Monday, December 31, 2012


A fellow blogger was asked by a 9-year-old what he would do if he was the President of Estonia.

Some time ago I was asked something similar, in a more serious way, by a fully grown-up and politically aware Indonesian. 

My answer was: Legalize all forms of stem cell research in Estonia. I think it would be a perfectly Estonian move, in the vein of the cultural legend that is "nobody ever told them it couldn't be done, so they went and did it". The opposition to stem cell research and human cloning is pretty much exclusively *moral*. Leave morality to the rest of the world, while the least religious country on the planet cashes in on every major pharma entity sending their best researchers here. (Pass a supplementary law requiring anyone with a PhD to do 10 hours a week community service at local universities.)

Happy Holidays etc.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Barcelona

There are not many cities where I want to come back.

My greatest extravagance is experience, and the only thing on which I spend money with no hope of ever getting it back is travel. My kind of travel is unusual and, by necessity, almost always solitary. To travel fast, and to travel on rare cheap deals, requires the ability to decide immediately and to decide only for myself. I don’t expect I will always have the freedom (and the disposable income) to travel like this; I also don’t take cheap, ubiquitous, fast long-range travel for granted. We may never run out of usable fuel (and possibly not even fossil fuel within my lifetime), but airlines can go bankrupt, I can lose my income, and to be perfectly honest, I just don’t have enough vacation time to travel as much as I would like. So until I’ve seen every place I want to see in my life, I do my best to avoid backtracking.

Barcelona is an exception.
Columbus pointing at Travelcat.

The early-morning shuttle service takes me from my hotel straight to Budapest airport, where the WiFi is good enough to stock up on entertainment. The Malev jet takes a relatively short hop across the Mediterranean to deposit me in the Catalan capital’s airport, and I grab the bus into town. The ride along the Spanish hills is beautiful, but once we reach the city, the traffic gets very bad very quickly. An annoying amount of time later (but still early in the day), I’m at Placa Catalunya, the main hub of touristy Barcelona, with my netbook out, trying to figure out what the address, phone number and actual location of my AirBNB host is. Even at the tail end of September, Barcelona is crawling with tourists, and hotels were prohibitively expensive – but AirBNB came through, and I got a cheap, very simple room in an excellent location. A five-minute walk away, I find the right door just off a jeweler’s shop. It’s a lot of stairs to the apartment, but I politely refuse the host’s help: the imperative to always haul my bags up to the room myself is a great motivation to avoid over-packing. Neither am I disappointed with the fact that my window opens onto an air shaft: this city does not sleep when I would sleep, and I didn’t come to Barcelona to look at it out of a window.

I start at La Rambla, the main tourist street, after passing a New Rock Boots showroom (not as cool in real life as they are on the company website; my best choice for skull-stomping boots remains the home brand Aipi). It is the one bit of Barcelona that I remember well from my last visit – a few brief stopovers during a package holiday spent mostly at Calella, one of a string of beach towns all along the Catalan coast. It was four years prior, almost to the day. A few months after my surgery, once I’d already lost a whole lot of weight, I got kicked out of the office on a three-week holiday that the company was tired of keeping on the books; so I went online and booked the trip that filled the time as much as possible. Through a bit of poor foresight, I ended up on a bus ride from Tallinn to Barcelona – four days each way. It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, in an “I won’t be doing that again in this lifetime” way. But Catalonia was worth the return.

On the other side of La Rambla, I pass the Christopher Columbus statue and walk across the series of ultramodern bridges to the shopping mall on a pier on the middle of the bay. It wasn’t here the last time I came, and while I admire the architecture, I don’t hang around – I am much more interested in the nearby Barcelonita quarter, and the beginning of the city’s beach. I make a note of the Frank Gehry Fish in the distance, then backtrack to the subway. It’s high noon, and I’m determined to tick off a great world church.
I’d only seen the Sagrada Familia from the outside, and very briefly, on my last visit. It’s progressed a lot in the meantime, and I take my time. I don’t have the background or the vocabulary to accurately describe the impression of that structure, particularly stunning because of its location in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable housing ward. More than any other religious structure, it is testament not to the power of a deity but to the power of mankind, of imagination, perseverance, and beauty. Despite the overt Christian symbology, God is the last thing you wonder at in that building.

I spend another couple of hours walking along the streets of Barcelona, picking a destination at random and not being too disappointed when the grounds of the old mental hospital turn out to be sealed off. I return to the apartment, and soon set out for dinner. I start out along the Rambla Raval – a smaller, more authentic neighborhood version of the ubiquitous Spanish pedestrian promenade, complete with a tenement building taken over by hippies and covered in counterculture slogans. I keep walking, consulting my guidebook, until I get to a particularly recommended (but not particularly expensive) restaurant and tick off another Barcelona checkpoint by having some truly outstanding paella.

I’ve got a long day ahead of me tomorrow.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Kaiserlich und Königlich

On my second day, I set out along the Danube to the Parliament, to book a tour. It is the grandest building in Budapest, in all of Hungary, and quite possibly in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; built to reinforce the nation’s sense of self-worth, as part of the millennial celebrations of 1896. The notional beginning of Hungarian statehood is not pinned down quite that exactly, but it seemed like a good year to start. The number 96 is all over Budapest, not unlike SPQR in Rome or the triple saltire in Amsterdam. Both the parliament and the cathedral have spires exactly 96 meters tall, but while the city’s main church is seldom empty, the administrative palace is far too big for the independent nation – apparently, only a quarter of the floor space is in use today. But guided tours are free for EU citizens, a blessing bestowed by Brussels’ demand that all Europeans be treated the same as Hungarians within the new empire, which is distinct from the old one by virtue of being democratic, but is quite loose and culturally diverse – much like the old one was by the time of Budapest’s grand celebration. The tours are quite popular though, and I only get a booking for a few hours later.

It took me this long to get around to posting a vanity photo.

I spend the time exploring the old quarter of Pest – not really that old by Hanseatic standards, but as pretty as any Habsburg treasure. I walk past unusual bronze memorials – empty shoes on the embankment to remember the Holocaust victims, a kindly man on a tiny bridge representing the latter-day saint of Hungarian individualism under Communist rule. I end up in a square where several roads meet in a congregation of houses by a famous architect, and nearby is the fenced-off monstrosity of the American embassy. Decades ago, a venerable elder cleric was holed up in the building, unable or unwilling to be smuggled out, escaping the heathen regime’s persecution on US diplomatic soil but remaining within his homeland. I don’t know how much of a fortress the embassy building was during the Cold War, but it must not have looked as besieged as it does today, with its bomb-proof barriers and metal fencing restricting the adjacent streets; the Communists would certainly not have allowed any visible disturbance by the embassy’s walls.

Still pretty enough in the daytime.

