Monday, May 28, 2007

The boat and first day of Finland

We got on a cruise ship Thursday night from Stockholm to Helsinki. I can't begin to estimate how many people were on the boat, but the boat was 11 stories. My parents were generous enough to get a first class cabin in my honor, which meant that we had a window and our own bathroom, though the room itself was as small as you would expect on a cruise ship (with fold-down bunk beds and the works).

Shortly after boarding, we ate a nice buffet dinner (a perennial highlight for many travelers) with as much Finnish beer and wine as you can drink. We had a table near the front window of the boat and had a nice view of the thousands of islands in the Sweedish archipellago. Sweedes generally own a summer home on one of the many islands, and enjoy a simpler life (with lots of fish) in the warmer months. I was astounded at how many islands there were, and there were houses on each of them til the very end (which we did not reach til it was dark--at around 10pm).

After dinner, we sat on the top level of the boat and took in the scenery until it got very cold and windy and we got kicked inside. We were nearly alone on the top deck, as the cruise (as we later learned) is often used by the Sweedes and Finns as an excuse to buy alcohol from the tax-free shop and get drunk. We reset our clocks to Helsinki time (an hour ahead), grabbed a drink at the bar, and went to bed around midnight by our new time (still jetlagged) as the boat was pulling away from its only stop--an island, whose name escapes me at the moment, which is technically Finnish territory, but is rather independent and has many of its own laws.

I slept very soundly to the purr and rumble of the motors (though I had never had the sensation of a shaking bed previously), and my parents suffered yet another nearly sleepless night. We awoke to a delicious breakfast buffet before pulling into Helsinki around 8am. Saapi, our host along with his wife Eija, picked us up and drove us to Muurame (the 9,000 person town of which his is mayor, among many other responsibilities--though he and Eija have spent much of their lives as doctors).

Finland, like Sweeden, is built largely on rock. However, unlike the part of Sweeden I saw, Finland has 40,000 lakes and millions of birch and evergreen trees (an integral part of their biggest industry: paper). The whole country has 5 million people (about the same as Wisconsin) and Helsinki (the biggest city) is smaller than Stockholm. The country is officially bilengual (Finnish and Sweedish--not nearly as similar as you might think; Sweedish is far more western) and everyone learns a third language (usually English, sometimes German or Spanish) and spends a semester abroad--quite impressive, no? The countryside is very beautiful, but it makes for a rather monotonous 3 hr drive from Helsinki to Muurame (and while Saapi is incredibly nice and smart and tried his best to make it better, English is his 5th language which makes normal conversation understandably difficult sometimes).

We got a quick tour of the Kujala's recently renovated house (in Finnish style, they pack an incredible amount of space into a house that would be small by American standards--the key is being very organized and having great designs of storage spaces), then were shuttled to our hotel in the nearby city of Jyväskylä (pronounced: yu-vas-kay-la)--population 90,000. The rooms were again small by American standards, but very very nice and comfortable (hardwood everywhere and an Indian theme in the decor).

As we walked around town to find some lunch, I was a bit surprised by the differences between Finland and Sweeden, especially the people, having come with the assumption that they were rather similar. In style, instead of the chic European fashions of Stockholm, most teens were dressed in goth-punk black outfits. In manor, Finns are far more reserved and seemed to keep to themselves when possible. Once you begin a coversation with Finns, however, they are infinitely nice and speak very good English (though they hate to admit it--they are born perfectionists).

We exchanged some dollars for euros (yay! i have a € key!), grabbed a mozarella sandwich at a cafe, and did some more wandering around the city before heading back to the hotel. I grabbed a nap (which my parents had trouble waking me up from--I apparently didn't respond to door knocks or phone calls) and we again got picked up by Saapi and taken back to his house for dinner and a pre-wedding meeting.

Now for the fun part: names. Eija and Saapi have six children; from oldest to youngest they are (and I will undoubtedly butcher the spellings): Uuso, Nana, Sanra, Wilma, Mina, and Rasmus (oldest and youngest are male, middle are all female). Uuso, Nana, and Sanra are all married and with children (Nana has her 3rd on the way), Wilma's boyfriend's family owns a bookstore in another part of Finland, Rasmus and his girlfriend live in Jyväskylä, and Mina's wedding to Tuukaa (an extreme skiier) is a main reason behind our trip.

Right, so...we went to the Kujala's for a dinner of Finnish pizza (similar look to ours, but different toppings...very delicious) and some chatting. Unlike American weddings, the night before Finnish weddings is inconsequential. In fact, this meeting was very unusual, even though it was a very informal runthrough of the timing and responsibilities of the next day (Eija was kind enough to translate the occasional word to keep us on topic: church, rice, dancing, sausages).

After the meeting, Wilma and her boyfriend drove us back to our hotel and related information about how Finnish tv was largely American TV, but 2 years late with subtitles (throughout my time, many have quoted episodes of Friends, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons). We also discussed how Finland can produce 60 NHLers (plus many world class javeliners, skiiers, and rally racers), while similarly sized Wisconsin has 2 or 3. Pretty incredible stuff.

We had our complimentary welcome drink, a Finnish beer of sorts, in the hotel lounge and watched the sun get close to setting around 11pm (it gets dark between 1am and 2am...then gets light again). Then to bed for the wedding the next day...

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