Paul's Northern Europe 2002: Helsinki

Between Paul's Transfer Journal and Paul's Saint Petersburg Journal

June 1-4, 2002

Saturday, June 1, 2002

We arrived in the Helsinki harbor at 9:30. Unfortunately, I was busy getting organized and packing my bags, so I wasn't able to be on deck for photos. I was able to see some pretty great sights out my window as we slipped into town, however.

We have arrived on graduation day! Helsinki is teeming with young people who have just completed their studies. Those who have graduated are all wearing jaunty white caps. It's a beautiful day here, and once again we have stumbled into a wonderfully festive celebration. We certainly seem to have a knack for accidental good timing.1

Tonight we had our first Finnish flight. Although we had hoped to fly over Helsinki, the air just wasn't moving in quite the correct way, and so we had to drive an hour north of the city. It was a beautiful (and long) flight, however, and we were able to see lots of Finnish landscape.

Watcharee Flying the Balloon

1 So much would have been different if we had waited two more days in Germany until the direct Rostock-Helsinki ferry began to run: We would have missed Lund, we would have missed the spectacular passage out of Stockholm, and we would have arrived too late to enjoy the excitement of all these youngsters. Surely an invisible force is guiding us. Praise the Lord!

Sunday, June 2, 2002

No flight today! We were all gathered outside the hotel at 5:30, but it started to sprinkle and the skies looked like they had even more moisture planned, so we decided to cancel. This proved to be a wise choice, because a lengthy deluge (included some hail) followed.

Monday, June 3, 2002

Another beautiful day! Would it stay nice, so we could have a second Finnish flight? ... No, it didn't!

Since I had been up too late (again!) last night, I slept too late in the morning. After breakfast, I went to the park with my notebook computer and spent a couple of hours trying to get the journal up to date. There were lots of people walking past me and sitting on benches, enjoying the sunshine. At one point a truck came and deposited a large turtle.

Eventually I went back to the Hotel Torni and connected with Stephani and Robin. We had made tentative arrangements to get together for lunch, and apparently they had written those arrangements in ink. I arrived later than the hour we had discussed, and they had waited for me. Stephani was very hungry. Robin took charge of our restaurant selection, and after giving us a tour of the railroad station, he walked us past dozens of dubious establishments, some of which offered food-like products. We ultimately stumbled upon Terrace Raffaelo, and there we were able to have a lovely al fresco lunch: seafood salad for Stephani; pasta with ham and bleu cheese for Robin and me.

Back once again at the Torni, I had a quick chat with Pauline, whose voice I hadn't heard since leaving home. At 18:15, Robin and Stephani came down to my room, and we finally opened the complimentary champagne that we received on the Silja Serenade.

At 7:00 we went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Robin and I, thinking that we should experience something local, opted for the "Helsinki Menu." We weren't entirely sure what this specialty included, even though the courses purported to be translated into English on the menu, but we did know that reindeer was the primary course. (What, though, was "parsley cappucino with truffle"?) Anyway, our preference for local authenticity proved to be a major mistake, since it apparently takes a very long time to prepare. After a full hour, nobody had even received an appetizer, and the Previas were already waiting to take us to the balloon. We quickly amended our order to something simpler,1 and everything proceeded much more smoothly from that point onward.

Our plan for tonight was to do a short tethered flight on the waterfront. Doing this late in the evening would work because at that point the onshore breeze abated and the offshore breeze would not yet have begun. As it turned out, however, rain began to sprinkle shortly after our arrival at the site, and after waiting for a bit, we determined that it was all futile. Back to the Torni!

We just learned something interesting today: Lee Harvey OswaldA barfly in O'Malley's (the Irish pub on the ground floor of the Torni) said that Lee Harvey Oswald had stayed in this hotel. We were not initially sure whether or not to believe this, but it didn't really sound strange enough to have been made up, and so Alf googled "Lee Harvey Oswald Hotel Torni," and confirmation was immediate.

From the Warren Report:

Oswald disembarked at Le Havre on October 8 [1959]. He left for England that same day, and arrived on October 9. He told English customs officials in Southampton that he had $700 and planned to remain in the United Kingdom for 1 week before proceeding to a school in Switzerland. But on the same day, he flew to Helsinki, Finland, where he registered at the Torni Hotel; on the following day, he moved to the Klaus Kurki Hotel.

This inquiry also led to substantial additional information regarding our hotel's history.

1 We both switched to the "deer chop" ... and it was excellent: extremely rare and tender. Blam, Bambi!

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

It's another gloriously beautiful morning in Helsinki, with deep blue cloudless skies. In 20 minutes we're departing for St. Petersburg. More later.1

Much later:

Mike estimated that it might take us one to three hours to get through the Russian border. I was frankly skeptical about this: I couldn't imagine how it could take even one hour to cross, unless there were huge crowds of people who had all decided to travel today.

We reached the Finnish part of the border crossing a little before 14:00. Since we were getting out of their country, rather than bringing things in, it seemed to me that there should be much of a problem. As it happened, though, it took us half an hour! The guard at in the window asked us a lot of questions ... none about us, really, although she did carefully compare each of our passport photos with our actual faces. On the other hand, she was extremely in interested in the Previas' documentation. When the first van went through, she was largely nonspecific about the cause of her concern. By the time she had waved that one off into the holding area and motioned for us to drive up to her window, she was beginning to hone in on the problem: She wanted documentation that showed our drivers were permitted to drive these Bombard vehicles in Russia.

I am not sure whether her concern was that our drivers might not have been authorized by the Bombard Society to operate its vehicles ... or whether she thought we needed some piece of paper from Russia relating to these vehicles operating on Russian roads. In any event, what I really didn't understand was why it mattered to her anyway: Wouldn't this be Russia's problem?

We were finally cleared through the Finnish exit checkpoint, and we drove the short distance to the Russian entry checkpoint. That was where the real adventure began ...

There were very few autos going through the border (although the tractor-trailer trucks were lined up quite densely). In fact, we got through the little booth pretty quickly and without incident. There was some "additional paperwork" that had to be completed, however, primarily because of the unusual ballooning equipment we had brought with us. I'm sure that they're not accustomed to finding the proper category on their forms for wicker baskets that carry passengers ... or for hot-air balloon propane burners. In any event, there was a lot of confusion, and a good deal of bureaucracy.

Most of us didn't have anything to do with the process: We sat in the grass (and how lucky we were that there was a spot of grass!) or in the Previas, and we killed time. We chatted, we read, we napped, we watched DVDs of Sex and the City, Mike danced in the "detained vehicles" holding area. At one point, a busload of Russians passed through, and they took pictures of one another standing next to our Previas.

In all, we actually spend eight and a half hours at the border doing nothing! Luckily, we had stopped and picked up some chips and popcorn and assorted other snacks, so we didn't have to survive on our breakfasts alone. We left the border at 22:30, and we arrived at our destination a bit after 1:00.

The days are getting even longer: While the sun went down at about 23:00, it was still definitely light at midnight. By the time we reached the hotel, it was a little dark, but there was still some light in the sky. I think the sun probably began rising again not long after that.

I settled into my room at the Grand Hotel Europe (which is absolutely beautiful!), I raided the fruit bowl, and I eventually went to bed at about 3:00.

1 Of course, if we have connection problems in Russia, you won't hear a peep out of us for the next week ... but that's unlikely!

Next: Saint Petersburg

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