Baltic Trip Part 2 – Helsinki

Two years ago, the Allegro high-speed train started running between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, cutting the travelling time between the two cities down to under 4 hours.  Having bought my ticket already, boarding the train was remarkably easy – once I had located the correct entrance to the Finlandskii station, which was not the main entrance, nor even an obvious side entrance, and there being no signs on display which I could see.  I found it by wandering into every doorway and interpretting the grunts and gestures which greeted me.

The train was extremely comfortable, very modern, with individual power sockets, a smooth ride, and plenty of leg room.  The train also featured free wi-fi throughout, although – perhaps unsurprisingly – this only started working once we’d crossed the border into Finland.  Russian border guards examined passports very shortly after leaving the station, using hand-held scanners and a stamp kept in a little pouch on their belts.  A few routine questions and the clonk of a stamp later, and I was out of Russia without even leaving my seat.  It was all very efficient.

Disappointingly, there wasn’t much to see from the windows.  Russia countryside in winter consists of snow, trees with snow on them, frozen rivers and lakes and not much else.  And being this far north, it wasn’t too long before it was dark outside anyway.  We passed through a few towns which (as I was to learn later on) had been Finnish until the early 1940s, but there wasn’t much of interest.  When we got to the Finnish border, two officals entered the carriage, one of whom was a lady about 6′ tall and looked like Roxette.  They asked me a lot of questions: Where was I going? Why? Where was from? Had I been to Finland before? How long would I be staying? Did I have any alcohol with me?  Was I carrying medicines?  I wasn’t sure they believed any of my answers.  I probably looked all the world like somebody who brings cheaper Russian alcohol into the more expensive Finland (God knows, there’s a market for it) rather than a British tourist living in Nigeria implausibly on holiday in the Baltics in December.  It probably didn’t help that I was grinning like a Cheshire cat when I was answering.

They then proceeded to search my luggage very thoroughly.  Every zip and compartment was opened, including in my wash bag, camera case, everything.  He even rummaged about in my dirty laundry bag which I would have advised against had he not been armed.  When people have guns, its best to let them do as they please, even if this means them rummaging around in your dirty grundies.  They were both wisely wearing rubber gloves.  Finding nothing of interest in my bags, they gave me big grins and wished me on my way.  Thorough, polite, and highly professional, these Finnish border guards.

It was on this train that I first heard a noise like smashing crockery, which turned out to be the Finnish language.  Finnish is a member of the Uralic language family, loosely related to Hungarian, somewhat similar to Estonian, and otherwise completely and utterly different from any other language you would have heard of.  It was a very strange experience to be in a European country where you recognise absolutely none of the words being spoken or displayed.  Almost everywhere else I have been has either Slavic or Latin roots, so you get the gist of simple signage.  Not so in Finland.

I arrived in Helsinki’s main railway station in the early evening, but it had already been dark for hours.  And it was cold outside, with a strong wind blowing.  Strange, for the Baltic coast in winter.  I had booked a hotel nearby but my sense of direction – appalling at the best of times – deserted me completely and I walked around in circles for quite some time before I got my bearings (hooray for iPhones!) and covered the 500m or so to my hotel.  One of the first things I noticed was that the streets of Helsinki are covered with a coarse grit which makes walking across the snow and ice so much easier.  I didn’t see much of this in St. Petersburg.

Checking into my hotel – the Hotel Arthur – was easy enough, but I was very disappointed with the room.  I’d found it on Tripadvisor and picked it for its location, price, and high rating.  But on reflection, I think most people rated it highly because it represented very good value for money being reasonably priced and bang in the centre of town, and for anyone on a budget it would have been excellent.  But for me, I’d rather have paid more for a better room.  The twin beds were very narrow and pretty crap, the room was old and shabby, and the bathroom was turned into a wet room by virtue of the shower curtain being half the length it should be.  This was compensated for by provision of a squeegee which allowed you to clear up the two inches of water left on the floor after you’d had a shower (actually, it worked pretty well).  So I wasn’t too impressed, but I’ll concede that if you’re on a budget and location is important, then it undoubtedly represents good value.

The breakfast was included, and was good, offering a decent selection of anything you’d want.  The problem was that it was very busy (the hotel is a popular one), and you normally have to share a table if you’re by yourself and queue up for stuff.  The other guests were either Russians or people who I couldn’t identify, but I suspect were either Swedes or perhaps Finns.  One chap intrigued me.  He was in his late 60s, had a grey scraggly beard the type of which a biology professor would wear, and a tweed jacket with elbow patches which added to the academic look.  But he was wearing a pair of shiny leather trousers, all baggy around the arse, the type of which I never saw on a professor during my four years in Manchester University’s engineering school.  It was a most odd combination.  My best guess is that he was German.  If you see anybody wearing inappropriate or odd leather apparel, chances are he is German.  Although I didn’t see him drinking beer for breakfast, so perhaps he wasn’t?

