Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Back to Helsinki and the Eurovision Song Contest

Hi again my friends,

What with our trip to the Senda de los Caracoles quite recently and then to Cornwall just 2 weeks ago, I had hardly got over travelling when I had to pack my bags again to go to Helsinki. In my new job I travel so little that this was quite an occasion for me.

The destination was Helsinki and those of you who know me will understand what Helsinki means to me. It was the home town of the company I used to work for and when I left them I really thought I would never go back. I must have been to Helsinki more than 30 times but then stopped going so it has meant so much to me to return.

And Helsinki was at its very best. The sun was shining and as it was May the days are long and light. The city had prepared splendidly for its most important event since the 1952 Olympics. And the city was full of Eurovision participants and tourists from 42 countries; so very very multicultural and also so much good feeling. Wow, wasn’t it lovely to be back.

And why did I go you you may ask? Quite a simple reply really: I had a PR meeting with colleagues from other countries related to activities we had done around Eurovision and also to host our customer 100.000, Natalia and her delightful boyfriend, Paco who wore a T-shirt which said “I’ve got the Peter Pan syndrome” – that just about summed him up. So out I went on Wednesday night and stayed until Sunday.

Then there was the great coincidence to add to the trip of being accompanied by my best friend Fátima. Fátima had gone to Helsinki for a training course which finished on Thursday afternoon and was staying on to keep me company and of course go with me, Natalia and Paco to the Eurovision Song Contest. As I said to Oli on the phone “how lucky we are”. And yes we were because a good time was had by all:

Wednesday 9th May

I travelled out alone but soon made friends with my neighbour on the friend, Luis, a lawyer from Vigo who was going to the Eurovision Song Contest, something he did every year. He turned out to be my teacher on how the ESC works or doesn’t work as we saw was the case with the voting on Saturday night.

I arrived at the very familiar Vantaa airport mid afternoon and made my way by taxi to my hotel, the Radisson SAS Plaza, one of my favourites in Helsinki (http://www.plaza.helsinki.radissonsas.com/). I soon settled into a lovely room on the same corridor as the hotel sauna which we were to use often during our stay. Fátima soon joined me and after a bit of e-mailing (I am an addict Fátima decided later) off we went for a walk round the city, through Mikonkatu to the lovely Esplanadi. At the Esplanadi there were cabins from all the different countries participating in the ESC but there was also an exhibition of Manolo Valdes’ Meninas statues which made the park in Esplanadi look even more beautiful than ever.

Me on the busy Esplanadi

With the Meninas on the Esplanadi
Later we met up with my friend Anne-Marjut (hi darling) who we were to see a lot of during our stay, at our favourite cafeteria/restaurant/bar in Helsinki, the legendary “Strindberg”. http://www.royalravintolat.com/strindberg/index_eng.asp
There over a couple of glasses of cool white wine we relaxed together and caught up on eachother’s news.

And the evening turned out to be a ladies night as we then headed off to Sasso on Market Square for dinner with Maija my old boss. Maija is now working for a very successful PR agency called Drum in Helsinki. It was great to see her again (hi there Maija) and I talked so much I ended up leaving most of the amazing spaghetti on my plate. Even so the food is great and I highly recommend Sasso.

Dinner with Maija at Sasso
Thursday 10th May

I was up early and soon off to the office where I had to pick up the ESC tickets and then round the corner to the office where we were to have our meeting. There I met up with my colleagues from Lithuania, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland whose names and voices I already knew but whose faces I was seeing for the first time. Our meeting took place in the board room offices which were quite something. To go to the loo you had to go next to the board room sauna where I couldn’t resist having a picture taken of me to put in my blog.

Me in the Board Room Sauna!
The very productive meeting ended with a visit to the ESC village in town just off the Simonkenta Hotel. And this was where I said goodbye to my new colleagues and headed back to the hotel for my emailing session of the day. Fátima then joined me as her training course had finished. Then after a cup of tea and a very refreshing sauna we set off for our daily walk. Just as we walked out of the hotel we found a ESC branded tram where we took some photos, inside and out and met a lovely Finnish girl called Hanna who said she would be visiting Barcelona the following week. Hi Hanna from here!

Me and the driver of the ESC tram

Photo with Hanna the ESC tram hostess
That evening we were to be the hosts of a group of Fátima’s colleagues from Nokia Siemens Networks, 4 of whom were originally from Siemens and for whom this was their first trip to Helsinki. When I heard that, I decided that they had to experience the best Russian restaurant in town, Saslik (http://www.ravintolaopas.net/saslik/index.asp?newsClassID=101&newsID=559&companyID=&lang=en). When I say “best”, the adjective is for me because of the pre revolutionary decoration, the food of course, but also the live singing. I think I have been to Saslik on nearly every trip to Helsinki and each time they sing “Ochi Chornie” (black eyes), a few tears are shed from my eyes.

