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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Week 1: Helsinki, world design capital of 2012

My first weekend in Sweden there was a scheduled trip to Helsinki. What this means is that at about 10 days into my trip to Sweden I had actually seen much more of Finland than I had of Sweden.

Helsinki has a lot to offer for the historically minded. However, it is the design capital of the world this year. In many ways I struggled to see evidence of this while I was here. Not that I didn't see interesting architecture and the simple and elegant designs that I always see in Sweden, but because my tourism focuses more on history than design I struggled to appreciate that aspect of the city. There was an exhibit at the Kiasma, or modern art museum,which tried to expand what we think about when we think of design, but not having a real base in design basics I think I wasn't the exhibits target audience. It was entitled Camouflage and it explored how design can be hidden in other things. I thought the exhibit about the traditional Russian tourist kiosk incorporating elements of design was the most interesting portion, but I am interested in historical tourism which is why this piece spoke to me more than any other.

But for the historically minded, here is an example of a possible weekend trip to Helsinki. To get to there Stockholm you can take one of the ferries through the archipelago. That is worth doing on it's own. We took the Viking Line cruise ship. It is a fully fledged cruise, complete with Scandinavian style smorgasbord. The boat is often very cheap because they want you to come on-board and drink or go to the smorgasbord.The archipelago is extremely beautiful. It is absolutely unique and special in it's own way, but it did remind me a lot of the Georgian Bay 1000 Islands, just as much of the wilderness in Sweden (what I have seen so far) does rather remind me of Canadian wilderness. I think it is something about similar latitudes.

We arrived in Helsinki after a fitful night sleeping on the boat below sea level. A few of us wasted no time. We checked into the hotel and headed right for Unesco world heritage site Sveaborg/Suomenlinna. You have to take the ferry from the Open Market, but the ferries are frequent. We spent from 12:30 - 4:00 at Sveaborg and then returned to the mainland. We ate food in the Open Market (a good bet because Finland is expensive), wandered along the Esplanade and turned in for an early night.

After breakfast the next morning (another smorgasbord provided by the Grand Marina Skandic hotel) I walked along the harbour to the Mannerheim Museum. A little hard to find, but if you walk along the harbour past the Olympia terminal and keep your eyes out for signs you will find a path up the hill. When you get to the top of the path turn right to get to Mannerheim. They provide a guide and it was for me one of the highlights of the trip. So very interesting, and I learned so much more about Finnish history. They open at 10:00. I took a tour almost right at 10:30 and was finished in about an hour. From there I walked back up the Esplanade. At the end of the Esplanade, right behind the Swedish theatre there is a bus stop that leads to Folison.

At about 1:00 we took bus 22 to Folison/Seuresaari, the open-air museum in Helsinki. It is the last stop on the bus route. We wandered a little and took the guided tour in English at 3:00. After that we took the bus back at 5:00 to the main square and had dinner one street back from the main street so as to avoid high prices.

In the evening I wandered a bit around the city. I went to the Helsinki Cathedral, which is open until midnight on most days in the summer. I walked to the outside of the Uspenski cathedral, which was not open. Those are the two cathedrals that decorate the city skyline when you come into the harbour. From there I wandered around the point by the Viking Line terminal. Probably best not to wander at night too much, but as the sun hardly goes down it doesn't seem like a problem.

The next morning I caught the guided bus tour in Swedish and English at 10:30 from the Olympia terminal. I found the bus smelly and the large guided tour rather impersonal, but if I hadn't done that tour I wouldn't have had such a good sense of the city and I also wouldn't have seen two of Helsinki's real treasures, the Rock Church or Temppeliaukia Church and the Sibelius monument in Sibelius park. Those are the two stops the bus makes. After that, at around 12:00 I did go into Uppenski Orthodox Cathedral. I then took the bus to the Finnish National Museum, located on Mannerheim Rd. beside the Finnish parliament. I spent about an hour and a half in the museum, but could easily have spent a bit more time. I then went to the Kiasma Modern Art museum and spent maybe 1/2 hour. There I couldn't have spent more time. I do like art, but historical context can be as important for me as actual content. Essentially, I prefer a museum.

In the Finnish national Museum is where I found these Viking Age artefacts on display. Viking Age artefacts found in Finland largely demonstrate trade routes between Sweden and the East. A tendency to trade with the east can also be demonstrated in the high Viking Age finds in Sweden.

At 4:00 pm the group caught the boat back to Stockholm.

If you are in Helsinki for a few days there are a lot of good things to be said about getting the Helsinki Card. I did get one for three days for 56 euros and found it was entirely worth it. At the same time, as you can tell I worked really hard to make sure that it was worth it and tried to take in as much as possible. With the exception of food, everything was covered under the card, including admission to all these sites and public transportation. If you like to take in a city in a more passive (perhaps saner) way then the Helsinki card is not really for you.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The saga of Megan's trip to Sweden

The trip was actually a bit more like a Greek Odyssey than a saga. In either case, on the whole there was much less genealogy.