I circle the compound to find something altogether more agreeable, a smattering of art nouveau treasures that Hundertwasser himself would be proud of, some of their roofs tiled in uniquely Hungarian colorful ceramic. I drop into a well-concealed market building – not as big as the main market grounds near my hotel, meant to serve the surrounding community only, and now half-empty with a lot of business lost to peripheral supermarkets – and grab a thick, sweet poppyseed pie for a snack; the confectionary tradition of Hungary definitely shares a lot with that of Turkey, though to my later disappointment, their sour cherry juice is nowhere near as good as the stuff I could get in any convenience shop in Istanbul.

I walk back to the cathedral, free and open to tourists, with a massive plaza leading out to a pedestrian street with another random bronze sculpture; touristy restaurants all the way down to the riverside.
I take the tour of the Parliament, and gawk appropriately at the imperial (or is it royal?) finery, see the Hungarian crown jewels with their crooked cross, and the chamber of the actual national assembly – one of the lesser rooms according to the original building plan.

There’s plenty of daylight left, so I head down Budapest’s other axis, this one man-made for the same millennial celebrations: Andrassi Boulevard, starting in the center and terminating at a massive park with plenty of attractions, the main one being the public baths. It’s a fairly long way, and to make sure the public would make it out to the celebration grounds on the far end, Budapest constructed the first ever subway line in continental Europe – and the second one in the world, only very slightly younger than London’s. And while there’s barely a trace of finery at Baker Street Station, Line 1 of the Budapest metro retains its turn of the century charm, its tiny wooden carriages and barely submerged stations an enormous contrast to the ugliness of the other two lines. 

But I walk instead. With a couple of detours into an architecturally imposing bookshop and an alley of restaurants, I follow Andrassy (pronounced as you’d think, which is rare for Hungarian names) as it mutates from a shopping street to a giant interchange where it meets the center’s outer ring, to a quiet boulevard of embassies set back from the sidewalk.

Ferencz Liszt, who apparently kept a chicken on his head to stimulate creativity.
I reach the outskirts of the park, grab an ice cream and marvel at the statues of historically important Huns. Deeper into the park, there is a memorial to George Washington, and a number of eclectic architectural follies that were intended as temporary entertainment for 1896, but were so beloved by the people that they were kept around. I smirk condescendingly at the faux medieval castle – where I come from, we have plenty of the real thing – and genuinely admire the memorial to Anonymous (not that one, but spiritually similar). Eventually, I get to the Szecheny baths; something that every visitor to Budapest absolutely has to try – but not today. The baths are not going anywhere, and I shall be back.

For now, I take the charming retro-metro back downtown. The tram takes me to the main market building, where I grab a Hungarian specialty, the foie gras; I freshen up at the hotel and head out again, to check out the synagogue and the nearby region of dive bars - a repurposed, central but initially run-down area of cheap housing for artistic types.

Eventually I end up on Vaci utca, the touristy nightlife strip. Nothing particularly alluring there, but I find a decent-looking restaurant with a reasonably priced special of Hungarian specialties: goulash (which means something entirely different inside Hungary than it does outside), chicken paprika, and a pancake. I end the day people-watching at the plaza where Line 1 begins. It’s time to leave Budapest for a while.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Welcome to Budapest

After a night in a hostel’s dorm bed and an early-morning slog to the bus station, the Malev jet gets me to Budapest in the early afternoon. I don’t know very much about Budapest, other than a vague historic background, the fact that it’s two cities separated by a river, and that one of the cities is hilly. The one cultural experience I’ve had of it beforehand is a movie about Budapest’s subway ticket checkers, which does not paint a pretty picture of that metropolis’s underground system. My first experience with Budapest supports that impression. I opt for public transport to reach the city itself, but while the airport’s international terminal is new and impressive, it doesn’t have a direct rail connection yet; there’s a local bus connecting it to the end of the subway terminal. I try the ticket machines, but they won’t accept my forints; the bus driver won’t take my money either, which is a plus. On the minus side, the old bus meanders down the highway and spits me out in a marketplace right out of Tallinn’s difficult Nineties. The unsightly, graffitied communist-era train carries me to the outer edges of the old imperial city and my hotel.

There is a word for both Budapest and Vienna; I haven’t been to Prague, so I don’t know if it applies to the third Hapsburg capital, but it certainly does to every other major city of that domain. You can still see references to it on old buildings: K+K, Kaiserlich und Königlich. “Imperial and Royal” refers to the notion that the monarch ruled at once as the emperor of Austria, and the king of Hungary; it is an artifact of the unusual political arrangement that followed the realization that the metaphorical Huns could no longer effectively govern their lands without the stakeholding involvement of the self-proclaimed ones. It is that period of Hungary’s greatest significance and prosperity that dominates the center of Budapest, and I get a strong dose of K+K glory as I exit the subway station at the intersection of the outer boulevard ring and a major urban artery. The traffic intersection is absolutely massive. The Hapsburgs pioneered this architecture in Vienna for the purposes of controlling rebellions – giving the mob a nice wide road to charge down, into the face of cannon fire. In Budapest, this aesthetic – perhaps reinforced by the Communist penchant for monumental civic works – was taken to the extreme. These are not the broad freeways of LA, designed with traffic flow in mind; first and foremost, these streets were built to impress.

I drop off my bags at a cheap hotel, cringe at the smell of smoke in my room, and head back out. I woke up early that morning, with a beer headache, and didn’t care for the hostel’s communal shower; but Budapest beckoned, so I throw on a black shirt over my slept-in T-shirt and go down to the Danube.

The massive river impresses. I walk along the embankment, north from the last of the downtown bridges described in my guidebook – a Rick Steves one, which I had never tried before (but I’d been burned a few times already by terrible Lonely Planet and Rough Guides ones). I check the map to build a sequence of interesting spots that I want to see, and soon cross a bridge to one of Budapest’s lesser-known but more impressive landmarks: the Church in the Rock. Built literally into the side of a steep Buda mountain, it served as a refuge for the country’s clerics in the Second World War, among other things.

I love churches, despite being an atheist – they are frequently the expression of an era and a community’s greatest enduring achievements. I’ve been to two of the top three Catholic cathedrals in the world (St. Peters in Rome and St. Johns in New York – the other one is in Cote D’Ivoire, which will have to wait), but the Church in the Rock is one of the most literally impressive ones I’d ever visited. It’s the one I remember.

Instead of heading back to the hotel for a shower, I decide to press on, into the Buda hills. Drenched in sweat, I take the steepest paths up from river-level to the Lady with the Bottle Opener – a monument right next to a massive fortress overlooking the city. The Citadel itself costs money to enter; I don’t bother – the beauty is in the view. I go down the other side of the hill and up again, follow my guidebook for a quick run through the grounds of the royal palace, and reach the blessed cool of another unusual attraction – the Hospital in the Rock. This was another WWII sanctuary, a working hospital this time, and now a museum showing the equipment of the age. The medical technology available to German troops so long ago is impressive, but it’s always a bit weird to learn about the struggles of the people who were on the losing side of that war. I may share the Hungarians’ historic dislike of the Soviets, but there’s no doubt that the Nazis were the bad guys in the conflict. The Buda hills were the last part of the city to fall to the Red Army, after a long siege, and things got pretty bad down there in the hospital.

