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A Home Exchange in Finland

Author: LSKahn
Date of Trip: July 2009

If you don’t like unstructured travel, you would not like a trip with me. I do a lot of research in advance and have an idea of what I would like to see, but what I actually do once I arrive is largely dependent on how the spirit moves me. It helps that I generally travel solo, as there is no one to negotiate with about what I do and when.

This trip began in the fall of 2008 when I received an email through a home exchange site to which I belong inquiring whether I would be interested in Finland FOR CHRISTMAS! I emailed back that I did not want to go to the North Pole for Christmas. While the cold would not bother me (you could dress for that), the limited hours of daylight would. Also, in winter many of the tourist sites in Finland would be on limited hours and/or be closed. I counter offered saying I would be delighted to swap during the summer and the Finnish family accepted.

I left the United States on July 18th and arrived in Finland the following morning. My home exchangers met me at the airport and drove me to the house. They then left — as prearranged for their other house (the husband and wife had jobs in different cities and there was a house — which I used — as well as an apartment (I was left a key to that apartment as well, but never used it). One of my home exchangers has a job with Finnair and the family had to wait several days to get seats on an airplane before flying out (They just pay taxes).

The first couple of days were largely spent sleeping and just getting adjusted to my surroundings in Lahti, Finland. Lahti is a town of about 100,000 located about an hour north of Helsinki. It is not a major tourist site, but is located on a lake. In fact, much of Finland is located on a lake, on the Baltic or on the Gulf of Finland. Boating is a great entertainment there. The family kindly left me a GPS for Scandanavia. It made life a lot easier. In Europe there are always signs to tourist sites, but there is never one that says “You live here.” The first few days of a home exchange you can get lost just finding where it is you “live”.

Home exchange is not for everyone. I have been doing it since 1990. I belong to both the Homelink and Intervac services. I suggest that anyone interested in this method of travel check out a number of sites on the internet before deciding which one to join. I rarely solicit home exchanges. Since I live just outside Washington, DC, I constantly get inquiries about exchanges. My policy is generally to take the first one that arrives that is serious. To be a successful exchanger, you must be open to going places you never thought you’d be interested in.

Basically, my home exchange home was used as a base for traveling and not as the destination itself. I would go out for a few nights and then do a lot of day trips where I could come “home” at night. It is always great to have a washer and a dryer and my Finnish home was the closest thing to an American home I have ever had in Europe — complete with a large size refrigerator and washer and dryer. Of course, I had a sauna (I never used it as I had no idea how it worked). There are 2 million saunas in Finland and 5.2 million people. The Finns love their saunas and jumping into the lake at their summer homes stark naked afterwards.

My first trip out was to Savonlinna — east of where I was staying. Every summer Savonlinna has an opera festival. I arranged for a ticket to “Madame Butterfly” in advance as well as housing some distance outside Savonlinna where the hotels were somewhat cheaper. I soon found out that outside the large cities in Finland, accommodations were usually rustic cabins and/or campgrounds. More on the campgrounds later. The “hotel” was rustic and not someplace I would return to but it served its purpose.

The opera was done inside the castle of Savonlinna (“linna” means “castle” in Finnish). That, for me, was the chief attraction of attending the opera there. Where else could you get the chance to do opera in a castle? My ticket — one of the cheapest in the house — cost 85 euros (1 euro is currently $1.40 so this was a big splurge). For that I got a really unsatisfactory seat. The good seats are well over the equivalent of $200 American. I probably wouldn’t do this again, but I am glad that I went. Since I was all the way over to the side, I could stand to see better when I wanted to without disturbing anyone. There were subtitles in English and Finnish. However, the subtitles were located in such a fashion that it was difficult to look at them and still keep your eye on what was going on on the stage. Having said all of that, it was an experience. As you walk over to the castle, there are lots of restaurants where you can eat before the opera — and I did.

The following day was spent driving to position myself for whitewater rafting. The main town near the rafting is Lieksa. It is in eastern Finland very close to the Russian border. When I arrived, I discovered the town was in the midst of something called “Brass Week”. The only accommodation was something described to me in English as a “hovel”. I blanched when the guy at tourist information said that and explained what that word meant in English. In fact, there really is no translation for it. Basically it was a little hut in a campground that had 4 beds (2 sets of bunks) in it and almost nothing else. I paid extra to rent sheets. Most of these places are located near lakes and Finnish people love to vacation this way. Some stay in the cabins and some in tents. It is the sort of vacation I would never call a “vacation”. Nevertheless, that was the only option and it turned out OK. Not all experiences on a holiday are 100% what you would like. The campground was, however, located in the best position for the rafting the next day. The rafting was the next day at Ruuannakoski (“koski” in Finnish means “rapids”). It was a lot of fun, but, compared to some trips I have been on in the US and elsewhere, very tame. They fed us a lovely lunch of local food. I had these Karelian pastries that are filled with rice and eaten with butter mixed with hardboiled eggs. We also roasted sausages over an open fire — something Finns do everywhere during the summer. It was great!

