Two week vacation in Finland, July 16 through 31st, 2010
We flew out of Birmingham, Alabama to Detroit, and then to Amsterdam, and finally to Helsinki. The third of these three flights was the most memorable, for two reasons. I could see out the window, and saw lots of quaint rural landscapes in Finland and, before then, probably Denmark. Were importantly, I felt very sick on the flight from Amsterdam. Perhaps it was the low cabin pressure. As soon as we got to cruising altitude I began to feel extremely cold. I also sweated a lot, a sure sign in me of physical distress. As soon as we began to descend towards Earth, I started to feel better. By the time I was off the plane I felt almost normal.
Coming in to the Amsterdam airport I felt well enough to look out the window at the quaint and barely terrestrial countryside. I did not see any traditional wooden windmills, but I saw plenty of high tech energy generating turbines. The Amsterdam Airport had a wonderful fountain. It was about chest height on me and perhaps 5 m across. It was dotted with water nozzles, and at nonrandom but highly variable intervals the nozzles shot water up and towards the center the fountain, or not. When the water stopped coming out of a particular nozzle the water it had already disgorged, arced away from the nozzle and to the center of the fountain like a happy fish.
Sheila has posted a few pictures from the trip on her Picasa webpage (http://picasaweb.google.com/dragonteaster/FinlandPargasVikingPark725# the longest of three albums so far), and there will be more. Lillian has posted a couple of hundred on Facebook and Morgan posted some on her photo blog.
When we got off the plane in Helsinki, one of the people who took me off in the aisle chair took us straight to customs and then baggage claim. From there, he took us out to the taxi stand. This was both nice and efficient, although it meant we had missed the opportunity to get some euros for our dollars, which meant it was not easy to tip him or anyone else. Fortunately, in most situations in Finland, one does not tip. We had understood that it would be child's play to get a wheelchair-accessible taxi at the airport. It wasn't that easy but he made a couple of calls after a while and eventually one showed up.
When we got to the train station, it wasn't easy to figure out what track to go to, even though there was some English on one of the signs. We had to take all of our stuff down in an elevator and then drag it pretty far down the track to where the train was going to stop. The trains don't always stop in the same place, but we figured out where most of them stop and that's where we went. Every train we saw on that track had a wheelchair accessible car, the second to last car in the train. We didn't see any other disabled people get on a train, but we did see a train employee looking around and we assumed such a person would help us. That was the case. Who knows how long it would have taken if Sheila had had to put all of our stuff on the train by herself! There were two wheelchair spaces on the train. I occupied one and a large stroller occupied the other. The trip to Turku was about two hours and nearly all of our route was rural. We saw a lot of conifers and a couple of lumberyards. That, at least, was very reminiscent of Alabama. We were struck by how well to where most of the buildings we saw. They all looked like the head and improves and new paint jobs. We figured maybe they have to have that after what happens to them during the winter.
We stopped at the Turku train station, and looking out the window we could see Morgan and Wax in front of the station house and heading towards our track. They got to the train before we were finished getting off, and helped us take all of our stuff to the other side of the station. The train station isn't really very far from our hotel, and Morgan & Lillian pushed me. I didn't get a very clear idea of the layout of the town on our way to the Holiday Inn (an excellent place for someone in a wheelchair to stay, see my hotel review elsewhere).
The hotel cost €106 a night, which seems like a reasonable price for a downtown hotel only about four blocks from the city center. I didn't realize how good a deal we got. The hotel provided an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet that, based on prices for restaurant food around town, was probably worth about €25 a person to us. Most days we only ate two meals.
The days are already getting confused in my mind, but I do recall that our daughters refused to give us directions to the apartment. They have the ridiculous idea that because we sometimes forget things we can't find our way around a city, most of whose streets form a rectangular grid, when we only have about 9 blocks to go, and there is only one place where we turn from one street to another. So that first day we took a taxi to the apartment, after waiting until an hour when they might be awake.
Morgan and Wax have a small apartment consisting of a living room, bedroom, kitchen, shower and laundry room, bathroom, and, of course, a sauna.These rooms are all pretty small, and the living room seemed even smaller because Lillian was sleeping on a portable bed occupying most of the middle. The corner grocery, a half a block away, is very convenient. It seems to be what you would get if you took a full sized supermarket and removed three quarters of every aisle, or maybe 4/5s.
Morgan has already blogged about the sequence of our activities while we were in Finland, and it would be pointless for me to try to do the same. Instead, I'll just talk about my impressions of various things we did and saw.
