And so it begins. A warm Adriatic night in romantic Rimini, Italy and no particular place to go. The absurd freedom of youth and the spirit of adventure rolled in the sticky sushi mat of spontaneity. A proposition to sleep on the local beach thwarted by the highly annoying privatisation of such essential features of civilisation as a small portion of sand sufficiently quiet and dry to lay an overnight sleeping bag without paying for it. It wasn’t going to be happening here but, in the great karmic pond of life, it is always sensible to chuck the occasional pebble or look out for the ripples from the pebble-chucking of others. And so it happened.
My standard railway wanderers’ failsafe toolkit was a simple travel agent’s castoff copy of the Thomas Cook’s Continental Timetable - a month by month guide to every train in the whole of Europe. It would be sacrilegious to call, an encyclopaedia of nerdy pleasure such as this, waste paper, destined for landfill. In the hands of the believer in rail freedom this was the equivalent of a clackety-clack copy of Magna Carta. In my Museum of Improbable History such artefacts would be carefully labelled as treasure of imaginative possibilities and a golden route map to all manner of implausible happiness. And so it was to be. I was closely concentrating, head down, reading its complex hieroglyphic columns of towns, times and train numbers to find a way to a more egalitarian beachhead when two girls came up. After a suitable pause for a brief exchange of inter-railing pleasantries and them casting glances at my well thumbed Cook’s, one girl said with a degree of unblushing bluntness
“Do you want to come back to my place?”
I smugly assumed this was an invitation to the local campsite. I was wrong; very, very wrong.
On all inter-rail travel, a form of accented English was standard amongst the train travelling jugend, a type of lingua-Franca of the railroadsters and luggage rack rucksack people, so a mutually intelligible carriage compartment communication of sorts could proceed. Obviously I had misheard the thought in my head that said “my place=campsite” because there was then a conversation directed at me about wanting to catch a train to see the Swiss mountains in the morning.
“Where exactly is your place ?”, I asked
“Finland” they said together
The penni dropped. I also learned that Finns are highly literal and if they say it, they mean it.
“I can work that magic for you”, I said, “I think there’s an overnight train to Geneva just after midnight”.
It was the movement of dark shadow people lugging suitcases across the open tracks that first alerted us that we were not alone on the sultry platforms. The single carriage in the siding was in darkness apparently awaiting the hook up to the night train to Roma. It appeared that it was filling up fast as more shadow people arrived dragging even larger luggage. A hot, sticky, slow wind from the sea was hanging around the station yard in sweaty ‘cling on’ setting. There was a shout, then a response and then it all got a bit a surreal. Lots of exasperated, if not even just plain angry, shouting in Italian. A blind night fight commenced in the darkness. We heard in the ruckus that a window was broken, jabbering railway staff appeared, having (as it turned out) already alerted the emergency services. Then the carabinieri dramatically pitched in with blue lights, tooting horns, drawn truncheons and guns and added some colour to the operatic cacophony. Dark struggles, whacking batons, cries of pain, handcuffing, loud insults and in the midst, a train arrived on our platform. There was no announcement and nobody to ask if this was our great escape to Switzerland. It had old wooden destination headboards bearing the name ‘Genova’. It seemed like time to get on and wake up in the cucumber calm and cool tempers of the cheesy clockwork people...we say Geneva, they say Genova I guess, whatever. Swiss mountains in the morning with tinkling cowbells and alpenhorns blowing and until then a very friendly Finnish girl nestling her warm head into my shoulder. What could possibly go wrong?
The Alps had never looked hotter or dustier seen between the chink in the window blinds just before the train slowed to a stop in Genoa station. Fortunately I didn’t understand Finnish but as compensation for a lack of Alpen I offered to see if I could get some breakfast at the station cafe and look for a suitable train to Zurich, Berne or even Geneva. My charade of a cheese and ham sandwich is a formidable display when coupled with some New York pizza mafiosa shrugged accented words like prego, paino e formaggio or even my mortadella impression. The puzzled youth in a white vest on the other side of the counter was obviously convinced because he then said in a broad Yorkshire accent “Are yer frum Leeds? Dooyer want a cheese and ‘am roll?” He was visiting his uncle for the summer to help out with the family business. We all got a breakfast gratis, grazie.
Over strong hot coffee and six o’clock scolded looks I consulted Cooks, hoping for a magic reprieve. Unsurprisingly, there were no fond you or fond me trains to Switzerland from the Italian Riviera that day but there was another country I knew with equally spectacular mountains. It was on the way to Finland too.
“That’s lucky”, I said. "There’s a slow train to Ventimiglia in ten minutes then we can get the French Riviera express to Paris! After that we can get the night train to Oslo. We will see Norwegian mountains in the morning, just ones associated with brown cheese and Viking horns not gruyere and alpenhorns".
