During the entire month of August 2017, I traveled to Norway from the United States. Based on the fact that it is so easy to find cheap flights between European destinations, coupled with the relatively low cost of staying in hostels (not to mention the option of Couchsurfing for free), as well as the fact that I’d never been to Finland, I decided to take a side trip to Helsinki at the beginning of my travels.
I left the United States on the evening of July 31, connecting through Munich to Oslo on August 1, ultimately landing in Helsinki late that night. I was so tired that I didn’t realize I left my copy of The Snow Leopard (by Peter Matthiessen) in the seat back pocket on the plane until I got to the airport hotel. I was quite disappointed, as I was thoroughly enjoying the book, and had made several notes in the portion I had read so far. Matthiessen recounted an experience from the Himalayas that was strikingly similar to a recent stargazing experience I’d had while camping atop Mount Mitchell in North Carolina.
I slept until 9:30 am the following morning. Clearly, I needed some sleep, and I was unsure if it was just travel fatigue, or if I was fighting some kind of cold. There was a coughing woman on the flight to Helsinki. I packed my gear and hopped on a train to downtown Helsinki, eager to get to the hostel and check in. It was a rather short walk from the train station to the market square where I could catch the ferry to Suomenlinna.
Perhaps still a bit jet lagged, I didn’t realize the boat I boarded was not actually the city ferry. Instead, this boat was essentially a water taxi providing service to many of the islands in close proximity to downtown Helsinki, including Suomenlinna and Vallisaari. So, by mistake, I figured out how to get to Vallisaari, which I had already intended to explore while here in town.
Arriving at Suomenlinna, I quickly checked into the hostel, ready to drop my gear and walk around. I spent most of the afternoon exploring the islands of the archipelago, including Pikku Mustasaari, which is home to the Finnish Naval Academy; Länsi-Mustasaari, a residential area, with beautiful views of the sea; Iso Mustasaari, one of the bigger islands, housing the church and several other major buildings, as well as the primary ferry stop; Susisaari, which includes an old submarine, lots of tunnels, Piper’s Park, a swim area, and a gunpowder magazine among other things of interest; and Kustaanmiekka, with lots of cannons and views, as well as King’s Gate. Since this was the end of the line, I turned around and made my way back along a different path. There are so many hidden corners to explore on these islands. Fascinating.
Spent the day walking the trails of Suomenlinna, pitting sunshine against jetlag and taking tons of photos as I soaked in the gorgeous views. I think this is my favorite phone shot of the day. Many more to come! . . . . . #naturephoto #main_vision #landscape_captures #awesome_earthpix #natureaddict #rsa_rural #awesomeearth #nature_wizards #gottalove_a_ #instapassport #aroundtheworldpix #ig_masterpiece #campinassp #flashesofdelight #travelog #mytinyatlas #visualmobs #theglobewanderer #forahappymoment #exploringtheglobe #visitfinland #helsinkiofficial #visithelsinki #visitfinlandjp #igershelsinki #detailsofhelsinki #nexus #instaandroid #androidcommunity #teamandroid
Throughout the day, I noticed a plethora of quiet residential areas on the islands, and it seemed as though there are tons of community garden plots, tucked away out of sight of most of the tourists. I got back to the deli cafe near the hostel just before it closed, able to enjoy the Ryebread and Coyet Ale from Suomenlinnan Panimo, which I believe is the brewery on the island.
Then I had a chance to visit the grocery store on the island, which happens to be right next to the hostel. I picked up some muesli and yogurt for breakfast, as well as some other treats, like digestives and cranberry juice. A brief period of rain, so I headed back to the hostel for a while to read some maps and label the day’s photos.
After a decent sleep, I woke early to make breakfast in the hostel. Muesli, yogurt, and hot black tea.
Ready for a long day exploring Helsinki, I bought a multi-day ticket card for the ferry. I got the attention of a local woman, a person I assume is a resident of Suomenlinna, and she tried to help me figure out how to activate it on the card reader at the loading point. She then got the ferry operator to help me. The operator assumed I knew Finnish, and I had to sheepishly ask him to repeat himself in English after he gave me a funny look.
