Finnish fun

Part of why I booked us a session at the Löyly sauna was because I thought I might be desperate for bloggable material, desperate enough to try roasting myself and jumping into the freezing Baltic Sea. 

Not that there’s anything to dislike about Helsinki. Here was our first view of it, approaching on the ferry from Estonia:

But it’s not much older than San Diego and looked perhaps less interesting. On our first full day (Friday, Sept. 23), Steve and I followed our pattern and roamed the streets, guidebook in hand. The weather was nippy but dry, and we spent more than five hours taking in many of the major sights.

A striking contemporary church called the Temple of the Rock draws a steady stream of tourists.
Helsinki residents have an enormous music center…
Lovely parks…
And waterfront food tents offering inexpensive and interesting snacks.

It was all pleasant, but not much to write home about, nor did our outing Saturday to the island fortress known as Suomenlinna provide any of what you might call excitement.

You reach it via a short ferry ride.
The fortress didn’t much impress us, but we enjoyed strolling around the islands.

On Sunday, our last full day, we did a test run on the tram from our apartment to the central train station, a magnificent building to which fast airport trains connect frequently.

Helsinki’s central train station matches any we’ve seen elsewhere.

Then we walked to the central library nearby. It opened less than three years ago, and I can attest: both its design and contents are spectacular; it’s no mere book repository but rather a comprehensive cultural center.

You can borrow musical instruments and experiment with them in a sound-proof studio. Or play video games with your friends, or work on sewing projects, or fabricate a prototype.
Readers can luxuriate on a celestial upper floor.

It made me briefly imagine moving to Helsinki just to get a library card. Instead we walked to the National Museum of Finland a few blocks away. The exterior looked almost grim. But inside we found the polar opposite of that boring grand ducal museum in Lithuania. The Finnish institution grabbed our attention with one clever exhibit after another. In a room that focused on medieval times, for example, the push of a button showed what x-rays had revealed about each of the carved wooden religious statues in the room — which trees they were hewn from, the original paint job, etc. Pushing a button in another gallery devoted to portraiture transformed some of the portraits into our (sort of) doppelgängers. (That’s Steve in the middle; I’m on the right.)

Some effects were simple but moving: a scroll of photos taken of individual Finns every single year from 1900 to the present.

In other rooms we learned about the Finnish love of coffee and the passion for heavy metal (along with headphones with which to listen to some of the country’s most famous headbangers.) Another video montage let visitors watch how the landscape around Helsinki evolved over centuries, compressed into just a minute.

We would have lingered but had to hustle to our sauna appointment. Steve, who hates both extreme heat and cold, had to be talked into this, but acceded, a good sport as always. I thought a sauna visit was important because saunas are such a big deal in Finnish culture and elsewhere in this part of the world (particularly Estonia). I’d read all my life about how these far-northern Europeans enjoy getting overheated then jumping naked into snowbanks (while beating themselves with birch switches?!) I’d always dismissed this custom as being somewhat deranged. When would I ever have a chance to get more insight into it?

Visiting a sex-segregated facility, where the ladies and gents (usually naked) swelter separately seemed creepier than patronizing a sauna where Steve and I could don bathing suits and sweat together. The upscale Löyly offered this option. Housed in a low-slung wooden building on the waterfront, it took about 20 minutes to walk to it from our flat. An inviting bar and restaurant takes up a big chunk of the complex.

But we went inside and from the front desk, we collected towels and a locker key, then followed the instructions to each enter the changing room designated for our sex. After donning our swimsuits and showering, we met up and found the first of the facility’s two sauna rooms. 

We pulled on a clear glass door and climbed up a steep set of steps to find a dimly lit L-shaped space lined with two levels of benches. I was startled by how packed it was. I’d had to make a reservation for 3:15 precisely, which I’d assumed was intended to control overcrowding. But the benches were so full it was hard for us to find a space to squeeze into. Once we did, I sized up the folks around us in the gloom. The vast majority looked to be in their 20s or 30s, with young men outnumbering the women. Some exchanged short comments with each other, and we heard some British accents, but clearly this wasn’t a conversation space. In short order, I started sweating, and the heat intensified whenever someone threw a dipper of water into the heating contraption at the base of the steps. After maybe 5 minutes, I was ready to get out.

