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Notes and pictures from a Journey to 'Greater Scandinavia' - 
Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland - Summer of 2008

Pictures by George and Maryo, text by George

Greater Scandinavia Map 

This was our journey, roughly:  We flew to Helsinki (green line) although we were actually routed through Amsterdam after a flight problem. We had a couple days in Helsinki, then took the train north to Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle, and rented a car to drive around Sapmi (formerly Lapland) and the home of the Sami people (formerly Lapps), then back to Helsinki by train again (blue line). Then we took an eleven-story ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm (yellow line), where we were for a couple days. Then a train to Bergen, Norway, over the Scandinavian ridge, by way of Oslo (orange line). We spent a couple days Bergen, then a couple more driving around the coastal fjord country (pink line). Then we flew to Iceland (light green line), where we rented a car and spent several days touristing around Iceland (light blue line). Then home to Colorado. That's the broad overview - now to the journey itself....

It’s what we call a “vacation” – but I’ve never liked the sound of that word. I like the Upper Gunnison Valley; why would I want to vacate? Call it instead a scouting expedition, looking for examples of intelligent life on earth, ideas and observations that might be worth trying. We were tourists all the way, and it's interesting seeing that from the other side of the tourist economy. 

What follows is divided into five "pages"; you can click on any of these places to go straight to that part of the trip: 

I've tried  to make this something other than just a travelogue, the reflections instead of a stranger in a strange land. But I won't be offended if you just decide to skim down for the pictures....  - G


Flying toward tomorrow in a darkened quiet plane, all of us sitting eight abreast, facing forward, theater-style, but the only show was the little screen on the seatback in front that told you where you were with respect to where you’d been and where you were going, and also some “when” info both backward and forward – the time in Minneapolis, time in Amsterdam – seven hours later there, well into tomorrow by midnight Colorado time, a day half gone by the time we got there. Ground speed, 605 mph. Tailwind 145 mph. Temperature -65 degrees C. Altitude 35,700 feet. There in the plane, there was no sense of motion most of the night; except when the 145-mph tailwind tried to push us around a bit, we might have been sitting in a room somewhere with a slightly noisy air-conditioner. Eerie, when you know intellectually that you are hurtling through the atmosphere at 600 miles per hour, in an environment inhospitable to carbon-based life, with nothing between you and that environment but a thin metal skin…. I don’t really like to fly because I find it so hard to not think about such things. To get on an airplane is an act of faith that works better for people more given to believing than thinking. 

A strange little old man from North Dakota was sitting next to Maryo, on his way to visit his son in Germany: a couple times during the night, he took out a mouth harp and played quietly for a bit.

NOTES FROM THE AMSTERDAM AIRPORT: Coming into the airport, the altitude displayed on the screen on the plane was one foot. Since this is where “reclamation” means taking water off the land – basically the ocean – rather than putting it on the land, I guess they must have looked for a high point to get that much altitude; in our controlled fall out of the sky onto the runway, the scenery was green fields and blue-green ocean separated by a an unnaturally regular shoreline, a line of levees, or I guess dikes as they call them here. A lot of this area has been literally reclaimed from the sea, and the canals that Hans Brinker skated on are carrying water away from the land, not onto it like on our West.

Goethe’s Faust found some of his saving grace, his meaningful work, reclaiming this land from the sea. He saw it as enabling human activity, “humanizing” the earth; probably a lot of us today would oppose it as environmentally destructive, “denaturing” nature, converting it from random Darwinian evolution to the kind of Lamarckian cultural evolution, industriousness leading to industry that eventually led to an airport in Amsterdam to which travelers who’d meant to go to Helsinki via Reykjavik could be diverted through instead, no problem, a landscape which one could look down on from heights Faust would probably also have found interesting but still not enough, not quite enough….


Writing from a balcony on the ninth floor of the Palace Hotel in Helsinki, overlooking Helsinki’s South Harbor and the site of the biggest “Farmer’s Market” I’ve ever seen. 

Helsinki Market

The “Harbor Market” is actually in two parts: one part is the big old (1889) ornate brick building that looks more like a temple than a shelter for farmers and bakers and cheese makers selling what they raise and make. It’s kind of a temple to the idea of the small food producer.

The rest of the Harbor Market is the three acres or so of tents and lean-tos and other shelters in the background, along with a few boats tied up in the harbor, with everything from fresh produce and fresh fish to cooked produce and cooked fish to cut flowers to potted plants to arts and crafts to pure art and “Scandinavian design.” Maryo remembers it from when she and her family lived in this neighborhood 50 years ago, and who knows how long it had been going on then. Probably once it – along with a couple three others scattered around the city – once fed a lot of the city. Now there are (I’m not making this up) “City Markets” throughout the city providing all the industrial groceries with which we are familiar. But this farmers’ market is still crowded even on weekdays. Maybe it takes half a century, a century, to make something like this actually become part of people’s lives.