Dinner at Saslik
The meal started off with a glass of vodka each which I instructed them had to be drunk in one gulp! As usual the “zakuski” (hors d’oeuvres) were spectacular and the Spanish visitors were amazed to try the bear sausage amongst other exotic dishes.

The Zakuski
After the Ivan’s sword and the delicious baked Alaska, on came the 3 singers. Soon I had the Spaniards clapping to “Kalinka” and other Russian songs, the piece de resistance being Ochi Chornie of course.

Russian singing at Saslik
We decided to walk back to the hotel with such full stomachs but soon came across a great Finnish night club called Kalle where we just had to stop for a nightcap (http://www.finnguide.fi/finlandbars/topbarsnightclubs.asp?cat=1&t=5&p=90).
I had a vested interest in the place as I knew Kalle, like a lot of Finnish bars, has a Black Jack table to which I headed immediately. It took me an hour to lose 20 euros whilst the others followed the semi final of the ESC over yet another glass of vodka!

Playing Black Jack at Kalle

Outside Kalle after a night to remember
Friday 11th May
Friday morning, after the usual e-mail session was dedicated to shopping. We had wanted to visit the usual Stockman and Lindex but then discovered the best women’s clothes shop we have ever seen in Helsinki called Pierre Cavallo and boy did we do some serious shopping there. I just love the Nordic look, blues, whites and stripes. My suitcase was bursting when I tried to close it on Sunday of course.

In the afternoon our super customer 100.000, Natalia and her boyfriend Paco arrived. They soon settled into their room at their hotel and then went on a tourist trip of the city where they also learned lots of facts and figures about Finland – how many lakes, etc.

On Friday Fátima and I were invited to Anne Marjut’s home for dinner. For me this was my third visit to a Finnish home (the first was to Maija’s and the second to Anne’s) but for Fátima it was a first and we were very much looking forward to it. Susa, Anne Marjut’s beautiful and extremely blonde daughter came to pick us up in her Mother’s car to take us to their house in Malmi (is that the right name and spelling AM?) for dinner with Anne Marjut, Susa and her Mexican boyfriend Milton and her ex, Heikki who is the General Manager of Stockman – the biggest Finnish chain of department stores. Juppe, her son joined us for a while in between the 18th birthday party of his best friend. That was very much appreciated Juppe!!

Round the table at Anne Marjut's

Milton and Susa
Their house, a lovely white wooden one nestles amongst similar houses in a wood with great views. The house inside is very Nordic and of course includes the omnipresent Finnish sauna. AM had put on a great dinner, the main course being Elk, hunted by her Father!! It was accompanied by Finnish mushroom sauce and Lap blackberry bramble. If the Russian experience had been great, the Finnish one was even better as apart from the food we spent the whole night laughing and drinking, of course. It was lovely to have a Mexican with us to share the Spanish. He was such a sweetie and told us the story of his name and how he hated it as a child and wanted to be called Pedro, Paco or Pepe. His brothers are called Marlon and Alain and probably have the same bad memories. The funniest thing was when he told us he met another Milton in Mexico but that as this Milton was a baby, they “couldn’t hang around together”. Thanks AM and all for a great great night!

Saturday 12th May

On Saturday we had a pretty full programme which included a meet and greet with the Spanish contestants, the 4 boy group called D’Nash. This was part of Natalia’s programme and included a photo of her and the group.

Natalia and D'Nasha

Group photo with D'Nash
Later we each went our own way shopping and walking around Helsinki and Fátima and I met up again with Anne Marjut for a coffee at Fazer’s café. The Fazer brand is Finland’s best kept secret. It is actually a make of wonderful, wonderful chocolate. So when you go there, don’t forget to get a box or tablet. For chocoholics like Fátima and me, it is truly a great brand.

Lunch was with Natalia and Paco and I took them to Strindberg, my favourite Finnish restaurant in Helsinki. Of course we all had salmon or meatballs which are Finland’s most traditional dishes.

The afternoon included the last sauna which was an absolute must if we were to survive the long night of the ESC.

And at 19.15 we met in the lobby to make our way by taxi to the Hartwell (Ice Hockey ) stadium where this year’s ESC was to be hosted.

