ACROSS THE WORLD 2009 – Week 1

Monday 10 August.

Two years ago Denise and I went around the world in 30 days. This time it will be half way around the world and back in 40 days. The recent retirement must have slowed us down a little.
Following the bus trip to Sydney and after navigating our way through the duty free shops and the $60 T shirt bargains, we find ourselves on a Cathay Pacific Airbus A330 heading for Hong Kong. From my back row aisle seat I get a great view of the length of the plane while through the window I can see the tip of the wing which, by some miracle of unnatural phenomena, will lift us off the ground.

The backrest screens which have been incorporated into modern aircraft to distract men from ogling the hosties provide a selection of movies, TV and music but I am again lured by the tracking map which by the wonder of GNSS shows us launching out a little east of Dubbo. GNSS? GNSS is to GPS as photocopying is to Xeroxing. The American system of satellites is GPS, the Russian is GLONASS and the French system is GALILEO. But the American owned GPS mob is asking to use GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) as the generalized term. This might just struggle to catch on.
It might appear that the A330 has stolen its name from the Austin A30 but the only similarity I can find is in the lack of leg-room in the back seat. From Dubbo we head north across what’s left of the Darling River, over Connemara and Mt Isa and clip the north-east corner of Arnhem Land. Connemara appears on the map to be remarkably close to where a town called Longreach sits and I must check the atlas when I get home. I suspect Connemara must be one of those Queensland cattle stations the size of Ireland and I find myself humming a well known cradle song.

This is a night flight, arriving Hong Kong at dawn and presumably the plan is to sleep. When pressing the button to incline the backrest, all that happens is that the base of the seat slides forward, reducing the leg-room even further.

The leg-room problems are exacerbated by my most recent affliction. Following retirement I embarked on a walking fitness program, as walking fitness programs are good for you. As the fitness improved I continued to set new land speed records from Watson to the Dickson coffee strip until one day my left foot cried out. X-Rays revealed arthritis and where there was supposed to be cartilage or ligament or leather or something between the joints, there wasn’t. So during my attempts at sleep, my left foot has been kind enough to let me know it wasn’t happy.

Tuesday 11 August.

At about 3.30am the hosties wake us up (as if) for breakfast as the plane will be landing at 5.10am. They kindly supply lemon infested face tissues to spark us up ready for our fresh fruit etc. Actually the food has been great.

Hong Kong Airport which occupies an entire island of reclaimed ocean appears extremely utilitarian. You rarely get to see the exterior of airports to be able to pass judgment on the external architecture, something most of us are very good at. On discovering the second floor I change my critique from utilitarian to swish. We buy a coffee with Australian Dollars which is fine but the change from the $50 note is in Hong Kong dollars. In a fit of carriedawayness, we spend the remaining $40 with the sort of frivolity that frequently afflicts holidaymakers.

After the four hour stopover we board a Finnair A340 for Helsinki. The A340 as you would imagine is an upgrade of the A330. There has been an improvement in the leg-room as there was for the Austin A40 over the Austin A30. It is quite noticeable that while the flight to Hong Kong featured a large percentage of passengers with straight jet black hair, the flight to Helsinki suddenly has many passengers with straight fair hair.
The main reason for this trip is that Denise’s son Stephen is getting married to his Finnish girl-friend, Riikka, near Tampere, which is about 180km north of Helsinki. They met in Canberra while Riikka was in Australia working in pharmacies to build on her Finnish pharmacy qualifications. While in Australia Riikka also backpacked the east coast and down through the centre of Australia. Since then, they have spent a year or thereabouts in Edinburgh, Scotland, and after some time in Tampere, they backpacked South America from south to north for five months before returning to Tampere.
Cold sores are caused by spores which lie dormant in the bottom lip until they sense that the body is going to an important event such as a wedding, at which point they change from dormant to rampant causing anguish, pain and embarrassment to the victim. They usually persist for around seven days but if treated with a cream, will be gone within a week. Mine has just arrived, right on time.
When Denise and I were married, I gained, as they say, two stepsons. I’ve never come to terms with the word stepson. I guess it applies if the children of a second marriage are young and the new partner is in a parenting role but I’ve always felt that in Simon and Stephen, I gained two new friends. They were in their twenties at the time. Further into my retirement, when I cease to be at a stage of “never been so busy”, as retirees say, I’ll invent a word which means ‘newly acquired family friend pursuant to a second marriage during the latter stages of life’.
We will be spending about two weeks in Finland. Googling ‘Finland’ into the deepest depths of my brain, I can only come up with distance runner Paavo Nurmi, the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Formula One’s Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen, Heikki Kovalainen, a rash of rally driver world champions, and a string of Winter Olympics legends.
I imagine that Finnish kids learn to ski to the backyard toilet as soon as they are potty trained, just as Queensland kids can swim out through a six foot surf break as soon as they slip out of nappies into their togs.
By the way, what is it about the racing drivers?

