Thursday, November 15, 2012

Kiitos Suomi! (Part 1)

Merja, Syd, Derek, Ahrne, and I
I'm back!  It's been a very busy month since I've last posted, so inevitably I will have to leave out or glaze over many of the interesting and fantastic things I've done to really focus on the big stuff - namely my week long trip to Finland.  My Finland trip was an interesting one, even before it started.  My friends Derek and Syd had invited me to go with them on a trip to Finland at the beginning of September.  However it wasn't clear whether we would even be able to get there until the end of October.  Even though the Soviet Union collapsed more than twenty years ago, Russia remains a rather difficult country to enter, and in our case, leave.  As anyone who has been to Russia knows, the process to get a Russian visa is a long a difficult one that involves -among other things - passing an HIV test, wrangling a Russian "host" who can officially invite you to the country, and a long an arduous list of questions detailing all of one's experience with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  Securing an initial visa can take months.  Once one is in the country, they need to fill out both a migration card and registration.  All of this is meant to, ostensibly, keep illegal immigrants out of the country (since Russia is obviously a highly desirable destination for illegal immigrants from America and Western Europe, right?) but as far as I can tell it is simply meant to make everyone's life much more difficult than it needs to be.  With our original visas, we couldn't leave the country and come back again, so we were forced to apply for multiple entry visas.  The Russian government claims that, barring something "extraordinary", one is supposed receive their new visa within 20 business days of applying, in our case, we would get our visas three days before we were supposed to leave.  Unfortunately, Russia seems to be the home of "extraordinary" circumstances (IE bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, etc.) and it was completely possible that we wouldn't receive our passports in time.  Luckily for us we got our passports early (gasp) and were on our way.
The drive to Finland was relatively uneventful, or as uneventful as a seven plus hour bus ride on a tiny micro bus across a Russian controlled border can be.  We got hung up on the border for about two hours (a long time in our minds but apparently a rather quick one by normal standards.  As far as I can gather one can expect to wait as long as five or six hours at the border on busier days) and passed through seemingly infinite passport control booths in areas.  All were manned by rather surly Russians, who all seemed to enjoy giving directions in uncomfortably loud and menacing voices.  We all made it through however, and made it to Finland around mid-afternoon.
A few of downtown Helsinki
Finland (and especially Helsinki, Vespoo, and Porvoo - the three towns we visited) was paradise; a cold, snowy, eternally dark paradise, but paradise nonetheless.  We stayed with the distant relatives of one of Syd's high school teachers named Ahrne and Merja.  Ahrne -a structural engineer who apparently has designed many of bridges in and around Helsinki - and Merja -a physical therapist who works in a Helsinki hospital- are extremely kind, intelligent, and friendly people who gladly put up with three grown men eating and drinking them out of house and home for a week.  Among the highlights of our time with them (and there were many) by far the most unique (and humorous) experience was our sauna adventure.  Finns are rather obsessed with saunas -sauna is actually a Finnish word- and many of them actually have saunas installed in their homes.  Ahrne was no exception, and we got to use his sauna on Wednesday night.  Sauna basically entails sitting in a boiling hot room (literally boiling, the temperature in most saunas pushes 200 degrees) and pouring water over piping hot stones, that sends waves of boiling steam through the room.  Bouts in the sauna itself are alternated with either swims in cold water, rolling in the snow, or in our case, standing outside in mid-20 degree weather drinking cans of beer.  Sauna is also done naked, which would probably offend the sensibilities of most Americans.  I don't think any of us were too fussed by it, and it is kind of surreal and rather humorous to find ones self standing outside stark naked in 20 degree rain/sleet drinking a can of beer.  While I'm kind of in the dark as to the benefits of sauna (it can be rather dangerous and people have been known to die doing it) Finns, Russians, and other cultures with similar traditions swear by it, and I have to say it is rather enjoyable once all is said and done. 

Helsinki at sunset (my poor photography skills fail to do it justice)
During the week we met with many other members of Ahrne and Merja's extended family, many of whom they themselves did not know.  Unfortunately, due to the fact that my computer is rapidly running out of batteries and I'm getting rather tired,I think I'm going to cut myself off for the day.  I'm hoping to get a few blog posts done this weekend, since I have a pretty nasty head cold and am probably going to be inside most of the time.  So, until later I guess!