As soon as we arrived Fati and I bought a Spanish flag each. Thanks to the sponsors we had VIP tickets which we only realised after 30 mins waiting in the “normal” queue. The VIP entrance included a red carpet which we laughed at and said had been put there for our customer Natalia. From there we went to the hospitality lounge for an early Finnish dinner which once again included salmon.

And at 21.15 we all made our way from the lounge to our seats in the stadium and wow was there some atmosphere to take in.

Fátima and I waving our flags inside the stadium just before the ESC began
We learned that there are many gay fan clubs who come from all over to enjoy the ESC – there were 60 from Spain with whom we coincided in the plane going back. And, wow, are some of these people nationalistic, specially the guys from my country, Great Britain.
And here is an example, dressed from top to toe in the Union Jack, including the lenses!!!

British mania
The stadium was completely full and flags from all the countries flew everywhere. It was quite a coincidence later to remember I had seen a chap wearing a T-shirt which said “Yes I am a Serbian” because it turned out that Serbia actually won.

The show was amazing, so much colour, so much fun, so much atmosphere, impossible to describe and my pictures do not do justice to what we really saw.

With Anne Marjut at the ESC
The voting part, usually the best part on TV at home, was a bit long live as you couldn’t see the screen very well. And the voting turned out to be completely subjective, in that most nations voted for their neighbours or for countries that they had formed part of before. Thus the former Yugoslav republic countries all voted for each other as did the former Russian republics. This meant that Spain only had one neighbour to vote for it – Portugal and that the UK could only muster votes from Ireland and Malta!! I must say the Finns booed every time the ex Russian republics voted for each other. My favourite song, Il Divo type from Latvia got least votes of all, which left me feeling how old fashioned I am.

The very organised Finns had put on trains for everyone to leave the stadium from as no cars were allowed in to avoid huge traffic jams. So very soon after the late finish we were back in our hotel.

Sunday 13th May

Our plane was leaving at 5 pm which meant we had plenty of time for getting up late, having a late breakfast and packing all the Pierre Cavallo, etc, stuff we had bought. It also meant we could visit the Lutheran and Russian Uspenski cathedrals which would both be open because it was a Sunday. And they are a must to visit in Helsinki.

The Uspenski Cathedral on a small hill across the way from the harbour and market square, is often not mentioned in the Helsinki tourist trips as the Finns are not so keen on the Russians. But actually it is the biggest Russian Orthodox church outside Russia and is extremely beautiful with its red brick walls and golden onion domes. Coming from a Russian Orthodox background the icons and the smell of incense inside bring back memories from my childhood. I know my Mother loved this church when she visited Helsinki so every time I enter it I light a candle for her and for my dear brother George the anniversary of whose passing away is today 15th May. And of course I shed a few tears for them both inside the lovely Uspenski church this last Sunday morning.

The Uspenski Cathedral
Our visit ended on a musical note because when we went to check out of the hotel, the Finnish boy’s choir was singing in the lobby in rehearsal for a sung service to take place at the Lutheran Cathedral that very afternoon. It was really a lovely end to our stay.

Finnish boys choir
And soon we were speeding in the taxi to the airport, little knowing that we were carrying by mistake an extra suitcase belonging to an English guest from the Radisson Hotel, a one Mr. Dutt. The mistake was hit upon as we were checking in but luckily the Information desk from Finnair dealt with the problem quite swiftly.

Once we had checked in which was quite a battle with enormous queues as most of the ESC delegations were leaving Finland too, we made our way to the duty free Stockman shop for the usual purchases of salmon, Fazer chocolates, black bread and cloudberry jam which were the items I always used to buy to take home on my previous visits to Finland.

The plane was chock a block with the Spanish participants, D’Nash, their families, Spanish TV personnel plus the gay fan club – some 60 people. This was quite an experience and quite different from a normal flight from Helsinki to Madrid. The Finnish air hostesses had a royal time with the atmosphere created and so did Fátima and I.

And then we were once again at Barajas airport and it was all over. Natalia and Paco had had a great time and so had we. It was time to part, say goodbye and promise to send photos,………… and home again.

As I said at the beginning, a good time was had by all.

I love you Finland, I love you Helsinki and I hope to come back soon.

Love to you all



Anne said...

i so wish i had been there, it sounds you had the best time ever! and you must come and visit my home again once i´m finally back living in sweet salo :) miss you dearly, anne

Anonymous said...

Tu y Fati en Eurovision!!!
Que bueno!!!
Y yo que lo vi por la tele, me hubiese gustado veros.
Un beso,


Anonymous said...

Hello Masha,

It is very nice to see that as you actually promised, you posted some pictures and my nice name story of my childhood :)

We also had great time dining with you and Fatima.'

Many greetings,

Susa and Milton