Language Barriers and Being Monolingual in Europe

“So what languages do you speak?” was one thing that a lot of people asked me when I was preparing for my trip. There was also a pretty unanimous expression of shock on the faces of everyone who asked when I replied with, “Other than English, none.” The Asian languages in particular would have been a bit of a challenge that would require a mindful application I just didn’t have, but what of the other languages that use the same Latin symbols and letters? I made a rather naive excuse for it, saying “I’m going to be going to so many countries, there’s no way I could learn the languages of every single one of them!” It sounds lazy, I know, but it was the truth – I was rarely in a country for more than a week, and never exactly knowing where I was going to end up next, so never knowing which language I should prioritise in learning. Because they all had their own languages that were dominant, with no major common lingual factor except – yep, you guessed it – English, in one form or another.

But the honest truth is that I never went into the trek around Europe expecting the world to cater to what was probably my biggest touristic flaw. I was expecting to have a much more difficult time as a monolingual than I did, and the ease with which I actually did around is a surprise for which I am quite grateful. I often found myself playing charades or using broken English in the most obscure or random places, only to be told, “It’s okay sir, I do speak English.” It was slightly humiliating, but it was the one thing I couldn’t escape or distance myself from, or make any immediate move to change that would be directly helpful – by the time I learnt the basics of any language it would be time to move on to the next country! Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, and Europe provided me with more than a handful of awkward and memorable linguistic experiences.

***

The Russian and Mongolian languages and their Cyrillic alphabet did inspire a bit of my fascination with other languages, but for the most part, everyone in Russia and Mongolia spoke Russian or Mongolian, and not much else. It was when I got to Finland that the concept of widespread multilingualism really hit me. I watched on, slightly intimidated, as Susanna’s Finnish friends seamlessly moved between Finnish, Swedish – the countries two official languages – and English, which everyone just seems to know anyway despite it not being an official language. Scandinavia and northern Europe were like that, I was told from the beginning – almost everyone learns English in school, so I should have no problems. Yet I was still exposed to what felt like at least three different languages in each country. It actually made me feel a little less intelligent, to see small children yapping away in a foreign language and switch over to what was an impressive command of rudimentary English, especially for a 5 year old, and back again as though it was nothing. In an attempt to make more excuses, I told myself it was the geography and logistics of Europe than lent its residents to learning so many languages. They have many neighbours in close, bordering proximity, with everyday practical uses for the languages they were learning, and a constant need to practice them. How often were my Year 7 French lessons going to come in handy in the middle of Sydney?

Although I shouldn’t speak so soon – the country where I did encounter my first language barrier was, of course, France.
“The French are so arrogant – they’ll understand English, and know you don’t speak French, but they’ll pretend they don’t know what you’re saying because they think it’s beneath them to speak your language in their country.” That was the general idea a lot of people had told me to expect in France, particularly Paris, but I’m so pleased to say that it was not my experience at all. A lot of the guys I was with for Parisian Pride spoke amongst themselves in French, but when they addressed me they always spoke in English, or at least to the best of their abilities. Which was more than I was doing for them, considering I was in their country, so I feeling nothing but gratitude towards the Parisians I encountered. Well, perhaps a little more than gratitude… whatever language they spoke, Parisian men were still Parisian men.

However, during my frantic last morning at the hostel in Paris, packing before my 12pm check-out time, I was accosted by one of the housekeeping staff. She seemed a little flustered when she entered the room and saw me doubled over my backpack, trying to shove everything inside as quickly as I could. I probably looked like a deer in the headlights too, and we both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she started speaking to me in French.
“Oh… ah… sorry. I don’t speak French,” I said sheepishly. However, she continued motioning to my bed and speaking to me in the foreign tongue.
“Ahh… Check out is at noon? I still have fifteen minutes?” I said, pointing to the clock. She said something else in French, with some emphatic hand gestures, and stared earnestly at me.
“Ahh… I don’t speak French,” I muttered, before trying again. “I’m about to leave, I’m just packing my things now.” I was mortified to realise I had begun raising my voice, as though the housekeeper might suddenly start to understand English if I said what I was saying loud enough. She just looked and me and said something else in French. We both just stared at each other. It was pointless: neither of us had the slightest clue what the other one was saying, and we weren’t talking to each other anymore – we were talking at each other, and it was achieving nothing except frustrating the hell out of us. In the end she just shrugged her shoulders and left the room, in what I can only assume was a non-verbal cue for “Hurry up and pack your things and get the hell out!”