Arriving at the market square, I quickly walked over to check the location of the ferry to Tallinn to ensure timing for tomorrow — and to ensure that I could actually buy tickets onsite, and where exactly that transaction needed to happen.
I’m glad I went by, due to the fact that I saw a sign informing passengers when they should actually board the ferry for a given departure time. This was information I had not seen anywhere online, and I would likely have missed the ferry the following morning had I not been made aware.
Ready for more caffeine, I soon made my way back to the market square for the requisite “coffee and doughnut” at the recommended tent in Market Square. Before coming to Helsinki, even though I knew I would stay in the hostel, I contacted a bunch of different Couchsurfers in the area to get advice from locals about what to see and do. One Couchsurfer gave me specific instructions about a particular orange tent to seek out for the coffee and doughnut experience.
This turned out to be a much better recommendation than I could have possibly imagined.
The coffee was piping hot, so I sat down at a small cafe table next to the tent to eat the doughnut and let the coffee cool down enough to protect my taste buds. I had my Canon 7D strapped over my shoulder, ready to shoot the day. Soon, I heard a voice behind me, with what I believed to be a German accent, say “Nice machine…” I turned around, and two old men were looking at me, one pointing at my camera. “I like those Canons. That’s a nice machine you’ve got there.” The other man said, “My friend is a photographer.”
I greeted them cordially and took another bite of my doughnut. They couldn’t believe I’m not speaking Finnish or Swedish. I told them this happens all the time, and they laughed it off.
Soon the two men finished their conversation and the photographer left. The other man continued to engage me, asking me about my experiences so far. Knowing I’m from the US, he started talking about his own experiences there, and soon we realized that we both spent time in Boston. It turns out he’s a jazz composer, trained at Berklee School of Music in the late 1960s. He’s Heikki Sarmanto.
I told Heikki I wanted to know where to find good Finnish music, folk and jazz and such — since he must know. Heikki’s face lit up even brighter, and he said: “Ben. You must go to see Emu at Digelius Records. Tell him Heikki sent you, and he will help you find what you need.” He went on to tell me that I could walk there in a reasonable amount of time, or take the tram (which we could see from where we sat) and get there even more quickly.
I smiled and told Heikki that I would do just that. My intention was to meet one of the local Finnish folk I had already connected with to explore other neighborhoods of Helsinki on Saturday, and finding Digelius was now first on the agenda. On this day, however, my intention was to take in a museum or two, see some architecture, and then head over to Vallisaari before heading back to Suomenlinna for dinner.
Soon, I’d finished with my coffee. Before we parted ways, Heikki gave me his card, and I promised to keep in touch. He then said to me: “What is the most dangerous word in the world? More, more, more!”
Knowing there are several museums in that direction, I walked up toward Finlandia Hall. I decided to stop in at Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art, to check out the ARS17 Hello World exhibit. I didn’t have a chance to check out the companion web space until back in the US. At the time, my favorite installation was the crumpled flat screen televisions.
Apparently, there were a few things I missed. I’m not sure how, since I think I explored every room.
Needing to get back outside and stretch my legs, I walked to Finlandia Hall, and then back to Helsinki Cathedral. Soon I found my way to Bryggeri Helsinki, a decent little micro brewery quite close to Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square. I had Tjugo Kellerbier on tap and a salad lunch with Pehtoori cheese from the Kolatun juustola cheesemakers.
Following a quick jaunt to check out Uspenski Cathedral, I catch the ferry to Vallisaari. I had come to understand that this island had only recently been opened to visitors, with work still being done to the trail system as well as the military history venues on the islands.
I hiked the entire island of Vallisaari. The Alexander Battery was the highlight.
I then headed across to Kuninkaansaari, hiking its entire loop, finally back for a much-deserved beer at the Bar and Seadogs by the ocean. between the two islands.
Ready to relax, I caught the next boat back to Suomenlinna for some rest at the hostel. Soon, I was eating a delicious dinner of lamb sausages on the terrace at the Suomenlinna brewery. The temperature finally started to drop around 9 pm.
Seeing some color beginning to form in the sky, I headed back to the hostel to grab my camera and then park myself on a bench by the ocean to see what I could capture of the sunset.
Before I knew it, I was watching two hot air balloons float by as the sun set over Helsinki.
