Herself: There’s a school mass on Tuesday at 7.30.
Me: Oh God, we can’t go. Your father’s in Luxembourg for work and you have French conversation class that evening.
Herself: Will I just tell them that I’m too middle class to go?
Herself: There’s a school mass on Tuesday at 7.30.
Me: Oh God, we can’t go. Your father’s in Luxembourg for work and you have French conversation class that evening.
Herself: Will I just tell them that I’m too middle class to go?
Friday, August 16
My friend’s house was both huge and central. She stayed at home recovering from an early start getting her husband and stepson out to the airport and – once Mr. Waffle had nobly returned the hired car – we ventured out into Helsinki. We took ourselves to the market for lunch.
On the recommendation of our hosts, after lunch we went out to one of the islands in the bay called Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg in Swedish). Herself pointed out that if, at home, you were told that instructions were only available in Swedish, you would say, “How useless!” However, in Finland where the two official languages are Swedish and Finnish, the Swedish translation frequently saved our bacon as you have some hope of working out the Swedish but none at all of guessing what the Finnish might mean. I digress.
The island was rich in military museums and also boasted a submarine which we visited.
There was a lot about Mannerheim and the Winter War and we became reasonably expert. I was dimly aware that the Finns had fought the Russians alone at the start of World War II (or the Continuity War as it is known in Finland). I am now very aware that Russian invaded and the Finns fought back in 1939/40 and basically fought the Russians to a standstill. Apparently the Finns said, “They are so many/and our country is so small/where will we bury them all?” While numbers are a bit difficult to establish the estimate is that the Finns lost 20,000 men and the Russians some 230,000. Herself read a book on it in my friend’s house while we were there and she was a mine of information. She described how the Russians had so many men and were so indifferent to their welfare that they used to send rows of them across the land mined by the Finns. The Russians would walk along in rows and sing songs of the revolution until they got blown up. After a while they stopped using men and started using horses which, apparently, the Finns found very upsetting. Anyhow Mannerheim led the Finns and they loved him. He was very old and had been part of the Russian army in the Russo-Japanese war. He didn’t like the communists much though. Finland was a duchy of Sweden for 700 years and then part of Russian for 100 years before becoming independent in 1917. There was a super guide who told us all about the Winter War, basically the Finns defeated the Soviets and should possibly have bailed out at that point but when the Germans were fighting Russia on the basis of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they supported Germany. In the longer run this was poor from a tactical point of view and they lost parts of Finland to Russia in the post war settlement. Did you know that the Russians still have Karelia? Who knew? Well, the Finns I suppose. Our guide’s grandparents were evacuated from there to Helsinki and never got back. They had some Russian equipment captured in the Winter War in the museum. Our guide said that a Russian visitor once asked whether they would give it back. Our guide replied, “When you give back Karelia.” Stubborn bunch the Finns with a difficult neighbour.
I said I would make dinner that evening (as there were five of us and only one of our hostess, it only seemed fair). It was a bit on the late side when we got back and I made a raid on the corner shop for dinner ingredients. I got chicken, green beans, potatoes, meringues and ice cream. How much did it come to, gentle reader? €118. I was not the better of it. Herself said it was the first time she had ever seen me check a receipt. I will tell you now, chicken is dear in Finland.
Saturday, August 17
My friend took us to a wonderful outdoor pool right in the centre of town. Herself opined it might have been the best thing we did on holidays. There was a heated pool and a sectioned off bit of baltic water as well as a sauna (obviously). We swam around in the pools for ages admiring the architecture of central Helsinki. I cannot recommend it highly enough. This photo is in no way representative of the extent of the pools or the delightfulness of the location but it’s something.
Encouraged by my friend, I took a big step and left the boys on their own in the pool for a bit. Call me over-protective. I had a grand old chat with the life guard who turned out to be from Gran Canaria which was a bit of a surprise.
Quite a while into our odyssey – I’d tested both pools, I’d showered outside, I’d sat in a deckchair – I put a hand to my waist and I thought, how odd, I didn’t know there was a seam there and then realised, to my utter horror, that I had left my underpants on outside my swimsuit. It turns out it is true, nobody looks at women over 50 particularly not their family who resolutely assured me that they hadn’t noticed at all.
