I’m in Paris now, but my body clock is still a bit screwed up because I ended up in 6 countries in 6 days. I knew that having a bunch of brief stopovers before Paris was kind of a bad idea, but late last year when I was planning my trip to Europe, the possibility of going via Helsinki popped up and I had a good feeling about it, especially as I had just become acquainted with someone who lived there. Prior to that, I’d never had the thought of visiting Finland and knew almost nothing about it.
I ended up really liking the smallness of Helsinki, which was manageable after a long intercontinental flight. The city itself didn’t make me go ‘wow’, but it was exciting to be somewhere new, and everything about it was exceptionally clean and orderly, which was a nice change. I didn’t intend to go shopping in a place like Helsinki, but there were great stores, and I wished I could have bought more than what I did. Next to Marimekko (a brand I really like), was a store called iittala. A couple of brilliant blue drinking glasses caught my eye, even though I knew that it meant carrying them through two more countries before Paris. I wonder what it is about the Scandinavian and Finnish culture that produces such exceptional designers?
One interesting thing I didn’t realise was that Finland was long under the rule of colonial powers — first Sweden, then Russia. The multilingual signs (some had Russian, Swedish and also English) and architectural and religious influences made sense given that history. I definitely got a bit of ‘New World’ vibe while I was there.
My friend Olaf and I had a nice time hanging out in a beautiful local park called Kaivopuisto by the water, eating a very Finnish lunch of muikku (or vendance, a kind of small fish) with potatoes and vegetables, while I could feel myself getting a tan sitting under the bright sun. Before heading back to the airport, we also squeezed in a trip to charming Café Ursula, right near the park. I left the city feeling my brief stopover in Helsinki had been really worthwhile, and I could imagine coming back again sometime in the future on the way back to Scandinavia.
Over the last week I’ve been reminded again of what it’s like being a backpacker. All of my travelling in Asia in recent years, for the most part, hasn’t really been backpacking at all, even when I was sticking to a notional budget. After Helsinki, staying in Skanstalls Hostel in Stockholm (thankfully, in my own room) brought me back to my earliest travel experiences. It made me feel young again and also kind of old at the same time, especially when I was having a long conversation with a 21 year old Sydney Uni student who was winging it through Europe for a few weeks.
Stockholm was really quite a glamorous place and very much felt like the capital of Scandinavia as it claims. In the two days I was there, I spent time wandering around Gamlastan, the medieval old city which was buzzing with tourists; learning about Stockholm in the city museum; and also checking out the cool neighbourhood of Sodermalm, where I was staying.
In Sodermalm, I had an interesting conversation at a cute café on my last morning called Café Cinema; while drinking my coffee and eating my Swedish-style sandwich (sliced boiled eggs, sliced onion, a generous amount of kalles kaviar), I ended up having a long conversation with the Lebanese café owner (a Maronite) who told me the Swedish were pretty racist and how he wished he had come to Australia! I guess being non-white gives me easy access to these kinds of conversations. For all the problems we have in Australia around racism, I guess being in Stockholm did make me feel grateful to have grown up in a place where, whatever some of the Anglo-Saxon population might feel about ownership, the ‘First Fleeters’ only came to Australia in the late 18th century, which is a mere blip in the scheme of things. Imagine trying to push up against a thousand years of history, and a proud people; it’s a lot more difficult to change the status quo. Living in the New World is so much more liberating in this regard.
I felt inspired to visit Stockholm because of the ‘Girl with a dragon tattoo’ series, not exactly high quality literature but something I got stuck into last year — but I’d also heard lots of good things about Stockholm over time. Not long after I booked my plane tickets, I started working closely with a Swedish organisation with an office in Chiang Mai. Two of the people I met from there, Carolina and Mattias, were preparing to move back to Stockholm shortly, so we kept in touch knowing that I would drop by in June.
As it turned out, spending time with them was the real highlight of my brief visit. On my second and last night in Stockholm, I visited them in their home on the outskirts of town, surrounded by forests; it was truly another world to the city I had encountered in the previous 24 hours. We started off the evening with a cycle to a local lake and I dipped my toes into the cold, but refreshing waters of the lake, and their little girl squealed in delight being in the water.
At the start of the meal, we were talking about living in the suburbs, and Mattias mentioned that even though I came from so far away, it was likely that I had more in common with them than their neighbours – it was a total hunch on his part that turned out to be just so. The three of us had a wonderful evening chatting about life, the universe and everything – and it made me feel so glad that we had crossed paths in Chiang Mai. We kept talking until at some point it dawned me that it must be late, but it was hard to tell because of the summer light. As the light started to fade at 11pm, it was time to call it a night, and on the bus ride home I started to nod off, brimming with happy feelings about the world.