ACROSS THE WORLD 2009 – Week 2

Monday 17 August.

Reflecting back on the trip so far, we have had a few unfortunate turns. The busted wheel saga with no spare tyre was followed by the mix-up in times for meeting Simon’s aircraft, the phone not working, getting locked in the airport carpark, the hotel carpark being €29 per day and not included in the price, and getting a parking ticket at the hotel in Tampere. We decide to shrug off these experiences and enjoy the holiday. After all, George Bush has managed to shrug off accidentally invading Iraq and enjoy his holiday.

One of the notable features of Finland is the number of blondes, not of the bombshell variety, but of the fresh-faced, clear and perfect skinned variety. Many girls in their twenties and thirties still have the perfect skin they were born with and the sight of them would dissolve the knee caps of most young Aussie red blooded males who only have eyes for bronzed surfie chicks.

The City Centre (Keskusta in Finnish) is much much bigger and much much busier than the city centre in Canberra yet Tampere has only two-thirds the population of Canberra. Residential density is much greater in the inner areas with the five and six storey apartment blocks and Tampere doesn’t feature the satellite town configuration of Canberra.

Push bikes are everywhere though I understand that it’s different in winter which is cold enough to freeze the local lakes with ice thick enough to drive on. Five to ten percent of Tampere’s power is hydroelectric, produced in the rapids which connect the higher northern lake to the lower southern lake. I don’t know what happens when the lakes freeze over.

Canberra’s traffic planners would be so jealous of the number of push bikes on Tampere’s streets. Finns are happy to ride old bikes, and dressed in their work-clothes rather than lycra. Their bikes have mud-guards. In Australia it seems that everyone has to have the latest model and it’s more fashionable to have lycra and a mud stripe up your back.

We’re trying not to think about our holiday costs. Meals and drinks seem to be roughly double the costs back home.

I’ve just found out that the cathedral mentioned in Helsinki earlier, is the Helsinki Cathedral and the monument in the square below is to ‘Tsar Alexander II’.

Tuesday 18 August.

Today sees a drive to Hameenkyro (with various dots over some of the vowels for Finnish spelling) to the north-west through picture postcard countryside. The contrasts with Australia are enormous with lush green paddocks, often unfenced, with crops coming almost up to the bitumen edge. Pine and birch plantations interspersed through the cultivation mean that you rarely seem to have views to the horizon. The traditional farm houses are a type of weatherboard, painted in colours we don’t often see at home, the most common being a pink tinged cream, tending towards darker rather than lighter, and sometimes a type of burnt orange. They are hard colours to describe but would make it easy to find your house in the snow.

Occasionally there are signs warning of ‘Moose on Road’ and in some areas, heavy duty fences keep the moose (what is the plural) away from the traffic. Up in Lapland, the region across the north of Finland, reindeer are a traffic problem and there are stories of them deciding to lie down in the middle of the road for a rest.

I’m feeling a lot better now about driving on the right (wrong) side of the road. I have only 48 years of habit to overcome and we use our little mantras of ‘left over’ i.e. when turning left, go over to the far side of the road and ‘right cuddle kerb’ meaning exactly that, cuddle the kerb when turning right. That problem is exacerbated by the problem of grabbing for the gear lever on the wrong side of the steering wheel and every time I hit the blinkers, the wipers come on!

It’s apparently okay here for people to walk on to private land to pick berries. Our breakfasts, and the market squares, feature many varieties including lingonberries which I hadn’t heard of before and what’s more, this computers word processing package apparently hasn’t either as it just underlined it.

Television tonight finds us watching the World Athletics again for the final of the Womens’100 metres sprint. The smallest girl in the field, a Jamaican with braces on her teeth who has obviously nicked a day off school to be here, streets the startled field of grown-ups. She can’t hide the most fabulous grin which would warm the heart of any kindly old grand-pa, not to mention me. Usain Bolt would be able to put her in his pocket.

It seems that the Jamaicans can whip the world in the 100 metres but to them the 400 metres is a distance event. Jamaica is obviously such a small place that no one has to run more than 100 metres to the shop.

Wednesday 19 August.

Today should be a quiet day, restricted to walking around the city area of Tampere.

The Finlayson Centre is an old cotton mill now converted to specialist shops, cafés and office spaces, typically software companies. Tampere has been referred to as the ‘Manchester of Finland’ and the main industries were textiles and steel. Finlayson was a Scot who seems to have been the main industrialist in the area. These industries are now gone but the city seems to be thriving.

Finns are proud of the fact that Nokia is one of the world’s leading companies and its origins are in the small village of Nokia just outside of Tampere. One of the famous brands here is Marimekko, noted for its quality, which designs a huge range of products and we get out of it lightly by buying a Marimekko toilet bag which is on special.

Beware of going in and out of shops and houses as doors in Finland open outwards.

The city is over 200 years old and features a large range of fabulous old architecture along with some of the bland new functional architecture that plagues the modern world.

The main street is Hameenkata while nearby streets are Satakunnankatu and Itsenaisyydenkatu. The word ‘street’ is separated from the name in English but in Finnish, ‘katu’ runs on from the end of the street name. The vowels ‘yy’ are pronounced ‘oo’. There is obviously no shortage of vowels in the language but who are we to talk when we describe a one syllable word as ‘monosyllabic’.

I am suddenly accosted on the beautiful cobblestoned footpath by a couple of women with red roses asking for money. Apparently when Romania came into the European Union, it freed up the opportunities for their gypsies to travel out of Romania. Quite a few have ended up here. Being a soft touch, I drag out my change and while flicking through it to collect some coins, she very cleverly reaches over and takes the lot out of my hand and somehow she still manages to keep the rose. I wish I had those business skills.