It was our first time testing a sauna with real live Finns inside. Exciting. They get grumpy if you leave the door open we discovered.
We then went to the nearby market for lunch which was successful beyond my wildest dreams as everyone found something for lunch. Although it does not appear so from the photo, the boys were delighted with the classic ketchup, squid and chip combination.
We polished off the day with a wander around looking at art deco buildings and a coffee in the square above the fancy art museum. We didn’t go in but the children climbed on top of it which must be worth some mild art points.
Then back to the house where Mr. Waffle and the children stayed home and my friend and I got dressed up and went out. I have to say, it was lovely to spend so much time with her and have the children get to know her as well. She is my oldest friend and we have so many people and memories in common we spent ages reminiscing and I was quite pleased to have so many of my stories verified in front of the children by a third party.
Alas, we did all manage to get sunburnt though which is an achievement in Helsinki. There I am with herself looking pinkish. Has to be said that no matter what way you slice it, I am at least twice the size of her. Sigh.
Sunday August 18
I signed myself up to the Helsinki scooter app and scooted to mass. I was very proud. Mass was in English (happily) lengthy and crowded and, bizarrely, the missalettes were imported from Dublin.
The electric scooters were a hit with the children also.
In the afternoon, we went to the funfair. Probably not the cheapest outing we’ve ever been on but my friend came too and we sat around and had tea while watching the children undertaking death defying rides and ourselves went on the mildest possible roller coaster.
Monday, August 19
My poor friend went off to the office. Herself and myself went out together. We had breakfast in a local cafe and then took ourselves off to Stockmann (big Department store) where I indulged myself by buying multiple Moomin mugs all of which I got home safely.
We picked up unusual presents in the food market. Reindeer crisps at €8 a packet anyone? My father got the moose pâté. I await his verdict with interest.
In the afternoon we went to the design museum which was not a massive hit with the children other than the chair in the entrance hall which they loved. I quite enjoyed exploring the VR version of the Finnish installation at, if memory serves, the Venice Biennale but they didn’t really go for it. I had a lot of VR on this holiday and, for what it’s worth, I quite liked it when I wasn’t inadvertently walking into walls in the real world.
We went off and had a sustaining cup of tea before heading home for our last evening in Finland. My friend was a really wonderful hostess. She was calm and relaxed and this was more notable as she has a very busy job and she was moving to Brussels the next month (in fact next week will see her in a large house in Brussels which she may yet have the thrill of hosting us in).
Tuesday, August 20
We were up at the crack of dawn for our very early flight. My friend was up to as she was, ironically, flying to the Åland islands that morning. She reported that it was picturesque with great cycling infrastructure. Another time, perhaps.
Meanwhile, we were in very good time for our flight.
Inquiring minds will be delighted to know that I finished the last edition of the LRB which I had brought with me on the plane and stepped off in Dublin unencumbered by any back issues.
We got home to find the cat not displeased to see us; an embarrassingly generous present from our Hiberno-Dutch friends who had very briefly stayed in our house while we were away (they can stay anytime); a copy of a magazine in which Daniel and Michael had their poetry published together with royalties in the form of a €10 book voucher each and, of course, a new issue of the LRB.
Also, we’ve discovered that Mr. Next Door Neighbour’s brother is married to a Finn and lives in Helsinki and so does the brother of the man who cut the boys’ hair on our return home. There’s a lot of it about.
How were your own holidays?
Sunday, August 11
We tested out the sauna in the house. It was fine as these things go. Toasty. The whole set-up was pretty good with the sauna room beside the shower room and a little view from the tiny window of the sauna to the trees outside. I felt like a Finn getting back in touch with nature except that I had to leave once the temperature hit 80 degrees. The rest of the family pronounced the sauna experience tolerable also and we did do it a couple of times but maybe you have to be born to it to really appreciate the sauna experience.
Mr. Waffle and I took a stroll down to the Baltic where we met a mother and son who were swimming away. “Is it cold?” I asked. “Not if you swim every day,” said the mother. “Do you even swim in winter?” I asked. “No, not when it’s frozen,” she said. Fine, right, ok, good point. Apparently there was no snow last winter and it meant that the surface of the ice on the water was so smooth that you could skate from the inlet right out to the open sea and play ice hockey all winter long.