A couple more  market pictures - one inside the "temple to local food production" (note the ornate woodwork), and the other featuring some street musicians in front of a stand....

 Inside Helsinki Market Market Musicians 

One thing we quickly discovered, and managed to fit into pretty easily, is the “moveable parade” that Helsinki is. A couple blocks from our hotel was a four-block park called the “Esplanade.” This is basically a people-watching site. All the restaurant businesses across the street from the park have outside areas, and the chairs in these areas are consciously set up for people-watching – all the chairs face the street. If you go there to talk with someone, you don’t sit across the table from that person; you sit beside them so both of you can watch the passing parade as you talk.

Esplanade in Helsinki

And the parade itself is a miracle of diversity. The Esplanade was originally just for the upper crust, the high society people, but it has totally democratized. Now, in the space of half an hour or so, you will see go by… Old people in suits and dresses. Young punky people wearing pounds of metal and torn stockings. Maybe a dozen Buddhist monks with drum and wind instrument. Maybe a dozen young guys all wearing devil’s horns and some with their faces painted red. You imagine or dream it: wait long enough and it will eventually pass by. And after a time of watching the passing parade, everyone gets up and becomes part of the passing parade, while others sit it out for a cup and watch.

Our favorite place for watching is a café called Kapelli (below), where your morning coffee can, if you dwaddle well enough, segue into your afternoon beer. Karhu, the beer of bears, a bear of beer. But they don’t fill your pint! For whatever reason or custom, they only fill the glass to about two inches from the top. Hmmpfh. Some things are definitely better in America.

Cafe Kapelli

 Like all great cities, Helsinki is a walkabout museum, with a lot of statuary to  illustrate the history you are walking through. And every statue seems to be guarded by a pigeon. Here's J. L. Runeberg, Finland's national poet - about whom, more below. The most interesting part of this statue - other than the guard pigeon - is the woman at the base of the statue - "The Spirit of Finland." If the Russians had taken a good look at her before trying in invade Finland in 1939, they might have thought better of it....

       Runeberg Statue    Spirit of Finland

Helsinki is a lovely city, very human in its scale. The biggest, tallest buildings are still its churches, homage to gods other than the Mammon to whom we build our temples in America. Not that Finland is a very religious place: church attendance is pretty low according to the guidebooks. If they worship anything, most Finns would seem to do homage to the idea of the livable society. They are trying to make the city work for everyone. But the churches are very impressive. Here  are the huge Lutheran and Russian Orthodox Churches....

    Lutheran Cathedral    Russian Orthodox Cathedral

 On of the great things about Helsinki - they never allowed the benevolent corporations of oil-based privatization to eliminate their public-transit electric trolley system, the way most of the American cities did; the trolleys that Maryo remembers from when she was here in 1959 are still here, and they run so regularly around the downtown that you don’t even have to think about a schedule. We also got the sense that you don’t really even have to worry about a ticket. We bought all-day tourist tickets for the entire public transit system – on and off whenever you pleased, which was good since we usually found ourselves on the wrong trolley and needing to backtrack and start over. And most of the people, when they got on the trolley, scanned their long-term passes on a kind of pass reader. But we never saw anyone actually checking tickets on the trolleys, and probably we could have just ridden free all day. I expect there are people who do. But I would also guess that most of those who do, do so out of need rather than a sense of getting away with something, and the rest of the people buy tickets or passes because they believe in the system; to not do so would be violating some essential trust or contract. This is just the way Helsinki people seem to be.

 The trolley system that serves the main metro area is augmented by bus lines to remoter places that seem to run every half hour or so. That’s the ideal anyway, and maybe even the usual practice. But lest this sound too perfect - we had a couple interesting public transit moments. Twice we tried to get to an outdoor museum a little ways beyond the city – “the 24 bus,” we saw from the handy-dandy public transit guide we picked up at one of their many tourist-information sites. The first day we tried, we got off the bus at the Sibelius Monument to check that out, then went back to the same stop, where we joined three other people waiting for the 24. The bus came along – and just passed us up! Swerved in toward the bus stop but didn’t even slow down, just went on down the street. Five people looking slackjawed at each other: did that really happen?