Another night of decent sleep, waking to breakfast in the hostel. Muesli, yogurt, and hot black tea.
It was a rainy morning, and for some reason, I barely made the 9 am ferry to the mainland. I also remembered to take my first shot with Bennett’s Lego figure. (I had told my nephew Bennett that I would do this for him while I was traveling, and asked him to construct a lego figure to represent himself so that he could be part of my trip.)
Luckily, catching this early ferry gave me plenty of time to get to the ferry terminal, purchase my ticket, and grab coffee and juice at the terminal cafe before boarding the boat to Tallinn.
It’s a long trip to Tallinn, well over two hours, nearly three. Essentially, there’s nowhere to sit on the boat, unless you buy food or drink and then sit in a restaurant. Another option is to book a cabin, but the relatively short trip renders this option pointless. Many people were sitting wherever they could, on their bags, leaning against walls and each other. There was too much wind to sit on the decks.
Early on, I took a few photos of nearby ships. Later, I went outside to do some more shooting. It was extremely windy, and at one point I had to turn around and brace myself for a strong gust. I almost lost my hat in the process. Luckily it caught on the railing and I was able to retrieve it before it dropped into the ocean.
As we arrived in Tallinn, the weather began to clear.
I think I walked all over Old Town Tallinn. It was FULL of tourists, but it seems as though it’s built for massive onslaughts of tourists. I managed to find a few nice quiet side streets and alleys, which allowed me to find some interesting graffiti.
I think I saw most of the churches, and I found it quite difficult to shoot them, such tall structures in such confined spaces. I did manage to find a few interesting angles.
Furthermore, I was forced to focus on various details of the architecture, which is always something I enjoy anyway.
And I happened to notice some cleaning or repair work in progress at one of the churches.
Before too much longer, I had to head back to the boat for the return to Helsinki. This boat had a totally different layout than the previous boat, so I took some time to familiarize myself, including a tour the upper decks and to get some shots before the rain returned.
Ready for a break after walking all over Old Tallinn, I ordered a beer and sat down to share a table with a couple strangers in the lounge. They ignored me. I was entertained by two emcees on the stage, and I came to the incorrect conclusion that there would be Finnish karaoke and a dancing competition. It turned out to be some kind of trivia game, which was still entertaining, but slightly disappointing.
After a short break, the house band Jerihon (apparently a Bulgarian rock band) came to the stage. The leader is quite charismatic and has a voice that commands the attention of everyone in the room. Upon finishing an impressive cover of Roy Orbison’s California Blue, he asked the audience: “Waltz or tango?” Based on the response to follow, more of the dancing crowd must have said tango than waltz. Without looking up, as he took a sip of his water, he said: “There’s a beautiful Finnish tango.”And I must say…
And I must say… Yes, there is a beautiful Finnish tango.
It should be noted that the Europeans seem to have a better grasp of acoustics than we do. The band’s music was loud and present, but not overbearing.
Eventually, I found myself back outside on the upper deck. It was nice to watch the sun sink toward the sea from a ship in the middle of the Gulf of Finland. I took a few more shots of passing ships and an island or two that were especially beautiful with the glare of the sun on the sea.
Back in Helsinki, returning to the market square, I was surprised to find what appeared to be an impromptu car show just getting started.
As I took the ferry back to Suomenlinna, I noticed some kind of American pop concert getting ramped up on a temporary stage next to the Ferris wheel.
This hostel is pretty easy for sleeping. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising since it’s a dark room on a quiet island. At least it’s quiet until a roving band of Russian (?) revelers comes passing through at 4:45 am!
So, after a lazy morning, including the usual breakfast, I took a quick stroll around the islands to see some spots I’d not seen before, the school, some workshops, and a few other quiet residential areas.
