Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Film Festival Next Week!

I know it's been a while since my last post from Schipol airport a month and a half ago. Hard finding stuff to blog about (Politics just angries up the blood:( ) But the Film festival starts this week. I am seeing:


I may exchange some of these. I am going to try to rush DOAP and HANA. I may also see BUGMASTER and THE FOUNTAIN if I can get time off work.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Homeward Bound

I sit in the Communications Centre at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam where I finish this blog at last. Not much to say about today except that I made my plane, and I am now enjoying my 6 hour layover here. Blogging has made it go that much quicker! I run out of net time in 5 minutes, so I will be brief. This has been a wonderful experience. However, yesterday I found Helsinki to be a lonely place, and I am excited to get back to my friends and family in Toronto (The layover is torturous!).

I will continue to blog here, and when I am up to it I will supplement these posts with more pictures! I will find ways to show everyone images of Scandinavia and the great times I had here.

This is my last post for the trip but I will see you all very soon.

Tack, Kiitos, Spasiba, thank you for reading and I hope you all enjoyed reading this as I did writing it (And living it).

The Doctor will see you very soon

Unfortunately, today is the day I find myself in a holding pattern, and Helsinki, while being a nice place, is, by my hotel manager's own admission, "A small town". And as cities go, I can view it right now as nothing more than a very nice waiting room. I start the day by filling up on food at the Smorgasbord buffet (I actually find the lox here too salty!).

The hotel offers to buy my last 100 Euro Travellers cheque at a 5 Euro charge, but I have heard Forex only charges 2 Euros, so I head over there, and it is correct, except they only pay 98 cents on the Euro for Travellers cheques! So I save 1 Euro for my troubles. Which is fine, since I have to do laundry before I go home, and every last Euro helps when laundry costs 10 Euros a load! At least I have someone to take care of it for me, and I wait it out back at the hotel, which is a 10 minute walk from the laundromat.

Tonight is going to be no fun. My flight leaves at 6:15 am so I've established that I need a 3:30 pickup to get me to the airport the requisite 2 hrs. before departure (As it will turn out, Helsinki airport is small and I could have cut it much shorter!) I plan to go to sleep between 9pm and 10pm. To accomplish this, I discover movie theatre a block from my hotel, and they are showing Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest at 6:15, which is the perfect time, the movie will end around 9pm, and should exhaust me as it's probably a fairly busy movie. I also find a Nepalese Indian retaurant near the hotel called Pikku-Nepal. I will eat at 5pm, catch my movie at 6:15pm, and be in bed by 10pm. Dinner and a movie sounds like an evening.

Having reclaimed my clothes and mostly packed, I eat lunch at a cheap (8 Euro) pizza buffet, stuffing myself on salad, Chicken Wings, and lots of Pizza along with all you can drink Soda. No amazing culinary experience, but a cheap thrill.

I walk about 10 minutes, to Finland's most famous building, Finlandia Hall, which was designed by Finland's foremost architect, Alvaar Alto.

I found out about the 2pm tour last week, so this week I am in time to catch it. It's a bit dull, but it goes nicely into the technicals of the architecture, although it puts the hall into an historical context, several European and North American leaders met there in 1975 to make acords on Economic cooperation. Knowing I was Canadian, the tour guide went out of his way to mention that Pierre Trudeau waved to his mother from a passing limousine, and it was a moment she never forgot. Whatever one's opinions on Trudeau are, he had that effect on people. I saw him once on a flight to Toronto, and was a bit starstruck. Didn't say anything though.

I learned on the tour about the Alto vase, which is apparently a popular design in Finland, and is a popular gift. I bought a vase for myself, hopefully it will look nice in my new apartment, it is quite expensive. There was one in a beautiful flaming red colour, but for the same size it was double the price!

I had hoped to do a Sauna in my hotel before dinner, but unfortunately, free time for men is 7pm to 8:30. I had already arranged my movie plan. If I wanted, I could have booked a separate timeslot for 14 Euros for an hour and a half. Sauna will have to wait until I return to Finland.

Dinner was very good, and for 12 Euros I ordered the Lamb with Saag (Spinach), which was very tasty, and came in a Thali plate with Rice, Naan Bread, raita and a somewhat watery Daal. The Mango Lassi was very good too.

Pirates was the perfect movie to see. At 2 1/2 hours it's stuffed with comedy, drama, humor, some occasional action, great effects and look and Depp is still fun to watch in this role. I have often said I wasn't wild about the first, but it's only because everyone had built it up to the point where I was bound to be somewhat disappointed! For this movie my expectations were for some silly and very loud fun. I was not disappointed, and was exhausted by the end. Sleep was not a problem, I fell asleep just after 10pm.

Exit Visa

It is my last day in the hectic, overcrowded city of St.Petersburg. As the city gears up for the G-8 summit, I feel happy to be making an exit, the city is too hot, too busy, too mosquito infested (St. Petersburg was built over a swamp, much like Washington D.C.) This means one last joyous hostel Breakfast (My egg actually peels well this time!)

