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London According to Fred

Small inflatable giraffe takes on a big city

Around 00.15am on a Monday night at Liverpool tube station, a miracle happened.

The gates of the underground were opened by a large, middle-aged station worker, laughing away, and he let me pass through the gates for free.
Now, I've travelled enough to know that you can talk yourself out of paying a fee almost anywhere in the world- smile, look cute, and if need be, cry. But never in London. They are too used to the tricks, the excuses; they don't care if your purse was just stolen or you misplaced your ticket. And the certainly never open the gates for free. But I had a previously-unseen trick up my sleeve. I had an alcoholic gay albino inflatable giraffe in tow.

Fred on the underground

Fred, the giraffe, has been a much-expected guest to London. I've had emails from friends who've seen him on Facebook or my blog ask if Fred is up for a drink, and let me tell you now that Fred is always up for a drink. Especially since he is, indeed, plastic, and his escort (me) ends up drinking them most of the time. Fred has visited quite a few pubs in the past few weeks, one birthday party, and had many glasses of wine. The odd thing is, though, that he is getting random requests from people whom neither Rich or I know. He recently had a friend request on Facebook from a fish. Honestly, I'm not sure if the fish was inflatable or not.

Fred at an offlicence on Brick Lane, much to the amusement of the owner

Special thanks would go to Kate and her birthday. I got re-introduced to the wonderful world of champagne cocktails, Fred got a tequila, and everyone got to pose with him and take funny photos. Last week, a little kid tried to steal him before I managed to shove him out of the way (the kid of course. I wouldn't be so cruel to an animal)

At Kate's birthday party

I've enjoyed taking Fred out as much as he's enjoyed being taken out. And although I know that carrying him around might lessen my chances of finding a job in November (I'm very much aware, after years of working as a recruiter, how potential candidates get googled and poked at), it's been fun. Anything that brings a smile on someone's face in this (sometimes) a grim city, is worth it, I reckon.


Posted by Ofelia 09:17 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged animal Comments (0)

Greetings from the Underground London


London underground, the Tube, is a fantastic and frustrating piece of London's landscape, and, like most londoners, I love it and hate it in equal measures. It is brilliant when it works; it sets the city in chaos when it doesn't. It's a modern anthill crawling with tourists, trains, corridors, rats, rubbish and the occasional left baggage which triggers a security alert; in my opinion, it always happens at Victoria, but that's probably just because it's my underground station.


What always amazes me is the perfect flow of people at the station. Sure, there's the occasional backpacker with a massive rucksack blocking the escalator (standing on the left when the left is purely for people wanting to walk up/down; left side is never stationary), but generally, people move in a perfect rhythm. Londoners know exactly which end to board the train so they are close to the exit at their destination; where to stand on the platform not to get crushed, and the little shortcuts at the stations, marked in discreet "No entry" -signs. The stations are a big puzzle and I was so proud of myself, when I, ten years ago, finally learned the anatomy of the underground.

Years later, I'm a bit more jaded about it; last weekend's maintanence closures meant that less than half the lines were operating. I needed to travel from northwest to southeast, a long journey on a normal day, and I struggled to find a station that was operating, let alone one that actually had tubes running from it. The trip took me six hours and a lot of swearing. A man on the Piccadilly line next to me noted that the Tube was the closest one could get to hell.


London tube lines and routes are the longest in the world, the oldest in the world, and third busiest (after Paris and Moscow), and what in particular appeals to me is the Tube map. Graphic, modern and incorrect; the map is not geographical, but diagrammatic. Looking at it, you might think that getting from, say, Great Portland Street to Regent's Park would mean several stops on the tube, including an interchange, when, in reality, the stations are less than a block apart, but as they are on different lines, the map has placed them seemingly far. I sometimes amuse myself by watching the poor tourists to struggle in, down, up, down to get to the Leicester Square southbound platform, wait for a train, board, get off in Charing Cross, go up, out of the barriers and up into the same street, only a block or so further off than where they started. And the trip would cost up to £4- the tube is more expensive mile by mile than flying the concorde.

