Friday, July 6, 2018

Cycling around Helsinki

This was the third day without football in the World Cup since it started. So, a two-day gap between the end of the round of 16 and the quarter finals. Six days ago, when it was the first day off, I was planning to do some cycling on an Estonian island, but it rained so heavily I abandoned the plan and just had an extra day in Tallinn. So I was determined to do a bit of cycling here in Helsinki. The center of the city is a bit like an island, surrounded on three sides by water and connected to the mainland by quite a narrow isthmus. On the bike I had a few things I wanted to do, one of which was to have some nice (ideally Karelian) Finnish food.

It was day 38 (Thursday 5th July 2018, 70.9% complete)

These early starts do take it out of you so I was pleased that I had a bit of a lie in in the morning before writing yesterday’s blog post. I must say I do enjoy writing them. It’s a good way of making sure you don’t forget details.

There’s a Manic Street Preachers song "Emily" that has a lyric that goes along the lines of

It's what you forget, what you forget that kills you
It's what you remember, what you remember that makes you

Who know what they meant in the context of that song but mu take on it is that once we are dead, we exist only in the memories of others, and when they die too, all that’s left are any artifacts that might survive a few more years.

By recording these adventures it gives them more permanence to me.

Anyway, blog done, it was time to wander out and hire a bike.

I had planned to spend a day cycling all along, not just because the previous attempt was washed out. I chose the place I stayed at largely because it was very close to a cycle hire shop even though I only found out later that the hostel do bike hire themselves.

It was just a couple of blocks away and the hiring was all smooth. 15 euros for the day and a 50 euro deposit for the bike. It seemed well maintained. Three gears, which is all I ever use anyway.

The feature on the bike I couldn’t quite get my head around was that there was only one brake on the left handle bar and none on the right. To slow the bike down you actually back-peddled slightly. The stringer your back-peddling the stronger the breaking was applied. This was weird to me. It freaked me out a couple of times when I instinctively went to brake using my right hand and then when it failed had to remember to back-peddle. There were no dangerous moments but I suppose if I’d been unlucky there could have been.

Other than that, the bike was great.

My first port of call was the port, well the market by the port. I say “port” but Helsinki, it seems, is just one great big port. It’s surrounded on all sides by water and most of its shore provides places for boats to dock.

I locked the bike to a post and had a stroll around. I was half-looking for a decent warm cotton jumper to buy but it was all wool.

I was getting hungry so I bought dinner from a market stall selling a variety of foods. I had salmon, reindeer meatball and veg. Very nice and very cheap.

One of my “chores” for the day was to exchange the rubles I’d got left over from my time in Russia. 300 rubles! Wow! About $5 Australian or 3.5 euros.

It hardly seemed worth it but I didn’t want to waste the money so I went looking for a bank in the center of Helsinki. This proved harder than I anticipated as “bank” after “bank” marked by the Prof turned out either to be something other than a bank or else a bank that didn’t exchange money. Eventually I was told the place to exchange currency was the top floor of Stockmann’s (like Myer) department store.

You could buy a coffee with that

Sure enough, right on the 8th floor was a Forex counter and the girl smiled when I gave her my rubles.

“I think you will be able to buy a cup of coffee, maybe”

Anyway. No more rubles.

So then I set off back to the market over very bumpy cobbled streets to start on a route around a good section of the Helsinki shore line. Very pleasant it was too. There seem to be hundreds of tiny off shore islands visible form the cycle path that hugs the waterfront.

I had planned to take a detour in land at one point to complete some unfinished business, but the beauty of the bike ride put the idea right out of my mind until I’d gone well past the turn off I’d planned to take.

Once I realised my mistake, I headed back the way I came and turned left to cycle down a street away from the shore.

I wanted to find the Russian embassy to do my token protest, albeit 33 years too late.

I really wasn’t prepared for the embassy being so big. I mean huge. I mean, almost in the same ball park as Ceacescu’s palace big. Google marks places with that little red balloon, as if it’s a tiny spot but I had cycled way past the point indicated by this until I realised the whole block I was cycling around was all part of the embassy complex.

I cycled back down the road I’d come from and saw some workers taking some stuff from a lorry.

“Is this the Russian embassy?”


“It’s huge. Why do they need such a big embassy?”

He smiled “we don’t know”

“I can’t see a Russian flag though”

“The entrance is on the other side, down there”

I cycled in the direction he was pointing to and sure enough, around the other side, in front of where the building’s façade was even more grand, stood a tall flag poll with a Russian flag drooping sadly as it was not windy.

A couple of other tourists came up to me while I was peering through the gates.

“Such a big embassy” I said.

“Really massive”

“Why do they need such a big embassy?”