The slow train to Ventimiglia clings precipitously close to the beautiful sunny pine scattered riviera coast with azurite-blue shiny sea and bronzed beach people getting on and off at the many stops. My new Finnish friend joined me in the windowed seawards corridor and we sort of talked and squeezed together to let others by in a sort of inter-railers’ intimacy. There was bad news at Ventimiglia, the French train was delayed by striking cleaners or some other summer fun Gallic protest by several hours. We headed for the beach to catch some sun only to discover it too had a paywall and anyway was already full of noisy Italian men with large beach balls and tiny briefs. Not the sort of gig to take your new g/f for a first date. Back at the station bad news turned worse when the very late train finally arrived. We would now miss our connection in Paris and not be waking up in Oslo but we could at least get in the Nordic mood by getting the night train to Copenhagen. My little mermaid was sternly perturbed and said that the jurisdiction of their train passes would finish in three day’s time. They just had to be in Helsinki by then.
In Aachen, Belgium, the Copenhagen express paused briefly beneath the guiding lights of the Stella Artois brewery as we followed our own North Star north. A train heading for Paris pulled up opposite and we cheerfully waved at fellow jugend. One got off and went to the station toilets. When he got back his train had gone. He was wearing a beard, Indian white cotton pocket less pantaloons and chemise and no shoes. We waved again expressing our disquiet. He shrugged and smiled. It was the spirit of the age.
I hadn’t noticed that my warm Finnish friend had left my shoulder but I woke up facing a wall of white, brightly lit, shuddering steel. Someone in a uniform was saying something and pointing. It was the train ferry from Lübeck and I was trapped on the boat deck where the whole train had been decoupled, shunted, loaded, locked down and emptied of passengers. All except me. I was that tired, I simply had not noticed, or I had been bewitched. I was grumpily escorted to rejoin the others looking over a dark sea with unrecognisable smattered points of light whether on shrimp boats at sea or hygge Danish houses on land it was impossible to glean. Copenhagen station is nearly opposite the famous Tivoli Gardens and being late and dark it seemed pointless to try and find a youth hostel. It was not too difficult to get through the fence with helpful local youth guides to the nearest holes. For warmth and protection against grim fairies my Finnish friend silently lay her sleeping bag next to mine and spooning, snuggily slipped into it.
In the morning there was more sea to cross from hamlet land to Helsingborg in another train ferry. The Skagerrak was choppy and grey and Sweden not much more exciting. There were not more than two nights left now before Helsinki dawned. I consulted the runes of my Cook. The Norwegian mountains and spectacular Arctic Circle train ride to Bodø, bus to Narvik, and night train to Stockholm were now out of reach. However, there was a high speed train from Oslo to Stockholm that gave plenty of time in both cities and the day ferry to be caught across the Baltic weaving through the beautiful Åland archipelago. All would be scenically satisfying, compensatingly comfortable and well on time.
The sleek white train to Stockholm was no more than twenty foot away. The guard at the ticket barrier was adamant that we couldn’t get on without a seat reservation ticket. The reservation ticket was free but needed to be obtained at the main office. This was now just closed he said with morbid glumness although today the train is not full. There is plenty of space and the journey is very nice he added as he firmly closed the gate and the train smoothly departed exactly on time. Maybe he just didn’t like mildly hysterical Finnish women shouting in Swedish. The next train to Stockholm was the same time tomorrow. Just two nights left.
Luggage always seems heavier when loaded with bad news and rucksacks replete with regrets are no lighter. Oslo was ridiculously expensive for everything but had lots of free parks. In one of those lovely parks we set out to sleep the penultimate night. My Finnish friend had taken the executive decision that it would be warmer in these more northern latitudes to squeeze into my sleeping bag. We lay there like a mutant double-headed grub, twitching arms under our constricted pre-pupating grubby nylon skin and attempted some form of semi-sleep.
There was a cough. One of the mutant grub’s four eyes opened and scanned slowly up a shiny-shoed leg following a broad gold striped trouser complete with tasselled sword in scabbard, an eighteenth century naval tunic and a tricorn hat. It was the weirdest dream. The tricorned tulpa coughed again in Norwegian. “Oh, so you are English” it happily replied to my grunted response. “I need to explain, that you are sleeping in the King of Norway’s front garden and when he opens his bedroom curtains in the morning he will not like to see you on his lawn”.
Another of the mutant grub’s eyes followed the pointed, white-gloved hand towards a far away regal building in the distance across the park. Leaving aside the delicious thought that Harald and Sonja actually opened their own curtains, boiled their own eggs, and made their own dippy toast soldiers for breakfast every day, this dippy soldier wasn’t making it too difficult to follow his line of argument. It was midnight in Oslo and it was just dreamy downy duvet downright weird. Then the other mutant head spoke in sleepy-sullen Suomen. He answered politely in formal Finnish repeating the English script of the fairy tale. He then smiled, touched his hat, asked politely that we be gone before daybreak and wished us good night in two languages.