Travelcat in Budapest

I cross the hill again and go down through the Fishermen’s Gate. Checking the guidebook, I go for dinner at a legendary but non-fancy local eatery, with an unpronounceable name that translates as Grandma’s Pancakes. It is cheap and delicious, and to my delight, the staff does not speak English and is not bothered by that. This may be a Nordic bias, but the most surprising thing about Hungary to me was the fact that in this large country that is definitely oriented towards Europe, would be very upset if you thought of it as Balkan, and wants very little to do with the resurgence of Turkey, hardly anybody speaks English. Outside the most obvious tourist traps, this society is remarkably self-contained.

By the time I get out of the café, it is dark – and I instantly encounter the remarkable sight of the Hungarian Parliament at night. Viewed in full illumination from across the river, it is a sight that can challenge any famous urban landscape you care to name, and have a very good chance of winning.

I walk back along the embankment, on the Pest side, stopping to take pictures along the way – including the obligatory shot of one of the central bridges, so iconic that even on a Tuesday evening, there is an encampment of shutterbugs in the traffic island at its one end, tripods and all. The cities of Buda and Pest have been here for a very long time, and the importance of the Danube as a trade route has kept them busy – but for the longest time, there were no bridges at all. You could cross by boat in the summer, or walk or ride across the ice in the winter, but there were still long periods when the two sides were effectively isolated. It was not until fairly recently that a Hungarian noble prince, stranded on the wrong side and unable to get to his dying father’s bedside, took up a collection and erected the first permanent span. 

Since then, Budapest’s bridges have joined its castles as tributes to the nation’s grandeur. These are the most Kaiserlich and Königlich bridges you’re likely to find.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Prologue

The trick to having an adventure is to rush into it.

This adventure did not begin with the shot of a starting pistol, and it did not begin with me telling anyone “well, I’m off”. It began with another, smaller adventure – two days volunteering for a youth culture festival, while a friend from abroad visited. On the Saturday, after the day’s event schedule was done, I took Tom to Tartu’s most popular student bar for the open mic night of our comedy circuit. After my set, fueled by the performer’s free gin and tonics, we went back to the festival afterparty where I’d promised to help run the drinks station, and stopped over for a greasy late-night burger on the way. The club was full of young people who came there to be weird. Tom enjoyed the night a lot. I enjoyed it a whole lot more. The party ran out of alcohol that night.

The second day is something of a haze; I know that I did not take Tom out drinking on Sunday night. We were on the early morning bus to Tallinn, first thing on Monday morning, and I still needed to pack. And sleep.

Tom’s flight back to London was not until later in the day, so I texted him that it wasn’t a big deal for him to wake up for the 7am bus, but he made it anyway. I was catching the fast ferry across the bay a couple of hours after him, but before that, I had a business meeting in an office park far from central Tallinn. I was carrying my bags, with all the stuff I’d need for the next month, across many time zones, climates and terrains; and to my dismay, there were no left-luggage lockers anywhere in the center of town. I ended up installing Tom in a WiFi-enabled coffee shop, where he happily drank those sugary, creamy, vaguely coffee-based beverages that he’s come to love for their sheer New Europe un-self-consciousness (a welcome change from socially obsessive London), while I took the electric bus out to Kadaka. The meeting did not result in anything useful, other than experience; they might have wanted to talk to me again, but I would be unavailable for an entire month.

The adventure was, in this form, an accident. I’d accumulated enough vacation time to have a proper big one; the original idea was to see the Far East. I’d been to Hong Kong and Singapore before, and found them quite fascinating. In the spring of 2011, I was going to fly to Seoul, spend two weeks in Korea (including a few days with an acquaintance in Busan), then take the ferry over to Japan for two weeks there. Not long before my trip, the tsunami and Fukushima disaster happened. I almost still went, but it did not seem to be a good time to visit Japan. Those events would give me an important experience later – but that’s not part of this story.

As my travel insurance paid off, I had both the spare time and the spare cash to jump onto a good offer when I saw one. I did not originally intend to go back to the US – I’d been there two years before, close to two weeks spent in NYC and then staying with a friend near Washington D.C. Since I’d been in California before that, for an entire month, back in the summer of 2003 (and on my employer’s dime), America was not my first choice; but then there came an offer I could not refuse. American Airlines was starting a new direct route to Budapest, and was offering an incredible deal: several destinations in the US, plus three whole destinations on their alliance partner’s network in Europe, all on the same ticket. It was only available for a single day, until Malev, the Hungarian national carrier, woke up to what AA was actually asking of them, and for how much money; but I acted fast enough to secure a huge round trip for a mere 530 euros. Helsinki to Budapest (where I hadn’t been before) to Barcelona (which I’d wanted to visit again) back to Budapest, to NYC (never dull) to Los Angeles (which I’d only ever briefly driven through); and back from Seattle (removed enough for an adventure), connecting through NYC and back to Budapest, then to Helsinki again. I’d be paying a bit more for the ferries and other travel arrangements, but it was still an amazing deal.
The most expensive and difficult part would be getting from LA to Seattle via all the places I’d wanted to visit. I really wanted to use trains as much as I could, but even on the West Coast, which is heavily populated in the south and very civically minded in the north, the Amtrak service appeared to be abysmal. I didn’t fancy the Greyhound buses, so I convinced myself that it was worth renting a car.

I came back to central Tallinn and found Tom in good spirits, even more so when I showed him the Depeche Mode bar (closed on a Monday morning, unfortunately – but he’d come back for it, and bring his DM-loving friends). Between the aggravation of carting around my bags on public transport, and the potential cost of cabs, this was actually the perfect use case for the Minirent service, which had started up in Tallinn just before then. I could have picked up a bright-green Prius at the bus station, left my bags in it for the meeting at Mustamäe, dropped my friend off at the airport, then driven to the ferry terminal and left it there, and it would not have been that expensive. But I was about to spend a lot of money on more than just convenience. I was going to have an experience.

The hydrofoil took me across the first (theoretical) border; from a sunny, crisp late-September afternoon in Tallinn, to an absolutely dreary evening in Helsinki. For me, that city has always been a source of disappointment (for both architectural and personal reasons) and a sense of urban discomfort and uselessness that I’d rarely felt before outside of Brussels. Never mind; I was only here because my flight was early in the morning. I’d originally been meant to take the double-espresso pondhopper from Tallinn to Helsinki-Vantaa, but in the meantime, Finncom Airlines had decided it didn’t feel like flying to Estonia anymore; so there wasn’t an early bird option. I’d have to spend the night in a Helsinki hotel, and just to get some use out of those 26 euros, I had talked my way into a guest spot at a comedy show.