I pack and leave my large bag in the luggage room. I am not doing any sightseeing today, only buying souvenirs! I start at the other end of Nevskiy Prospekt, buying some Russian Dolls, the kind that you open and there are 5 dolls, each one within a larger one. St.Petersburg souvenir shops are full of them.

I also browse the Passazh department store, which had a nice bag section

(I need a travel bag to carry extra stuff in - souvenirs, gifts etc.), but I realize that all the prices I like there have 1's in front of them and are 1,000 rubles more expensive than I thought! I am still willing to look for something, but the 3 ladies in the shop talk to each other and completely ignore me!!! Maybe it's cause I look like a punk in my Small Cute Dog T-shirt, but I am pissed off and leave without buying, deciding to go across the street to the other major department store, Gostinny Dvor, where I find a better and more importantly cheaper selection of bags. I am eyeing some tennis bags, and one of the ladies in the shop is extremely helpful despite us having virtually no linguistic common ground! The racquet bag would be nice for squash but I am looking for something bigger, and she seems to know it - "Bolshoi?" she asks? I know it means big and I say yes. She brings me a cheesy looking bag but well constructed, and it actually says "St. Petersburg", and has pictures of the raised bridges(A site I unfortunately never stayed out till 1:30am to witness)! I say Souvenir, and the woman understands that word. I know Gostinny Dvor is having sales everywhere, and I try and ask her if there's any discount but she doesn't understand me, until I realize that the symbol for their sales is "%", and so I get a piece of paper and write the percentage symbol on there. She and the other lady laugh and shake their heads the negative. I am disappointed, but at least I enjoyed being able to communicate an idea to them.

A bit more shopping takes me to the Yelitseev's deli where I look at Vodka and Caviar.

I buy a very small jar of Beluga caviar for a small fortune and some Vodka that the woman assures me is of high quality and is not an exported brand. Yelitseev's was recommended as the place to buy these items in the eyewitness guide, so I suspect I have chosen well.

I also crash a small store in an alley called Sekunda where there is supposedly some good Soviet artifacts, but all I find are some coins. Nothing I want to take back with me that I wouldn't lose. So with that done, I head back to the hostel, stopping for some fast food Bliny on the way (These are crepe-like pancakes with meat and tomato filling). I also have a Shwarma Pita as the Bliny are really small. Having collected my bags from the hostel, I make my way back to the train station via the subways, and after 35 minutes and a half litre of sweat, I am at my train to Helsinki.

On the way out of town I get a last view of the horror that is the St.Petersburg suburbs. Otherwise, the train is a pleasant experience, my seatmate is a goofy Finn from Tampere. He's been travelling in the Urals, and he spends most of the trip in the Bar car, except during the customs inspection, when they close the bar car and toilets for an hour between Vainikkila, Finland, and Vyborg, Russia. The border process really is a formality, I hand the conductors my passport and it gets handed back to me stamped 2 hours later, no questions asked. The Finn border guard even remembers me and asks if I had a nice time in Russia. The Finns are very friendly people, and despite the fact that we didn't talk much my seatmate offers to email me photos from Lapland. I expect him to give me his e-mail address but when her is exiting one stop before me, he wants mine, says his is too complicated, and I just don't feel the desire to write it down. So we simply part, but I can't help feeling that I've snubbed him.

Arrival in Helsinki is nice, it's very cool and I heck into my hotel, which has a sauna I hope to use and a free internet station in the lobby! I get into my room which has a nice, modern, Scandinavian design, but it's small, and I connive a slightly better room because the in-room safe isn't working.

I have dinner at a funky Bar Restaurant called Zetor, designed by one of the designers behind the Leningrad Cowboys (You can surf the web to find out more about this strange Finnish cinema/music phenomenon). The food is all very Finnish, and I order a Finnish antipasto, which includes Marinated Garlic cloves, a creamy Roe Foam, Grava Whitefish, creamy garlic herring, onions, Reindeer liver pate, and Reindeer Carpaccio. Very tasty, and I follow it with Reindeer stew which comes in a massive serving and I can't finish it.

It's now about midnight and I walk back to my Hotel. Tomorrow is my last day in Scandinavia, and I want to get an early start.

St.Petersburg as seen by a tasty morsel

I wake up covered in Bug bites. I knew there were mosquitos, but I had no idea how bad they were. Everyone in the hostel has it just as bad, even the ones who bought the "Mosquito Repellent Things" from the hostel (I have Muskol in my bag, should have put it on).

As an aside, I am still scratching at these bites as I sit in the Amsterdam airport blogging right now.

My first plan is to go to Peterhof. No, it's not the episode of FAMILY GUY where Peter and David Hasselhof magically switch bodies (Although if Seth McFarlane reads this blog I suspect he will steal my idea). It's a palace outside the city, with beautiful furnishings and fountains that are world-renowned. I have the crappy hostel breakfast early in anticipation of catching the 9:30 hydrofoil to Peterhof (Hydrofoils are cool!). There's a middle-aged American there (He's motorcycling around the world). Our conversation goes something like:

Him: What have you got planned for the day?

