A day in Gamla Stan (old town) 7

The next morning, by the time we woke up, we could see that we had already entered the archipelago of Sweden and the ship was just skirting around zillions of small little islands to reach Stockholm, the capital. After quickly freshening up, and grabbing a pizza slice yet again, we again rushed to the sun deck to catch a glimpse of the slightly different looking panorama. The buildings lookedApproaching Stockholm similar (to Finland) from a distance. As the port came closer, ppl rushed towards the exits. The cruise staff had taken pictures of everyone while entering the ship and had displayed them for ppl to make it theirs for an exhorbitant sum. Yet, we all indulged and took a copy each of the rather silly looking pictures because after all, one doesnt go to Stockholm on a cruise everyday. The large crowd did what was expected. Due to us being such a large no of ppl in the group (8), and each one being at a different location when the ship touched land, we all got separated for some time. Six of us managed to find each other outside at the Viking line terminal but two duds got so late, that we missed the bus tour which left from the terminal once a day. Eventually we took local transport (had already converted to local currency – Swedish Kronor – in Helsinki) to the city railway station. From there, we took an open top, double decker, hop on-hop off bus, the sorts that Shah Rukh Khan has crooned and kareened in, in many movies.
The open top, hop on-hop off bus
The plus point of these was that one could get off at any stop in between, visit the place and then hop on again into any of the later buses. It also had headphones for an individual audio tour in many languages, which gave a commentary about the various places being passed by. Thus, we passed by the cultural centre and Sweden house. We got down to see the famous Vasa Museum, which is a museum built around a ship. This ship was made in early 17th century and on the day of its maiden voyage, in all splendour, the ship sank, the moment it set sail (in 1628). A case of bad design it seems. The ship was salvaged in 1961 and a museum was built, after restoring the worlds only 17th century ship to what it would have looked like then. We were told that our exorbitant “hop on – hop off” bus ticket included free admission to almost all museums, but that was not the case. Thereafter the hop on – hop off bus got coined as the hop on, hop off and f**k off bus.
Eventually we checked out Vasa museum from outside. There was another museum nearby which we went to and then waited to hop on again, since we didnt have much time in Stockholm either. We passed by City hall, where the Nobel prize banquet is held every year, the opera and some theatres. We also passed by the open air museum (Skansen) and the amusement park – Grona Lund, where we were entitled to free rides (for sure this time). But since we didnt have time, we didn’t venture there. Next we got down at the Royal Palace, where we asked a rather stern looking guard when the “change of guard” would occur. Luckily we were just in time for that ceremony. We found some spots which provided a good view of the ceremony (yours truly being in front of a mob in full camerawoman style). The change of guard at the Royal PalaceThe “change of guard” was a typical formal, military affair and nice to watch. Immediately after the ceremony got over, the military band broke into ABBA’s “Dancing queen” much to our surprise! After the change of guard, the new guard at the entrance was a rather cute looking young chap, with whom yours truly got a picture clicked. Unfortunately he looked more like a stiff mannequin than a real human being. By the time we got free from this place, it was already past lunchtime and all of us wanted to grab some lunch. We again hopped on into the f**k off bus and got off at the stop no 9 (Sightseeing boats) and went to the Central station once more (stop 13), this time on foot. Everyone had something at Burger King with the exception of yours truly who had Thai food. After a sumptuous meal, we were barely left with just enough time to walk back to the Viking line terminal in time to board the ship on time. The hop bus would have taken a complete circle of the whole town and that would have been too late.
A narrow cobblestoned street
The best way to see a place is anyway peripatetic. So we gathered our maps and our bearings and walked our way to the ship. On the way back, we went by the narrow cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan, saw the sparkling water all around and the various ships and tours available to the Viking village. I personally didn’t find much difference in Stockholm and Helsinki. The architecture seemed the same due to the Swedish influence in Finland. Only the signs were not bilingual but only in Swedish this time. The same brands and the same stores are in both places. I didn’t even feel as if I visited another country due to the seamless integration of EU. The only difference is that Sweden doesn’t use the Euro as its official currency, otherwise everything else seems the same. A few things reminded me of back home though. For some reason a lot of the crowd in the cruise consisted of Bangladeshis. Also, surprisingly there were tongas being used in Gamla Stan! One of my colleagues even distorted Gamla Stan to gamlistan and then to gulistan.