It was a long drive home and I ended up stopping at a bed and breakfast called Niemilomat that was signposted along the road. This place is located on Route 23 on the right side as you drive from Joensu to Varkaus. It is down a dirt road after you make the turn at the sign. This is a terrific place! I have to tell you that there are not a lot of bed and breakfast accommodations in Finland — unlike the Continent where they are all over. It is just not a Finnish thing (and not much an American thing either). Gorgeous place and about $65 American for the night. Bathrooms are shared between two rooms. The place is an old farm. The family cannot make money farming anymore, so they have turned to really classy accommodations. More information can be found at anneli.hamalainen@niemilomat.com. I was offered a sauna there — and I wish I had done it because it was the real thing next to the lake, but I was exhausted after the night in the campground and simply crashed. I thought I was sure to have another sauna opportunity later but I never did. Who knew?

Driving the rest of the way back the next day, I stopped in Varkaus to see the Musical Instrument Museum. This was basically a player piano museum — with a few other similar instruments. The sound of the player violin hurt my ears! The guy who owns it gave a tour simultaneously in Finnish, Swedish and English. He was hilarious! The last room included a lot of Obama merchandise. I had an Obama t-shirt with me and gave it to him (telling him he would have to wash it because I had worn it). He was thrilled and gave me a CD of all his “instruments” in return. I am not certain I will play that CD very often but it was a nice souvenir.

From Varkaus, I went to Mikkeli and saw a military museum and then the World War II communications headquarters for Finland. It was located in a cave! I then went “home” to Lahti to do laundry and spend a few days on day trips.

From Lahti I did a lake cruise to Heinola. You go through 2 locks. I liked the area around the Vaaksy lock so much I returned there to hang out later in my stay. I met an American woman of Finnish extraction on the boat (she was visiting family) and we commiserated about our credit cards not working at the discount gas credit card machines. We were both glad to know we were not alone in having that problem.

Also, from Lahti, I went into Helsinki and stashed the car in an expensive parking garage. I then took the ferry over to Savonlinna where I visited the fortress. The college student who gave the English language tour there was absolutely terrific! The tour takes about 11/2 hours and I would have had no idea what I was seeing without it. There is good commentary about how Finland has spent a large part of its history being fought over by Sweden and Russia. Finland, by the way, has only been independent since 1917. It gained its independence during the Russian Revolution (who knew?). Before that the Russian Tsar was the Grand Duke of Finland.

Speaking of Grand Dukes, I took a day trip to Kotka and saw Tsar Alexander III’s fishing lodge called Langinkoski. It is adjacent to some rapids (remember: koski=rapids) and the Tsar used to enjoy fishing for salmon there. Nicholas and Alexandra visited the lodge once as well. It actually is quite a simple place. Also in Kotka there is a terrific museum shaped like a giant wave. I saw an old ice breaker (very important to keep the shipping lanes open in winter!). Another part of the museum dealt with everyday life in Finland in the past. This was the best museum I saw anywhere in Finland. In the evening I went sailing in the Gulf of Finland. The sailing cruise was arranged through the aquarium (I did not visit the aquarium except to sign up for the sailing).

One other castle I saw was that of Hamenlinna — the closest one to Lahti and also the site of an excellent military museum. You can spend the day there.

After several days of day trips I began to agonize over whether to go to Lapland. Ultimately, I did not go there because I felt it would be a lot of driving to just get to where Lapland begins in Roviemmi. Going beyond that into the real Lapland would mean the dreaded campgrounds. Since I was traveling solo, I did have concerns about there being no one to commiserate with if I had a car breakdown, etc. So, no reindeer.

I went instead to Turku, where I stayed 2 nights at the Sokos Hotel. I stayed in the least expensive of the two buildings (across the street from each other). The low end building means the sauna is in the other building. The room was teeny but sufficient. I saw the linna in Turku the first day and ate at a Viking themed restaurant called Harald’s. The food was OK, but the restaurant was a hoot. On the next day, which was a Monday, my priority was seeing the handicraft museum — highly touted by The Lonely Planet (The Bible for travelers to Finland). What I saw was a bunch of disappointed tourists holding The Lonely Planet saying the museum was open on Mondays. Common with many museums in Finland, it was closed on Monday, so I never saw it. I went instead to a Maritime Museum (Forum Marinum). It was not as interesting as the one in Kotka, but it did have some old sailing ships that you could go on and examine. I always enjoy those. After visiting there, I went to a museum called Abo Vetus devoted to an archeological dig in Turku. Everything was well explained and even made interesting for children. I also visited the cathedral.

