Thursday, 27 March 2008

Arctic Circle Jerks (finished)

I'm sure they're good people at heart, but sadly the overwhelming multitude who holiday in Rovaniemi are kind of square; lots of dour-faced families obsessively videoing the minutiae of a bus journey or whatever. Weirdly the first question every local seems to ask is a bewildered 'what on earth are you doing here?', to which the answer was invariably a puzzled look and an attempt to communicate something along the lines of 'we're here to take advantage of your flourishing tourist industry, dicksack. Also we've never seen snow before.' But then again, they may have just been confused that we appeared to be enjoying ourselves. Almost everyone in our guesthouse was a sour-faced video-obsessive, but we did fall in with a nice bunch of international students, who were more or less as up for mixing neat spirits and sub zero weather as we were. At one point I had a moment of vague horror as I realised I'd spent half an hour talking passionately to a Czech girl about how awful British booze tourists are, during which time I'd chugged back half a bottle of neat brandy. Class. But then she started passing round a bottle of 50 per cent Bohemian moonshine, meaning my self-image as a sort of Cary Grant for the 21st century was promptly restored.

Anyway, going out is going out, even when it's psychotically cold. We did not solely come to the Arctic so Mark could have a hungover lie-in in a town near to it. No, activities my friends, activities. We spunked a cool €80 each to go to a Sami (they're the indigenous people - lovely language incidentally, lots of rrrrrrrrolling rs) reindeer farm about 40km into the Arctic. We were off a-sleighing, and while it'd be ridiculous to come here and not do something like that, I was concerned it'd be typically hollow tourist gimmickry. However, I figured the farmer meant fairly serious business when he took one look at the winter wear me and Mark had spent the best part of a weekend assembling and decreed that we should lose it and switch into some heavy duty one-piece swaddling suits. Which would have been fine - and despite making us look like a rubbish hip-hop duo the onesies were as snug as you could ask for - it's just that there was a Finnish couple along too, and their relatively flimsy garb passed muster seemingly effortlessly. I blame everything on the way Mark looks, dresses and acts.

Though fun, the first task of the expedition didn't necessarily inspire confidence. We had to practise lassoing reindeer, which was fair enough, except the 'test' reindeer was essentially a plank of wood draped in bits of dead thing, hopefully reindeer. Anyway, despite being almost autistically bad at coiling a piece of rope, I was actually pretty good at the throwing, entangling the plank's antlers on two of my three throws. Nonetheless, it occurred to me that while I was truly impressive at chucking rope at a plank, the farmer was probably humouring us if we were supposed to believe ourselves now capable of collaring a live animal. I was a silly tourist, paying a day's wages to throw some string at some wood, in the cold, while dressed like a twat.

That all said, I was relieved when we were led to the reindeer paddock and it was confirmed that we wouldn't have to reel the beasts in ourselves. In fact I couldn't have entangled the antlers of my particular beast of burden, as he'd already shed them. Plus there was no need to forcibly drag him my way. Our first encounter went like this: I was watching Mark get paired off with some ill-tempered megastag, when through my inches of padding I dimly perceived a nuzzling sensation. I turned round to see that something that looked like a giant puppy crossed with a giant guinea pig was licking me. 'Ha ha!' I thought. 'What a ridiculous creature, wonder why- oh. Oh.' I named the cow-eyed dog-rodent n00bert, and had depressingly little problem hitching him to the sleigh. We were told how to steer, but I suspected he'd basically just follow the other sleighs and I would be but an idle spectator in this journey. It was just so.

However. My first thought was 'wow, you set quite a pace n00bert, appearances can be deceptive. This verges on exhilarating. Thankyou.'

My second thought was 'wow, n00bert, from a rear view you really do look like a puppy'


Basically it's hard to sustain any level of cynicism, neuroses, or paranoia in the face of a pristine, unspoilt landscape with snow-heavy, magical thickets of firs, sweeping, frozen lakes, and a sense of utter isolation from what is commonly referred to as 'all that shit'. It was just us and the sublime, wordless winterscape, silent save for the tinkle of bells and the clop of our actually quite competent beasts. Though Mark later told me he'd got a text from his mum while in full flight. He felt suitably dirty.

We had a lunch by a campfire, where we toasted some absolutely repellent sausages (breaking veg cover again, but y'know, didn't want to look any more of a milksop than I already clearly did). Naturally the awfulness was depressingly justifiable: nobody even remotely concerned about being sued would possibly trust us to cook raw meat based sausages and not suffer bacteria-clagged deaths; these pre-cooked, vaguely penile-looking tubes of quivering, sterile flesh pulp were a danger to only the faint of heart. Fortunately the herder then proceeded to whip out some old skool iron tools and casually whip off two batches of damn fine pancakes. We were also treated to possibly the only decent cup of coffee in all of Scandinavia - by and large the caffeine nectar appears to have been a victim of the Nordic peoples' love-hate relationship with stimulation of any kind, but the Sami appear to have no such hang-ups, thank christ. Apparently they've been making judicious use of it since it became available to trade a couple of hundred years ago.

n00bert also got a snack, in the form of several handfuls of moss. He seemed dubious about accepting it directly from my hand, but that was okay. We were men. We had boundaries. We didn't talk much. But we had bonded.