***

Given that northern Europe was better known for the English skills of its residents, it’s no surprise that Spain was the next country to present me with a language barrier, although this time it was an entirely different situation. I learnt a fair bit of Spanish before a trip I took to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and even studied it for a semester at university afterwards. Despite all that, the only phrases I had mastered allowed me to tell people I speak Spanish, just not very well, and to order a beer – priorities, right? It wasn’t much, and it really wasn’t enough when I tried to make conversation after locking lips with a guy on the dance floor at a nightclub in Madrid. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish, or even less, so I basically had to stand there with a blank stare until he finally said something that I even half recognised. Not that he was saying much, other than “guapo“, between our kisses, though. I guess there are some situations where body language really does suffice.

Yet the country does have some other linguistic tensions that are a little bit more important than a Spanish one night stand. When I was in Barcelona I thought my Spanish was just exceptionally poor, but it turns out that in the region of Catalonia, almost everything is written in Catalan, and a lot of the locals get annoyed when you ignorantly launch into speaking to them in Spanish, regardless of your fluency. It meant little and less for me, someone who could hardly speak either, but for a Spanish speaker like Rich it was quite frustrating. But probably not as frustrating as it was to all the local Catalonians who everyone just assumes speak Spanish. I was able to discreetly bow out of that internal national conflict, as my reliance on English wasn’t as likely to offend anyone as much as it would just make them think I was an ignorant tourist.

The way I was able to explore Europe despite only knowing one language does give you an idea of the kind of power that fluency in English can offer you. Some people even find the language rather intimidating. I remember talking about it with Ike when I was staying with him in Ancona. Ike is half Dutch, so he spoke English and Italian as well as a bit of Dutch, but he told me of his own interesting experiences with language in Spain.
“It’s interesting – people are almost afraid of speaking English incorrectly, especially a lot of younger guys”, he mused as I told him my own experiences in Madrid. “I mean, they won’t get better if they don’t practice, but they don’t want to speak it if they can’t speak it perfectly. It doesn’t really make sense. A lot of the guys, they would rather try and speak to me in Italian.” He had a good chuckle remember thing that. “And… I mean, they don’t even know Italian. There’s some small similarities between Spanish and Italian… but, you know, not enough. They’re rather speak to me in terrible Italian than use slightly imperfect English.” It was something that I never came across – most likely because English was the only option they really had when talking to me – and it’s something I still haven’t been able to really explain.

***

Spain and Catalonia aren’t the only regions to have geo-lingusitic tensions. On my first night in Vienna with Kathi, she had explained to me some of the differences between the dialects of German that are spoken in Austria and Germany. “It’s mostly the same, but there are some different words for things that we have that the Germans don’t.” The more she explained it, the more I realised it was much the same as differences between American English and British English and even Australian English. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but you when you think about the different meanings we assign to different words – the use of “thongs” springs to mind – you understand just how much confusion there can be with these slight differences within the language. “It’s also frustrating when we go to Germany,” Kathi continued, “because most of the people in Austria take the time to learn some of the differences in the German they speak in Germany, but not many Germans do they same when they come to Austria.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like they think they’re the ones who speak real German.” I couldn’t help but giggle to myself a little. It was interesting to see that such little problems could be, quite literally, the same in any language.

Yet there were other times when the different language posed absolutely no problems at all, and appeared to exist side by side with the greatest ease. When I arrived in Prague and was sitting down in Tomas and Matej’s kitchen eating the dinner they made me, the two often had short, lively exchanges in another language. When I asked Tomas what language they were speaking, Tomas seemed like he had to pause and think about it for a minute. “Well… I am speaking Czech, and Matej is speaking Slovak.” Tomas was originally from the Czech Republic, while Matej was a native of the neighbouring Slovakia.
“So… the languages are the same?” It was confusing, and seemed like literally the opposite of the kind of thing that Kathi had been talking about with the German language – instead of one language that everyone had trouble understanding, this seemed to be two languages operating like one.
“No, not the same,” Tomas said, thinking more. “They’re just… similar. I can speak Czech, and understand Slovak. Matej can speak Slovak, so we can just speak either.” He shrugged, not thinking much of it, but I found the concept rather mind-blowing: that you could speak in one language and listen to someone else speak in another. It was almost more than my poor little monolingual brain could handle. Considering they both used to be part of Czechoslovakia, I can only assume that the languages must be very similar, but even still, I was slightly amazed.