We went and had a look at the local church which reminded me a bit of some of the churches we saw in Denmark last year. A nice woman inside told us that the village where we were staying (Rymättylä – very rural) used to be a stop on the route from Stockholm to St. Petersburg and monied travellers paid for the church. Very nice too with an appealing graveyard as well.
We went into Turku for mass that evening. It was in English. The catholic population of Finland is small and mostly migrant although, I noticed that the celebrant seemed to be Finnish. Apparently all of Finland is one diocese so catholicism is a bit of a minority sport. This led to a long mass which always seems to be the way when catholics are a minority.
We had wandered around Turku before mass and been a bit underwhelmed. It was drizzly and cold and everything was closed. We decided to go for pizza after mass and found a pizzeria which closed at 7 – it was then 6.55. Why, why would you close your pizzeria at 7? A nice random Finnish man took pity on us and directed us towards a local pizza chain. It was the most depressing experience. The place was horrible and the pizza was dear and bad. I ordered the pizza Berlusconi with reindeer meat. It was developed in response to Berlusconi’s comments about Finnish food. If you ask me, it’s not exactly a riposte.
We shook the dust of Turku from our feet and went home. We had the comfort of beautiful views as we made our way back to our island home.
Monday August 12
Inspired by the hardy Finns, we went swimming in the Baltic. Poor Michael found it just too cold and Daniel slid in very slowly from rocks on the edge of the water but it was quite enjoyable and we got to have a sauna afterwards like real Finns.
Scarred by our trip to Turku we decided to have a mild outing to Naantali about 20 minutes away. It’s a seaside town where the Finnish president has his holiday home. And seriously, why wouldn’t he? It was the most charming little place and I was utterly entranced. Sadly, herself was feeling a bit tired and stayed back at the house and although Mr. Waffle and the boys tried to enter into my enthusiasm, I could tell that their hearts weren’t in it. I loved every aspect of it, from the marina to the cute wooden house lined streets, the adorable shops sellling (holy mother of God expensive) tourist tat and the lovely church.
After the wild excitements of Naantali we had a quiet evening at home playing some of the many board games Michael had brought along with a steely determination to spend time with his family playing them.
Tuesday, August 13
We all took a morning dip in the Baltic. I can recommend this.
We had considered going to Turku that afternoon but I was still a bit scarred after our Sunday experience so we went back to Naantali instead. It was still charming but, I have to concede, it is small and I am not sure that its charms really warranted a second day. Herself was charmed though and we did get inside the church and the local museum.
Some of the churches had little miniature ships hanging from the ceiling. On inquiry as to why, I was told that there is a lot of fishing in Finland. I don’t know. I’m not entirely convinced.
I always have a soft spot for a local museum and this one was appealing in a mild way as it was an old house done up as it would have been 100 years ago. The exhibition of wallpaper through the ages was hard going though, even for me.
For dinner that evening, Mr. Waffle succeeded in making Yorkshire pudding and it would be fair to say that this was something of a highlight for the boys.
Wednesday, August 14
We had a quiet day at home as I put some serious effort in trying to get through a mountain of back issues of the London Review of Books which had been piling up in the hall for a good six months due to pressure of other business. I took them all on holidays and swore they would not come home. I’m not sure that they are designed to be read in quite this way but never mind.
We had a swim in the Baltic and later herself and myself went to look at a local junk shop. It was surrounded by houses getting rid of things (Kirppis – in case you need to know). The kind of stuff that sits in attics for years. But the cost! When I saw the IKEA festive biscuit tin on sale for €7, I knew that there would be absolutely nothing I would consider buying. Herself invested heavily in copy of Jaana 1975 which featured a story on the new Miss World who was previously Miss Finland at ludicrous expense. The vendor was able to tell us about Miss Finland’s grandchildren so she’s clearly still a big figure locally.
I said to herself that we might as well have a look at the church since it was nearby and she observed, “Oh I see, it’s like the trains at the station, one train can conceal another.” Anyhow, she was spared as the church was closed.
Myself and Mr. Waffle went for a walk leaving the children to their own devices which was quite pleasant for all parties.
Thursday, August 15
I couldn’t help pointing out to the children that in Italy this is Ferragosto, the height of the summer holidays but in Finland the children were back to school and the countryside felt quite autumnal. This insight was greeted with indifference and we went for a last swim before packing up and heading for Helsinki.
