Sunday, July 27, 2014

Travels through Europe ("Is there wifi here?")



Over the course of this trip, the five of us Finland kids decided to do some traveling throughout Scandinavia and Europe to visit 5 capitals: Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. Since most flights fly out of Helsinki, we used our InterRail pass to travel from Oulu to Helsinki, and otherwise we took flights to all of the locations. (It may seem silly to fly 45-90 minutes from one location to another, but it was faster and even less expensive than taking the train).

We booked very inexpensive flights with Norwegian airlines and were only allowed one carry-on bag and no checked baggage. This would also make it easier to carry a bag around often and not have to burden ourselves with two bags to worry about. We could also keep track of our bags at all times and not have to worry about losing checked bags or anything like that

Sidenote, I am so fortunate to be traveling with such a terrific group of students, and since we are together all the time, we have become a very close group. It really makes the summer experience a lot easier and more fun since we get along so well!

Helsinki

We rode our bikes to the train station in Oulu (about 25 minutes) with our bags on our back and prompted to take a night train to Helsinki. It is about an 8 hour train ride, so this would be the first of many different places that we would sleep throughout the trip. We arrived in Helsinki at around 9 AM and were instantly taken aback by he grandeur of the churches there.



Helsinki is just a beautiful city (seen above), and has a very different atmosphere than Oulu since it is a larger city. Nevertheless, there are still very few cars and bikes are a main mode of transportation as well as buses. 

One of the other main features of Helsinki is the open air market in the Market Square right on the edge of the water. You can find souvenirs, local fruits, reindeer meat, and all sorts of items at this market with at least 50 different vendors if not more.

We also took a ferry ride to the zoo on an island, where we were able to see approximately five animals and most of them were hiding and were out of view in their cages. It was slightly disappointing but we got ice cream at the zoo. 

In typical Finland fashion, there was at least five different ice cream parlors on the island, and probably weren't more than 200 feet (61 m) away from each other.  When we got ice cream we thought it was a joke that they posted a sign "NOT RESPONSIBLE IF SEAGULL TAKES ICE CREAM"....until a seagull landed on MY HEAD and tried to take my ice cream! Luckily it just knocked the ice cream to the side and I managed to salvage it in time, but from the on, seagull jokes would last the entire trip!

Oslo

Ashleigh had done a government exchange program in high school in Norway in high school, and we were extremely fortunate to be able to stay with her host family from that program. This would also give us firsthand experience of what it was like to live in Norway and give us a local's perspective on the country. They were extremely gracious, and allowed us to stay at their house and provide us breakfast for the three days we were there. Ashleigh slept in the house, and us four guys were thrilled(seriously!) to sleep in a tent in the backyard.
There were other benefits on sleeping in the backyard, namely that there was also a trampoline and puppies constantly in the backyard. The host family was taking care of five puppies while we were there, in addition to dogs that they currently have, and so we had a lot of puppy time!

One of the first sights in Norway that we visited was the Opera House(below). Visitors are welcome to walk up the ramps on the side of the Opera house to the roof, so we walked to the top. The view was quite incredible, and you could see a lot of Oslo in the distance.

Other sights in Oslo included the Royal Palace, the Monolith Statue, the Art Museum, and the Viking (Ship) Museum.




One of the biggest highlights of the trip to Norway was the visit to the beach, and the ferry to the beach island was covered by our Metro passes. At the beach, us four guys went on a little hike around the island, and ended up talking to some people who were from Sweden, who informed us that there was a place on the island where you could go cliff jumping into the water. Soon enough, we found ourselves leaping off the island into the water (from about 6 m/18 ft high). That was extremely exciting and we were even photographed by a man who said he would submit a picture of us jumping off the cliff to the local newspaper because he saw us having so much fun!

Final thoughts of Oslo:


  • Norway is one of the most expensive cities to live in, and thus the living wage is very high. As students on a budget, we found ourselves eating sandwiches from supermarkets, and many items were quite pricey. People are paid much more than the USA to accommodate (for comparison, teachers are paid 100, 000 USD a year, and Starbucks workers are paid at least $22/ hr)
  • Norway is quite wealthy, and actually has more money than it knows what to do with (due to its enormous oil riches). As a result, they have unemployment benefits that are very high, they PAY THE PEOPLE IN JAIL as well as give them laptops, wifi, and a comfortable life. 
Stockholm

From the moment we stepped into Stockholm, we could tell that there was an unexplainable magic about the city. The atmosphere, the people, the architecture, everything, was stunning.

