I’ve always been a bit interested in Finland ever since I was assigned a Finnish penpal in 6th grade. We fell out of touch and I don’t remember what city she lives in, but it was great to finally visit her country! Helsinki felt very similar to Oslo – gorgeously elaborate architecture, cobblestone streets, and absolutely nothing to do. I can see how this trip would have been much better in the summer when the weather would have permitted walking around outside for hours to see all the beautiful buildings.
We arrived in Helsinki in the morning but couldn’t go to our couchsurfing host’s apartment until he got home from work at 5:30pm. We stored our bags in a locker and wandered around. We noticed several interesting things, for example – people here cry very openly. We passed at least three people crying while walking down the sidewalk. People also didn’t speak English as well in Finland as they did in Sweden and Norway. We went to a cafe and the barista had to have someone else translate our order. Strange!
We saw the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church and the famous Esplanade Park. Other than touring the architecture, there wasn’t much to do. Neither of us are fans of museums so we haven’t gone to any of those. Mostly we just try to find quaint stores or cafés. Definitely a relaxed trip!
Finally it reached 5:30 so we made the trek to his apartment. Our host was an American from Chicago working in Helsinki in finance. He gave us his address so we went into his apartment building and found his door and rang… and waited. It got to be 6:00, 6:15, 6:30 and no sign of him. I had told him to email me if anything changed and I had just checked my email on the cafe wifi before coming to his apartment since my phone doesn’t have service internationally.
Tracy decided it was time to text him and incur the $1.99 fee. He replied that he was staying at work until 7:00pm and would be home shortly. Great! Apparently he messaged me on the couchsurfing website telling me this around 5:30pm, but I had no way of checking it. We wandered to a local CD shop and got a free CD and then came back in time to meet him.
His apartment was very nice – complete with a sauna! Saunas are an integral part of Finnish culture. Instead of cafés, Fins go to saunas together. Apparently even some business meetings are held in saunas! It was definitely a relaxing way to end the cold day.
Our host, who had been living in Helsinki for 3 years, had a wealth of information to share. My favorite facts are mainly about Finnish wealth. Finland is viewed as an extremely wealthy country with a high standard of living, mainly because everyone’s salary is taxed 41%. Yes, you read that correctly – almost half. These taxes go toward developing the great public works that Scandinavia is known for. 1% even goes to the church (you can opt out if you want, but it requires paperwork!).
Still, due to the high cost of food and goods, one would think that Fins are wealthy people. Well, it depends how you measure wealth. Although most Fins make a respectable salary, they save almost none of it. Our host said that all of his Finnish friends were astounded by the fact that he had more than $10,000 in his bank account. Fins live comfortably by being able to afford whatever high-priced item they please, but as a result, they save nothing. It makes me question WHY we value saving money. It is great to be able to buy expensive items like a car or have a “rainy day” fund, but for Fins who take public transportation and rent apartments, the future doesn’t require a stockpile of money like it does in America.
Another interesting facet of “price” is the cost of alcohol. Instead of being so expensive due to importation taxes, it is due to the government wanting to limit it’s citizens’ access to it. The country, as a whole, has a drinking problem. We heard from two separate sources that Fins don’t drink socially; they pound bottles until they cannot walk straight. Our American host and a British shopkeeper we met later both said that they don’t have many Finnish friends for this reason.
After our interesting chat about Finnish culture, we all went to a local restaurant for dinner. I wanted to try the local delicacy of reindeer, but a steak was almost $40! I opted for the reindeer pizza instead. It was only $15 (so cheap by Scandinavian standards!) and I got my money’s worth. It was the equivalent of a large American pizza for a family! I ate about a fourth of it and saved the rest for later. One interesting thing about the restaurant was that it had a mandatory coat check for $5. Even if you weren’t wearing a coat, you had to pay the $5. I couldn’t believe it. Little things like that (combined with paying to use the restroom) really irk me.
Typically couchsurfing hosts let you sleep in if they have to leave for work early. It is easy to lock the door on the way our. Our host in Gothenburg even took a half day off so we didn’t have to wake up at 6am! However, our Helsinki host made us wake bright and early AFTER insisting we stay up until 2am watching a movie! Not cool. I appreciate him opening his home to us, but a little accommodation would have been nice. Couchsurfing is a resource for people traveling on a budget, so hosts generally try to offer a bit of breakfast at the least. Not this guy! He made us feel like we were imposing on his routine – admittedly we were- but he signed up for it! Hopefully our hosts in Tallinn will be better.
Our second day in Helsinki was frigid. We had to haul all of our luggage around town in the snow before our ferry at 4:30. We grabbed breakfast before heading to the Christmas market. It was the best one we have been to, yet! So many handcrafted goods ranging from jewelry to art to scarves. We spent about 90 minutes talking to a British shopkeeper. He was from Cornwall and worked as a shipbuilder. As everyone knows, England can be rainy and miserable. He said that one day he woke up and realized he wasn’t happy in Cornwall making $5 an hour in the mud. He received a call soon after offering him a job in Portland, Oregon. He had never been on a plane and was terrified of flying, but realized he needed to accept it in order to change his destiny. From then on, he travelled all over the world from Spain to Burma to Helsinki building ships. Finally he retired and ended up making his original passion his job – glass blowing and making glass jewelry, clocks, and plates. His story was simple, but inspiring, and reinvigorated my passion for traveling and meeting incredible people.
Afterwards, to warm up, I ran up the countless stairs to the top of the senate building near the market. At the top, two guys asked me to take their picture. I could tell they were Arab so I asked where they were from and they said Abu Dhabi but originally Jordan! Somehow I always run into people connected to Jordan! Walking the streets in these different cities makes me remember walking through the neighborhoods in Amman. While it is nice to not be continuously honked at, I do miss the little things like the strange sounds of the gas delivery trucks, Arabic radio, and crunch of gravel under my shoes. I oddly miss our apartment lobby and how we had to pick up the external phone and dial the code before the door unlocked with a distinct buzz and click that I can still precisely remember. It is crazy to think that I left for that adventure almost an entire year ago. While the trip had its ups (my friends! food! falling in love with the Middle East!) and downs (frigid or scalding weather! struggling with Arabic! no good wifi!), I miss it so much and would do it all again in a heartbeat.
But instead of reminiscing on the past, let’s focus on the future! Like how I will be in Estonia in a hour and Russia in 3 days! So far my overall impression of Scandinavia is similar to Dubai – unless you want to pay a lot, there isn’t much to do other than look at the buildings. Scandinavia has much more culture than Dubai, but not by much. The Viking thing is played up a lot in tourist shops, but hardly seen in the actual cities unless you go to museums. However, there’s a definite cafe culture which we have fully participated in!
Farewell, Scandinavia! Hello, Baltic States!