Friday, 19 June 2015

Round Europe with a Laptop: Helsinki 16th-17th June 2008

Round Europe with a Laptop

Facebook's annoying, isn't it? When you don't want people to see what you're up to, it pushes your every move to everyone's newsfeed, like when you comment on a post about which member of Girls Aloud is your favourite - and then, when you'd actually quite like people to read something you've spent hours writing, it has a strop and decides it isn't showing it to anyone until someone likes it first.

However, just recently they've made a change I genuinely like - the "On This Day" feature, which sends you a notification every morning with a link to a page showing you what you posted on that day every year since records began (all the way to 2007, in my case.) It's a lovely way to start each day, with a warm glow reminiscent of opening your Christmas presents with your family around you; if the Christmas presents largely consisted of photos of foreign chocolate bars with funny names and rants about your co-workers.

But it has flagged up some genuinely happy memories - for instance, during this week in 2011, I was just coming back from my first trip to Philadelphia, all full of cheesesteak, decked out in my Phillies shirt and moaning about being stuck in the middle seat all the way home (rookie mistake!) And then in 2013, my partner Karin and I were having an absolute moose of a time in Montreal at the Formula 1 Grand Prix and making new lifelong friends in Vermont.

But the most interesting thing it reminded me about, largely because it was so flipping long ago I'd almost forgotten,was the crazy summer of 2008, where I decided it was a good idea to visit 11 countries in a couple of months.

"This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere..."
Actually, it is Rotterdam. Pre-trip number 1.

Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey thing...

It's October 2007, and I'm sitting in an interview, opposite a fearsome-looking Scottish lady who I've never met before, but her reputation is for being pretty no nonsense. We're getting on like a house on fire, though, and it's looking like I might be lucky enough to get picked for this secondment opportunity after all, having walked into the room as the rank outsider.

"Now," she says. "There might be a fair bit of travel involved in this project, will that be a problem?"

I pause for a moment, thinking about all the work social events I've ducked out of to avoid arguments at home, and how I've lived in fear of being asked to go anywhere or do anything outside of the office by my previous boss in case it involves an out-of-the-question overnight stay.

"It would have been", I say, "... up to a few weeks ago. But now... not so much."

And with this answer, I seal my entry into the "IFS Deployment Team", joining a team of two other recent divorcees in a little club of workaholics looking to move onwards and upwards by finding something to take their minds off everything else that's going on in their world.

"When in Rome... stand in front of the Colosseum", as the famous saying goes.
Pre-trip number 2.

The Helsinki trip (which I promise we will come to soon, honest) wasn't quite my first solo business trip - several pleasant but mostly uneventful trips to Rotterdam, Paris and Rome had kicked off the project, but it certainly began my first prolonged period of travelling around from place to place and was easily the most ambitious task I'd ever set myself. It was almost like I had something to prove...

So what led me to embark upon the mammoth travel splurge that I'm now writing about? Well, as usual, it was mostly down to thinking I knew better than anyone else.

On my first trip to Rotterdam, I'd witnessed an external consultant delivering a system training session, decided that I could only do a worse job of it myself if I first removed my tongue with a jagged clam shell, and then I'd rewritten the entire project plan to make sure I had to be responsible for all the training sessions, testing the very limits of my mind and body at the same time. (I'm still not sure my inner ears have properly recovered from all the flying...)

I'd tell people "Oh, I have to go here and there and then fly straight on to this place", with a weary sigh, and they'd say "Oh, that's crazy, poor you", and I'd agree and lap up the sympathy, but really this was my second shot at having a fun career, and even at life itself, having turned down opportunities left, right and centre for the previous 7 years in favour of being prematurely middle aged (aka married at 22). Now, as a free agent for the first time ever as a fully-fledged adult, it was time to get out there and grab life, and a proper career, by the horns.

Also it made me look really cool with my peers when I seemingly swanned in and out of the office as I wished, and I assumed that one way or another this project would definitely get me laid - which had obviously suddenly become an important consideration again. (It didn't.)

I gave my training skills a first workout in Paris, with my Project Leader and mentor Liz to back me up in case it all went horribly wrong - and when that seemed to work out ok (despite nearly demolishing a taxi on the Champs Elysees by opening its door directly into the pavement), I then found myself booked in for a whole summer of fun driving up and down the M20 in a hire car and hanging about at Heathrow with no lounge access.