Not that it was anything fancy. I’d done a regular comedy club in Helsinki before, and done well; but what was available on that night was the locals’ new material/open mic night. Where Comedy Estonia had the benefit of novelty and a supportive enthusiastic fan base, in Helsinki there was nothing new or exciting about standup, not even in English. So the show, despite featuring some big local names, was in one half of a glass-fronted coffee shop in an alley just off a strip mall on Mannerheim Road. It certainly had the benefit of being as central as Helsinki gets, but nobody in the bar was there to see comedy; they were just there to get drunk on a Monday night. I don’t remember much of my five-minute set, but I do remember getting the stone-faced crowd to smirk at least a couple of times, and on the night, I considered that a win. I also remember taking the piss out of the big-name local: “I’ve been told that Tomi Walamies’s  face has recently appeared on a bus… I thought Tomi’s face was a bus!” You may understand why I don’t do standup any more.

I stayed in the bar, surfing on their WiFi until I ran out of drinks tickets that the promoter was handing out to the performers (more than fair, since nobody in the audience had actually paid to get in) – I was the only one with nothing better to do on a Monday night than to load up on Lapin Kulta – and went back to the scandalously over-priced hostel for my alarm to wake me up just in time for the first coach to Vantaa.

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Estonian Customer Service

Customer service stories are always popular with readers, right? Got a few different ones saved up for you.

The Good

Motodepoo is a largish motorcycle supply shop (and Kawasaki dealer). Along with Tartu's Motohoov, it tends to be the default choice for parts and gear, and it has a nice big storefront in Tallinn with a good stock of gear on the premises. Beyond that, it has an online presence,

With enough stock come leftovers, and occasionally the store has some really good discounts - especially right at the end of the riding season. Last year, I picked up a nice matte black helmet from them for a song, and this year they had one in the same color scheme as my bike, and in my size. (As personal acquaintances and long-time blog readers might recognize, I have a big head.)

The helmet, an HJC FG-14, cost me 35 euros (original list price was supposedly 250), plus overnight shipping. I sent in the order on Thursday morning, paid the invoice in the afternoon, and got the helmet delivered on Friday.

Except that it was the wrong size and the wrong color.

A system is not defined by its mistakes, but its reaction to mistakes - and Motodepoo was very cool about it. One phone call, and the dude apologized, said he'd find the right helmet in the warehouse and ship it to me. I could return the wrong one via Smartpost (my idea), or just drop by their store some time - no rush (their idea). The right helmet got overnighted again, and I had it on Saturday morning. The box with the wrong helmet was indeed mislabeled; Motodepoo's mistake was in not checking the contents before sending the box off, and they certainly handled the situation extremely well. Considering that this was a very low-value transaction for them - clearing warehouse space, selling a product almost certainly below cost - I am very happy with the company and will certainly deal with them again in the future. Oh, and the helmet's very nice.

The Bad

This was a few months back. I'd just returned from my Nordkapp trip, and didn't want to go out for dinner in Tallinn (where I was spending the night). So I ordered some food via a new service I'd seen somewhere called TapTender: you download an app to your smartphone (or use a Web browser) to order from a restaurant's menu, and they'll either deliver your order, or have it prepared and ready to serve by the time you specify, so you can arrive at the restaurant and get your meal right away. I'm not absolutely convinced there is enough added value in the idea to make it a business case, but here was a good opportunity to try it out.

I'd used the browser to put in my order and the address where it was to be delivered. The wait time was an hour - not particularly fast, but not unreasonable. Except that after an hour, the food was still not there. About an hour and 45 minutes in, I called the restaurant; the food was ready, but the delivery driver had not picked it up yet. They promised to call the TapTender people and figure out what was going on. A few minutes later, I got a call from TapTender's manager: their driver had become inexplicably unavailable, without warning. It did not occur to them that they could fix their mistake by getting the restaurant to use its other delivery service - which was working fine - until I'd suggested it. They said they'd call the restaurant and ask if that was possible, and call me back. When they did, I told them that so much time had passed since my food was supposed to arrive, that there was no more point in it.

My experience with the service was a complete and utter shambles, but to be fair, the TapTender people were very apologetic and seemed to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed. I got a call the next day, from their founder/CEO/whatever, offering a free delivery as compensation, but as I was not in Tallinn any more, I told them to forget it and just make sure it doesn't happen again. It's ludicrous that a contracted, professional delivery driver would simply fail to answer a call-out, but I have reasonable hopes that it taught the company a lesson. If you've used TapTender recently, I'd love to hear about your experience.

The Ugly

Möku is one of Tartu's premier pubs, a tiny room in a basement on the main pedestrian street that is open only in the evenings, serves only drinks (no food), and is extremely popular. It was started as a passion project by a couple of IT guys who wanted to bring the "local pub" culture to Tartu - to open a place that would establish a crowd of regulars, and stimulate a community feel. The combination of cheap drinks and an excellent location made Möku a staple of Tartu's pub culture. For two years, they hosted the monthly open mic shows for Comedy Estonia, of which I was a part. On show nights, comedians drank for free. I quite enjoyed that bit.

Unfortunately, Möku seems to have fallen victim to its own success - something that happens to a lot of personally motivated businesses while they grow big. Möku's crowd has grown to be many times that of its capacity, and these days the street in front of it is one big block party on weekend nights - certainly boosted by two other drinking establishments immediately next to it. On a warm, dry, mosquito-free night, this is a great place to hang out, and a place where you can go and expect to find people you know.

That is, if you can get a drink.

Möku's conceptual notion remains the same, even as its actual business has changed drastically. While in the early days, the founders themselves ran the bar, now it is all hired staff. And while I've met some cool people who worked at the bar while I was doing the comedy stuff, it seems that Möku has had trouble keeping them.

On a recent Friday night, I'd persuaded a few friends, old and new, to leave the dubstep-infused meatmarket that is Shooters and head over to Möku for a few drinks at a place where we could hear ourselves think. A few of the people were foreigners, so I figured it would be fun to buy them an Estonian Flag shot - like I did with a bunch of visiting comedians when we'd go to Möku after our main show. Now, different pubs make Estonian Flag shots differently, and I like the Möku version: pina colada, Salmiakki vodka, and Curacao Blue. (I know it sounds disgusting, but it works.)

After waiting for fifteen minutes to reach the bar, I was told by the girl there that I could not buy Estonian Flag shots for my friends. Not because she didn't know how to make them, but because it would take too long. There was a line, you see; and the only things she would sell were bottled beer, or whatever was on tap. (Maybe if I asked nicely I could have gotten a gin and tonic or a rum and coke, but I didn't dare ask.)