Another half hour or so of blissful sleighing followed, and then that was it - game over, best €80 I ever spent. As a final souvenir we each received what honestly appears to be an official, five year reindeer driver's license. If it really is official you can bet it's issued on the not unreasonable supposition that the odds of us returning to Lapland, forking out for a reindeer and sleigh, then driving it down the motorway are pretty slim. Hell, I have no idea if you're even allowed to take them out onto roads. (probably not). You almost certainly don't need a license. But whatever the case, I will almost certainly use it as some sort of cack-handed seduction crutch at some point in the future, and for that I can only thank the nice Sami gentleman. Oh, and n00bert, natch.

The obvious problem with doing something so patently the trip's highlight just after the mid-point is that it does open the doors for a reality-induced comedown. This came at about 6pm that evening, when I almost had a mental breakdown over a really boring salad. Even at the time I realised how ridiculous this was, and I think I more or less managed to pass it off as a joke, but I definitely had a fairly dark moment when I decided that, starting with this salad, the entire trip was going to be horrible, and spent about a half hour just staring at it in abject horror and wondering what the hell had become of my life. Combined with a grump at Mark for (I suspected intentionally) spending so long getting ready after a shower that we missed meeting up with the Europeans for the night, and the evening ended up a slight downer, though also a much needed breather, as I believe it was the first night we didn't get drunk. Anyway, I perked up shortly afterwards. And cauliflower, cucumber and melon is a really horrible combination for, well, anything, but especially a salad.

We went wandering along the frozen Kemijoki river on our last day, which was pretty cool, ending up at the Arktikum, a museum of the Arctic that generally served to confirm my ambivalence towards museums as tourist attractions (I don't disapprove of them, just um, I dunno, you wouldn't visit a town for its library). Following that we wandered over the marvellously named Jätkänkynttila bridge and, on a whim, went for a pint in the first bar outside on the other side of the river. I still don't really understand what happened or why, but basically pretty much all the clientele were frighteningly shitfaced, a covers band were earnestly bashing their way through set that largely seemed to consist of latterday Bon Jovi, to which a sizable crowd was dancing. Oh yeah, and three quarters of the punters were wearing lurid wigs, while the barstaff were all in fancy dress. Elvis was toasting sausages on the patio. It was 3pm. We were confused. We asked a barmaid dressed as Obelix if this was some sort of esoteric Finnish Easter ritual, to which she replied that it's what they do every Sunday here. As we left, teams of fluero-wigged souses were taking part in some sort of masochistic contest that involved skiing on wood. We were only half-convinced the Jätkänkynttila was actually going to return us to our home dimension.

But it did, and it was time to get the train back down to Helsinki, and I felt a little sad... I could never live in Rovaniemi itself, but such climes do have a certain something... hippy sentiment of the day, but being surrounded and engulfed by this elemental white hugeness, indigenous farmers, camp reindeer, surreal landscapes, and merciless temperatures - it did make me think a little casual, day to day hostility on nature's part can be a nice thing. A splash more stimulating than suburbia, in any case. And with just as good network coverage.

PS - In response to, ooh, two queries - we didn't see the Northern Lights, and I'm now suing the Finnish government for false advertising. Nah, for some reason I really don't get why people get so excited about them. Like, I recognise it's quite exciting, but the common supposition that a green glow might constitute the highpoint of one's life has always baffled me a bit. So there.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Crossing The Finnish Line

So yeah, given my fondness for Byzantine micromanagement with respect to travel itineraries, you'd think maybe I could have worked something better out for my sweet score and seven that getting a boat to Helsinki, drinking very slowly for five hours in an overpriced Irish pub, then getting a train for 12 hours. But I didn't, so there.

And it didn't matter, because the train went to Rovaniemi, aka the capital of Lapland, aka the Arctic, aka the Entire Point Of Our Trip. Actually
Rovaniemi styles itself as 'the gateway to the Arctic', seeing as it is in fact located a tantalising but slightly frustrating 8km below the Arctic Circle. I mean, I don't have the first clue when the Arctic Circle was calculated or drawn up or whatever, but really, couldn't the mayor of Rovaneimi have slipped the scientist in charge of the calculation a small bung or something? I suppose you could argue there's no especial reason why anyone in Rovaniemi gives a shit, seeing as how that far north the Arctic and the not Arctic look fairly identical, but to a pie-eyed wander fresh off the train and now colder than he'd ever been in his life, it would be nice to have had the instant gratification of knowing he had stepped right off the train and into somewhere that came with the official, accepted-everywhere stamp of double-hard bastardness that was the crossing some sort of invisible line signifying, uh, something.

But yeah, it's cold
. Not 'I knew I'd die this way' cold, but certainly after a minute or so any area of skin not heavily swaddled feels a little like its been chewed by a wolverine. Of course, in winter it's probably just as bad in Montreal, and with a few layers deployed it was eminently bearable, though we weren't overly inspired when - making our way to the guesthouse across a slick, icy incline - we saw a local who was out walking his dog slip slap bang on his face. Later research would reveal that the drunker you get, the easier it is to walk on a frictionless strip of frozen death, though I suspect I intuitively already knew that.

Rovaniemi itself isn't so much a town as prosaic icy sprawl, snowmobile riders, cross-country skiiers and the ever-hilarious Nordic walkers* zipping between ice-encrusted pre-fabs and belching smears of heavy industry. But then, it's got a massive river running through it, and there's nothing more flat-out OMFG than a massive river that's completely frozen solid and is now being used by locals to take their pets for a wander. Also it snows so frequently and so heavily you can, in any case, barely see the ugly bits most of the time.