16th June, 2008 - Heathrow and Helsinki

Heathrow Terminal 1 in 2007 - Photo
I bet nobody's won that luxury car yet...

It's the 16th of June, and I'm heading off to Heathrow Airport for one of the first times ever, arriving at Terminal 1 - which even in 2008 looks like the ugly stepchild of the airport world, and getting on Finnair flight AY840 to Helsinki at 16:10 - scheduled to land at 21:00 on the dot, with me safely tucked up in bed by 22:30, ready for an early start to training the next day.

Of course, as with any time when I plan to arrive late and start early, my flight is delayed - neither the record books nor my memory recall why, or what I do to pass the time, but still, it's not really important - what's most important is that the plane I'm on has a camera on the bottom which films the ground as we take off and land, relaying the pictures to the little screens above our seats - a slightly odd and mildly motion-sickness inducing experience, but one that just emphasises to me that I've arrived in the world - this is going to be my life now, as an international (mostly European) jetsetting hot-shot.

I arrive at the Helsinki Airport Hilton at around midnight, just as the last of the evening's light is fading from the sky (for all of about 2 hours), look around, pinch myself at how plush it is and just how hard I'm living that dream, and crash down on one of the two luxury beds in my room.

TWO BEDS! Such decadence.

17th June, 2008 - Helsinki

I'll wager that the view from this hotel room doesn't look quite like this any more... apart from the drizzle.

The morning begins with the first of my many lonesome hotel breakfasts (goodness knows what I did on these solitary occasions before the advent of the smartphone), and an awkward taxi ride to an office on an industrial estate that no taxi driver has ever heard of. And of course, let's not forget the traditional taxi driver exchange.

Me: Can I pay by credit card, please?
Taxi Driver, who we'll call Kimi for no particular reason: *massive sigh* Ugghhhhhhhhmmmmpppphhhh. Don't you have cash?
Me: Um, no, I just arrived, haven't made it to the bank yet...
Kimi: Well, I will try, but the credit card machine is not working... hhhhhuuuuuuurrrrrmmmppphhhh
*Retrieves CC machine from glove box, plugs it into lighter socket and jabs at buttons*
Kimi: See, not working?
Me: Ok, well I really don't have any cash...
Kimi: Mmmmmffffffttttttt, give me card, I will try...
*Credit Card machine springs into life and processes payment, albeit slowly*
Kimi: Sign!
Me: Ok, there you go, thanks very much, bye...
Kimi: Hhmm.

I arrive at the office, where my host, a jolly chap called Pasi who's positively outgoing compared to most Finns, welcomes me and sits me down in the meeting room that they've called "Sandwich", which he finds absolutely hilarious because that's the name of the town where I'm based. It's almost like he booked us in there on purpose.

Gradually the rest of the department (about 6 people in total) join the meeting, looking sceptical at the idea of spending a whole day listening to what some not-quite-30-year-old Englishman has to say about a system that nobody wants to use, but, I like to think, eventually being won over by my boyish charms and innate teaching ability (it's in the genes...)

Lunch takes place in their canteen, which seems impossibly glamorous to me, being in a kind of open foyer with classic Nordic style decor, with lots of white, clean lines and furniture which was possibly once in bits in in a cardboard box. Better than this, there's tons of fish and really good bread, and nobody pays for anything - they get a monthly subsidy taken out of their wages and then get free lunches forever more. I guess that stops those "Can I be arsed to make my lunch and take it today?" guilt pangs on a Monday morning.

The training session finishes (FINNISH-es - ha!) without too much incident, and I thank my lucky stars that I've made it through, as I hand out my feedback forms and brace myself for what they might say when they get handed back to me. While we wait, Pasi asks me what I'm doing this evening and whether I'd like a lift into the city centre, which I gratefully accept, as I explain that I'm desperate to see some of Helsinki.

"Have you got a jacket?", he says?

"Um, no, actually I haven't, it was really warm back in the UK..."

"Hmm, one moment..."

He comes back brandishing a plastic-wrapped fabric package, which upon closer inspection turns out to be a very nice grey sweater with a zipped collar, perfect for Midsummer in Finland. On even closer inspection, it turns out to be lovingly embroidered with the logo of our company on the breast, but that doesn't stop me wearing it around Helsinki, or indeed various other places for the next 3 years like a massive sad case.

