Finland 2014: The Great Train Adventure

The moral of today’s story is this: if you have a bad feeling about something, listen to it.

I got up nice and early, packed and walked to the station via the seafront and the main shopping street. Bought a couple of bottles of drink, looked at the departure board and saw my train at Track 11. I went to Track 11.

Now, first of all there was no information on the board at the head of Track 11. But there was a train there. There was no information on the signs by each door. I was a bit doubtful but other people were getting on, so I got on.

Do you see where this is going? I didn’t but as it turns out, it was not Rovaniemi, where I was intending to go. Ten or fifteen minutes before we were due to depart, there was an announcement. Everyone else in my car jumped up and started grabbing luggage. I didn’t know what was happening but I copied – clearly we were getting off this train for some reason. Except that we were only given about ten seconds notice and then the train started moving. Within a few minutes, the six passengers on board had all congregated in Car 2, some of them were on the phone and most of them were laughing. I, obviously, don’t speak a word of Finnish but I gathered that something was up. Eventually I asked and was told that this train was taking us to the depot. It’s fine, we’ll just take a taxi to the next stop.

Oh no we won’t. We crawled through the outskirts of Helsinki and came almost to a stop just outside Pasila. I was still following everyone else so when they started gathering by the door, I went too. I think the plan genuinely was to jump off a moving train. Moving extremely slowly but still, a moving train. I almost wish we had – that would be a story to tell. However, modern trains have inbuilt safety mechanisms to prevent passengers doing that.

We began to crawl through the depot and then we went into the train wash. That was the point at which everyone started laughing hysterically, because it’s a ridiculous thing to accidentally go through a train wash. For the record, it’s a lot like going through a car wash except that the brushes stay still and you move. Then we were into the building and now getting desperate. It was somewhere around this point that my new friends discovered I don’t speak Finnish and had no real idea of what was happening. The nice man – a journalist, as it happens – had phoned VR, the train company, two or three times and tried to explain that there were six passengers on an out-of-service train but they seemed intent on believing someone had left some luggage on the train and he couldn’t get through to them that it was people left on the train. By now we were inside the depot and starting to pass people. We banged on the windows, then banged with an umbrella. I wasn’t sure whether they were trying to get attention or actually trying to smash the window. Trying to attract attention, trying to make people realise that there aren’t supposed to be passengers on this train, didn’t seem to work – mostly they just waved back.

Finally we came to a stop. The lights had gone out in all the other cars and we were starting to get desperate when finally it dawned on someone outside that we were trapped. A phone call was made and at last the door was released from the outside to free us. I think the others were quite enjoying the adventure but I was quite scared – no Finnish, no idea what was going to happen to me, whether I was going to get to Rovaniemi tonight or at all, how I was going to escape the depot. Fortunately, my friends, now fluent in English and making sure I knew exactly what was happening, pulled me along with them. Across the depot we went, past lots of men in fluorescent clothes looking curious at six passengers with suitcases who are obviously not supposed to be there. We were taken into one of the non-train buildings, where they seemed to store mattresses and pillows and lockers and a man in a fluorescent jacket and matching cap made arrangements for disposing of us and one of my friends handed round chocolate – just like Professor Lupin on the train after the Dementors. Chocolate helps, as did the news that we were going to be taken to Pasila, the nearest station and the first stop after Helsinki Central and that trains to Rovaniemi run all day.

We walked through the tunnels of the depot and were at last released, when the keys to the gate turned up. The day-glo man called us a taxi and off we went to Pasila for €2.77 each. There we went as a group to the ticket office to get our tickets changed. That was no problem – the nice lady even asked if I’d like an upstairs or downstairs seat so I brightened up a lot at that (upstairs, obviously!) and then I went off with two of the ladies to have lunch – or in my case to have some hot chocolate, since I had no intention of explaining the food thing to two strangers, even two strangers who’ve just helped me escape from a train depot.