(OK, this is actually a photo of the National Rail but I just really liked it)

Having said that, I dread to think what would happen if we didn't have the tube. It is an essential part of London; the silly names like Elephant and Castle, Shepherd's Bush and Swiss Cottage still keep me amused; the Tube map which I had on my bedroom wall in the first flat I rented, and which is printed on innumerous umbrellas, T-shirts and teamugs for the tourists (including my parents who think it's really cool); the familiar tube signs that to me signal to me that I'm about to go home at the end of a long day. And although slightly sad, I love that I know exactly what exit leads where at the confusing Oxford Circus station, or which end of the platform the exit is at Liverpool Street.

That is, if the Tube is working properly that day.


Posted by Ofelia 12:21 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged transportation Comments (2)

Line Up the Last of the Summer Houses

Boring stuff first: In 2006, there were 475 051 summer cottages in Finland. 475 051. So when I tell people that we have one, they assume we're rich. We're not. We're Finnish.

There are just over five million people in Finland, which means that pretty much every extended family has a summer house, summer cottage or a little wilderness hut of some sort. We're far from the rest of Europe, and so we sometimes have to spend holidays at home. A summer house, in fact, is nothing fancy- a little hut or house by a lake (preferably), outdoor toilet, no running water. Most have electricity, some have heating, all have a sauna. Because in Finland, a house is only worth as much as the sauna in it.

Having spent the whole summer in Finland, I got invited to a lot of them. A lot, I tell you; as a Finn, you're also obligated to like it, even if you don't. You have to row a boat on the lake; you have to light up the wooden grill and grill a sausage; you have to chop wood and play board games and drink strong coffee with pulla, a sweet dough-like bun. Telly is not permitted, neither is the internet. Everyone takes their turn in emptying the outhouse (ugh) because everyone works at the summer house. It's not leisurly, no. There are chores to be done, and so urban Finns with all possible appliances at home, spend the summer hand-washing clothes in the lake, heating their water on stove and raking leaves. Because that's what you do on holiday; that's what everyone does on holiday, and the country grinds to a halt for pretty much the whole summer.

Famous and wealthy Finns have summerhouses too; they might have running water and a three-car garage, but nevertheless, it's a summer house, a small timber cottage painted in cheery red or yellow. In what other country can you see a famous athlete, IT millionaire or even the president standing infront of a tiny house, wearing wellies and an unflattering, baggy jumper, whilst the headline screams, "Even so-and-so carries in their own bathing water from the lake". Being average is desirable in Finland. Even the super-talented, super-rich feel the need to take themselves down a notch and promote their normalness by having a little summerhouse, completed with fishing rods hanging off the wall whilst the garden gnomes look on from the front porch. Forget Big Brother; Finland is controlled by the ubiquitous garden gnome.

Nevertheless, I like summer houses. They're dotted all along the countryside, especially around the lakes, and they do provide a great get-away from the city. I even like swimming in the lake and knowing that a world-famous racecar driver has a little cottage very close to where my parents live. Not Monaco, not St.Tropez, but Nowhere, Finland. But I've had my share of melted ice-cream (because summer houses never have freezers) and internet black-out. I've always been an urban kinda person, and welllies and tracksuit bottoms don't really suit me. And so I'm dusting off my stilettos, because everyone, next week I'll be in London.


Posted by Ofelia 12:41 Archived in Finland Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

When the Light's Finally Switched On

A full three hours of sleep the previous night on a random sofa in Helsinki, I almost missed my bus to Rauma. After spending years (yes, my gosh, it is years now) in developing countries, I'd forgotten that buses leave on the minute. So, hot and breathless, I caught up with the other girls at the bus station, and even got a student discount on my ticket (people are so honest here. If you say you're a student, they believe you are one. I almost felt bad before I remembered that I am, actually, even poorer than a student).

Rauma is an old seafaring town. The old town is now a Unesco world heritage site, and very deservingly so; colourful, cute, cottage-like houses line gravel streets, and it looks wonderfully run-down; not so much that it desperately needs much repair, but enough to lend to the turn-of-the-century, relaxed ambiance of the place. Beautiful, iron-wrought balconies and bright flower arrangements, and windows which each play a role- the curtains are of old, delicate lace (Rauma is still famous for lace-making as well) and every windowsill has a carefully-thought arrangement of little boats, messages in bottles and seashells. I felt like I walked through a little art gallery.


In Rauma, we finally caught up with the rest of the guys. What started off as a trip for five people, ended up somehow expanding, and there we were, ten of us, buying enough food to keep a small country well-stocked for a year or two. After a bit of drama at the ticket booth (and big, sad eyes from two of the girls), we managed to buy enough ferry tickets to get all of us to Kylmäpihlaja, a small island and our destination for the night.