Here’s a nice bird’s eye view of Stockholm. It has overhead videos and is really like flying to that place.

After getting into the ship, once again it was some more of the sun deck The beautiful skyfollowed by some more music, dance and drinks, since it got quite cloudy instantly. There were lots of pets on board and I met a couple of them. Pendo and Jerry were two of the dogs I met. Pendo is an Alsatian, known as German Shepherd in this part of the world. The ship even had a pet’s corner. On the return trip, we had the tax free shopping to take care of. I bought loads of chocolates. We also had the karoake bar to try again. But this time again, by the time we got to the karaoke bar, the timings were already over. We went exploring the lower decks of the ship which were meant for the cars and other vehicles. Unfortunately, we were imagining them to be Taking a lift from the shipin some large yard kind of thing, but it wasnt like that. We couldn’t see anything except for endless rows of cabins. We also visited the Sauna centre and managed to take a peek in as it was closing down for the night. After partying for some part of the night, we retired slightly early as we had to get to our workplace, straight from the terminal the next day. The next morning, 8 weary travellers got off at the Viking Line terminal at Helsinki, tired, hungry and pleased.

IAAF World Athletics Championships in Helsinki 11


This was one of the events responsible for a lot of personal misery to me (and my colleagues) unfortunately. No, I am not a sports fanatic at all. But it’s strange to note, how such external factors do affect us still. I had to arrange for an apartment for myself within the first 3 weeks of arriving in Finland. We had been told it’s not really difficult. But when we started searching, we were just not able to get *any* apartment available in the time period that we wanted. Even though the time period was supposedly the best, since in summers, a lot of apartments get vacant as the majority of the population goes off to a summer cottage, we faced major problems in finalising an apartment. Whatever little was available was at greatly hiked prices. I remember one chap was renting out his place only for the week in which the IAAF World Championships had to take place in Helsinki and he expected 2000€ for it! Outrageous by any real estate standards! Well the woes can make up a long post in themselves maybe later.

For now, the world championships are taking place out here. Helsinki is all geared up for the event. As can be expected, there is much fanfare, tourist friendly schemes, escalation in real estate and a good business opportunity for people. Suddenly there is a major influx of ‘foreigners’ in the local transport and on the streets. It feels good to be not the only ones, who do not understand Finnish/Swedish. Initially we thought that India isn’t taking part in these events as there was just no information anywhere in the Indian media (on the net). Finally on visiting the venue, we managed to spot the Indian flag and later we learnt that Anju Bobby George was taking part in the long jump event (She had won the bronze in the same games held in Paris in 2003). She stood 5th in the event this year inspite of the bad weather. (Later she would get upgraded to Gold medalist status due to other winners being disqualified)  The weather conditions were *really* bad for the past few days and literally dampened our plans to watch this event. So far, I have not been able to watch the event. But will surely try to, in the 2 more days that the event is on. Even if India wasn’t participating we all would have loved to use this opportunity to make a first, as far as watching a sports event in a stadium is concerned.

There are a lot of other activities which go on outside the stadium, for eg. marathons, fun games for free in which one can win prizes ranging from small badges and caps to passes of a cruise! I tried my hand at these games and collected a lot of small stuff (badges, pens, caps) but no cruises passes unfortunately. I also got my face painted with the Indian tri-colour! For once I won’t face a problem of my nationality being mistaken.