Me: I'm going to check out Peterhof.

Him: No, you won't.

He tried to get there yesterday, but it's been closed because of the G8. In case I didn't mention this in an earlier entry, the streets have also been cleared of any pesky homeless people (Perhaps the government has re-activated the old Soviet labour camps to strore them for a couple of weeks). So I decide to go to the Peter and Paul Fortress, which contains the cathedral of the same name, where many of the tsars are buried. It's nicely designed, but I find myself rapidly losing patience for these sorts of things, and I wander the fortress, through the Neva gate. It has a very nice view looking across the water at the Winter Palace, but the view is made ominous with the knowledge that the fortress was a prison, and prisoners walked out here were being transported to another prison that could administer capital punishment.

After this I visit a St.Petersburg History museum which actually has some English in the exhibit. There's some cultural value in it all, but I'm tired and hungry (And my feet are killing me). I find a recommended fish retaurant in the neighbourhood and chow down on their special Pike Perch, along with a bowl of piping hot Solyanka (soup). All is excellent, giving me the energy to walk the bridge back to the palace embankment, where I shoot more photos of The Bronze horseman statue, and St.Isaac's cathedral. I also think I stumble upon a location from the Goldeneye tank chase sequence, another movie I will have to watch scenes of when I get home. One place in the movie I really wanted to go was the Statue graveyard, but I think it's just a set, because none of the guidebooks mention it. Looked really cool in the movie.

I catch a subway to Pl. Alexander Nevskovo, near the Nevsky monmastery, and am denied entrance to the monastery, since I'm wearing shorts. Fortunately, I can still visit the Tikhvin cemetery and the graves of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov, and most notably, Dostoevsky (I am reading Crime and Punishment, so I did want to pay my respects).

At the hostel, I need my sleep, I get an hour to nap, and then I change close, and set out at 6pm for the Mariinsky Ballet theater. I almost don't make it because my tram takes a while, but I get to the theater five minutes before the performance, and manage to score a ticket in a box (Not the absolutely highest either) Unfortunately, I go into the wrong box, and by the time the correct patrons have booted me, the show is already starting, so I watch the first 35 minute act from the box while standing up.

At the first intermission I get my seat sorted, and get an English program. The ballet is called The Legend of Love, and it tells of an Arab Kingdom ruled by a Queen. Her sister, the princess is sick, and the mystic who cures her takes a cruel price by taking the Queen's beauty, which she sacrifices willingly for her sister. When both women fall in love with the same peasant worker, he is smitten by the younger sister, and the two run away together, but are caught and the peasant worker is only allowed to have the princess if he can tunnel through a mountain and bring water to the thirsty, drought starved people. Ultimately he looks to be succeeding at making the hole, and the Queen decrees that he cannot marry her unless he abandons the people and stops digging the hole. He can't abandon the people who need him and the Princess understands his sacrifice, because the people are happy. The ballet was originally performed in 1961. So it's a nice, and insidiously socialist message. You have to sacrifice for the state because she sacrifices for you. At least that's what I got out of it. But the ballet itself was magnificent, the costumes were beautiful, the music and the choreography all were spectacular.

It let out at 10pm and I went to 1913 restaurant, because the Eyewitness guide said it was cheap and very good quality, but it's only cheap if you just get the appetizer they recommend (Potato Pancakes)! I got the appetizer, a main course (Lamb), and 2 half-litres of beer, which ended up costing me a 1,000 Rubles ($45 Canadian). The meal was delicious and the service was great, but to compound my cost, I lost track of time, the neighbourhood was a bit sketchy, and by the time I finish eating, public transit will be closed! So I had to pay for a taxi, but it was worth it, as the meal was great and St.Petersburg by taxi is an experience in itself!

My room was a little friendlier tonight, there were just 3 of us, myself, a Swede named Magnus, travelling the Trans-Siberian, and a brit travelling the world for a year! We chatted a bit then slept (Tonight I am wearing my insect repellent!). I am sorry to have missed Peterhof, but it's nice sometimes when those decisions are made for you. I'll see it next time I'm in St.Petersburg!

Saturday, July 15, 2006


If you are ever planning to travel to Russia, take a few minutes before you arrive to familiarize with the Cyrillic alphabet. I will say that being able to read in Cyrillic, an alphabet not too far removed from our own, helped me massively in getting around St.Petersburg, and by the time I left, I was handily able to decipher street signs, restaurant and store signs, subway station names, and so forth. Absolutely necessary and a minor investment of time.

My second day in St. Petersburg was to be my Hermitage day. With all the fears about the G-8 conference mucking things up for the tourists, I resolved to go there as fast as possible. First let me start with my hostel. Sleeping there is not luxurious, although net time and bottled water are cheaper there than anywhere else. The air circulation in the rooms are terrible, 5 people to a room (But no bunk beds so at least it feels spacious. Breakfast is served from 8-10am. Since I can't fall asleep after I wake up at 6 am (Usually in a pool of sweat), I roll around for a while until I summon the strength to rise from bed and take a shower (Since there is no hot water, three of the women's showers on the ground floor (I am on the 3rd) have a generator, so I have to make the long walk down, followed by the long walk back up, but the showers are refreshing after sleeping a night in the St. Petersburg hostel!