The other problem I had with the hotel was the noise from the street.  The snow had been falling quite heavily when I arrived, and at 3am somebody was tearing about in the street below my window with a Bobcat clearing the stuff away, slamming the bucket down every few seconds, revving the engine, and emitting a loud beeping noise every time he went into reverse.  This went on for at least an hour.  Then a delivery lorry with a very noisy refrigerator parked itself outside the hotel for half an hour, all of which pissed me off considerably.

But that aside, I liked Helsinki. Like a smaller, smarter, but less impressive version of St. Petersburg, the streets were very well kept, as were the buildings, public areas, and everything else.  Nothing looked decrepit or in need of maintenance.  The streets felt safer than I have walked anywhere, I was quite happily wandering around at night (i.e. after 4pm) flashing my expensive camera about, even by the deserted docksides, without any feeling that somebody dodgy might be lurking around a corner, waiting to jump an unsuspecting tourist. Finland has a small, well-educated population, and I’d imagine street crime is probably amongst the lowest in the world in Helsinki.  Besides, who wants to be standing around in the snow all night waiting to mug somebody?  The city was very civilised (by any standards, not just in contrast with Lagos) and two or three times I walked past a coffee shop which was holding some kind of book reading.  And free wi-fi was the norm in most bars and cafes.

Walking around Helsinki taking photos is very pleasant.  I especially like the stone chaps guarding the main railway station: they look exactly like my Norwegian friend Martin!

Helsinki 10 Helsinki 09 Helsinki 08 Helsinki 04 Helsinki 01 Helsinki 02 Helsinki 18 Helsinki 16 Helsinki 15 Helsinki 14 Helsinki 13The main square was particularly impressive, with the cathedral sitting on a small hill at one side of it and a Christmas market set up on the other.Helsinki 05

Helsinki 07 Helsinki 06  Helsinki 11 Helsinki 12The strange blue light you see in the third picture above is a laser which shines from the city observatory in commemoration of the 200 years of Helsinki being the capital.  I first assumed it had been a permanent feature of the city, but it turned out it was only switched on the day I arrived.

Helsinki 03There was a bridge down by the waterfront where (presumably) young Finns “lock” their love together by fixing a padlock, engraved with their names, to the railings.

Helsinki 17I saw similar lock-filled railings in Holland, only I think they were merely places where people liked to chain their bikes up.  I’m not sure the Dutch could dream up anything quite as romantic as a Bridge of Love.  Too practical for that sort of nonsense, I think.  You’d have people asking “But what’s it for?” and confused looks all ’round.  Then they’d chain their bikes to it anyway.

One of the things which struck me was something I also thought about Korea and Japan: Helsinki is very homogenous.  Almost everybody is Finnish, and you see very few non-Finns about.  I suspect the unusual language is one reason why people don’t emigrate to Finland, and they seem to have avoided doing what the Swedes and Norwegians have done and invite in folk from half the world’s trouble spots in some misguided gesture of humanitarianism.  And it wasn’t just the people.  Again as I found in Japan, almost all the businesses, services, products were Finnish and aimed at Finns and therefore there was barely a single logo which I recognised.  It is very unusual to go to a European (or indeed any) capital city and not be bombarded with the logos of global corporations, but in Finland all the logos on shops, buildings, and advertising boards – and there were a lot of them – were Finnish and completely new to me.  And again as in Japan, finding an ATM was not straightforward.  For whatever reason, Helsinki doesn’t have a bank on every corner like most modern cities, and the ATM I eventually found had no Visa, Mastercard, or Maestro symbol on it, and I couldn’t readily figure out which bank it belonged to.  Fortunately, my Credit Suisse card – known for working in any ATM on the planet without some dickhead blocking the transaction – worked fine.  I did a spot of clothes shopping in the Stockmann shopping centre (this Finnish company has shopping centres all over the Baltic region) and found all the usual brands there, but also a lot of Finnish branded clothes as well.  However, all of this was offset by the fact that everybody spoke impeccable English, which is of enormous help to a visitor.

The Finns themselves gave the impression they are an odd bunch, and this is generally the concensus amongst their Scandinavian neighbours.  Sitting somewhere between Swedes and Russians, the Finns look and act as such.  They are a sombre folk, possessing none of the happy-go-lucky attitude of the Swedes, but retaining the ability to cooperate and organise stuff.  Their womenfolk are often very attractive, either blonde and Scandinavian looking, or tall, slim with pale skin, high cheekbones, and very dark hair.  The men vary, but a common look is short, stocky, with a viking beard.

