Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Stockholm, Sweden

It's now Tuesday, about 9 AM. I'm on a train to Oslo. Obviously I got a little lazy with the blogging, so let's see how much I remember. (By the way, I'm writing this in a text file, but will post online later.)

On Saturday, in Helsinki, even more places were closed because of the holiday. I was hoping at the store Stadium would be open for a couple hours in the morning so I could pick up a Finnish soccer jersey, but no such luck.

It was raining. I hiked a few blocks to a 24-hour convenience store and had an apple and glass of OJ for breakfast.

I then putzed around the hotel. Got a shower and shaved, finished watching the third series of Being Human, which I had been watching as well on Friday night. Had to see how it ended, since they killed off a major character. I was disappointed, mainly because I would've done things differently -- the downside of being an erstwhile storyteller.

I checked out at noon and headed down to the harbor. My Viking Line cruise wasn't leaving until 5:30 PM, so I had plenty time to kill. I stopped in a cafe/restaurant and ordered a vegetarian pizza and apple juice. Surprisingly, the pizza was good.

I then picked up four postcards. My friend Karen asked for one, but I decided to send one to my mother and two sisters as well. In the pursuit of fairness, I wrote the same thing on each card. My plan is to do the same in each city I'm in.

After I dropped the postcards in a mailbox, I went across the street to a park and read a little of the book I'm reading about the French-Algeria war. It's a tough read due to loads of people to keep track of, the author's fondness for 25-cent words, and the occasional French phrase. That, coupled with my heavy lunch, had me nodding off. I soon snapped out of that thanks to an uninvited visitor.

A panhandler sat next to me on the bench. He had a round, olive face and wore a satiny jumpsuit a.k.a. the white rapper's uniform. He held a set of binoculars. His English was choppy but it sounded like he wanted me to buy the binoculars for 20 bucks. I kept telling him no -- must've said at least two dozen times. But he wouldn't leave. At one point he showed his ID; he was from Slovenia. I eventually had to get up and walk away. As I was standing, he wanted to shake my hand. Paranoid punk I am, I was a little trepidatious at first. Would he nail me in the gut with his other hand or hit me in the neck with the binoculars. Thankfully, nothing like that happened. (Silly rabbit!) As I headed toward my ship, I glanced back. He was bugging other bench dwellers.

With still some time to kill, I got an ice cream cone (hard vanilla not the soft serve I get at home). I didn't venture too far from the place where I bought it. The seagulls were pretty aggressive. Plus the sign at the ice-cream stand warned about the birds, so I stood next to the customer line, under the little awning. No birds bothered me, however, it was cute when a duck waddled by my feet, going about it quacking business.

Around 3 PM, I entered the Viking Line terminal. My ticket said boarding started at 3:30, but the guy who finalized my ticket said boarding time was 4:30. So I headed two flights up to the cafe. I got a super-sugary donut and what I thought was a bottle of water -- turned out to be seltzer (GROSS!).

The cruise liner boarded on time. Mistrustful mofo I am, I put my luggage and laptop in a locker, since I was sharing a cabin.

For the most part, I was bored out of my mind. I'm not a fan of gambling and I had trouble concentrating on my book. Plus, most of my fellow passengers seemed content in their little groups.

My ticket price included a buffet. I couldn't wait for my time slot to roll around. When 8 o'clock eventually rolled around, I went a little overboard (sorry). I loaded my plate with over a dozen things; everything from meat to seafood. Fortunately, I didn't get sick later from devouring foods that don't really belong together.

I was assigned to table 93. The only other people there were a 20-something couple, a burly guy with bleach-blond hair and his girlfriend, a brunette wearing a glittery, tight white T-shirt. I said hello to them but got the feeling they weren't up for conversation, which brings up an observation.

Scandinavians, especially the Finns, seemed remote, reserved or reticent. I was beginning to wonder if it was in my head, then I read a part in my travel book that worded it beautifully: "Scandinavians are pleasant but not gregarious." Nice to have some backup. Thanks, Lonely Planet!

