Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Stockholm -- Venice of the North

Stockholm often is called "The Venice of the North," and with good reason. The city is composed of many islands, most reachable by ferry or bridge. It is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I've visited. I know I say that every time I visit someplace new, but this time I really mean it!

There is an overnight ferry from Turku to Stockholm, which my friend Marion recently took. I wanted to get there quickly, however, and fortunately, there is a daily flight from Pori -- 40 minutes north of Rauma -- to Stockholm that takes only 45 minutes. So, in about the time it took me to drive from our apartment to the airport was about the same amount of time it took to fly to Stockholm!

Old homesteads in Skansen park

Public transportation is excellent in Stockholm. There is an airport express train to the central station, then you can take a bus or metro anywhere you need to go. I purchased the Stockholm Card, which gives you unlimited transportation and entrance to 80 museums and attractions, as well as discounts on a few other attractions. I probably visited more museums this way, since they were already included with the card. A one-day card costs 450 SEK (about $62); I bought a three-day card for 750 SEK (about $104). I definitely got my money's worth!

I walked a gazillion miles, of course, but I also saw lots of amazing things. From Gamla Stan, where the city was founded in 1252, to the warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 but wasn't raised until 1961, there is so much to see and do in Stockholm. I happened to be in Old Town (Gamla Stan) during the frenzy caused by the baptism of Princess Estelle, daughter of Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel. Royals and dignitaries from all over the world attended the event, which was covered live on TV. I saw lots of fancy outfits, but I had no idea who was wearing them!

Vasa sank in 1628
I also enjoyed the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum), which is devoted to Sweden's cultural history. The museum showcases everything from home furnishings to textiles to toys.

My other favorite place was Skansen, the oldest open-air museum in the world. More than 150 farms and dwellings from all over Sweden were disassembled, brought to the park, and put back together to create a fabulous history lesson. Employees and volunteers in traditional dress answer all questions. I also loved the zoo, which I never would have visited if I hadn't had the Stockholm Card. The lemurs, meerkats and baby moose were adorable.

Gamla Stan -- Old Town
I also took an hour-long sightseeing boat tour, which was included with the Stockholm Card. Again, this is something I might have skipped otherwise, and I am so glad I did this. It was relaxing, and I saw some incredible scenery. Except we did get "chased" by a cruise ferry coming into port! Our boat driver had to really speed up to get far enough ahead of the ship, probably to get out of danger of the big boat's wake. 

I enjoyed strolling around the narrow streets of Gamla Stan, going into the shops, both those selling traditional Swedish items and those shilling tacky souvenirs. I took a very interesting tour of the Nobel Museum, which was so informative thanks to a wonderful tour guide. And I toured the historical parts of the Royal Palace -- the main part of the palace was closed during my visit due to the baptism.

I didn't really partake of the traditional Smorgasbord, mainly because all those Swedish dishes are things I see every day in Finland. I'm ashamed to admit I ate at the U.S. chain restaurant, TGI Friday's! No, I take that back -- I'm not ashamed! I had a wonderful chicken quesadilla, which tasted just like those we get back home! The second night I had a very good pizza, and the third night I splurged on a nice French meal. So, three different cuisines in three nights, but none of them Swedish!

I'm so glad I visited Stockholm, and I can't wait to return. It won't be too long, as I have a one-night layover in Stockholm when I fly home to the U.S. in late September.

Here is a link to the photos from Stockholm. Off to Lyon, France, next!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Travel Mishaps and Oddities

I have traveled quite a bit since moving to Finland last September. I've had many adventures, some mishaps involving luggage, and spent countless hours trying to find the best flights, hotels and things to do. I've gotten lost when I exit subways. I've gotten confused with tipping rules in different countries. I've been approached with every scam in the books.

But something I never expected happened Sunday at the Stockholm airport before my flight back to Finland. Nobody checked my identification. At all.

Granted, since I was flying within Europe and not overseas, I didn't have to go through Passport Control. I had checked in online in my hotel before I left for the airport. At the airport, I used the automatic machine to confirm my seat assignment and check one piece of luggage. I proceeded to the counter, where the man scanned my luggage sticker but didn't even pick up my passport.

I proceeded to security, where the agent scanned my ticket but didn't open my passport. Same thing at the gate before I boarded my plane.

Have our systems become too automated? It's too easy to scan a ticket -- but aren't they supposed to match the name on the ticket with some I.D.?

It's the same with booking flights. Living in rural southwestern Finland, it takes creativity to get the best flights for the best price in the shortest amount of time. But it's even crazier when you have to book a flight in a different language just to get the best price.

Keep boarding passes until you get
credit for your  FF points

I am flying to Lyon, France, with a friend next week. She and her husband have a home in Lyon but live here in Finland. Our husbands work for the same company. She booked her flight on one of the many online travel websites and told me which one. And she used the French version of the site.

Almost all companies that do business in different countries have different sites in different languages. That's just good business.

When I went to the English website of the same company, my flight was listed at twice the price of my friend's ticket. Unbelievable, right? I next checked multiple travel sites, including Kayak and Skyscanner, but the prices were all high.

