My time in Vaasa started in Tampere, Finland’s 3rd or 4th largest (and fastest growing) city. It is a two hour train ride from Helsinki and I stepped onto the platform and immediately spotted Tiina. I was worried about that. I mean, I had spent just a couple of hours with Tiina and Antti and that was several days before, so I was nervous about recognition. I shouldn’t have been. I saw her, called her name (which I almost never pronounced exactly right) and then we met up with Antti, who was at the other end of the platform.
After quick hellos, I was informed we had a busy day planned. See, they live in Vaasa, which is about 3 hours away from Tampere, they just happened to be there for Antti’s work (despite having a degree in marketing, right now he’s selling windows and doors and doing quite well at it) and visiting Tiina’s sister who lives there. Of course, the trip to Vaasa was not the first item on our list. Oh no, our first stop was Sarkanniemi, an amusement park a few minutes from the train station.
Sarkanniemi is the amusement park version of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Art. It has everything you could possibly want from an amusement park. In addition to adult roller coasters, there were kiddies rides, an observation tower with rotating restaurant,
aquarium, planetarium and a dolphin show, which was our first stop. Oh yeah, did I mention we didn’t have to pay to get in (okay, two of us didn’t) since Tiina works for another amusement park called Wasalandia and they have an agreement giving employees two free passes. So she and I got the wrist bands and Antti just bought a ticket for the dolphin show but was able to walk the rest of the park with us.
The dolphin show was really a lot of fun. It was inside (remember, in the wintertime, this place gets very cold, dark and snowy) and, unlike American dolphin shows, really just focused on the tricks the dolphins can do, including high jumps, jumps through hoops and juggling (Yup, the dolphin and trainer did a two mammal juggling routine).
From the dolphin show, we went up the tower so I could get a nice overview of the town (city? I t was too big to be a village but
then I’m really not clear where the distinction lies – where does a hamlet become a village become a town become a city become New York?) It’s lovely. Even though I really never saw more than the park and train station from ground level, Tampere has the kind of feel of a place you could live (and Iron Maiden was playing there THAT night so you know they get the big concerts!). Back on the ground, Tiina and I hit a couple of coasters while Antti waited. The first was a decent suspended job with a loop and a nice tunnel but the second, Trombi, was one where you were suspended in a horizontal position, like you were flying. It was awesome! I’d been so excited by watching the people get on and off and seeing how the ride positioned you that I completely missed the part of the ride itself where you spin upside down…until I was on the ride and doing it. It’s been a while since I was surprised by a coaster.
Once it started raining, though, we figured we should make the long drive back to Vaasa. We made it in good time, with only a
couple of stops along the way, including one at Hesburger (a fast food chain trying to horn in on McDonald’s action and producing better food to do it – with the burgers. Nothing beats the American Mickey D’s fries). In Vaasa, before we made it to the apartment, we made a stop at Wasalandia. That night there was a big rock festival in Vaasa (for those who couldn’t get tickets to the Iron Maiden concert in Tampere) and Tiina had a couple of free tickets in her office at work, so we had to stop by there. Of course, by the time we arrived, it was near closing so the place was nearly deserted.
Wasalandia is a kid’s park. It is designed for the pre-teen set and let me tell you, if Bailey and Riley had been with me, it would have been hard to get them to leave. All of the rides, even the big, exciting ones, are kid size. We jumped on a log ride (I don’t remember what their version was called) and I got wet sitting in front (and no, it didn’t matter it was kid sized, the flume still scared me). Then Tiina grabbed the tickets and we finally made it back to the apartment to unload my bags and to continue the Finnish experience.
Let’s talk about the Finnish experience, huh? I learned quite a bit about Finland (Suomi) in the few days I spent there. And one of the things I learned was that all Fins enjoy their sauna (pronounced sow-na). So when we got my bags upstairs, Antti came in and said it was time for sauna and we would be meeting some friends there (it was in a different part of the apartment complex). Then he handed me a towel and told me sauna was done naked and you get beaten with a thing called a “bath whisk,” which was made from the leaves and branches of a tree in the yard.
