Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finns to the Left, Finns to the Right...

And so, it was off to Finland for the wedding of two friends, Martin (English) and Vilja (Finnish). We left Budapest on a sunny but cool Wednesday, September 8, planning to spend five days in beautiful downtown Helsinki. I actually had a traveling companion this time, Alan Rees, another Englishman and mutual friend of the bridal couple. He must have been a good-luck charm, as our flight to Finland went off without a hitch, on time, no turbulence, and even the Malev Airlines’ ham and cheese sandwich tasted fairly good.
A short stop at the Tourist Inform booth at the Helsinki Airport resulted in the purchase of our five-day public transportation passes, which really helped, as you’ll soon see. We hopped the airport bus to the main railway station in the center of town, then popped onto the Number 6 tram, which dropped us off just around the corner from our hotel. We had booked rooms at the Sokos Albert hotel, located in the central-western district of the city, just a five-minute walk from the church in which the wedding was to be held. Getting there was almost too easy.
I called my old Budapest friend Marianna, but she couldn’t make a meeting that night, so we arranged to meet the following evening. Both Alan and I were hungry by this time, so we caught the tram back to the railway station stop and walked a block to Helsinki’s famous Irish pub, Molly Malone’s. I’ve now been in a like-named pub in Madrid and Tallinn; wonder how many of them are scattered around Europe? Anyway, the first Guinness slid down like a lifesaver. Unfortunately, the pub didn’t serve food, so we had to go next door to Iguana for some Mexican fare, a large mixed appetizer plate and chicken burrito.
After dinner we walked down the Esplanade, two main streets divided by a grassy mid-section with trees, restaurants and a pedestrian walkway. Nice. We made sure the Gulf of Finland was still there, then strolled back to the hotel, where I dozed off watching Dick Powell as Phillip Marlowe on a local TV movie. And it’s not often I get to say that.
The next day, Thursday, started off with a nice breakfast at the hotel. We lucked onto a good deal at the hotel, as it was the best value for the money in Helsinki. Large rooms, spotlessly clean, helpful staff, good food and, as mentioned, a block away from the tram stops and three blocks from the wedding venue. It was sightseeing day for us. Alan had been to the city several years earlier, but it was my first visit, so we hopped the “sightseeing tram”, Number 3T and 3B (it was the same tram that mysteriously changed its designation twice during its circuit of the city, for reasons still unknown to us) and took off to see what Helsinki had to offer.
As it turned out, not a whole lot. We checked out the Finlandia Hall (a large concert hall), the national museum, the Rock Church (one of the better sights in town) and found the Storyville Jazz Club, where we planned to return the following night. Once again we walked the Esplanade (where I found a great bookstore – my favorite stops on my trips – bought five books) down to the Old Market Hall, which actually was interesting. Reminded me of Quincy Market in Boston, in that it had fresh food (fish, breads, meat, etc.), some tourist goodies and several small restaurants/snack stands which offered the same fresh foods.
I had the reindeer sandwich (yes, Virginia, I ate Rudolph) and Alan opted for the cheese soup. Yummy. Next, we walked around the harbor to the red-brick Uspensky Cathedral, which was, of course, closed. A small blot on an otherwise good day. We decided the hour-and-a-half harbor cruise was in order, so off we went to see the small islands that dot the bay. Cool weather, cloudy and crisp, and a nice relaxing afternoon excursion. Not a lot to see, but being on the water is always a good time. We trammed back to the hotel, grabbed a quick nap, then hooked up with Marianna around 6 PM at the Teatteri Lounge on the Esplanade, where, as we knew, we were also to meet the wedding party late on for a little pre-wedding gathering.
The beer flowed, along with some appetizers, and sure enough, a whole herd of people turned up with Martin and Vilja around 9 PM and the beer flowed even faster. It was a good evening and we got to meet lots of new people. Vilja’s sister and brother-in-law flew in from Alaska, there were people from Spain and the UK and, of course, a small but vocal Budapest contingent.
