HELSINKI – September 8-9

Had my entire backpack searched at the airport security in A’DAM. I was cool with that, but boy oh boy — they were thorough. I got in trouble because I didn’t realise I should have taken my camera and the iPhone charger out of my pack and put into one of the trays (just like the lappy). Look — I travel quite a bit and this was the first time I had encountered these regulations. Anyway I did my best to be polite and apologetic.

On the flight we tried one of Ben Law’s little tips. We deliberately booked a window seat (me) and an aisle seat (Dee) separated by an empty seat (some random who we could negotiate with later). It was genius. Thanks Ben! No one got booked into that middle seat and we had our row to ourselves. Pity it was only a 2 hour flight.

Over Helsinki we swapped seats and Dee got a decent look at all the lakes of her homeland. “It’s the land of a thousand lakes,” she said, quite authoritatively. And it looked true. They were everywhere down there. But as I learnt later — there are about 188 THOUSAND lakes in Finland. So Dee was basically lying. I am used to that.

Anyway I bloody dare you to look up Google maps and witness all that land vs puddle bullshit. It is bloody crazy. Wait. I can do that for you just cause I am a decent guy. Observe:

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We should establish at this outset that Dee is 1/4 Fnnish. Her mother’s maiden name is the unpronounceable “Veijalainen”. Phonetically you could get away with saying VAY-A-LINE-ANN.

A BIT ABOUT FINLAND FROM WHAT I COULD GATHER INITIALLY

Finland has a population of about 5.5 million people, so about a quarter that of Australia. It’s relatively flat — didn’t see any mountains or even that many hills. Lots of lakes and ocean coastline — as mentioned previously. Finland has been around as an autonomous state only about 100 years. Was part of Sweden for a bit (in Helsinki all road signs are in Finnish and Swedish), then Russia (further east you get the road signs begin in Finnish, then below is the Swedish, then below that is the Russian). Finland allied with the Nazis at the beginning of WWII and fought the “Winter War” with Russia and punched well above it’s weight. (But in the peace deal, possibly cause it killed a highly disproportionate amount of Ruskies (compared to Finns) — it lost quite a bit to Russia.) Mostly it has been pushing against Russia, rather than Sweden. Monuments and markers of the War(s) are everywhere here.

The language is like nothing I have ever heard before. Apparently it has more in common with central-eastern Europe than Scandinavia or even Russian. It is still a tiny bit high-pitched, but not sing-song like Norwegian. Everyone seemed to speak an incredible amount of English so you can truly get away with “Hei” (Hello) and “Kiitos” (Thank you).

Sauna is a big deal over here. You pronounce it “Sour-nah”. According to wikipedia there are over 3 million saunas in Finland. Than is over one sauna for every two inhabitants. Wiki: “Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.” We got to experience this all first-hand. But more on that later!

FIRST DAY

We arrived by train from the airport and found our way to the hotel which was basically in the dead centre of town. We had missed lunch and it was now too late so Dee sent me on a mission to find snacks, a drink, fruit and a tinned coffee. But finding a convenience store was a super-challenge. I got the fruit (berries) just at a market-kart near the station but failed on most of the other criteria. Finland has that thing where you can only buy booze at State-run facilities. And these can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look.

Meanwhile my phone-card from the UK refused to work so on the agenda for that night’s activities was to get a cheap Finnish phone plan. We eventually found R-Kioski. Pretty much exactly like a 7-11 but it also had these massive gambling machines (like Pokies) in a corner. Very weird.

Later we scrambled around to the big sights like the Cathedrals and the big Square and the waterfront. Dinner was at this pub place around the corner.

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SUOMENLINNA

So in Finnish – “Linna” basically means fortress or castle. We got to see a few other “Linnas” around the place. The vibe in Finland is that it is a tiny country squished between superior nations but it will defend itself to the hilt. To the HILT. And “Suomen” is basically the word for Finland. So Suomenlinna is a bit of a big deal. And it isn’t just one island. It is six islands connected by bridges. There’s a bunch of people that live there permanently. There’s even a school. And just quietly — the Pokemon were going riot over there. I saw a bunch of kids who had obviously skipped school just to go nuts over there.

The place was huge and there were always tiny nooks and details of the fortifications to look at and explore unimpeded. Tunnels and ramparts and actual batteries. Plus cute houses and views over the sea towards Estonia. It made the our pathetic “fort” in Brisbane (Fort Lytton) look pretty ordinary.

