It was a quiet, drizzly Wednesday night in Helsinki. I was cold, damp and my stomach was crying out for food. Feebly, I entered through the doors of a little Finnish restaurant, my head down, shoulders slumped, hugging my laptop in my arms. I reluctantly raised my head to meet the gaze of the waiter at the front counter. “Table for one, please” I mumbled. It was the first time I had uttered those words. Despite my sullen mood, I wasn’t entirely dreading eating my first meal alone in a foreign city. In fact, I kind of liked the idea of being able to eat at any restaurant I wanted, sit anywhere I pleased, and even get a bit of photo editing or light reading done between courses. If anything, once I was seated, I perked up a little. I browsed through the menu, and couldn’t seem to get my eyes off the Finnish meatballs. I was never much of a meat-eater, but the thought of this warm, hearty traditional meal just seemed to appeal in this moment.
Well, they turned out to be the best meatballs of my life. The waiter must have felt sorry for my solo dining status, as he made an obvious effort for light banter throughout my meal. Once the meal concluded (and by concluded I mean I basically licked the plate clean), the friendly waiter came back and engaged in further conversation, questioning me on what brought me to Finland and then demanding to know why I wasn’t out hitting the clubs on a Wednesday night. When I revealed I was a photographer on assignment, his eyes light up. This guy loved a good conversation, so when he found out we shared a love for cameras, he divulged into excitement overdrive, sharing with me the best places to snap photos around Helsinki. 4:18am, he declared adamantly, is when I was to wake up the next morning. Take a left, then a right, then walk a kilometer to the parliament building steps and that is where I would witness the most magnificent sunrise. He assured me that it would be worth it, that I would “get the best photos from this point, guaranteed”. Given I didn’t have set plans for the next day, I figured I might as well brave an early-morning alarm for the sake of a half-decent photo.
4:00am rolled around, and my alarm started blaring. Sneaking down from the top bunk of my hostel bed, I tiptoed around, hoping not to wake any of my fellow travelers. As I walked outside, equipped with my oversize backpack and chunky tripod, I felt a few splashes of rain drip down the side of my face. This wasn’t a great start. Undeterred by the weather, I started on my merry way, wandering down the dark streets of Helsinki. 4am on a Thursday morning turned out to be busier than I anticipated, and I was greeted by many intoxicated stragglers enroute. After braving the dark streets of Istanbul solo a few weeks ago, safety wasn’t at the top of my mind. Of course, bad things can happen anywhere, but Scandinavia’s reputation for safety and low crime rates certainly relaxed me in my solo sojourn. After following the friendly waiter’s directions, I expected to arrive a set of stairs leading up to the parliament houses, were I was sure to be greeted by the creme-de-la-creme of sunrise views. Normally I’m not very good with directions, but these were almost too simple to make a mess of. As I approached my destination, I noticed three things weren’t quite right.
- There were no stairs in sight. Also, what appeared to be the Parliament Houses was now just the mess of a construction site.
- The sun was definitely not about to rise at 4:18am. It was still pitch black. The waiter had clearly got his times muddled up.
- More rain drops.
Adamant that I wasn’t about to go home without some killer photos, I climbed a rocky hill next to the construction site in hope of gaining a nice view over the city. My attempts were in vain. The view from here was underwhelming to say the least. Now, I had to climb back down the slippery hill in my stupid sandals, attempting to balance my tripod and camera in the process. Once I reached the bottom, I decided I wouldn’t give up on my photo venture just yet. The sun clearly wasn’t about to rise (and even if it was time for it to, the ominous clouds would have blocked any magical rays of light), and I wasn’t going to find this magical view. Instead, I decided I would make my way down to the water and attempt to get some nice long exposures of the city skyline.
Within minutes, the heavens had opened I was saturated from head to toe. I made a feeble attempt to protect my camera and ran a good 500 meters before finally finding shelter. I camped out for about 15 minutes, waiting for the rain to die down. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as when I discovered a little packet of Nutella in my back pack. I devoured it in a matter of seconds, licking the packet clean of all of its chocolate-y goodness. For a moment, I definitely felt better about the entire situation. And then the Nutella was finished and I had a new mission- making it back to my hostel without getting washed away in the process. It was absolutely bucketing down by now.The sky light up with massive strikes of lightning and the I could almost feel the ground shaking from the claps of thunder echoing through the air. My nerves were building. I was so determined to get back into a cosy, warm bed that I refused to wait somewhere until the storm had passed. Instead, I went for the gradual approach. I would run out in the rain before retreating to the next patch of shelter. I was treading through ankle-deep puddles and my leggings were now drenched. The one other saving grace in the whole situation (besides the Nutella) was the fact I had grabbed my dorky rain jacket before leaving the hostel. I now owed my life to my (previously) least favorite piece of clothing in my suitcase, as without it I would probably still be curled up in a gutter with a serious case of hypothermia.
I was down to the final stretch of road before the door to my hostel when something caught my eye. It was the restaurant I had eaten dinner at. I peered through the illuminated window, and there he was. The friendly waiter. I had already downgraded him to just ‘the waiter’. He was standing inside the warm, dry restaurant playing pool. Now, it might have been my over-tired, frustrated and soggy brain, but I could have sworn I saw him glance at me and chuckle. He knew all along, didn’t he? I was his entertainment for the evening, the ignorant tourist sent on a wild goose chase through the cold, dark, wet streets of Helsinki.
A few more steps and I was in my cozy, warm bunk bed, ready to sleep off the bad dream of the past two hours. In the future, I’m sleeping through that damn alarm.
Here are a couple more snaps from my time in Helsinki from when it wasn’t so dark and soggy. In fact, it really is quite a lovely city!
You know what they say… The worst situations always make for the best stories!
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