Culture Shock! "Don't Smile Back - Be Russian"

Trip Start Jun 02, 2009
Trip End Aug 10, 2009

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Friday, July 10, 2009

I spent most of yesterday evening and this morning in a bit of a daze, completely culture shocked. A month in Russia and two weeks before that in China and Mongolia has got me accustomed to a different way of life, and coming to Europe was actually a little scary.  Everything here is so clean and orderly, and, well, it's pretty Scandinavian.  The train from St Petersburg was a Finnish train, and all the staff were Finnish.  Helpfully enough, none of the wagons had a number in the window, and so I had to ask a provodnik where my wagon was.  At first glance, I couldn't tell if he was a Finn or a Russian, and seeing as we were in St. Petersburg and some of the passengers were Russian, I decided just asking him in Russian was the best option.  It turned out he was a Finn.  He nodded in answer to my question and then turned to me and let out the most unholy spew of noise I have ever heard.  Usually I'm not so rude about languages that I know nothing about - after all, if you don't speak it, of course it sounds like nonsense to you - but this is ridiculous.  I have never heard such a strange language before. The only way I could describe it is someone making nonsense noises with his tongue hanging out and wagging about, in a vain and quite possibly drunk attempt at being funny. I hope all the Finns out there can find it in their hearts to forgive me.  The announcements made on the train were made first in Finnish, then Russian and then English.  Whereas the Russian and English seemed to flow together nicely, the Finnish just sounded like *wag wag wag* great big pause *wag wag wag*.  Very, very odd.

The border crossing was quite possibly the easiest I've done (second only to the one outside of Yekaterinburg between Europe and Asia, of course!).  The provodnik collected our passports and we stopped at Vyborg, stuff happened behind the scenes and our passports were returned to us.  I was ready to show my invitation letter and all my documentation, but the only thing the Russian official said was my name, and then glanced at my passport.  The Finns asked me where I was going and for how long, and that was it. Even the landscape seemed apathetic towards the border crossing, and for a long time, Finland looked an awful lot like Russia, except with Scandinavian style houses and no Ladas parked out front.  I wasn't impressed....I had been hoping for The Big Entry Into Europe, complete with fanfare and confetti.  This was pretty disappointing.  Crossing from Mongolia to Russia, the land seemed to recognize the international crossing.  One side looked starkly Mongolian, and then about two feet after the border crossing, *whoosh!*, there were birch trees and other Russian things.  It was like somebody had dropped a set backdrop of Russia or something.

It was strange for a while on the train when we were going through Russia- outside were Ladas, Volgas, signs in Cyrillic, crazy drivers and marshrutkas, and yet we were veritably roaring through (we must have been going over 100 km/hr), with a Finnish dining car on a Finnish train, the doors of which were automated and confused the pants off me.  I'm used to wrenching open a door, throwing myself outside and then throwing myself inside as I wrench open the next door.  This was positively sedate - a push of a button and everything opened as if by magic.  The doors in the museum here are even worse - you just walk up to them, and *poof* they open.  Getting on trams, you have to go through the whole 'push the button' routine, and it's very confusing.  The trams themselves are so quiet compared to Russian ones that they seem to sneak up on you.  They don't thunder down the streets, rattling and rumbling, and you can't feel them if you're sitting in a cafe somewhere.

The doors aren't the only thing that I can't get used to.  I can't get used to the fact that people actually stop at crosswalks and wave you across.  I can't get used to the fact that I can drink the water if I want.  I keep looking for the light switches in every room but the one in which the light is located, and I can't get over the fact that I can actually throw my toilet paper into the toilet, and that the wastebin is not the appropriate place for it.  I can't get used to the fact that public toilets are actally stocked with toilet paper - you don't need to pay for it extra or bring your own.  In fact, Finland has spades of the stuff, so if you're going to Russia after Finland, take lots with you.  The Finns don't need it all!!! :) Perhaps the most immediately noticeable and scary difference is people's attitudes in public.  I was sitting in the dining car waiting for my meal, when the waitress walked by.  She smiled at me, and I hate to admit it - my first thought was, "What have I done wrong now?"  Once I got over the fact that people are actually trying to be nice and are not mentally deranged or trying to rob me, I saw that the Finns are pretty nice people.  While buying some cherries in the market today, I got talking to the saleswoman, who seemed thrilled that I was from Canada.  I took the tram from my hostel to downtown, and at one of the other stops, a guy who looked like a grizzled bottle bum got on.  I moved over for him, as he had a couple of bags of stuff.  He said something to me, which I guessed (correctly, it turns out) was 'thank you'.  He then kept talking, and when I gave him a blank stare, he asked me in Swedish if I spoke Swedish.  When I gave him another stare, he said, "English?  I sometimes work as an interpreter," and then we got talking.  As I got off the tram, he called out, "Welcome!  I hope you feel at home in Finland!"

Helsinki looks like a decent city, with some of the architecture resembling that in St. Petersburg.  The waterfront is quite nice and picturesque, and it seems relatively easy to get around. I think if I can get used to the fact that yes, I'm actually in Europe, it'll be fine.

It's all just a little bewildering.
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bonnemaman on

I don't remember much. The ice cream was good, the birch trees beautiful, shopping in Stockmanns was great. I do recall the harbour-side market was lovely!

...wag wag wag...

I want to know about the sauna!

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