From Stockholm to Helsinki,
Pleasant Surprises All the Way


The statue of the legendary Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi (1897–1973), at the Olympics stadium in Helsinki. The Summer Olympics of 1952 was held in Helsinki. Nurmi was one of the most successful male athletes in the history of the Olympics and one of only four to win nine Olympic gold medals.

July 18, 2009—Saturday

I was on my way to Helsinki. When I left the af Chapman hostel early in the morning, I was not expecting to see what I did on the waterfront outside: more than half a dozen photographers, in prone position, training their cameras on I didn’t know what. Another half-dozen or so were walking about with tripods and cameras in their hands, looking for the right positions from which to photograph, again, I didn’t know what.

The amusing part of the spectacle was that those who were in lying position were so engrossed in their work that they were oblivious to what their low-waist jeans failed to cover. Parts of their buttocks were exposed, cleavage and all. There was no mistaking that all these men were professional photographers. Suppressing the laugh which the exposed parts of their anatomies had evoked in me, I approached one of the men and asked, “What is this about?”

“Oh,” he said, “we are going to send these pictures as entries in an international photo competition being held in New York. The topic of the competition is ‘Cities around the World.’ All of us are trying to get the best shot of what Stockholm looks like on a summer morning.”

It was a beautiful morning. Though not 5:00 a.m. yet, the sun had already risen. Remember, we are talking about the Land of the Midnight Sun. The yellow buildings on the western shore of the canal looked yellower in the morning sun. Their reflection in the placid waters of the canal was beautiful to watch. Maybe that was what the photographers were trying to capture with their cameras.

“All of you are so dedicated to your profession,” I told the man. Though I had the bare bottoms of his fellow competitors for proof, I didn’t mention it. “The city is hardly awake,” I added, “and you are already on the job. I will be in New York in a month from now. I am going to find out more about this competition when I get there. I hope you win a prize. Wish you all the best.”

Mix-up about the Bus Schedule

I headed for the nearby bus stop. I was hoping to catch the first bus going in the direction of the train station. The first bus, as I had noted the day before, was scheduled to leave at 5:00 a.m. About five minutes’ ride would take me to the Stockholm Central Station. The metro ride from there to a city called Marsta would take an hour; and another bus ride, from Marsta to the Stockholm Arlanda Airport, would take another 10 minutes. Taking into account that I was traveling on a weekend, that too early in the morning, I had provided for some extra time. Thus, after a leisurely travel by public transportation, I was hoping to reach the airport around 7:00 a.m. My flight to Helsinki was scheduled to depart at 8:35 a.m.

But things did not work out the way I had planned. It was several minutes past 5:00 a.m., and there was no sign of any bus. “It’s not like Sweden,” I said to myself. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries are known for their punctuality. I took another look at the bus schedule. How stupid of me! What I had noted down the day before was the weekday schedule. On weekends, the first bus would leave only at 8:00 a.m.

It was to meet eventualities like this that I added extra time to the actual travel time. I started walking toward the train station. The company of a pretty young woman made the walk enjoyable. She was taking pictures of the same scene as the men I had just passed by were. When she finished doing it and looked at me, I asked her, “What is the shortest route to the train station?”

“Follow me,” she said. We walked side by side.

“Are you also participating in the photo competition?” I asked her.

“What photo competition?” she said. “I haven’t even heard about it.” She was taking pictures for her own pleasure.

“In that case,” I said, “hmm, let me guess: you just came out of that jazz festival.” An all-night, five-night-long international jazz festival was going on in Stockholm at that time.

“No,” she said, “it is too expensive for me. Two thousand kronor for five nights or five hundred kronor for one night. That’s way beyond a sales assistant’s budget for pleasure.”

“Actually, that’s why I didn’t attend it, though I love jazz,” I told her. “It’s way beyond the budget of a frugal traveler.”

“I am not a jazz fan anyway,” she said. “I enjoy dancing. For two hundred kronor, I was able to dance the night away with my friends at an inexpensive nightclub in the Old Town.” She pointed to the area on the other side of the canal.

We talked about many more things – music, places we two had visited in Europe, etc. – and kept walking. When we reached the front of a store opposite the Stockholm Central Station, she stopped. “This is where I work,” she said, pointing to the shuttered store. “It will be open at nine o’clock. Today is my day off. I sell world maps here.”

“You can be a good tour guide,” I told her.

“Yes, I have thought about it,” she said. “Apart from Swedish and, as you can tell by now, English, I speak French. Yes, I can be a tour guide for English- and French-speaking tourists.”

“Think about it seriously. You will make an excellent tour guide,” I said.

We shook hands and said good-bye to each other. I crossed the road and walked toward the train station. I was feeling ecstatic that the day started so pleasantly, a few minutes’ frustration over the bus schedule mix-up notwithstanding.

On the train, two seats away from me, a young man, twenty-something, was jabbering away on his cellphone, in Bengali. He looked like someone heading home after all-night work. I took him to be a Bangladeshi. Most of the South Asian-looking people I came across during my three days in Stockholm were from either Bangladesh or Pakistan.

I reached the airport a few minutes before 7:00 a.m. I was about to approach the check-in counter when an announcement came from the airline that our flight was overbooked. Those who volunteered to take the next flight, which would be three hours later, would receive a compensation of three hundred euros, the announcement said.

Arriving in Helsinki three hours later wouldn’t make much difference to an aimless wanderer like me, and the compensation offered was tempting. I decided to volunteer. But when I approached the announcer and was told that the compensation would be in the form of a voucher for future travels, I changed my mind. “I want cash or cashier’s check,” I told her.