I turned in around 10:30 PM. My cabin was way down, on the second level. I only had one roommate; cabin fit four. Judging by his accent, I think he was Russian or Eastern European. Needless to say, I didn't sleep well. I've been living alone too long.

On the cruise from Helinski and to Stockholm. This little island is about 100 yards off the Helinski coast. (Helinski, Finland; June 25, 2011)

Sunday, I got up at 7 AM. Breakfast was supposed to start at 8, but when I got up to level 8 (11 decks total), things were in full swing. I practiced some restraint this time. Had pancakes, sans syrup (didn't see any), and OJ. I sat near table 93, which looked out the front of the ship. This time the rectangular-shaped radar moved around.

Afterwards, I sat on the deck on level 10, was it? It was a bit chilly, probably in the 50s. I took in the Sweden coastline. Like when the boat left Helsinki, there were all these little islands, some only 50 yards off the coast, where there were houses. I'm guessing summer homes.

The Viking Line docked in Stockholm a little before 10 AM. I tried to be patient but I couldn't wait to get off it, so I trudged out with the masses.

The info desk on the ship had told me my hotel was about 2 kilometers from port. I decided to hoof it. The steward hooked me up with a map, so I wasn't totally aimless.

I eventually found my hotel, the Mälardrottningen, a former yacht that's now anchored. It used to belong to Barbara Hutton, one-time heir to the Woolworth's fortune. One of her seven marriages was to Cary Grant. She died in the 1970s.

Check-in time wasn't until 2 PM. I dropped off my luggage and did the tourist thing. I walked across the bridge into what looked like the city centre. With travel book in hand, I found a shopping mall called PUB. In there was a sports store. I picked up a Sweden soccer jersey for 599 Krona!!! Relax, one Swedish Krona is worth 15 U.S. cents, so that comes out to $90. Not cheap, but hey, it's a souvenir that'll fit in my itsy-bitsy suitcase.

I then stopped at an ATM and got out 1,500 Krona.

For lunch, I ducked into a restaurant that had caught my eye on the way to PUB. The restaurant was a meat-centric place; I think it had "steak" in its title. Anyway, I had a salad, veal cutlet, six tiny potatoes and a TALL glass of apple juice.

I did some more ambling about before checking in to the hotel. The room about what you would expect for being called a sailor's cabin. Not a whole lot of elbow room, but it was nice to have something all to myself (yeah, I'm a selfish son of a bitch). I loved it: a writing desk, free Internet access, and soap in the shower.

In the midafternoon, I hopped on a Open Top bus tour, the same company that did it in Helsinki. Pretty cool. Stockholm is a city of 14 islands, with a population of 800,000.

After that, I headed back to the ship. I was on Google Maps and looking for spots to visit that they filmed for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies. That's when I felt a little nauseous. I thought I was tired, then I realized it was from the ship swaying slightly. (I didn't feel that way on the Viking Line, probably because the ship was so huge.) I left the hotel with sea legs, which didn't last long.

In one of the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies, there's a big shootout in a restaurant. I found it, but it being Sunday, they were closed. So I ate around the corner at Viking Restaurant. Good choice. I had this fantastic pasta with three super-sized butterfly jumbo shrimp and the three best clams I ever tasted (in half its shell). Beverage was black tea with an actual sugar cube. For desert I had chocolate cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

By then, it was around 8:30 PM, sun still up. I walked back to the hotel and planned what to do Monday, my only really full day in the city of isles.

One weird thing about Stockholm is there are tons of bike paths. It seems there are more of them than pedestrian paths. And bikers seem to have the right of way. Lots biker bells clinging.

Stockholm during my walk from the cruise ship to my hotel. (Stockholm, Sweden; June 26, 2011)

On Monday, I overslept about 90 minutes -- got up at 8:30 AM. I headed to the restaurant in the ship and had breakfast: pancakes, bacon and sausage that tasted and looked like hot dogs. I had a nice view out the porthole at the water. Forgot my camera so I took a pic with my phone. Don't leave the cabin without it!

