Our holiday within a holiday, as Martin had so beautifully labelled it, was to begin via a ferry crossing from Tallinn on a brisk Tuesday morning almost two weeks ago. As we left our hostel at 11am and walked across the Old Town towards the harbour, I had noticed two women who were in a rather bad state and were relying on each other to just stay on their feet. Although mid-morning drunks were a rare sight on our travels so far, Anne was actually oblivious to it and just passed it off as 'They're probably Finnish'. It turns out that they were, as we saw them later on the outer deck of the ferry; one of them was minus a pair of shoes at this point as well. As it happens, Tallinn is to Finland what Zeebrugge (amongst others) is to England; a bloody cheap place to stock up on the beers and to let your hair down for the weekend.
Fortunately, we arrived in Helsinki unscathed and navigated our way to Anne's very generous friends place in the district of Herttoniemi. Simo and Maria were extremely welcoming from the outset and greeted us with a cold beer before pointing us in the direction of their private sauna in the master bathroom. Simo's apartment was the ultimate batchelor pad; aside from the two bathrooms and private sauna, he had endless gadgets and even a projector screen for sports and movie viewing, as well as two balconies, one complete with a BBQ which he utilised on each night we stayed there. Firstly for the home-made burgers and secondly for some Venison steak which was hunted by his father. It tasted exceptional and to compensate for their generosity, Anne and I insisted that we provide and cook the accompaniments which were Roasted Potatoes, Pan-Fried Vegetables and Red Wine Gravy. Definitely better than the block of noodles which we had grown so accustomed to across the continent.
After the two nights with Simo and Maria, we moved onto to stay with Anne's brother and sister-in-law, Hannu & Reetta, who were kindly putting us up for the remainder of our time in Helsinki. Also in the apartment are their two children; Sofia (3) & Untamo (4 months). Sofia is a little character and despite our language barrier and little direct communication, she still managed to trick me with her cheeky ways. Anne had bought her some picture cards with English words on them which Sofia was using to teach me some Finnish, simply by pointing to the picture and telling me what the word is. However, she soon got bored of giving me the correct words and started mixing it all up. I was obviously oblivious to everything but luckily Anne and Reetta noticed at which point Sofia sheepishly ran off to her room! Their newest addition, Untamo is such a happy little thing. He's constantly smiling at everyone and just seems in awe of everything. Very cute.
We incorporated a number of outings over the next few days; a wander through Helsinki, drinks with Anne's friend Janna, a trip to Järvenpää with Hannu, Reetta and Untamo, which is famous for housing a number of the Finnish cultural greats and a walk around Halosenniemi, the house and studio of painter Pekka Halonen, which provided some stunningly picturesque photo's across Lake Tuusula. Untamo also managed to hustle a new pair of socks, as one lady fell in complete love with his smiling ways and insisted that she bought them from the gift shop as a Christmas present.
After 5 days in Helsinki, we ventured up to Anne's hometown of Vaasa by train. We were greeted by Anne's wonderful mother, Ilse who had prepared a typical Finnish dish of Meatballs, Mash and Gravy for dinner, which was excellent. Over the next few days, we were joined by Anne's eldest brother, Antti, who lives in Rovaniemi, Lapland. Antti's a fantastic chap and between the three of us, we have created a number of culinary delights for dinner over the last few days. Luckily, they've not been too spicy or outlandish for Ilse either!
In terms of outings in Vaasa, we were invited to a 30th party at a hall on the outskirts of the city at the start of the week. Absolute brilliant night, Anne got to catch up with a load of her old friends which is invaluable for her and I got to meet them all too! Two days ago, we visited Anne's grandmother who lives in an Archipelago just north of Vaasa. As with Lake Tuusula, the scenery was magnificent; I'm told it's even better in the summer, but for me the blanket of snow was too much of a benefactor to exclude! Anne's grandmother truly is an inspiration to everyone; she lives in a traditional cottage in complete isolation, there's no running water and the toilet is in an outhouse. Unbelievably, she's 87 and she still lives there through the entire Finnish winter - that's some going! Finally, last night we ventured into Vaasa so that Anne and Antti could show me around some of their old watering holes. We managed to catch a band at the most Finnish-sounding bar I've ever been to, El Gringo. The band were called Standard Time and were pretty much Finlands answer to The Calling. Demasiado queso, as they say in Spain (Google Translate it). After checking out a few other places, we headed home in the early hours.
So that brings us up to our final day in Vaasa, which so happens to be the day I am writing this. Tomorrow we head to Helsinki for a further 4 nights before our travelling resumes and we head to St Petersburg. It's currently early afternoon and the snow has been pelting down for a few hours, we have a number of tasks to complete before we can go and play in it so there's not a minute to waste. However, before we can begin our little chores, I have to wake Anne from her slumber as believe it or not, she's still asleep at 1pm - it's a hard life!