On March 10, 1978 I again left my apartment in Philadelphia but this time my travel had to be better planned because in the middle section I was going to be traveling through the USSR and needed to provide a detailed itinerary to Intourist, the Soviet travel agency that was doing everything that it could to make sure that foreign travelers got a carefully controlled view of the Communist 'system'. Originally this trip across the USSR on the Trans-Siberian train was to be the whole purpose of the trip but I had decided to leave early so that I could approach Helsinki slowly through England, Scotland, Norway, and Sweden while adding some time at the end in Japan and a flight to Anchorage for a hitchhike down the Alaska Highway and across the northern US to complete the circumnavigation of the planet.
First I had to get to the Newark airport by commuter rail and an airport van. My overnight flight to Heathrow arrived at mid morning the next day and I then rode the London Underground to rent a room near Piccadilly Circus. Over the next four days the Underground shuttled me to the British Museum, Trafalgar Square, Abbey Road, the Tate Gallery, Buckingham Palace and everyplace in between. Leaving London at the end of the week I traveled on a city bus to the town of Oxford where I spent two days wandering around the university and spending much time in the wonderful pubs. On the map England had looked like an easy country to hitch across or even to walk across if I failed to catch a ride. Close up it was much larger and I was having difficulty figuring out where to extend my thumb so I hitched to the local British Rail station and caught a train to Edinburgh, Scotland. Here I telephoned a friend of a friend and was provided with lodging and several pub crawls to increase my capability of representing the West in drinking vodka once I arrived in the USSR. After a final bout of vodka drinking I was driven from town in a drunken delirium and stood up along the A1 highway where I finally captured the attention of a kindly couple who drove me to Newcastle Upon Tyne. My arrival coincided with a train visit by Prince Charles so that I was able to take my place among a crowd of shorter Geordies and catch my first glimpse of royalty.
The next morning I took a taxi to the Newcastle airport and caught a flight across the North Sea to Bergen, Norway. Arriving half starved, I found my way to the Bergen fish market and strolled around among the vendors trying to get some idea of what Norwegians were about. I had no previous experience of Norwegian people except for watching Marta, Lars, Katrin, Nels, Gunnar and Dagmar on the early television show "I Remember Mama" as the story of a Norwegian-American family living in San Francisco in 1910. On visits to Prudential's office in Minneapolis I had also heard some joking references somewhat like the Polish jokes in the coal country of Pennsylvania in which Norwegians were presented in a sort of demeaning way. About all that I learned about them from the fish market is that they were strong and healthy looking, were amazingly adept at language, paid a lot for their fruit, and as a population apparently suffered from alcoholism because there seemed to be many programs and legislative efforts to deter them. The next morning I boarded a train through Voss to Myrdal where I disembarked to walk 13 miles back down the mountain to the little town of Flam located on a deep fiord. I decided to ride the train back up the 865 meter vertical climb to Myrdal. The train journey provided some of Norway's wildest and most magnificent scenery. On the 20 km-long train ride I was able to see rivers that cut through deep ravines, waterfalls cascading down the side of steep, snow-capped mountains and mountain farms that clung dizzily to sheer slopes. When I got back to Myrdal I caught the eastbound train on to Oslo.
My main goals in Oslo were to visit the Norwegian Folk Museum with its huge collection of traditional architecture, farm houses, and entire Norse villages, to walk around the harbor area and to visit Gustav Vigeland's amazing sculpture garden. I then spent most of the next day getting into position and finally being successful in thumbing a ride with a man on leave from the Norwegian Merchant Marine who drove me all the way to Stockholm in Sweden. I hadn't really planned to visit Stockholm and couldn't figure out much to do except to walk around the center of the city as far as my legs could take me and to try and visit the Royal Palace. About all I knew about Sweden had come from the films of Ingmar Bergman and most of those were in rural settings and in black and white. I knew that somehow Norwegians were able to distinguish one another from Swedes but I couldn't distinguish between them. Also from early adolescence I had derived the idea that in Sweden the female form took its purest visual form and nothing on the streets gave me any indication to the contrary.