We knew Löyly had two types of saunas, one “Finnish-style” (where the heat is produced with electricity) and a more traditional wood-fired one. The smell of burning wood in the second made it clear which was which. The wood-fired sauna felt at least as hot as the first had been, and it was even darker. Again we groped to find a perch. This time we struck up a conversation with the girl sitting next to us, an Ohio native who worked for a Finnish company and was visiting Helsinki for a business meeting.

She’d already gotten into the sea a couple of times, she told us; her evident survival inspired me. When I felt close to fainting from the heat, I signaled to Steve I was ready to take the plunge. At Löyly, you don’t literally jump into the Baltic (actually the Gulf of Finland); rather you walk to the end of a platform and descend a ladder. Normally, I’m someone who can’t enter a 75-degree swimming pool without shrieking. But this water was so cold it belonged to a different realm.

Unlike any swimming pool, there was no getting used to this cold — so intense it would suck the life out of anyone who lingered long. To the extent my brain was functioning, it registered amazement I was still breathing. I even treaded water; took a few strokes. After maybe 15 seconds I climbed out and stumbled back to the wood-fired sauna, which warmed me up as efficiently as it had the first time. After a while I went outside and re-entered the ice-water. Steve wouldn’t immerse himself, but at least he put his feet in.

I would have cycled between the heat and cold a few more times, but we had to shower, dress, and move on to our final dinner before starting the journey home. Steve ordered sautéed reindeer, while I savored little whitefish known as vendace, breaded, fried, and served on a mound of buttery mashed potatoes.

Both were delicious, as was virtually every meal we ate in all four countries on this trip. I felt so relaxed it was almost surreal, and it was hard not to credit the sauna for that. It took a little while, but I had learned something I didn’t expect, and not just about saunas.

Adventures in house-trading, Nordic edition

Home-exchanging first came into my life back in 1990, when we traded our house in San Diego for a spacious ground-floor apartment in Paris’ tony 16th arrondissement. Our exchange partners had three young boys; we had a five-year-old and a toddler. We loved saving money by paying nothing for the lodging, and we loved pretty much everything else about the experience. In the years that followed, exchanges all over Europe and North America made our travel much more affordable, and we felt it gave us deeper insight into where we were.

Over time, we got more adventurous. In the summer of 2000, I found accommodations for us in the Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo. Ten years later, when our sons finally stopped accompanying us, a white South African couple let Steve and me stay in their big house in a Cape Town suburb in exchange for the mere possibility they might get to San Diego sometime. (They never did.)

We only stopped trading when we started traveling in countries where exchanges didn’t make sense; either because they weren’t available (e.g. East Africa) or where we wanted to move around rather than basing in one place (Peru, Southeast Asia, Ethiopia). But during those years the home-exchanging model was growing in complexity. Whereas in the beginning all the trades were direct (you were in my home at the same time I was in yours), trading platforms like added a twist in which you could let someone stay in your home for “guest points” that you could later use to stay somewhere else. Because of the flexibility this enables, I’ve started dabbling in house-trading again — never more successfully than for this current trip.

Using our Guest Points, I secured a three-night stay in Vilnius, four nights in Tallinn, and four in Helsinki. Only in Riga did we stay in a hotel (3 nights). We saved a bunch of money, and as in the past, the trades made our visits more interesting.

Mind you, this mode of travel is not for everyone. It’s like having a friend or relative let you use their place when they’re off somewhere else. The spaces usually are more cluttered than any hotel would be. But home-exchange makes us feel less like tourists. It’s more of an adventure — starting with the challenge of getting in the door.

Our hostess in Vilnius, Eva V, had told me in advance she would leave the keys to her place at a hair salon just down the street from her building — not the one immediately next store, she cautioned. Her hairdresser, Daiva, was scheduled to be working when we arrived.

From the Vilnius airport, our Bolt driver quickly got us to Eva’s address. While Steve stood in front of the gate with our suitcases, I darted down the street to the salon that obviously matched Eva’s description. The inside was empty except for two stylists, neither of whom spoke English. “Daiva?” I inquired. They both looked baffled. I think one of them asked me Lithuanian if I wanted a beauty treatment. (After the trans-Atlantic flight, I certainly needed one.) All I could do was bray, “Daiva? Keys?” They women seemed to shoo me toward the salon down the street — the one Eva had clearly said wasn’t the right one. But I apologized and exited. I was halfway down the block when one of the two women ran after me, embarrassed and laughing. She clearly had forgotten she was supposed to hand Eva’s keys over to a foreign visitor. Why she didn’t instantly acknowledge her name indeed was Daiva I’ll never know.

