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Showing posts with the label Finland

At the Alvar altar

When a town is called a ‘hub’ I’m never optimistic. Generally this a guidebook euphemism for ‘get out quickly stopping only for fuel or water’. The previous edition of the Finland book damns Sëinajoki even more conclusively as ‘a supply and service centre’. Expectations are low.
But the surprise of this little northern burg is that Alvar Aalto was allowed free reign with some of the town’s significant buildings. He composed the city as a symphony judging the flow from one building to the next to create the whole thing as a suite. Elsewhere you might get the odd piece of Aalto in between other building, but it must have been like having a blank book to design a city centre.

The most obvious building is the clocktower-cum-crucifix that resembles a lighthouse guiding you to the area. You need to wander around the buildings slowly to make sense of them. The curved form of the library reminds me of flicking through the pages of a book and inside there’s a sunken level that must annoy the lib…

In Training

Helsinki railway station and I are not going to be good friends. It startedwith the hassles of arriving to find no public phones and me getting acquainted with the local Romanian kids who knew all about the Skype booth but every time I've been there's been something wrong. If you’re thinking I'm being too harsh then exhibit A is charging a Euro for the WC – never a friendly sign.
Judging a town by its train station would be as unfair as judging a book by its cliché. Railway stations are just airports stripped of ambition. They share briskness and boredom, but at a train station no-one is going anywhere special. Unlike the jetset, the trainset are making regular journeys – family, friends, home – not epic journeys worthy of tourist brochure gloss.
In fact there’s always a seediness to most train stations. Anywhere in the world, dubious character’s hang around train stations waiting to take advantage of the newly arrived. Helsinki’s version is almost endearing – a guy whispers…

Envisioning Europe

Last night marked the big night for Europe's greatest show-offs and over-dressed hams with Eurovision live from Belgrade. I was in Scotland when Lordi won in 2006, but Helsinki was on the verge of a riot when the hometown boys got the continental gong and brought the award back to the cheering crowds in the city square. Perhaps that explains why they went with Teräsbetoni this year.


The lads came out early with their signature lack of shirts and the volume was turned up in the bar to drown out Finns happily singing along. At the end the performance the Finnish commentators murmured that they'd see us down in the square. But the plucky Russian lad had other ideas. The bar crowd were impressed by the way he spent most of the performance squirming on the floor, only really getting up for the Owen Wilson impersonator who ice-skated around him. It was moving stuff.

Azerbaijan, who made their first appearance this year, came in at a healthy 8th. Even Latvia with the hilarious Pirates …

Finally Finland

Getting into Helsinki is a breeze, but phoning my friend is much harder. Ninety-eight per cent of Finns have mobiles and the other two percent are lying, so asking where to find a public phone is like asking where to buy gramophone records or betamax tapes. I finally worked it out by using a Skype booth, which involves several trips to get the right change and asking for some 16 year-old kids for help. I feel 300.

The featured pic though is my first Finnish breakfast (aamiainen) which includes a rice-filled pastry from Karelia called karjalanpiirakka, and coffee served in a Marimekko mug. This is classic Finnish hospitality.

Visa & Valo

Aren't visas the biggest scam? You've just forked over several thousand for a ticket which then has taxes added to it, and then you get stung for visas. More than the bucks, it's the hassle of visas that always trips me up. For the upcoming Finland trip, I was going to go via China and while in Finland I'm going to be in Karelia, which is the doorstep to Russia. It would be rude not to pop in, right? But the fiendish nature of these visas means that not only do I need to come up with several passport photos but also an elaborate invite/visa support. With the constant moving of goalposts that is China's visa situation it currently requires that you need to have accommodation booked for your stay. This means a credit card shuffle and a quick booking in a place I know will give me a receipt that I can attach to the visa application. Then wait two days, which turns out to be four.

The Russian system is even more convuluted. Their visa support document isn't a hotel …