This was not the first time that Möku staff refused to sell me anything more complicated than two ingredients quickly thrown together in a plastic cup. It's a recent phenomenon, and while I can certainly blame the individual bartender, I also think it's a failure of Möku's management. On a massively busy Friday night, they only had two girls on the staff - one of whom was gathering up the empty glasses, running the dishwasher, getting more stock out of the back room, etc. With a clientèle of hundreds, Möku still only has one point of sale and one wired card terminal. And while I'm sure they could make more revenue from selling bottled beers in the time it took them to prepare a few expensive shots, refusing a sale like that is just ridiculous. I have a lot of historical loyalty to Möku, it's been good to me, but after repeating that experience a few times, I have no desire to return. I'd rather just go to that newish Pirogov place, where they make a great White Russian, and if you get there early enough, they might just give you some fantastic soup.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Medical Strike Demands

Came upon a link to a letter sent by the medical workers' union to its members. It sets out, in clear language, what exactly it is that the doctors and nurses are asking for. Figure it's worth translating for anyone who's following the events.

For what it's worth, the taxation issue warrants further discussion, but otherwise I personally find these demands to be reasonable.

The Purposes and Demands of the Healthcare Workers' Strike

The purpose is to slow down the outflow of healthcare workers from Estonia and stop the disintegration of the healthcare system.

To achieve the purpose:

A. We demand a collective agreement that:

* Extends to all healthcare workers, irrespective of whether they are financed from the Health Insurance Fund or from the state budget;

* Sets out the maximum work amount that can be demanded within a 1.0 workload position. For doctors, the number of in- and outpatients treated per year. For nurses and caretakers, the number of patients in a department per employee;

* Implements a 40-hour paid work week for a resident physician;

* Ensures defacto accounting and compensation of overtime, additional pay for night work, the coverage of supplementary training costs, additional vacation time;

* Implements minimum hourly wage rates - the first phase demands are, before tax, 8.60 for doctors, 5.50 for nurses, 3.00 for caretakers. The wage increase must be palpable and guaranteed for the next 3 years, to slow down the outflow of healthcare workers.

We will accept an honest offer that considers all financial possibilities. Note: we are talking about raising minimum rates, not an equal percentage increase for everyone.

B. We want agreements for the introduction of changes to the healthcare system and funding increases. For conditions that cannot be immediately implemented starting from 2013, we will agree to a longer-term schedule, but a specific plan of action along with implementation deadlines must be agreed upon and binding to the parties.

* The hospital network's development plan must specifically define the volume and kind of specialist medical care (in what specialist fields) that will unequivocally remain in general hospitals, and must also define how the state will ensure the preservation of this volume. This will give young upcoming physicians a sense of stability. The decisions must be made at the state level, not left up to the hospital owners.

* To improve the availability of medical care:

a) Change the maximum limit of outpatient queues for specialist doctor care back to 4 weeks (this was changed to 6 weeks in 2009).

b) Restore dental care compensation for patients.

c) Provide family doctor care to uninsured persons, financing it from the state budget.

These changes will also reduce the unnecessary additional workload of doctors and costs to the state, as easier illnesses that are left untreated become more difficult and chronic, and the treatment becomes more expensive.

* To increase the 2013 budget of the Health Insurance Fund:

a) Cover the capital costs of hospitals from the state budget (as per the Health Services Organisation Act)

b) Use the undistributed profit of the Health Insurance Fund to the maximum extent permitted by law

* To increase the income base of healthcare, we recommend the adoption of the 2010 WHO proposals "Possibilities for ensuring the financial  sustainability of the Estonian health system", for example raising capital taxes, application of social tax to dividends, state-paid social tax on pensions. The choice must be made by the politicians.

We are prepared to negotiate and compromise on all topics. We will be able to end the strike as soon as the agreements are signed.

More On Inflation

One of those "I got into it in a forum, and might as well repost the whole thing" articles. The original topic was on the correlation of payroll tax levels and unemployment levels - statistically there doesn't seem to be a very strong one. Edited slightly for clarity. I'll update the post if there's any further interesting discussion.

Fwiw, any government that is that worried about unemployment should just employ people.
And pay them out of what? (Other than a few energy exporters like Russia or Venezuela, the state depends on tax revenues from private commerce. Short-term countercyclical surges like the New Deal are one thing, but government hiring is not a viable long-term solution.)

Money. Something that any government (well, any not dumb enough to sign maastricht) doesn't even have a theoretical limit of.
 The Finance Minister of Zimbabwe called, he said to tell you "Bitch please".

Zimbabwe didn't run out of its own currency. It never faced a problem of 'not having enough money'. Its problem is hyperinflation. Different problem entirely.

If you think deficit spending leads one inexorably on to the path of Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation, well I'd like to introduce you to Japan. Still fighting deflation after 20 years of massive deficit spending leading to a national debt at 200% of GDP. They could (and probably should) deficit spend even more.
The fact that Japan has a 200% GDP debt rate is exactly because they don't treat their money supply as inexhaustible. Otherwise their debt rate would be zero. They wouldn't borrow money, they'd print it.

Anyway, Japan's got an economic problem because it's a high-wage country with an insular culture and an aging population right next to a gigantic source of cheap labor; the majority of its population can't produce anything that would be competitive on the world market, so it's turned to internal consumption. It can run up 200% GDP debt because of the unique circumstance that its real estate is far too expensive for young people to afford, and the money that would be parked in equity in any other developed country is diverted either to discretionary spending (bouncing around the economy and cyclically taxed as VAT) or to savings accounts, which the domestic banks use to buy government bonds.

From the Weimar Republic to Zimbabwe to early-90s Russia or more-recent Belarus - every time a state has actually treated its currency supply as inexhaustible, it's only led to hyperinflation.

(Other participant:) So you're agreeing with the part where he says "spending is inflationary", right? Any comments on deflation?
 Printing money and releasing it into the economy is inflationary, yes. The reason why QE hasn't caused as much inflation in the US, or the EU for that matter, as it ought to have, is because all that liquidity is actually parked in bank reserves - not bouncing around the economy.

Not all spending is necessarily highly inflationary though - an excellent example is US foreign aid to Israel, which is required to be spent on purchasing military hardware from US manufacturers. Effectively it is a form of government welfare spending - pumping money into the economy - but because it keeps people at work, the rate at which that money is released into the economy is hard-limited. This, incidentally, is part of why the EU is so happy to pump money into its periphery: most of it is earmarked spending, and is effectively the creation of a market for the core's vital manufacturing sectors. (We just got a huge pile of EU money to overhaul our commuter rail network, but the trains we buy can only be Spanish or Austrian.) This kind of spending, which is associated with real production and export of goods, and a gainfully employed population, is not immediately inflationary beyond the natural inflation caused by income growth - the problem is when the foreign aid comes from borrowed money. You can keep it up for a while and not have dangerous levels of inflation, but only until people stop lending to you.