While I was impressed with the way the two languages operated so smoothly in sync, Prague was probably the least English-friendly city that I visited in the whole of Europe. Buying a bus ticket in the corner store proved to be a bit of a mission – Tomas had been having a cigarette outside, but I had to call him in to help me when I realised the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. After that, I just had to hang on to my old tickets to show her the one I wanted whenever I went to buy a new one. There was enough English to get by in the main touristic parts of town, but I was lucky I usually had Matej or Tomas around whenever I was in the more obscure parts of town, because something tells me I wouldn’t have fared so well there as I had in the rest of Europe. Even sitting down to chat with their neighbours in their award-winning backyard was a bit of a challenge – out of all the places I’d visited, Prague was the city where learning to speak English hardly seemed like a priority at all. Tomas had only learnt it because he had lived in San Francisco several years ago, but he was definitely in a minority of those who did speak English.

***

I am so lucky that the one language that I do speak afforded me so much opportunity to travel relatively unhindered, but the more I saw of the world, the more my status as a monolingual felt like a handicap. I was insanely jealous as I watched people slip between different tongues so easily – I knew they weren’t saying anything specifically more profound than anything that could have been said in English, but it just felt like there was a wealth of knowledge that I was missing out on. Living in a country like Australia, with no countries with direct borders and no extremely obvious choices of a language to learn that might be useful in your own city, I’d never really considered that learning another language would be such a beneficial skill. Now, after travelling around so many different countries and discovering the complexities of a range and huge variety of languages, it’s become another one of my goals to learn, practice, and eventually become fluent in another language. Which language – for now – is undecided, but I have to thank the many companions and friends I made along the way in Europe for inspiring me, and opening my eyes to the importance of languages, and the highly valuable skill of multilingualism.

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The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.

Cruisin’

On my first night in Helsinki, I’d been chatting with Susanna about prospective routes for my journey. “I’m thinking about getting a boat to Stockholm,” I’d said. “I feel as though it would take too long to get the train all the up through Finland and then back through the rest of Sweden.”
“Ah, the good old booze cruise,” Susanna had laughed. “You’re right though, and there isn’t that much to see up that way anyway. But the cruises are a lot of fun. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve had to go to Stockholm.” She explained that a lot of Finnish people booked the overnight cruise as a round trip – they partied all night on the boat, slept all day when the boat was docked in Stockholm, and partied the whole night on the way back. “I had to do things in Stockholm though, so didn’t get the benefit of a day of sleep. But it’s still heaps of fun.”

Then I’d mentioned potentially getting the train to Turku, a town on the western coast, and getting the ferry from there. “Yeah…” Susanna had replied, but there was obvious skepticism in her voice. “The trains are pretty expensive though, if you were still thinking about waiting to activate your Eurail Pass. And Turku isn’t that exciting either. I’d get then boat from Helsinki, if it were me.” Back when I had been making rough plans for my world tour, I had the intention of visiting not only the major cities, but other smaller, less frequented destinations. However, it seemed that the scope of the countries I wanted to visit meant I was going to have to be a little more selective. I cast my thoughts back to Chau Doc in Vietnam, and how the side trip had really not been worth it at all, so I decided to heed Susanna’s advice and head straight to Stockholm from Helsinki.

***

Being the terrible decision maker that I am, it wasn’t until the Sunday morning that I booked my ticket on the ferry for that night. That was something I had to work on, although I had discovered a ridiculously good value fare online, so perhaps this time it worked to my advantage. After saying farewell to Susanna, I headed for the docks on the south-eastern side of the city and boarded the boat. I was still feeling quite hungover from the previous night out, so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a night where I was essentially trapped in a party atmosphere.

The boat was massive. There were 10 levels, including a conference room on the top deck and several levels of restaurants, shops, game rooms, nightclubs and stages with live music. I was actually really impressed at how nice the whole thing was – red carpers and gold trimmings on the decor made it feel as though I was in a fancy hotel. However, my room was less glamorous – a small room in the depths of the hull (thank god there was an elevator) with four bunks that made me feel a little nostalgic for the Trans-Siberian Railway cabins, except there were no windows. None of my cabin mates had arrived, so I made my bed with the provided linen, dropped my bags off and did some exploring. There was some kind of convention or conference on this trip, as I noticed a lot of traditionally dressed Muslim men heading up towards the 10th floor. I wandered thought the duty free shop and around the games room, before having dinner at the cafeteria buffet and then making my way over to see what was happening in the entertainment area.