One thing they share with the Russians was their drinking habits.  I had been told Finns like to drink, and that the national pastime is to sit indoors and drink heavily, and the stereotype has not been formed without reason.  There were bars everywhere, and from the time the offices close – regardless of the day of the week – the bars fill up with people of all ages who settle themselves at a table in groups of 5 or more, and proceed to drink lots.  Beer is a clear favourite, and I found at least one German-style beer house (which served Krombacher, the beer of the Gods, which I had consumed in industrial quantities during my trip to Germany in June).  Some of these bars were very large, but finding a seat could still be a challenge.  I had installed myself in one when an enormous group of Finns came in, both men and women varying in age from 25 to 65, several of whom were carrying cello cases on their backs.  Cellos are not the most practical item to bring to a packed bar, especially as the Finns haven’t done what the Russians excel at: providing a cloakroom for your bulky winter coats, bags, and any large string instruments you happen to be carting about with you.  In fact, few of the bars in the Baltic states provided cloakrooms to dump your jacket, which became a major gripe of mine.  It is pretty difficult to get a drink in a crowded bar or fit a group into a small space if everybody is either wearing a bulky down jacket or has it rolled up under his arm like a tramp with a bedroll.  Half the seating space gets taken up by jackets.  As I said, the Russians have this nailed down, you couldn’t open a bar there without providing a cloakroom.  All I saw in Finland and the other Baltic states were inadequate hat stands or a few pegs on the wall.

Anyway, the atmosphere in the bars was pretty friendly, although I had been told that Finnish men, when they get tanked up on vodka, like to fight.  But there wasn’t anybody drinking vodka where I was, these were after work beer drinking holes, and I expect the vodka consumption takes place at the weekend in different places, in clubs perhaps.  One other thing though.  The service was, in general, pretty crap.  The bars in Helsinki seem to be staffed mainly by students, and they took a bit of cajoling into noticing you, i.e. you had to not only stand like a lemon in front of them, but actually ask them to serve you.  If you walked into a place and just sat at a table, you’d be there all day without getting served.  Like an English pub, I suppose.

But whatever can be said about Finnish bars – and they were pretty good – the same can’t be said about the food.  The food in Helsinki was bloody awful.  I don’t know what Finnish food is, but the restaurants in Helsinki serve foreign food cooked incredibly badly.  They even managed to make a mess of the German dishes, which are a mess even when done properly.  Even a burger seemed beyond their abilities.  It really was terrible.  But I did have one decent meal in Helsinki.  I was walking past a very small Italian restaurant when I saw inside a swarthy chap who needed a shave and was waving his arms around in an agitated fashion.  He was definitely not Finnish.  I got a superb spaghetti carbonara in there at a very reasonable price, probably because no Finn was allowed anywhere near the kitchen.

On my last day I happened to walk past the Winter War museum, dedicated to the short but nasty war between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939-40 in which Finland dished out a seriously bloody nose to the Soviets, winning several engagements and inflicting heavy losses, but ultimately leading to an enforced treaty in which the USSR helped itself to 10% of Finnish territory.  Before I visited the museum, I was not aware that half of Lake Lagoda and the Karelia region belonged to Finland, but now remains firmly Russian.  The museum was worth visiting, and kept me occupied for at least two hours.

On my last evening in Helsinki, I crossed the street from my hotel and went into an Aussie bar for no other reason than it was close by.  When I got there a karaoke competition was in full swing, with the contestants being a mix of middle aged Finns, student types including what looked like two Thais, and some Americans.  The standard of singing varied from good to bloody awful.  I was sensible enough to keep my arse on my seat and my trap shut, getting up only to buy more beer from the Aussie bar staff.  But there were some good efforts.  Throughout the contest, there was a young New Yorker sat nearby me who, in a loud conversation with the person next to her, revealed that she was 20 years old, was very much “into music”, and made a big deal of it with no small amount of pretentiousness.  She was pretty, but already losing what would otherwise have been a good figure, I’m guessing by drinking too much beer and loafing about all day talking rubbish about music.  Judging by what she was rabbitting on about, she didn’t seem to be doing much with her life, which I suppose is fair enough if you’re 20.  She reminded me a lot of an American girl I very briefly dated who was also “into music” in a manner which consisted of listening to essentially mainstream stuff and speaking about it as though it was really edgy.  Just as I was getting up to leave, this girl took the stage and belted out Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and did an exceptionally good job of it.  Whatever else you could say about this girl, she could sing.  I didn’t stick around to find out, but my guess is she carried off first prize.