Breakfast follows - an impossible to peel hard boiled egg, a slice of dull cheese, decent tea, instant coffee (I avoided), a vile drink the Russians at the hostel generously call "Juice", stale baguette, and bowls of some Sugary O cereal that is really not worth the discussion. It makes me want to get out, which I do, heading down to Ploschad Vossitania, about 8 mins walk from my hostel to catch the #7 tram (I will later realize this could have been picked up 1 minute away from my hostel! The #7 follows Nevskiy Prospect, the major shopping street, all the way to the palace embankment, site of the Winter Palace, also known as the Hermitage. The palace square is enormous, and across from some imposing government buildings, all no more than 3 stories in height (There really are no skyscrapers in St.Petersburg, everything is horizontally big). I notice some NBC crews busily scooting around setting up chairs not far from the Obelisk in the center of the square.

I line up at 10am for the 10:30 starting time, when the museum opens, everyone runs through the main courtyard, and it's a feeding frenzy at the ticket booth. It's 20 mins. later before I get in. I start up the Jordan staircase and I'm instantly transported into a world of unparalleled royal opulence. Catherine's architects designed a building to reflect superb taste in art, coupled with a sense of worldly experience, whatever is not wholly original has some basis in other great architectural works. Take the Raphael Loggias, for example (Why do I keep thinking of Robert Loggias!). This is a series of 19 archways, beautifully painted onto canvas and laid over multi-leveled walls and archways. It is meant as a replica of the Loggias in the Vatican apartments and the effect is striking! The detail is intricate and varied, there is little exact repetition.

The architecture is stunning but the collection is equal to its space, and every period and artist seems to be represented! Picasso, Rodin, Gaugin, Monet, 2 DaVincis (Davinci only painted 14 paintings on canvas in his lifetime), Rembrandt, and more. Just when I think there's no Van Gogh, I turn a corner and there he is. No Dali, but it wouldn't fit in anyways. I spend 4 1/2 hours in the museum, finding some odd temporary exhibits (including Quebec artist Riopelle, The 10 commandments printed on a bound book made from Matzah?).

I wander, get lost a couple of times, make decisions as to what to see and what not to see (They say if you spend 10 seconds on each item in the Hermitage you'll be there for 17 years!). A few years ago I saw a film called RUSSIAN ARK, a movie all shot in one single take that moves through the Hermitage for 98 minutes, culminating in a spectacular dance sequence. I made a little effort at the end to find this ballroom, and the old Baboushkas that watch the rooms were confused at first with what I was asking, but eventually, one of them said Sakhurov, referring to the film's director! Apparently it was the room we were standing in, a big room, but it looked bigger in the movie! Now that I've been to the Hermitage I can't wait to watch the film again.

Eventually I am exhausted and I leave the Hermitage to get lunch. Out in Palace Square, my first celebrity sighting, Matt Lauer is doing a remote unit live from St.Petersburg in anticipation of the G8. I watch him tape a few minutes, snap some pictures. He asks if there's any Americans at one point, and I meekly shout out "I'm Canadian", which he either doesn't hear or care about. I don't feel like stalking an NBC morning show host, so I move on to Pushka Inn, which I've heard is inexpensive and has good traditional Russian food, and I order a plate of Pelmeny (Beef dumplings) and a glass of Mors (Cranberry Juice). The night before I had Kvas with dinner, Kvas is another traditional fermented (But Non-alcoholic) Barley drink. It wasn't the kind of thing I'd drink more than once. But the Mors was nice, and the Pelmeny was excellent, dripping with melted butter. I just walk around for a while after this. I find St. Petersburg to be a very hard city to figure out for Overground public transit, although the Subways are easy. I decide that a nice low impact activity is a canal tour, so I walk down Nevskiy Prospect (I have a hard time getting anywhere else!) to Anichkov Most(Bridge), and hop on a boat tour. The tour guide gives the commentary in Russian only (There are no English tour boats as far as I know), but the ride is nice, we go right out onto the Neva River, crossing over to the Peter and Paul Fortress on the other side, and passing the NEVA fountain in mid river and the imposing old buildings on Vasilevsky island. After the boat ride, I head to a different neighbourhood North of Nevskiy Prospect where I've heard of a good Vegetarian restaurant. It takes 30 minutes to walk there, but it is good, and dirt cheap, I get a big serving of Spinach Lasagna with several salads and a Pepsi Max for 188 rubles, which is about $8 Canadian!

