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Helsinki and Estonia

Winter weather along the Baltic

storm 40 °F

Hopefully some of you out there noticed that I had a little hiatus with these blogs for the past month and a half. I have been back in the states for that time. Originally this break was only going to be for a week so I could be in my friend Brad’s wedding (which was awesome), but various circumstances convinced me to extend that break for about a month. While I was thinking this would be a relaxing “funemployment” month, I made sure to stay busy. 2 weeks in San Francisco to scout out future living options when I move there in a few months + Bay2Breakers and other mayhem. Back in NY, I helped my family pack up and move out of our home of 25 years into a new home, and managed to visit Chudy in Buffalo, go to my 5-year Cornell reunion and the music festival Bonnaroo!!! down in Manchester, TN. All of these things were totally incredible, seeming to get better and more ridiculous which each successive event.

Now that I’m heading back to Europe (I’m sitting in JFK right now), I realized that in all the excitement, I never posted my last blog entry from Finland and Estonia! Here is the last of the 1st half of my journey:

This first leg of my European travels concluded with a couple countries that seem to be largely forgotten to many travelers of Europe - Finland and Estonia. While the other Scandinavian countries seem to be common tourist destinations, Norway with its incredible fjords and natural wonders, Sweden and Denmark with their capital cities ever rising on the tourist destination lists, Finland seems to be the ugly stepchild. While the stepchild part may be accurate (they are physically and genetically different than the other Scandinavian citizens), the ugly part definitely is not.

This status of “forgotten tourist destination” plays out heavily in the feel of the city. Helsinki was probably THE LEAST touristy city that I’ve been to thus far, and was accordingly the least tourist-friendly. That doesn’t mean that they’re not friendly to tourists, but, for example, very few things are translated and displayed in English and this was one of the only cities I visited without a free walking tour. Strangely enough, everything in Helsinki is displayed in 2 languages, but those 2 languages are Finnish and Swedish - 2 very different languages. Because Sweden controlled Finland for much of their history, there is a large amount of Swedish influence apparent and there are parts of Finland that actually speak Swedish as their primary language.

After staying exclusively in hostels for the previous few cities, I was excited to be sleeping on the couch of a Fairport friend - AJ Marini - who has been living in Helsinki for more than 3 years and is about to Finnish up (haha) with a masters degree in Old Music with the violin. Education is totally free in Finland even for foreign citizens, which I found amazing. Staying with someone who knows the area is always a different and great experience.

AJ rockin out on the violin

My trip actually coincided (not coincidentally) with one of the largest Finnish holidays - Vaapu. Though Vappu is technically on the 1st of May, the big celebration of Vaapu is on April 30th, when university students and others flood the streets of downtown Helsinki. The usually strict enforcement of “No Open Containers” is ignored on Vaapu and thousands of people stroll around passing beers, ciders, and bottles of champagne between each other. Vaapu also happens to line up with the end of the year at universities, so it is co-opted by university students as a joint holiday. Bizarrely, the vast majority of current and former students attend the Vaapu in a pair of overalls, a different color for each university in the area. The main evet for the pre-Vaapu festivities was the “capping” of a statue in the central square area. A lucky group of students first clean the statue and then put a graduation cap on it.

The Finnish grad cap, which you can see on the statue's head in the last photo, resembles a sailor’s hat and seems a lot better than our square-topped caps

After witnessing the capping along with a couple thousand other people, we wandered over to the square in front of the main Lutheran church, Helsinki Cathedral, which was packed with another couple thousand people.


The night continued with us bouncing between groups of AJ’s friends in the streets, then at a couple restaurants and bars where I learned a good deal about Finnish culture from some born and bred Fins. Finland, for example, gives more money, per capita, to music and the arts than any other country in the world. They also lead the world in # of new, original operas written in the past 10 years, which is impressive considering its small size and smaller population. All of this makes it a great place for a musician to find work and make a living.