I liked Helsinki.  I saw only a tiny fraction of it, not even venturing out of the main streets of the city centre except for an afternoon’s walk down by the waterfront, and there is clearly a lot more to see.  But – and this will become a common theme in subsequent posts – it would be much better to do the next visit in summer.  Helsinki is definitely worth coming back to.

Baltic Trip Part 1 – St. Petersburg

I’m not sure if St. Petersburg can really be called part of the Baltic region, but this is where I started my trip anyway.  There were a couple of reasons for it: firstly, I had a duty to visit my mother-in-law; secondly, I wanted to catch up with some friends who I had not seen in several years, a period I considered to be too long.  So off I went, for what was my first trip to Russia since I went back to Sakhalin in October 2012.  I once again used Real Russia for my visa, and they were once again outstandingly efficient.

The trip didn’t get off to the best start when I arrived in Pulkovo airport to discover Air France hadn’t transferred my bag from the Paris-Lagos flight.  They’d had around 4 hours to do it, and my bag was marked priority (being a platinum member these days), but alas it wasn’t on the plane and nobody knew where it was.  More worryingly, the reference number on my baggage tag was incomplete and I had the sinking feeling the bag had never left Lagos.  If that was the case, I was pretty screwed because all my warm clothes were in that bag, including my hat, scarf, and down jacket.  And there was no way I was going to buy 2 weeks’ worth of clothes in St. Petersburg, it would double the cost of the whole trip.  Reassuringly, there were some others who had also not received their bags, giving me hope that there was a pile of them identified and sitting at Charles de Gaulle.  I spent the best part of an hour filling out forms and hoping it would be on tomorrow’s flight, before I went to meet my mother-in-law and stepped outside into a Russian winter evening wearing nothing more than a light jumper.

Later that evening I received a text message saying my bag had been found and it would be on the next day’s flight, and so I spent the first 24 hours lying about my wife’s childhood home, unable to go outside, and considerably grumpy.  At around 6pm we went to the airport and there it was, and once I’d filled out the inevitable forms and handed around bits of paper, I gratefully took charge of it. I lost no time in putting my jacket on.

I went straight from the airport to Vassilevsky Island, one of the main islands which make up St. Petersburg, and the home of my friends Aigul and Allard, who I visited in Kazan way back in 2005, and last saw on a brief trip to Moscow in December 2007.  Since then they have doubled in number, producing between them a little girl who eyed me with much suspicion before largely ignoring me, and a slightly larger boy who overcame his initial shyness to either use me as a climbing frame or whack me one every few minutes.  I’m quite used to this, most of my friends have children these days, and this tends to be the standard approach of most of them towards me: ignore, or full frontal attack.  They were both very sweet.

We didn’t do anything of great excitement in St. Petersburg – as the parents of small children will readily understand – but we did go out to the park to let the kids run around and tire themselves out, and that involved me having to stand about in the snow for the first time in almost two years.  I wasn’t really prepared for it, down jacket or no.  Three years living in the tropics has eradicated the cold resistance I developed in Sakhalin, and a general theme of this whole trip was that, most of the time, I was pretty bloody cold.  Nevertheless, I went along to the park on two occasions to watch the kids clamber about on playground equipment in minus something and two feet of snow.

Petersburg 01 Petersburg 02I guess options for entertaining small children in winter in St. Petersburg are limited, especially as it only got light at about 11am and was dark by 4pm.  The park was fairly busy with other parents and children at any rate.

It had been over 4 years since I was last in St. Petersburg, and the place had changed noticeably.  It is undeniable that Russia has prospered over the past decade (although still falling way short of its potential, IMO) and this was reflected in the streets of St. Petersburg.  The first thing I noticed on the way from the airport was the lack of Russian cars on the roads.  When I first came to Russia in 2004, they made up about 70-80% of all cars.  Now you have to wait for twenty or so to pass before you’d see one, everyone else is driving foreign machines.  And I can’t say I blame them.  And when I first came to St. Petersburg in October 2005, the main streets were pretty well done up but the side streets looked decrepit.  But not any more.  Nowadays, there are shops, bars, and other businesses all down the smaller streets as well, and almost all of them are well lit.  Sadly for certain visitors, but I suspect not for the residents, St. Petersburg – like Moscow – is becoming less unique (can you qualify “unique”?  Dearieme?) and more like any other European city with the same shops and bars you can find anywhere.  And although I miss the rougher St. Petersburg (and Moscow) of old, I don’t think this is a bad thing.

