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Åland and out

Every other house, barn and mailbox in the islands flies the bright colours of the Åland flag – an insistence of the autonomy of the semi-state. But if you want get your passport stamped with a souvenir coat of arms you might as well forget it. I wandered around the port area of Mariehamn where visiting international yachts use the guest harbour (basically just a shower/sauna complex with a few shops), but none of the customs people really know what I’m talking about. They just keep saying that it’s not necessary, not really getting the souvenir hunting.

I decide to visit Åland’s parliament – there must be some august official who can give me a commendation from the government or an elaborate certificate. To say that the square out the front of parliament feels like a national monument or a tribute to Åland’s might would be a stretch. It bears more of a resemblance to a local council office. Parliament is closed today and instead of an ermined official I’m met by a girl in jeans and a grey cardigan. She kind enough to give me a quick tour and explains that Åland has a special autonomous state that makes it ‘almost a country’ since a proclamation of Finnish parliament in 1920. Citizens are exempt from Finnish national service and next year will have the honour of hosting the Island Games. For all it's might though, it cannot stamp passports.

Finally I try the tourist office. They’re not sure. Not sure what I want, why I want it and if I’m not some kind of government official checking up on them. Bt after I explain that I’m researching a guidebook they decide they can award me the Åland Key of Honour which gives me press access to a few sites. It’s pretty much just a signed business card, but for me it’s the highest honour since I was made a Baron of Lovely.

Sauna-o-meter: 12 - At Mariebad my last sauna was with a father and son who was on his first sauna. The boy suealed as he was coming in but throwing water on the coals proved to be a fun game.
Best welcome home: At Kingsford Smith coming through the gates I was met with a Halleluah chorus – though it may have been more for the World Youth Day participants than for me.

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