So naturally the first order of business was to visit the great man himself, ie. Santa Claus. He, er, like, officially lives in the Santa Claus Village, which is exacly on the Arctic Circle line. He really is official, too, it seems, as I think somehow the Finns have cunningly manipulated um, well, I guess everyone to order to establish their Christmas myth as the official one. Or at least the ones the Yanks are down with. Probably the penny dropped with everyone else a long time ago, but I guess due to the whole-hearted embrace of North America I
'd always thought of Santa Claus (as opposed to 'umble old Father Christmas) as an American creation. But when you really think about it, the story of a dude with a weird name and a beard living in a cave in the Arctic and being driven around by reindeer clearly has the Finns' trollish mitts all over it. Anyway, the village is a funny old place; in some ways it is, of course, nothing more than a gaudy capitalist edifice; at the same time (and contrary to some of the postcards I may have sent) it's a lot less horrendous than you'd expect, partly, I guess, because being at least modestly likable means it can continue to function as this self fulfilling prophecy of festive joy that'll keep packing in the punters for decades to come. Packing in the European and Asian punters, anyway; one pretty striking thing about this trip is that I don't believe we've met a single North American. I guess somewhat ironically they don't actually need to come see the real deal as they have North Pole, Alaska or whatever it's called. Also LOL the dollar.

Christ, this is getting a bit wanky. So even if there's not really much to do there other than buy souvenirs off elves, buy burgers off elves, buy horrible coffee off elves and feel mildly fulfilled by standing at a fairly confusing marker announcing that yes, this is the Arctic, well bloody done, then Santa's village is quite nice, and particular respect has to go to the absolutely colossal snowmen that dominate the place. One imagines that when it starts getting sunny they have to be brought down in controlled detonations to prevent them toppling unexpectedly and smearing some unfortunate child over the tundra like a hapless Arctic gnat. Or maybe they're cool with that, the Finns don't appear to be a people given to excessive sentimentality.

Anyway, the great man himself. So as I've said, my grasp on the Santa Claus myth as an overarching whole is not what it could be. However, Santa's grotto has, to my mind, always been a kinda cute, kinda magical place in which giggling gnomes frolic and skip through shimmering cascades of stardust and sweets, occasionally breaking off to hand-craft a 1940s style wooden trainset that'll clearly play amazingly with the wii and crack-addled youth of today. Tacky, but inoffensive-verging-on-heartwarming. Santa's 'official' grotto is a bleak mechanical hellsphere, a clangorous, cavernous waiting room in which the spooked punters stand in nervous anticipation of an audience with SC, their hushed conversations drowning under the grind of machinery and - I shit you not - the howl of wolves. Not real wolves, obviously, but as we stood near the imposing double doors that led to SC, a brick shithouse of an elf barring our way, a really disturbing Dali-esque image of a mechanised um, desert reindeer the only thing we had to look at, we did wonder if this was even supposed to be fun. Mark was so nervous he wolfed down a hefty slug of rum, and I can't say as I blame the man, I can't blame him at all.

Anyway, there was no reason to get worried, because you don't get to be the most loved person in, like, the whole universe by scaring the shit out of people, and once we were ushered in it was all fine - he's got the art of bantering with vaguely confused (in Mark's case slightly drunk) adult tourists down to a pat. I'm sure he basically waps out stock phrases, but it was fine, neither too silly or too po-faced, nor too brusque or so lengthy as to get awkward. The inevitable moment of disappointment came with the photo of our meeting, which has to be taken by a specially designated photo elf. Not really a snip at €25 for one or €30 for five little ones. Poor form Santa. It really was quite a funny picture but, um there are some demands you just can't give in to as a matter of principle.
I mean really, the guy's mythos is based on some sort of altruistic/meritocratic philosophy, and then two earnest explorers like ourselves travel WELL BEYOND OUR MEANS take the TIME and EFFORT to visit him and he does this? It's hypocrisy. Also shouldn't he be out supervising the elves or something? Spending all day MUGGING people to have their image taken may bring home the proverbial, but come on man: you're nakedly profiteering off the very thing that they love you for.And now, with no official document of the time I met the real Santa Claus, I suspect I'll die a bitter human being and horrible grandparent. And that last part's being optimistic. I'll probably never even have sex again now. So cheers for that Santa. You cunt.

Nah, he was alright. And they sold some stamps in the gift shop that were just adorable.

*it's like a keep-fit activity, the purpose of which seems to be pretending a street is a mountain. Or something. I dunno, you look like a dick, anyway

Monday, 24 March 2008

Telling Tall Tales To Tobias In Tallinn

So blah blah blah, the ferry from to Estonia was fun - too brief to mutate into a booze pickled carnage-fest a la the last one, thank fuck, but the two hours were merrily set off by a blizzard that made Helsinki and its surrounding islands look the height of picturesque bleak. The thing I've found about these parts is that snow being the norm - or at least normal - feels more exotic or whatever than going somewhere megawarm.

More blah blah blah, Tallinn is lovely, in many ways more like an Eastern European capital than a Scandinavian one. Mostly because it is (or a Baltic capital, anyway), but it's definitely got that Scandinavian air of chilly chic going on, combined with a compact, medieval old town, the semi-dilapidated likes of which you don't get so much oop north. I suppose in some ways we didn't actually interact with it all that much, other than a solid wander and to aimlessly gawp at old buildings, the providence and purpose of which we were never really clear of, but it was nice for that.

