The choir tour was terrific! But now it is over. At 2:00 pm we boarded the ferry to Helsinki, a three hour cruise about 75 miles due north on the misty, gray, Baltic Sea. We were free from follow-the-leader, group conformity and were on our own to explore the nooks and grannies of another interesting and fascinating foreign land.
The ferry ride was aboard a huge vessel along with, I would guess, several thousand other passengers, many families with toddlers and lots of baby carriages. After all, this is the height of the summer tourist season even though it is cloudy with drizzle and temperatures in the mid 50s.
The odd thing about the huge ferry was that the only place where there were any seats available for passengers to sit was at a dining table in one of the several gigantic dining areas or in one of the several hundred staterooms that were unoccupied and cordoned off. Embry was lucky to grab a seat in one of the small eateries, “Coffee and Joy,” the latter of which I would have eagerly ordered if I could have found it. About five minutes after we had sat down, a waitress appeared and alerted us that the only people allowed to sit there were paying customers. Unable to find “joy,” I bought a small sandwich and a coke and then left Embry with her green tea in order to find an empty passenger seat somewhere, which we would need after we ceased being “paying customers.” No luck. I investigated each of the eight decks of the ship only to find hundreds of people sitting or lying on floors on every deck. What is wrong with this picture, I could not help asking—hundreds of state rooms just sitting there empty and passengers forced to sit on the floor, if they could even find an open spot? Please.
Back to “Coffee and Joy” and the purchase of a fruit cup to meet the paying customer criteria. That was enough to allow us to remain for the full three hour crossing.
The entry under steel gray skies into the channel leading to Helsinki was quite stunning with hundreds of islands, many inhabited, and a large number of vessels ranging from mega cruise ships to tiny dinghies. We were easily able to get a cab, which took us through the thriving center city to our pre arranged Airbnb apartment, about a 20-minute and 45 euro cab ride. Feeling confident and liberated by being on our own, we found the address and entered through the large front door, which had been left open by someone just exiting. It was a green, five-story, stucco building on a quiet side street in what would appear to be a nice part of the city. As instructed we took the lift up to floor five, found our unit, and then started following instructions regarding entry, just like we did with the Airbnb in Vilnius when we ended up in the dungeon.
First step: open the box above the door and get the key.
First problem: The box above the door was located about six inches above the sill—a reach of at least eight feet. I stood on my tiptoes and could barely touch the bottom of the box. There was no way I could read–let alone reset–any code, which was on a very small dial near the top of the box.
First solution: Embry, at risk of life and limb, would stand on my suitcase and try to reach the dial. After several failed efforts, she proudly announced that she had managed to reset the code according to the instructions, a Herculean effort to be sure.
Second problem: Nothing happened. The box did not open. At further risk of serious injury, she tried again and again. Nothing. I then gave it a try standing on my tiptoes and using every ounce of brute strength in me, admittedly not a lot. No movement.
Second solution: Try to reach the owner.
Third problem: The only way to reach the owner was via the internet. No Wi-Fi connection. You had to be inside the unit to find the password.
Third solution: Fiddle with Embry’s smart phone, hoping for a lucky break. I do not know what or how Embry did it, but somehow she managed to get a number for the owner and to call that number. All this took about thirty minutes—it was by then almost seven pm– during which most of the time I sat silently on the stairs with my head in my hands, sulking, exhausted, and pondering what it would be like to be homeless and on the street in Helsinki. I managed to get up the courage at one point to ask Embry if she could remind me why we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. She gave me a faint, forced smile.
Fourth problem: No answer. Embry waited for fifteen minutes then tried again. Still no answer. She was able to leave a callback number but no callbacks. It was now starting to get late—not dark, that does not happen until eleven o’clock—but close to eight, and that was late for us since we had had a meager lunch and no dinner. Spending the night on the street was starting to look more like a real possibility.
Fourth solution: Ask Siri on my iPhone: “hotels near me.” Bingo! In five seconds a bunch of names and addresses appeared, one being only .1 kilometer away, practically across the street. It was described as a studio apartment managed by a company called 2ndHomes, with the adage, “Act fast, the only option that is left near you.” I feverishly typed in all the information and breathed a long sigh of relief when the “approved” message came on. The only glitch was that to get the key to the apartment we had to walk to the office of 2ndHomes, about a mile away in the opposite direction, pick up the key, and then walk a mile back, lugging our suitcases all the way. Hey, no problem given the alternative of sleeping on the street or having to pay a fortune for a hotel room during high tourist season. Cost for the studio—60 euros. The two 30-something attendants at 2ndHomes were cheerful, understanding, supportive and spoke English without a hint of an accent.
We made the trek back to find our unit without incident. It is a somewhat modest studio apartment located on the ground level of a five story building, but comfortable and spacious enough with a small kitchen and tiny bathroom, sort of like being on a sailboat. And it even has windows!
So here we are in Helsinki. Embry is still haggling with the owner, who finally did call her back around nine, about how much we have to pay and with Airbnb, but we have a roof over our heads.
And to be honest I do have to admit that being “liberated” from a tour group does have its down side.