I was going to walk to a museum about 4 kilometers out (about an hour walk), but even with my map, I got a little lost. So I took a cab. Glad I did. The driver defied the Scandinavian stereotype and gave me a chatty tour along the way. He pointed out government buildings and a top-of-the-line hotel that costs 7,000 krona a night. We even passed the American Embassy. He told me that back in the day, the Russian Embassy was well-guarded. Now it's the American Embassy that's like a fortress (high fences, barb wire). Interesting.

The Ethnology Museum was cool. They had a voodoo exhibit (or as the advertisements I saw everywhere had it: voudoo). Some fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, I couldn't take pictures. Most of it from Haiti, by the way.

Next up was Skansen, about a kilometer down the road and across a bridge. By now it was late morning and I realized too late I had overdressed: pants, black T-shirt, long-sleeve T and my Australia jacket. Felt like mid-80s, with the sun taking no rest.

I wanted to visit Skansen because of its Nordic Zoo. Took me a while to get there 'cause it was all the way in the back. Good stuff. I couldn't see the grey wolf, but I did take pics of wolverines, seals, bears, bison, elk and -- YES -- real live reindeer. The last was a real kick. The one with huge antlers had a pinkish nose. No lie! Paging Rudolph's descendants.

After spending a couple hours there, I walked about a half a kilometer to a bus/tram stop that would take me to Central Station, which was about a 10-minute walk from my hotel.

I dumped the extra clothes in my cabin and headed back out to this one shopping district with narrow streets and cobblestone streets/sidewalks. I went into an Italian place for lasagne and a can of coke. It was about 3 PM, so I was famished.

Oh, I forgot to mention that when I was leaving Skansen, I started sneezing, and it hadn't let up. Must've been tons of tree pollen there in full bloom.

By the time I finished lunch, it was 4 PM. I had wanted to visit a museum that a presentation on the Nobel Prizes, but it closed at 5. Never would've made it, so I rested at the hotel. I noticed my sunburned head. Doh! And I couldn't stop sneezing.

Around 7:30 PM, I tried that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo restaurant, which I had tried for lunch as well (they didn't open till 5:30), but I stood in the doorway for five minutes and none of their skeletal staff came over.

I headed back to that old time village where I had lunch. I eventually found a place with a girl standing outside, waiting to take customers. I made a good choice. Got a nice thick slice of salmon, mashed potatoes, glass of milk and apple cake with caramel and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the ice cream in a bowl just big enough for it, which prevented melting. The bill came out to 395 krona (about $60), but it was worth it.

Here's something interesting: according to my travel book, you don't need to tip in Scandinavia. Feels alien to me. When I have tipped, the attitude seemed to me: "Whatever."

I didn't get back to the ship till a little before 10 PM. I showered, shaved and packed up. Took me a while to fall asleep. The sneezing hadn't let up at all.

A real reindeer! Look at those antlers and its pink nose. (Stockholm, Sweden; June 27, 2011)

Today, Tuesday, I got up at 6 AM and checked out. I walked less than a kilometer to the central train station. My train wasn't leaving till 8:29 AM, but like my dad always practiced: better extra early than mega late. I got to the train station a little after seven. For breakfast I had a croissant and tall cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice. And because I still had 200 to 300 krona in my wallet, I bought a newspaper in the station. The shop didn't have The Guardian, but they did stock The Independent (also a British lefty paper).

Anyway, it's now almost noon. A couple hours ago I headed to the bistro car and had a berry-type muffin and Coke can. I'll head back for lunch in a little bit. Need to get rid of the 176 krona in my pocket. I can't use it anyplace else on my trip, and I'm not fond of currency exchange joints -- can never tell when I'm gettin' ripped off. I already made the mistake of charging my credit card too much in Finland, where they use the Euro. I should've been using the cash I withdrew from the Otto machine. Now I have almost 200 Euro in my laptop bag. I thought Denmark (my sixth and final city is Copenhagen) used the Euro, but my travel book says they have their currency. I'll figure something out.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Helsinki, Finland

It's about 10 o'clock on Friday night. Time to do a little catch-up on my Scandinavia trip.