Afterwards, I wander back to Nevskiy Prospect, and wander into a Kitschy Bar-Restaurant called Propaganda, which is designed like an old bomb shelter and has Soviet era posters on the walls. I figure this is a good place to order a caviar plate and a shot of Vodka. It ends up costing 3 times as much as dinner, but the experience is worthwhile, as the Vodka is very smooth and I get to sample 3 different caviars,Black, White and Red. All are delicious and the presentation, in Oyster shells, is nice. Unfortunately, the toast I am given to eat the caviar on is soggy from too much butter. Walking bak to the hostel along Nevskiy prospect, I stop at another Internet cafe to blog some more, not realizing how late it's getting (It's 11:30pm but still light out!)

I arrive back in my hostel just after 1 am. All the other beds in my room are occupied, and everyone looks like they're sitting up reading and waiting for me! (I know this is not the case) However, upon my return, everyone is ready for bed so I shut the lights to recharge for another day in St.Petersburg.

Friday, July 14, 2006

In Russia, the sights see you!

Had to open my first day in Russia with a Smirnoff-ism. I am actually typing this as I prepare to leave St.Petersburg. Waking up and getting to the train was easy. I even had time to grab copious amounts of bottled water and a bit of breakfast. That American guy is at the train station.

"Uh, have I got the right ticket?" He asks me. "It says we're routing through Vannikila but the signs suggest the train is going through a different city."

"I'm pretty sure we're ok", I say and have a look. Sure enough, the first city name on the board for this train is Pietra. I'm pretty sure I know what's going on. "Pietra's not a stop on the way. Pietra's how the Finns say St.Petersburg."


He's in another car and fast asleep, sparing me further such conversations. Our train leaves on time and is incredibly dull, passing by farms and forests that I could see in Canada. When we're approaching the border, officials are on checking my passport, and I embarass myself by trying to impress them with Russian. Problem is, they're the Finnish authorities! I relax and try to enjoy the ride, surrounded by a Spanish tour group. I tried to ask their guide a question at one point, but she basically shunned me. I guess if I'm not paying you, no need to treat me like a person?

Finally, the Russians come around and take away all our passports! I am a man without a passport for about 45 minutes before they finally bring them back stamped. No questions asked, I am now in Russia! And the views are really interesting. Run down farms, decaying Soviet collective factories, the countryside is strewn with them. We pass through a small city whose name escapes me, and eventually we start approaching St. Petersburg through Slumlike suburbs of blocky, dull apartment buildings. Weeds abound, and long streets stretch north to south as far as the eye can see. So far, nothing particularly impressive as we reach Ladoga station. I had a pow-wow about an hour earlier with some French backpackers so I would know where I was in relation to the city, and I have sketched out a basic route at this point for getting myself to my subway by hostel.

The route takes about 30 minutes from the train by Subway (On the way I marvel at the massive soviet era constructed stations) arriving at the hostel door, which is locked, and has a note on it in Russian! I am completely confused but I can see the note mentions an office on the street next to this one, so I head for it. It's some kind of bank or travel office and I walk out completely confused. A stranger finds me and tries to show me where the hostel is, which I explain that I know (He doesn't really speak any English). He walks me back to the hotel, and this time, someone's holding the door open for me! I have arrived in St. Petersburg, albeit somewhat sweaty! I even have about 1000 rubles, thanks to an exchange service on the train.

With my bag stowed in my room and containing nothing of value, I set off for the Nevsky Monastery (With the intention of stopping at a bank first to exchange 200 Euros in travelers' cheques). I find the bank, but I have to wait 45 minutes for service, and then they're not sure they can do it for me without my passport! (I am carrying a copy, the original is at the hostel!) But after a long time, I get my cash, quite a lot, about 6,000 rubles, and I return to the hostel first, since I know I'll have to pay them at some point in Cash. I give them theire money, and shift my plans by heading West down Nevsky Prospect, in the direction of the hermitage, since the Nevsky facility is now closed to the public, my plan is to visit the busy shopping street of Nevsky Prospect, followed by trips to two mammoth churches there, Church on Spilled Blood (Named as it was built on the site of the Assassination of Alexander II), and Our lady of Kazan. Spilled Blood is beautiful and multicolored from the outside, on the inside it's also beautiful, but Kazan is far more striking with its architectural exterior beauty, with a semicircle of columns hiding the fact that the building is actually a dull East-West layout, and spectacular acoustics (I arrive during a service, and feel guilty for treating the service as a tourist attraction where I am surrounded by baboushka wearing women, and booming Russian Orthodox priests sing with power and dignity. A choir chimes in beautifully from up on high and I stay for just long enough to get a taste. Then I am back out onto Nevsky Prospect, a street covered with neon to erase the bland image of communism with KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and so on and so forth. You would believe capitalism had always existed here. Cars, buses and trams speed by coughing up exhaust, a mix of new luxury cars and old Lada beaters (Some new Ladas, too.)

I stop in at a recommended buffet called Olki Palki, and order the full buffet, eating in a fake plastic Russian Forest. The food is ok, but heavy and I can't eat too much. I think I spend the rest of the night blogging. Tomorrow, I am going to the Hermitage. The city seems perfectly safe and it's unfortunate I have no one to experience it with.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

When you're bored with Helsinki...