I’m also reminded about a recent newspaper article which rated Finland’s education system as the best in Europe. According to the article, kids start school at seven, (years of age that is, dumbo), go to their closest school, and there are no private (church) schools. I understand that about 80% of the population claim to be Lutheran but church attendance is close to the lowest in Europe. They have a highly rated social service system.

Following a flight which takes us much further north than I expected, (still working out why) we are met at Helsinki Airport by Stephen who has come down from Tampere for the three days we will be in Helsinki.
Our Helsinki sojourn turns to mud when I clip a kerb with our hire car and wipe out the front wheel. The car has no spare tyre and the Hire Car people advise us that they can’t come out for ‘a few hours’. Just what you want to hear when you are in a new country, jet-lagged and the sun is about to set. Denise catches a taxi to the Hotel and Stephen and I are eventually rescued when the Hire Car mob arrive with a substitute car. I bet Mika Hakkinen’s car always had a spare in the boot.
We settle in to the Sokos Presidentii Hotel and Stephen heads off to his couch-surfing pad. People can register as Couch Surfing Hosts on the web in a world-wide system which provides cheap (free) bedding for travellers.

Wednesday 12 August.

I’m glad it wasn’t raining like this when we had the flat tyre yesterday. We spend the day communing with the city, strolling amongst the cobble stone streets and trams. We lunch at Market Square by the main harbour (Helsinki has a whole flotilla of harbours) in one of those typical market tents where tent designers are still, in the 21st century, having trouble stopping puddles forming on the roof which then cascade over the edge with each large wind gust onto the eaters, seated on the carefully placed chairs below. One such avalanche suddenly lands on my head and straight down my back. Denise, Stephen and the rest of the audience have the best laugh they’ve had in ages, followed by an even better laugh when the next one gets me as well. When a third one hits me, I sense a pattern emerging and decide to act quickly. An English bloke opposite me who hasn’t yet cracked even a smile, finally cracks a laugh when I get up, put my hooded coat on, and tell him I’m going out into the rain to dry off.

Trying to find shelter, we find ourselves in a tent selling berries. The Finnish grow a vast array of berries and the strawberries we buy are far and away the sweetest I have ever tasted. You hear people, especially travellers in their journals, make dramatic statements like this but just for a change this one is true. The girl behind the counter is surprised by our reaction when an avalanche of water spills off her tent. I think she thinks we’ve never seen this sort of thing before.

We finally find proper shelter with tea and coffee in a café in Unpronounceable Park. This long narrow park is green grass lush and blossom gorgeous and the day becomes a succession of coffee shop stops interspersed with rain squall sprints, and finishes with dinner at the cheapest Indian joint in the mall. It’s been a long café day of us catching up with Stephen’s world and he with ours.

Thursday 13 August.

We wake early to photograph the sunrise from our eighth floor room and contemplate the fact that even in summer at these latitudes the sun rises well to the north of east, carves a huge arc around the southern sky and sets to the north of west. Where I spent my primary school years at Emerald on the tropic of Capricorn, in mid-summer it rose due east, passed straight overhead and set due west. The equivalent latitude to here in the southern hemisphere would be a long way south of New Zealand. In mid-summer here the sun carves a huge arc around the horizon, never setting. Those of you who live in the tropics might have to think about this for a while and then have a lie down.

I take a morning walk past the National Museum, Finlandia Talo, (Concert Hall), Parliament House and street after street of five storey apartment blocks. I have to ask a bystander what the impressive parliament building actually is as there are no signs at all. Probably to trick the terrorists.

Fine weather has returned and the city has come to life. The statue of a mounted CGE Mannerheim, who led the government backed forces in the 1918 Civil War, is protecting The Museum of Contemporary Art from a clatter of marauding skate-boarders.

We escape the crowds at the harbour markets on a boat trip to Soumenlinna, an old fortress island. The harbour is impressive with several large cruise liners at the various piers and the outer limits are circled by a collection of islands. Once outside the inner harbour, it has a similar feel to Auckland Harbour. Soumenlinna is one of these islands and one of the 300 or so islands off the coast of Helsinki. Dinner tonight is at a Japanese restaurant with Stephen’s couch surfing host, Sami.

Friday 14 August.

Simon is coming in from New York today for the wedding. The day starts off at a hectic pace when we realise that we have to meet Simon at the airport this morning rather than this afternoon as we had thought. To cut a long story short, our mobile phone isn’t working, we arrive too late, Simon catches the train to the city, we get locked in the airport parking station when the boom gate rejects our ticket, the parking station sees through our ‘We’re from Barcelona’ excuse when he spots that ‘We’re from Australia’, and we hurtle back to the city. I meant to say ‘to cut a long story long’.

Simon has already met up with Stephen and settled in to a tour of The Museum of Contemporary Art. Mannerheim is looking down and shaking his head.