Tallinn also has a reputation as a haven for weekending Brits looking for cheap beer and a good vomit, and this trip's fearless descent into cliche continued unabated as we set eyes upon the nearest pub to our hostel. Dubbed Hell Hunt, the very prominant logo was of a naked woman straddling a wolf. Glorious. Actually it was infinitely nicer than that fruity facade might suggest, and while we didn't really do much for the rest of the day other than sit there and drink local beer at about a quid a pint, it was nice to be be able to do so with impunity. Well, more impunity.

We also got a-swigging with a Swiss chap from our hostel by the name of Tobias. Showing us up for the utter dilettantes we are, he's been travelling the world for two years in his 4x4, and has seen Things I Will Never See, experienced Things I Will Never Experience, I'm very jealous, etcetera etcetera. However, there is something ruthlessly efficient about him that sat a bit strangely with me... he genuinely finds the idea of public transport quite offensive, he carries a laptop with him everywhere, has a very spiffy website detailing his adventures (, should you want proof that this isn't all just in my head), and generally appears to have a business plan drawn up to kind of justify his entire trip as an investment in his future. He was telling us how he'd had to fly home to Switzerland to sort out a visa for Cambodia and I asked him if he'd felt a bit disappointed at having to breach the whole romantic illusion of being out in the wilds or whatever, and he looked at me like I was mad. I dunno, he wasn't really a nice guy, per se, but he was very interesting, and even if deep and meaningfuls weren't exactly in abundance, he was a wellspring of appropriately lurid anecdotes, my favourite being the time his 4x4 hit a cow in Argentina, causing said bovine to flip through 360 degrees, then just get back on its feet and pretend the whole thing had never happened in dignified Argentinean fashion.

On the second night we went for a meal at Olde Hansa, possibly the only medieval-themed restaurant in the entire world to not come across as kitsch-bordering-on-embarassing. The service is just the right side of hammy, it looks great, and the weird food (if you're ever looking for a good side of spelt...) and drink (ditto herbal beer) was either nice or such a demented failure that it was worth it anyway.

Largely at Tobias' urging we went clubbing afterwards, which wasn't entirely expected, but we weren't exactly opposed to it. The place was called Hollywood, it was a student night, the music was as dreadul as one might expect, and I've not seen so many people in one room since the start of this trip. It was fun. But yeah, clubbing is clubbing is clubbing...

Tobias, bless him, has spent the last two years clinically sleeping his way through much of the world's womenfolk with a supervillain's ruthlessness and a superhero's courage. That Cambodian visa? Well worth it, he spend a month getting chauffeur-driven around the country while he bumped uglies with the leader of the opposition party's daughter. Hell, you might have slept with him. He's a persuasive man, I wouldn't blame you.

Now while me and Mark have been having many deep talks about brilliantly deep shit and stuff, the game of 'call which one you're going to sleep with' has, well, possibly dominated our conversation to the point of obsession, not least in Tallinn where the ladies are, quite frankly, a comely bunch. However, in terms of putting our money in the region of our mouths... well, Mark has a girlfriend, and for reasons ranging from vestigial principles to old skool cowardice, wandering up to a strange girl and buttering her up with platitudes has never exactly been my style.

This is EXACTLY Tobias' style, and the collision of the two rather called our bluff, i.e
Me: Call her
Tobias: Yeah, she's cute. So you're going to go talk to her?
Me (thinks): Ah, the thing is, my Swiss friend, that while this whole 'calling' thing unquestionably has its roots in objectifying women as lust/sex objects in a way that - if I really think about it - makes me fairly disgusted with myself, the thing is, that, on a more significant level, it's ironic, both in terms of satirising the type of English blokes who wander around yodeling letcherous obscenities at foreign (and indeed British) women, but also in sending up mine and Mark's general inability to act as Casanovas in any given situation, even if we wanted to. Indeed, though there is a measure of hypocrisy in justifying it this way, there is a tenuous argument to be made in framing the whole thing as an elaborate in-joke about how pathologically respectful we are towards women. Now shove that in your 4x4 and park it.
Me (says): Um. Maybe later?

Shortly after midnight, I wryly reflected on the fact I was now technically 27, which - excruciatingly - spurred Tobias on to actually secure me a girl. Not as in hire a hooker, but to use his vastly superior powers of charm/confidence to secure me a sympathy pull. As you're all doubtless aware, after a few beers I'm happy to jettison the semi-progressive morals I oft espouse, but I still felt silly when more or less ordered to go talk to Christina, also 27, a stewardess for Scandinavian Airways. Her English was amazing, and she was a fun, vivacious person, but the type of rubbish I drone on about doesn't really translate especially well
to, well, anyone, frankly, let alone across a yawning cultural schism, and I could see Tobias looking at me in bewilderment as I yammered on about, I dunno, badgers or something. Anyway, we relocated to the wordless frug of the dancefloor, which toned down the awkardness a few pegs, but there comes a stage in a chap's night when he realises he's only flirting with a girl so as not to disappoint a random Swiss dude who he's never going to see again and probably doesn't really give a shit. That time was about 1.30am. I then danced like a bastard for two and a half hours and had a jolly good start to my rock'n'roll year of death. The end.