One thing hadn’t changed though: petty Russian bureaucracy.  Having been out of Russia for a while I made a schoolboy error on my return, and neglected to bring my passport when attempting to buy a train ticket.  The lady in the tiny kiosk, located in the corner of a ticket hall the size of an aircraft hangar near Kazan cathedral, told me it just wasn’t possible to buy a ticket without my passport.  And sure enough it wasn’t.  This reminder stood in stark contrast to what I would find elsewhere in the Baltic states, as subsequent posts will show.  So I had to make a second trip before I could by a ticket on the high-speed Allegro train to Helsinki, which came in at a reasonable 86 Euros or thereabouts.

Saturday night came and it was time to meet up with my friend Timur, who I first met in 2004 when he was working behind a bar in Abu Dhabi and, apparently, I wouldn’t leave him alone and insisted he tell me all about Russia.  I think I was a bit of a mental case back then, at least insofar as Russia was concerned.  I’d met him twice in St. Petersburg since, once in 2005 and again in 2008, and on each occasion we had got pretty drunk.  This time we headed first for an English pub called the Ring O’ Bells which had a reasonable atmosphere, fairly cheap beer, and a good three piece band which played all sorts of stuff.  We stayed here until pretty late, drinking first beer and then I think I switched to whisky, but it might have been vodka.  We then made our way to a nearby club (or at least, I think it was nearby) which was lively enough, and we stayed there drinking more and more until at some point we decided to go to the sister club, with the same name, on Vassilevsky Island.

We arrived by taxi, and the first thing the doorman said was that it was full, there was no room inside, but if we slipped him 1,000 roubles we could enter.  We were miles from anywhere and I was too drunk to stand about arguing, so I coughed up and we went inside…to find the place a quarter full.  And this is one of the worst things about Russia, which makes it more like Africa than Europe, and ultimately makes it a lot worse off than it should be: the propensity for its citizens to act like complete f*ckers and lie quicker than they can say hello, thinking themselves clever in the process.  I remember my first trip to Moscow when the taxi driver dropped me off he said with a smirk that he had no change for 1,000 roubles for an 850 rouble fare, knowing full well I didn’t speak any Russian.  So I had no choice but to waive the change, even though I knew damned well that no Russian taxi driver would be short of 150 rouble change.  Had that happened a few years later I’d have laughed in his face.

Now before all the Russian patriots leap in and say that scam artists operate in the UK, let me concede that they do, but not at the customer interface of service industries and nowhere near to the extent they do in Russia (although I’ll also concede that British doormen are violent thugs, and worse than their Russian counterparts).  Like Nigerians, way too many Russians think it clever and almost something to be admired if you can diddle somebody out of some cash by simply lying or being a complete scumbag.  And it’s one of the reasons why, as I allude to in this post, Russians as a whole are not afforded the respect they think they deserve and much of the world takes them as seriously as an African basket-case.  I really don’t give a stuff about the 1,000 roubles, and I suppose I shouldn’t be slipping doormen cash to let us in anyway (the alternative was to go home), but this sort of blatant dishonesty and general corruption makes Russia a much worse place.  By contrast, I saw none of this anywhere else on my trip.

In any case, we hung out at the club for an hour or two before it got somewhere between 4 and 5am and we both thought it would be a good idea to be getting home.  It was a nice night, and not at all ruined by my being fleeced on the door of the last club (it was the principle that annoyed me, and I only remembered the next day), and it was good to see Timur again.  I got home by walking some unknown distance down some straight roads and somehow stumbled across the gate leading to where I was staying.  I think I may have had a fight with a lamppost somewhere on the way, but I swear he started it.

And that was St. Petersburg.  Not the most exciting trip, but it was very good to see my friends and family again, and that was the main purpose of the visit.  The next day I would go to Finland, and start exploring.

New Look

I’ve been redecorating, the old theme was showing its age.  Hopefully this one will be more mobile friendly, too.

UPDATE

Due to inexplicable popular demand, my oil industry mugshot has been returned to the sidebar.  I was hoping to give this blog a kinder, more gentle image. Meh, who am I kidding?!

Travels

Posting will be light on here for the next few weeks: I’m off traveling, to St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.  Basically, see some friends and family in St. Petersburg and then do a tour of the Baltics.  Doing such a trip in December might not be the smartest idea, but the timing is convenient and I really need a change of scene.  Besides, I miss the snow, and there should be a nice Christmas spirit about.

When I get back I’ll continue with my Managing Contractors in the Oil and Gas Business series, and if the trip proves interesting enough, I might even write a travelogue.

UPDATE

I’m now back in Nigeria, after a very enjoyable trip.  There’s plenty to write about, so expect some posts soon.