I headed back to the market square for a late morning coffee and doughnut while waiting for my Finnish connection, who it turns out is running a bit late. So much for Finnish punctuality…
To kill time while waiting, I headed over to explore the area around Senate Square again. The call of nature hit me, so I found a cafe to get some more coffee and use the water closet. Across the street, I saw a store offering local crafts made by Finnish artists and artisans: MadeBy. There are certainly many interesting things in the store that I would have loved to take with me, but my traveling capacity wasn’t conducive to safely transporting these items home. After a few minutes, I struck up a conversation with one of the artists, Elina, who was taking her turn to man the store, which is basically a co-op. Elina designs wood and metal jewelry and interior goods in her studio Valona. We talked for quite some time about the nature of the cooperative store, as well as our own creative processes, and she gave me some pointers on camping culture in Finland, which I hope to put to use in the near future.
My Finnish connection finally met me, and we walked down to the neighborhood of the Digelius music shop. I had a great conversation with the owner Emu, who immediately knew who Heikki is, telling me that he comes by the store often since he lives in the neighborhood. Emu has known Heikki for quite some time, since he started Digelius (still in its original location, I believe) back around the time that Heikki was studying at Berklee and then moved back to Helsinki.
I spent some time listening to music with Emu, talking about jazz and folk music in Finland. He kept pulling out albums to play over the store’s sound system. The other folks in the store didn’t seem to mind one bit. I ended up picking up one of Heikki’s early recordings as well as a couple others.
I believe that’s Heikki, right there under the price tag. Heikki’s got his own website, and of course a Wikipedia entry (which tells me I’ve got a LOT more listening to do!). A portion of his discography (including Counterbalance) is also on Spotify (and likely other media channels), but I’m sure he’d prefer if you went out and bought his albums from an independent music store.
After a quick bite at a Georgian restaurant in the neighborhood, we headed to the Helsinki University Library to check out the architecture. Unfortunately, it was closed. Then we headed over to the Old Market Hall where I finally had a chance to sample reindeer meat. It is delicious.
We parted ways, and I spent some time exploring a boardwalk-type area near the Russian church, and then I went back to Bryggeri Helsinki to sample the IPA. Not anything I’d try again, but I’m glad I got a better sense of their offerings.
Back to Suomenlinna, I found that all my previous roommates at the hostel had vacated, and now there were several new folks from Japan, The Netherlands, and Korea. Two more showed up later in the evening from England and India. We went to the brewery on the island for beers and conversation on the terrace. What a great night it was! I wish this crowd had been around for more of my stay.
There was also a big party at the hostel that night, with the door propped open and the lock disabled. I’m not exactly sure what was going on, but from the looks of things, I believe one or more locals were involved, and they must have access to the master key. Many of the folks who came to dinner in the main room did not end up spending the night. My guess is that the locals sometimes use the hostel as a gathering space for large numbers of friends.
It’s time to head back to Norway.
With decent sleep, I rose refreshed in the morning, ready to travel. I left the rest of my breakfast goods in the public food area, hoping someone would put the remainder of the kilo of muesli to good use. I made it onto the 8:40 ferry, heading for coffee downtown before heading to the train and airport. The market square was closed, and it turned out most of the cafes don’t open until 10 or 11 on Sundays, so I realized I’d have to settle for airport coffee.
The train ride to the airport was about as easy as it could possibly be. I had thought that I could use my transit pass to ride the train to the airport, but with a quick scan, the ticket agent told me that it was out of the zone covered by the fare I’d purchased. He then showed me exactly where and how to purchase the correct ticket at the kiosk, and I was on a train within ten minutes.
Waiting for my flight, the call of nature hit again (damn coffee!). At first, I thought there were birds living in the ceiling of the airport toilet. But, upon closer inspection, I realized it was just a birdsong soundtrack. (To be honest, it is actually kind of peaceful to shit with birds singing above your head, even if you know they’re fake.)
Back from my birdsong-enhanced morning glory, I finally had a chance to respond in an email conversation with Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer with the Washington Post. Our conversation started after a friend alerted me to her Facebook post:
Here’s the email I sent to Tara in response to her request:
Tara,A friend of mine alerted me.to.your request for leads regarding US Citizens traveling abroad. I’m in Norway all month, traveling to various parts for vacation and photography work. I’m also currently in Helsinki for a fun side trip, including a day trip to Estonia today.I’d be happy to chat if you think my perspective would be valuable to your story.Thanks!Ben
(“me.to.your”… damn you, numb thumbs!)
