Monday, September 09, 2013

You Mean There's A 'Country' That Even I Hadn't Heard Of?

How to define 'country'...  Obviously, you first include all the U.N. member states.  But Taiwan doesn't belong, and nobody doubts that it's a country.  Scotland is legally considered a separate country in the UK (and, boy, do the Brits love their legal definitions).  Puerto Rico is allowed to compete in the Olympics as a separate country.  Citizens of China and Tanzania have to get special visas to visit Hong Kong and Zanzibar.  So where does one draw the line in this vast gray area?

And I thought that I knew all the exceptions and all the semi-countries.  But until I was planning this trip I was never aware of the special status of the Aland island.  You see, they are close to Sweden and are ethnically Swedish, but somehow Finland got a hold of them after World War 1.  So a deal was struck: They would have their own Parliament, hoist their own flag, print their own stamps.  And now they even have their own web suffix (.ax).  So who am I to deny their existence?

I landed at Stockholm's airport at 6 am their time, 4 am by body's time.  I wasn't intentionally trying to be masochistic.  It just turned out that all the connecting flights between the weird places I was going were in the middle of the night.  So I staggered out into the morning light and caught the bus into town.

The only other time that I had ever 'done' Sweden was in 1977, on a Eurail Pass.  (Remember those?)  And there had only been a couple of hour stop to walk around Stockholm.  Today I would have five hours.  I stuffed my stuff in a storage locker and headed out.

My first impression wasn't great.  I was in the Sheraton/Radisson district, and everyone was rushing around going to work.  Plus my lack of sleep wasn't great for my disposition.  But I finally found my way across a bridge into the Old Town area, and, it being 8 in the morning, I pretty much had it to myself.

Parliament.  The royal castle (Wow, are Scandinavians unimaginative when it comes to castles.).  Narrow streets of 18th Century buildings.  I found some pastries to munch.  I decided to stop whining about how expensive everything is and just accept that my home currency sucks.  I made it to the water on the east side of the Old Town.

Across the way was another peninsula with a park-like setting.  The walk around would be way too long and tiring.  I sat on a step and fell asleep sitting up for about half an hour.  When I regained consciousness I noted that the hop on/hop off sightseeing boats in front of me would probably be a good deal for a tourist, since Stockholm's theme seemed to be one of islands and peninsulas.  But I didn't have time for that.

I walked into the shopping district and saw all the Gucci blah, blah, blah stores.  Then back over the bridge into Old Town again.  By now it was noon and the streets were crammed with tourists.  Back towards the bus station, and the shopping streets were jammed with shoppers.

At 1 the bus left for the 90 minute ride to the ferry.  I strained to stay awake, since this was to be my only opportunity to see non-city Sweden.  As it did 36 years ago, the outdoors reminded me of southern Ontario: vibrant birch and other northern trees, pleasantly rolling farmland.  A sunny day in the low 70s.

There was a medium to large car ferry, and it took about 2 and a half hours to get there.  Kind of neat to be cruising the Baltic.  Then we bumped on shore and I and hundreds of other passengers rolled our luggage along a long, long exit ramp.  I was in Marienham, the 'capital' of the Aland islands.

It only contains a few thousand people, and as I rolled my way to my hotel--my first real one of the trip, with breakfast and an en suite bathroom and everything--I was reminded of a resort town in Michigan, albeit with slightly larger, boxier houses.  At the end of the season, with everything in the process of shutting down...

The sidewalk was certainly rolled up when I went out looking for dinner at 7:30.  But there was a cheap little pizza place still open, and when you're a vegetarian and a world traveler, pizza is usually the best that you can possibly hope for.  I went back to my room and completely wasted body and mind finally got the chance to conk out for the night.

The big thing to do on Aland, since it is totally flat, is to bicycle around,  So on Saturday morning I gave a 10 euro deposit to use one of the hotel's bicycles, and I took off.  After a few blocks I discovered that they had totally lied about the flatness.  Especially for an old guy with bad knees and no gears on the bike.  Oh well.  It would also mean plenty of downhill gliding that I hadn't anticipated.

There were well maintained bike paths heading outside of Marienham, and I was very diligent in using them in my projected journey to the south end of the peninsula.  Except that an hour and twenty minutes later I found myself back at the same starting spot in Marienham.  After finally applying due diligence, I realized that the only way to get to Lasko was to share the road with the cars.  Fortunately there were very few of them once I had gotten past the urban sprawl of the capital tiny town.

It was another beautiful day and the Michigan analogue continued, with tiny little lakes and outcrops and inlets and boats and summer homes.  All extremely pleasant to bike around in.  And when I got to the end of the line I turned around and pedaled back to the hotel.  All told, around 30 km.  Which sounds like a lot more than 18 miles.

And then hang out in my hotel room, occasionally watching the lame BBC feed, which is usually about the only English speaking channel you can get in these furrin' lands. 

Sunday morning I packed my things and then walked across the street to Aland's maritime museum.  Turns out that in the 1930s the Aland islands were the only place in the world which still operated commercial sailing vessels.  Turns out that there was one route where it was still cheaper to use sails, and that was in taking Australian grain around Cape Horn to England.  So it was actually pretty fascinating. 

And in the water right next to the museum was one of those ships, a 300 foot long four master.  And you could walk into all the little cabins, and, most interestingly, the giant cargo holds down below.  So it was really easy to pass a bunch of time being curious.

But then I had to trundle my stuff a few hundred meters down the waterfront to catch the 2:30 ferry to Finland.  This was going to take 5 and a half hours, but the boat was slightly larger and more modern.  In fact, it was a semi-cruise ship, with a casino and a duty free and a Cool Jazz sun deck bar in the back, where I could sit in a comfortable chair and watch the islands drift by.

And there were hundreds and hundreds of them.  Many of them just a few rocks cobbled together, a couple of them just big enough to put one large wind vane on, a few of them behemoths of an acre or so.  Never have I seen so many tiny flat islands.  It's a wonder a boat channel can exist between them.

After a couple of hours the Alands were over and there was a spot of open water.  But twenty minutes later all the tiny islands off the Finnish coast showed up.  By that time I had finally left my perch in the sun and had gone looking for some overpriced food.  Past the Finnish stand up comedian, and, wha?...  Finnish karaoke going on.  I picked up the book and there was indeed a section of 'international' songs.  I asked the girl, 'Do Finns know this song?  How about that one?'  She kept nodding her head.  Then inspiration struck: How about 'Burning Love'.  A light of recognition lit up.  So I took the mike and belted it out.

Somehow Elvis and Finland seem to go together.



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