Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

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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.