Helsinki 2008: my first solo trip

This is the story of my first ever solo trip.

It was ten to nine on Tuesday October 14th 2008. Whatever we’d been doing at Rangers that night, we’d finished early and to fill the time, I asked my little collectiono f teenagers where they saw themselves in five to ten years’ time. This is fun to play in a more informal setting than a job interview and my girls came up with a unanimous chorus of “good degree in my favourite subject, well-paid job that I love, married, with children.” I’m still in touch with a few of them on Facebook – as of February 2017, when I’m writing this, none of them are married or have children yet but most of them have been to university and some of them have jobs that make me very proud.

At the time, I was barely five years older than the oldest girls in the group. I was seven months into my first adult job and my life was a constant cycle of work-bath-sleep-work-bath-sleep with a once-weekly interruption for Rangers. It was nothing like the daydream of these starry-eyed teenagers and I decided there and then that something had to change. I went home, went straight to easyJet.com and looked for a cheap flight to Norway. There weren’t any back then so I booked a cheap flight to Finland instead.

Three weeks and one day later, on November 5th, I landed in Helsinki.

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I was pretty well prepared. I had enough Euros to last the trip, I’d found a non-scary hostel and a guidebook, I knew Finland in November was cold, so I was wearing my long grey wool coat bought five or six years earlier for a school trip to Moscow that I’ll tell you about some other time, some sheepskin mittens (not real sheepskin, Primark sheepskin) and a big pashmina/scarf thing. I knew exactly which bus I was taking from the airport to the town centre and how much the ticket would be. The ticket machine was an unexpected stumbling block. I wrestled with the language, with the fact that I couldn’t operate the thing in mittens or in the cold without the mittens but in hindsight I actually coped with the whole thing incredibly well for a first-timer, probably better that I ever have done since then. Being new to solo travel, I’d done a lot of homework before I left and although I still like to do the reading more than all the other tourists (“Oh. I didn’t know it even had a name”), I don’t put half the effort in nowadays that I did on that first trip.

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When I reached the main station, I had my plan of action ready to go. I was now in Helsinki city centre and I had to get to my hostel. These days I would amble around, probably get lost and ask at a nearly hotel or petrol station for directions. Back then, I’d printed my booking confirmation and the address and I got in a reputable taxi (a Mercedes with leather seats! I’ve never been in such a vehicle before or since) and handed the piece of paper to the driver to save any difficulties in pronunciation or language barrier.

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A part of me feels to this day that that was cheating but it wasn’t. It absolutely wasn’t. Other than the Paris metro, I’d never negotiated foreign public transport alone before and in the dark in a strange place wasn’t the time to give it a go. It’s absolutely fine to make things as easy as possible for yourself and occasionally, throwing money at a problem can make it go away – that is, it’s easier to pay for a taxi than get lost in the dark on your own. I do not regret it, I think that was absolutely the right decision on that occasion. That said, the only time I’ve taken a taxi since was when I was camping in Iceland and needed to get a 100l bag full of camping equipment to or from a bus station or airport.

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But back to that first night in Helsinki. The taxi delivered me to the door of my hostel. It was a nice hostel, with a distinct air of student accommodation about it. The rooms were small but private and there were shared toilets and showers in the corridors. I’ve been in less comfortable and clean hotels and they’d turned the heating up to tropical. The first thing I did after putting my bag down was to open the window. I’d brought with me two books, a notebook and a big travel notebook in which I painstakingly drew and stuck things. I’d brought my sleeping bag liner. And jeans. I thought I was the sort of person back then who would have arranged everything, folded everything and put it all away to make a little home but for one thing, I’m not that sort of person anyway and second, the photographic evidence disagrees.

The other thing that was significant about that trip was that I started my first ever travel blog. I’d signed up with offexploring.com and, this being the pre-smartphone and pre-wifi days, I discovered that there were internet-enabled computers available at all the stations for a €2 an hour (€2 an hour! How times have changed!) and I could stop it at any time and restart the next day. I used that internet time to write a blog every day, mostly to let my parents know I wasn’t dead, because it was easier and cheaper than phoning home. Not that it was a very informative blog. What I’ve written here is an account of my first day. My blog from the time simply reads:

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I arrived. I got a bus from Vantaa airport to Helsinki station and a taxi from there to the hostel. It dropped me right outside the door.

I´m on the fourth floor.

To be fair, by Day 3 that had extended until it began to resemble the modern incarnation of my travel diary-blog. It’s now moved from OffExploring but I still keep it. It’s a useful document for me to look back on when I’m writing here so I can see the little details I’d forgotten about – I now write down everything so the every blogs is virtually a novella in itself – and it also works as a digital postcard for family and friends. It’s nice to sometimes remember that it started on a wet station platform in Finland and I’m glad to see I was making a note of the correct spelling and the Swedish version of the Finnish place names.

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On that trip, I had another five very pleasant days in a lovely part of the world but those five days are another story for another time.