A little sight-seeing takes us to the magnificent Helsinki Cathedral sited above a magnificent park and monument. I photograph Denise across the road at the National Library and then fall for that old trap of photographing all the magnificence (through the Japanese tourists) without noting the name of the cathedral, or the park or the monument. Never mind, I’ll Google it one day. I’m prompted to say that in David Attenborough speak, “The annual migration path of the Japanese tourist is to all points of the compass on all days of the year”.

After lunch, we say goodbye to Helsinki and head north-west to Tampere where Stephen and Riikka live. The drive feels very similar to that from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast with four lane highway and extensive pine forests. The main difference is the Silver Birch forests.

Simon stays with Stephen and Riikka and we check in to the Sokos Hotel Villa. I can’t match Simon’s bravery at the Finnish restaurant when I go with the salmon while he orders the reindeer.

Saturday 15 August.

Today is the main event of our trip. Stephen and Riikka were married last week, privately before a magistrate but today is the reception.
In keeping with our new tradition however we start the day with a disaster. Last night we parked the car in what we thought was hotel private property. Arriving at our car at 8am next morning we find that a parking attendant has been thoughtful enough to give us a parking ticket at 7.39am

The reception is at an idyllic rural setting about 40k south of Tampere. Ilola is a small, rambling, traditional looking Finnish farm complex with many timber buildings and complete with sheep, chickens and various other farm animals and has been converted into a reception complex.

Proceedings commence about 3pm with a greeting by Stephen and Riikka outside on the lawns and the guests head inside for a buffet style meal.
Riikka’s father Jukka speaks very little English and we speak no Finnish. Through translations by Riikka and her older brother Ilka, however, we are able to communicate and there is a warmth that comes through in spite of the language barrier. During the festivities Jukka gets out his guitar and plays and sings several pieces – “Happy Birthday” as something everyone knows in English, a couple of traditional folk tunes, and a piece which he used to play to Riikka as a child. Riikka and Stephen then dance a bridal waltz to Jukka’s guitar accompaniment. It is a very poignant moment. It is somehow hard to imagine the same poignancy at a millionaire’s wedding with a 50 piece orchestra.

Denise makes a wonderful speech welcoming Riikka into the family. She has written the speech onto a wedding card and hands it to Stephen and Riikka when finished for a keepsake. We are surprised when Riikka then reads the speech in Finnish. It must be a wonderful skill to be able to translate from one language to another like that. Jukka makes a similar speech in Finnish which Riikka also translates.
Following the dinner there is much mingling and photographing in the grounds.
At about 6pm Denise and I decide to go back to the hotel in Tampere. Most of the guests are staying overnight at Ilola, Jukka and family having driven from Kiuruvesi well to the north east of here. It’s obviously been an emotional day for Denise.

Sunday 16 August.

We drive back to Ilola for breakfast. Apparently festivities went long into the night. While the wedding had been “dry” the evening party had involved a little Vodka and the traditional sauna.
Sauna (rhymes with Downer) is a long lasting tradition in Finland. Most homes seem to have one as do the hotels. Our hotel room has white towelling dressing gowns and sandals provided.
I still find it hard to fathom why the heat of the sauna is so appealing when I have been to Rockhampton.

Simon who has flown in from New York has taken part in all these overnight celebrations which combined with jet lag must have been a challenge.
We then drop Simon at the highway bus stop. He flies back to New York today following a whirlwind two days.

We drive Stephen and Riikka and the wedding presents back to Tampere and find ourselves locked out of our Hotel room. The electronic key has chucked a tantrum but all is eventually sorted.
It’s time for some chill out television. The world athletics championships is on in Berlin and the final of the mens 100 metres is about to go. The sprinters are the cock-roosters of the athletics farmyard, prancing, preening, strutting, overflowing with energy, flicking from side to side behind the starting blocks. Usain Bolt is the head rooster. He hasn’t won yet but already you know.
He’s not only the fastest cock rooster but the biggest and he towers and powers to the finish line in a new world record of 9.58 seconds.

His celebration then goes forever around the track and features his signature lightening impression, crouching menacingly with one incredibly long arm pointed at 45 degrees up to the sky, and the other crooked in front of his chest to complete the lightning bolt. Not being very good at being a glitzy person, my heroes are usually the distance runners but just at this moment he is my absolute hero and I dream impossible dreams.
If I found out in five years time that he was on drugs I´ll forego red wine for a week.

By the way the Finns have a quaint way of handling parking. All cars carry in the glove box a plastic rotatable clock face. If you park in a two hour parking zone you set the clock face to the current time and place it on the dash board. If a parking attendant comes by, say 2 hrs 5 minutes later, he books you. Apparently as the Finns are law abiding people, the system works. I can’t imagine an Aussie abusing the system, can you?
I’ve just had a call from Lawrie Ellis (the balloon pilot) from the UK and he has got tickets for the one-dayer against the Aussies (no Lawrie it’s against the Poms) on 15 September. I can go.