Rounding the world – Day 18: Finland to Russia…

I woke to the gentle ding of my alarm, reminding me today was the day I had to leave. The moon was still out and although it was in fact morning, the night sky displayed as though it was the middle of the night. Snow had fallen and the top of my igloo had a lovely light white dusting. I laid in bed to soak up the last little bit of my glass igloo experience. Waking to pine trees every morning, going to bed to stars every night, there’s nothing like being surrounded completely by nature.

Though the day must go on, today was a busy travel day. After gorging myself with as much breakfast as I could possible fit in within a 15 minute span I made a little lunch to take for the airplane. Then we were off! It wasn’t more than 10 km in before we came upon our first reindeer crossing, then second, then third, then I lost count. All fluffy, all adorable, all with collars like a doggie, I wanted to jump out and give them all hugs! As Bon Jovi’s ‘She’s a Little Runaway’ blared on the speakers while the reindeer scampered through the snow, it felt so surreal I couldn’t help but wonder if I was dreaming.

The airport was dimly lit and it’s very likely just opened as we were the first flight of the day. As we all piled out of the shuttle, everyone with their enormous suitcases as if planning to move to the Arctic, me and my little duffle headed straight to check-in, then security, only to find I literally was the ONLY person in the airport. Completely empty. Such a wild feeling. Small town Finland, ha! Next to the gates was a row of electric fireplaces glowing oranges and reds which made the perfect place to nestle down until our plane arrived.

As the plane pulled up to the airport, the lady behind the counter at the only gift shop / food stand, quickly put a ‘closed’ sign and threw on her safety vest and headed out to greet the plane. She walked a little girl, maybe 6-7 off the plane, an unaccompanied minor…I remember those days. So many flights, over so many years, and it was ladies like her that made the whole experience – meeting pilots, hanging out with flight attendants, playing with wheel chairs, getting plastic wings, offering first class upgrades, and so forth. I hope they know that even though a kiddo is too young to really articulate appreciation that it made a huge difference.

The plane does one big loop from Helsinki to the two big tourist destinations – first Ivalo, then Kittila, then back to Helsinki. So on the way up, we were the first stop, on the way back, we dropped folks off in Kittila first. The flight was almost completely full and they had upgraded the route with a full-sized A320, tourist season had begun! We ascended for our short 90 mile hop to Kittila, leveling out at 10,000, which is a rather odd feeling to be cruising in a full sized commercial aircraft at 10,000 feet, but alas it wasn’t long before we made a rather uncomfortable pitch down to begin our decent.

During the stop I met the couple next to me, who were also on my flight up to Ivalo the few days prior, and stayed at the same resort. Fun! They were celebrating their 25th anniversary and you could feel the connection oozing from them, as he would steal a kiss on her cheek periodically or she would rest her head on his shoulders for a quick nap. It reminded me that good love is worth the wait. It is easy to love someone as people grow on us, but after many years to still like someone, to still think they are a great person, that my friend is what makes love worth it. That’s what breeds the ‘consideration’ trait I mentioned in my three traits blog.

The flight from Kittila, which appeared to be a skiing resort town, to Helsinki was around an hour and a half. Once on the ground it was time for me to figure out how to get back to the train station in Helsinki city center. Down a few hallways, around a few bends, and down a multi-story escalator was the train, arriving in 10 minutes, and taking 35 minutes to get there. All is good.

My favorite part of train stations in Europe has quickly become the information booth. I’m a huge fan of confirming I’m in the right spot so made a b-line for that little ‘i’ icon. Indeed, unlike Berlin or St Petersburg, Helsinki has just one main train station so I was set. Now time for a cappuccino, sandwich and a glass of wine. For better or worse, unlike Poland one cannot buy alcohol for the train at the station nor can one consume it on the train to Russia.

As I was waiting for the train to St Petersburg, a woman passed by then started to rifle thru the trash can for food and didn’t find anything suitable and moved on. I watched as she eyed everyone heading to various garbage cans, looking to see if they were discarding food or drink, and something hit me, the fact she didn’t feel entitled for handouts, made me feel an enormous amount of compassion for her, I found myself tearing up, and let’s be clear I’m not a crier, but there I was feeling sympathy for this woman I never met and wishing she’d walk by again so I could give her money for food. It left me feeling so fortunate.

The train to St Petersburg is on the Allegro line which is a high speed rail that only takes about 3.5 hours. The train was about two thirds full, mostly woman, mostly Russian passports. Not sure what any of that means if anything. When we neared the Finland border, a number of boarder guards with their black bullet proof vests and guns at their side came on to check our passports and give us exit stamps. We were told to stay seated and not move until the process was over. They walked the aisles in teams going one by one until we were all done.