A boot in the buttocks and the cold hard metal of a machine gun muzzle in the ribs is enough to make any chrysalis cross but it certainly makes sleep difficult when augmented by two sets of flashing blue lights and four narky stern coppers with height advantage. The mutant grub wriggled semi-upright and tried to explain the night-pass offered by the pantomime naval officer just an hour earlier. Whatever is the Norwegian words for “whatever” were then uttered with more directional pointing but this time with a less genteel semi-automatic gun barrel.
Having hoofed it out of Haakon-ville, some well educated Norwegian down and out alcoholics directed us in slurred English to another suitable sleeping area. We exchanged opinions on police brutality and felt like bottle brethren. The next park had iron spikes and a moat but the locals knew where the defences were weakest. We slept until daylight visitors to the museum began to appear and shrieking cultural custodians ushered us like bad sheep back across the cattle grid drawbridge and into the already well-stirred city.
Seats reserved we joined the Snow White train and slept across much of the sleek train ride to Stockholm. Sleepy and serenely majestic views of Swedish countryside with neat farms, wildish woods and many lakes smoothly if erratically flashed by like a blinking Bergman film. The girls could now smell the Baltic, their sea, their homeland and Stockholm was the most beautiful gateway to it. It also sold sense-shocking, sugar-sweet loaves of bread. There were water features rushing down pedestrianised shopping streets. It was clean, planned, perfect. For entertainment it put on shows of huge salmon leaping up rapids in the middle of the city and drop net fishermen catching shoals of madly flapping stripey perch from tiny wooden boats. On every corner was a H&M and everyone strode by or sat at cafe tables like tall, blond, blue eyed models from a H&M catalogue.
The now night ferry to Helsinki left from a brackish pleasure-boating lake about a mile from the central station. Our conveyance was a huge white boat with a caricature of a smiling blue seal on the side - a silja. Most of the passengers seemed intent on getting drunk on duty free booze and as the sun began its very long setting the huge boat slid through the ice-smoothed rocks lying like beached grey whales or smaller scattered seals littering what turned out to be a simple but also very long inlet of the Baltic sea.
It was moonlit in the middle. Moomin troll moon paths cast a beam of white wave pebbles and the drunk Swedes decided to challenge the drunk Finns to a boys’ diving competition off the back of the boat in the midst of the now seal scant Baltic. It was madness but it was the crazy outcome of perceived historical ‘truths’ that made Finns only independent of both the Swedish Empire that had abused them and the Tsarist Russians that had carried on the abuse until a chance to be freed of the Bolshevik Soviets in 1917. The Finns patriotically hated the Swedes and the Russians but could never really rationalise it in the moment. At this very moment amidst the fears, jeers and cheers two figures swallow-dived off the back of the huge vessel.
The boat’s emergency alarm horn had stopped sounding by the time the hovering air-sea rescue helicopters had arrived. They winched the injured off the blood spattered steel poop deck that had mercifully broken their dives into a drowned future certainty and delicately swung them, albeit braced and broken, aloft and away. It was a sombre and more sober passage eastwards after that.
Arrival into Helsinki harbour by boat is awesome and added to by the excitement of my Finnish friends, glad and sad to be home again. The steersman, guided by the green dome of the cathedral, the wide green parks and linear tramways silently swung into berth. The city opens itself beautifully right up to the dockside. A spectacular painting of a city in proportion to its sea and all without the dirty clutter of damaged and unkempt industrial wastelands that besmirch the experience of so many passenger ports.
Rimpisuontie, a street of pretty and traditional old wooden houses on a gravel track amidst silver birch woodland, was then on the edge of Helsinki at the end of a bus route. Mineral tasty water was drawn from a covered well in the garden and at the bottom were sturdy apple trees and another wooden building housing the sauna. Here, after family introductions, coffee with bilberry, cinnamon and cardamom buns, was my scalding spicy baptism to the steamy delights of the wonderful Finnish national institution of the sauna (btw pronounced sow -as in cow- na). We were in there much longer than was apparently normal. However, I had no means of knowing what was normal; being naked in a shed at the bottom of the garden was not normal in England although exceptions might be made for those who went to certain minor public schools. A mildly cross grandfather did appear to have words with his grand-daughter about our excessive occupancy of the shared facility. We all came out with red cheeks.
There was more to this and more to learn about this amazing country, its culture, people and landscape but it sure was an improbably long way from Rimini. The next improbable Finnish adventure - and an unlikely UFO - will appear here soon. Keep watching the skies....