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Game on for Freeplay

Finns are an enterprising bunch. Take the Freeplay keynote speaker Petri Purho. From his flat in Helsinki, he created Kloonigames with the goal of creating a game a week. This led to his rapid protoyping method that built his creative game Crayon Physics Deluxe. He believes the next big development will be a "YouTube of games" where developers will be able to push their work to global audiences to play, comment and refine - though he admitted to being nervous about business people crowding out the creativity for the dollars.
Purho believes making a lot of games will eventual create a good game. Make a lot of what he calls "shit games" and you'll eventually hit on something that resonates with an audience. The only way to get over your fear of the inner-critic and your lack of technical skills is to churn it out.
It's an idea that applies across the arts. Purho referenced the Scarlet Letters: Notes on Making Art, written by two visual artists. Many of their i…

Trans Mongolian Railway FAQ

Here's a few questions people have been asking since I got back about planning their own Trans Mongolian/Siberian trip:

Do I need to book a ticket on the Trans Mongolian?
If you're going directly with no hopping off, it's possible to book a ticket all the way from Beijing to Moscow, which will be almost a bum-numbing week of sitting on the train. It's better to hop-off and see things for a couple of days. This may mean that you get stuck in a town a day longer (which happened to us in Datong), but once you're on the Trans Siberian mailine (from Irkutsk to Moscow) trains are fairly regular.

Is a tour the only way to do it?
Booking a tour can be a good way to get it all sorted for you, but it's not necessary. We booked each leg as we went. This meant hopping off the train and buying the next ticket as soon as we got there.
Once you're in Russia, the train runs on Moscow time so you'll need to be careful not to muddle Moscow Time and Local Time. There's a g…

Espoo Exposé

Another challenge with writing a guidebook is word count. There's an art to narrowing a hotel or restaurant down into two or three sentences, but sometimes you feel like you're not doing a place justice. Just as some ideas are bigger than haiku, some places surprise you and will need more verbage.

And so it was with Espoo - there just weren't enough words. It gets dismissed as a satellite of Helsinki, but officially it's Finland's second-largest city and yet maintains its campus feel and boasts the Nokia headquarters. Perhaps all the telecommunications cash has funded the excellent museums housed in the Weegee Centre. The warehouse-like building is the former printing house of Welin & Göös (hence WG and WeeGee) has enough room to host the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, which is better known as EMMA. The industrial-sized space can hold a big exhibition such as the huge paintings of Enzo Cucchi's current exhibition that toys with ideas of scale with tiny images …

Helsinki Redux

There used to be a disclaimer in the front of Lonely Planet books that read: Things change - prices go up, schedules change, good places go bad and bad places go bankrupt - nothing stays the same. On returning to Helsinki after researching the guidebook just six months earlier, I could see just how true that was. Things move pretty fast in the Finnish capital and there were closings and places that had fallen off in quality. It's maddening to see all your work change and imagine all those readers letters that will come pouring in telling you how wrong you got it.
But new places have opened. Of course, they also drove me equally insane on one level, but also made me feel like people would be able to discover new things of their own in the city, rather than slavishly following the guidebook.
The first new discovery was Salakauppa (secret shop) just near the post office and Kiasma. It's a tiny little shop that appeared in the summer of 2008 in a nook that had previously been a coffe…

Rediscovering the Thumb

Halfway through 2008 I was standing by the road just outside Helsinki with my thumb out and the feeling of hopelessness curling in me. My Finnish friend, Paivi, and I just spent Juhannus (Finnish Midsummer festival) in a lakeside cottage and she suggested we hitch back. Several cars had passed us – some made embarrassed shrugging gestures, others stared steely at the road and one answered my thumb with the finger. This wasn’t how I remembered it.

More than 15 years earlier Paivi and I hitched more than 200km from Helsinki to her home town of Jyvaskyla. It could just be nostalgia but we’d gotten some great rides including a truck driver with beer cargo and stories of driving into Russia where bandits dropped from low-hanging bridges. Our worst ride was with a Swedish woman who couldn’t speak any English. We’d waited less than fifteen minutes for most rides, but the world had has turned since the 1990s.

