109-113 (Finland, Sweden and Belgium 2016)

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Approaching Stockholm-Arlanda yet again

109. Edinburgh-Stockholm (SAS) 07/01/16: I was in understandably buoyant mood for this trip, having left my job of seven years the day before. I’d felt slightly guilty about having to leave the guys to get on with it, as there was no apparent replacement for me on the horizon. But I wasn’t feeling bad for very long, because I was going to Finland deep in winter, and for Lux Helsinki too.

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Lux Helsinki

110. Stockholm-Helsinki (SAS) 07/01/16: The staff at Stockholm-Arlanda were reassured to see that I was getting on the five-thirty connection to Helsinki as usual, instead of that weird Berlin trick I had pulled on them last time. But I was getting sick of the sight of gate 10 in terminal five…

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leaving Tampere-Pirkkala, the ghost airport

111. Tampere-Stockholm (SAS) 12/01/16: Most of my visits to Finland had involved leaving Helsinki to somewhere like Pori or Savonlinna, then wasting time and money, (and possibly a night’s accommodation), by going all the way back down to Helsinki for my flight home. Wasn’t there any other airports with international connections so I didn’t always have to do that? After some research, I found that there was a daily service from Tampere to Stockholm, which seemed ideal; no pointless back-tracking to the capital, a night out in one of my favourite drinking cities in Finland, plus I’d wanted to see Stockholm in winter. It was even an SAS flight too, earning me more Eurobonus points. And I could easily get an onward flight home from there too.

I arrived for my night in Tampere two hours later than intended. I was originally booked on the short train journey from Toijala at half-eleven. But the night before, I had made the earth-shattering discovery that there were actually two pubs in Toijala, who knew? I had befriended a few locals, and had entertained them with my karaoke skills until the wee hours. So I figured it would be no big deal if I took advantage of my hotel’s midday check out and had an extra hour in bed to recover. I was at the station in plenty of time, and had bought a new ticket for the half-twelve train. I was amusing myself in the waiting room by mentally translating the station announcements, when I realised that one of them was actually the train I was supposed to be on. It was at the other side of the station, and was already departing even as I got up to make a half-hearted dash for it. So, as nonchalantly as I could, I strolled back over to the ticket machine, bought myself another new ticket for the half-one train, and settled down to wait for another hour.

Once I eventually made it to Tampere, I had a couple of things to do before anything else; firstly, I needed to get some loose change to leave my bags in one of the lockers at the train station for a few hours, as it was too early to head to the hotel. Secondly, I needed a local bus pass for twenty-four hours, as my hotel was too far to walk, and I would need it to get to the airport tomorrow. So I struggled with my luggage in the snow to the nearest cash machine, and was more than a bit miffed when, after great deliberation, it informed me that it was now out of service. Sod my luck. Down the street to the next one, and, bizarrely, I got the same result. And again at a third one. Was the whole banking network of Finland collapsing today, just when I needed to use my card? I couldn’t see how there could be a problem with it, as I had used it earlier (twice!), to buy tickets at the train station at Toijala. But I got the same result at a fourth machine, and had to wonder if the card was maybe damaged in some way. What was I going to do? My hotel for tonight was already paid for; it was a bit of a walk, but doable. But there was no way I could walk to the airport tomorrow. And even if I somehow got there for my flight, it was completely impossible to walk from Stockholm-Arlanda into the city. I used my smart phone app to check the balance on my card, just in case, but there was still over three hundred pounds on it. Maybe the card was damaged, but I definitely had money; how could I get to it?

The worst case scenario (apart from wandering Finland homeless for the rest of my life), was using my card online to purchase a train back to Helsinki and then a new flight home, neither of which would involve using physical cash. It’s not really what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t see any other option. As I wandered aimlessly around the city, considering my next move, I found myself outside the Western Union. Unlike that similar situation in New York two years ago, I no longer had some random souvenir bank notes in my wallet to exchange. But maybe I could use my card to actually buy some currency.

