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The travel “quickie”

by Jan Wheatcroft

I love traveling to Sweden to visit my friends up near Uppsala, which is about an hour north of Stockholm by car. They live out in the country with horses and cows, farmers and bee keepers, and open fields and forests all around. They aren’t near anything but nature. It is very friendly, peaceful and restful but we manage to do things that connect us with the outside world, as well.

When I went this spring I was treated to what I now call “a travel quickie.” A trip to a new foreign destination for less than 2 days. Short but very sweet. We awoke at 3 a.m. and, by 4 a.m., we were on the road to the Arlanda airport in Stockholm where we caught a plane for a short flight to Helsinki, Finland. Neither Susanna or I had been there before but Christer had once on a school outing. It was a very quick flight and we were soon in another country to have an adventure. I love adventures. 

We hopped on an airport bus into the center of town and the railroad station, marking the spot where we would catch the bus for its return trip to the airport the next day. None of us knew much of anything about where we were, this was a “quickie” in all senses with no real time for preparation. All I knew is that the Finnish language is very difficult. It is related to Hungarian, which is also difficult, and quite unknown to me. When I was in Hungary, I found it difficult to communicate in English but here I found the Finnish to be well-versed in at least English, French and German.

Between the 3 of us we had one small “wheelie” carryon and a bag for everything we might need for one night there. We walked a long distance to find our hotel in the “design” district where Christer had booked us due to my “arty” nature and interest. We tried to follow maps and although we made a lot of mistakes, we finally found it at the end of the street. Susanna and Christer had a double room and I had a single. My room was the tiniest I have ever had, even smaller than the Tokyo businessman’s hotel which I had had to squeeze in and out. I was glad I was not a bird needing to stretch my wings—an impossible feat here. However it was clean and had everything one needed, just in a very compact way. After all, I was only going to sleep there one night.

I have a feeble sense of direction. My friend Frances says it is because I don’t pay much attention to where I am and where I am going. She’s probably right.  Luckily for all of us, Christer is a good map reader and the tram stops all have maps posted which made sense to him. We learned which trams followed which routes and took tours around the city to get a feel for where we were. We each purchased a 24-hour tram ticket on the advice of a clever salesperson. This allowed us to hop on and off of as many trams or buses as we chose to travel on. Many of the neighborhoods had lovely old buildings and some were Art Deco in design and very lovely to look at. Eventually, places began to look familiar as we had passed by them quite a few times. 

One of the hardest things was deciding where to go.  Should we choose a museum or a church? A shop or gardens? Or should we just walk around and admire the different neighborhoods? So much has to be cut out when you have a large menu and a short amount of time but, luckily, each of us was flexible and not stressed at not being able to do it all. And also, luckily, we all like to eat. Especially fish, which there was plenty of. In the end, this is what we did. 

We had a lovely afternoon cruise on the top of a sightseeing boat that sailed around the harbor and around the outlying islands. I loved the wind whipping through my hair and the stewardess handed out blankets—we eventually wrapped them around our heads looking like Muslim women in purdah.  I preferred the blanket wrap to sitting inside a stuffy cabin. The islands were green and dotted with summer houses and boat docks and mansions. It was relaxing. 

We also visited Temppeliaukio Church, a famous church carved out of the natural bedrock on a hill that we hiked up. It was super lovely with a huge domed wooden ceiling and natural rock all around. And yet it had the feeling of soaring into space. It was totally peaceful, even though it was filled with quite a few visitors. We also visited the Kamppi Chapel of Silence.  We had seen it from a distance right in the middle of town but had no idea what it was. It was rounded in shape and was built of a pale wood, which really stood out from all the cement and stone around it. The interior is made of the same pale wood in a circular shape with light coming out of the ceiling. It called for some quiet meditation and a moment of contemplation. We managed to look into a few shops but had to quickly, as Christer doesn’t enjoy that form of recreation as much as I do. 

And then there was the eating. Down by the harbor, we found a local flea market that turned out to be rather boring, but it sat in front of a lovely old building full of food stalls and restaurants. It was a pleasure to browse among all the wonderful breads and bakery goods, the candies and chocolates, the piles of fruits and vegetables and the array of fish and meat choices. We did order our meal here on the second day and took it upstairs to eat overlooking the sea.  We sat on the “wrong” side—one restaurant owned one side and one owned the other. How would one know this? We didn’t learn until we were shooed out by a server.

I think my favorite eating establishment was on the last day, just before we had to get to the train station to pick up our wheelie case and catch the airport bus. We had ridden down an old street and someone on the tram pointed out the first bakery in Helsinki. Naturally we had to stop and sample the pastries and coffee. We sat outside, as all good cafe dwellers do, after hovering about waiting for someone to leave a table. We tried different tarts and chocolate layer cakes and creamy coffees and sunshine. Bliss. And then the adventure was over and we rode back to the airport and soon flew home.

Before you knew it, we were back in the local grocery shop on the way to our home to pick up something for dinner; a meal one can have quite late in the evening in the Swedish summer as it remains light for such a long time. We sat outside to eat as most of the mosquitos were gone at that hour. 

I truly love the idea of a “travel quickie.” It is not the way I would like to experience all of my traveling but when one stays in one place for a while and visits that place over many years, it is a fun way of seeing just a small bit of another part of the world; sort of like having just a nibble of a rich and fattening bear claw to know how it tastes. This now opens the door for all sorts of mini-adventures for the next years, Estonia, Latvia…

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