On a whim, I went to the French version of the site my friend used to book her ticket. Sure enough, there was the flight at the price she paid. Fortunately, I understand enough French that I could navigate the site, and I booked my ticket there. No problems.

I understand that companies buy blocks of fares, and that different sites will have different prices. I've booked legs of flights separately just to get the best price, or to get frequent flyer points on my preferred airline (especially when an airline in the Star Alliance doesn't give me credit on my preferred airline just because the class of fare isn't in the right category. But that's a whole other issue).

But for the same company to offer different prices just because they are in different languages? Very strange.

Then there are the luggage issues. In all our years of travel, we have never had our luggage lost. Until we moved abroad. We've had luggage lost three times in eight months. We've had luggage arrive soaking wet. We've had holes punctured in our luggage. Nothing stolen, yet, thank goodness.

The most ridiculous case of delayed luggage occurred when my husband flew from Charlotte to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Helsinki in January. He had an hour before he had to catch the last bus from the Helsinki airport to the town where we live, which is a four-hour bus ride. Everyone stood around waiting, but the luggage never came out. Not just my husband's luggage, but everyone's luggage. They kept asking, but no one could give an adequate reason, other than it was weather-related.

Come on! They've been dealing with harsh weather at this airport for years! And they can't move luggage a short distance from the airplane to the terminal in a reasonable amount of time? My husband and his fellow passengers stood there for two hours before the luggage came out! Which meant he missed his bus and had to spend the night in Helsinki. The airline refused compensation, since they said it was weather-related, but they also told him to write the airline after he got home. So he sent them an email, and to their credit, they did mail him a check to cover the cost of his hotel.

The lessons from all this?

* If someone at the airport doesn't ask for your identification, politely ask them if they are going to check it.

* If you can't find an airfare at a good price and you can navigate in another language (or use a web translating site), try that angle.

* If your luggage is lost, and you believe you deserve compensation, keep trying, even if you don't get anything at the time of the incident.

Happy travels. I'll post a Stockholm trip report and photos soon.

Monday, May 7, 2012

It's a Dog's World

These dogs were strutting their stuff for the judges

The show was winding down when we got there
It's funny the things you just happen upon. Sunday afternoon, Tom and I drove to a park just outside of Rauma to check out some tennis courts. The parking lot was filled, and we could see tents and trailers. We thought it must be a flea market.

Just beautiful!
Wrong! It was a dog show. As in a Westminster-type, judging dogs of all breeds show. It was so funny, because we never expected to see something like this in Rauma. Especially outside on a dirt field. They had chalk lines drawn in the dirt to separate judging areas. It was sunny but chilly, and lots of the dogs, especially the hairless ones, were actually shivering and had their tails tucked under their legs. Some had on coats. One poodle actually had leg warmers!

There was one spectacular white poodle perched on a table in a tent. I had to take a picture, so I asked the owner, who thankfully spoke good English, if it was okay. I asked her if the dog was a "he." She replied, "Yes, it's a "he," but he looks like a "she!"
Dogs in strollers!

Can he see me?
We got to pet a lot of the dogs -- the owners were very nice, even though most didn't speak English. One of my favorites was a Greyhound, who just loved the attention. I've heard retired Greyhounds make excellent pets. Hint, hint.

Today, I Googled the dog show, and it was a pretty big two-day event, attracting show dogs from all over. The Best-in-Show winner was a beautiful Afghan hound. I wish we had known about it earlier, because I would like to have seen the beagles on Saturday, since we had a beagle for 10 years. 

Taking a break after a hard day's work
In other exciting Rauma news, last Tuesday was May Day, which is a national holiday in Finland. Stores are closed, many people have the day off, and there is a parade to celebrate the end of winter and the unofficial beginning of spring. So we walked downtown to see this parade, which we were expecting to be filled with floats, bands, clowns, etc., just like the parades back home. Ha! This parade first featured over 300 motorcycles!

I've mentioned the annoying motorbikes that teenagers zip around town on, and apparently, the noise gets really bad in summer, when they are riding around at all hours, what with the long days of sunlight. Anyway, Tom found out that most motorcycle owners put their bikes away for winter and don't pay insurance while they are sitting in the garages, so May Day is the first day the insurance kicks in, and everyone takes their bikes out for that first ride. Very bizarre.

Motorcycle Mania on May Day
The marching band
After the motorcycles, a few old-timey cars passed by, then came one group of cheerleaders and one marching band from the local music school. Also, we saw lots of people wearing these strange-looking white mariner caps. We also found out that people wearing these hats graduated from high school in Rauma. This year's upcoming graduates all gather together at the end of the parade to put their hats on a statue, and one student is thrown into the canal. We didn't stick around for that part of it (it was too cold and windy, even though it was a beautiful sunny day).

I know that if visitors from Finland came to Concord, North Carolina, they would be amused by life in our town, too. But it's great that everyone has their own traditions, and we are lucky to get a glimpse of them.

And I want to go to the next dog show that comes to town!

This fellow wasn't in the dog show, but he could have been!