There was already a rock band in full swing, belting out songs I didn’t know – possibly in a language I didn’t know – but there were only a few smatterings of people around the bar, groups talking amongst themselves and not really paying attention to the actual entertainment. No one was dancing. It was a middle-aged crowd that didn’t seem like the partying type at all. I wondered where the rest of the young people who I had seen boarding the ferry earlier had gotten to. They’d come on with their stylish clothes and suitcases and for the most part seemingly enthusiastic attitudes. However, it was a Sunday night, and I wondered if maybe I hadn’t chosen the right evening to expect the party boat or “booze cruise”.

And the unsatisfying end to this story is that I will never know. I went below the main deck to my cabin to find that it was still empty, a clear indication that the boat wasn’t full. So I decided to go and shower, and then returned to my cabin… where I promptly passed out. My hangover and day of sightseeing in the warm Helsinki sun had caught up with me, and when I stirred to check the time again it was already after one in the morning. Rather than drag myself out of bed to see if there was in fact a raging party on the upper levels, I decided to indulge in the fact I had a room to myself and continue with a solid night of sleep. I know I’d only just had a room to myself back at Susanna’s apartment, but the uncertainty of my future accommodation meant that I had no idea when I would have such a luxury again. Considering I had been expecting to be sharing with three other people, I took full advantage of the situation.

I awoke in the morning with enough time for the buffet breakfast before gathering my things and departing the ship. We’d crossed another time zone on our voyage to Stockholm, so I had an extra hour on the day. Which was helpful, considering I had no accommodation booked, knew very little about the city – just what was in my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring guide – and didn’t know a single person in the city. Yep, this was going to be interesting.

***

I’d always been a little dismissive of cruises, on the argument that it was a holiday for a holidays sake. You didn’t really see that much if you spent all your time on a boat, and you didn’t get a very cultural experience if you were spending all day on what was essentially a big hotel. I still sort of hold that view of cruises, although I have to say, being on the boat made me think that it would actually be a lot of fun, especially if I’d been with a group of friends. After the staggering range of cultural differences I’d experiences over the past 2 months, I think I can appreciate the idea of a holiday where the sole purpose is to just relax, and not really care if the only sight you see is 360 degrees of ocean for seven days. I know that’s not exactly how cruises work either, but I’ll admit, given I did have my own room, I wouldn’t have minded spending a little bit longer on that boat. And next time my friends suggest it, maybe I won’t be so quick to shun the idea of a cruise holiday.

Nothin' but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Nothin’ but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Helsinki Sightseeing

During my time in Helsinki I hadn’t done a great deal of sightseeing, because when I arrived Susanna had told me about a free walking tour of the city that runs every Sunday afternoon. I have to confess that I didn’t know a great deal about the city, and hadn’t done a lot of research either, so I wasn’t even sure what the major attractions of the city even were. I arrived in Helsinki on a Thursday, so I figured that I would be around until at least the end of the weekend, and that I could take the tour then and do some sightseeing with a knowledgable local.

As is turns out, the tour guide was from Tasmania. She’s been living in Helsinki for 11 years though, so she knew a great deal about the city and told us little stories about the city’s main attractions. The tour began in Senate Square right in front of Tuomiokirkko, a cathedral that is probably the most iconic and recognisable attraction in Helsinki. From there we moved to the lavishly adorned Uspenskin Katedraali, a Russian Orthodox cathedral. Now that I had moved out of Asia and well and truly into Europe, the host of temples that had formed the majority of tourist attractions were being replaced with churches and cathedrals such as these. We went inside to view the stunning interior, with paintings and alters and candles spread out through the entire building, but tread carefully so as not to disturb the large number of people who were there to pray and pay their religious respects.

The iconic Tuomiokirkko.

The iconic Tuomiokirkko.

The Russian orthodox Uspenskin Katedraali.

The Russian orthodox Uspenskin Katedraali.

Inside the orthodox cathedral.

Inside the orthodox cathedral.