It was an interesting evening, to say the least. At one point during the festivities, a local drunken Finn flipped a sofa pillow at a couple of the girls, and had to be forcibly ejected from the premises by Martin and friends. But it was Alan who took the prize for Most Entertaining Activity when he managed to spill a tray of five full beers onto himself. It was bad enough sitting through the remainder of the evening with soaking wet pants (and underwear, of course), but he was also out 35 euros (about $50 US) when the bar wouldn’t replace the beers. Finland is expensive and chintzy.
We finally got away a little after midnight and walked back to the hotel where I was so hungry I scarfed down the pack of reindeer jerky I had bought that afternoon at the Old Market. I’d have to go back and get more.
Up early again on Friday, breakfast and away by 9:30 AM to check out the nearby amusement park. Alan is addicted to roller coasters, and has gone on roller coaster tours in Europe and the USA. He’d done this one previously, but couldn’t pass up any city which has his favorite pastime, so it was off to do it again. We got to the park by 10 AM, only to find out it didn’t open until 4 PM on this final weekend of its season. Cue the Big Sigh. Only six hours to kill, so we decided to check out the location of the wedding reception, to be sure we knew where it was going to be held. Nice restaurant, right on one of the lakes. A late morning brioche hit the spot.
OK, back on the tram where we noticed an ad for a local X-treme Car Show. What the hell, why not? We deciphered the Helsinki tram system (surprisingly easy; see how valuable our Tram Passes were?) and found the hall where the show was being held. It was now 11 AM and, naturally, the show opened at noon. This was not a surprise. We whiled away the intervening time with a light lunch and finally made our grand entrance.
Well, it was wonderful. Lots of old American muscle cars, including Dodge Challengers, a 1958 Chevrolet Corvette, Cobras, Porsches, 1930’s and ‘40’s customized hot rods, motorcycles, all sorts of automotive eye-candy for the unrepentant gearhead. You’ll have to check out some of the pictures on Facebook.
Finally it was time to get back to the roller coaster, which turned out to be (why does this seem so obvious by now) rather anti-climactic. Even Alan was somewhat disappointed, as he remembered it was tougher the first time. Of course, he had a couple of cracked ribs back then, which heightened the pain and torment of that earlier ride, so I guess anything would be easier after that. Ah, well, it was okay.
Another short nap, then off to the jazz club. We stopped next door first at St. Urho’s pub for some special English beer Alan enjoyed, Fuller ESB. I tried it and nearly spat it out it was so bitter. The bartender noted my dislike of the beer; he changed kegs and poured me another, which turned out to be ever so much better. Whew! I’d hate to think there’s a beer in the world that I don’t care for (other than the 80-shilling Heavy in Scotland, of course). We decided on dinner at the Jazz Club, and it was as close to New Orleans Cajun food as I’ve had since I was last on Bourbon Street. I had the Shrimps Bayou appetizer (served in escargot dishes; yummy) and the Jambalaya, which was lovely. Tasty and spicy, just the right combination. The only negative point in the evening was when a Finnish diner, lacking the social graces to say “Excuse me,” managed to slam his chair into our table and spill what was left of our beer – Alan once again managed a small dampness on his jeans.
The music was good and we stayed until midnight or so, when we caught one of the last trams back to the hotel. We knew Saturday would be a big day and we wanted to be rested and ready.
Up early again, we indulged in a hearty breakfast, which would last us until the late lunch planned after the wedding Managed a short stroll to another nearby market to see what they had to offer (just antiques, no big deal) and then we hiked the three short blocks to the church around 11:30 am.
The local wedding crowd had gathered, along with several other old friends from Budapest whom we hadn’t seen in some years. The church was surprisingly Spartan, done in light blue and white paint, with minimal gold decorations. Not bad. And the ceremony was another pleasant surprise, lasting just 20 minutes. Zim zam and out! Cool. We lined the path from the main door and threw our ration of rice at the happily married couple. Vilja’s father Laure had been assigned only one task as his part in the festivities, and that was to arrange transportation from the church to the reception. Well, he outdid himself. He found what was the only Checker Cab in Finland and had it waiting at the church to take Martin and Vilja to the restaurant. Well done, Laure!
