Trip Start May 20, 2010
Trip End Jun 03, 2011

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Monday, September 27, 2010

I would love to describe all of the amazing sights of Helsinki and the crazy adventures that we got up to in our few days there.  Unfortunately, while business school applications had made brief guest appearances in the other cities we visited, they stole the show in Helsinki.  Happily looking forward to some high-speed internet, I used points to book a few nights at the Starwood property downtown.  It was a beautiful hotel, with a good work space and I was able to make some good progress on the apps and begin to upload the documents.  Even under this boatload of work, however, I did manage a few fun times and, for your sake and my sanity, I’d prefer to concentrate on them.

To start, our journey to Helsinki took considerably longer than expected.  Dusting off vodka hangovers and Karaoke nightmares, Kristin and I headed to the port of Tallinn to buy our tickets on the ferry to Helsinki.  Unfortunately, in our backpacker mindset, where weekdays and weekends have little meaning, we did not realize that it was Sunday.  For those not acquainted with the region, Tallinn has basically become Helsinki’s pub and liquor store.  With taxes and a higher cost of living leading to astronomical prices for alcohol in Finland, many Finns just catch the 2.5hr ferry down for the weekend and enjoy the “you can bring as much as you can physically carry” import policy within the EU.  We often laughed as Grandmothers who could barely walk would lug massive trolleys up towards the ferry, piled high with beer and vodka.  What this also meant, though, is that Sunday is the worst day to travel to Helsinki. 

We showed up around noon to Terminal D to buy our tickets and were promptly informed that the next available ferry wasn’t until 5:30 that afternoon.  With a tip from the girls at Terminal A, we grabbed our packs and made the long walking journey to the other port, arriving just in time to find out they had sold the last ticket.  Exhausted, we piled the packs back on and raced back to Terminal D to luckily secure a spot on the 5:30 ferry.  Finally, around 8pm, we arrived at the hotel and happily collapsed into the comfortable setting. 

Anya and Petra were also heading to Finland for the day and we planned to meet them at the hotel.  After a little while of waiting, I received a text saying that they were scared to come into the hotel in backpacker gear and I came down and met them.  We dropped off their bags, said goodbye to Kristin who was immovable from the comfortable bed, and the three of us set off to explore Helsinki.  While I don’t have much daylight viewing to compare this to, the city was beautiful at night.  We found the main cathedral, a brilliant, white edifice that shone against the night sky. 

Down below the cathedral, there was a massive square that was filled with a circle of objects.  It was only when we got closer that we realized that each was a bear.  As part of a UN program, cities are chosen each year to display a set of bears representing each UN-recognized country.  We wandered around the set, taking in the random assortment.  We found the US, represented by a statue of liberty bear and the Slovenian bear, which basically looked demonic.  There were ones depicting key sites, cultural aspects, and even a map on the Moldova bear’s stomach with a professor pointing out, “this is Moldova” to an EU backpacker.  My favorite, though, was Cuba, who sat at the end of the square smoking a massive cigar.  After taking plenty of fun photos, we finally called it a night and got some sleep.

The other main highlight was our second night there.  After working all day, I met up with the girls for our last dinner.  However, unable to find a suitable place and with Anya and Petra’s ferry departure time creeping up, we decided to postpone dinner for another time.  As the girls walked off, Kristin and I looked at each other, and both decided dinner could wait.  Helsinki is known for its sauna culture.  I believe the country has about as many saunas as citizens and it’s a natural part of their daily life to sweat their problems away in a blissful heat.  Our hotel, not unexpectedly, had its own spa and sauna and we quickly donned the hotel bathrobes and set off for our own Finnish experience.  The place was beautiful, with 3 separate rooms and was a great way to forget all about business school essays.

Well-rested, we finally set out for dinner.  When you’re in Finland, you have a number of options for what you can eat.  Speaking from personal experience here, it’s very difficult to decide whether you want Rudolf or Blitzen or Dasher or Dancer or….well, you get the idea.  Reindeer is the national delicacy and Kristin and I set off on the sole purpose of finding (and eating) Santa’s little helpers.  After walking around for a while, we found a great little restaurant and ordered two different varieties of reindeer.  Kristin’s was minced and really good, but mine was amazing.  It was a tenderloin, cooked perfectly and cut in two parts served over garlic mash.  And, to end this overly drawn-out analogy, reindeer may be good at pulling sleighs, but from now on, I’ll take mine on a plate.

With this quick trip to Helsinki, our time in the West was finished and the next day, we would set off into the world of “I don’t have a clue what’s going on” and begin our 3-week adventure across Russia.
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