Monday, October 8, 2012

Between Tsunamis and Other Disasters

Today I stumbled upon a video on YouTube about the tsunami in Asia in 2004. It moved me deeply and I was nearly crying. It was put together with material that survivors filmed during the tsunami. It also contained interviews with survivors. When the tsunami happened in 2004 I was visiting two old friends in Sweden and we were about to go out celebrating. We were having a drink at my friends house and we were joking around, since we hadn't seen each other for some time. My friends mum was watching the news on TV and that’s when we saw it. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had to sit down. We watched the news for a while, but we still went out and had a nice night. The events were happening so far away from cold and snowy Sweden and it was hard to relate. It was hard to believe. It felt very unreal, like it had been a film.

Here's the first part of Tsunami - Caught On Camera.


 Seeing the video got me thinking though. It seems that when these kind of horrible things happen, it must shake you to the core, even though you don’t notice it at the time, because still after years and years you can remember exactly where you were, exactly what you were doing and who you were with, when you heard about it.

I can still clearly remember where I was when I heard that Princess Diana died. It was the 1st of October 1997 and I was 11 years old. I was visiting my friend and we were playing in the living room. Her mum was cooking pasta and we were always going into the kitchen to steal half-raw spaghetti from the pot. That’s when my friend told me that Di had been killed in an accident. First I thought she was joking, but she insisted. Then she showed me an article in the evening news paper, and I had no choice but believe. I was shocked.

There is also another thing that has happened during my lifetime, which has had devastating consequences. It was the morning of September 11th 2001 and I was at school. I was 15 years old. We had our first break and we were watching TV in the hallway. All of a sudden the show was interrupted by an additional news broadcast. They were showing footage of an airplane flying into a tower and soon afterward another plane flying into another tower. A while after that the towers collapsed. That was the only thing people were talking about at school that day. Hell, I think that is the only thing the whole world talked about that day.
Nevertheless it is these kinds of things that stick with you no matter what.

Here in Finland we are leading a fairly sheltered life. We are not in a risk zone for disasters. We won’t have any earthquakes, tsunamis, erupting volcanoes or hurricanes. At least it is very unlikely. We are not considered a possible target for terrorists (except school murderers or men like Breivik). Who wants to attack Santa’s home anyways? Certainly our government has faced criticism from south European countries for not wanting to help them without any securities, but nobody really sees Finland as a political threat.

What I’m saying is that I feel very safe living in Finland. When I was watching that video today about the tsunami, I started thinking about my travels. My traveling has increased tremendously in the last decade and it isn’t unlikely for me to be at one of those places when something like the tsunami or 9/11 happens. After all, I don’t plan to travel less. I will rather be traveling more. It’s a scary thought altogether. What if a tsunami happens, when I’m in Thailand? What if I will be in the middle of a terrorist attack? For a minute there I almost said to myself: “I never want to travel again!” Then I got back to my senses and realized that I could just as well be killed by an icicle just walking out of my front door.

What I mean is that I can’t start being scared of things that might happen, because I would miss out on living my life and experiencing new things. Tell you the truth; I would rather die in a tsunami in Thailand while snorkeling, than being too scared to do things that I love. I will go when it is my time, but I will go with a lot of amazing experiences. 

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the tsunami in Asia, or some other disaster?

Do you have any fears that need to be conquered?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Falling in love with Helsinki

A couple of weeks ago I spent some days in Helsinki. I have spent less time in our grand capital than most people, even though my best friend lives there. Back when I applied for university I also applied for Helsinki University (and Turku University). I never actually went to the application exams in Helsinki, because I decided I didn’t want to move to the capital. Partly because it’s quite expensive to live there, and partly because it is on the shore. After growing up in a shoreline city in northern Sweden, I was sick of the cold wind all the time. I don’t regret my choice to study in Tampere, but my original picture of Helsinki is rapidly changing.

What is it about broken yellow walls?

Lovely old arcitechture always gets me.

Since my work allows me to work out of office, I decided to spend a few days visiting friends in Helsinki. I have to say, for the first time this beautiful northern capital surprised me. This year Helsinki is World Design Capital, and it shows. There are loads of events all the time and the most difficult thing is to choose, especially if you have a limited amount of time. Luckily for me my best friend is very aware of all the happenings in Helsinki, so during the week I received loads of invites to fb-events. There was no doubt the weekend would be busy, busy, busy!