Tallinn, Estonia's right across the water! This has always been my plan to do my second day here in Tallinn, and fortunately I have 2 friends to do it with. Lucy and I go downstairs to wait for Brenna. I have a perception that she is never less than prompt, and I am not disappointed today as she arrives at the hostel at the 9am time exactly.

The 3 of us walk over to the terminal. Lucy already has her ferry at 10 am booked, but unfortunately, it's sold out. Brenna and I have to wait for the 10:55! We tell Lucy that we may see her in Tallinn, but we know we probably won't. We share a coffee break and Lucy gets on the boat as Brenna and I find a park near the harbour to relax in while we wait for our boat. It's fun hanging out with fellow Canadians, we have common frames of reference. We chat for a while and then we head for the passport formalities. I go straight through, but Brenna's is a mosaic and the Finn guard admires it for about 3 minutes before telling her he doesn't have her entrance point. After a barrage of questions he lets her through. Once we are on the boat, Brenna zones out and I start into Kakuro. We arrive at Tallinn at 12:30,pass throgh another passport control (Yay! Another stamp on my passport! Brenna's stamp is so light the Tallinn part is barely visible, a shame, considering the collection she's building up. Once we're in the harbor we start the Rick Steves tour,walking through a gate to the old city (Cobblestones, old
buildings, souvenir stores, the usual.

Of course, we have no Estonian money, so I brave the bank machine to take out about $50 worth of Kroon, Brenna the same. The walk is nice, taking us past churches, lookout points, old town halls. We stop for a beer at a seemingly authentic brewery (Although it looks a bit too clean to be truly old). On top of the beer I order the garlic toast, which is said to be an Estonian specialty. It comes on black bread and it's quite delicious so we order another appetizer, the Estonian Fried cheese, which unfortunately is the same fried cheese you'd find anywhere in the world. That the cow was Estonian doesn't distinguish the cheese.

After our snack, we wander the tour some more, occasionally getting lost. Talllin also has a new area that is building up with skyscrapers to resemble a Western city. We see it from one of the lookout points. There are some nice sights, but we're pretty much done. Brenna, who was planning to stay 3 days and is now making a day trip of it, is counting her lucky stars, because it's clear to both of us that Tallinn is not a 3-day event. When we wrap our tour, we are walking down the Viro road towards the new city, and we decide to split up for an hour. It's a bit of a shopping time, I buy some Juniper trivets (These give off a sweet fragrance, which is even stronger when you put something hot on them). I also find a sticker that Says "Tallinn Estonia", and buy it for Brenna, she could only find Tallinn ones, and she decorates her journal book with a sticker from every country she visits. We have dinner at 5pm in a restaurant that I believe translates to "The Golden Piggy", and is heavy on the pork (It's even baked into the bread in small quantitiies) I have a Pork roast which is quite good, and Brenna's Salmon is also excellent, and we have lots of time to walk back to our 7:30pm ferry.

Returning to Helsinki, Brenna and I say our farewells. I had fun with her and hopefully we'll get to hang out again when she moves to Toronto this fall.

I'm now in prepare for Russia mode and my room, now a single, has all my clean laundry. Sorted and folded, I separate the things I'm not taking with me to Russia into the Dufflebag portion of my backpack, which hopefully I won't need as rain protection over there! As I'm leaving to put my dufflebag in storage at the Scandic where I'll be staying when I come back from Russia, I see Caitlyn and Rachel in the street, and they tell me that their hostel in St. Petersburg has been closed by the government during the G-8 summit which is starting tomorrow! I am obviously alarmed, and the three of us try calling my hostel, but I can't figure out how to make the call. We head back to the hostel, where we run into Kim and Alexandra, a couple of locals (Although Alexandra is from New York), and they offer us the use of their computer and their phones to contact Russia. A neighbour, Nisa, is using the computer, but she's done very quickly, and I start by checking my work e-mail, where I would receive a cancellation if one was forthcoming. Fortunately, there is no cancellation! I am still not sure, so we call the St.Petersburg hostel, and everything is ok. Unfortunately, they have no beds available for the girls, so we call around, and finally, we get a farily central room for Caitlyn and Rachel.

We are buoyed by the kindness (and eccentricity of strangers). On the way home, we talk about what must be going on in Russia (Is it chaos? Craziness?). The woman at the girls' hostel seemed genuinely distressed. When I get back, I grab my bag again, and this time I make it to my hotel, where I drop the bag into a locker. But when I get back to the hostel, there's some bad news. The Chechen Rebel leader has been killed by the Russians, and the security situation may not be stable there. Caitlyn and Rachel decide not to go. They don't feel safe and are going the Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania way instead. That American guy I met yesterday is going, but he seems a bit dull and not someone I see myself hanging around with. He has absolutely no idea about the Chechnyan situation. Lucy and I try to give him a bit of a primer on it. I say farewell to Lucy, hopefully we'll keep in touch. I get to sleep at around 1:30, too bad considering I have to wake up again at 6:15!!!!!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Quite a Long way from Cairo, Lots of miles from Vietnam

OK, if anyone gets that reference and why it is relevant, feel free to post it in my comments. So I wake up on my boat. And for the first time this trip, I am mildly hung over! Hooray! I can still feel gross after a night of drinking - it just has to be in combination with motion sickness produced by sleeping on a boat. The boat is huge, a 13 story city, I am on Deck 2 (Below the cars, fortunately they don't move while I'm sleeping, and the Pixar myth of sentient cars is just that, a myth). Deck 7 is a huge mall with a 6 story atrium, very cool actually, although I wouldn't be buying anything there.