I'll gladly admit that although I think Finland is beautiful, I never really thought it was exceptional. Sure, there's some nice scenery in Finland; I just thought it was rather boring. However, once we'd unloaded our small army of bags (and we're all backpackers! We should know better!) and had a quick look around, I realised I loved it. Just a tiny lighthouse, big enough to have two little rooms on each floor and a dining room below, large rocks by the seaside, wonderfully heated up by the hot, sunny day, water lapping gently, and really, what else could you want? We used the lighthouse sauna for free, and ventured into the ocean for a dip (although I really only went because I couldn't be the only one who didn't. That would just be cowardish.). About a hundred SLR's were brought out as the sun started setting- an exquisite sight as the sky was completely cloudless. We sat outside, barbequeing, drinking and telling stories until the light was finally switched on at the lighthouse, casting a faint yellow light on the rocks. When the wind finally picked up too much, we snuggled into the common room of the lighthouse to finish the dregs of the wine, still telling stories and listening to the wind.


The next day looked much like the photos I remember from my parent's photoalbums from the sixties; distant sail boats, wild flowers, swans in the sea, lots of happy people sitting on the rocks, sunning themselves.I felt a little nostalgic for no reason, and rather like to think we looked like a post card.

Fred obviously came along, as an honorary member of our little backpacking team

A ferry ride back, relaxed, tanned (OK, slightly burnt) and still with a single lonely cider in tow, we parted two-ways, one group heading to Tampere and beyond, one to Helsinki, happily waving to each other. Sunday night and still sunny. Who on earth thinks Scandinavia is always cold and snowy?

(and yes, I'm very much aware I was going to stop writing this blog. But a friend, whom shall remain nameless, asked for an entry on Rauma, very particularly. So there you go. And I'm still unemployed and bored with my life.)

Posted by Ofelia 12:27 Archived in Finland Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Beach Life at the Arctic Circle

After a long debate, many calendar- checkings and phone calls, emails and instant messages later, my two friends Paula and Susanne, and at the last minute, Susanne's boyfriend Emppu and I finally set the date for the long drive up to Oulanka National Park in Kuusamo, which borders on Lapland and criss-crosses close along the Russian border. We'd mainly wanted to go because this was the year we all turned 30, and we all had a long list of things to do before thirty. Unfortunately, we realised that it was now too late to actually write a Nobel-winning novel or to get a record deal. So we had to scale down our aspirations and instead, went for something we'd always wanted to do: trekking 63 kilometres of the most beautiful Finnish scenery there is.

Now, I am, by no means, a hiking/ camping/ wilderness -type of girl. I much prefer complicated cocktails, seeing up-and-coming bands or trying on clothes I can't afford. But I seem to do these things, mainly because the scenery and the experience is almost always unforgettable, and also because I kind of like to push myself a bit. Anyway.

Oulanka national park was recently featured in the National Geographic due to it's unique soil, ecosystem and scenery, so it seemed like a great way of seeing a bit of our own heritage. All of us, Paula, Susse and I have never really travelled in our own country, too busy roaming around abroad, so one sunny afternoon in Southern Finland, we packed up a car with (other people's) camping stuff, and drove 750 kilometres to Kuusamo.


The trail, called Karhunkierros, which roughly translates to The Bear trail, or Bear's Loop, has various starting/ finishing points, and is altogether 80 kilometres long. I'd been adviced by a friend that the last part of the trail is actually quite boring, so we decided to skip it, mainly because I occasionally have to work and therefore it's a good idea I'm in the right town, and Paula has two small daughters. So four days on the trail it was.

Upon arriving, it rained and because, to our outrage, you had to pay for the camping grounds, we decided to camp on the parking lot. As you do. We lit a disposable grill and prepared a few sad-looking sausages. It wasn't the greatest start, but at least the raincoat my mum had forced on me came in handy.

Camping at the parking lot

The fantastic thing about Oulanka is that it is completely free. There are no entry fees, and the camping grounds, traditional leaning huts, lappish teepees and wilderness huts are free to use. According to the ancient wilderness tradition, and the strange finnish logic, it works on a "last to arrive, first to be served" -basis; a person arriving first should always give their space to late-comers, because the last person to arrive is usually the most tired one. Hmm. I wasn't buying that; last one to arrive is probably last because they spent the previous night drinking and therefore hike slow, and deserve to be eaten by huge, mutant-size mosquitoes. Luckily, it never became an issue as there was always room.