“Big empire. We know. We’re from East Germany”

I bid them “Gute Reisse” after gently ribbing them about Germany’s exit from the World Cup.

After they had gone out of earshot, I did my little mini protest that we were not allowed to do 33 years ago when the “Baltic Peace and Freedom Cruise” demonstrated against the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States.

That felt better!

I’d literally just  got back on my bike when the heaven’s opened up. I didn’t realise Putin’s influence went that far. I mean, US elections, fair enough. Brexit, maybe, but the weather too?

So, I had to get off my bike and put my raincoat on which, thankfully, I had thought to take with me.
My top half was kept dry but my jeans and shoes and socks soon got soaked as I cycled back to the shore looking for some shelter.

I eventually found a small “compass” café where I could get under cover and have a nice latte and slice of cake.

“What cake do you have?” I asked

“We have strawberry, cranberry  …”

“and what’s this?”

“I don’t know the word in English. It tastes a bit sour but not like shit.”

He told me the word for it in Finnish and it sounded a bit like rhubarb. Sure enough, that’s what it was. Very nice too.

The little café had wifi so I was able to reconnect with friends and family for a few minutes until the rain calmed down to a slight patter.

He's right. It does not taste like shit!

So off again.

After cycling through a built up area away from the shore I ended up at Helsinki’s cemetery. It’s massive and I took about 15 minutes to slowly cycle through it. It’s really beautifully done, right by the sea in woodland.

I briefly stopped at a deserted beach which must be a nice place to go on a hot day.

Massive City Cemetry

Next on my “to do” list was to find a Karelian restaurant. Partly because I’d heard they had a distinctive cuisine and partly just to show some moral support.

Professor Google pointed me to a couple that were quite close to each other but, alas, it seems that both have been taken over now by a company that run Chinese restaurants. They kept the Karelian name though just to confuse people like me.

I’d had enough biking in the rain so I decided it was time to drop the bicycle off and so I set off down a main road with a decent cycle path next to it until I got back to where I’d started, near the port and market.

Just then, the heaven’s opened up again so I sought shelter at the front of a hotel. After it calmed down I sped off and dropped the bike off.

All very smooth. The cycle hire chap was very friendly and helpful.

My path around Helsinki

I walked back the hostel and lay down for a while to give my phone a chance to recharge and then, having found a few suitable candidate restaurants that served Finnish cuisine, I was off again.

Eurohostel - save money while sleeping

My justification for going a bit posh was simple: The last few days I'd eaten very cheaply, the day before maccers x 2 and it was a long time since the lobster incident.

I went to a restaurant called "Alia" (sort of "Muriel" in Finnish, I was told - could be the name of your grannie.

It was a very nice (if a little expensive) experience.

The waiter that served me was a real hoot and very knowledgeable. His mum was Finnish but he was brought up in New York and sounded a bit like Woody Allen. He told me that just a few weeks ago the guy sat at my table was John Cleese. 

I wasn't going to complain about anything after that. Indeed there was nothing to complain about, as I said, apart from the price.

He brought me some lovely rye bread soaked in molasses with home made butter to keep me going. Then I had a delicious, rich, salmon soup with a nice glass of house white wine. For my main course I had reindeer steaks with a glass of Spanish red. 

Supposed to be a smiley face

By this time I was chatting to an Australian couple who were about to end their European tour and head back to Brisbane. I had a couple of beers while I chatted to them until they left.

The waiter was a hoot
Very satisfied, I walked back through the drizzle to catch the No 4 tram and got back to the hostel and crashed out.

I set my alarm for another early start (4:50 am) because I had to get a flight to Oslo where I was meeting the nearest thing I have to brother, my old mate from Ashfield School and my brother-in-law's brother, Jeffrey Newcombe.

I'm really looking to seeing him again. So kind of him to come to Oslo just to spend a weekend with me here. 

It's going to be good because we'll be watching the four quarter finals over the next two days, including England v Sweden.

So just eight teams left now. I still have a hankering for all the teams staying and playing for places.

The losing quarter finalists would now have another game, to play for 9th - 16th places.

Am I the only one who'd like to have seen these games...?

Portugal v Argentina
Mexico v Japan
Spain v Denmark, and
Switzerland v Colombia

If I had my way the teams that failed to qualify for the round of 16 would have played there own round of 16 for places 17th - 32nd.

Assuming they'd all gone according to FIFA rankings, there'd now be two more sets of "quarter finals" too.

For 17th - 25th places...
Morocco v Peru
Germany v Poland
Iran v Australia
South Korea v Senegal

and for 26th - 32nd places...

Egypt v Iceland
Serbia v Tunisia
Saudi Arabia v Nigeria
Costa Rica v Panama

Anyway, enough fantastising and time to publish this and get ready to meet Jeffrey!

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