This time I forgo the shipboard breakfast (Wasn't thrilled with it on DFDS), and focus my energies on getting packed, soon the boat is disgorging its passenger and car complement into the busy harbour in Helsinki. And once again, I am on foot with my backpack on my back. Once I am turned off the harbour road, I step into a relative ghost town...Helsinki is deserted, at least the part I'm in. I feel my way through the streets using my map, and unsure of myself, I ask the first sympathetic looking person for help, a young Asian woman, who responds that she works for Silja, the boat company I came over with, and she doesn't know the city well enough to help me!

It's ok, though, I am pretty confident I have it right, and 3 minutes later I'm at my hostel door. I immediately drop my backpack and take my daypack with me and set off to the city center.

I make my first stop at the Scandic Simonkentta, 5 minutes from my hostel, to tell the manager that I want to leave a bag with them for the day. No problem, Hotel staff seem very helpful. From there I head over to the train station where I pay for and collect my rail tickets to St. Petersburg. Good, everything is in place.

I head to nearby Cafe Strindberg and enjoy a Jam Pastry with a Latte and I people watch as I drink my coffee and eat my pastry. Little quiet moments like these make a vacation worthwhile. When I get up to continue my walking tour, who should pass me but the Asian girl I met over an hour ago! She is happy to hear I found what I was looking for and that's about it! Still, small town, I guess.

I am in search of Internet cafes (I am doing stuff other than blogging, in case you hadn't figured that out!) At noon, Stockmann's department store opens and I get 15 minutes of free Net time with my bottled water purchase! Nice. Stockmann's also has an excellent free men's room, unlike in Stockholm, where it's like Urinetown (Officer Lockstock sez Ya Gotta Pay to Pee!).

I move to Helsinki's excellent market square, where I am supposed to do a Rick Steves self guided walking tour, but I'm distracted by the wares on sale from a number of vendors here, as well as the awesome smelling food being dished up at the market. I shell out 8Euros at one stand for an excellent grilled smoked salmon with potatoes and salad. My belly full, I begin my walk which takes me through Senate Square and the Lutheran church which presides over the harbor atop some very steep stairs. inside the cathedral a confirmation is about to take place, but I sneak a peek inside anyways, the cathedral's interior is huge and the acoustics are a marvel. From there, most of my walk is a bit boring, taking me back into the downtown area, past places I've already been! I notice a few more details now though, and I find a branch of the library open, where I can do some more blogging. Eventually, the tour brings me to the Church in the rock, which was actually a church built into a massive rock. Again, great acoustics, nice looking church, lots of brass. I pass Finlandia Hall, which is supposed to be an architectural wonder. I will take the tour there when I return to Helsinki next week.

I take a bus up to the supposedly striking Sibelius monument. I have known about Sibelius for 16 years. Here's how. In 1988, John McTiernan directed DIE HARD, still probably my favorite movie. He used pieces of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Ode to Joy, as an homage to Kubrick, who used it in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, to underscore moments of violence. McTiernan passed on directing the sequel, and Renny Harlin, a Finn, took the helm. For his classical homage, he chose Finlandia, the seminal work of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It's the music that's playing at the film's climax as the planes land. Sibelius is a hero to his country and a monument of steel pipes with vinelike designs has been erected in a park in Stockholm to pay homage to him. The monument would have looked nicer lit up at night. I take a quick look, a few pictures, and return to the hostel.

At the hostel, I confirm I am in a dorm room, not in a private until tomorrow. I don't get to know most of the guys I am sharing a dorm with. I do chat briefly with one American guy who's trying to get to St. Petersburg but hasn't sorted out his Visa issues yet. Guy sold his car to travel for a year!

I rest and am about to go for dinner, but I meet some fun women from the UK and strike up a conversation with them, as 2 of them are headed for St. Petersburg on the same train as me, and the other one has just come from teaching English there for some months! We all decide to go watch the world cup together at a sports bar (By now, I have not heard from Brenna). I head to the sports bar with Lucy, who is from Cambridge, while the other 2 - Rachel and Caitlyn from Belfast, head off for a bit to eat. The line is long, but Lucy and I get the table no one else wants in the bar downstairs (The real party is upstairs, and we have ok, not great views of the TV.) Unfortunately, Caitlyn and Rachel see the line and don't join us, I don't blame them, the lines were pretty bad, and they ended up seeing it at the Molly Malone's (I've since seen identical Irish pubs in Tallinn and St. Petersburg!)

