Helsinki, Finland May 30-31
Thursday May 29, 26 Erasmus students left on the train for Stockholm. We all seemed to be pretty quite, so I’m sure everyone was tired right already. Immediately after getting off the train we had to rush to catch the subway. I had a ticket thanks to my friend Annamiek, but we still had to wait for the others. I looked down at my suitcase and noticed my handle was bent. Haulke, a student, bent it into place and of course one side broke! I always keep a ribbon on my bag so keeping the handle intact was possible. I had over 50 lbs of luggage so this wasn’t the best way to start off the trip.
Most of us ran to the Ferry and we made it about 5 minutes before departing!! I really was worried about missing it. We were 4 to a cabin and they were very cute and did not smell. That’s always a bonus. We all went up to the sun deck where the weather was perfect. The sun was shining high in a cloudless sky. It was warm and the wind was just right. We were going a bit slow because we were not at open seas for some time.
I’m not sure how to stress this point exactly, but when the sun began to lower in the sky ever worry in my life disappeared just as the sun was beginning to. The photos I have of the sunset do not by any means give it enough credit. After the sun went down it definitely began to get chilly so we all went inside. At this point everyone was scattered about on the ship.
Some friend and I went to the restaurant and they had hamburgers on the menu! I never order hamburgers, but it’s been so long since I had one, much less saw them on the menu that I just had to have it. It was so tasty! Afterwards we just wondered around finding something to get into. There was a karaoke lounge and a bar/club open at that time. We went to the bar and all of these old people were getting down on the dance floor. It was so cute!!! After a while we got out there and then the senior citizens cleared out. I think we all managed to get in bed before 3.
We arrived at the dock in Helsinki, Finland around 09:45. I was so happy to be there is just look beautiful, much like Stockholm with all of the islands. We all went to the hostel, left our luggage, and then went exploring. Our hostel was in a large sports stadium. I’m still wondering if it is used for practice or events because the maintenance on the field was excellent.
Right away I noticed there were not many signs in English, but it was perfectly okay because they were both in Finnish and Swedish. I could not believe how different those two languages are. It was very manageable though. I was a bit disappointed that Helsinki did not have a very great city center. I felt everything was too modern. It is very much similar to Sweden, although I love Stockholm much more. I do not think I got a good impression of what Finnish people are like. Maybe they are just very similar to Swedish and I couldn’t distinguish between the two. I did discover that Santa Clause comes from Finland. Why did one not bother to tell me that the North Pole has no specific location!?! Then again they tell the Dutch in the Netherlands that Santa hails from Spain. So who really knows?
Tallinn, Estonia May 31- June 2
On Saturday, May 31 we took the ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. The ship was the cutest thing to look at. I don’t have any pictures of it, but it looked like the sky. It was blue with clouds and had a large giraffe panted on it. I was astonished to see all of the people who return from Tallinn getting off with cases and cases of alcohol. There is no tax at open seas so I wouldn’t doubt that people pay for the ferry just to go on an alcohol shopping spree.
On the ferry I got a taste of Estonia music and it made me want a hot poker in my ears! Or…. perhaps just settling for ear plugs. We all just sat on the sun deck and watched the sun go down. It only took a few hours to get there.
That night we went out, trying to find a nice pub or somewhere to just hang out. It is very difficult to please so many people though. We ended up splitting, but not soon enough. Tallinn has a very beautiful Old Town and I think the people really take advantage of the tourist possibilities. I saw that many restaurant servers wore traditional costumes. It was nice though and it seemed to be a less expensive city than most.
We had our last dinner at an African Restaurant. This place was so fun! I’m sure they were fed up with us by the time we left though. We ordered a lot, so they made some money, but we were also loud and obnoxious. I didn’t think of this night as being sad, but now when I reflect on it, it was. That was the last opportunity I had to see some of my friends.
Riga, Latvia June 2 – June 4
The morning of June 2 my friend Tom and I departed from the rest of the group to continue our trip south. One student returned to Finland and the rest flew back to Stockholm. We took a luxury bus from Tallinn to Riga and now I understand why. They want you to be comfortable on the journey to Riga because that city is less than impressive. It wasn’t the worse city, but compared to the rest of them I’d give it a low rating. My friend and I spent 2 days there and it became difficult to get around in the Old Town because Finnish Royalty was in town so we had to stop many times in the streets so the vehicles could be escorted down. It was a tad bit annoying.