Well, not quite... I think lavish descriptions of cities the reader either won't go to or can make up their own minds when they do are a bit redundant, but I did in fact do a bit more sightseeing in Tallinn, I did enjoy it, and I don't want to give the impression this has been a total booze fest. Thanks to Mark's frail-bordering-on-childlike health and only tenuous curiousity with regards to other cultures, I took one of his many lengthy sleeps as an opportunity to potter outside of the old town on my own. I went to Kadriorg Park, which is big and well kept and dotted with nice old buildings dating back to Czarist rule; a really nioce place, but most of the fun came simply from wandering around a snow-strewn, pine-covered park. It stretched right down to the sea, and it was fascinating (if freezing) to watch what seemed like hundreds of apparently masochistic swans battle gamely against steel-blue, rock hard breakwaters just so that, y'know, they could hang out with the other swans. I thought that was nice.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

'Peter... Moses... welcome to Finland!'

So Helsinki is very pretty. I'd been expecting it to be rocking some sort of austere Soviet thing, which was terribly ignorant of me, as it was never part of the USSR, in fact seceding from Czarist Russia just after the Russian Revolution. I guess it's like a neater, friendlier Stockholm - the town centre is really impressive, in that everything's a couple of hundred years old and they've worked really hard to keep it looking just so, so that even if all the shops and restaurants are modern, their exteriors still look impeccably Czarist, and it's basically all the good.

I've heard lots of dire warning about how the Finns are all nasty drunks; it's a bit of a weird one, in that by and large they seem like polite, friendly people, but then every so often you'll come across somebody so epically loaded at, like, 11am, you could probably use their blood for lighter fluid. Then again, you could say the same about Mark, so it really doesn't seem like so much of a big issue.

In fact by far the most alarming person we met (in fact possibly the most alarming person I've ever met) was a fellow hostel guest, who'd come over from Estonia. His English seemed remarkably selective - he'd be speaking at an advanced level one moment, talking complete gibberish the next. We never actually got his name out of him, so bestowed the epithet The Honker upon his weirdo shoulders.

The mentalness started off with low-level eccentricity: he greeted me by offering his hand and then pulling it away; he asked me where the womens' bathrooms were (weird in itself, plus he was probably well aware all the toilets were mixed sex); later on, when I was wanting a nap before dinnertime, he kept talking to me, telling me such 'facts' as Estonia having no football team (er..?) and telling me he'd been captain of the Estonian ice hockey team in 1991 (he'd have been a teenager at the time, if not younger). He also insisted I took an iPod case he'd been wearing clipped to his belt, as he, er, didn't have an iPod and had been merely carrying it around. He also claimed that the case had been made by the Incas, which was remarkably prescient of them, if not exactly prosaic.

The point we realised he was off the Richter scale mental was when we went to bed in the dorm room we were sharing with him. All went well until just before 4am, at which point he sat bolt upright in bed and loudly and distinctly said 'Peter... Moses... welcome to Finland!' He was, we observed, fully dressed. There was precious little sleep on our parts for the next three hours as we were somewhat concerned that he was going to perform the full Charles Manson on us. He spent the time wandering in and out of the dorm, drumming rhythmically on the walls, leaning over other people in the dorm and poking their mattresses. He didn't actually talk that much, but every so often he'd address a sleeper directly, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Predictably he asked me for his iPod case back (I was only too happy to assent), but the real highlight came when he started informing a thoroughly freaked-out Brazilian guy in the bottom bunk that he could get him summer work and that they should go outside to discuss it. The Brazilian grunted something in the negative, and The Honker switched tacks, saying he should come outside because there were four parcels that needed carrying. This didn't especially enthuse the Brazilian, and to be honest we were all amazed that when The Honker went off to whatever godawful place he'd came from (my best guess would be that he's the advanced scout for some sort of spectacularly inept alien invasion, or an actual, proper, real-life village idiot gone on the lamb), we all had our limbs, faces, major organs etc still intact.

In terms of actually, y'know, doing stuff in Helsinki, I basically pottered around on my own while Mark lay in his chemical swoon. Though speaking of people in dark places, I ended up spending most of the afternoon hanging out in city cemetery. Which is arguably kind of creepy, and I guess it was, but it was also really stunning, a massive, wintry public park that goes down to the shore, covered in all sorts of headstones and tombs. There are some properly creepy old skool weeping angel statues and whatnot, but also some really weird stuff that's quite out of the box (geddit?) in terms of burial technology. I really liked one that was just a marble boulder with a little lantern burning next to it, it sort of had a feng shui thing going on (in fact for future ref, I'd quite fancy one of those bad boys when I shuffle off this mortal coil), but the funniest was probably one which sported a marble effigy of the deceased riding a donkey while looking completely shitfaced, seemingly having an absolute ball. Presumably it was meant fondly.

I roused Mark with an offering of some sort of unfathomable milk product I'd brought in a supermarket in a moment of misguided whimsy. It was really odd, just a sheet of curdled milk; to be honest I don't really want to talk about it, but just to say didn't really taste of anything, and had a disconcertingly squeaky, rubbery texture. I forgot to note the name down, but I think if you see one you'll realise it's to be avoided.

Later we went for food, and I continued my general policy of making sure I try new forms of meat (just to check I'm not missing out on anything, like), with some reindeer carbonara. It was by far the best thing I'd eaten on the trip, though that's mainly because it was the first thing that wasn't simply a large block of dairy product, and I wouldn't get too excited about reindeer eating as a lifestyle choice: it tasted kind of like a milder form of beef. So there you go.