Keys in hand, Steve and I got through the gate, even though the electronic code that opened it wasn’t working. (Eva had texted me that it was acting up and instructed me in how to open it by pushing a hidden button.)In an inner courtyard, we used the key from Daiva to get into the correct building, and up on the third floor, the key functioned perfectly to admit us.

There was no elevator and inside Eva’s place, we had to lug our suitcases up yet another flight of stairs to reach the master bedroom. But that was really the only drawback of the place. The colors and design choices were extraordinary; making it perhaps the most elegant trading house we’ve ever stayed in.

The kitchen was small but chic. It worked for us.

The master bedroom

In the days that followed, we also appreciated how central the location was; we could easily walk to almost everywhere from there.

For our stays in Tallinn and Helsinki, I found something unusual: a woman (I’ll call her Lina) who had apartments to trade in both cities. In fact, she also appeared to own two additional places, one on an Estonian island (where she and her husband would be staying) and a flat on the French Riviera. I arranged to stay in both her Tallinn and Helsinki digs. Since then I haven’t learned much more about her (like her nationality), except I can tell you she is not a native English speaker, a fact that complicated our interaction from time to time.

To enter the Tallinn home, Lina gave me the street address and the code to get through a gate into an inner courtyard. There we should look for some bricks under a balcony, she instructed. We’d find the key under one of the bricks. Miraculously, all this worked fine.

The gate to our place in Tallinn was between the two big buildings.

The inner courtyard with the balcony that marked the spot!


We were in…. er….Almost.

The key gained us entrance into the doorway with the number that matched her address. Only then did we realize Lina had not mentioned which of the five apartments inside the building was hers.

I tried frantically calling her phone number but got no answer. I messaged her. Nothing. I was pretty sure it was one of the three units on the second floor, but none of them were marked with any names. Finally Steve just tried the key on one of them. A startled young man opened that door. (He said he’d just moved in an had no idea which of the other units was Lina’s.)

Happily, it was the next door on which we tried the key (something Lina confirmed when she finally messaged me back a minute later.)

The living room

And the kitchen/dining area.

We did encounter a few more glitches. The switch that clearly should have turned on overhead lights in the kitchen only resulted in crackling noises with an occasional flash. The overhead lights in the bedroom also appeared to be broken. “I haven’t had a possibility to be there still to make those well,” Lina messaged.

Her written house instructions (a universal fixture in trading homes) were pretty bare bones, and Steve struggled to operate the insanely complicated Bosch washer/dryer. When we asked for Eva’s help, she wrote, “Only thing what I know is that the door is not correctly closed 🙂 then there is a small door light.” Steve somehow managed to get a load washed and more or less dried. (After first freaking us out by saying the drying cycle would take 12 hours, the dryer finally sobered up and actually took only about three hours.)

Another complication arose a day later, when Lina sent us a photo of an envelope with my name and her Tallinn address on it. Her message stated, “Hope all is good in Tallinn! My cleaner made a mistake and took the keys with her so I need to send you my key here from Saaremaa!” From this I deduced she was talking about our tool for gaining entrance to the Helsinki apartment, our next stop. Lina said she would mail us a key, and the followed exchange between us ensued:

As things turned out, it was FAR from easy to figure out what a postautomat is and where it was lurking at the market. The envelope also didn’t arrive for two full days. But we didn’t mind because it was so interesting to learn about this cool Estonian mailing option. Tucked inside a lonely nook outside and in back of the stylish market, the “omnimat” looked like this:When Lina finally texted me the six-digit code, I keyed it into the screen and one of the little doors popped open. Voila! There was the envelope containing the house key.

We felt mild irritation over some of these things, but it dissipated quickly because the good aspects of staying in Lina’s home were so good. We could walk from the flat to the heart of Tallinn’s Old Town in less than 15 minutes; the immediate surroundings were a hipster hotbed. If some of the lights didn’t work, the heating in the bathroom floor tiles did, and we loved that. Even more wondrous was the built-in sauna!Lina’s scanty home instructions said it could be warmed up in 45 minutes. I had every intention of using it until Miina (our private guide on Tuesday) said the newspapers were reporting that heating up a home sauna just once would cost 50 euros (due to the sky-high cost of electricity.) I felt so kindly toward Lina by then that I resisted cranking up her sauna.