On our way to Helsinki, we stopped in Turku for a couple of hours. Oh regret. Although Turku on Sunday night had been utterly miserable, we had sadly misjudged it. It was lovely; we walked along the riverbank. We had a really good lunch in the centre and there was loads to see. I wished fervently we had gone back earlier.
We all went on a compulsory trip to the cathedral.
There was a thing signed by Mannerheim. I cannot believe I had never heard of Mannerheim before visiting Finland. I feel very ignorant. He’s big in Finland.
After this, we split forces. Herself was really keen to go to the modern art museum and the rest of us wanted to go to the castle (ok, the boys didn’t want to but they definitely wanted to more than they wanted to go to the modern art museum). I felt a bit daring setting her off to find the museum using Google maps on my phone but Mr. Waffle pointed out that she had been around Paris on her own and she was probably alright in a small university city in Finland. Fine. She was fine. We went to the castle of which I have no pictures (did it even happen then?) as herself had my phone. Mr. Waffle took a couple but it’s just not the same. We galloped around the castle a bit as Mr. Waffle began to worry that we would be late for my friend in Helsinki. “She’s known me all my life,” I reassured him, “she will expect me to be late.” He was not comforted.
We collected herself from the museum where she had a great time after some initial difficulties gaining entry due to not fitting readily into any of their categories of visitors (too old for a child; no card for a student; too young for an adult and unaccompanied by a family). Herself announced that she lay awake in bed last night wondering who was in charge in Algeria and that this is the kind of thing she had been suffering from since the loss of her phone. What to say. We sped on to Helsinki. I texted my friend that we might be late. She was delightfully unconcerned. I noticed that St Petersburg was signposted which was a bit weird but not for the Finns, I suppose.
We arrived safely in Helsinki and our hosts were ready for us with dinner and lots of beds which were both very welcome. One of them gave up a bed for us which was particularly virtuous but he and his father were leaving for Dublin in the morning so they assured us their sacrifice would be short-lived. It was noble all the same.
Part 3 detailing our Helsinki stay is coming. Stay tuned for further Finnish excitement.
Wednesday, August 7
We booked flights on a Wednesday because they were cheaper. I was a bit displeased as I would have liked to be away slightly longer but on balance, we decided it was worth it.
We entered into complex arrangements with our neighbours in relation to feeding their hens and our cat. I always feel slightly upstaged by their ambitious holidays However, after the year when they climbed Kilimanjaro, I felt that they could hardly do better. “Where are you going this year?” I asked. “The Galapagos and Easter Island.”
I digress, our flight was at 9.25 in the morning which wasn’t too bad. We were a small bit late leaving home due to a fruitless search for the Brett Easton Ellis book herself was reading which was nowhere to be found. Then we missed the turn off for the long term car park – another 10 minutes gone; then the bus to the airport took ages to come. The upshot of it was 9.50 before we got to the airport and check-in was closed. I had a look at the hard-hearted Ryanair woman behind the desk and decided that resorting to tears would be utterly useless. In fairness, we’d probably not have made it to the gate in time at that stage. Alas and indeed alack. Mr. Waffle was heroic. Though grumpy when made to be late by his family now that the hour had actually come and our combined indifference to his punctuality concerns had made us miss the wretched flight, he was pretty zen and booked and paid for another flight that evening with unimpaired amiability (so much for economical Wednesday flights). I was filled with guilt. My friend in Helsinki sent me this and I could not but concede that it was apt:
Herself in correspondence with her friend told her about the missed flight and her friend said, “I didn’t know that happened to real people.” Fair. Although I am forced to point out that subsequently her friend’s father fell while refilling the car with petrol when they were on holidays in Norway and broke his hip. That doesn’t happen much to real people either, I can tell you. Friend was round yesterday and she says he is up and hobbling about and keen to spread a story that his injury was sustained climbing dramatic Norwegian mountains. After this exchange, the Princess’s phone died. I was pleased and quite surprised to see how well she managed without it for the next fortnight.
Our re-booked flight was for that evening so we took ourselves off to Malahide castle for a consolatory breakfast and the kids re-acquainted themselves with the playground where they had not been for several years. I bought a new anorak. It was actually surprisingly pleasant given the context.