Traditional leaning hut

Four days of hiking in a sunny, humid, but essentially cold forest is not always easy. At the start, the ground was flat-ish, with lots of marshes and lakes, and not a lot of other people. We carried all our food for the four days, filling water bottles in the streams, and so every steep rise uphill was bit of a battle- some of them so steep we literally went up in all fours. The first day was also the roughest- 17 kilometers before we arrived to a beatiful little hut with a campfire already lit. As a little extra evening work-out, we climbed up to Oulanka Canyon, with stunning pine-forest views across the park.


Surprisingly, we all felt quite good about the hike the next day; as an unexperienced hiker, I'd been a bit worried about coping with lots of walking- they'd said on the brochure that the trail requires good basic fitness and some camping experience- basic fitness? Camping?? Does camping in the backyard when you're seven count??

First off, we crossed a few hanging bridges, a source of lot of photos and fun- Fred came out from my backpack and joined in on the fun. We followed the trail up along a big cliff, looking down on the river and the endless forest below, before finally seeing some people, and more hanging bridges suspended over rapids.


What we loved most, though, was the deserted campsite on the second night by the fast-flowing river Oulanka. Not only was it wonderfully surrounded by the forest and hidden from view, but it had, to our surprise, a sandy beach lined with flowers. As it was a sunny evening, and as the sun never sets in Lapland in july, we spend ages jumping in and out of the, admittedly, freezing water.
Finnish people have a saying which means a place where the soul rests. This was it. It was perfectly still, quiet and harmonious. We felt like we were the only people in the world.


oulanka canyon


The last day of hiking was by far the hardest. I'd ran out of clean shirts by then and everyone complained about having smelly socks. We'd stocked up on food, but as we had heavy tents and torches (clever move in a country where the sun really doesn't set in July), we'd left the clothes to a minimum. Even then, it didn't really matter- we've all been friends since early school years, and seen each other looking and smelling far worse. The only exception might have been Susanne's new boyfriend, but then again, he's a bloke so he probably didn't care.
The trail followed the river for a few kilometers, sometimes disappearing almost completely- it was the first time we actually had to look for the yellow markers which line the path. We crossed a dozen fallen trees and climbered up cliffs, all the while trying not to fall to the river. Getting to the campsite felt like a wonderful achievement that night, and we celebrated by having a drink by the fire, and cooking all the rest of the food we had- a lovely mixture of noodles, soups, soya pieces and raw carrots. Fred also had a drink and got a bit rowdy... bad giraffe.

It wasn't the easiest of routes...


Fred celebrating the final day of hiking

The last day was an easy stroll from the last wilderness hut to the car; we hardly counted that as hiking at all, although it did include some of the steepest staircases up. We'd deliberately stayed in the park for the last night, as we had no intention of camping at the gloomy parking lot again, nor did we want to pay for a campsite at Juuma, where the trail ended. The last 10 kilometres joined in on the pieni karhunkierros, or Small Bear Trail, which is essentially a 12-kilometre loop around Juuma, meant for day trek. It felt almost polished in comparison- steps, proper river crossings, and yes, lots and lots of people, looking glowy and happy and carrying small daypacks. We felt like some sort of forest gnomes, emerging from the woods without having seen a hairbrush in days. They also seemed stunned that we'd walked all the way from Hautajärvi- do we really look that unfit?? People seemed, as they always do, intrigued by Fred, asking if he was a bear-repellant. Which was odd. At least three people said that. I've never known inflatable giraffes to repel bears, but there you go.

So, Sunday morning at the local petrol station, again in the drizzling rain that had miraculously stopped while we actually walked, we took stock of the whole trail. Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was challenging enough without being too extreme. Yes, the huts and the campsites were well looked after. But although we liked it, I felt like it didn't quite hold enough to be stunning. I don't know why, but scenery-wise, I was left wanting just a bit more. Something really stunning and unique. Or maybe it's just because I am finnish and therefore used to the scenery. I don't know, but I'm very willing to go to Lapland again, maybe to another national park, and give it a second go.


Posted by Ofelia 02:22 Archived in Finland Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

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