For starters there was the high-profile case of Ivan Milat, who’s murder of seven hitc…

Lost in Translationments

For the last little while I've been buried under mountains of brochures and pamphlets about Finland - many in Finnish, some in Swedish and others in Russian. A few have been in Finnglish, a study in what happens when you 'mostly translate'. It's an easy gag to make fun of poor translation, but why put out a brochure where the meaning is confused?

Here's a few of my favourite translations from the Finnish research:
- "Room for everyone even for your complete family!"
Really? It makes them sound like a collectors set.
- "Our beach bulks with water sports facilities"
Reminds me of the Victorian expression 'bulk ace'.
-"We build up a personalized historical adventure-happening for your crew and your customers according to Your wishes." Wow My historical advenure-happening will totally impress my crew. -"Versatile and high-qualitymusic festival"
This is a straight cut and paste from a steak knife ad. also the joinging of words is S…

Mr Saari

By now most of the world has heard the terrible news about a massacre in the Finnish town of Kauhajoki by Matti Saari and how it seems to be a copycat of the Jokela shootings in 2007. Both were young men turning handguns on their fellow students, both posted on YouTube and both invoked metal music in their messages to the outside world. There are reports that both men may have even bought their weapons from the same store and there are calls to reduce handgun ownership in Finland.

Several news stories have followed the Associated Press story which says that Finland has 'deep-rooted hunting traditions' and ranks among the top five nations in the world in civilian gun ownership per capita after the US and Yemen. These statistics (as in the case of Yemen and Finland) are distorted in small populations, but the access to guns is obviously an important issue.

But in all the times I've been to Finland I've never seen a handgun or hunting rifle. What I have seen are a lot of de…

Skip the Check-in

"Anything from the minibar?" Even when hotel staff ask this, they're going through the motions. It always seems like the last moment of unecessary service at a hotel to justify high prices for a room. Who raids the mini-bar when they know there's a supermarket around the corner?

I always feel over-serviced in hotels. I'm more of the 'dump the bags and head back out' kinda of guest. So I was relieved to discover staff-free internet-bookable hotels in Finland. The first one I stayed at was in Turku. I'd left booking late in the day but to book Omenahotelli you just slip into the nearest internet cafe. I'd seen their perky apple logo around (omena is Finnish for apple) around and wanted to check one out, but as there are no front door staff the only way to do it was to check-in. In the internet cafe it was a swift process of hitting the page and giving credit card details and my mobile number. Within seconds I got sent a text with a room number and do…

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 …

Åland Unto Itself

If a group of islands ever had an identity crisis it'd have to be Åland, the autonomous region so far to the west of Finland that it's closer to Sweden. Just as I'm getting people to understand my accent in Finnish, I have to start all over again in Swedish. There's a mix of Finnish and Swedish magazines in the newsagent and schools all teach Svenska but Finnish is optional.

More than 90% of Ålanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran church, but they still practice the vaguely pagan festival of dancing around midsummer poles. Okay, so the pole could also be based on the ship's mast rather than a fertilty totem, but the day before midsummer even the smallest towns decorate a pole. At the top is the Faktargubbe, who represents work and sacrifice of winter, and under this are garlands of flowers and leaves. Every village has its own particular symbols so there are sailboats and hammers depending on local industry or culture. Most of the midsummer poles are starting to…

For Those About to Ruisrock

The train from Helsinki to Ruisrock leaves at the very unrock time of 8:43am. The platform is peopled with teenaged girls with backpacks and camping mats who are permanently on the verge of exclaiming “Omigod!”. I definitely have the right train.

Once underway, I walk along the train and discover it has two smoking cars choking with a fug of girls applying even more eyeliner. Outside the bathroom, three girls in Flogging Molly t-shirts are passing around a bottle of Bailey’s, others are plotting their day from hand-scrawled programmes. There are some boys drinking beer around the empty dancefloor car. I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever wanted to dance on a train, but maybe that’s why they’re drinking.