Then we went home. Our cleaner had been hard at work on the house all morning and, cravenly, we hid in the car when we saw her leaving on her bike, too mortified to explain our idiocy to her. She already has a pretty low opinion of us already. We found that she had, as instructed, completely cleaned out the fridge. Alas.
We got in some food. We found Brett Easton Ellis misfiled with the school books and mid-afternoon we turned around and went back out to the airport allowing ample time to check in.
Of course, then, instead of arriving in Tallinn at lunch time, it was nearly 1 in the morning and we were all a bit tired and sorry for ourselves but we got there. It was some comfort that a taxi from the airport – for the five of us – only cost €13.40.
Thursday, 8 August
We woke up in Tallinn as planned. We stayed in a lovely Airbnb in the old city with the mandatory sauna – big feature in the Baltic, lads. The old town is very touristy and there weren’t really any shops other than ones selling souvenirs – amber, trolls, linen and knitwear are all big. And I imagine that, if you are from Tallinn you might not love the way that your old city centre has become essentially a tourist zone but we were tourists and we absolutely loved it. There were no cars in the city centre and it was small, clean (remarkably clean) and seemed very safe. We were able to let the children wander on their own which we all enjoyed.
My friend who lives in Helsinki and with whom we were to stay later in the holiday was actually in Tallinn with her family for a couple of days. They were familiar with the lie of the land and we met them for lunch which was very nice. Their accommodation featured a rat trap in the entrance hall with smelly corpses and, though my friend was stoic, I was quite glad that this was not a feature of our place as it might have tipped me over the edge.
We did mildly touristy things as we were in the city centre and it wasn’t very effortful.
Some of our number felt that the climb up to the Orthodox church wasn’t worth the effort but I liked it.
Definite highlight was having an afternoon snack of dumplings in a cafe in the square. Not your traditional afternoon snack but welcome all the same. Mr. Waffle has recreated them at home. Huge success.
I did not expect this at all but the food in Tallinn is excellent. Really good and cheap too. It was a Hanseatic league town (in the course of our visit, I frequently wished I had paid a bit more attention to a podcast on the Hanseatic league which I listened to earlier this year) and a cross-roads for trade and spices and even in Soviet times it was very popular for food with Russians and eastern Europeans. Who knew?
After dinner we sat up on our rooftop terrace and admired the view. Pretty good all round.
Friday, August 9
I gave herself my phone to investigate possible breakfast locations. Her own phone had broken and I was surprised and pleased by how well she managed for the next fortnight without a phone; although she was forced to read every book we’d brought with us and even finish “Catch 22” which she has been reading for months with no apparent enjoyment.
She came good and we went to a lovely place leaving her brothers behind in bed. The lure of a good cinnamon bun was insufficient to tempt them out. Their mistake. While herself went off for a wander in the market and her brothers stayed in bed, Mr. Waffle and I went on a tour of Reval (did you know that Tallinn was always Reval and only changed its name to Tallinn 100 years ago? There’s a whole world out there). The tour was pretty good – a bit gimmicky but interesting all the same. I wish I had prodded the boys out of bed as there was tons of audience participation which, Michael at least, would have loved.
After lunch at home we went to a hotel which apparently does a very good tour involving KGB spying equipment. I say apparently as we had failed to book and there were no tours we could get on until the following day when, alas, we were leaving. We went for a restorative cup of tea in a nice cafe which herself had unearthed in her internet researches and then decided to go to the museum of occupation instead. It was a half hour trek away under the merciless Estonian sun and we arrived red faced and exhausted. The museum was interesting enough in its own way. A lot of interactive stuff, including a mock up of a soviet era flat where you could look in all the cupboards and a VR headset which allowed you to furnish your flat from a relatively limited range of options.
Then back home to play board games with Michael who had brought several and was determined to get value for his efforts.
We went out for dinner in a lovely Italian restaurant by the city walls recommended by our friends. There was an Italian waiter and it was a relief to both of us to speak in Italian. He said his Estonian was only middling. I sympathise.
Saturday, August 10
We said goodbye to Tallinn with some regret. We would not at all have minded another couple of days there. As we were leaving I saw that the former KGB interrogation cells – now a museum – were across the road from our Airbnb. Possibly for the best to have missed that.