The ballerina was borrowed from the National Ballet.
During the weekend we had time to visit two bigger events. On Saturday we went to Töölön Kyläjuhlat, which is a cultural event with music and dancing. The event was held at Korjaamo, Linnakosken puisto and around these places. We heard a orchestra play, saw a beautiful ballerina and heard a great singer. At Korjaamo there is also a tram museum with different old tram cars from the past in Helsinki. On display there are also different uniforms, tickets and other thing. There is a lot of information about the history of trams in Helsinki and the museum is very interesting all in all. In another building there is a small shop with all kind of cool design things like notebooks and fun literature. In both buildings there is a café, in one of them you can have buffet lunch or drinks and the other one offers fantastic cake slices for the price of five Euros. There is also a theatre and various exhibitions. Even though the event only is held once a year, the place is still worth a visit at other times.

The old trams were quite fascinating!

Helsinki tagged is part of Helsinki Design Week. It contains 80 tags. I saw four.

On Sunday we visited the annual Design Market at Cable Factory. The Design Market is one of the most popular events during Helsinki Design Week and you can find the most famous Finnish designers there as well as smaller newcomers. The Design Market is a two day event and fashionistas all around Finland look forward to it all year long. I found it quite interesting and I found a lot of beautiful things. You can find clothes, jewelry, furniture and decorations. A lot of the things are handmade, and hence the prices are quite high. Since my pockets are not overflowing with money, I felt a bit sad, because I couldn’t really buy anything. But nevertheless the event is a very good way to get to know Finnish design.

On the opposite of design we have second hand. One thing I love about Helsinki is the open air flee markets that you can find every Sunday (at least in the summer). You can find some amazing things if you have the patience to go through old stuff. I bought two old keys that I'm going to use for a necklace. I'll show it to you when I have it ready. On that same Sunday there was also an event called Siivouspäivä, which mean cleaning day. It is held a couple of times a year and it is like the whole city is turned into this giant flee market, when people bring their stuff out on the street to sell it.

Delicious espresso at Signora Delizia.
Helsinki has a lot of nice cafés and restaurants. There are a lot of café and restaurant chains in Finland and they are all over the country. We have one major chain which is marked with a logo as a big, green S. There are several other ones but not as big ones. Well, I don’t really like chains. They are all the same and the prizes are usually quite high. And of course if you have the member card, there are always some discounts for specific products. I prefer the smaller places. They have usually more atmosphere, the food and drinks are mostly good and they have a personality. In Helsinki I found a few of these great places. At Katajanokka by the ship harbor there is a tiny café called Signora Delizia. It is a very tiny café with only a few tables. They serve the best espresso I have ever tasted in Finland, but then again it also is an authentic Italian café. They also have Italian delicacies so that you can cook Italian food at home. They have amazing pasta, olive oil, different pastes, artichoke and much more. I bought an olive paste and I’ve eaten it with white bread. It is simply divine. I’m just sad that the place is in Helsinki, otherwise I’d be there every day… During my four days in Helsinki I went to Signora Delizia like three or four times, that’s how good it is! The prizes are also quite cheap for being Helsinki, and especially Katajanokka. An espresso costs two Euros and for a piece of chocolate cake you pay three Euros. This is definitely a reason for me to consider moving to Helsinki, among other things of course.

Blinit was decorated in a very Russian style.
Another place my friend showed me was kind of a fast food place, but then again not. It was a Russian restaurant called Blinis. It is situated on the street Sturenkatu close to the amusement park Linnanmäki. When you step in, the feeling is very Russian. The walls are bright yellow, the counter and the window panes are decorated in a very Russian-style flower pattern. I quite liked it! The food was okay and the prices were not too bad. I had potato pelmenis, which can also be ordered with meat. I also had pancakes with caviar, smetana and onions. So it was kind of like blinis, but not quite. It was good considering the price, but it was no gourmet. Nevertheless I enjoyed it, and I would recommend the place, as long as you keep an open mind and aren't too picky.

There's something about words on a wall.