Lucy's a great companion to watch the game with. Not a very big football fan, she says, before going off into a rant about what's wrong with the game, England's game, the fans, etc. I have a hard time following some of her detail but both of us talk about the experiences of watching the games abroad, me across Scandinavia, her in Russia. Lucy's prediction of a high scoring game after the early French goal doesn't pan out as yet another game goes to penalty kicks! Still the action was pretty good for the most part, and Zidane's dramatic ejection kept things interesting.

After we went for Shawarma. Lucy's also going to Tallinn tomorrow, so we make plans to meet the next morning. I head for bed but she stays up to chat with some Aussies who are hanging out in the common room.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

How to misread your Karaoke audience

Waking up the next morning without any particular hangover was a surprise. Although I suppose I drank over quite a long period of time. As I pack my bag, I receive a shock when my sunglasses case contains...nothing! Gary has witnessed me losing my favorite Serengetis before, and he knows I don't react well. This time I find my calm happy center, and decide that I am going to pack my bag and then figure it out. I know I wasn't out with it with the guys last night, and I look at a photo I had another tourist take of me after I left Tivoli, and I'm holding what looks like my glasses in one hand!

Encouraged by this, I decide I must have set them down when I did a quick internet session the night before. Sure enough, when I check out, I ask, and there are my glasses!

A good start to the day, as I run into the brits from last night, and we set off for the train station to stow our gear. The day ends up being a lazy shopping day in Sergel Torg, a busy shopping plaza near the train station, which is fine with me, after a quick breakfast at Sushi Coffee (The Sushi Bar is downstairs, the coffee bar upstairs, I wonder how many potential customers are turned off by that combination?). I hang with Ian M., who's an accountant like me and has a similar sense of planned fun, and Ian B. and Andy go off to browse the record shops. I end up the tour guide a lot of the time, it's pretty clear that of the four of us I have the best sense of Stockholm's overall layout. They leave a bit earlier than I do for faraway Skavsta airport, and I hop my bus for the Silja boat that will bring me overnight to Helsinki. On boarding the ferry, I feel a trickle on the back of my leg, it's some other backpacker unknowingly spilling his drink on me. Enter Mitchell, the York Student from Nova Scotia backpacking through Europe. We chat a bit on the gangway, have our photo taken together (By accident), and he tells me about the ship (He's been on it before). We say we'll see each other later, but I never see him again. Exit Mitchell.

My room is good enough, below the car deck with no window, but I don't pretend to be royalty or anything. I pretty much spend my time doing the walking tour. I watch the boat pull out and head for the free-for-all 32 Euro Smorgasbord buffet offered by Silja, with Smoked Salmon, Roast Beef, Taco Salads, Breads, Cake, Ice Cream, caviar, Wine, Beer. It's a massive spread. I am seated at a table with An older guy who looks like the Finnish Gary Busey, and a couple in their late 30s with a 7 or 8 year old son. After a bit of awkwardness, we start chatting, The Busey guy is Hese (His real name I forget/can't pronounce) and the man and wife are Jari and Mina, the son (His not hers) is Samu. We get to talking about hockey (A mutual Canadian/Finn enthusiasm), especially because his name is like Jari Kurri, of course other Hockey playing Finns like Saaku Koivu, Mika Hakkinen and Teemu Selanne come into the conversation. Asking them questions about culture, like what Finns drink, they tell me about something called Kosku Korven (Or Kosken Korvu). I see it on the drink list, and when I identify it, Hese buys us all shots. Then we are up on the deck and they are still supplying me with drinks. While admiring the view, I notice a familiar red ship about 2 miles ahead on the water, it's the Viking ship bound for Helsinki, which I know Brenna is on, so I e-mail her to tell her that I'm in pursuit (Also to see if she has a date for World Cup Finals in Helsinki the next night). I meet up with the family later on in the Atlantis nightclub, where Samu is captivated by the Kids' show, which features musical numbers for MADAGASCAR, BOB THE BUILDER, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ICE AGE 2, HARRY POTTER, and probably a few I don't remember. Samu shows how observant he is by pointing out that the Harry Potter wands are being levitated with strings. Meanwhile, I find myself strangely attracted to Harry Potter, who is clearly not concealing a wand under the robes.

From there I head to the Karaoke club where Hese is preparing a Finnish number. The club is quite crowded and after combing through the book, I decide that I'm going to try HEY YA! by Outkast. The room answers with deathly silence during the song, and at the end there is some mild applause. I think at this point I should say: "Maybe you guys aren't ready for this yet...but your kids will love it". Yeah, that kind of awkward. Mina tells me it was "very different". That wasn't obvious enough...Having had another drink and being exhausted/tired/full (I think I ate my weight in Smorgasbord). I stagger up to my room and off to bed. I hope I wake up in time to see the Helsinki approach.