The reception was held at the Töölönranta Restaurant, and if you think Hungarian is difficult to pronounce, you ain’t seen Finnish! Since it didn’t begin until 2 PM, and it was only 12:30 when the bridal party left to have their pictures taken, the rest of us naturally went to a nearby pub for some pre-reception refreshment. We finally walked over to the restaurant to begin the real party. Drinks and dinner lasted until around 8 o’clock or so that evening, by which time Yours Truly was well on my way to oblivion. We were headed for the Storyville Jazz Club once again and their evening’s performance of Cajun music.
The rest of the evening, reported on below, was obtained from eye-witness accounts, as my evil twin Skippy made his appearance; obviously I was in too bad a shape from then on to remember much of anything. I’d been drinking wine all afternoon and, when we hit the jazz club, Alan apparently bought me a beer. Gee, thanks so much. I was told Skippy danced with at least one large Finnish woman during the course of the evening, in addition to our Serbian friend Katarina, up from Budapest. Finnish women must be used to dancing with inebriated Finnish men, as the country reportedly has the highest percentage of alcoholics in Europe. So, Hey! When in Helsinki…..Besides, dancing with large women is pretty much required when Cajun music is being played.
I was told the following day that late Thursday night Skippy distinguished himself again when he had to be pushed up the spiral staircase at the jazz club and out the front door, where he needed assistance getting to the tram. Katarina also had to keep propping him up in his tram seat, as he kept nodding off and trying to slip onto the floor of the tram. Obviously, not a pretty picture. Anyway, she got poor old Skippy back to the hotel somehow, and he made it into his room somehow, and the next thing I remember is waking up Sunday morning to the sound of a CNN commentator telling me the weather in Brazil. Dick Powell was long gone.
Sunday was not one of my more auspicious days. My stomach felt like that Checker Cab was driving around in it and my head felt like Alan’s roller coaster on the downswing. My eyes remained mere slits all day long and I responded to any questions with grunts and groans and generally failed to be understood. After consuming three bacon sandwiches for breakfast, we met some of the wedding party for brunch at a nearby café. I staggered back to the hotel for a much-needed nap and finally succumbed to Alan’s pounding on my door to get up for dinner. The weather had changed and it was spitting or misting (anyway, doing something wet), so we hustled over to the Amarillo restaurant, near Molly Malone’s (where we were to meet everyone once again at 8 PM for Irish music).
I nearly revived with a giant hamburger and some fries, but slumped back down when we got to the bar and were informed the music didn’t start until 10 PM. Scheisse! I still couldn’t drink anything alcoholic, so took it easy with Cokes until 10 PM, when we were told by the bar staff that the upstairs concert area was now open and the music would begin at 10:30. Well, Hell! Is there some problem with giving people the correct information in Finland?
Anyway, we perched on our barstools expectantly when, at exactly 10:30 (at least they were punctual), two guitars and a drum started playing noisy, loud, un-Irish rock music. What?! Yep, no Irish music that night. Molly Malone’s had good Guinness, but the staff had world-class poor communication skills. Damn! I only lasted about another hour or so, and finally slid off my barstool and found a tram back to the hotel. Sorry, Group, I had planned Sunday as a day of rest and recovery, and never had the chance to do so. Maybe next time.
Monday was our last day in Helsinki, as our plane was to leave around 4:30 PM. We took the opportunity to check out a couple of final sights (Hakaniemi Market, Senate Square, which was surrounded by gaily-painted bears, Finland’s national symbol) and bought our souvenirs at the Old Market Hall. I ended up with more reindeer meat, some famous Finnish black bread and a bottle of Mintu, peppermint-flavored Finnish liqueur.
Our trip home was easy and nap-filled, and we caught our buses and metros just as we got to the platforms, so I made it back to my flat by 7 PM. It was a good trip to a city whose character is difficult to summarize. The weather cooperated by being sunny and nice most of the time, with just a few minor misty mornings.
But it was definitely a worthwhile trip, filled mostly with interesting new people, and I have to say that now I am…..wait for it…..yep, you got it…..Finnished!