This was her response:
Hi Ben, thank you for getting in touch. Has your summer travel been affected in any way by what is going on politically in the U.S.? This might be reflected in your choice of travel destination and itinerary, or your experience abroad re. people’s response to U.S. political situation, etc.
If so, perhaps we could talk by phone…?
And here is the response I typed at the airport gate, waiting to leave Helsinki:
My travel hasn’t felt much different than when George W Bush was in office, other than a slight change in attitude about why it feels shameful to be a US Citizen. Bush was a buffoon puppet front for xenophobic goons hell-bent on killing all potential “terrorists” and any other humans in the way of these targets. Trump is a buffoon puppet front for xenophobic goons hell-bent on raping the natural environment for every last dollar into the pockets of themselves and their close buddies.
That being said, my itinerary choices were not affected by politics. My typical experience abroad is one where others (even US citizens) never assume I am from the US. I don’t look or act American, and I’m typically very quiet and observant. In European countries, 99% of the time all locals first engage with me in their native tongue.
Additionally, my experience observing most Western tourists (especially US citizens) in most places I’ve been abroad is usually that of dismay and embarrassment. Ignorance, laziness, selfishness, and rudeness abound in what usually amounts to hoards of loud, obnoxious, moronic assholes. This has been my experience across a variety of US Presidents and political climates since I was a teenager, through George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.
I believe the global corporate political system, in cahoots with the military-industrial complex, is intended to be flexible across these relatively small swings of the pendulum from one side of a bi-partisan US system to the other. I’m still trying to figure out if the Trump presidency is an attempt to break the pendulum or just a rigorous test of its adaptive capacity.
In any case, we’re supposed to “look at the birdie.”
I’m happy to chat if you’d like this sort of broad perspective to enhance your story.
I believe I’m 6 hours ahead of US eastern time.
Let me know, thanks!
(Tara has yet to respond.)
As I boarded the plane, I got a stern but half-hearted lecture from the gate attendant about taking two bags onto the plane, especially since my backpack is “so big.” I told her I took both of these bags in their exact configuration on my previous Finnair flight from Oslo to Helsinki, and I offered to let her gate check my bag. I guess they don’t offer that option?
In any case, I’m on the plane with two bags — “OK, just don’t do it again next time.” “Yes, ma’am!”
I’ve made my way to the usual the aisle seat, and next thing I know, this tall, massive, blonde, bearded Viking fella points to the window seat in my row, the international cordial gesture to have me give some room to get through. I quickly obliged him.
We flew to Oslo. Somewhere along the way, we had a conversation. I said I recognized him from somewhere. He told me his name is Rune, and he’s acted in a few things. He’s Rune Temte.
So far, his most recognizable roles are Ubba in BBC’s The Last Kingdom, the ski jumping coach in Eddie the Eagle, and Lars Ulvinaune in the television show Fortitude. Based on our relatively short conversation during the flight, I must say Rune seems like a fairly down-to-earth guy.
Finally arriving at the Oslo airport, I connect back to wifi to discover that my father wants me to track down a particular hiking map for him, the turkart (Norwegian for “hiking map”) #2563 detailing Peer Gynts Rike, which is the mountainous area surrounding my cousins’ cabin near Ringebu. Luckily, the nice clerk at the first airport bookstore I checked was able to call around to all the other stores in the airport to save me the trouble of having to walk around. No #2563 anywhere in the airport.
When I get to the train station in the terminal, I discover the next two trains to Ringebu are sold out. First available leaves the airport at 18:59 (six hours wait). I bought the ticket and asked the nearby ticket clerk if there was any way to get on the earlier trains. He said to check with the conductor when each train arrived.
So, I did. While I was waiting for the 14:29 train, I was approached by a Norwegian who asked me if the train stopped at a certain station. Not only do the natives speak to me in their tongue, they clearly think I’m local enough to know the schedules and stops of all the trains.
Before I knew it, I was on the 14:29 train. A quick conversation with the conductor was all it took.
When I arrived in Ringebu, dad picked me up at the station. My cousins Rolf and Inger were waiting at their cabin after an afternoon hiking with Mom and Dad. Inger had prepared a delicious meal and we all had dinner together. They left after coffee, and then Dad and I went on a nice hike around Kvitfjell.