Helsinki's padlock bridge is far smaller than in Irkutsk, but there's no shortage of padlocks.

Helsinki’s padlock bridge is far smaller than in Irkutsk, but there’s no shortage of padlocks.

We wandered through the city looking at a range of different things, from the government houses and monuments, to quirky hotels and interesting buildings. We also passed a bridge that was absolutely full of padlocks, just like the one in Irkutsk. I remember Jenna telling me there was a similar bridge in Paris, so I guess it must be quite a common European tradition. From there we moved to a market by the sea and had some lunch, where the tour guide warned us of the particularly vicious seagulls. After that we walked through a park and a graveyard that was commonly thought to be haunted, and finished with a building called the Chapel of Silence. It was a peculiar structure with a round shape and was made of wood, and served as a non-denominational space that could be used for all kinds of ceremonies, but what was so interesting about it was the acoustics. It was designed in a way so that it almost completely eliminated all outside noise – the silence inside the chapel was almost deafening. It was an eerie building, but at the same time extremely tranquil. The interior was beautiful, and I could imagine a small, elegant wedding ceremony taking place on the main elevated area.

One of the menacing seagulls.

One of the menacing seagulls.

This monument was a gift to Finland from Russia - and was cheekily placed in front of the Swedish embassy in Helsinki.

This monument was a gift to Finland from Russia – and was cheekily placed in front of the Swedish embassy in Helsinki.

Despite the reputation for being haunted, Finnish people don't waste a single moment of daylight, and this very central grassy area was full of living people soaking up the sun.

Despite the reputation for being haunted, Finnish people don’t waste a single moment of daylight, and this very central grassy area was full of living people soaking up the sun.

The Chapel of Silence.

The Chapel of Silence.

***

After the sightseeing I met Susanna back at my hostel to say goodbye. After a rushed and hungover breakfast that morning, I had decided that I didn’t want to spend much longer in Helsinki. I’d met some nice locals, seen the way they lived, and by the afternoon I would have seen the city’s major sites too. I have to admit, after being told how long I would be staying in each location for the last three weeks, it was a bit of a shock to the system to have to make these definitive decisions right on the spot. I like to think I can be pretty spontaneous, but I can’t deny it was a little stressful. Especially when I was booking my place on the overnight ferry at 10:50am and I had to check out of the room at 11:00.

But that’s what I did. I found an extremely good fare, so I snatched the deal up and bought a last minute ticket to Stockholm. I still had no idea where I would be staying, and I didn’t know anyone in Stockholm, so it was a combination of excitement, adventure, and sheer terror. I’d had a lovely time in Helsinki, getting to know Susanna and experiencing the excitement of the beginning of their summer, but it was time to officially kick off my Eurotrip and see what the vast, multicultural continent had in store for me.

Saying goodbye to Susanna, and to Helsinki.

Saying goodbye to Susanna, and to Helsinki.

Down in the Park: Drinking in Helsinki

The weekend I was in Helsinki turned out to be quite an eventful one for the usually quiet city. Susanna had warned me that on Saturday I would see a lot of people walking around wearing white, ceremonious caps, and a lot of teenagers drinking in the park. I had arrived in Finland at the end of the last week of school before the summer holidays began, and for the teenagers that were finishing high school, it was the day of their official graduation ceremonies. It was such a beautiful sunny day that I had decided to talk the 45 minute walk into the city instead of catching the train, and on the way I saw white caps on many of the teenagers I passed, laughing with their friends and fidgeting as their parents tried to get them to stand still for photos. However, the parks didn’t seem quite so full of young boozers, I had noticed as I myself laid in one of the city parks, soaking up some rays and using my new favourite human right to Skype some of my friends. That would all change later.

Susanna’s brother was coming to stay with her on Saturday – she’d been able to let me stay there for a couple of nights, but I’d had to find somewhere else to stay after that. “I’m really sorry, but… well, I don’t even know how the two of us are going to manage, the space is small enough as it is.” Which I totally understood, and was still completely grateful – two nights free accommodation is better than zero. Yet I hadn’t been able to find a host on Couchsurfing – Susanna put it down to the fact that a lot of people in Helsinki live in small apartments like hers, and therefore don’t really have room to host people – so in the afternoon I checked into the city’s student accommodation, which becomes a hostel in the summer months. From there, Susanna and I went to dinner – it was the birthday of one of the girls in her group of Finnish friends, and she had invited me to come along and join the crowd. Always keen to meet the locals, I was quick to accept.