Lunch was at a ramen place. Look — it is so much easier ordering food in the language it was invented in when you are in a place that is a billion miles away. So consequently there is cultural neutral-zone.You kinda appear quite knowledgeable, and be a deadshit tourist at the same time. It’s a level playing field. “Tonkotsu Ramen Kiitos.” And then you can proceed to know the condiments and use the chopsticks (and spoon) with super-dexterity. It is a revelation. (ASIDE: In London we would order Pho, but we would get the kudos by pronouncing it “Fir”.)

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BOMFUNK MC’s

Here’s the thing – I will not try to pretend this next bit wasn’t tragic. It is what it is. I have been the biggest fan of this song, and it’s film-clip. Like almost equally. It is just the perfect marriage of sound and vision (and dancing). One of the very first children’s shows on TV I watched was called “Words and pictures”. And that was what it was about. Perfect. Art or just lowly “entertainment” wasn’t necessarily confined to just one medium at the same time. You could be the best of both or all worlds at the very same time.

Anyway this film-clip was so amazing and I just had to go there. Luckily the wikipedia page had the very specifics so I could go there and KNOW I was in exactly the same place. Nothing was changed. I even attempted to play the song on my iPhone but accidentally sent the music LIVE to everyone on the train cause I hadn’t quite got my headphone jack connected. Dee was horrified, but I didn’t care.

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NEXT!

That night we had dinner in some brewery and prepared for the next day into the heart of Finland via Dee’s great-uncle — Marku. He was picking us up at 8am.

BONUS PICS

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IMG_0895.JPGSome art installation!

GUEST BLOG – Jess writes about the Redhead Festival

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My take on Redhead Days is a little different to Davey’s… While I fully sympathise with the plight of the downtrodden gingers, wept for the guy in the Being Ginger Netflix documentary, and would argue strongly that the lack of ginger emojis is a mild form of racism… I myself never endured any ginger torment as a child.

Sure, there were what Dee would call my “terminally ill years” between the age of ten and 15, before braces and eyebrow tinting, but even through those awkward teenage times, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked, “Is that your natural hair colour?” I’d have enough money to hit up every ginger festival in every country every year.

I know this makes me (even more of) a minority, and I consider myself lucky for never having been made to feel embarrassed about my hair colour. (Except maybe for the time I dated a guy who turned out to be obsessed with Annie, and I only found out when he introduced me to his grandmother, who said, “Oh, she does look like Annie!” That was awkward.) My ginger pride stems from my upbringing, and the strong female gingers I had as role models – my beautiful mum, who I watched being constantly adored by my dad, and my fiery aunty, a total knockout loved by everyone. I don’t even know if you could call it “ginger pride”… Our hair colour, while acknowledged and celebrated, was just a small part of who we are. It was a non-issue, so I never had to overthink it, and I just kinda liked my hair colour. Even appreciated that it made me a little different.

So for me, Redhead Days seemed like a bit of fun. Something that would make a cool story… “Yeah, so I’m traveling through Europe for six months, and my first stop is a little town in the Netherlands for a three-day celebration of gingers.” Why not?!

But then I arrived in Breda, and my little ginger bubble burst. For the first time in my life, I actually felt self-conscious about my hair colour. While there was a strong sense of solidarity amongst the gingers, it was the non-ginger ginger enthusiasts that really made me uneasy. All of a sudden I was on display, and I didn’t like it one bit.

Standing in the town square, men with cameras would swarm and take photos of me like I was an animal in the zoo. One guy got so close I had to give him an “I can see you” eyebrow raise so that he’d back off.

Probably the most unsettling encounter was with a (non-ginger) guy from Vienna who claimed to be a journalist. He approached Dee & me in the park one afternoon looking for a story, with a bottle of coke and pack of cigarettes his only tools of trade. Within five minutes of awkwardly sleazy chitchat, he was convinced he and I were “the perfect pair” and suggested we be Facebook friends. Feeling a little flirty (in hindsight, foolish!) from the wine, I said that if he could find me at the pub crawl later that night, we could make that happen. He did find me. Twice. At two different pubs, among hundreds of gingers. In the dark of night in a foreign town, he seemed even more creepy than during the day, forcing me to make a French exit and go home to bed.

The official group photo was the last straw. Being herded into the photo location space, and then separated by a barrier from the non-gingers while the photographers snapped at us from the top of a cherry picker, just felt a little too much.

So while Redhead Days was an interesting experience, I was relieved when the weekend came to an end, and I could just throw my hair up in a ponytail and move on. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d washed and blow dried my hair three days in a row. Because hey, if I’m going to be photographed unknowingly, I want to be looking my best. 💁 (Blonde emoji used for lack of a ginger one.)

And here’s Jess’s blog: The End of August