Once the Fins were done, the Russian team came aboard, about 2-3 times the size of the Finnish team. Also decked out in vests and guns and intimidating looks. The first team came through to verify we weren’t smuggling stuff from Finland and not declaring it. They went one by one through each passenger – ‘where’s your luggage’, ‘show it to me’, ‘what’s in there’, ‘let me see’ – until we had all been questioned and evaluated. Then came the passport team, reviewing each passport, scanning all my passport pages, slowly, and I have extension pages and loads of stamps so it took a while. Then entering visa info, then passport info, the whole time with this look of ‘this isn’t good’ on their face, reading the screen, typing more stuff in, and after what felt like forever, I passed, whew. The visa application was so many pages and so difficult I realized if I’d made any mistake I’d be deported right then and there. Though really it was after all those museums in the prior cities that made me wonder if all my stamps might make them think I had other motives other than to roam their city taking random pictures of pretty architecture and lovely meals, which is really about all I do.

I wasn’t comfortable leaving my stuff unattended on the train so waited until we were off to use the restroom. By the way, that was a bad idea. Were were not allowed to enter the train station, they police were there and escorted us all to the street. There was no English anywhere. I walked the whole perimeter thinking I’d just go into the train station and use the restroom. No. When I finally found the door, not only do you need to have a ticket and go through metal detectors but I couldn’t see any bathroom. Argh. It was the pitch black of night and without knowing what to do, I had seen a Burger King logo when a few blocks back so as any American would do, I went to the friendly familiar in hopes of a bathroom and maybe WiFi.

Thinking I probably needed to order food, I tried to order onion rings though my pronunciation of the Russian word for onion rings was clearly so awful they had no idea what I was saying. The kind lady then started just pointing to the pictures on the board behind her until I did the thumbs up, versus down. Once we got that sorted, I then realized I had no rubles. I hadn’t trusted the money changer on the train assuming there would be an ATM, assuming I’d be in a big bright helpful train station like the other cities. Again, that was a bad decision. So… Then with my google translate offline edition, I just begged to use the bathroom. They were so nice and gave me the code. After getting that hurdle out of the way, the next was getting money. I realized I couldn’t take a cab or bus or train without it. I had hoped to do Uber but without WiFi there would be no Uber (Uber would have been the only option to get to the hotel without money and deal with it in the morning – which would have been so nice).

Back up to the Burger King cashiers, there I was, this helpless pathetic American at their complete mercy typing away in my Google Translate – ‘thank you so much’, ‘can you please also tell me where to find an ATM’ – hand then the phone – then they would type in Russian and it would translate to English. Eventually getting to the location of the nearest ATM. Once money was out of the way, it was time to figure out the subway. Luckily the M1 was next to the Burger King, so I figured I could start there and hopefully it would somehow connect to where I needed to go.

The information booth lady was so kind and spoke zero English. She was so patient with my – type type type – ‘I need to buy a ticket’ – then type type type – ‘I need to go here XX, can you show me on the map’. After a bit of back and forth and her answering only in Russian, she was so kind enough to come out of her kiosk and show me on the subway map how to get to where I needed to go. She literally taught me how to merry the subway map with my Google maps (all in Russian – so really she taught me with pointing and hand gestures) which was a saving grace. Finally, an hour later, and well into the night, I was on my way!

Turning the corner and going thru the metal detector then ticket booth with my token, I entered the longest escalator I’ve ever been on. Dear God don’t let me fall! It had to be at least 5-6 stories long. It made the A/C High Street escalator in Brooklyn seem minuscule! After the 10 min escalator ride to the inner core of the earth under Russia, the subway system was actually pretty well marked and very easy to navigate. The transfer was simple and I was SOOOO happy I chose the duffle. I think just about every city I say, I’m so glad I chose the duffle. A roller would have been a pain. A backpack would have made me standout.

Navigating the streets required a bit of squinting in the dark as the Latin letters are underneath in super tiny font to the Russian letters though eventually I found my way to the hotel. The front counter only knew enough English to provide the information on how to get to the room and nothing else. I knew they weren’t fans of the Americans, but do they not think English is helpful for other countries? Unlike everywhere else in the world I’ve been, the TV had about 30 stations all in Russian. The Disney channel dubbed to Russian, Spider-Man was on in Russian, random shows from the 80’s, in Russian. So I decided to watch the Russian version of MTV, which did not show any American bands btw, and I found watching Russian music videos to be really interesting. Very different content, but the perfect thing to help me fall asleep after such a wild day.

Here’s hoping tomorrow will be smoother!



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