AJ and I with some of his friends

We went out to a party at AJ’s friends’ place that night, and partied til the early morning. The actual holiday of Vaapu is traditionally celebrated by going to a particular city park in Helsinki, right on the water, and picniccing there with friends. That seemed like an awesome way to celebrate a holiday, however it was Finland and only the beginning of May, so the weather forecast was for cold temperatures and freezing rain all day. With the usual holiday plans ruined and most businesses closed for the holiday, we knew there wouldn’t be much to do on Vaapu, so we just decided to stay up as late as we could on Vaapu eve and sleep as late as we could the next day. Mission accomplished - we didn’t wake up until almost 3 pm the next day, which I haven’t done in a long time.

The big thing that I had to do in Finland was do some SAW-UNA. It’s not "go to the sauna" there, it is “let’s go DO sauna”. This is a large part of Finnish culture dating back hundreds of years. There’s an old Finnish saying: “when building a house, first build the sauna, then build the house.” The spiritual center of the home, saunas were always the cleanest, healthiest area of the home, so it served as the site for everything from relaxation and meditation to childbirth. There is a specific protocol for sauna, so I was glad to have AJ show me how it is done. I liked it so much that I went back later in the week.

Photos from around Helsinki:
This is the Finnish Parliament building
I can't remember what this building is.
This is the "Church of the Rock" - blasted out from true, natural bedrock

The Russian Orthodox Church
This is one of the few monuments in Helsinki. I honestly can't remember what it is a monument to, but I know that it was designed by a school teacher who won the design contest for it.
This was a random greenhouse that I stumbled upon. It looked nice and free, so I checked it out. The thing that I love about the random attractions you stumble onto is that they are often VERY random and interesting. This one had a girl doing some sort of rope acrobatics in the back above some plants:

A few days before I went to Finland, I got a message from Anosh Shah. He is a friend that I had pledged DKE with back in the day, but we had fallen out of touch and I don’t think that I had talked with him since I graduated Cornell 4 years ago. That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw that I had a message from Anosh. He had seen me traveling around Europe, and was currently living in London. Armed with a holiday on the following Monday, he was looking to get out of England for the weekend and, knowing that I had been traveling around Europe, wanted to know where I’d be. Sometimes, you gotta love FaceBook.

Anosh joined me for my last full day in Finland, and we checked out Suomenlinna - the old sea fortress a mile off the coast of Helsinki. Pretty cool place with a tasty brewery:
Much of the island reminded me pleasantly of the Shire :)
One thing that made Suomenlinna so great when it was built was this dry dock. The first of its kind, workers could build or repair ships in this dock, and then they would pump water in using a windmill-driven pump and float the ship out.

AJ and his girlfriend Liis then treated us to a wonderful home-cooked dinner of mashed potatoes and reindeer! Most of the traditional Finnish food is of the ‘meat and potatoes’ variety, plus a good selection of fish mixed in there. It was absolutely delicious (I still need to know what she did to those mashed potatoes. My hunch is A LOT OF BUTTER :)). Fun side story: I had decided and confirmed with AJ that it would be a good idea for us to bring a bottle of wine with us for the meal. After we got off the tram near his place, Anosh and I started looking around for a place to buy said bottle of wine. After finding a place that was closed, we asked a woman walking by to help us find an open store. She informed us that there was absolutely no place to buy wine on Sunday (not true for beer). Persuaded by the disappointed looks on our faces, she offered to sell us a bottle of wine from her apartment! 10 euros got us a bottle of (Californian) Pinot Noir, and we were off to AJ’s! It took him a few minutes, but eventually he asked, “Wait a second - where did you guys get this bottle today” hahaha

Tallin, Estonia:
I thought that I should start out with some quick oreintation-type facts about Estonia, since most people don’t seem to have ever heard of it. To be totally honest, I don’t think I had heard about Estonia until my well-traveled cousin, Holly, told me that if I was going to Finland, I should definitely stop over across the water. Anyways, Estonia is the northern-most of the “Baltic” countries located in eastern Europe. It is right next to Russia and is a short ferry ride from Finland (Google Maps). Being so close to Russia, you would be correct in assuming that it was part of the USSR before the fall of Communism. And boy are they glad to be free and independent.

