Travel is my passion but it hasn’t always been easy. Far from it. Two days in Finland taught me a lot about planning, improvisation and stress management.
I was a week into my study abroad trip and having an amazing time. At 22 years old, I had never organized international travel logistics on my own, but I took the plunge and booked a weekend excursion to Helsinki, Finland.
On my flight over from the states a week prior, I had a layover in Helsinki airport. Sitting quietly in a lonely corner of the airport with no movement, the air was still and calm. I sat, staring out of a terminal window and gazed toward a dense, evergreen forest of pine trees and feeling totally at ease. I’m so lucky to be doing this. Shortly after, I boarded a flight to Tallinn with 3 passengers and 4 tall, blonde, Finnish flight attendants and thought… “My god they’re beautiful! I’m definitely coming back here.” One week later my wish was granted.
The morning I left for Finland was nerve wrecking. I organized a round trip ferry ride from Tallinn, and a hostel stay for one night in Helsinki and even researched some things I wanted to do and see. I was nervous though. I had never done anything like this before; booked international travel all by myself. But I was walking to the boat, ticket in hand and stepped into the unknown, embracing uncertainty.The beauty in life is not knowing what’s going to happen next. Click To Tweet
It was a beautiful and chilly Saturday morning and I had all day to explore Finland by myself. As soon as I stepped off the ferry though, panic struck. “How do I get to my hostel?!” An oversight I would spend all day fretting over, but in true tourist fashion, I went sightseeing first.
Photo stops included Uspenski Cathedral, The Helsinki Cathedral where that music video for Sandstorm was filmed (remember that one?!), and various markets and tourist shops. In the afternoon I took a boat to Suomenlinna; an island fortress built for military defense but now serves partly as a tourist destination. The unique architecture reminded me of the Shire from Lord of the Rings.
Exhausted, I laid down on a huge granite boulder overlooking the Baltic Sea. I let the warmth from the heated ground beneath me soothe my body as I watched ships pass this way and that. I fell asleep almost instantly.
When I awoke (from one of the top 5 best naps ever!! 🙂 ), a sudden fear dawned on me as I remembered, “I still don’t know how to get my hostel!” The rest of the day was a panic fueled jog across the city in search of this confounded place. I had read online that it would close by 6pm and not let people check in, so I made like Harrison Ford in Frantic and scoured the streets on foot.
Looking back now, It would have been so easy to flag a taxi, give him the address and just get there. But as an introvert and being too proud or stubborn, I hated asking for help. For some reason, I would rather struggle and suffer on my own than talk to someone and ask for directions. This is something I still have trouble with to this day. “But I’m saving money by not getting a taxi.” Aaron you dummy.
I was lost for nearly three hours. I had a map from a souvenir shop but being tired, delirious from lack of food, and in a foreign land, it didn’t help much. In my frantic stupor I bumped into attractions I didn’t even know about at the time, like Temppeliaukion Church. (This church is really cool because it was dug into granite rock and possess very unique architecture. I snapped a quick pic though before running passed it.)
During this whole debacle, I found myself in a crowded city park and needing a restroom. I found a pay toilet absolutely surrounded by people and struggled to figure out how it opened. It only opens then locks when you put a Euro in. Once inside I sat down to answer nature’s call, but kept hearing this beeping noise. I found out the hard way it was counting down. Restroom break still in progress, my pay toilet meter ran out, the lights shut off, and the door slid open to reveal my shock and awe to the world! I would have S**t my pants had I not already been doing so. Lesson learned Aaron, hurry it up!
Tired, hungry and dirty, I finally found my hostel and checked in. After a quick rest, I went upstairs to grab some dinner and read that this hostel had a sauna. I had heard Finland is famous for their saunas and decided I had to try it. I didn’t see anyone in my dorm room when I checked in, so I assumed everyone was out. But when I opened the door to the sauna, completely naked, and the steam cleared… “Oh, there’s everyone.”
The sauna was packed! With naked dudes! And I’m standing there, stark naked, frozen in an uncomfortable silence. In a split second my mind went, “Well, this is their culture man, embrace it! When in Rome!” I sat down and to my relief the conversation flowed normally. We talked cultural differences, movies and I pretended to know about politics. It was a nice experience, but *definitely* new to me.
The next morning I took a short boat ride (I’ve read that Finland has almost 180,000 islands, so yeah… lots of boat rides), to Seurassari open air museum, where old homes from the country side have been transplanted so people can see how they lived in the olden days. I tried sneaking onto a guided tour without paying and of course I got caught. Opposite their intended purpose, my camo cargo shorts really made me stand out from the crowd. I might has well have screamed, “I’m an American, and my clothes are totally in style back home!!” They weren’t.
I paid for the tour and loved it, but I was watching the clock for my ferry back to Estonia and soon it was time to leave. I waved goodbye to Finland feeling satisfied that I experienced some down-to-earth culture that weekend and so proud I did it on my own. Unbeknownst to me however and even bigger culture shock awaited me toward the end of my language course. Two weeks later, I joined a student trip to a land so far away my debit card wouldn’t work and being an American was a source of controversy and social stigma. It was finally time to test out my new language skills I’d been learning in class and head into the largest country in the world, Russia.