So the next day we tried again. We got on the 24 at the end of the Esplanade, showed our one-day passes at the driver, who semi-studiously ignored us. Okay, we thought, and went and sat down. The driver then disconnected his money box and left the bus. Okay, we thought, and meanwhile people were climbing on the bus, taking seats. We sat and we sat. The time came for the bus to leave, and the driver wasn’t back, n or was a substitute driver there. We sat some more, but by now low conversations were starting up. Eventually, another 24 pulled in behind us – the next bus running that route. Everyone shrugged, got up and left the driverless bus, and went back to the new one – everyone except Maryo and me; we decided we weren’t meant, for whatever reason, to visit that museum and went back to getting lost on the trolleys. Two hours later we went by that bus stop and the empty, driverless 24 was still sitting there, door open, a few new people sitting inside probably thinking that the driver would be back in a minute, ready to run the route….

Here's Maryo with one of the old-style trolleys she remembered from when she was 11 in Helsinki.

     Maryo's Tram                  Sibelius Monument

The picture on the right is the Sibelius Memorial - a beautiful abstract array of metal pipes that, on a windy day, probably sounds like a Sibelius symphony. It was a little too abstract for the Finns, though, so the artist had to add the bust of Sibelius that's at the bottom on the right. The rock is natural, and lies not very far beneath the surface everywhere in Finland - and most of Scandinavia. It wasn't too long ago that the ice caps scraped that part of the world bare....


Sunday – a gray and sullen-looking day in Helsinki – we got on a little boat called the J.L. Runeberg and went to a smaller city east of Helsinki on the coast called Porvoo. We got rained on a little bit, and the wind blowing in from the seaward side was straight out of March somewhere, but we huddled in the stern of the boat and watched the islands go by – hundreds, maybe thousands of little rock islands, the dark granitic bones of the planet sticking up through the thin skin of water and plants and animals that barely had a start on some of the islands. But every island that had so much as a tree also had at least one cabin on it, with a sauna nearby. Larger islands had more cabins (and saunas); this is apparently the second-home industry that Helsinki feeds.

The weather had cleared by the time we got to Porvoo, which is a mile or so up a coastal river. “Old Porvoo” is like our Crested Butte in some respects – an old workers’ town, but for fishemen instead of coal miners. It’s built on a hillside sloping down to a fat lazy river, and is seriously quaint – narrow cobblestone streets lined with little old frame buildings. The buildings today are filled with artisans and artists, most of which inspired Maryo to observe that “some things are the same wherever you go.” An interesting place to visit, to sit down and have a beer in and watch the other tourists like oneself, et cetera.

But the really interesting story lay a few blocks away, in the big old house that is now the J.L. Runeberg Museum – the same J.L. Runeberg for whom our boat was named. Runeberg was a schoolteacher in Porvoo in the early decades of the 20th century, an important time in the evolution of Finland as it is today.

For centuries, Finland was invaded, overrun, or otherwise occupied by various other powers to the east, west and south, who milked her for what they could get from her. Control over Finland and its harvest from land and sea went back and forth between Sweden to the west and Russia to the east with every sea change of European politics. The Finns actually built statues to Czar Alexander II of Russia because, despite being nominally master of their lives, he tended to leave them alone; that was as good as it got for the Finns in those centuries, and they actually created a Finnish constitution without an opposition from the Czar.

But in the early 20th century, Finland was again part of Sweden’s portfolio. The “official” language had become Swedish – or at least the language of the officials and the officious; that was the language taught in the schools and spoken by polite society, even though the uneducated peasants who did all the work continued to speak their weird language with all its Ks and double vowels and umlauts.

Around 1917, with Europe caught up in the desperate chaos of the Great War, the Finns seized the opportunity to declare their independence from everyone else; the Swedes mounted a half-hearted opposition against that, but had other things to worry about and eventually abandoned their claim.

Runeberg played an important part in this era as a writer. He wrote – in Swedish, of course – epic stories of Finnish courage and character, and when they declared their independence, he wrote a poem, “Our Land,” that became the Finnish national anthem (also in Swedish originally). It was a little strange, as national anthems go; it was unusually modest, with lines about Finland as “a poor land.” But thinking about it, there was probably a strategy there. If you’re trying to establish yourself as an independent entity between two acquisitive superpowers, probably the last thing you want to do is brag about your many riches and assets.

Runeberg’s works – written in Swedish, and published in Sweden for sale in Finland – were very popular, and made him a fairly wealthy man, for a Finn anyway. He was basically able to live like a Swede in Finland. His house in Porvoo was very grand compared to the little wooden shacks in Old Porvoo. But if there is a certain irony there, it was not acknowledged in the museum in his house today. The woman in charge was eloquent in stating that Runeberg had articulated “for us what it is to be Finnish.” Even if others had to translate it into Finnish from the Swedish.

Here are pictures of, first, one of the offshore rock islands with a summer home, and a shot of Porvoo's main drag:

Offshore Summer Home


We took a bus back to Helsinki from Porvoo. And the next day, headed north on the train for the Arctic Circle....