Of course, I think Antti is pulling my leg (and, as my friend Tom says, “be thankful that’s the only thing he’s pulling”) but hey, I’m willing to risk it. So I grab the towel and wrap it around my naked body, throw on a borrowed pair of crocs and head out into the Finnish evening (okay, it’s about 8pm and it’s bright as midday – longitude wise we’re closer to the arctic circle than we are the Canadian border). Antti is wearing a robe so I’m still not certain he’s going to be bearing it all and Tiina has a bikini on under her towel and I don’t know if that’s coming off, but I have no recourse. I’ve left the house in nothing but borrowed linen. I start to feel better when we get to the sauna and I see three guys sitting outside, also wearing towels. They smile warmly when we walk up and greetings are exchanged. I am introduced to two of Antti’s oldest friends, Jussi and Vesa and Vesa’s friend Peltsi. Again, I don’t know what’s under their towels, but I’m starting to feel a little better about this. After introductions, we go and rip branches off the tree to make the “bath whisk” (evidently, this is being done in my honor and is not a normal part of their itinerary – not that it’s not done, just not every time). So, branches in hand, we head into the sauna. In the ante room, where there are hooks for towels, towels start getting hung up and guess what? everyone is just a little bit naked (except Tiina, who does, in fact, stay in her bikini). Suddenly, I feel like I’m back in 7th grade gym class. But I dutifully hang up my towel and gamely walk into the dark sauna.
It’s freaking hot in there!
80 degrees Celsius (Bailey, Riley, can one of you do the math and figure out how hot that is in Farenheit?) and it is NOT a dry heat. Nope, that’s the entire point of a sauna. In fact, there’s a big box of rocks and someone has thoughtfully brought a bucket of water which gets splashed on the rocks, sending gales of steam into the room (which is closed, trapping the heat inside). I describe this for the benefit of anyone who has never been in a sauna. In other cultures, this process might be referred to as “taking a sweat” or “having a schvitz.” It really doesn’t matter how you cut it, you sweat a lot and while it does clean out your pores and your sinuses, it’s not something you can do for long stretches of time (which is why the other guys were outside
when we walked up). I’m feeling the pinch after a few minutes but Vesa, who looks like Dana Carvey’s cool younger brother, has proclaimed the first to leave has to buy beer for the rest of the night. Now, I’m not taking any risks. I wasn’t sure about the whole naked thing and that proved true so I wasn’t about to be the first out the door. Oh yeah, and lest I forget, there was indeed beatings with the “whisk.” I hate to admit it, but it actually felt good. If those religious fanatics where beating themselves in a sauna, I can kinda see the attraction.
After an hour or so (and four trips in and out of the heat) it’s time for bed – wait what? Not bed? I’ve been up for 14 hours, been to two amusement parks, a two hour train ride, three hour car ride and been naked with five almost complete strangers. I’d say I’d had a pretty full day already. But no. Remember those rock festival tickets we went to Wasalandia to pick up? They were for tonight. So we all dry off and pile into Antti’s car and head over to the festival grounds.
The only problem is that Tiina only has two tickets and there’s six of us. A decision is made, in Finnish, that Tiina and I are the ones going in and the rest will stay out in the field and drink. Ironically, there are more people outside than in. It’s been a while
since I’ve been to a festival so I don’t know if that’s normal or not, but out in front of the gates was where the party was happening. It may have something to do with the fact that Yngwie Malmsteen was the headliner (and if you don’t know who he is, be proud of yourself). The only other person on the bill I’d heard of was a guy named Tony Carey who used to be in a band called Planet P (and yes, I have two of his songs on my iPod). We got there as he was playing and Tiina and I walked into the tent just in time to hear him do one of the songs I knew. We stayed through a bitch session at the crowd and bad cover of a blues song before we decided to get back to our friends.
Somewhere in the course of conversation outside, it comes out that Peltsi actually wanted to see Yngwie. If he’d said something earlier, we would have given him a ticket and he could have exchanged it for the wristband which actually gets you inside. Unfortunately, those bands were now snug on my and Tiina’s wrists. Not for long if I and Vesa have anything to say about it. He and I spend the next ten minutes trying to get this thing free and after a fight that would’ve made Hemingway proud, we succeeded. Peltsi didn’t have as much trouble slipping it on his wrist and he went in to hear his guitar hero play.
And the night still wasn’t over! Before we finally made it home, we went out for late night pizza and a trip to Antti’s sister’s house (and we picked up a second Tiina, so now we had seven people in the car – yeah, I was reliving high school). It was an amazing night…and that was only day one in Vaasa. I was afraid of what the next few days were going to bring.