Maybe next time I will manage to also see the inside of the Uspenski cathedral.
 In addition to these places I also visited some other things, which I haven't had the chance to see before. I went to the old market hall in the harbour. (Sorry the website is only in Finnish and Swedish.) I was going to see the Uspenski Cathedral, but unfortunately it was already closed when I went there. Just walking around is very nice in Helsinki, as long as the weather is nice. There are a lot of beautiful buildings and you have a sea view from many places. On Thursday night we went to see the Finnish firework championships at Hietaniemen ranta, which was very nice even though it was cold. Bare in mind to bring enough warm clothes if you come to Finland in the fall, because the weather can change rapidly. After the fireworks we went to warm ourselves up at Henry's Pub in Kamppi. Other restaurants we visited was a sushi place at Sähkötalo and on the last day we had late lunch at Toscanini, which is a fantastic Italian restaurant on the street Bulevardi. Highly recommendable.

The shining white cathedral at the Senate Square.

A great new hostel close to the centre in Vallila.

A weekend, even a long one, is way to short to get to know Helsinki. It gives you a good peek though, and I know I started to fall in love with our beautiful capital. Finally!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Make sure you're ensured!

Have you ever had that moment when you arrive at the airport and you are waiting for your luggage. The crowd around you starts to get smaller and finally there are three bags just going around and yours is nowhere to see? I have. Twice.

How about getting sick or injured during your trip? Done that too.

When something unexpected happens during your trip, it is very important to know that your insurance will cover you. It may feel like a lot, when you are paying the insurance fees before the trip, or like me, every month, when nothing even happens. Then again when something DOES happen, which it sooner or later will when you travel a lot, it feels very good to know that you are covered. Hospital fees and payments can be very costly in countries where they for instance don't have public health care.

Also when something happens, there usually are a lot of things to take care of, and if your insurance is okay, then you at least have one things less to worry about. Worst case scenario: You are traveling alone in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. You wake up in the ambulance and nobody speaks any English, or any other language that you know for that matter. You are in complete shock, because you don't know what is going on and what has happened. You arrive at the ER and they start examining you. You are brought into a tube and now you really feel like you are going to start crying any minute. Finally a doctor comes who speaks English. He explains to you that it seems you've had an epileptic seizure. The doctor explains, that you will be transferred to the neurological ward. Shock. It feels really surreal. Like the whole thing is happening to someone else. The nurse comes to you with a bill for the ER. So far you haven't even thought about payments. You make a call to the emergency contact at your insurance company. They say that it won't be a problem, just pay and you'll get the money back once you are back home. At this point you feel really relieved that at least your insurance matters are in order.

A cool old picture at a hospital in Budapest.

At some places you don't even have to pay anything, you only give your insurance card, and the insurance company will take care of payments directly with the hospital. Naturally it depends on the hospital and on your insurance.

There are a variety of things that can happen. If your trip includes extreme activities like rafting, climbing and bungy, it is important to consult your insurance to find out what they cover. At many companies there are supplement policies for extreme activities. At some companies you can even pay an extra fee just for specific dates within your trip, if you know the dates for the activities before you go on the trip. It is really important to find out what your policy covers, so that in that unfortunate case when something happens, you know that your insurance will take care of the payments. Also it is important to know about your rights, so that you know what to do in that situation.

Sometimes the luggage just isn't as fast as you are...

Then there is the case with the lost luggage. Depending on the airline, they cover part of your loss. Sometimes you only get a survival kit (t-shirt, toothbrush, shampoo, etc.) and sometimes you also get some money. However, when your luggage is lost, your insurance can be your best friend. Also in this matter I am very satiesfied with my insurance company, which is the Finnish company Pohjola, by the way. When I flew to New Zealand a few years ago (Helsinki-Zürich-Singapore-Christchurch), my luggage was left in Zürich. We were staying two days in Christchurch and then continuing to the south end of the island, to Steward Island. Naturally I wished that my luggage would arrive while in Christchurch, since they had been able to locate it. It didn't. I got it four days later, when we got to Invercargill in the south of the south island. Of course I was very happy to get it back, because I had a lot of valuable hiking gear in the bag, not to mention our tent! My insurance allows me to buy essentials for 60 euros per day, every day when my luggage hasn't still arrived. I went crazy on hiking gear in a city on the way to Invercargill, when we found a shop, where everything was like 60 per cent off! Well, that wasn't my point but...