So I went inside, asked if they sold currency, and the girl behind the counter was happy to inform me that they did indeed. So I asked if I could I buy some Euros, much to her surprise. But I explained the situation, and she agreed to try to help me out. Unfortunately though, she couldn’t do it with a credit card, only a bank card. Dammit. However, she confided, (looking around nervously as if she might go to jail for what she was about to tell me), there was another currency exchange in the Koskikeskus, I could try down there. I thanked her, and trudged back off into the growing darkness. When I got down there, I saw that they had their own cash machine, so I decided to try that option one more time before embarrassing myself by trying to explain why I wanted to buy some Euros from them. And lo and behold, there was all my money, delivered with a particularly enthusiastic beep. What had been the problem all this time? I’ll probably never know, but at least I wasn’t finishing my holiday early or being found frozen solid on a park bench. Ironically enough, by now it was so late that I didn’t even need change for a luggage locker, I could go and check in to the hotel now. And I wouldn’t have to walk out there either.

Tampere-Pirkkala airport reminded me of Puerto Princesa, except for the heavy snow, complete absence of any other passengers and it’s distance from the city. It was about the same size though. It was slightly eery, walking into the empty terminal building, checking my bags at the automatic machine, sending them through on the baggage belt, all without another soul in sight. The only indication that I wasn’t in some strange, aviation-themed horror movie was the faint sounds of laughter coming from the kitchen of the small cafe, so at least somebody was in the building somewhere. According to the departures board, my afternoon flight to Stockholm was the only flight remaining that day, (even though it was only just after two o’clock). My fellow passengers started arriving in one’s and two’s over the next hour or so, and I realised that I could easily have arrived later. But when I thought of all the hassle I’d had in much busier airports around the globe, I reckoned the people of Tampere had it pretty cushy.

112. Stockholm-Brussels (Brussels Airlines) 14/01/16: After an extortionate break in the Swedish capital, my trip home would involve my first visit to Bromma, Stockholm’s second airport. Much closer to the city, but still just as expensive to get to using the Flygbussarna. And after over a hundred flights through countless airports, imagine my mortification and embarrassment at forgetting to take my belt off before security. Schoolboy error.

The terminal was about the same size as Tampere-Pirkkala, but with people in it. Most of the other passengers were business types on early flights somewhere important, and were presumably more intelligent than the kind of people I would usually fly with. So why would they start queueing at the gate when everyone can clearly see that the aircraft hasn’t even arrived yet? I mean, wouldn’t the captain, first officer and cabin crew sitting behind us in the lounge drinking coffee suggest that there wasn’t much point standing up to get in line? And why do people bother to queue anyway, we’ve all got a seat booked…
The flight itself was pleasant enough, though I made a mental note not to pick a seat underneath the wings on an Avro aircraft, as the overhead luggage bins were a little smaller in that section of the cabin. The buy on board food was actually quite good too, a really nice turkey meatball sub provided exclusively for the airline by Panos.

113. Brussels-Edinburgh (Brussels Airlines) 14/01/16: As I had suspected, there were plenty of options for flying back to Edinburgh from Stockholm on the dates that I wanted, but one stood out by a mile as being far cheaper than the rest; Brussels Airlines. When I checked the details a little more closely, I saw that it involved a lengthy stop of over six hours at Brussels, which probably explained the price. But surely I could kill six hours in the airport of the beer capital of the world, especially if the Quick restaurant was open again? In fact, why did I have to spend the time in the airport at all? If my luggage was already checked through to Edinburgh, and I had an EU passport, was there anything to stop me leaving the airport and spending the time in the city instead? I couldn’t see any reason why not, but I took the time to message the airport on their Facebook page and check; they told me it was okay, as long as I remembered to allow enough time to go through security again on my return.

Naturally I wasn’t going to visit Brussels without trying to visit Simona, and luckily she had time between work and her Thursday night tango class for a few drinks at the city’s newly opened Brew Dog bar. I was a little worried about leaving enough time to get back for my flight; with Europe on high alert after the recent attacks on Paris, I didn’t want to be responsible for checked luggage flying out of Brussels without its passenger. Simona assured me I would only need about ten minutes to get through security again, and she used the airport far more heavily than me. But I reckoned it would be at least fifteen minutes, so we made a bet on it, with the loser buying the drinks next time we met up. And, annoying as it was to wait nearly twenty minutes to get my bag screened, at least I know I’m getting a pint out of it someday.

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