Ice cream. Probably because their summer is so short many Finns seem to feel that a summer day without ice cream is a day wasted. Moving and stationary ice cream trucks and ice cream stands are everywhere and so are people carrying ice cream cones. I think every place that sells food sells ice cream. Of course our summer is about seven months long, so we have plenty of time for eating ice cream, and it doesn't seem that special. When your typical summer lasts only a few weeks and temperatures almost never get out of the 70s, ice cream takes on all the permanence of a mayfly.
Of course, this summer was the hottest in 75 years. All those sweaters, jackets, long pants, flannel shirts, that we brought for the nights during which the temperature would dip down into the 50s, went unused. But people got to have their ice cream.
The town square contains a market for six days a week, at least in summertime. The central part is dominated by a farmer's market, which includes a fishmonger. Around the outside are all sorts of booths: ice cream, T-shirts, imported clothing from India, yard sale stuff, a traveling used bookstore. Everything is on deliberately rough fake cobblestones. They are stone all right, but they are rectangular and cut to a brick shape. Traveling in a manual wheelchair on this stuff is exhausting. We bought a small wooden platter, a t-shirt, and some peas. Finns snack on 'em. You see the hulls on the ground everywhere, even indoors, but these are English peas. They're not sweet, they are chalky. My God, somebody needs to introduce these people to sugar snap or snow peas. I think they would even grow there. I saw some used paperback English-language science fiction in the square, including some books I have been meaning to read. I didn't buy them because I had enough reading material with me. The yard sales were just like they would have been if they were in the front yard. We could've picked up some inexpensive dishes. They didn't match our dining room.
We went to the old market twice. It is similar to the market in the square, but it is inside an old brick building. There are two or three butchers, two or three bakers, some touristy stuff, a café, a toy store, and more. We bought a few things there, but not the 200 pound teddy bear. It sure was astounding. I enjoyed the Nordic Engrish. My memory doesn't bring any of it up right now, but it was ubiquitous. Explanatory signs were particularly amusing.
Curb cuts in Turku are either very good or abominable. The former are designed intentionally as smooth and gentle ramps. The latter are rectangular solids of granite, 4 inches high, that have been roughly sawed off at a 45° angle. I actually have encountered a worse curb cut on the University of Alabama campus. That one is sawn asphalt, with a 1 inch lip. Followed by a 3 inch wide gutter and a 3 inch lip up. It has "wheel trap" written all over it.
We took a taxi up the hill to the art museum. It isn't really far, but the way is too steep for anyone to push me. It may be too steep for me to go in my power wheelchair. I had to use to lift us to see the art museum. It's not very big. There was a pretty substantial exhibit of Finnish paintings (and a bit of sculpture and printing) of nature and mostly rural life covering a good bit of Finnish art history. I assume there were pieces of art made by those who lived in what is now Finland before they called themselves Finns, but none of that stuff was included in the exhibit. I enjoyed the exhibit. There were a lot of Impressionist paintings, some of which appealed to untutored me. The other exhibit in the museum consisted of huge pieces of wood possibly shaped with a chain saw and painted in black, red, and at least one other color I think. The pieces were all three-dimensional, but gave an impression of being deeper than they really were. Some of them almost looked like they were two-dimensional representations of deep three-dimensional objects. I really did not like the show. I was not impressed with any emotional content of the work, probably because of my ignorance again. I did like the play with perspective, because it was done well. Pushing me back downhill, to Morgan's favorite restaurant was without incident. Turku was spared tabloid headlines about aerial wheelchairs.
The 13th century cathedral began with a leisurely stroll across the river and up the path to the accessible door. Oh wait, that was just me. For some of the other people there was a grueling climb shoving me up a steep gravel driveway that was clearly intended for vehicles moving under their own power. Again, no tabloid headlines were enabled, and I thought the interior of the cathedral was well worth the effort. The sarcophagi of knights, the knights themselves reproduced in carved stone on the lids, the painted ceilings, the reliquary that was easily large enough to hold an entire saint, but which was reportedly empty, the blaring organ music, combined with architectural details too numerous to mention or even recall, made the cathedral one of the high points of the tourist part of our visit
A very nice-looking antique store was right across the street from our hotel. We didn't really want to buy anything there, but we both wanted to explore it. Somehow we never made it, partly because Sheila was pretty sure I would not fit in the aisles. Just remember, when it comes to my wheelchair, I force it to fit. Ask the employees of Books A Million. They didn't believe me. WHY didn't they believe me!? Then again, maybe that was one of the reasons too.