If I hadn't gotten my bag back, I would've had to make a list about everything in the bag and the value of the things. The insurance would have covered at least part of it, if not everything. So, you see now why it is essential to have a good insurance?

It's not just about losing things, but often also losing memories.

Then again a good insurance isn't enough, you also have to know what it includes, so that you can get a supplement insurance when it is needed.

Of course there are many other scenarios: late or cancelled flights, robberies, breaking things, loosing things, you name it. Even more reason to have your insurance matters taken care of. It sure is worth a day or two to find out about the best policy for you and your needs. So before your next trip, take a look through your insurance policy, maybe contact the insurance company and make sure you have the best deal for you. Then you can enjoy your trip with one less thing to worry about.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Language hunger and interaction barriers

"A language barrier exists." This is what you read on CouchSurfing if you are browsing a profile, where the person in question has no languages in common with what you have given out on your profile, or they have stated that their language knowledge of some specific language is only at beginner level. Many times people tend to underestimate their language knowledge and even though somebody doesn't speak another language that well, it is very much possible to interact with each other. For instance last summer, when I was traveling in the Balkans. I did a rafting tour in Herzegovina and both the family that were also on the same tour with us AND the guides (well, at least they pretended) didn't really speak English. Nevertheless we managed fairly well, and had a great time! Body language and signs are very similar, at least withing Europe.

Hitko Rafing in Konjic, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Sometimes it can be scary or even dangerous not to know the language of the country you go to. I was in Hungary a few weeks ago and in Budapest I had an accident. Some amazing person had called me an ambulance and on the way to the hospital I woke up - in the ambulance. The ambulance crew didn't speak English at all, which was very scary, because I had now idea what had happened and where I was. Luckily the ER doctor spoke English and the CouchSurfer, who I was supposed to stay with, came to the hospital and did the interpreting. What a lifesaver!

I was brought up bilingually. I was born and raised in Sweden, which naturally gave me the Swedish language, and my mother is from Finland, so we spoke Finnish at home. So basically I got two languages practically for free. I think growing up with two languages has given me the ability to aquire other language more easily. There are many studies about bilingualism and many of them show that being bilingual helps your brain in many ways, for example in multitasking. Well, at the moment in addition to my native knowledge of Finnish and Swedish, I also speak fluent German and English. But understanding a language isn't just about knowing what the words mean. It is just as much about knowing about and understanding the culture. That can not be aquired unless you actually live in a country for an amount of time. Native knowledge of a language cannot be aquired in class.

My hunger for languages is endless. Everytime I travel to a country, where I don't speak the language, I get the need to learn that language. I want to know more about a culture, and there is no better way to do that than learning the language, and vice versa. I am also very fast at getting the hang of the structure and basics of a language. Last summer and this summer I've spent altogether about two weeks in Italy, and already in that short time I was able to aquire a knowledge that made it possible for me to interact on a basic level with native Italians. Well, at least if they speak fairly slow... A few months or a year in Italy, and I'd be speaking the language pretty well. But this happens in every country I go to. I try to learn some basic things, and once I get back home, I have this endless hunger to learn more.

Last summer I was CouchSurfing in Hungary and I stayed with this lovely couple in a small city called Eger. In their home they had notes all over the furniture, where you could read the name of the piece of furniture in question in many different languages. I thought this was a genious idea! For what better way is there to learn new words than seeing them on regular basis. In this way you learn them almost automatically. At the moment I am trying to learn some more Italian, and I've done the thing with notes in my home as well. Thanks for the idea to P and J!

Charming Eger in Hungary.
Knowing the language of the country you're visiting, makes you so much richer. Everyone is always saying that in Paris the people are so rude, unfriendly and don't want to speak English at all. This is not how I experienced it, even though I barely speak any French and had to speak English. But maybe the French noticed how hard I tried to speak French and not English, that they actually liked me. I thought Paris was a very friendly and nice place!