One of he beautiful sunny parks, before they were stormed by drunken high school graduates.

One of he beautiful sunny parks, before they were stormed by drunken high school graduates.

Dinner was at a Turkish restaurant, and I sat with Susanna and listened to a few of the conversations of some of her friends, and chatted to a few of them about my travels, where I’d come from and where I was going. At one point, in a break from all the other conversations, I had to lean over and quietly ask Susanna, “Are all of these people Finnish?”
“Yeah, they’re all from Finland,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure most of them know each other from a school or something where they all spoke English, so that’s why they mainly talk to each other in English, I think.”
But she had misunderstood my confusion. “Oh… No, I didn’t even think of that.” English is so widespread in Scandinavia you would have a very hard time finding anyone who didn’t speak it. “I mean, it’s just that a lot of them sound American.”
She had a good laugh at that. “Yeah, it happens a lot here. When they’re taught English by Americans, or American resources, then that’s how they learn to speak it, accent and all.” It was strange to see someone who could so easily pass as an American with a native English tongue to slip seamlessly into the long, low tones of the Nordic language. Finland actually has quite a complicated history with languages – Swedish and Finnish are both official languages, and there are small minorities of Finnish people whose mother tongue is actually Swedish. Politically, Finland’s history has been somewhat of a wrestling match for control and influence between Russia and Sweden, and there’s a whole range of other factors that basically mean all Finnish people seem to speak a minimum of three languages – the two official ones and English – with spikes Russian, Norwegian, Danish and German thrown in for good measure,

***

After dinner, we were to move onto the park to have some drinks. I was a little shocked when Susanna told me that – I hadn’t gotten drunk in a park since I was underage, and now for me drinking in a park refers to finishing the bourbon and Coke that I poured into a plastic bottle at pre-drinks while I’m walking through Hyde Park on the way to Oxford St. However, once I arrived I realised that it was quite a different environment. Well, I guess there were a lot of school kids getting drunk in celebration of the graduation, but we sat on the other side of the park, away from the throng of drinking youths. One of Susanna’s friends had some decent speakers for playing some music, and a few more produced towels or blankets from their bags to sit on, and we all sat around in the park having a little alcoholic picnic of beer, wine and cider. It was obvious that this was quite a popular and common thing to do in the summer months, making the absolute most of the outdoors and the sunshine after the months of long winter and seemingly endless darkness. It lasted for a a couple of hours through the evening sunshine and into the twilight. At one point the police arrived – while this kind of thing is commonplace during the summer months, at some point it became necessary to break up the crowd of teens as they grew too rowdy. Eventually the sprinklers came on, and we all and a bit of a chuckle as we watched them flee… until the sprinklers near us came on too, and we scattered, though only to relocate a few metres away, out of the reach of the water.

As we looked out over the now nearly deserted park, I saw a few people walking around picking up cans and bottles. “For every can or bottle you return to the supermarket, you get about twenty euro cents,” Susanna explained to me. “So all throughout these nights of drinking in the park, you have bottle collectors who go around picking them all up so they can make some money out of it”. I thought that was nice – even though it came with a financial incentive, it meant that people were still looking after the environment and cleaning up the local parks. But I was mistaken – as the collectors moved away, standing on the sidelines of the park and waiting for us to be finished with our beer and cider cans, I noticed that there were still a bunch of other cans still left on the grass. “Yeah, not all of the cans come with a refund, so they don’t bother picking them up.” That was a little disheartening, to learn that care for the environment, or even a desire just to keep the city clean, was completely lacking – it was all about making a few quick bucks. When the time came for us to move on from the park and onto one of the bars, I stood up and threw my can as far as I could to the other side of the park, and watched all the can collectors scurry to be the first to snatch up what was essentially a twenty cent coin. At least that way they were working for the money.

***

After the park, our party moved through the small, cobbled streets of Helsinki to one of the popular bars called Corona Bar. It was a large, dimly lit hall full of snooker and billiard tables, which seemed to be the main focus and attraction of the venue. The chatter and banter between the patrons was almost louder than the music, and there was a really authentic feeling about it that was a combination of American roadhouse and alternative grunge bar. Beer and wine was relatively cheap, and Susanna and I played a game of pool against two of her Finnish friends. Despite the two of us insisting that we were terrible players, I remembered back to the tips and tricks that Sana had taught me on our Cambodian date night, and with a few extra pointers from some of her other friends, both Susanna and I managed to sink a few balls with shots that I would never have believed I was capable of and ended up winning the game, representing Australia and proving that sometimes skills really do get better with booze.

