A couple of years ago, I went to WorldCon in London (that's the World Science Fiction Convention, in case anyone reading this was unaware) and at the time there was a bid in to host a future WorldCon in Helsinki, Finland. In its lengthy history, the majority of WorldCons have been in the US and I was keen to support the idea of it being this side of the Atlantic again, so bought a supporting membership. The bid was successful and 2017 was therefore when it was due to happen - in 2014, it seemed like a long way away! Anyway, I felt I should support this plan in person and, if I was going to go to Finland, it seemed like a good idea to have other things to do...
Which is how I ended up with this year's holiday - first off, a week's hiking in a National Park near the Finnish-Russian before heading back to the Baltic, a few days in Turku (medieval capital of the country) and then back to Helsinki for the con and whatever else I felt like doing. That was also how I ended up getting up at 4am to drive to the airport to get a flight to Amsterdam, then to Helsinki and then another flight north, to Kuusamo. Or at least that was the plan, until Finnair overbooked my third flight and I got stuck in Helsinki for 18 hours.
I've travelled quite a bit and this is the first time that I've ever been caught by overbooking. I think I've been lucky in that I once got stuck in Paris on the way back from a trip to Canada, but that was because the flight in was delayed and I missed the connection, not the airline selling something it didn't actually have. What other business is allowed to work that way? The only positive thing I can say about Finnair was that as well as organising a hotel & meals, they gave me compensation there and then, while other airlines have a bad reputation for expecting you to claim later and then, oddly enough, taking forever to pay you back for what you've spent.
My main concern was that I was due to join a group and knew that they'd already left the Kuusamo area and travelled into the middle of nowhere, as well as being due to go bear-watching that afternoon and that was one of the main reasons why I'd chosen that particular trip! In the end, I spent the majority of my compensation on a very long taxi ride from the airport (200km, to be precise!) and arrived just in time to bolt down a cup of coffee, run to the loo and then go bear-watching. The bears were awesome and I'll post some pics at the weekend.
The rest of the week was spent hiking 10-15km a day, with our luggage being taken to the next place we were staying, then sauna and a swim in the lake if you felt so inclined (which I did, in two different lakes, while others in the group younger than me chickened out). I also had a go at canoeing for the first time - I've kayaked before, but this whole thing with one paddle and switching hands is far too much work! The only downsides to the trip were the mosquitoes, which loved me greatly despite bug spray, and that it was too early in the season for cloudberries by about a week! They were everywhere in the bogs we were crossing and I only found one that was ripe the entire trip. :(
Then it was a flight back to Helsinki and a train to Turku for a couple of days. It's a nice, compact little city and I liked it very much, though one of the main attractions was being able to go kayaking in the Baltic for the day. The trains in Finland are significantly cheaper than in the UK (though this isn't difficult) and I definitely recommend them.
Once back in Helsinki, we had a complementary travel card for the bus and tram system as part of being a WorldCon member and this got used a lot - I was staying in the city centre, near the train station, and could either get a commuter train (10 mins) or a tram (25-30 mins), usually depending on whether I could be bothered to walk to and from the respective train stations, since the trams were also frequent. I only managed to get a bit lost once, waiting for a bus that never arrived and then deciding to walk (and walk and walk) before spotting my hotel from a distance and navigating towards it by guesswork. That was also partly caused by my not trusting my instincts, as partway through this journey I'd got on a tram that was actually going the right way then second-guessed myself and got off a couple of stops later.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how easy Finland was for me as a vegetarian, though I think being a vegan might be significantly more difficult. Helsinki in particular seems to have embraced soy as an alternative to meat - the local burger chain, Hesburger, was doing soy burgers and tortillas, for example - while I ate a lot of potatoes and vegetables, it wasn't anything like as one-dimensional as my trip to Newfoundland a few years back where I pretty much lived on grilled cheese sandwiches for most of my time there.
Anyway, back to WorldCon. I think my main criticism would be about the panels, but that's probably because I've been spoiled by other conventions, NineWorlds in particular. The panels were short, scheduled for an hour but really limited to 45 minutes to allow for people to get to the next panel, which then turns into 30 minutes plus time for questions. There was a problem on the first day about getting in to some of the panels as well, with the convention having to organise some additional panel rooms for subsequent days, which meant that even then people were leaving panels early - I don't really see the point of going in the first place if you're going to do that. As a result, most of the panels I went to felt a bit lightweight and at least one suffered from a lack of robust moderation, or a moderator who wouldn't shut up and let the panellists talk. It was ever thus, I guess!
I knew a few people at the con but felt the lack of people to chew stuff over with, which I've become used to. Anyway, the next European WorldCon is going to be Dublin in 2019, so I guess I'm going to Ireland again in 2 years time! Hopefully more folks I know will go and help keep me entertained.
In general though, I'm glad I went and Finland is a very beautiful but expensive country. I ate a lot of chocolate and licorice, although the salty licorice they love so much (salmiakki) is vile and I don't know how anyone can eat more than one piece. I wish I'd been there for cloudberry season and also that the mosquitoes didn't love me so much. And yes, I did sauna naked - it's traditional, you know! - but put on a swimming costume for the lake because we weren't the only people there. I highly recommend the sauna + lake combination if you ever visit...