I found my way across the Centralbron to the Old Town as I made my way slowly toward the Royal Palace. Stockholm has not been involved in any war since 1520, so there has been no destruction by wars. The streets still follow the medieval layout, but numerous buildings have been added, re-built or extended, particularly in the 17th century when Sweden was one of Europe's major military powers and the center of a vast empire that encompassed the whole of the Baltic Sea coastline. With 608 rooms, the Stockholm Royal Palace is the biggest palace in the world still used by a head of state - King Carl XVI Gustav. Its enormity however, made me want to return to the more human scale of the Old Town after a couple of hours wandering through its galleries of opulence. After a good rest in an inexpensive and near perfect little hotel, I had become conscious of the dwindling number of days now left to me before my scheduled train departure from Helsinki to Leningrad. Over breakfast I met a man who was just leaving Stockholm to drive into the far north of Sweden to visit to his mother. In return for sharing the price of gasoline he was willing to drop me off at the town of Haparanda on the Swedish side of the border with Finland. The city of Haparanda was founded in 1809 after the Swedish war with Russia separated Sweden from its former Finnish possessions. From Haparanda I could cross the bridge over the Torne Alv River, pass through Finnish customs and reach the town of Tornio in Finland. I could not imagine a more perfect way of learning more about Finland than riding south through the countryside on the train.
On a sparkling clear morning we drove through Uppsala, Sundsvall, and Lulea arriving at Haparanda at about 9:00 PM that evening. After a very graceful and cordial passage from the West aligned Sweden to what I had always considered to be the foothills of the Eastern bloc, I found my way to the Tornio railway station and watched in fascination as the day ended and a new one began without any intervention of darkness in the sky. I had meant to sleep a little but the sound of night birds smoothly dissolving into the sound of morning birds made me afraid to close my eyes for fear of missing some aspect of the magic transition. The next morning the station slowly began to fill with beautiful blonde children chattering in a totally incomprehensible language. I had read that in evolving from Sanskrit, this linguistic group had somehow ended up in only Finland and Hungary as the similar Magyar language. Norwegian and Swedish had been sort of structurally decipherable but this chatter was about as unsusceptible to parsing as Chinese. I used a railway map and sign language to purchase my ticket which turned out to be a sort of FinRail pass which allowed me to ride anywhere in Finland that I could get to in the next 24 hours. As I waited for the train south through Tampere to Helsink, I decided that if I played my train buffet cards right I could include a side trip from Kemi to Rovaniemi in the Lapp area of Finland and get within 5 miles of the Arctic Circle. I had hoped to actually walk the ten miles from the station to the Arctic Circle and back but the train to Rovaniemi was delayed and I decided to have a quick swim in the river to clean of several days of soil accumulation and have the northermost dip of my life. It was late in what had become two endless days when I re-boarded the train south so I slept most of the way between stations so that I would be a little rested for the next morning's exploration of Helsinki before boarding the Leningrad train at 2:00 PM.
Helsinki like Boston is a wonderfully walkable city with Kauppatori market square, the cathedral, and the esplanade easily accessible from the train station. I had read of a place referenced in English as the Church of the Rock built in 1969 by two architect brothers named Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. After much linguistic struggle I was finally directed to the Temppeliaukio Church built directly into the natural rock with natural light brightening the inside through 180 glass panes between the dome and the wall. It was very much worth the struggle to find it and I would have been very sad to have come so close to it and not to have seen it. More importantly I saw a city and perhaps a country where architecture seems to be important to many, many people. For me it was most significant in the housing provided for people of less than moderate means ( I actually never found the desperately poor but they must exist). This subsidized housing or whatever it is properly called was architecturally inspired and lovingly constructed and landscaped so that it must have brought a sense of pride and value to its inhabitants.
Images of Greece 1989