One kind of cool thing that happened was that nearly everyone in the bar commented on my shirt. Tom of Finland is an artist that creates a lot of hyper-masculine and erotic cartoons, most of which are very graphic and detailed. Back at my old place of work, we sold t-shirts and singlets with some of the less explicit designs – some of the cartoons and artworks go as far as to essentially be pornography. Whenever I wore my Tom of Finland shirt back at home, it would usually get a lot of comments from people laughing and loving the fact I was adorning a picture of a naked muscle man on my shirt. However, here no one seemed that amazed by the content of my shirt, save for the fact that it was Tom of Finland – as in, they were actually familiar with the work of Tom of Finland. I have to admit I got a little kick out of wearing the Tom of Finland shirt in Finland, but I didn’t realise that there was actually such a strong connection to the country in the name, or that so many people, including heterosexual males, would know anything about it. One of the guys even mentioned that Tom, the artist behind the artworks, used to live not too far from the park where we’d been drinking earlier. What I had intended to be an outfit with a slightly meta undertone had turned into a relevant cultural tribute.

Welcomed With Wasps

My train arrived in Helsinki precisely on time at six o’clock, although the sun outside felt as though it should only be about three in the afternoon. I disembarked and made way to the end of the platform where I found Susanna waiting for me. Although we’d never actually met, I guess you could say Susanna was technically a family friend. Her mother is a close friend of one of my aunts, and when I had been telling her about my travel plans and mentioned that I was thinking of going through Scandinavia, she has suggested that I get into contact with her daughter Susanna. She’d Susanna might be able to offer me a place to stay or at the very least show me around Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. Susanna herself was from Canberra, living and working in Helsinki, so even though it was our first time meeting we seemed to have a bit of common ground, and we got on quite well.

Helsinki Station.

Helsinki Station.

We got one of the local trains back to her apartment, which was only five or ten minutes away from the city, and as we walked from the station she explained the public transport system a little bit more, and told me which trains to back to the city. She also explained a few of the other little quirks about the Finnish systems and culture: the tickets were available on trains, but the people who sell them aren’t the people who check for them; beer is available in the supermarkets but only until 9pm, and everything else is sold at shops appropriately called ‘Alcos’; most people diligently obey road rules, including pedestrians – you won’t see any jaywalking from a local in Helsinki; access to free Internet is officially a human right in Finland, and there is free wifi basically everywhere. It was interesting how different things were from Russia – particularly the alcohol availability – when the geographical distance was so small, but that was one of the beautiful things I was soon to discover about Europe. You can travel a matter of hours between countries, or even just within cities, and there is such a rich and unique cultural diversity that just isn’t as prevalent or profound as it is in “multicultural Australia”.

When we arrived at her place, Susanna gave me a quick tour of the building, showing me the laundry room where I could do a much needed load on washing, and the sauna where she had a weekly reservation every Friday evening. She gave me a detailed briefing, to the point where I could essentially be left to my own devices, though it was only at that point that I realised that was exactly what she was doing. She clarified by saying that she had work the following day, a Friday, and then an all day hens party on Saturday, and that she was going to leave me the keys to her place and stay with a friend for a few days. I was a little shocked, and again felt a surge of gratitude towards someone who I hardly knew, yet was going out of her way so far as to give me her apartment for the next two nights. It was a small studio, so realistically it would have been a bit of a squeeze for the two of us, but she assured me that it was no problem for her. She’d mentioned a few times that she had done a bit of travelling herself, so I suppose she knew how much a few free nights of accommodation can mean to a budget backpacker. Furthermore, it would be nice to have my own room and some private space for the first time in weeks.