We stayed at a hostel about a ten minute walk from the city, which made transportation quite easy. It was my first experience ever staying in a hostel, and the rooms were exactly what I had heard. It has bunked beds, lockers, wifi (only in the lobby), and that is about it. Knowing this, we had brought sheets and spent considerable time in the lobby.

No one has sim cards that work in many of the locations we visited, so it became commonplace to ask "Is there wifi here?" whenever we made it to a new location. We could only communicate while on wifi, or locate nearby supermarkets, or find nearby attractions.

In the city, some of the sights were quite spectacular. The picture below is overlooking one of the streets nearby the palace.

Like Norway, we had to take to take a tour of the Royal Palace, which has a striking resemblance to the Norwegian Royal palace, presumably because Sweden used to rule Norway.


We also went up the Tower (Kaknas Tower), which is 155 m tall, and gives a phenomenal view of the entire city (below).  All of the different colored buildings on the waterfront made for a gorgeous city, and we really marveled at the views at the top of the tower.
We had gotten very sunny and hot temperatures for most of the trip, but it began to rain. As a result, we ran into the nearest building, which just so happened to be the Nobel Prize Museum.

This museum was by far one of our favorite sights in Stockholm, and we learned so much about Alfred Nobel, and the process by which nobel Prize winners are selected. Also, the museum was so well designed and we had a phenomenal tour guide who told us about how secretive the selection process is to decide winners. He told us that the banquet for the winners was held in the City Hall, so we decided that we just HAD to go there the next morning.

The city hall from the outside looks impressive, but it as nothing compared to what the inside looked like.

The guide took us to the room where council and international meetings are held, and the walls were painted with a very elegant design. The ceilings were, in my opinion, the most impressive part, with beams going across the ceiling in a criss-cross pattern. 


The tour guide also took us into a room built all out of gold, with "Mother Sweden" at the back with the two sides of the world (East and West of Sweden) to show that Sweden is the center of the world.



Another attraction we visited was the Vasa Museum, which holds a ship spanning the length of the museum,and is 4 stories tall. It was quite a sight to see, and I just happened to talk to this woman vacationing from Maryland-my home state!



The night before we left Sweden, we decided to indulge a little at a Viking-themed restaurant in the city. While it was definitely our priciest meal all trip, we thoroughly enjoyed a large quantity of various meat products and foods such as steak, lamb, reindeer, lingonberry, and more. The restaurant was dimly lot,and furnished with wooden benches, themed glasses,tables,and it was quite the experience. 



We all enjoyed Stockholm SO much, and it was ashame we only spent two days there, as there was so much to do and we were loving every minute of it! 

Copenhagen

When we arrived in Copenhagen in the morning, all five of us were extremely tired and headed straight for the hostel for a nap. I know my first impression of Copenhagen was that is seemed more run down and not nearly as nice as the other cities we had visited. 


One of the qualities of Copenhagen that really stood out was the vibrant lights that lit up in the evenings on all of the buildings. Glowing designs can be found throughout the city, just like below.


We continued the tradition of visiting the Royal Palace in each city; tickets also allowed us access to the treasury, so we could see various crowns and royal jewels.



Another memorable quality of Copenhagen was the very high number of street performances and demonstrations. Furthermore, the performers tries to gleam as much money as possible from the audience. Nevertheless, the performances were amusing, and often we did give them money. 
Below you will find a guy about to juggle a torch, a club, and a knife-blindfolded on top of a sculpture he designed.


My personal favorite was a "headless" guy playing guitar.


Copenhagen is also the birthplace of the great Hans Christian Anderson (author the "The Little Mermaid," "The Ice Queen"-inspiration for Frozen, and many more children's stories.
As a result, a Little Mermaid Statue was donated to the city and is now one of the major icons of Copenhagen (semi-NSFW).


On our last day in Copenhagen, we decided to have breakfast at one of Copenhagen's most highly rated caf├ęs, Cafe Paludan. This was by far the best meal we had all trip, and everyone concluded if you only go to one place in Copenhagen, it is this cafe.