As for deflation... Do not conflate falling real incomes with deflation. Deflation by definition is a numeric decrease in consumer prices, and that's a very rare thing indeed - although it did happen in Estonia for one year in the middle of the crisis, when the sharp drop in incomes and, inevitably, spending, actually did force retailers to decrease prices on primary consumables - through market pressure alone, not government regulation. But that was a fluke.
(First participant:) You do realize that I was saying only that a country could create limitless amounts of money, not that it actually should create near limitless amounts of money.

You were saying that they could somehow "run out", and required the private sector to produce it. The private sector doesn't produce it and even Zimbabwe didn't run out. It created hyperinflation. Fine. Not a problem that's on our horizon, so rather irrelevant.
It's not a problem on your horizon because you're not dumping massive amounts of printed cash into the economy. Your central bank is playing a shell game with creditor confidence, creating the illusion if liquidity by printing money but keeping it warehoused. If all that cash that private banks borrowed from the BoE at near-zero interest actually gets lent out as small business or consumer loans, you'll see a huge inflation spike immediately.

So: it's not a problem on your horizon exactly because your government is not doing it.
 (Other participant:) It's not going to cause inflation if rich people pocket it and get richer, in other words.
Yes, if they actually pocket it, as in, keep it in a big vault and not spend it. But in this case they're not even pocketing it. The government is letting them hold on to it for a little while, so they can show their business partners that they have a suitcase full of cash and can be trusted to pay for the truck full of frozen fish within 30 days, not immediately on delivery.

There's the problem of the rich people giving themselves massive paychecks out of that money, of course, but that's a different issue.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Translators, especially ones like me (specializing on expensive rush jobs), rarely get to feel like their actions are directly making the world a better place.

Last night, just before midnight, I'm finishing up a video game and thinking I might as well go to sleep, when an email comes in. It's a translation agency I've not worked with before; a family has a sick child, and the local doctors can't make him better. They need a rush translation of the medical history. I'm not a dedicated medical translator (and that field has lots of specialist terminology, of course), but yes, I can get it done quickly. Two hours and seven pages later, I go to sleep.

This morning, I get a response from the agency. My translations were sent to hospitals in Germany late in the night, where the local doctors reviewed them and agreed to take on the case. I think the kid's on a plane right now or something.

I don't mind the usual work I do, but every once in a while, it's great to feel like I'm making a real difference in someone's life. Sure beats corporate correspondence, tax records, or user manuals for scooters.

Hope the kid will be alright.

Monday, September 17, 2012

EGF is the new ACTA

But not in the same way that you might think.

EGF, or EUGENDFOR, or the European Gendarmerie Force, is a military police force under central EU control - specifically, under control of a council of representatives from participating states. It can be deployed to any EU state, or any non-EU state, by request of the receiving state's government.

I came across a link to this article, mentioning that there was a protest against the EGF and that its critics claim that it is a Gestapo-type organization, not subject to any legal control by the state to which it is deployed; it is all-powerful and cannot be stopped.

This alarmist attitude reeked of the kind of blinkered charging activism that we saw before with ACTA. Unlike most of the well-meaning but apparently attention-deficient protesters, I am at least willing to give European leaders enough of the benefit of the doubt to spend ten minutes reading the actual treaties.

To reiterate my ACTA disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am just a person who gets paid for reading and understanding legal texts.

The founding treaty of the EGF is easy to find: here it is. Like ACTA, it's not really as difficult to read as you might expect from a legal document outlining a set of technical issues; I think English-language EU treaties are simpler than many legal texts I've had to translate because they are initially negotiated among non-native English speakers. Language tends to be reduced to the barest necessities of meaning.

In the event, the founding treaty of the European Gendarmerie Force is concerned primarily with issues of who pays for what, and how much stuff can an EGF member bring with them tax-free when relocating to the force's HQ in Italy. As always, I encourage you to go and read the full text for yourself. But the concern is that the EGF can be deployed to an EU state and conduct police missions there, including criminal investigative work, without any regard for the laws of that state; the local authorities cannot challenge the EGF's actions. So here are the relevant quotes from the EGF treaty.

In the section outlining the general terms:

EUROGENDFOR Personnel and their family members must respect the law in force in the Host State or the Receiving State. In addition, EUROGENDFOR Personnel must refrain from carrying out any activities incompatible with the spirit of this Treaty while on the territory of the Host State or the Receiving State.

In the section outlining criminal liability and jurisdiction:

The authorities of the Host State or the Receiving State shall have the right to exercise jurisdiction over military and civilian personnel and their family members, with respect to offences committed within their respective territories and punishable by the laws of that State.
There is more stuff there, including the interesting provision that if an EGF official commits a crime that is punishable under the laws of the sending state, but not the receiving state, then the sending state can prosecute them; and if the official commits a crime that is punishable in the receiving state but not the sending state, then the receiving state can prosecute them.

So yes, EGF officials are indeed subject to the laws and oversight of the country in which they are operating.

In fact, there is exactly one iffy paragraph in the treaty, where I think the confusion may have originated:

A member of EUROGENDFOR Personnel shall not be subject to any proceedings for the enforcement of any judgement given against him or her in the Host State or the Receiving State in a matter arising from the performance of his official duties.
However, this is part of an article specifically titled "Damage to third parties". The point of the paragraph is that if an EGF official causes property damage in the course of executing their mission, that official is not personally liable for compensating the damage. (The EGF and the involved governments are liable, though.)

So, as usual: before you get outraged by something, make the effort to do the very minimum of research. (Or at least do what Jacques Zammit did and ask me to do the research for you. My payment is the satisfaction of subtly telling people they're being stupid.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Nordkapp By Motorcycle

Think of this as one of those "For Dummies" guide, written by a dummy. This is my first riding season, I only got my license last September and bought the motorcycle in December. This July, I had vacation time to spare and no desire to go lie on a beach, so I got an early start on every self-respecting rider's mandatory pilgrimage to the northernmost point reachable by paved road: Nordkapp.

My journey took me a week and some 4000km, and I took two different roads through Finland: up via the more populated western coast and Swedish border, and back down via the mostly empty northeast. Masses of bikers make the trip up to Nordkapp every summer, but in preparing for my trip, I found that there aren't very many practical reports and descriptions. Those I did find were quite helpful, so I hope others will find use out of what I can now contribute. If I miss a question, feel free to ask it and I'll answer if I can.


You don't need a touring or adventure bike to make this trip. I rode a naked bike with a stock saddle (known for being not particularly comfortable), and although it was inconvenient on the freeways, I massively enjoyed it on the mountain roads of Norway. Whatever kind of bike you have, you can and should take it to Nordkapp. (If you made the trip on a seatless trial bike, or a 50cc scooter, I salute you and want to buy you a beer.)