Monday, 17 March 2008

The Voyage Of The Damned

So I'm possibly building it up a bit much, but the 16-hour ferry trip from Stockholm to Helsinki does feel like this monolithic thing that's somewhat loomed over the rest of the trip. Anyway...

3pm - We are waiting for our ferry boarding call, whiling away the time by playing the thoroughly enlightened game of 'call the female ferry passengers you're going to have sex with during the journey'. Um, yeah, irony... No, I feel dirty. Anyway a girl who, blessedly, we didn't comment on comes over and introduces herself. She is Australian! She is traveling alone! Her name is Nicole! We are a little concerned that she heard our previous conversation and is unaware that we are enlightened gentlemen, but hey-ho. In any case, we see why she came over, as I guess the combination of price, obscurity and chilliness means there seem to be barely any English-as-a-first-language speaking travelers around these parts.
3.01pm - Nicole is the most boring Australian I've ever met. I mean, yeah, once again, a blow against national stereotypes, but when your national stereotype is 'being fun' I'm not so certain that blow is particularly necessary. Anyway, she was harmless, but like how a benign growth is harmless - she just sort of sat there and didn't do or say anything and if it could be a lot worse, after a while you sort of figured that given a choice you'd rather she was not in fact there.
3.45pm - We board. Our cabin, located somewhere beneath the car deck, is smells like a tomb and looks like a tomb. Considering how little we paid for it, I don't suppose we can really grumble, and bonuses come twofold, in that the third bed is empty (christ knows where we're going to put our backpacks on the return voyage - and yeah, I said voyage, okay?), and also the room has an antique phone which can be tuned into a radio station playing even more antiquated Europop. Weird, but nice.
5pm - We have set sail. Hurrah! The plan is to take a bit of a kip, then later grab a couple of drinks and a bit of food. There's little chance of us getting drunk as the on-board bars are only marginally cheaper than those in Stockholm. The sun is going to go down soon, so before our sleep we head up on deck to gander at the view. The Swedish coast is lovely; lots of tiny, tranquil islands, not exactly bleak, but a sort of bucolic austerity, sporadically dotted with neat, brightly-coloured barns and houses. It's a bit weird to see that they don't really seem to be clustered into communities, just spread out at isolated intervals. Keeping oneself to oneself appears to be something of a national pastime here.
5.30pm - Oh yeah, Duty Free, forgotten that exists. We sack off the nap in favour of buying a bottle of mystery liquor, some sort of weird bread, a tube of smoked cheese, and a salami. Oh, and a crate of beer. In retrospect I'm not entirely certain what we thought was going to happen if we bought such frankly heroic volumes of booze, but the crate cost only a shade more than two beers at the bar and we figured we could take the left-overs to Helsinki.
9pm- We have drunk quite a lot of alcohol. It is going down very nicely, thankyouverymuch. Nicole is hanging out with us and seems much more agreeable when one is too tipsy to feel uncomfortable about the fact she isn't saying or doing anything.
9.30pm - We go out on deck. The full enormity of how cold this trip is going to be starts to trickle its way into our alcohol-fugged minds. Fear is tempered by awe at our own bravery. Truly we are heroes.
10pm - The mystery spirit is all drunk. The crate has taken some serious hits. It begins to dawn on us that we might actually finish it. Truly we are as the gods of yore.
11.30pm - The ferry makes its only stop between Stockholm and Helsinki at a little island town called Marielburg (?). Weirdly/ridiculously I hadn't expected to encounter any snow before the Arctic, but the stuff is coming down heavily and the town looks like a Christmas card-maker's wet dream. It's unbelievably pretty, and though my brain is now enshrouded in a blanket of purest drunkenness I am somewhat overcome. It's about my last coherent thought of the evening, so nice to make it a good one.
Midnight - Something very wrong is happening. It's called the California Show, it's taking place on the stage of one of the ferry's two nightclubs, and it seems to involve all my worst nightmares about circuses blended with all my worst nightmares about musicals. I more or less freak out for the entire duration. For some reason I decide the best way to cope is to line everyone up with outrageously priced shots of Jaegermeister from the bar.
Some time later - We are dancing in the boat's other club, which is mercifully free of cabaret from hell. I keep saying I want to go to bed, but my words are hollow, not least because I can no longer remember where bed is. Or what bed means. We're hanging out with quite a lot of other people, but I can't remember names, faces, or even if they spoke English. The fact the ferry requires two nightclubs to accommodate all the drunkenness does, however, speak volumes for the general atmosphere on board. It's like the Masque Of The Red Death, only with Eurodisco. It's amazing.
Maybe about half three, I dunno - I finally make it to bed. Mark does not. His recollections of this period are as hazy as they are probably fabricated, but I'm happy to believe the bit where he says the people he was drinking with tried to go to bed and more or less had to slam their door on him to stop him partying them into the grave. He finally gave up, but not before writing his MySpace address on said door. In eyeliner.
4.30am?- Mark burst into our cabin, raving about how my life would more or less be a dead loss if I didn't come up on deck and see the 'blue dawn'. I know I've joked about our heroism, but I think the fact I actually agreed is a more or less textbook case of going above and beyond the call of duty. Anyway, the position of the sun behind the clouds and the general blueness of the ocean made everything look a bit blue. I guess it was okay. I dunno, I was in a horrible state. I think Mark was under the impression that it was some sort of awe-inspiring meteorological phenomena up there with ball lightning and the Aurora Borealis. The cynic in me would suggest he felt this way because a) by now he was so far gone he'd probably have felt the same about running tapwater, and b) he was maybe paying a bit too much heed to the ramblings of a bandanna-wearing Finn, the self-styled weather expert who was the only other person drunk enough to be out on deck at that time in the morning.
9am - I wake up, somewhat disorientated, to my alarm. I feel HORRIBLE. I'm not really in any sort of state where I can feel things, as such, but on some level my brain registers mild relief at the fact a fully-clothed Mark is lying face-down in his bunk, snoring the vile honks of the damned.
10am - We dock. I try to rouse Mark. It does not go well. He curses my name. He claims to have pneumonia. He suggests that Finland is not one hour ahead of Sweden, and that its being on GMT +2 is actually a conspiracy cooked up by me to deny him an hour of sleep. Nicole swings by to leave the ferry with us. Proving that old adage about silver linings, Mark mopes around for so long that she decides to go on her own, after all.
11am - We arrive at the hostel in Helsinki. Our beds wont be ready until 2pm. We head out to chemist to buy things to counter Mark's alleged illnesses.
11.15am - He buys four different substances, none of which he is particularly certain as to the identity of. He balances them on a dustbin in the street as he knocks them back one by one, pausing only to drop a pill on the pavement and scrabble around to pick it back up, whereupon he crams it down his gullet. Around us the immaculate buildings of Helsinki's historic town centre are matched only by its pristine, elegant citizens.
Midday - We have sat down to have a coffee. With crushing predictability Nicole has stumbled across us. Luckily for Mark, the combination of sleep deprivation and the chemical cocktail raging inside him means he rapidly passes out, leaving me to talk to her. After swapping our general first impressions of the city we come to something of an impasse.
Me: So you're off to get some food then?
Her: Yup.
M: Cool. So I guess maybe we'll see you later?
H: Yup.
An awkward silence
12.05 pm
M: Er, so would you like to sit down and join us?
H: No, I'm off to get some food.
M: Cool. So I guess maybe we'll see you later?
H: Yup.
An awkward silence
12.30pm - She leaves
12.40pm - Mark wakes up and freaks out that Nicole has apparently vanished before his eyes. I tell him he fell asleep within one minute of her turning up. He gives me a weird look and tells me we have to get out of the coffee shop because he doesn't want to fall asleep here. I reiterate that he has already blissfully slumbering for a good half hour, but he doesn't seem to hear me. He gets up and leaves. It is literally the most motivated I have ever seen him.
1pm - We are back at the hostel. On the way Mark has not managed to put together a single coherent sentence, but from what I can piece together he is complaining about the sky being orange (when I point out it's not he compromises with 'yellow, then'), disconnectedly mumbles about how he's upset he can't pull his weight at the hostel and will later rectify it with 'broad shoulders... towels', and when I suggest this is so far more hardcore than our trip to Transylvania, he looks at me vacantly and says 'I'm sure that's really funny but I just don't understand anything anymore'. Mercifully his bed is ready early. As he gets into it, he asks if I can stay and keep talking to him so he doesn't pass out, as he's heard how people about to freeze to death get really sleepy before they die. I realise arguing with him over this is pointless, so ask does he want to stay awake, yes or no. His only response is to twist his face into a mask of bestial bewilderment as he stares at me, before mercifully falling asleep. I go off to have a nice day in Helsinki, more of which later. However, for those left worried, Mark has not met with a frozen death. Though I'm increasingly thinking it's only a matter of time.