On the walking tour, we were actually informed that in 2014 they are celebrating the longest period of independence (20-some odd years) in 200+ years. It was the Germans before the Russians, and the Russians again before the Germans. The Occupation Museum explained how the Germans were, at first, welcomed during WWII because the Estonians thought that they couldn’t be any worse than the Russians. When the Germans were expelled, Estonia had a couple day period in which they tried to appeal to the international community as an independent state, but the Allies were too busy negotiating for peace in Europe to stop the Russians from taking back what had been theirs.

Old Soviet statues in the museum

While I am anxious to tell you about what a lovely, medieval city Tallin is, I feel like I can’t leave this topic and brief history of Estonia without mentioning the Singing Revolution, when Estonia peacefully won their independence from Russia in 1991. You can get the full details in the wiki article, but imagine an actual revolution and independence won with nightly vigils of joyful singing. Very inspiring stuff. With Estonia entering its 20s, it is slowly becoming somewhat of a tourist destination. Though still forgotten about by most travelers, Tallinn is a beautiful and unique town with lots of attractions for tourists. Tallinn itself was an old medieval city that has survived largely intact to this day. Of the large stone wall that once completely encircled the city, about 20% of it is left along with a handful of buildings and alleys from as far back as the 14th century.

The town square, right next to...
The town hall!
The Russian Orthodox Church built during the latest occupation. It is a wonderful piece of architecture and a major tourist attraction, which doesn't make many Estonians happy as they would rather divorce completely from Russia and its influence.
The old city wall
One of about a dozen towers still standing along the wall, this was known as "Big Bertha"

Just some good shots around Tallinn:

In the ancient town hall, there was a little restaurant that served soup and biscuits in a very medieval setting
You didn't get any silverware, just a bowl of yummy soup :)

While there, Anosh and I went to the Occupation Museum and I was hoping to go to the KGB museum, but got sick and didn’t make it. Interestingly enough the KGB museum is located in what used to be the actual KGB headquarters on the top floor of a hotel. Actually that was the only hotel that an foreigners could stay in when visiting Tallinn, so the headquarters were well situated to listen in on the guests. They also have beautiful locally-made souveniers that are packed with some of the country’s finest natural resources, including amber, cedar wood, and lots of wool.

Though it was a brief stay, Anosh and I made the most of it, going out and enjoying beer prices that were about half of what it was in Finland. There were plenty of interesting bars to check out, including some with great beer selections from across the world, but definitely the most fun was The Lab. Adorned with enough high school chemistry equipment to make Walter White blush, The Lab was decorated in all sorts of neon/blacklight paints and served drinks in test tubes and Erlenmeyer flasks. Better than that, they also had a number of flaming shots, which excited Anosh and I immensely at that point. After each flaming drink, we would go back up to the bartender and ask him to make us his next-most ridiculous flaming drink!


Drink #2 -
Step 1 - Light alcohol on fire
Step 2 - Pour the flaming liquor into a tray
Step 3 - place the glass in the middle of the flaming liquid
Step 4 - Let physics do its thing!

Just a damn darn ridiculous flaming tour of glasses

The next morning was rough on all of us, but more than anything due to the fact that it snowed! In May! I know that it happened in a handful of places in the US after I got back, but that won’t stop me from complaining. After only a day and a half (wish it could have been more), I ferried back to Helsinki and flew to Oakland, CA a day later. And thus the first leg of my big quarter-life crisis was concluded. Hope you enjoyed!

Posted by danza 16:46 Archived in Finland Tagged architecture helsinki singing_revolution vappu anosh flaming_shots

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