The Great Northeast #1 – The Planning

By Alan Mattli

NOTE: I sincerely apologise to Bill Bryson, whose style I am shamelessly ripping off.

There comes a time in every person’s life when they need to go somewhere “funny” for their holidays. At least I think so. Howard, whose name isn’t actually Howard but who insisted on a pseudonym, not for the sake of privacy but for the fun of having a pseudonym, certainly wanted to go somewhere “funny” that summer. We’d been talking about it for several weeks, so I wasn’t at all surprised when one night in May the phone rang and Howard was at the other end: “Helsinki is funny”, he said.

Now, while I think that I usually qualify as a reasonable specimen of the human race, if you discount a slight tendency towards social awkwardness, I am not always the quickest on the uptake of sudden bouts of information. “Sorry?”, I said into the phone, a little dumbly, I grant you.

“Helsinki is funny”

“Yes, thanks, Howard, I understood you fine the first time. I’m just not entirely sure what to answer to that delicate piece of insight”

I may have imagined this but I think I heard an ever so slight sigh of seasoned exasperation on the other end. But, having known Howard for a good five years, I knew not to worry too much about it, as thick-wittedness only really annoys him in more serious situations; uninformed newspaper reports, illogical reasoning, creationists, that sort of thing. “Helsinki is funny”, he said again, now with emphasis on the first word, “why don’t we go there this summer?”

That did it. “That is an excellent idea, Howard! I’ve always wanted to go there!”, I said, genuinely happy. “And you know how we can make this trip even funnier?” There was no answer, so I continued: “Let’s go to Tallinn as a tie-in. I read somewhere that it’s just a measly boat ride away”

“Of course! This is going to be great! Helsinki’s supposed to be really nice, and Tallinn… well… it’s…”

“…in the former Soviet Union!”, I finished his sentence, knowing for once where the conversation was going because we both share a fascination for regimes and dictatorships, old and new alike. Indeed, he was going to China later that year and North Korea had come up several times during the discussion of possible travel destinations. However, heading to a former tyranny struck us both as the best option, a kind of training for what should follow over the next few years.

“Are you at a computer right now?”, Howard asked.

“Is there an ice pick in Trotzky’s brain?” We both had a customary chuckle at that.

Howard continued: “Right, should we set this up then?”, not being someone who lets too much time pass between a good idea and its implementation.

“Yeah, why not”, I said, and, for all I remember, that was the most substantial thing to come out of my mouth over the next 90 minutes. Like me, Howard is keen on meticulously planning ahead, especially when it comes to something as potentially disastrous as a holiday. We both like to rule out as many unknowns as possible, not least because we are both aware that even so, travelling does have the tendency to suckerpunch you every now and then. But whereas I usually stick to carefully laying out the planning, Howard is a firm believer in putting things into practice, which is a quality – or even a virtue – I, alas, seem to lack at least somewhat. I may be able to take care of myself but given a choice I will almost always go for the one that doesn’t require me to a) interact with strange people, officials or otherwise, b) handle large sums of virtual money, and c) give notice to detailed schedules whose success is dependent on me finding my way through a city I’ve never been in in a fixed amount of time – all aspects that are fairly essential to booking flights, hotels, and boat trips. So I was happy to listen, take notes, and let Howard navigate the jungle of websites offering various ways of reaching Helsinki, of which there were many. A few weeks prior, I was in Howard’s shoes when I arranged a short trip to London with another friend and found out that, wondrously, I seemed to have a better grasp of these things than my travelling companion. But throw in stop-offs, a second destination, and a complicated boat schedule, which doesn’t seem to plan as far ahead as mid-July, and I am reduced to saying things like “Mhm”, “Quite”, “Sure”, and the occasional correction of Howard misreading something. I don’t mind this at all but I was starting to feel bad for the person on the other end of the phone.

Finally, we – and I’m using this term very lightly here – managed to book all the necessary means of transportation, figure out when to go where, and to be sufficiently sure that our hostels didn’t moonlight as opium dens. The plan, as worked out by Howard, certainly sounded appealing: fly off from Zurich, land in Berlin, have an acceptable lunch at the airport, fly on to Helsinki, stay for four days, hop onto a ferry, hop off in Tallinn, stay there for four days, then board a plane and get home to Zurich by way of Riga. “Whee, I’m so looking forward to this! I can’t wait!”, was Howard’s conclusion, giddy as always when faced with the prospect of discovering a new part of the world.

“Me too”, I said and I meant it. Helsinki and Tallinn. What did I even know about these places? The first one I had seen in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and the films of Aki Kaurismäki, of the other I had no clue but that it was the capital of cautiously well-off Estonia, a country where people spoke a language similarly curious as its Finnish counterpart, with lots of umlauts and double vowels. That was pretty much it. I didn’t even know if Ests used the Euro, or whether I was supposed to bring my passport. Although I promised myself – and Howard, for we both didn’t want to make fools of ourselves by not adhering to some local custom – to read up on the two countries, I decided I quite liked being a little ignorant of my travel destination. It’s a nice feeling when you find out that your own continent still has corners that have not yet seeped into collective consciousness. I was, in a nutshell, looking forward to tackling the great northeast – even if it was “just” the capitals of two inconspicuous nations.

To be continued.

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