That said, I suggest you start out by doing a daytrip of a few hundred kilometers around your home, and think of whether you can sustain that kind of riding for a whole week. Remember that even on a long riding day, you will be stopping for gas a lot more often than you would with a car. Between that and stops for lunch, taking photos, etc., you can give your ass enough of a rest.

With very little long-distance riding experience, I figured out that the maximum comfortable daily riding distance is about 500km. I did 660km on my first day, and was absolutely exhausted - it's definitely not something I would have liked to do every day. Later on, I had a few short 350km days, which allowed me to check out late, and get to the next town early enough to explore.

Pay attention to your bike's wind protection. Even a small windscreen will help a lot if you're normally riding a stripped streetfighter. If you've got a chopper without a windscreen, dress extra warm.


You need an appropriate riding suit, and warm clothes. Nordkapp is literally the northernmost point reachable by paved road, and once you pass the Arctic Circle, you still have two days of riding due north to get there. Tight leathers won't help. You need a good textile suit, windproof and waterproof. (Some people use rain overalls, but those are inconvenient and more or less single-use.) Additional thermal layers help. I had a full matching suit with a thermal lining for the jacket and a waterproof lining for the pants, and I still had to buy long underwear and a fleece once I got north of the Bay of Bothnia. The rule of thumb is: wear what you would if you were in the ambient temperature, then add your riding gear on top of that, and make sure you're waterproof. It will rain.

You'll probably wear whatever helmet you already have, but if you have a choice, I'd recommend a full-face enclosed one. The ones with flip-up jaws are nifty, but you rarely actually need that function; and a full-face helmet will be both lighter and quieter at high speed. A built-in retractable sun visor can be very helpful.

The one thing you probably don't need on this trip is a dedicated GPS device. Regular navigators are not rugged enough to be used on a bike, where they are exposed to rain and wind and road grime. Motorcycle navigators are unreasonably expensive. Both are clunky to mount on your tank or steering handles, and distract you from the road. Most of the road to Nordkapp is well-signposted; for those very rare cases where you need to get your bearings, you can probably just use the GPS in your phone. (Make sure to pre-load the maps for the countries where you're going. You don't need turn-by-turn guidance, but you do need an offline copy of the map.)


This depends largely on your budget, preference, and type of bike. Lapland and Finnmark (the northernmost provinces of Finland and Norway respectively) have pretty good travel infrastructure, but these are still very sparsely inhabited places. You can't just bring your credit card, at least if you don't want to walk around in your riding gear and soaked T-shirt.

You don't need to bring a tent - I didn't - but a sleeping bag is a good idea. Other than that, have at least one pair of normal trousers, comfortable shoes, and a softshell or rain jacket in addition to what you wear on the bike. A fresh pair of socks and underwear for every day you're going to be on the road - these can be cheapo supermarket items that you throw away at the end of the day. Bring spare provisions. I had a couple of ramen cups and a bunch of cereal bars. Canned food is good, but heavy.

Don't encumber your bike too much (you want to have fun riding!), and make sure the luggage is secure and comfortable, and does not restrict your body movement. The one thing I would not recommend, on a sporty or naked bike at least, is a tank bag. You'll want to lean forward at some point, if only to reduce your wind resistance, and it's good to be able to get right onto the tank. There isn't anything inherently important about a tank bag - the roads are straightforward, you don't need a map, and shouldn't be taking your eyes off the road anyway. Between saddlebags and a rear bag/backpack, you should have enough space. Remember the ultimate maxim of travel packing: if you can't carry your luggage up the stairs yourself in one go, you've brought too much.

I had a set of soft saddlebags that I got for 40 euros, used, plus a largish backpack fixed on the pillion with elastic cargo straps. This isn't as good as a full set of hardcases on fixed racks, but it got the job done, and it was a hell of a lot cheaper. Look on eBay, and particularly on your local biker forums: you've got a good chance of picking up a cheap set of luggage from someone who just used up all their vacation time and won't be going on long trips again until next season.


Riding for hours upon hours in a day, and staying in unfamiliar places, often campsites without any major population center or source of entertainment attached, can be lonely. The enforced isolation is certainly one part of the beauty of long-distance motorcycle trips - you're forced to clear your mind in order to ride safely - but at some point, it still gets boring. Music helps; audiobooks help more. A good audiobook or a set of podcasts will distract your mind without affecting your body movement.

There are two important things to remember here. One is battery life. Many touring/adventure bikes have 12V power outlets (like the cigarette lighter outlets in cars), and it's trivial to install an aftermarket one on any bike, under the seat for example; any electronics shop will have a cigarette-lighter-to-USB plug. The inconvenience with charging your audio player on the move is in handling the earphone cord. A helmet-mounted Bluetooth speaker system, or any other Bluetooth setup, solves that. (You can get a Bluetooth dongle with a standard 3.5mm output, pair that to your phone, and use whatever headphones you're used to.) The big problem is that any Bluetooth system introduces a new battery that can run down at an inconvenient time. Overall, I prefer to put the phone in my jacket and use wired earbuds. I have an external battery pack with USB output, which is too bulky to use on the move, but it's enough to juice up the phone while I've stopped for lunch. Remember that if you're traveling abroad, you probably don't want to pay data roaming charges; turn off the WiFi, Bluetooth, mobile data and background sync options, and even a fancy new smartphone like my HTC One X will last you a full day's riding.

The other important factor is your earphones. If you're not riding a tourer or adventure bike with great wind protection, you'll have a wind noise problem. Most earbuds are not loud enough. I don't have a full helmet-speaker system in my current gear, but I used a Cardo Scala Rider during my training, and it wasn't loud enough at highway speeds on a naked bike. My favourite behind-the-ear phones - Sennheiser PMX-60s - would not fit inside the helmet. What you need is canalphones, the type of foam-tipped compact earbuds that get screwed way down into your ear canals. The weapon of choice seems to be the Sennheiser CX-300, but I just used a pair of cheap Vivancos that I had lying around - they were adequate for spoken word content.

If you've got good experiences with audio setups, I'd love to hear about them!

The Road

Nordkapp is your destination, and while there are some magnificent roads on the final stretch, you have a few choices of how to get there. The best route I can think of is to get yourself to southern Norway and ride all the way up along the coast. From Central Europe, you can bypass Poland entirely by taking a ferry out of Rostock or Travemünde, or do the entire trip rubber-to-road by going through Denmark and over to Sweden via the Östersund tunnel. From southeast Europe, I'm told that Belarus actually has good roads and not very corrupt highway cops, but you'd need to get a visa.

