funny looking arm crying a bit (a sad sight, I know - it really hurt, okay) and then a nice Russian couple yelled out of their car are we okay and do we want a lift? We said yes please, and this lovely couple drove us around town to find a doctor, which was not an easy task. Eventually they found a random door to bash on, where we were led out the back past some security guards to an unmarked medical practice. It was pretty dodgy looking but at this stage we would have taken anything. So we went in, where the doctors/medical staff of some capacity demanded our passports where they fussed around with them for a long time, before finally letting me in.

Inside the treating room, the two female staff didn't really speak much English, so it was really hard to communicate with them, and I was worried that they wouldn't treat me. They seemed very unimpressed that I didn't speak Russian and wasn't carrying a Russian/English dictionary. (Fair point, but I didn't plan on staying in the country long, let alone here. I'll remember that for next time). They ummed and ahhed and tutted for a long time, making a few phone calls where they finally took me for an x-ray upstairs. The radiographer seemed like she wanted to go on smoko but the bossy doctor must have told her off, so I got an x-ray. She took me back downstairs and made me lie down where I finally got some ice and the nurse lady dabbed some metho-smelling stuff on my temples. I don't know what that was supposed to do, but I appreciated the effort.

I must have asked five or so times, "is my arm broken?", in different ways, but the doctor lady kept waving me off and kept making funny sounds out of her mouth. Eventually I got out of her that I needed to go to hospital for an operation. I said, when?, because I leave tomorrow. She said now. Now actually meant about an hour later, when the ambulance lady came. I was quite worried because when I asked the doctor if Steve could come in the ambulance she laughed and said no. "Boyfriend? No." When I asked what hospital I was going to, she said she didn't know. Great. So I'm going to a hospital, somewhere in Russia, to have some type of operation on my maybe-broken arm, and my boyfriend-husband can't come and will have no idea where to find me. Super. By this stage I was plotting my exit (Steve was outside this whole time, he wasn't allowed in), but when I got up to go when the doctor had left, she came back and forced me back on the bed. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling too great at this point.

Things started to look up when the ambulance lady came in, a jolly, lovely Russian lady who showed me a bit of sympathy and had some random wire-bandage contraption to transport my floppy, swollen arm in. It hurt a lot getting it in so the nurse made me sniff more of the metho stuff. I asked the jolly ambulance lady if Steve could come along and to my relief she said yes.

The ambulance ride was pretty cool, if nothing else! I mean, that's a once in a lifetime travel experience, right? The ambulance officer lady was so nice and passed me her phone at one point to look at a picture of her dog. (How did she know I love dogs?) Got to see a few more sights of the city, as well :-) I asked her which hospital we were going to and she told me in broken English that it was a big hospital with beautiful doctors. Sounds good to me.

We arrived at the big hospital (not that big) with (okay, but not-so) beautiful doctors, and there was more paperwork and passport-flashing. Waited in a room with Russian guys with facial injuries - a lot of bloody, bruised and swollen eyes. One guy had blood all over his jacket as well as his face. Another guy was hopping around on one unbroken leg with a broken arm as well. Eventually got in to see two nice doctors for my "operation", which turned out to be them giving me an anaesthetic needle and then the both of them pulling and pushing my arm, wrist and hand back into place. Even though they numbed it, it hurt a LOT. Then the nurse put what I think is the world's dodgiest plaster cast on it, we got another x-ray to see if it was fixed ("perfect"), and I was good to go. I got some paperwork to take home to my doctor in Austria ("No, I'm from Australia." "Australia? It says Austria here!") and that was it. No painkillers, no nothing. The anaesthetic wore off in about twenty minutes. They breed them tough around here.

We managed to get back to our hotel because a lovely Russian guy negotiated with a car on the street to take us back for a proper amount if money (not an inflated, tourist amount) which was really nice of him. Anyone can be a taxi driver in Russia apparently - don't know if it's legal but that's the go.

We got back to the hotel at about two in the morning where the hotel staff kindly gave us a free late check-out, which was also nice.

The next day we spent in the hotel before we got on the boat to leave Russia. Unfortunately we didn't get to see everything we wanted to (I was a bit disappointed about not getting to see the Church of the Saviour and of spilled blood, but Steve showed me some pics from Google on his iPhone), but overall I am thankful that I'm okay and we met some really lovely Russians who made me think maybe I was too quick to judge them and their culture. When you get down to it, there are some really nice people in the world, wherever you are.

Well, this has been the longest screed ever, especially because I typed it left handed, so I hope it wasn't too boring!

Am in Amsterdam now where I'm going to get my arm double-checked just to be sure :-)

Thanks for all of your concern at home, means a lot!
Love to you all
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