Ruisrock itself is set on the island of Ruisallo, so half way through a gig you can see a large ocean liner chug past on the way to Sweden. No surprise that acts are combination of Swedish and Finnish bands. I’m interviewing Mikki Von Hertzen, who turns out to be a very down-to-earth g…

Porvoo comeback

Even the most winding bus from Helsinki will get you to Porvoo in an hour. It's little wonder that the old town is packed with tourbus crowds wearing little badges so you don't mistake them for locals. The first time I've heard an American accent for a couple of weeks is in the tourist office where an older lady is arguing with one of the staff who wants to show her a water closet instead of a bathroom.

The old town is pleasant though, marked by the deep-red store houses along river that make it so photogenic. Originally this would have been an ochre-based paint but the effect is maintained for the snapping tourists. Porvoo is famed for its chocolate and cakes, probably due to the daytrippers, though most Finns stop work around 3 for coffee and cake.
The Cathedral which crowns the old town hill has been under repairs since a fire in 2006 when a drunk 18 year old decided to try a match or two on the wooden roof. It has only briefly re-opened for summer and you can still smel…

Keep the Samovar Boiling

Lappeenranta in southern Karelia is another almost-in-Russia moment, but it sees itself as Karelian before any other nationality. Until the Continuation War Vyborg (now Russian) was part of Finland and the links are still very close. There's several boats a day touring between Vyborg and Lappeenranta, delivering nostalgiac visitors to both cities.

In Lappeenranta you see tha Russian influence with the language spoken on the streets and blinis on the menu. My favourite spot was the Kahvila Majurska that reminded me of a Russian teahouse right down to the boiling samovar and tsarist furnishings. But as you examine the walls the war hero portraits are of Finns and then there's the oceans of coffee (Finns famously average 7 cups a day) that make it not a Russian teahouse. This is what makes a border town - the seeping together of cultures as nations can't seem to hold back these cultural overlaps.

Unfortunately for me they do hold back people who don't have visas so I forgo …

Border Koli

There was a Russian-speaking couple on the train most of the way to Joensuu. She’s fierily recounting a long story which he’s just stoking along by agreeing with “Da” occasionally. I was just about to ask if they were ‘returned’ Karelians (who were repatriated into Finland during the 1990s from the parts of Karelia which were swiped by the Russians after the Continuation War) when they get off. By the time we get to Joensuu it’s just me and a platoon of young soldiers, slouching in khaki and acne. They make straight for the nearby grilli. This is not a good place to order a soy latte.

The big draws up here are Koli National Park which has a view that Finns regard as one of the most spectacular. It's said to have inspired painters, poets and hoteliers, as it recently had a controversial hotel built on top of it. Still it's meant that there's a funicular most of the way and the view is still spectacular - a sweep of lake and islands, each a narrow slice crammed with pines.

Whe…

Juhannus saves

On Juhannus eve there was an apocalyptic feel to Helsinki. The streets were empty, shops were closing and a lot of foreigners were walking the streets with a “What happened?” expression. I went to the supermarket late in the day and staff were keener than usual evacuate as customers hoarded groceries for the three-day shutdown. All the while the were lights dimming. A shield began to roll down over the dairy cabinet sending Finns into an apoplexy. If this was the end of the world, many would see it without enough cheese.

Juhannus is the annual midusmmer festival which Finns have moved slightly so it always falls on the third weekend in June. It’s best celebrated by heading to a summer cottage and watching the bonfires that ring the lakes on Juhannus eve. In Helsinki there’s a marriage ceremony and the lucky couple get to ignite the bonfire (which may have been the inspiration for Jim Morrisson’s Come on Baby Light my Fire’). And there may even be a little drinking done. The Saturday is…

Russia's summer hangout

Hanko sells itself as the sunny south of Finland, so it had to rain the day I got there. It was pouring so badly that I had to abandon mapping and take shelter in my villa.