I definitely noticed the more East and South you go in Europe the men become more attractive. I sure like that! The women in Latvia are so tall. I couldn’t believe it.
I do believe the only ones who really spoke English were the employees of the hostel where we stayed. We went to several museums and I would ask questions. It turns out they only knew certain phrases of English such as the exhibitions in the buildings. Getting directions on the street was hopeless as well.
We went to an Occupation Museum and I began to be really touched. The countries I visited in Eastern Europe have only been independent for a couple of decades. I read something that brought tears to my eyes. Had I lived there in the early 1940s around the time of the war, I would have been one of the first ones killed (perhaps). I read that Christians were often killed first. I would not deny my Father, so therefore my life would have been taken. All of this I felt was preparing me a bit for Auschwitz.
Vilnius, Lithuania June 4 – June 5
My first impression of Vilnius was not good at all. As soon as we arrived I had to use the restroom. Like many other cities you have to pay between $1-$4 or something. The first stall I opened I saw a hole in the floor, literally a hole that resembled a sink. I just started laughing and quickly stopped by the fear of the others looking the same way. Half way covering my eyes I was surprised to see that they were all like that. There was one handicapped stall that had a normal toilet, but there was no light, no windows, no switch, nothing! I then had to decide if I would try something new or use my camera flash so I had some light. Lol
The next horror came when I discovered there was no toilet paper in any of the stalls, but thank goodness for my sneezing because I had a package of tissues. Okay enough about the toilet, but the point is some countries standard of living is still not up to par.
The Old Town of Vilnius was amazing. I felt it was spread out well. I also like the more modern part of the city. There are many beautiful cathedrals to see there. In one I even saw 3 mummies. I found it a bit creepy and for a moment I thought it might not be real. I then saw the feet covered with socks and I could tell by the ankle bones they were.
I definitely noticed how people are more religious in Eastern Europe. I think they are mainly Orthodox, but every time we walked into a cathedral there would be a slue of people praying. It was people my age doing this as well. It really made me feel better knowing religion is still alive in many parts of Europe.
Warsaw, Poland June 6
From Vilnius we had to take an over night bus to Warsaw, Poland. This was certainly not much fun at all. It seemed as though every time I began to fall asleep we had to stop at border control and have our passports checked.
We arrived with not much sleep, but we knew it would be a busy day because we only had one day to spend in Warsaw. I have to say I absolutely love that city! The Old Town is very new and this is because it was blown up around WWII. The colors of the building look so nice today and my favorite part was all of the bears. Warsaw was hosting United Buddy Bear. The countries of the United Nations were given bears to design and paint. The USA bear was painted to be the Statue of Liberty. It was just okay compared to many though.
We checked into the hostel, but decided not to stay because a big mix up in the amount owed and we were only going to be there from 3 pm to 2 am. It didn’t find it worth paying for in that case. The lady was kind enough to offer us showers. We got our rented car and decided to go ahead and drive towards Oświęcim. It took a couple of hours just to get out of the city. It probably wasn’t the brightest idea to leave during rush hour.
We were only about 70 km from our destination so we camped out in the car. It was much better than the bus, but wasn’t fantastic either.
When we got to Auschwitz I Museum, the administration center, were among the first to arrive. My mood changed immediately after seeing the gate that read “Arbeit Macht Frei“. Not to sound inconsiderate or anything, but the place looked quite nice. The building were all in a row, the grass a lovely green, birds chirping, and silence other than that. The weather was just beautiful and perhaps that place should be left to a cold rainy day.
The exhibitions they had where very good. It was a lot of stuff to read though. It was very difficult to look at the bunks, the wash rooms, and especially the cells. Just knowing people died in there broke my heart. I have seen the movie “Schindler’s List“ and it is really a great movie, but also very tragic to see. I think the movie depicted the place very well.
I found it amazing that they tried to make the place somewhat legal. When they killed someone there was a letter posted with the reason why. My friend can read German so he was able to translate for me, but one person in particular got shot because he was 10 minutes late for work. That wasn’t the most disturbing thing for me though, it was the hair. In several exhibitions there were items that people had. For instance pots and pans, shoes, suitcases, those kinds of things. There was a glass case about 20 x 6 ft filled of nothing but hair. Everyone had their heads shaved upon arrival and the hair was sold to make bedding such as mattresses. As I looked at this hair I just thought it had to be real. This was the hair of the people who were murdered there. One more thing that really made me sad was I saw a couple with an old photograph looking on the wall of photos. I suppose trying to find a grandparent or something. I guess it’s possible….