***

As I was unpacking my things, and Susanna was preparing to leave, I noticed a bug flying around in the kitchen. I moved a little closer to take a look… and then bolted to the other side of the apartment. It was a wasp.
“Ahh, Susanna? Is it normal to have a wasp in the apartment?”
“What? A wasp?” She’d been in the bathroom gathering some of her things, but now she stuck her head out into the main room. “Err, no. No, that’s not normal.” We watched the wasp buzz around, hoping it would fly out the window again. Instead, it circled around and flew to the top of the windowpane – where its nest was hanging from the curtain railing.
“Oh my God! Is that a wasps nest?” It was only the size of a golf ball, but there was no denying what it was it after we watched the wasp climb through the hole at the bottom. “It’s definitely new. They must have come in and made it today, because that was not there this morning.” Her reaction was a combination of disbelief and concern – but I had to drop a bombshell that could potentially add panic to the mix.
“Ah, just before anything else happens, I should probably mention that I’m allergic to wasp stings.”
“Shit, really? Like anaphylactic allergic?”
“Um, I don’t really know. I haven’t been stung in years, but I don’t have an epi-pen or anything.”

After a little while of deciding what we were going to do, the wasp emerged from the nest, and I had a mini panic attack and ran to the bathroom to hide in terror. But by some chance the wasp decided to fly out the window, and Susanna quickly jumped the close them all as soon as it left. We’d previously been deliberating whether or not we could knock it out the window with the broom, but we weren’t sure how many wasps were inside and were too concerned that it might miss, which would be even more of a disaster. We’d even googled “How to get rid of wasps nests” and watched some pretty unhelpful YouTube videos that only inspired more fear. But now, as we slammed the windows shut, the nest seemed lifeless. But it wasn’t a risk we were willing to take, and Susanna had no equipment suitable for removing wasp nests. We made a quick trip to the supermarket to see if we could find some kind of pesticide or bug spray that might help, and on the way back we ran into some of her neighbours who were working in the communal garden.

“The wasps mostly live in the trees around here, like the ones just outside the apartment,” Susanna had reasoned, “so maybe some of them will have experience with getting rid of one.” She conveyed the problem to one of the older women, using a combination of English and Finnish, and it was almost a little amusing to watch the expressions on their faces change as the tale was told and retold in Finnish. Eventually one of the men offered to come up and have a look at the nest for us. When we got there, he simply plucked the small nest from the curtain railing and put it in a plastic bag. There mustn’t have been any more wasps inside, because that was the end of it – we thanked the man and he took the bag with the nest out with him. Later, I would find a wasp angrily buzzing at the closed window, so I made a point of opening none of them for the rest of the evening.

***

After that initial moment of excitement, I spent the rest of my evening – and in fact most of my time in Helsinki – just relaxing. I spent a bit of time in my evenings at Susanna’s sending requests and emails on Couchsurfing – Susanna was only able to offer me a place to stay for two nights, and I also didn’t have any contacts for the next few cities I would be visiting. I also used the sauna during the time when Susanna had her weekly reservation – she wasn’t going to be around and said that I was more than welcome to use it. Saunas are hugely popular in Finnish culture, and my experiences in Russia had reignited my love for their intense steamy heat. However, in Finland it’s customary to always be naked when inside the sauna, and is actually considered quite rude, and in some cases unhygienic, to wear swimwear whilst in a sauna. I don’t really have a problem with nudity in the first place, but since I had the sauna to myself I didn’t see any reason as to why I shouldn’t go naked.

During the day I ventured out into the city to do some exploring. I walked through some shops and ate at a few places, and it was quite startling to see how expensive things were. I’d been warned that Scandinavia in particular was quite expensive, but it was a culture shock that had progressively escalated, all the way from South-East Asia and right across the Trans-Siberian. Susanna had advised me of a lounas culture, a custom in which many places offer buffet style lunch menus that are about a third of the price of similar meals when ordered during the evening. Finding cheap places to eat at night could also be difficult, so Susanna encouraged me to make lunch the main meal of the day. I managed to find a few nice places though, and after all the rushing around with the Trans-Siberian tour, in the end I found one of the nicest things to do was lay in the park and enjoy the seemingly endless hours of sunshine. Even some of the locals agreed that it was one of the best things I could be doing, obviously smitten by their summer weather in the same way that the Russians were.

I was more than happy to sit back, soak up the sun, and access my human right to free wifi in the park. I had an email from my parents, who were also taking a short holiday through Europe, saying that the weather in Spain was cold and rainy. It seemed a little ironic, but I couldn’t suppress the sense of smugness that I felt when I replied to inform them that I was currently sunbathing, in Finland of all places.