Arrival in Helsinki

The magic ferry with free wireless pulled into port around 13:00 and I lugged the vast quantities of alcohol I’d bought down into the arrivals area. This is obviously a common reason for a trip to Estonia as others had trolleys laden with cases of beer.

I had a short wait as the nice people who were picking me up were stuck in traffic. A little late, though, the group of them appeared. Ulf (who I’d met in Bonn and Cologne), Tiina (a local Couchsurfing ambassador) and Antoine (from France, visiting Finland). We loaded the car up and drove over to Mike’s place.

Mike’s an American living in Helsinki with his Finnish girlfriend and he’d agreed to host me for the night as Tiina’s place was full of Ulf and Antoine. Unfortunately, he was away for the day but had left us a key in a little security box attached to the boot cleaner outside his flat. And one of the buttons on the box was slightly dodgy. It took us about 5 minutes to get into the thing, but once we did we got into the flat so I could ditch my bags.

We popped via a supermarket for Tiina to sort out her recycling. I tell you, this country is a world apart. I believe the system’s the same in Estonia from what I gathered when I was there, but I hadn’t seen the machines in action. Rather than the usual bottle banks we have in the UK where you simply throw things in and walk off, these ones scan each and every item inserted, read the bar code and credit you the deposit for them. Deposits vary depending on material (plastic, glass, cans) and size.

I’m impressed. We should really do something like this in the UK. Introduce money into the equation and people really start to think about recycling. The closest we’ve got is various councils threatening to fine people for throwing out too much non-recycled rubbish. Quite a challenge when they’re so picky about what recycled material they’ll take, how often they’ll collect it, the size of the containers they’ll give you to keep it in and assuming that every household consists of two people (maximum) who eat nothing but home-grown vegetables.

A tram took us into Helsinki centre where Tiina showed us around for an hour or so. It’s quite a small city centre with a handful of sites. You can walk around almost everything that’s worth seeing in less than an hour. It’s fairly clean, safe, flat and everyone speaks English so it’s hard to get lost.

We walked past the Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran church), a huge white building that looks like it got  a fresh lick of paint only hours ago. Further along the same road is the red Uspensky Cathedral used by the Russian Orthodox population (less than 0.5% of Finnish population is Orthodox).

The market is nice to see (apart from the fish stalls – yuck) as most stalls are selling fresh fruit. Strawberries and cherries were everywhere, so the smell was fantastic. Oh, and the women serving in them were without exception drop dead gorgeous.

Yup, Baltic women. They are as pretty as they’re made out to be. Seriously, it’s hard to look in one direction for more then 30 seconds without seeing at least one woman of model-level stunningness. I wasn’t even searching them out. They were just everywhere!

Trying to keep my attention on the architecture, we walked up through Esplanade Park and settled on the grass to munch on ice cream. If you visit here, one word of warning – watch out for the seagulls. They’re evil. Very, very evil. They will think nothing of dive-bombing you, knocking your ice cream off the cone and fighting over it on the ground. I watched this happen to one girl who was a little peeved about it to say the least.

This makes Helsinki one of the few places I’ve visited where pigeons aren’t the most hated avian species. I reckon they probably run a close second. Other bird, the smaller and cuter ones, will hop very close to you in their search for crumbs – something I’ve noticed in many countries outside of the UK. This rarely happens in the UK where you’re lucky to get within three metres of something the size of a thrush or smaller.

Tiina had to go to work, so she left us to find the bar where a couchsurfing meeting had been organised. Hemingway’s was only a short walk out, so we opted for a stroll and a chat. Ulf and I argued over stuff like we always do while Antoine worked out the directions. Incorrectly in the first instance, but we corrected and got to the bar without any problems.

There were a few people already there when we arrived and I’m going to apologise straight up for not remembering any names. By the end of the evening, around 30 people had passed through and it was a huge mix of people from so many countries. One girl I talked to was born in the Ukraine of Russian parents, grew up in France, spent 12 years in Boston and now lives in Finland. She was sat with a guy who was visiting from the Dominican Republic, somewhere I confessed I couldn’t find on a map without serious help.

Ulf segregated himself from the rest of the crowd by loudly supporting Germany as they beat Italy in the Euro 2008 match on TV. I confess to preferring the Deutch as well, simply because they don’t cheat like the Italians do.

Mike turned up with his girlfriend, and we were the last to leave along with Ulf and Antoine. I used my memory of Thailand and Vietnamese motorcycle taxis not to lose my seating as Mike zoomed us around the city to Tiina’s place of work. She was due to finish around that time so we’d arranged to head up there and collect her.

The crowd of us went back to Mike’s flat where we shared a couple more beers and talked for an hour or so. I swear people drink for so long here just because they don’t realise how late it is. At some time around 2:30am, Tiina drove Ulf and Antoine back to her place and it was still daylight.

Mike’s couch turned out to be very comfortable indeed.

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