Ill-informed dismissal of the Swedish as a people

Yeah, so hopefully I'll feel all peace'n'love about the good peoples of Sweden before too long, but for right now there are several things that I think there are a couple of changes they could maybe think about making.

1. Be more rambunctious. I know that few - if any - people maintain the same constant barrage of noisy blather as me, I really do, and it's a good thing, because everybody would want to kill everybody if that was the case, and that would be bad. But seriously, the Swedish are quiet, like you go to a public park and barely anybody is talking at all, not children, not groups of friends, not couples. I'm not saying it's like there's a deathly hush over the land, and certainly all the Swedes we met out on Friday night were chatty as you like, but it's a bit odd - at one point we were in a quite crowded public square and were literally the only ones talking. Though conceivably they were just overawed by our brilliant words and dashing accents.
2. Sort out clearly deficient person to city ratio. Stockholm is pretty big; it could hold twice as many people easily and still look like London after a zombie holocaust. It's silly, and I don't care for it.
3. Lack of blonde nymphomanics. While a perfectly respectable-looking bunch, the Swedes are pretty lame when it comes to living up to national stereotypes. While there are obvious, shallow reasons for wanting there to be a glut of platinum sexfreaks, I do think that if they bred a bit more the whole empty cities/general lack of overt friendliness would be inevitably get sorted fairly sharpish.
4. The price of stuff. Is just ridiculous. No wonder they're all so thin. Yesterday morning, lack of funds meant we breakfasted on two hilariously derisory plates of nachos, washed down with coffee that seemed more loblique insult than bean-based caffeine drink. I think it cost about a trillon kroner and the donation of a major organ each. Pah.