Meeting with My Finnish Friend

It was 10:30 a.m. by the time I arrived at the hostel in Helsinki, where I had booked a room. The first thing I did after checking in was call Martine (not her real name). That was the promise I had given her. “Please don’t waste your time coming to the airport to fetch me,” I had told her over the phone before leaving New York. “I will find my way to the hostel.”

I met Martine and her mother in Berlin the year before. Since then, Martine and I had been corresponding with each other through email. Thanks to our constant communication, the casual acquaintance between us that began in Berlin had developed into a close friendship in a little over a year.

Martine came over to the hostel in the afternoon. We spent the rest of the day wandering around Helsinki. The first place she took me to was the Olympics stadium. Helsinki had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1952.

In front of the stadium stands a statue of Lauri Tahko Pihkala (1888–1981). Pihkala became famous as a Finnish sportsman, but not through his performance at the two Summer Olympics he participated in. In 1908, he was only sixteenth in the high-jump competition; and in 1912, in the 800-meter run, he was eliminated in the first round itself. His invaluable contribution to Finland’s sports came in the form of a game he invented: pesapallo, which is the Finnish variant of baseball. For that, and for developing several other games in Finland, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in sport sciences by the University of Jyvaskyla in 1969. Though his right-wing political activism had earned him the wrath of many of his countrymen, they were willing to condone it because of his achievements in the field of sports.

Paavo Nurmi

On the other side of the stadium stands another statue: that of the legendary Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi (1897–1973). It was sculpted by Wäinö Aaltonen. Nurmi was one of the most successful male athletes in the history of the Olympics and one of only four to win nine Olympic gold medals. He won them in cross-country; 10,000-meter; 5,000-meter; and 3,000-meter races at three consecutive Olympics: Antwerp (1920), Paris (1924), and Amsterdam (1928). He had also won three silver medals—one at Antwerp and two at Amsterdam. Of the nine gold medals he won, three were at Antwerp, five at Paris, and one was at Amsterdam. He was one of the group of Finnish athletes nicknamed the “Flying Finns.”

From the stadium, Martine drove me to Senate Square, which is considered “the monumental center of Helsinki.” The man credited with bringing that distinction to the place was the famous German architect Carl Ludvig Engel (1778–1840). He was tasked with rebuilding Helsinki, which had been nearly destroyed in the wars between Sweden and Russia.

Finland, it may be added, was ruled by Sweden from 1155 to 1809. After the 1808–1809 war between Sweden and Russia, known as the Finnish War, it came under Russian rule and became the Grand Duchy of Russia. Finland remained a Russian duchy until 1917, the year in which it declared its independence.

Among the buildings in Senate Square that bear the impress of Engel’s architectural style—known as the Empire Style—are the Senate (which is now the Palace of the Council of State), the library and the main building of Helsinki University, and the Helsinki Cathedral, also known as the Lutheran Cathedral.

The Lutheran Cathedral, which is an imposing structure, was built over a period of twenty-two years, from 1830 to 1852. Engel oversaw its construction until his death in 1840, when it was taken over by Ernst Lohrmann. The latter did make some additions to Engel’s design: statues in zinc of the Twelve Apostles placed on the roof of the cathedral, a bell tower, and a side chapel. 
It underwent further renovations in 1998. Now, it is one of Helsinki’s main tourist attractions, receiving more than 350,000 visitors a year.

The Lutheran Cathedral was originall built as a tribute to Nicholas I, the czar of Russia from 1825 to 1855. Until 1917, the year of Finland’s independence from Russia, it was called St. Nicholas Church. It became a cathedral of the Evangelical Lutheran denomination only in 1959.

Father of Literary Finnish

The evangelical who brought Protestant Reformation—more specifically, Lutheranism—to Finland was Michael Agricola (1510– 1557). Consecrated as the bishop of Turku (Abo) in Sweden in 1554, he had a falling out with the pope, which led to his reforming the Finnish Church along Lutheran lines. The Finnish Church, at the time, was part of the Church of Sweden. Agricola had his early lessons in Lutheranism under no less a person than the founder of the movement himself.

Martin Luther, the founder, was an instructor at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, where Agricola was a student from 1536 to 1539. He also lived at Luther’s home during that period. It was Michael Agricola who first translated the New Testament into Finnish. He also produced the prayer book and hymns used in Finland’s new Lutheran churches. He was called the “father of literary Finnish,” because it was his work that set the rules of orthography that are the basis of modern Finnish spelling.

It was a bright, sunny evening, and the streets were crowded. Martine and I decided to hang around Keskusta/Centrum for some more time before calling it a day. Both Keskusta in Finnish and Centrum in Swedish mean “the center.” In this case, the street sign refers to the city center. Most place names and street names in Helsinki are written in Finnish and Swedish. That is, the vestiges of Finland’s having once been ruled by Sweden still linger, even two centuries after its independence from Sweden.

Martine was not proud of the Swedish past – and the Russian past – in her country’s history. I figured it out from the way she referred to the bilingual road signs all over Helsinki. “Tourists would have found it helpful if they had written them in English too,” she remarked a couple of times.​​

The Lutheran Cathedral, Helsinki. This imposing structure in Senate Square was built over a period of 22 years, from 1830 to 1852. It underwent some renovation in 1998. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Finnish capital, receiving more than 350,000 visitors a year.


(Published on August 19, 2016. The article is a slightly edited version of Chapter 4 from the author's recently published book, "An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey." The book is available online at, and

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