During my travels and studies I have learned a bit of many languages. Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Serbian and Croatian, Greek, Arabic, Japanese... The list will surely keep growing, but I hope that some of these beginner level languages will develop into a deeper level of knowledge, because that will help understanding the culture as well, and what's more important? At least if you find yourself in an ambulance with no means of understanding what is being said to you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Travel light, fly cheap

I am so sick of people who complain about RyanAir and other cheap airlines. They keep saying that the seats are too small, the airports are too far away, the snacks on the plane are too expensive, the on-flight commercials are too much, they are too strict about their rules about luggage and everything costs extra. I'm sure there are hundreds of other subjects people complain about. Apparently they expect first class treatment. I don't understand this. Low-cost airlines are nothing different than any other cheap service available. You always have a choice. I mean just as you choose whether to go to a more expensive grocery store or Lidl. Or like how you can choose to book a 5-star-hotel or just bunk at a hostel. Surely people compain about hostels too, but it's important to remember to keep things in the right proportion. You wouldn't expect having a piccolo carrying your bags at a hostel, would you?

In my opinion RyanAir and the other low-cost airlines (at least the ones I've tried) are fantastic. Most of my experiences are with RyanAir. It's the perfect choice for a budget traveller or a business (wo)man. I think it's great that you can get a cheaper ticket if you don't need all those extra things. I have a travel insurance of my own, I have no problem traveling with only hand luggage and I don't care where I sit. Although I love it when I get the big seat by the emergency exit... All of those services are there for people who need them, and why not? RyanAir is cheap, easy and reliable. At least I have never had any problems. And I have been flying with RyanAir A LOT! I love that I don't have to be at the airport three hours before boarding and it's great not having to wait for the luggage after the flight. I have no problem going on a three-week vacation with only a hand luggage bag with ten kilos. In fact I just did.

People are always talking about how RyanAir tries to make money from everything and try to make everything efficient. There's no harm in efficiency, right? This picture is borrowed from The Guardian.

I bought five flights, went away for 2,5 weeks and paid 160 euros total with taxes and everything. Yes, that's right. I flew from Tampere to Trapani, from Trapani to Milan, from Milan to Budapest, from Budapest to Stockholm and finally from Stockholm to Helsinki. And I didn't have any problems whatsoever. What's my secret? Well, in addition, that I'm a quite experienced traveller, I take some time for research. For this last trip I was checking flights for about three weeks, calculating what would be the best and cheapest route and naturally getting in touch with friends asking if it would allright for me to crash their couch. Finally I booked the flights three weeks before the trip.

If you spend some time getting to know the rules of the airline, you won't have any problems. Sticking to the rules is naturally essential. RyanAir is quite strict with luggage weight, that is when they check, which they don't always do. What I experienced during my last trip was an increasing measuring of the size of the hand luggage. It did get my heart rate up a bit, even though I was flying with the same bag as so many times before and I knew it would fit in the measuring box. It was kind of a kick in a way, because after all I did know that I wouldn't have any problems. Getting to know the list of prohibited objects is also essential, but they are approximately the same with all airlines. It is good to making sure you know what counts as fluids though, because it can be quite surprising. Not everyone knows that a lipstick counts as liquids. Luckily the liquid restrictions are supposed to be revoked in 2013...

Basically what I urge you to do when traveling with low-cost airlines is to take some time to get to know the basics about their rules and restrictions. This way you will have a successful trip and you will enjoy it more! And if you feel like you don't get you moneys worth, you can always choose another airline.

But for the record: I love RyanAir!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The wonders of cultural differences

Cultural differences. That endless source of misunderstandings, good laughs and unending conversations. When traveling a lot you get used to adapting to the ways of whichever country you are in at the moment. Naturally meeting new cultures also results in misunderstandings now and then. Misunderstandings which at their best lead to a good laugh or at their worst to serious consequences. I have been lucky enough to avoid anything all too bad, but then again I am very open minded, which in my opinion is something very important. Being open minded is the very foundation of being able to travel. Sure there are travel agencies, who organize all inclusive travel packages, where you don't even have know how to speak anything but your native language. No english is required to survive, let alone any knowledge of the local language, whatever it is.