This obviously sounds like I'm whining. Actually our brief time in Stockholm was medium pleasing overall, and in any case we've not even remotely given Sweden a fair chance yet, so bring on Gothenburg in a week's time. However, if there are any representatives of the Swedish tourist board reading this, I just think there's a coupla things you could work on. Tomorrow-ish I shall reveal the full dark tale of what happened on the ferry over to Helsinki. Be prepared for fear, and lots of it.

k thx

Forty-eight hours in, and the trip has basically descended into self-parody

More to come later, as this Finnish keyboard is unbelievably confusing, but basically our ferry crossing from Stockholm to Helsinki resulted in us accidentally getting really, really, really drunk. Well, insofar as once can get drunk accidentally. I shall explain later. It'd be a shameful untruth to say I presented a figure of moderation, but certainly I've come out a bit better from the whole affair than Mark, who more or less drank his blood volume in cheap lager and unidentified liquor, woke me up from my boozy demi-slumber at 4.30am demanding I come out on deck and see the 'blue dawn', took about half an hour of cajouling to actually get off the ferry when we finally arrived in Helsinki, and is now in some sort of coma brought on by a fairly hefty cocktail of over the counter throat and pain medication. Before sinking into said coma he was so confused due to, um, well, all the above, that he thought the sky was orange, got massively paranoid that the fact he was so tired meant he was on the verge of death (as opposed to whacked up on cough syrup and sleep-deprivation), and was mostly so incoherent he sounded like a broken down Eddie Izzard sketch... at one stage he actually come out with the sentence 'tomorrow... broad shoulders... towels'. Maybe he knows something I don't. I'm very curious to see how much, if any, of today he remember when he (hopefully) wakes up. Predictably we've not really done any tourism at all, though I am just about to rectify that by wandering around Helsinki. Toodles.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Pride Comes Before A Fjord

So anyways, I suppose originally I wanted to start this off my bringing to general attention the fact that within the first 24 hours of the trip Mark managed to lose his wallet, his credit card, his passport and break his backpack. And I suppose I've now done exactly that. Though I hasten to add that he found the wallet and the passport on the floor of the plane.

However, I do have to acknowledge that months, nay eons of anally exact planning on my part didn't stop me booking us into our first hostel on the wrong night. Which was very stupid, though a positive spin might be that it offered a succinct lesson in how preposterously expensive Stockholm is. They did in fact had some beds on offer, it's just that, er, well let's just say they weren't budget accomodation in the classic sense and move on.

I have no real idea what Stockholm is like (beyond eye-wateringly pricey), but a few observations based on a solitary night out:

1. It is very clean
2. It has the same odd atmosphere I found in Berlin, in that compared to a British city, it feels disconcertingly underpopulated. We played a game of 'spot the human being' on the 80 minute bus journey from airport to city. We saw three.
3. The people we met seemed very nice, though we were fairly bitter about the fact they could afford to get drunk.
4. Though we did that too, so kind of hypocritical to grumble.
5. It's pretty chilly, which was good, as clement conditions would seem rather at odds with the trip as a whole

So the flight went fairly well, save for the fact we were sat next to a rather ominous looking guy, a sort of corpulent, taciturn hippy burn-out apparently possessed of a terminal case of OCD. He didn't actually talk to us or look at us, so he wasn't exactly a hazard. BUT. He did confiscate all our in flight magazines and file them neatly away, to no discernable purpose. And while his general OCD-ish ness verged on the amusing, he did eat a large box of sushi in such a singularly disturbing manner that I feared for my life, somewhat. That may sound like an over-reaction, but you watch a man take all the fish out of his fish-based snack then painstakingly sculpt the rice into some sort of elaborate rhomboid before devouring it, and tell me you're not at least midly concerned his next trick may involve implementing some sort of feng shui arrangement on your major organs.

I'm not sure if it makes me a massive racist or not, but one of my favourite things about everywhere on the planet except Britain is that it's usually cheaper... thus when we first arrived I couldn't quite shake the vague subliminal belief that I could wander up to any restaurant here and have them turf all the other customers out (save for the fairest maidens) and allow us to have some sort of Baccanalian food orgy, if only I toss them a shiny pound coin. My friends, I think they would laugh at that pound coin. Heathens.

Really though, the only downer so far was been having to fork out the cost of a small farmstead for two rooms at a hostel; in their own slightly special way,other things have actually gone kind of smoothly. It might lack people, but the Swedish countryside is sublimely flat and sparse, and I'd heartily recommend a drive through it as a good way of getting some top drawer shut-eye. In some ways humbly accepting that we can't afford a five course banquet means that after having assessed the sanity in sitting down to eat what must be the world's most expensive jacket potatoes, we decide that what would be much more sensible would be to buy a huge lump of cheese and eat it in a side alley while well-heeled passers by reagraded us with a mix of fear and concern.

We did, however, go out for some drinks to an Irish bar (shut up, it was jiving, plus drinks were a snip at just under a fiver for a pint of comically-insipid local brew), and were further rewarded when some locals gifted us with a few tabs of some sort of orally-ingested varient on snuff. It got you proper high, like, and when we finally stumbled home, it was with an entirely illogical sense of satisfaction with ourselves. Our drunken Swedish chums did, however, tell us the rather grim news that drinking alcohol on a Sunday in Sweden is regarded as a sign of alcoholism, and that obtaining it on the sabbath is in fact nigh-on impossible. This trip is going to be one seventh harder than I'd thought. They did also tell us that Swedish girls, like, totally dig the English, and that we should talk very loudly as it will make us look cool. No problem there.