Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Wednesday 3–Friday 5 September 2014

You could say we weren’t quite ready for the Vodkatrain to finish when we got to St Petersburg, so we decided to extend it to Finland. We got up early on Wednesday morning to get to our train bound for Helsinki, which we managed to find despite the complicated and contradictory instructions of various Russian train station employees. The efficient, tidy, noiseless comfort of the Allegro train was a pleasant surprise after the rattly old hunks we’d been on for the last three weeks, so I pretty much slept the whole time. No scenery for me!

Waiting for us at the other end in true Vodkatrain honcho style was our friend Heli, who’d graduated from being one of our fellow trans-Siberian travellers to tourguide who very kindly showed us around her home city and put us up in her guest bedroom.

Our train at Helsinki Station.

Obviously I’d had a ball in Russia and enjoyed every moment of it, so I was not prepared for the buoyant sense of relief that overtook me the moment I set foot inside the Finnish train station. Suddenly everything was clean and safe and easy! Everyone spoke perfect English! Everything made sense! We were back on the sensible numbers of the euro, as opposed to the hundreds and thousands of the rouble, tugrik and yuan. We’d survived Russia! We’d survived the Vodkatrain!

We took a bus to Heli’s apartment to drop off all our stuff, then set off for an introductory walking tour around the city. We had a brief pitstop at Heli’s old work – a children’s hospital – so she could pick up some things, then walked through a ridiculously verdant park featuring a cool monument to Sibelius, the Finnish composer, where we stopped for tea and some Finnish delicacies at a quirky little café called Regatta.

All the apartments in Heli’s building had their occupants’ surnames on them!

From there we continued on through the park to see a Finnish ‘beach’, which didn't quite meet our exacting Australian standards, and then into town. From what we saw Helsinki seemed like a very liveable place – clean; friendly people; quiet streets; nice atmosphere; walkable, if a little on the expensive side. It happened to be the first week of uni while we were in the city, so everywhere we went there were bands of students roving around, all wearing different variations of the same badge and patch-encrusted pants, different colours issued by different faculties. It struck me as something Australian eighteen-year-olds would be ‘too cool’ to ever embrace, but the Finns seemed to revel in the fun. Heli even told us if you saw someone who’d swapped the bottom of their pants with someone else it meant they’d hooked up, but we didn’t see any of that.

Heli led us to a cool church hewn straight out of a rock, then to a supermarket so we could pick up ingredients for our picnic on the fortress island of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site built by the Swedes to protect themselves from the Russians in 1748.

Some interesting-looking pond scum.

A flattering photo of Helsinki beach.

The rock statue.

An amusing statue by the docks.

Heli, Tilly and I on the ferry.

The path of the ferry was littered with these little islands with one or two shacks on them (see the short video at the end of the post for some footage).

The island.

Basically just look like we were stalking this old lady, now.

We hadn’t been on the island long before we crossed paths with Daniel, Zac and Nathan, the three Aussies living in London who’d done the Vodkatrain trip with us. We knew they’d be in Helsinki at the same time as us, but it was still a pretty big coincidence to run into each other like that. Heli gave them some quick tips, we arranged to meet for drinks that night while she was at soccer, and we parted ways.

Vodkatrain reunion selfie!

Beautiful Suomenlinna.

Walking around the old battlements and cannons. The hills look like hobbit houses.

Heli led us down through the tunnels to the spot where we ate our delicious feast of chips, dip, crusty bread, avocado, juice and chocolate.

After lunch we wandered back to the ferry and headed back to Heli’s place. She left for work and we lazed around for a while watching a crappy television show on MTV (Heli professes to be an avid fan of Australian MasterChef, which apparently airs there two years behind us), then left to catch the bus and tram into the cool area of town to have some dinner and meet the boys for drinks.

We’d seen a veggie place on an outdated tourist map we picked up from Heli, but when we got there it was closed down. Luckily another one (Just Vege) had since opened up across the road, and we finally got the veggie burgers we’d been craving for the last few weeks (at a steep price, though!)

After that we had a few beers with Nathan, Daniel and Zac in a gruff-looking but cheap bar Heli had recommended, then moved on elsewhere to a place filled with taxidermy animals, gossiping and reminiscing about Vodkatrain times. While we were in the second bar, a group of four off-their-faces Finns swaggered in sloshing gigantic drinks around, and proceeded to snort lines of cocaine off the table before they were swiftly booted out of the place.

Poor guy.

We left at around midnight and got home safely, but we heard later that the same couldn’t be said for Nathan, who somehow sprained his ankle on the way back to their place.

The next day Heli was at work again and we were keen to take it easy and do some organisation stuff on the internet somewhere, so we went into town to another veggie place called Zucchini, where they do a great big hearty, healthy meal every day and you just take a plate of whatever it is. It was really busy, so we were lucky to get a table, but we could almost feel the nourishment of all the vegetables and vitamin-rich grains soaking into our bodies after so long eating crap every day. After that we wandered around a bit more, saw the church and the markets, found a few souvenirs, and then occupied a corner of a Starbucks for a few hours, planning, answering emails, uploading photos and writing blogs. It was here where Til and I got the great news that the book of essays we had both contributed to as part of the Transnational Story Hub project we’ve been working on for the last four years (since the first time we came to Europe! I even wrote about it last time) had won the Australian National University Centre for European Studies publishing prize, and would be going on for peer review and publishing as an ebook!

Fresh fruits at the markets.

Once Heli finished work we got in touch and met up in the centre of town to find somewhere for dinner. She led us to a nice, cheap bar with a bunch of great veggie options and sat with us for a while before heading off to a Couchsurfers meeting at an Aussie bar, inviting us to join her once we were done. We sampled some local favourite drinks ('long drink' or lonkero), then tried to meet up with her, but we went to the wrong Aussie bar (who would've thought a city with a population of 600,000 would need two!?) and we had to get up early for our plane the next morning anyway, so we just ended up going back to Heli’s place.

Til modelling a pair of Hipster glasses we found in a park built on a cemetery from the plague. Speaking of it, she looks like Alice from MasterChef 2012.

The wrong bar.

Who would pay for imported VB, anyway? Except maybe the odd nostalgic expat, I guess.

We had a farewell chat wth Heli when she got back, then turned in for an early night.

At the airport the next morning we accidentally attempted to smuggle a big pair of scissors and our Swiss army knife through security. I would’ve expected some harsh questions at least, given that we each had a different weapon concealed in our carry-on luggage, but all we received was a very Finnish polite apology.

Our plan had always been to do an annular tour around Europe, so it would’ve made a lot of sense geographically to continue on from St Petersburg anti-clockwise through Finland into Scandinavia, but not so much meteorologically. We wanted to flee south to squeeze as much summer out of Europe as possible, and return north later for a spectacularly cold winter and northern lights, but we couldn’t get any non-dodgy flights out of St Petersburg, so Helsinki became the point at which we awkwardly changed direction to start going clockwise, from Dubrovnik north. But we’re glad it was, because one of the two non-Australian nationalities represented in our Vodkatrain group happened to be Finnish, and it meant we got to spend a great two days with our new friend for free!

Check out the few snippets of footage I took during our short stay in Helsinki below:

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