Monday, July 4, 2011

Finnish Folly

Next up, Pa and I headed up to Helsinki, Finland, for a taste of the homeland. Pa's grandparents were Finnish, which compared to the many other mystery members of our family makes "Finnish" one of the easiest ancestries for us to identify with. Finland has always seemed very exotic and very, very far away, so it was exciting to finally get to go!

Well, after four days in Helsinki, Lappeenranta, and Mikkeli, my only take away was: Finland is weird. Like, really really weird. I'd always heard that the Finnish language was the hardest in the world, but had never really taken that fact seriously. Now I do! It was unbelievable. Not only was every word seemingly fifteen plus letters long (usually with four or five umlauts), but also nothing sounded anything like the way it was written or related in any obvious way to its English meaning.

(One word. Five umlauts.)

I had always kind of hoped that Finnish, when spoken, would sound warbly and smooth, like it sort of looked on the page. Instead, it turned out to be weirdly bumpy and halting sounding; I was, admittedly, a little disappointed. I've also never been in a place before where I absolutely could not understand ANYTHING (maybe Budapest, but even then it seemed more manageable than Finland), which I found more disconcerting than expected.

On the upside, though, Finland was BEAUTIFUL. Helsinki was kind of hard to access, but then we drove up through the Finnish countryside in our little rental car, and couldn't stop oohing and ahhing the entire way. It reminded me a lot of northeastern California, in the high meadows on the way to Termo and other forgotten farming towns: vast green plains ringed with tall stands of pine trees and dotted by weather-hardened farmhouses. It looked like a great place to live (for two months out of the year...).

(Pa, me, and some big beautiful Finnish fields)

(Finnish roadside picnic)

The little lakeside town we visited ended up being a sort of bust, because we opted out of taking the ferry to Russia (which would have required 7 hours of travel for 3 hours of being in Russia) that had been the reason we'd come, and then the boating opportunities that the town was also supposed to have hadn't gotten set up yet because it was too soon in the season. We did check out Europe's largest sandcastle, which was pretty cool, and got to ride the most vomit-inducing swing ride I've ever experienced, which was not so cool. Pa and I were literally nauseous for hours as a result.

(Pa and a sand elephant)

(Worst. Ride. Ever.)

On a whim, we drove even further north to Mikkeli, a town famous for being the military headquarters of the Finnish army during the Winter War at the beginning of World War II. We visited the war museum, which was cool because I actually didn't know that much about the Winter War and so learned a lot. The museum also boasted THE CREEPIEST mannequins I'd ever seen in my entire life, which added an unforeseen element of adrenaline to the entire experience.

(Creepiest mannequins EVER)

We headed back down to Helsinki for our last day in Finland and were looking forward to checking out the Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, we didn't know that the hours had changed for Midsummer Week, and so we got there about twenty minutes after it had closed. D'oh! After a few minutes standing around outside the museum feeling sorry for ourselves, we created a new plan headed down closer to the waterfront to check out the main cathedral and the quayside.

(We also went to the Marimekko flagship store - sweet!)

(Helsinki's main cathedral looking tall and proud)

(Pa on the steps of the cathedral)

We got to the cathedral just in time to use it as shelter from a massive, random rainstorm that came through, and otherwise enjoyed marveling at its impressive (and sweat-inducing) steps up to and down from its entrance. Afterwards, we walked along the quay and saw ferries going out to Suomenlinna, an island fortress just fifteen minutes out in the harbor. The ferries ran until 2am and it didn't get dark until after 10:30, so we decided to grab some dinner and then check the island out.

(Sweet bearded seal fountain)

(Me and Pa)

Loaded up on Indian food from what was, as far as we could tell, the only Indian restaurant in the city of Helsinki (thankfully it was quite good!), we headed back to the ferry and headed over the Suomenlinna. The weather was a bit cool and uninspiring, but we had a great time touring the island (getting plenty of walking in!), getting buffeted by impressive wind from the sea, and (after much much searching) finding the old WWII submarine that now serves as a museum there. We were too late to tour the inside, but had a lot of fun admiring it from the outside. We headed back to the mainland at around 9:30 (still in weirdly mid-afternoon light, it felt like!), and tried to get a good night's sleep before our next big travel leg, heading up to Tromsø, Norway, that would take place the next day.

(Pa on the ferry to Suomenlinna)

(Checking out Helsinki harbor)

(Suomenlinna, as a fortress island, used its leftover cannons in creative ways)

(Pa checks out the nose of the submarine)

Overall I liked Finland, but not in the immediate, head over heels, My god how is this place so amazing?!! way that some places have affected me. It grew on me slowly over the few days we spent there, and I think if we'd spent more time it would have gotten even better. I'd love to go back and see more; it feels like a place that's full of mysteries jut waiting to be discovered.

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