Number one question you all are probably asking me: Why would a Minnesotan spend Christmas Finland? Well friends, honestly I didn’t want to spend Christmas by myself in a another country. Many of my friends here went home for Christmas, traveled to countries I had already visited, or spent xmas here in Spain. So when my roommate Clarisse decided that she wanted to go to Finland, I though hey why not? Well, I should have thought about it a little more…cause it was COLD. I mean, in Helsinki it was cold, but the weather couldn’t decide to either rain or snow. And then don’t even get me started about the Arctic Circle (that’s just a punishment to send anyone there).
So I headed off to Helsinki dreaming of Christmas markets, fikkas, and rich history (Finland has been occupied by Norway, Sweden, and Russia).
After an exciting 5 hour flight where I was sat next to a man who either had too much to drink or decided to take some happy pills, I arrived in Helsinki. The first place I wanted to check out was the Helsinki Cathedral, which in fact is a Lutheran church. Helsinki is unique because along with a large population of Lutherans, there is a large proportion of Russian Orthadox church goers. And that would be because during the Russian occupation, Helsinki was a port area (it takes 3 hours by train to get to St. Petersburg) for incoming Russian products and military.
On my walking tour of Helsinki, I learned a lot more about the Russian Orthodox religion. I have always wondered why there isn’t any chairs or pews to sit in. Well, that is because the congregation follows the priest around the church as he goes to each saint and says the prayer. Another interesting fact about this specific cathedral is that it has held some important Saint relics…which have been stolen. There is no form of security for these relics (seriously, they are RIGHT there for the taking).
Speaking of my walking tour…I have to explain how I literally thought I was back in MN talking with someone from up North. My tour guide (pictured below) had THE perfect Scandinavian-English accent…there were a few “Oh, don’t you know’s.” He also made me feel like I haven’t accomplished anything with my life. He literally speaks 5 languages, all which he learned before he graduated university. He speaks Finnish and Swedish as his mother tongue (fun fact, legally all signs have to be in Finnish AND Swedish), then next he learned English, then German, AND then Russian. Seriously, what am I doing with my time in Spain?
One of the most exciting stops for me on the walking tour was the Hotel Torni, which has been known as the tallest building in Finland. However, now it is known as the hotel where many KGB members stayed while in Helsinki…INCLUDING LEE HARVEY OSWALD. Yes, that is where I nearly lost my marbles. While Oswald was living in the USA, he came to Helsinki trying to get Russian passports for him and his family…before he decided to kill JFK. I like to think he decided to do that because he was refused Russian citizenship…Other KGB members would meet at the bar for secret KGB meetings as well.
Since I couldn’t do a day trip to St. Petersburg because I need to have a visa to enter (and to get said visa I need permission first to get it) I decided to take a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia. It’s a two hour ferry and BOOM you are there. Easy right? NOPE. This had to be the most difficult day trip ever. First it started that I decided to take a ferry at 7:30 AM, which meant I had to leave my hostel at 6:15 so I could get to the port in time. Well, then I realize I need to be at the port 30 minutes BEFORE departure…and that wasn’t going to happen since I was walking. So I get to the port right at 7:15 and I notice the ferry company’s office ISN’T EVEN OPEN YET. At this point I have no idea what to do. Luckily for me I crossed paths with a runner and asked her if this was the correct port, and of course it isn’t…the correct port is about 45 minutes walking from where we were. She calls me a cab, and I still have hope that I will make it. NOPE. Problem number two…the cab never came. After waiting 20 minutes by the road, and having some german man try to get me to get into his car so he could drive me to the port (in very broken English, and Mom don’t worry I was saved) a cab magically stops and asks if I need a ride. Back on track, I arrive at the correct port at 8 AM. I get to the ticket desk and manage to talk the lady into giving me a new ticket for free. At this point I am in desperate need for some Finnish coffee and I head to the cafe and find a spot to sit and read. Well my luck has run out at that point, and this very, VERY, I MEAN VERY drunk Russian sits at my table and starts talking to me in Russian, Finnish, Swedish, and THEN in English. I try to ignore him (I had put my earbuds in), but he REALLY wanted to talk and decided to try taking my iPad to get my attention.***DISCLAIMER: Mom, don’t worry, I obviously came out of this OK cause I’m here writing about it***At this point I turn and look at the guy and tell him that I only speak English. At this point he decides to start quoting “The Hangover” and “Borat” and asks me “How much? How much?” I put my earbuds in and try to ignore him, but then he starts yelling at me in Russian and now people are looking at me (and I honestly wanted to just give up on Tallinn and head back to my hostel). So, I grab my things (leaving my FULL CUP OF COFFEE!) and quickly run to the bathroom. After 10 minutes I come out and see that the guy isn’t there anymore so I head downstairs to waiting area. I find a spot and continue to read, and then all of a sudden I notice someone standing in front of me and IT’S THE RUSSIAN GUY AGAIN! At this point I just pick up and go back upstairs to a security guard and point out the guy to him. The security guy goes over and starts talking to him in Russian (probably telling him to leave me the f*ck alone), and at this point I run and hide again in another waiting area. Lucky me, Drunk Rasputin finds me again, but this time with some friends who speak English…so I quickly find the security guard and ask if I can just go behind the gate and wait there (I knew he wasn’t on the same ferry as me). The security guard ACTUALLY had to think about it before he finally let me go. POR FIN, I got on the ferry and made it to Tallinn, and although it was an epic fail in the beginning it was totally worth it:
The one reason why I was so excited to visit Tallinn was because of the KGB and the Russian occupation! YES, OF COURSE IT IS HISTORY RELATED. So of course I had to go to every historical KGB site:
You can’t see the basement windows…BECAUSE THERE ARE NONE! The KGB took all the windows out and cemented them in so no one could hear/see the interrogations that occurred there…
Ok so I just googled what the sign said and this is it: ‘This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupational power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians.’ Qué creepy… I should also mention that the website that I found this at also mentioned “ghosts of prisoners” that haunt the newly renovated apartments…so many this isn’t the best source.
So who is ready for a little history lesson???
First things first…where in the world is Estonia?
As you can see Russia just happens to be both Finland and Estonia’s neighbor (see how this occupation happened so easily?). Just as it happened in the Czech Reupublic and Hungary, the Soviets came in to save the day and kick out the Nazi’s. Well, then the Soviet’s decided they wanted a chance to occupy these countries, so they decided to stay. So as one occupation ended, another one began. Stalin and his men slowly increased the Soviet presence in these countries, and BOOM Tallinn became one the most important cities for the Soviet occupation. Why???? Because it’s a port, a gateway to the rest of Eastern Europe. Long story short, many people from Estonia died while the Soviets tried to put a Communist government. Luckily for me, there is a pretty sweet KGB museum dedicated to telling the story of Estonia and it’s people during that time.
I of course ended my day trip by going to a real authentic Beer house before catching the last ferry back to helsinki! I still haven’t made my way to Germany, so to get a little taste of a real German beer house was a great experience! This particular beer house had 5 beers that they brewed RIGHT THERE in the beer house! I, of course, made friends with the bartender and got to see where the magic happened. Let’s be real, I bet if anyone asked they would have gotten a tour too…but hey a girl can dream. After a couple of delicious beers, it was time to catch the ferry back to Helsinki! Don’t worry the ride back was 100 times better than the first!
At last here is where I conclude the first part of my Christmas travels! Stay tuned for the second part!