It was the Russians who started with villas when they decided Hanko would make a good spa town. And they threw in a casino for good measure. The villas are the old dames of the town, sunning themselves by sea and many growing old gracefully. My villa is one of the few that's not named after a wife or daughter of the Russians who built them. It has seen better years and the single room could be a blocked-off corridor. I can't open my bag and stand up at the same time because of the limited floorspace. You can well imagine Uncle Vanya being set in one of these creaking old beauties.

Still in the morning it's possible to go out and explore with the sun living up to the tourist brochure. The beaches are fairly narrow by Antipodean standards, but there are huge lumps of granite that loll on and off the shore …

Finnglish

Bertolt Brecht famously quipped that the Finns are the only people in the world who could be silent in two languages. He obviously hadn't heard their playful English. Most of Finns learn englantia for nine years in school and many at least throw in Swedish to even further tangle their tongues. But even with all this study there's a few interesting cross-cultural quirks when Finns take on English.

First up, for example. Finns use 'for example' in such odd ways that I'm beginning to wonder if it has any meaning. If you ask for a brochure in a tourist office 'for example' might be used to stall for time while someone looks under the desk for more. I was asked recently "Would you like you coffee with, for example, milk?" I was left wondering if it was an "example milk" I might be testing for them.

In Finnish repeat words for more impact, so you might say hello twice with "Hei hei" or double the gratitude with "kiitos kiitos"…

Sweaty Naked Men

There’s always some debate amongst Finns about what the Three Ss of ‘Finnishness’ are. Some will say Sibelius, the nation’s great composer, many will say sisu, the word for guts or determination. Others point to the salty liquorice, salmiakki, while a few say Suomi, meaning the land itself. But no matter who you ask they will always include sauna in their list.

Of course, Finns aren’t the only people in favour of stripping off and steaming up. Russians have the banya, Japanese have the onsen, Turks have the hammam, but it is only the Finns who define themselves so strongly by getting naked with each other. The first time I met a friend of mine’s new boyfriend he said ‘We must go to a sauna!’ in a way that made me wonder if he was the right boyfriend for her.

But for Finns it’s a regular ritual. Some manage it daily, but most opt for a couple of times a week, depending on how handy a sauna is. Some apartment buildings have them, most hotels do and there are a few public saunas for when …

Crossing Estonia

Even boarding the ferry to Tallinn you can hear the sighing of ringpulls. For heavily taxed Finns this is the original boozed cruise across to Estonia where everything is cheaper. Some Finns need to make an early start.

Unfortunately this isn’t going to be a thirsty trip. This is one of the quicker jet cat boats. Short of teleporting it’s the quickest way to get to Tallinn and it’s even cheaper if you book online. The only problem is that smaller boats zip over the waves where bigger ferries break through them with their bricklike shape. So as soon as we get out to open water the boat is listing dramatically. In the duty free store the bottles are shuddering against each other sounding like the top notes of a ADHD kid’s xylophone. Most people are firmly seated, some brace themselves against poles to keep their position in the bar, but drinking is limited. The staff hand out large white plastic bags about half the size of a garbage bag. They’re expecting a lot of vomit.

In some ways the…

The Graduates

Last weekend marked the end of school term for many Finns and for some it meant graduation. Friday saw the streets busy with young people - some in the pubs and some (not old enough yet) hanging out at the local coffee shop. It was a familiar scene, except for the sailor's hats.


For some reason this coming of age ceremony is marked with white cap with a black brim that looks decidedly nautical. Some came with a long tassle, some wore a black version and one cheeky lad wore a Cat in the Hat-style one, but everyone was wearing a hat. Saturday saw the official ceremony and most of the tiny town of Jakobstad put on their best outfits to watch as hundreds wore their wholesome little hats.


I'm not sure what these hats signify and everyone I asked seemed to think it was erfectly normal to get your kids dressed up as Popeye in formal wear and thought it was weird me even asking about. They do they in other Scandy countries so perhaps it's a link to their naval history.

Sauna-0-meter…