Now that we’re installed in her Helsinki flat I feel even more grateful. It’s much bigger than the one in Tallinn and in an even more beautiful and central location.

It’s located on a beautiful street.

It has a spacious office off the large living room.

The view from the office into the living room.

Armed with the key that I received in the omnimat, we had no trouble getting into the building or the apartment, which to our amazement, has a double set of doors (for protection against noise? Cold? We have no idea.)

I’m writing this post sitting at the big round wooden table in the well-lighted kitchen. It’s not home, but it feels like what a Finnish version of that would be.

Bolting around the Baltics

This part of the world may be flat but it’s a metaphorical Tower of Babel, so complex I never considered trying to learn any of the local tongues. The folks in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland each have a different language. We were told that Lithuanian and Latvian are sufficiently related that folks speaking each at least can guess what the other is saying. The same is true for Estonian and Finnish, which belong to the “Finno-Ugric” language family. Still, here’s how you say “Thank you” in each.

Lithuanian=Aciu (with lots of diacritical marks that WordPress can’t accommodate).




Learning this, I moved Google Translate to the first page of my iPhone.

We’ve heard a lot of Russian in all four countries, and sometimes that’s the other language you see on public signs. Sometimes you see English, but not always. Despite all this, it’s been remarkably easy to get by because so many folks in the service sector (restaurants, museums, etc.) speak at least some English. And to my delight, getting around has been easier still.

In the cities we became enthusiastic patrons of Bolt, a ride-sharing service I had never heard of before we went to Vilnius. Created in 2013 by an Estonian high-school student who developed the first version of his app with 5,000 euros borrowed from his parents, Bolt today operates in more than 500 cities in at least 45 countries (according to Wikipedia) and has more than 100 million customers globally. I particularly loved how it showed up on Google Maps as an an alternative to walking, driving, or public transportation.

Bolt cars seemed far more available than Ubers. They rarely took more than 5 minutes to come, wherever we summoned one. And they typically cost about $5 or $6 a ride (including a big tip.)

To move between the countries, we used Lux Express buses, one of several alternatives. I bought those tickets online before we left San Diego. These vehicles proved to be spotless and comfy, with amenities that included TV screens in the seat backs, a decent onboard toilet, and free hot coffee. The journeys from Vilnius to Riga and then from Riga to Tallinn each took less than 5 hours, gave us a look at the countryside, and cost only $26 a person for seats in the “premium” section of the bus. The rides were smooth enough for me to work on my blog posts.

It was even cheaper and faster to take the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki — only $22 a person for the two and a quarter-hour transit across the Gulf of Finland. Our ship was the Finlandia.

The weather was fair and the sea was calm. But it was nice to know the Finlandia carried at least a few lifeboats.

The boarding process was fast and efficient.

Our last view of Tallinn, Estonia

Disembarking from the ferry, we were back in a country with American-style transportation prices. The Bolts and Ubers in downtown Helsinki seemed to be few and far from our ferry terminal, so we got into a regular taxi driven by an African who spoke good English. The ride to our apartment here took less than 20 minutes, but it cost $21. It made me feel nostalgic for those former Soviet republics.

For our next trick

Summer finally arrived in San Diego this weekend with sweaty, thuggish force, but Steve and I will soon be heading north. We won’t quite get within spitting distance of the North Pole, but we’ll be closer to it than we ever have before. We will travel via the Midwest, where we’ll first attend a family wedding September 9. We have to be back to the West Coast less than three weeks later, to prepare for and drive to Reno for another important wedding.

Could we go somewhere interesting in between? Our thoughts turned to the Baltic Sea, an area Steve and I flew over years ago on the way to St. Petersburg. Three plucky little countries line its eastern shore: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all occupied by Stalin and his forces after the Second World War. By all accounts, they were grim sad places until the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke up, they gained their independence, and began to flourish. Steve and I have long been curious about them.

Now we’ll find out what’s there. From Chicago, we’ll fly next Sunday (9/11) to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We’ll spend three nights there then make our way north, first to Riga (in Latvia), then on to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Finally, we’ll take a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to stay in Helsinki four nights before starting the journey home.

As usual, I plan to report on things I find interesting. I assume we’ll find some. That’s why we go.