Places I Almost Saw – While Being Very Lost in Europe

Russia!

Right there at the top of my to-do list. I almost got there when I backpacked through Europe with my daughter, a long time ago. The truth is, it was our first day ‘on the road’ and we got very lost. I’m not talking about lost in a city here, I’m talking lost in a continent, namely northern Europe.

We’d planned as far as flying from London to Helsinki, but no further. On the flight across the Channel we actually looked at the map and worked out where we would go once we got to Helsinki, since we didn’t actually have any plans to stay there – it was just a stepping stone to somewhere else.

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While resting from our flight over the Finnish equivalent of a Big Mac, downstairs at Helsinki Train Station, the train we had planned to take was pulling out of the station upstairs, without us.

But in free-spirit style, we just got on the next train, with no idea of where it was going. Maybe we knew then, but I can’t remember now, other than a vague recollection that our skewed thinking may have tempted us to think it would be going in the direction of our previously, albeit hastily made plan. So there we were, kicked back and toasty warm (did I mention it was -24 degrees when we arrived in Helsinki at 4 pm?), and enjoying what scenery we could see as the train sped out of the city, because by now it was dark. At some stage, one of us had the sense to consult our trusty map, and it was then that we discovered we were heading in the wrong direction. Also by now, we realised the train wasn’t stopping very often, in fact, hardly ever. Around 8 pm we arrived at Tampere Station and made a quick decision to disembark and catch the next train back to Helsinki. That idea sounded reasonable, in theory, except there wasn’t going to be a train going back until the next day.

My observation skills aren’t the best, but I did notice that it was extremely cold when we walked out of Tampere Station, and I’m talking seriously cold! Since our research prior to the trip hadn’t included such trivial matters as ‘temperature in Finland’, or ‘what accessories will I need to beat the cold?’, we found we were seriously lacking in warm accessories.

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Tampere
Actually, we thought we had it in the bag when we’d bought fingerless gloves and a nice woolly scarf before leaving London. My geographical intelligence is a bit limited when it comes to Europe because I should have known that, unlike Australia, the further north you go, the colder it gets, and Finland is a bit further north than London. Needless to say, the gloves were as useful as deck-chairs on a submerged submarine. Luckily we were carrying backpacks and not dragging suitcases because we could at least put our hands in our pockets for a bit of extra warmth, although after a few minutes we both felt like we had frostbite on our fingertips.

My daughter had been working in London for a few months before our hike across Europe, and the old comfy, hole-in-the-sole boots she was wearing were fine – for London – but not fine for the weather we were now trying to endure on the cold, dark streets of Tampere, at 8 o’clock on a freezing cold night.

That was another thing we’d somehow overlooked – how much local money do you need, bearing in mind there could be minor emergencies – like getting stuck in a country that you had only planned to pass through? So there we were, on the street, freezing, very little local money, and everyone with any sense tucked away inside a nice warm building, so there wasn’t even anyone to ask directions from – not that either of us spoke any Finnish. Another minor technicality in the great scheme of things.

After a quick deliberation on the consequences of standing out there in the freezing street all night, we decided the only sensible thing to do would be to go back to the railway station and sleep on a bench until morning.

By kallerna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tampere Station
Another good plan, in theory only. Luckily, when we arrived back at the station we found a nice young ‘gentleman’ who spoke English, who explained that the station closed at midnight, but in true gentlemanly form, offered my very attractive, blonde 18-year-old daughter a bed for the night. I quickly assured him we were a package deal, and he just as quickly retracted the offer.

So there we were, safe and warm for the moment, but feeling like Cinderella with midnight fast approaching. While we sat and pondered our upcoming night of sleeping on the street, miraculously an approaching train was announced, and just as miraculously I found an ‘older’ gentleman who spoke English and I was able to ask him, not where the train was going (we really didn’t care), but what time it got there. His response solved our accommodation dilemma. It would arrive at 6 o’clock the next morning, and it was going to Rovaniemi. I’m writing this recount on the 24th August and the temperature in Rovaniemi at this very minute is 9 degrees Celsius, and they’re not even in winter yet. So picture the scene awaiting us in that cold December a long time ago, especially since Rovaniemi is north of Helsinki; very north of Helsinki; I’m talking about 800 km’s north of Helsinki, in December. We were never so happy to jump on a train than at that moment. And even more grateful we’d bought Eurail passes before leaving Australia so we didn’t have to worry about tickets, especially since no-one had asked to see our passes yet, which meant that we kind of got an extra day or two out of them, which is just as well since we were in the process of wasting two whole days being lost.

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It doesn’t get much colder than this
Somewhere on that train going to Rovaniemi, we discovered the real value of the map we’d bought before heading off from the relatively warm city of London. It was going to prove its worth right there and then, because instead of having to go all the way to Rovaniemi and then turn around and go all the way back down to Helsinki, we could actually get off at Joensuu, where the temperature at this very moment in time of writing is a balmy 12 degrees Celsius – a whole 3 degrees warmer than Rovaniemi. You’ve got to be thankful for small mercies.

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Joensuu Station
So we disembarked at Joensuu, and luckily there was a booth on the station selling hot coffee and snacks, and more luckily, we had just enough Finnish money to buy a little of each, since it had been a long time between refreshments, given that our Finnish Big Mac, the very one that got us into this mess, had been devoured more than 12 hours earlier. It had been a very long night, and so began our journey back to Helsinki, about 500 km’s south, but with the bonus of the most spectacular scenery to enjoy along the way. And again, no Eurail Pass inspectors came our way, so even though we’d lost a day somewhere in outback Finland, it hadn’t cost us a day of our travel pass. Phew!

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Helsinki Railway Station
Now, back to Russia. While gripping the trusty map firmly in both hands for fear of losing our only hope of ever seeing civilisation again, I discovered we were so close to Russia as we journeyed north that cold night in Finland, that I could almost touch it. But, that’s a trip I’ll have to make another day, another time, and hopefully without a backpack, and in a much more organised fashion.

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