We took the ferry across to Helsinki. The ferry ride was pleasant and only took about 3 hours. The ferry was enormous and very similar to the ferry we used to get to France; the fact that the latter was a Baltic ferry before being purchased by Irish Ferries may explain that. Aside from the explosion of the open jar of jam which one of us had packed in our bags in Tallinn, the journey was uneventful.
We presented ourselves at Helsinki railway station to pick up our hired car. We weren’t in any rush but we should have been. We turned up at 4.29 and the woman behind the desk said, “We close at 4. We gave you until 4.30, if you hadn’t turned up we were going to lock up.” The Finns, telling it like it is. In fairness, we were very pleased to get into our car and herself opined for the first but not the last time on the holiday that the Finns had been unfairly maligned as being on the surly side.
We got a sat nav after our immensely positive experience with last year’s built in sat nav which Mr. Waffle absolutely loved and we had christened Sybil because, you know, it was good at prophecy, it sounded a bit like a Sybil and we’re notiony. The new sat nav was not good particularly on the way out of Helsinki. “Maybe we should christen it, to make it feel better, what might we call it?” “Unsybil,” said herself from the back.
We got safely to our island Airbnb south of Turku which itself is in the South of Finland. This part of Finland is very island rich. We have friends who live on the Åland islands which we thought were nearby and thought we might visit them. Spoiler alert, we did not, it’s a five hour ferry ride and ferries are irregular.
The house was across a small rural road from a lake but access was not easy as all access to the lake was via neighbours’ gardens and they didn’t seem to take to tourists tripping through.
The house was lovely with most of the bedrooms downstairs and a big room upstairs so that it felt like living in a tree house.
More soon. Hold on to your hats etc.
Daniel was called upon to do the first reading at mass this morning at short notice. It’s still the summer, it’s all a bit disorganised. As he scuttled on to the altar clutching the missalette in his hand, I was quietly confident but then I had a quick scan and was less so. This was the reading he saw for the first time on the altar and had to read aloud.
The Lord says this: I am coming to gather the nations of every language. They shall come to witness my glory. I will give them a sign and send some of their survivors to the nations: to Tarshish, Put, Lud, Moshech, Rosh, Tubal and Javan, to the distant islands that have not heard of me or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory to the nations. As an offering to the Lord they will bring all your brothers, on horses, in chariots, in litters, on mules, on dromedaries from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem says the Lord, like Israelites bringing oblations in clean vessels to temple of the Lord. And of some of them I will make priests and Levites, says the Lord.
He actually sailed through it. He’s a great reader and he has a lovely deep voice and speaks slowly and clearly. No one could blame him for this but it was unfortunate that he mispronounced Tarshish as Tarnish.
In other news, we’re back. Holiday updates to follow. Hold on to your hats etc.
I finished work on Friday. We are off on our Baltic adventure tomorrow. Since Friday we have been to a successful family barbecue notwithstanding apocalyptic weather warnings; admired the prowess of extended family members who ran the Dun Laoghaire 10k;
and been to Taytopark – the amusement park devoted to the crisp, you will recall.
This morning I went to the school uniform shop – not my most exciting adventure – it was heaving. “Today is child benefit day,” the shop assistant explained to me. A depressing thought made even more depressing by the costliness of my own purchases. My purchases limited, following an extensive trying on session at home, to two tracksuit bottoms and one tracksuit top came to €88 which is pricy for pure nylon with a crest in my view.
This afternoon, Mr. Waffle and I went to St. Audeon’s for a visit. I love this church. If I were a Protestant, on Sundays I would make my poor misfortunate children go to services in the range of neglected churches in the city centre. God, they would hate that. Here is a picture of George Petrie’s picture of St. Audeon’s when it was already falling down in the 19th century:
And here it is this afternoon (much preserved by the Office of Public Works, you will be glad to hear):
We went to Christ Church to see the restored heart of Laurence O’Toole. Somebody stole it from the church but they brought it back. Sadly it was locked away in a side altar and inaccessible.
When we were leaving, Mr. Waffle mentioned to the woman on the desk that it was locked. “Wait a minute,” said she and leaving other more exotic but less well informed tourists outside, she took us in to the altar. Very gratifying. I can confirm that the metal casing remains unchanged.
Now we are largely packed for an early departure tomorrow. What further excitements might await?
Posting will be light to non-existent until our return at the end of August.