There are few immigrants in Finland. Maybe most emigrants from other countries and most refugees seek the more seemingly affluent (and warmer) countries.

Thursday 20 August.

Today we drive to Pori, a small town just short of the west coast which meets the Gulf of Bothnia. This is the site of a very famous Jazz Festival where the likes of Stevie Wonder have appeared. The markets are in full swing, another example of the Market Squares which are such a feature of Finnish towns.

The Swedish population is greater here on the west coast. Finland has been ruled at times by both Sweden and Russia and depending what part of Finland you are in, street names are displayed in combinations of Finnish, Swedish and English. Television watching tonight reminds me that Finnish female newsreaders are often middle age women who, unlike their much younger Australian counterparts, realise that the integrity of the news isn’t dependent on glamour pusses and cleavages.

If, in my retirement, I were to write a paper on “The Role of the Cleavage in Mens’ Wellness”, (which, I might add, I never would, as I would never even think it let alone write it), I would start writing it here. A casual stroll down the main street would reveal (if you were looking for it) that there are fewer low-cut tops here than back home.

It’s foolish to generalise (but I am a fool anyway) about national traits. Finns have a reputation for being conservative, no-nonsense, down to earth people, not given to flamboyance. They are more likely to be law abiding. Helsinki and Tampere are very clean cities. Like Australia however, there is still a great display of young people wearing the sort of ‘out there’ clothes and haircuts that drive parents nuts.

The number of people (and young people) smoking, reminds me of many years ago in Australia before the anti-smoking advertisements started to bite. I understand also that alcohol consumption, especially of spirits, is of some concern.

Tonight at the Athletics, Usain Bolt breaks the 200 metres world record in another stunning performance. Unfortunately, judging by his ‘me, me, me’ performance for the cameras before and after the race, he seems to have evolved from the cock-rooster into the show-pony. I think he may have done his dash with me and he is fast on his way to becoming the goose. Sounds like a good enough excuse for me to not have to give up wine.

Friday 21 August.

Today my mum would have been 95.

A teenage girl has just walked past our breakfast window wearing all black, various silver chains, adornments to punctured ears and noses and three inch shiny black platform shoes. “Glory be, child”, my dear old Mum would have said.

We meet Stephen and Riikka at the Market Square and then go to the Vprikki Museum where the top floor is dedicated to Ice-Hockey and contrastingly, displays of traditional children’s toys while the lower two levels are devoted, among other things, to a US exchange display of ‘Sitting Bull’.

Vprikki (factory) is in fact a renovated factory which stands across the rapids which used to provide some of its power. Ice Hockey is one of the major sports here and I think I know now who we’ll be going for in the next Winter Olympics in January 2010.

Tonight the World Athletics Championships in Berlin has delays due to rain and at about midnight, Aussie Dani Samuels wins gold in the women’s discus. My untrained eye managed to pick up that the top three throwers had mastered the art of having the discus fly like a Frisbee for its entire flight while the others saw the discus landing more vertically than horizontally. Anything else you need to know about discus throwing, please feel free to ask.

Saturday 22 August.

We go to the ‘Kauppahalli’, the indoor market place in the city centre, then Stephen and I do the two hour guided walking tour of the city which is run by a Dutchman named Michel who has lived here many years. As is usual the guide is full of an amazing collection of interesting snippets.

Across the rapids (koski) known as Tammerkoski runs Hameenkatu, the main street. On the bridge stand four bronze statues – The Merchant, The Hunter, the Tax Collector and The Other Bloke (pay attention Laurie). Michel stops us in front of The Hunter and asks us what we can see about The Hunter that is different from the other statues. I’m not good at quizzes. The first thing I notice is that The Hunter has forgotten to put his trousers on and all of his sculpting is remarkably lifelike. This is not all that unusual for Finnish statues, after all, the Finns happily sit naked in saunas, but I am reluctant to offer an opinion. Fortunately, someone notices that while the statues are heavily oxidized, this statue’s big toe is shiny bronze.

The folklore goes that if you rub your hand over The Hunter’s big toe as you pass, you will have a fortunate life. The same applies to The Tax Collector, but not the other two. The eternal quest for a fortunate life has kept the two big toes gleaming bright.

Tonight’s TV movie is ‘Exodus’ starring Paul Newmanen and Eva Marie Saintenen with Finnish sub-titles. The program advertising tells us that the movie in a couple of nights stars Helen Mirrinen.

Sunday 23 August.

Highlights today start with going to the top of the Observation Tower on Pyynikki (pronounced Poonikki) on the southern side of the city. The tower offers 360 views above the forest and gives a great appreciation of the city and the extensive lakes. There is another part of Finland called The Lake District but it is hard to imagine more lakes than this.

The big highlight today however is the lake cruise featuring a female singer, her keyboard player and a buffet lunch. The singer sings mostly American standards. American music and to a lesser extent English music seem to have spread widely, and cross most language barriers.

After lunch most of the guests go upstairs to the top deck and a party of Italians, led by what we might call the patriarch, launch into singing the great Italian songs. The patriarch wants to include us and on asking what songs we know, I reply ‘O Sole Mio’.

I explain that I know only those three words of the lyrics, but they launch heartily into the song anyway. We are singing along with the ‘la la la’ version as we know the tune well, but when it gets to the part where ‘the three words’ appear, the patriarch quietens his choir and points to me. All I can do is my most powerful opera version of “O Sole Mio” and get the kind of applause Pavarotti could have only ever dreamed of. I should have offered to do the same melody Elvis version of “It’s Now or Never” as I know the words to that, but it may be un-Italian to do so.