The last thing we looked at was the gas chamber. I actually walked in it and had to ask what it was. I recall from the movie that the men, women, and children were separated then lured into the gas chamber with a bar of soap under the impression it was a shower room and they could bathe. This is when they were gassed and then incinerated. Once again I didn’t feel threatened by being in there. I wasn’t scared by looking around and I believe this what the Germans wanted. They knew their intentions mostly, but they didn’t want them to feel fear. This made their job easier.
After we left there we went to Auschwitz II Birkenau, the extermination center. There’s not much left here. They tried to destroy what they could so many parts of it are just ruble now. Some of the train tracks still lie there. Most people died after getting off of the tracks as they were separated and brought directly to one of the four gas chambers. I saw a large hole that was used for burning the corpses. I think that was the most difficult thing for me to see because it is still a hole.
Growing up I know I was taught about the Holocaust, but in grade school I didn’t really care. Now that I’m older I love history. I remember when I was in the 6th grade I asked the teacher “why do we need to know this“ and she replied “so we don’t repeat the same mistakes“. It makes all the sense in the world to me now. It’s very true. I just can’t believe that happened about 60 years ago. I thought about both sides of my family being of German descent and it occurred to me that because of their times of migration they couldn’t have played a part in that or slave trade. Just thinking about that made me feel better about my blood!
The rest of that day was very good. Tom and I didn’t have much to say in the car at first. I think we were still trying to soak everything in. We started heading towards Slovakia and I saw some of the cutest Mountain Towns. As the date was 06.07.08 I suspected there would be many weddings, but we actually drove by 4! The people were wearing traditional clothes. I thought it was interesting to see.
We arrived in Slovakia and I thought the nature was amongst the most beautiful in the world. The standard of living in not as high though. We saw many gypsy towns and children everywhere! We stayed in this lovely cottage up in the mountains. My favorite part was being able to see the sky at night because there were windows in the roof. It stormed our second day there, so it kind of foiled our plans to do the chair lift in the mountains because the visibility was so bad. We did go to an ice cave though. I thought I was going to die walking there! Lol I was certainly under dressed for the tour.
Driving back to Warsaw seemed like it took forever. We drove down though Hungary and up through Ukraine. Our drive was about 14 hours or so. We returned the car one hour late, but that was no problem.
Prague, Czech Republic June 10-12
We had a night bus to Prague, so we were in the same predicament with having no sleep. I had heard many things about Prague and how it’s such a beautiful city and everyone should go there. Well I certainly liked it, but it wasn’t what I thought. I really think now that I’ve seen so much I compare cities more and more. My expectations are far too high! So when people talk it up, I’m expecting just that. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful city and I loved Charles Bridge. There’s so many people, little vendors with people painting, selling jewelry, singing…you name it!
My favorite thing was definitely St. Nicholas’s Cathedral. It was the MOST BEAUTIFUL CATHEDRAL EVER! I don’t believe there’s an inch of that building that isn’t hand painted or covered in gold. It’s completely magnificent. Many of them in Prague were so beautiful though.
The first night there Tom and I went to a concert. People advertise them like crazy there too. It was a bit expensive, but nice to see once. One lady who sang probably had one of the most amazing voices I’ve ever heard. Being in Prague I definitely understand how big Fotball (Soccer) is for Europeans. As the Eurocup began recently, cities really celebrate it. In the square they had some rings set up for playing and winning prizes, jumbotrons, pre-game concerts, and of course everyone drinking beer. By no means did we watch the entire game there in the street, but the atmosphere was fun. I did noticed when it was over there were what appeared to be many homeless people camping out there. I guess it’s nice for them to enjoy some tele.
We were stuck at the airport for quite sometime because of a flight delay. It wasn’t awful because I was able to change the bus tickets back to Sundsvall. The airline gave food vouchers and I really thought that was a nice gesture.
We finally got back to Sundsvall at 3 am the next morning. The streets were filled with the night’s drunks crawling about. We couldn’t possible get a taxi because of this. We managed to get our things home though. I finally got to bed around 8 am.
It was seriously such a wonderful trip and I saw so much. I couldn’t have been more blessed with the wonderful weather and most importantly safety! I realize my blogging skills stink. I have been told I talk a lot and apparently that stands true. I write a lot! I like details, but I don’t like reading! Lol Just on a side note…my grammar is so awful.