Blog » Greetings from Finland

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This was written in mid July 2004
Päivää all (I am reliably told that this is hello in Finnish, although for all I know I could be swearing at you all instead of greeting you!),
Now that I am in Helsinki I am a little closer to home that I have been for a while and only have a small time difference. It seems weird that I am getting up almost the same time as the UK again…I say almost because obviously I am having a lie-in! I arrived in Finland yesterday and despite the day and a bit of travelling I am feeling good. In the journey between Australia and Finland I gained something like 8 hours – not that I made much use of these additional hours being stuck on a plane somewhere over Russia.
Back over in Auz the city of Sydney had the pleasure of my company for a little over 4 days, as always, it seems that time went extremely quickly, but I got to get a good feel for the city. The first shock was the weather – it was like England. It rained every day (until the morning I was leaving, when naturally the sky was blue). I was told that until the precise moment I showed up the sun was beaming – yeah, of course.
The weather didn't dampen my spirits though. The reputation of Sydney as an international city goes before it and I was determined to get to know it a little. I stayed in Central, which is quite a walk from the harbours, and in the four days there I must have walked miles exploring. Once I got used to the trunk roads that cut through the city it became difficult for me to get lost…I tried it a couple of times but frustratingly always ended up knowing where I was!
Whilst in Sydney I was reading 'Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (no, its not about Motorcycles) and there is a sentence in there that goes someway to describing my love of cities. It reads, 'we keep passing unseen through little moments of other people's lives'. That's what it feels like I have been doing, wandering alone through these cities – fuelling my fascination for people and their infinite variety.

Anyway enough of the philosophising…having watched more sport in the two and a half weeks I spent in Brisbane than I had done in the total of my previous 29 (yes, I am 29 now!) years, I thought I had better start to redress that balance back in arts favour, so clamoured to book something at the opera house! I plumped for the Mikado on Friday evening and donned my extravagant Australian skirt purchase (see, I am getting good use out of it already!) feeling like a million dollars as I walked up the famous steps. I had a seat three rows from the front, and thoroughly loved the performance, laughing all the way through.
If you ever have the pleasure to visit the opera house you have to go to the toilets! Obviously, I don't know if the gents is as impressive, but the ladies was decidedly curvy, the roof, the doors, the sinks. It was like stepping into some Enid Blyton, fairy-tale land bathroom; easily pleased, me!
Slightly more on the usual tourist trail that the toilets at the opera house is climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge, which I did Saturday afternoon. Having booked it over the net in Brisbane, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The day before the climb, I walked down to the harbour to get a look at the bridge and my jaw literally dropped when I saw a group of climbers that looked like tiny ants on the apex of the bridge, a couple of hundred metres up from the water. Now, as most of you know, I am pretty scared of most things (and that is not an understatement)…but I can do heights and, if anything, I relish them – particularly for the view they afford. I'm a sucker for a good view. So although seeing the climbers was a shock it also made me really excited at the prospect of getting up there.
The climb is organised with military precision. You cannot take anything at all onto the bridge that could possibly drop down (it took the entrepreneur who started the attraction 10 years to persuade the bridge authority that it was safe), so they provide you with an amazing array of bits and bobs that all clip to your climb 'suit'. I had a hanky clipped around my wrist and there were even colour co-ordinated scrunchies connected by elastic to your suit! I took 1,436 steps, over 1.7 kms, on a mixture of ladders, catwalks, and gradually inclined walkways. The views from the top were spectacular – of the harbour over to Manly and Bondi, then the other way into the city and out to the Blue Mountains. My useless trivia knowledge was bolstered with lots of information via the commentary provided by our climb guide. I bet you didn't know Paul Hogan worked as a maintenance employee on the bridge before he was famous! (I'm storing that one until needed a few years down the line at a random pub quiz).
Saturday night, I met Vijay and his wife Anita and we went for dinner. Vijay (as a lot of you know) used to work at Microsoft and looked after me when I first started, then moved to Sydney last August. I know he won't mind me saying how well both of them looked; it seems that Australia is being good to them. They enthused, not just about the Sydney, but throughout the evening – giving off such a happy vibe. I heard lots of stories about relaxing evenings around Sydney, especially in the summer. We sat overlooking Darling Harbour and saw fireworks lighting up the sky.
My lasting impressions of Australia will be the sunshine, and the natural, laid-back yet positive energy its people give off. It may seem that things are done slower, but I don't believe it’s necessarily that….it’s more that people work with what happens, rather than trying to fight against it. Maybe it has a lot to do with the weather – especially up north; I can imagine it is just too hot to get bothered most of the year.
Helsinki so far seems a bit like Amsterdam, a bit like Copenhagen, but a lot more Russian than I thought it would be. There is Cyrillic script on a lot of the signs and the buildings have that same look about them as the ones you see lining Red Square. What I hadn't realised was that in the dim and distant past Finland was, for a time, a province of Russia.
Helsinki was previously the European city of culture and there is a lot of music here. Yesterday, I went exploring and stumbled on a concert in one of the cathedrals as well as finding the harbour with it's daily market – immediately getting into the spirit of the country by having some cold fish from one of the stalls. Whilst eating it I got treated to a mad cap Finnish woman doing circus-style tricks with a poodle and 3 cats. The animals were randomly jumping in and out of boxes, shimmying up poles and darting through tubes. Not quite the same as you get in Covent Garden!
I am sure Helsinki is not completely full of strange people, but add the cat woman to the fact that a Finnish-Indian clairvoyant was (in ever such a friendly way) trying to tell me about my aura and what colour it was whilst I was taking in the view yesterday, and I couldn't help returning to the hotel thinking this is a city with a somewhat strange feel to it. I hit the streets again today to prove or disprove the theory.
I managed to get hold of some Roubles for my time in Russia from an exchange here. Apparently 100 Roubles is about 3 Euros, so I think that is about 2 pounds. Things are going to seem expensive in Russia with an exchange rate of 50 to 1! My excitedness (masquerading as nervousness as usual) about Russia started on the long plane journey here, and re-reading the literature I have it seems what I thought was an 8 hour train ride to Volgograd (near where I will be staying), is in actual fact a 14 hour train ride! I then have 12 days living with a Russian family with no running water, no electricity, and more importantly, no flush toilets…oh, but lots and lots of beetroot soup and lots and lots of singing! Considering I don't even like beetroot, the singing had better be damn good!
Here goes; somehow I feel as if I should be taking a big deep breath and holding my nose!

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