Below is the picture of the meal, which consisted of watermelon, parfait, pancakes, Brie cheese, eggs with sundried tomatoes, cantaloupe, syrup, oranges, hummus,and a fruit loosely translated as a "pineapple cherry." Also included was a strawberry smoothie, to top it all off.

With the last few hours of our time in Cooenhagen, we decided to visit an area where trampolines are implanted into the sidewalks, and we happily bounced around on them.


Amsterdam

While Norway, Sweden, and Denmark all have similar cultures (each was distinct, but the language and history overlaps frequently), Amsterdam was completely different. Once we figured out how to navigate the Metro system and mistakenly took the wrong train twice, we finally made it to our hostel. 

Our first impression was the insanely high number of bikes outside the Metro. There must have been 1000 bikes stationed there. We would soon come to learn that transportation in Amsterdam was unlike anything I had ever seen before....

Transportation in Amsterdam would entail  all sorts of vehicles, most of which could ride on the sidewalks. There were bikes, mopeds, motorcycles, trams, cars, horse-drawn carriages, and you had to constantly be on the lookout for everything at all times. We got around primarily on the tram, but most of us were nearly hit by some type of vehicle at one time or another.



The hostel we stayed in was extremely sketchy, and it didn't help that it was 90+ degrees outside and the hostel didn't have air conditioning. In order to get into the hostel, you have to go up a flight of 50 steep steps to get into the lobby, and another 25 to get into your room.

Upon making it up to the lobby the first time, the hotel manager told us the rules, including: "Smoking weed is only allowed on the stairwell." As any normal person would do, we asked him where one would get weed. He informed us that coffee shops everywhere sell weed, and obviously it is legal in Netherlands. 

 Nevertheless, we were there to see sights, not partake in that type of tourism, but it was definitely a presence throughout the city. Coffee shops can be found on every block, and ID has to be shown to enter. 

The architecture of Amsterdam is remarkably different than Scandinavia, evidenced by the picture below.


We loved the sculptures in Amsterdam, and especially the city center. You could climb on the letters, and we definitely had a lot of fun taking pictures there. This one in particular is iconic for the city:


We purchased tickets to go into Amsterdam's National Museum and a Canal Tour for the first day, so those would be our first stops.

The National Museum contained portraits from Van Gogh, Renbrandt, and other famous artists. It also contained some modern Dutch art, such as an airplane and random colors on a canvas.





The Canal tour was quite good, and gave us some great information about the city. The guide explained that some of the houses are crooked/tilted because of the water level fluctuations. Also, he informed us that the entire canal is emptied every two weeks and replaced with new water, ensuring that the water is fresh, and available to drink or swim if you desire.


Amsterdam also was filled with amusing street performances, such as a guy spinning on his bare head for a duration of at least 5 minutes, speeding up and down.


In addition to weed being legal in the country, we learned and saw firsthand many other things are also legal in Netherlands that are illegal in the USA.

1.  Same sex marriage was legalized in the Netherlands in 2001 as long as either the bride or groom is a Dutch citizen. 

2. Prostitution is legal in Netherlands, and is regulated in the city's Red Light district. You can walk down alleys and see prostitutes in windows available, but you have to be careful of pickpockets there. They cleverly wait for wanderers to get distracted by the ladies and wallets have been known to be stolen there.

3. Drinking at Age 16. This is also the drinking age in Denmark, but alcohol does not nearly carry the social stigma that it has in the United States. Weed is often allowed in bars, too.



Anyways, we also got the chance to visit the Anne Frank House (the house where she hid during during WWII), now turned into a museum. This rivaled the Nobel Prize Museum for our favorite museum; it was so moving and powerful that we all felt very emotional and taken by it. No pictures allowed in there for preservation purposes, but it had many quotations by Anne Frank and featured photographs and information that could only be found at the House. 


We also visited the Amsterdam Royal Palace, and we thought it was really interesting how far back the Dutch lineage really goes, and that Netherlands really played such a significant role in trading for hundreds of years. They were essentially the world superpower until the British came along, and then later, America. 

We also noticed that Amsterdam was in mourning for the victims of the plane tragedy, and there were flowers and a whole ceremony outside of the Amsterdam airport.

Well, I know this has been a very long blog post, but I think it covered most of the sights in all of these cities. We very much enjoyed traveling and exploring Scandanavia and Amsterdam, and learned even more about the culture of each of the cities! 

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