Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Finland is for Weekends

In writing about Finland, it only makes sense that I’d share some details of my own trip, last September. My cousin, and her partner (at the time) invited me to Helsinki and to go mushroom picking; they needed to accomplish two of the three reasons why Russians go to Finland (Schengen visa stamp and work). The third, buying things at low prices, came naturally when we were there.

A weekend trip to Helsinki is akin to a weekend trip to Chicago for Minneapolis/St. Paul residents (except that there is less to do in Helsinki). You get on the highway, avoid getting ticketed for speeding, and then get stuck in traffic when approaching your destination. We faired pretty well with border crossing, going against the instinct (instilled in anyone who grew up in the USSR) to wait in the longest looking queue. And once on well-maintained Finnish roads, my (only experienced in Russia) slight car-sickness vanished.

The landscape and wilderness of Karelia (divided between Finland and Russia) struck me as extremely similar to that of Northern Minnesota. As we drove over the border little red houses began to dot already harvested fields. I also began to notice roadside signs in Russian, advertising mostly “Свежая рыба” (fresh fish) but also random things like “компьютеры” (computers), and diligently announcing that rubles were accepted and exchanged. We stopped at one of the stores to get a quick snack, witnessing first-hand the spectacle that is a Russia tourist bus unleashed on aforementioned “свежая рыба” and other cheap groceries. We mocked, but on our way back did pick up fish, which was undeniably fresher/cheaper in Finland. We also showed our Russian love for freeloading when some of the delicious Sokos Hotel breakfast buffet was taken with.

A walk around Helsinki was a breeze of colorful fresh air after St. Petersburg. The colorful, individual, and often bizarre getups of the Finns and the larger sized women with no makeup seemed to indicate a certain lack of concern with appearance--a surefire sign of a developed and stable nation. (What does the overgrooming of Russian women say about this country's political and economic state of affairs?) Helsinki is also undeniably metal--Finland did produce the Eurovision winning Lordi.

Our mushroom-picking excursion showed that Finnish forests are like Finnish cities--clean and quiet. We ate the overabundant blueberries from the bushes and found mushrooms the size of our heads. I saw a moose, in the wild. He may have been as startled as I was, but he was significantly larger, antlers and all.

After spending the morning in nature, we drove back to Russia, where several hundred miles of litter-covered roadside and traffic jams welcomed us home.