In a vacation of many highlights, what occurred the next day has to rank as the absolute best. For 33 euros, I took the Silja Line boat to Mariehamn in the Aland Islands and return for the day. The cruise takes all day. You switch boats in Mariehamn and return to Turku. The boats go back and forth between Turku and Stockholm stopping in Mariehamn. The whole idea was just to see all the islands. There must be at least hundreds — many uninhabited. I had spectacular weather for the cruise. I spent most of the time on top although the boat had many things to do on it (activities for kids, duty free shopping, restaurants, etc.). My 33 euro fare included a fantastic buffet lunch. I was really glad I did this and somewhat consoled for my decision not to go to Lapland.

Returning to Lahti, I did several more days of day excursions. I visited the National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo) in Helsinki on one of my few bad weather days. The museum has exhibits from prehistoric to modern times and is quite interesting if you are a history nut as I am. It was a good place to spend time on a day when the weather was “iffy” outside. The day ended in a colossal thunderstorm and I had a long slow slog back “home” in the torrential downpour.

I also visited Sibelius’ home Ainola and a couple of other interesting museums near it including one devoted to women in the military (Finland currently has a woman president, by the way).

My exchangers had arranged for me to meet a friend of theirs who lives near Jyvaskyla at the opposite end of Lake Paijanne from Lahti. I drove up there to meet her to do a hike and got majorly lost. We eventually hooked up and had a very nice day. I treated her to dinner afterwards in Jyvaskyla. Then she took me over to the town of Muurame where she lives and we went to the Sauna Museum — only in Finland. Basically they have collected a huge number of old sauna buildings from all over Finland and turned it into a museum. The museum was closed so we thought we’d have a look around. Our “look” was cut short when we realized a group of naked men were sitting outside one of the saunas. I took a photo of their rear ends (rather quickly and it is out of focus — drat). We left. I then drove back to Lahti.

On my last full day in Lahti, I went to Tampere, Finland’s second largest city. I went there to the Vaprikki Museum in old factory buildings that once housed a cotton mill. Believe it or not, I saw a huge exhibition on the Indian Sitting Bull. Yes, I went all the way to Tampere, Finland, to see an exhibit about American Indians. I didn’t go there for that exhibit (I went for an exhibit about Finland during the Russian Revolution when Finland had its own civil war between Reds and Whites), but I ended up spending a lot of time on the Indian exhibit. The exhibits were from European collections, so, even if I live outside Washington, DC, and have visited the Museum of the American Indian many times, I would not see those items there. I bought the poster from the exhibit as a conversation piece. Of course, the poster cost all of 2 euros. It will not cost 2 euros to frame. Isn’t that always the way it is?

I went in Lahti to a restaurant along the lake harbor called Casselli’s where I had the best meal of the trip. I ate reindeer in a blue cheese sauce. I am not a fan of blue cheese but I have to say that the reindeer was delicious.

Also in Lahti I had the worst pizza of my entire life. I was in a restaurant in the harbor area and everyone was ordering pizza. Wrong decision! I had eaten at that restaurant earlier in my stay and had these tiny herring that one eats whole with mounds of mashed potatoes (I did not finish the mashed potatoes). The herring were delicious. By the way on the menu they were called “vendace” — which was supposed to be the English name. Every here of “vendace”? I have heard of herring, but not “vendace”? I also ate excellent salmon several times on my trip. I never ordered pizza again in Finland!

I also spent a day tooling around the monthly market and just basically doing nothing. The market is held on the first Wednesday of every month and basically sells the usual European assortment of junky merchandise and food. The market on other days was mostly people drinking coffee and eating ice cream. The Finns love their coffee and I drank plenty of it. Ice cream is also plentiful and I developed a taste for the pear ice cream. While I was in Lahti, Lahti hosted the Master’s Championship in Athletics. Tons of elderly athletes from all over the world! They were all very fit and thin. When someone asked me if I was competing, I laughed and said my event was watching TV. Adjacent to the events where the competitions were held are 3 ski jumps (You can’t miss them because they dominate the Lahti skyline). I watched the ski jumpers on my first day in Lahti, but, alas, I got no photos. What I discovered was that my American camera had died. I had to buy a new one in Lahti!

Serious shopping in Lahti was done at the Sokos Department Store. I got two pieces of Kalevala jewelry. Basically it is jewelry inspired by Finland’s national epic, “The Kalevala”. On market day, they had free coffee and people playing traditional Finnish instruments dressed in folk costumes. Fun!

Finally, my home exchangers returned and I was dropped off at the train station for my train to Helsinki. I would spend five days in Helsinki at the end of my stay. That trip report — will be posted separately.

My home exchange in Finland was sadly at an end, but it had been terrific!

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