I left on Wednesday. My sister Diane was kind enough of to drive me to the airport with her three kids in tow.

My British Airways flight left around 7 p.m. -- 45 minutes late because of heavy traffic on the runway. The flight was nice. Had a chicken curry meal. And I tried to sleep but it just wasn't happening.

The plane arrived in London around 7 in the morning, their time. My next plane to Finland wasn't leaving until 10:20, so I had plenty time to kill. I hit a bar/restaurant and had an English breakfast (bacon aka ham, sausage and beans).

The flight to Helsinki, Finland was only about two and a half hours, but it felt like forever because I was so tired.

Landed in Helsinki about 3 p.m. their time. I caught a cab for the half-hour drive to the hotel. I was getting kinda worried 'cause it was so far from the airport. Not to worry. The hotel, Hotel Finn, is in the city centre.

The hotel is unusual in that it's on the top two floors of an office building. I'm on the top floor, the sixth. I like how the building's very European with the stairwell surrounding the cage-covered elevator.

My room's nice. Little on the small side, with a bathroom. There's a shared shower down the hall, next to the reception desk, which isn't manned at night.

Anyway, I wandered around yesterday (Thursday) afternoon. Sad days for me, I quickly found out that it's the Summer Solstice, a public holiday where most stores are closed on Friday.

As I walked around the neighborhood, I thought the buildings looked a bit Russian (buildings have flat concrete -- not a lot of ridges -- colored mainly green or brown). My assumption proved true, as I learned later by reading that Russia ruled Finland for about 200 years. Finland broke away after the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Finland was still an agrarian society until circa 1950. They've come a long way!

I went to bed around 9 o'clock, since I was up for over 24 hours. I woke up around 2:30 a.m. for an hour or so (tossing and turning), then slept until 8:30 a.m., Friday.

Street my hotel was on. (Helinski, Finland; June 23, 2011)

One of the few stores open, in the morning at least, was a supermarket in a nearby mall called The Forum. I picked up toiletries there on Thursday night. Friday morning I bought a croissant and bottle of orange juice.

Afterwards, I wandered around a little bit. Took some pictures of the local harbor.

Around noon I ran into a cool group of Finns. Well, only three of 'em were actual Finnish. The other two were Iceland and Ireland. Cool group. I had a good time talking with them for an hour or so.

For lunch I slipped into a cafe/bar/restaurant across the street but down the block from my hotel. I got a roast beef sandwich on Panni bread (is that right?) and a bottle of apple or orange juice. The stereo played The Beatles and INXS. What, no Finish music?

Obvious time. Something I've noticed is that the Finnish are a pale lot. I mean, to the point of being ashen. Guess it makes sense, since it's so cold here in the winter. Oh, and speaking of weather, it's rarely above 60 degrees here. Brrrrr!!!

After lunch I hopped on a tour bus. It did a little loop. I saw where my ferry is, the one I take tomorrow night to Stockholm.

For dinner I was going to a restaurant called Kosmos. I was walking around for an hour, trying to find it, but it's two storefronts away from my hotel. Sadly, it was closed, so with the help of the hotel receptionist, I went to some place a half-mile away that specializes in Finnish food. For a starter, I had a house salad (lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, hot bacon, egg). The main course was reindeer in mashed potatoes; the former looked like roast beef -- the kind you find on a sandwich -- and it was a wee-bit salty. Good though. Desert was chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. Oh, and I asked for lemonade as a beverage. Turned out to be Sprite soda, just like in the UK. Need to remember not to order that.

After dinner, I just chilled in my hotel room, resting after all the walking around I did today. Real quick, something I learned on this afternoon's bus tour. Finnish also speak Swedish. Makes sense since they have a bit of history. Apparently, most of the signs and everything here are in Finnish and Swedish. A little trivia to end this post. . . .

Harry Potter invades Finland! (Helinski, Finland; June 24, 2011)