Peripatetic 10

The public transport system in Finland is quite good. One has trains, buses, trams and the metro to commute. Finland or rather Helsinki is a tourist’s paradise in the sense of travelling around the place. Maps, public transport timetables and a whole lot of information is easily available in tourist information offices, railway stations etc. Maps with the details upto the house numbers are commonly available in most kiosks, information points, hotels, restaurants etc. Getting to a place provided you know the address, was never that simple before. To add to this, there’s a great Finnish website which takes the source and destination and tells you the mode of transport, where to get down, change the transport etc. according to any date and time. It also provides multiple ways in which you can reach that place at that point of time, subject to the transportation facilities available then. It also provides links to detailed maps of the source, destination and the change points. Along with this are the routes (drawn graphically in the map) and the timetable of the transport involved. This works for one major reason. Transport more or less follows a timetable. Comparing this with India, err..timetable? Does such a thing even exist in the first place? Only in schools.
Buses here are sleek and big with pneumatic doors (like in Japan). Sleek busOnly a driver is there (no conductor to come asking for tickets – which is perhaps something that happens in the entire world except India). It’s one’s own responsibility to buy a ticket. Checking is rarely ever done. I never came across any ticket checking in Japan. But then that is because one has to swipe ones ticket/travel card through a terminal and only then would one be allowed. Anyone trying anything else, would face a hit from some baricades jutting out the moment you try to crossover. Mostly there’s a policeman stationed at these points too. In Finland, though there are terminals for swiping cards, there is no restriction to access. In other words, one can go anywhere, anytime and you can get caught only if manual checking is done. So far, with me checking has happened only once in a train in Helsinki. Special tram with a pub in it.The only major difference between buses (and trams) in Finland and those in Japan is the way to indicate that you have to get down/get in. In Japan, one had to go and stand next to the driver, a substantial time before ones stop came, else he would not stop the bus (trams aren’t there in Japan). To get in, there was no particular ‘rule’. The bus stopped at the stop, and one got in if one had to. In Finland, there are buttons provided right next to each seat (in both buses and trams), so that if one wishes to get down, one may press the button in advance. To indicate that one wants to get in a bus/tram, one has to wave one’s hand properly (so that it’s visible) else the bus/tram wouldn’t stop! Experience is the best teacher, but its fees is very high. All desis are so unused to this waving-for-a-bus-thing, that they have had to learn by experience. Everyone of us has had instances where we waited half an hour for a bus, it came, it saw and it went on without stopping simply because we forgot to flag it down! If one is not *at* the bus/tram stop (which is clearly marked) when the bus/tram comes, there’s no use running, shouting, waving or any other thing to make it stop. Once the pneumatic doors close, they are harder than Alladin’s caves to re-open. The driver (usually wearing a Mogambo-esque expression and goggles) will not even acknowledge your mere presence and will move on.
The roads in Finland (and probably the rest of europe) are great. They are smooth and well tarred and of course, things like potholes don’t exist in the dictionary of the roads here. Not only that, they dont even have speed breakers. They have speed limits marked on signboards and each and every person respects them. The thing closest to a speeButton to press, if you want to stop a busd breaker is at times a section of the road, more like a zebra crossing (it’s that wide) and hardly elevated from the road. I call it a speed breaker because vehicles do slow down when they come to that rare thing, but it’s nothing like the ^ shaped speed breakers we have in India, which not only break your speed, but also your head, neck, back, vehicle and everything possible. Pedestrians and cyclists have separate roads for them which are actually the footpaths which are well tarred out of which half a clearly demarcated section is for pedestrians and half for cyclists. In Japan also cyclists used the pavements but there were no demarcations. One of the secrets for smooth roads is that these ppl pull out the old stuff and then put on fresh tar. The level of the road doesnt change. In India, the elevation of the road changes (mostly increases) with the years it sees in its life. The potholes get left behind unfortunately.
Somehow I noticed something lacking on the roads, when I got here. After a couple of days, I realised it was the absence of motorbikes! Finally after the first week I saw one. They are rare, quite rare. But the ones that do get seen also make sure they get heard. They appear to be almost as fast as the bike used in the sci-fi TV serial StreetHawk. Rather than other modes of transport, most ppl use bicycles to commute. But a lot of bicycles here have no brakes! Neither do they have stands. To stop a bicycle, you are supposed to reverse pedal or at least stop peddling and it would stop. They also have tubeless tyres, which means you need to apply more force and pedal continuously for any movement. Thankfully there are some bicycles which are ‘normal’. Personal cars are quite expensive and so are cabs (like Japan). The place is scenic and beautiful. At least in the summers, the weather is great. All is perfect for a good ride and a good exercise. But nothing can beat the best way to see a place – peripatetic.
* – the tram in the picture is a special one. It’s a pub inside a tram and of course you need to buy a drink to get onto it. The public transport tram is just different in colour.