I have never felt so helpless. I like to think I’m a reasonably competent and capable traveller, if one prone to minor catastrophes but if I’d been on my own on that train, I have no idea what would have happened. Mind you, I wouldn’t have been on it on my own because I was only stupid enough to get on it when I was sure other people were. I’ve also never felt so monolingual. Of the five Finns, four of them definitely spoke English – one sounded properly fluent but the other three could make themselves understood and meanwhile, I don’t speak a word of Finnish or very much of any other language. My French is nowhere near as good as it should be, my Spanish is almost non-existent and as for German, Icelandic, Swedish/Norwegian/Danish, I can recognise and read things reasonably well considering I’ve never had a lesson in any of them but I can’t say a sentence in any.

At 13:12, three hours after I was supposed to depart, I got on my train. And thirty seconds later, the journalist man came to join me. He’s very friendly, full of Finnish history and tales of the places we’re going through and making phone calls to relatives in Rovaniemi to suggest places I should visit but mostly I just wanted to be left alone to eat – I hadn’t actually eaten a thing today, intending to have breakfast on the train at 10am which didn’t happen – and get out my computer and look at the scenery. He finally left me at Tampere, after nearly two hours of trying to keep up an increasingly one-sided conversation. He took all our phone numbers and email addresses and he’s written an article about our adventure. I’m not entirely sure it’s really “news” but still, apparently his boss was excited about the story, so maybe it’ll go in a Finnish newspaper and he’ll send it to all of us.

By 5pm, I was sick of the whole thing. It was dark, there’s only so much fidgeting you can do and although the train has wifi, it’s a bit hit-and-miss (although much better than the wifi on the plane) and it’s getting tedious now. The train I was supposed to be on will be slowing down for its arrival into Rovaniemi right now and I’ve still got three and a quarter hours to go. I’ve seen nothing but darkness from my window for over two hours already.

I counted down the hours from about the time it got dark – I was actually doing a little dance in my seat when it got down to half an hour, half an hour on the train (vaguely to the tune of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain – if you saw any of those updates on Facebook, I was singing them) and then went to explore a little bit – just the lockers behind me (they have lockers! This is very sensible!) and a peculiar little alcove with a small door up two steps and a rod across the top like a wardrobe but with no hangers and then I discovered there are actually three levels in this particular train because halfway down the stairs was another compartment of seats.

Now I’m on solid ground again, taking the train to the Arctic seems sort of magical again. I was fidgety but I was never really uncomfortable, I mostly had the whole seat to myself, I had the internet, I had a perfectly pleasant time as somehow Helsinki turned into Lapland. Due to the morning’s issues and the fact that I was arriving late, I emailed the guesthouse to say I’d be in about 10.30. They did not say “poor foreigner arriving in the dark in a strange place, we will be waiting for you”. No, they said “Reception closes at 9, we’ll leave your key in the mailbox outside”.

I had had the sense to look up where the place is – I’d had the sense to print a map with my route drawn on it. The only bit left to chance was which side of the station I’d come out on. I wanted to be on the north. And we arrived on the north side! Actually, it transpires the south is some kind of yard and getting across to it would be pretty difficult so I’m very glad about that. The four lane road was exactly where it should have been and when I crossed it (all sparkly with ice, despite the nice journalist man’s niece saying there is no snow here – well, it’s winter wonderland enough for me for now) there was a sign pointing to my guesthouse. The small housing estate took me by surprise but I could see my building – a lit up sign with a picture of a bed on it was a clue so within five minutes, I’d retrieved my key from the mailbox and was swearing at the lock. I have no idea how Finnish locks work. It’s certainly not as easy as “put key in lock and turn”. I don’t know what I did but eventually the door opened. The same upstairs in my room. But I got in. There is a radiator – set to maximum heat – in the shower. Not just in the bathroom, it’s actually in the shower. I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with that. But the room is adequate. I don’t know how big my bed is – bigger than single but not as big as double. I have blinds as well as curtains to shut out the light. And they serve breakfast here! Since there’s a guest kitchen, I was expecting to have to forage for myself but no, I will have to appear at breakfast at least tomorrow to hand over my guest card. So there we are, I’ve finally made it to Lapland.

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