I have a goal. I jump on any bandwagon that I think might bring me a little closer to that goal. Like Odysseus (if I may be so pretentious) the sailing has not gone exactly as I have planned, but unlike him I feel each experience adds to my journey, maybe it brings me a little bit closer to my goal of being able to do this kind of thing for the rest of my life. I feel I have now over/misused that metaphor.


This summer I have decided to take the trip to Sweden. I wrote in my earlier blog about why and how I was choosing a mainland Scandinavian language to learn. Well, even though I decided to do a PhD in English at Western Michigan University with Dr. Jana Schulman, instead of a PhD in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin Michigan, I still felt that I was lacking real experience in Scandinavia and that I should go there given the opportunity. I had already sorted out how I would get here and what I would take. And a Scandinavian language will most certainly put me in better stead for the future, so I took the opportunity.

Sweden is actually not the most obvious choice for someone interested in Norse history, and certainly Norse literature unless you are hoping to study runes or look at the archaeology of the early religious sites. I am hoping to specialize in neither of those things. But there is a rich Norse history here, which I am going to try and take in every chance I can, as well as visiting historical sites that have cropped up between then and now. One thing that is my specialty, however, is how we use history to give us identity. Having already had a stop over at the Leif Erikson airport and traveled to Finland on the Viking Line cruise ship (complete with their plethora of Viking themed booze) I feel I will have lots of material.


I flew out with Iceland Air, but had to take the Air Canada plane through Boston first. I'll just say, flying through the United States, less than pleasant. It didn't help that when I arrived at Pearson International airport the computers were down. I had to join a huge line to check in my bags. I was three hours early for my flight, but had about one hour by the time we checked in the bag. Then the lady at the check in told me that my ticket was actually just a stand by ticket. I told her 'well, that's nice but I have two connecting flights to catch, each with only one hour in the terminal.' She said that I should remind the person at the gate, just so that they don't forget. It is at about that time that I leave my mother behind to worry about how I'm actually getting to Sweden.

So now I have to go through the American checkpoints, with the rather intensive security procedures. Apparently I look a bit suspicious (I know that's not how it works but I am pretending) because I get stopped for the physical, you know the one where they check the bottom of your feet. At least there were no witches turning people into pigs (okay, I'll stop now).

I get to the terminal. No trouble actually getting a seat, but they do make you worry. In Boston I have to change terminals to get on my flight to Iceland. Everyone speaks in this lovely Boston accent, but I managed to figure it out. The lady at the check in point is actually babysitting some kids while checking in passengers. Strange, but also really cute.

When I arrive in Iceland the Leif Eriksson airport is tiny. It is also the middle of the night, but since they are so far north and it is early July/late June the sun never really sets. In the most brilliant move on my part I walk out of the bathroom without my purse. I notice about two minutes later when I find it at the customer service desk.

There is an exhibit here about the Norse in North America. I am not really surprised, but I am a little excited to see it. The European arrival in North America is such a powerful moment in history. So because there is a universality to its power (though that power will affect different people in different ways and for different reasons) it is interesting to see where and how often it is made reference to.

Thankfully the only real delay experienced is on the last flight, when I am not connecting with anything else that has been timed. The computers in Reykjavik are also down, and we can not board the plane for an extra 45 minutes.

The plane arrived in Arlanda, Stockholm on July 1, Canada Day. I find a computer to let people know that I have arrived. My bag, sadly, has decided it will go it's own way. Three flights, one from stand by, I was actually expecting it. I have been studying my Swedish, but everyone here also speaks English, so we arrange for me to call to have my bag delivered when it sees fit to arrive and when I know where the heck I should have it sent to.

I take the bus to Uppsala and am super early to check in to the Uppsala International Summer Session. Which is actually good because I get good and lost looking for the check-in. I saw a lot of the city centre though and found that not having my big bag with me was a great blessing.

I checked in, listening my darnedest to the Swedish for some sort of comprehension. But finally I made it to the little apartment that someone has left for me over the summer. It is super stylishly decorated.

My bag came to school one day later. Inside there was a little tag from the TSA letting me know that they had opened my bag to inspect it. What can I say, I am really suspicious. But both bottles of maple syrup were still there and in tact.

All in all, remarkable journey. Tiring, slightly invasive, unnecessarily worrying but ultimately the smoothest it could actually possibly go. And they even hand delivered my bag to me. What service.

Things I will be sure not to miss while I am in Sweden:
1. Gamla Uppsala (I mean I'm already right here)
2. The Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm
3. The Viking Market on the Island of Birka

(I'm going to save a trip tot he Foteviken viking Museum for a trip to Denmark, because it is actually way closer to that than to where I am here in Sweden. For more information about Viking heritage tourism in Scandinavia check out the Scanbalt website).

Looking forward over these six weeks to seeing some of Sweden, to exploring the history of the country and talar svenska.