Lingual Tangle 9

In Finland there are two official languages and no, English is not one of them. These are Finnish and Swedish. Finnish, supposedly, is derived from English, German and Swedish. (Now I wish I had taken at least some German classes before coming here). At some point of time in history, Swedish used to be the official language here. Now, Finland is a bilingual country where 6 % of the population are Swedish speaking. Swedish lessons are still compulsory in comprehensive schools. English, however, has become a “second mother tongue” for young people. Most (not all) people here can speak English though a lot of them have to think and speak slowly, processing it in their mind perhaps. Anyway this is much better than Japan where well educated people can not even speak English for their business needs. The chances of getting any kind of language help (in Japan) in a public place are really bleak. Your best bet would be a good practice of dumb charades*#. As far as written language is concerned, at least one can *read* the script of Finnish/Swedish and try to say something when referring to a place or anything else. Japanese renders one totally helpless.
Thanks to the Swedish speaking population, Finland’s connections to Sweden and other Nordic countries are close. Swedish TV and other programs in Swedish are broadcasted out here. Sweden has Finnish as its minority official language.
People like us are faced with the bilingual situation in Helsinki when it comes to street signs and advertisements. We did not know earlier that everything was written once in Finnish and then in Swedish. So what was really two names of the same thing, was thought by us to be a two word name of something. Leppavara Alberga wasn’t really a long name of the district where my office is. Rather Leppavara is the Finnish name and Alberga, the Swedish one. At times the Swedish names seem to be quite similar to the Finnish ones, at least phonetically for eg. Espoo is Esbo in Swedish. Now that we know everything has two names of the same place, we might get confused easily when there are two words for a single thing.
Most products here in the convenience stores have markings in Finnish and Swedish. If not these two, then an additional one would be in German (or maybe any other Nordic language). If you are really in luck, you might find some products with ingredients/contents marked in English as well, but that’s something very rare. Even products from India do not have their contents in English. It’s my hunch that some words in Finnish are also derived from Hindi. For eg. Pineapple is ananas! and Moong dal is Mung/Moong! Or maybe these products were ‘brought’ from India to begin with and hence the names stuck. Some words in Finnish are quite easy intuitively but one can’t always rely on the assumption that they mean what they seem to mean. For eg. maisi is maize, paprika is obviously pepper, kakku is cake. But porkanna is not pork but carrot! And appelsini is not apple but orange! (this is the most common assumption most desi’s make – urs truly not included). Apple is instead omena. For survival, we have tried to learn the words for chicken, egg, pork, beef, ham, duck etc so that we can at least make out some contents.

Finnish (and other nordic languages) has more vowels than English. These are ä, ö and y (apart from a, e, i, o, u) which are counterparts of a, o, u. I have already mentioned the usage of ‘j’ in Finnish. ‘y’ is also not pronounced as ‘y’ as in year but rather with a ‘u’ sound. So Yksi (means one) is pronounced as ‘ooksi’ and not ‘eeksi’ or ‘yikesi’ (cutesie equivalents of eeks and yikes). Out here ppl say ‘Yau’ (Yes), which is somewhere in the middle of Ya (yes) and Yo (‘cool’ way of saying yes). There are (a lot of) words differing only in the length of a sound and incorrect length can easily confuse anyone here. Like the Japanese, Finnish are also quite sing-song when it comes to talking but less than the Japanese anyway. Voice modulation keeps changing a whole lot. The ‘r’s are rrrrrrolled off their tongue and the ‘t’s are much much softer than normal ‘t’. It’s more dental (sound is made by the tongue touching the teeth) rather than the usual ‘t’. The Japanese way of speaking is very squeaky and nasal. They like to mull over a word (and in that process stretch it a whole lot and make it sing song too) or say it very quickly (rapid fire). Either of the two can happen. The Finnish, don’t stretch their words as long. When they get stuck (during translation to English that happens), they repeat the syllable again and again (the-the-the-the-the), whereas the Japanese, stretch it and make it sing song (thhhhhhhhhhhhhheeeeeee). The Finnish are also very fond of saying ‘Aha-aa’ and with modulation that could varyingly make it sound like a surprise, a realisation, a magic trick or whatever. ‘Ok’ is said with a whole lot of force into the ‘kay’. It makes one feel as if one is watching theatre. They also say ‘buh-bye’ or ‘bye-bye’ instead of ‘Bye’. It’s not considered childish or anything. Everyone says it and so do I.I think my English is going to be “t’ot’ally” distorted by the time I get back.

* – acting out words without speaking
# – I searched for a suitable hyperlink for ‘dumb charades’ and one of the sites churned out is of my employer, where they write about the cultural events!