For me traveling is something completely different. Certainly I have taken one or two of these travel package trips, but I did it very differently than most people. But that's not what I wanted to talk about. For me traveling is all about getting to know the culture and the local people and their ways. This is when it becomes impossible to avoid coming across cultural differences. Surprising is that cultural differences can exist within your own country. Only these you might not recognize as cultural differences, since you are subconciously aware of the differences. The bigger ones, the ones that may cause confusion and conflicts, are mostly met in other countries than your own. And I have a feeling that the further you go, the bigger the differences are. Nevertheless I have come across quite a few even within Europe.

I recently traveled to Hungary. Hungarians and Finns are supposed to be related, at least language-wise. Well, as a linguist I have studied this matter somewhat, and surely there are grammatical similarities, such as the fact that both are agglutinative languages. Being in Hungary and listening to people talking doesn't really confirm this fact though. The melody sounds familiar, but as a Finn you can't really understand a single word. However, people who have traveled in Europe, have most likely visited various museums in different countries. In many museums there are age limits for youth discounts and mostly that age limit is 25. Well, usually this is marked in the information as "up to 25" or something similar. In most cases this means that the discount is for young people until 25, and the 25th year is included, which means that the discount is valid until the day you turn 26. This is not the case in Hungary. I visited a castle in Eger, and the info said "discount for ages 6-26". So I thought "nice, I'm 26, I get the discounted prize". How wrong was I. The argument was that the discount was up to 26, but I already turned 26, so I was already OVER 26... Somebody else might have started arguing, but I thought to myself that this is quite an interesting cultural difference. Afterwards I asked my Hungarian-Jamaican friend, who said that this is quite common in Hungary.

I have noticed something strange about myself. When traveling more and more, I learn more about different cultures and their ways, which of course is great. The thing is that due to this, I am starting to dislike my own country more and more. Finnish people lack in etiquette and civil manners. They just don't care. Here's a good example. A few months ago I was supposed to have dinner with a large group. I had made the reservations and the staff had told me that they were fully booked, and it would be unlikely that they would have space for additional people if our group turned out to be bigger than the reservation. I was the one who had the information on who was attending and what they had ordered. Firstly most of the people just went to the restaurant without waiting for me, and they promised other people that it would be okay to attend, even without having registered. When I arrived - quite pissed - I learned that they had told the waitress, that it was okay to bring out the food. Even though not everyone had arrived yet. Finally, while the last ones were still eating, a part of the group just left - because they had finished their meal. I was speechless.

A French friend of mine who is married to a Finn once told me a story about a party he attended, when he had recently moved here. France has a lot of social rules and for example leaving a party is a process. You start by mentioning the intention to leave, and actually leaving can take hours, while still talking and enjoying some wine. He was awestruck at a party in Finland, when people just got up and said that they are leaving. A minute later, they were gone. Surely you can argue whether this is a good or a bad thing. It is certainly easier not having to keep to some strict social rules, but being plain rude and not even realizing it, isn't very good either.

Something I particularly despise are Finnish drinking habits. Going out is all about drinking and really getting waisted. Even the way to say that you're going out partying in Finnish is literally, "let's go drinking". The main thing isn't meeting friends or going dancing, but drinking. You drink at home at first, so that you can get more drunk, without having to spend too much money. Naturally I am generalizing, not all Finns are like this. Unfortunately it applies to regrettably many. Walking through a Finnish city centre on a Friday or Saturday night you can see that the streets are full of really drunk people fighting, trying to pick up someone or throwing up. In this matter Finns surely have a lot to learn from other European countries. I don't even feel like going out in Finland anymore. I usually only do that when traveling nowadays. Of course I can't say I haven't gotten really waisted myself. I was brought up in this country after all. Nevertheless I do recognize the problem, and don't want to behave like this.

Finns aren't all bad though, and surely each people have their upsides and downsides. The more you travel, the more you become aware of these. Cultural differences are good, as long as you are open minded and willing to learn from them. You end up yet again more aware about your surroundings, and when you get back home, you see your own country with different eyes. When encountering cultural differences, it is good to stop for a second to think about them, and about why they are the way they are. In the beginning your own culture is your point of reference, but while expanding your travel experiences and hence your cultural awareness, the reference points starts to grow and it all becomes more blurry. One big beautiful mess of cultural customs. At it's best you can apply some of the greater differences to your own life and learn something new about yourself.

What kind of cultural differences have you encountered? Which ones have made you change your idea about something?