And here I model said sweater in a kind of rudimentary pre-selfie selfie.

Suitably attired, I grab the feedback forms and we head down to the underground parking, to get into Pasi's car.

"Try not to take it personally...", he says. "It's not your fault."

Oh great, now I'm really looking forward to reading those forms. Still, he tries to take my mind off things as we drive into town by telling me a little about Helsinki, and Finland in general, including their various struggles keeping the USSR at bay. (Unfortunately I can't remember anything in any detail right now, except for the one thing I found most interesting at the time - that Helsinki is the only European City still to retain its trams. A fascinating fact which I remember for years and tell people all the time - until it's later proved by trips to Zagreb, Norrköping, Antwerp, Croydon and goodness knows where else to be completely untrue. Wikipedia does say that Helsinki has "one of the oldest electric tram systems in the world", though, so I'll let him off.)

He drops me off in the drizzle outside Helsinki cathedral, we bid a very Finnish farewell and, desperate to read those forms, I make my way up the steps, Rocky-style, and in out of the rain.

Note the Soviet style Tsar statue - according to Pasi, Finland very nearly became part of the Soviet Union in the 1910s.
But then, do we trust anything he says...?

Once inside, I plonk myself down in a pew and open my bag, my hands fumbling with the zips and literally shaking as I grab the forms and start reading.... Luckily everything that I have any control over comes back very positively, the comments about my teaching are good, and all the more negative stuff is how useless the system itself is, the organisation of the project and how overworked they are (so that's clearly fine - not my problem!)

With that over, I can focus on an evening of sightseeing, so I take a quick look around the cathedral, which isn't that big, but is very impressive and ornate, built in a Lutheran style and finished in 1852. It's also very white and stands majestic on top of a little hill, which is nice.

With the cathedral exhausted, it's time to take a little tour on foot, where I come across such delights as Stockmann - one of the few things that the Finnish colleagues told me to go and see, but turns out on arrival to be a bloody shop. If only I'd known. Still, since I've walked here I take a couple of photos of what is actually the largest department store in the Nordic region, even managing to get one of those ultra-rare trams in shot, and then I stick my head inside to see whether department stores are any more fun in Finland. They aren't - and they don't even have an affordable rain jacket to replace my by now increasingly damp work-branded sweater.

With my two recommendations exhausted, and no map or tourist info in sight, I decide to just wander through the streets a bit in the rain, enjoying:



This... (Some kind of closed art museum?)

Live music! Part of the Metrolive festival, apparently...
It looks like great fun, doesn't it? That's the entire audience, but at least the band are having fun.

Eventually, my wandering brings me to Esplanadi, or the Esplanade Park, where this year's Espafolk festival is going on - a celebration of Midsummer, it features all kinds of folk dance, most of which I suspect actually have nothing to do with Finland but it's a bit hard to tell since people keep talking Finnish, which bears very little relation to English and is famously one of the world's hardest languages to learn. 

I don't even speak any Swedish at this point, which would be equally helpful, since Finland is officially a bi-lingual country due to the number of Finlandssvenskar (Finland Swedes) still living in the town (known as Helsingfors in Swedish), for various reasons having mostly to do with wars.

I actually think these people may have been from Estonia, or maybe Serbia. Or anywhere, really...

The dancing is nice to watch, and all, but it's still raining and not exactly warm, so I go for another wander around the park, which is actually very pretty...

And then, deciding I've exhausted everything that 7pm Helsinki in the rain has to offer, I head back to Helsingin päärautatieasema, aka the railway station - I told you Finnish had nothing to do with English - and hop on a train back to the airport. (Looking back, I'm flabbergasted that I didn't take 13 pictures of the train and platform from different angles, but then the storage on my Nokia 6500 wasn't quite up to the iPhone 6.)

Back at the hotel, it's time for another staple of business trips, the lonesome dinner at the hotel restaurant. Still, it's nice and warm and expensive-looking in there, there are burgers on the menu, and I have "High Roller Casino" on my phone to pass the time, so it's all good.

Besides, I don't have time to socialise, tomorrow I need to get up at 4:30 a.m. and fly to Madrid.

Next time: I get up at 4:30 a.m. and fly to Madrid. 

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