If you're coming from further away, I really do suggest you try to avoid going through Poland if you can help it. This is based both on my own previous experience and on the opinion of everyone I've asked who's driven through Poland on the way to central Europe and back. The problem is that Poland has an incredibly high volume of transit traffic, including a lot of trucks, and the road network is quite patchy. There's a really nice autobahn in the middle, but it doesn't stretch to the German or Lithuanian borders, and you'll be breathing diesel fumes in heavy traffic for far too long. From the Polish-Lithuanian border and all the way up through the Baltics, the roads are decent, fuel is cheap, and you can bypass all the big-town traffic until you get to Tallinn.

If you're feeling adventurous enough, and can swing a visa, and are determined to avoid ferries, a detour to St. Petersburg can certainly be worthwhile. The Estonian-Russian border crossing at Narva may be permanently congested, but motorcycles get to skip the line. You may be tempted to take the Russian roads almost all the way north and cross into Norway at Kirkenes (I know at least one guy in St. Petersburg who intends to do just that); I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, but it's certainly going to be less boring than Finland.

Once you get to Finland, there are overnight car-carrying trains out of the big southern cities, and they will take bikes as well, although you don't get a discount on the fare. They're not very frequent, but if there's one that works with your schedule, you can have an easy overnight voyage that will get you up past the Arctic Circle. Depending on your circumstances, it might not even be that much more expensive than riding - but don't fool yourself, it is definitely cheating.

The Nordkapp Tunnel is no longer a toll road, access to the island is free as of the summer of 2012. Access to Nordkapp itself is 235 NOK, or 160 NOK if you don't want to watch the movie. Apparently you can get there really early and get on the grounds before the ticket sellers; some people just drive up to the gates and turn around, to avoid paying. My suggestion is to just pay up. If you got this far, you might as well go all the way to the tip of the cape. And the ticket price is part of what pays for the upkeep of the 35 kilometers of absolutely beautiful mountain roads that you will get to enjoy twice!

My Personal Experience

With a few exceptions, Finland is not an interesting country to traverse on a bike.  There's some good lake scenery in the middle, and going up from Helsinki, you should take the time to go on the lake route between Lahti and Jyväskylä. The rest of it is going to be fairly fast, safe, and uneventful. The road quality is mostly very good, and once you get past Kemi and Tornio, traffic will be light. There are occasional speed cameras, but they are clearly signposted and visible (and anyway, motorcycles don't have front license plates). In my entire long-way-around trip through Finland, I saw maybe three police vehicles, and all of them were vans - community cops, not highway enforcers.

Tornio and Rovaniemi are the last bastions of civilization - the last towns on the way north that have giant supermarkets where you can buy cheap socks, underwear and warm clothes. I paid five euros for a fleece to wear under my riding jacket. In an expensive country, I cannot overemphasize how useful a big Prisma can be.

Biker culture in Finland is excellent. Remarkably, car drivers have a lot of respect and goodwill towards bikers. Very often, I would come up behind a car on a two-lane road with twin solid lines (forbidding overtaking via the opposite lane), and the car in front would hug the shoulder to let me pass within the same lane. The local traffic is mostly going at 20km over the posted speed limit. You don't need to go any faster than that - it gets stressful and uncomfortable, for very minor time gains.

Beware of reindeer. This warning is repeated often, and for good reason. It is not a question of whether you will happen to see reindeer on the road. You definitely will, more than once. Finnish main roads have clearcut areas on both sides before the forest line starts, so as long as you're paying attention, you will probably see the reindeer in time to slow right down. Watch for oncoming traffic flashing their high beams at you as a warning.

Almost all of my northbound leg was on the main road, except for a small detour to the lakes. Up past Muonio, I turned off Route 4 and filled up at Enontekiö for the final push over the mountains into Norway. This was where the really beautiful scenery and the really fun roads started. The last fifty kilometers or so to Alta were an absolute blast. Alta itself is a boring small town with nothing to recommend it other than an H&M where you can replenish your supplies of socks and underwear.

On my way back down, I took the eastern route. Lakselv, a largish village half way to the Finnish border, has the best motorcycle maintenance infrastructure for a few hundred miles in any direction, and a stunningly helpful Tourist Information office, who will go out of their way to solve your problem. Karasjok, the last town before the border, has a couple of supermarkets - quite relevant, because there's nothing on the Finnish side until you get to Ivalo. The eastern Finnish towns are not quite as well-connected - I had to go a fair way back west to get to Rovaniemi, then take secondary roads southeast to Kajaani and Lappeenranta.


Be prepared for the fact that Finland and Norway are some of the most expensive countries in the world. Norway is at least beautiful, while Finland is mostly boring. Hotels will be unjustifiably expensive - they can charge that because you have very little choice, there isn't enough demand to drive real competition, and the rates are mostly designed for business travelers who aren't paying out of their own pocket. I can honestly say that the least value I have ever gotten out of a hostel was at the Vandrerhjem in Honningsvag, the last town before Nordkapp (some 35 km away): almost 70 euros for a very basic single room without a toilet or shower. I paid around the same in Rovaniemi, Kajaani and Lappeenranta, but those were proper ensuite hotel rooms. I've paid more, in Singapore, New York and Melbourne, but those were actually fascinating cities. Honningsvag is simply conveniently placed for Nordkapp - there is absolutely nothing else to recommend it.

You should check the usual sources for cheap accommodation - I use AirBnB, Hostelworld and, although even these are of limited use when hunting for bargains in Lapland and Finnmark. Unless you want to go the whole tent-in-a-field route, your best choice is campgrounds: you can get a cabin, with beds and heating, for as little as 15 or 20 euros a night - and it gets even cheaper if there are a few of you sharing it. On the way north, I stayed at an AirBnB location in Oulu and the Harriniva campground in Muonio. The latter is a pretty cool place, with various comfort options - from hotels to tent pitches - and on-site activities, including the world's biggest sled dog center. Apparently it is very important that young huskies get used to humans early on, so visitors are ruthlessly exploited to give cuddles to husky puppies. This is the best seven euros you will spend on your entire trip. (Consider that seven euros is also what you will be paying for a can of disappointing beer.)

On my way down, I spent the night at Neljän Tuulen Tupa, a campground improbably placed just a few kilometers off the junction between the westbound road to Karasjok and Nordkapp, and the northbound road to absolutely nowhere. I can confidently recommend this campground. It's not a very good one, but it's 15 euros per night, and this is Finland.


In the summer of 2012, petrol in Finland was 1.6-1.7 euros per liter; in Norway, it was over 2 euros per liter. For Americans, that's just about 10 dollars per gallon. One of the reasons why so many people take their bikes up here is because of mileage: I could not afford to do 4000km through Scandinavia in my car.

The most important fuel-related thing is: keep an eye on your range. North of Tornio, villages and gas stations get rare. It's not actually a big problem if you stay aware of how long it's been since you've filled up, and how far you can go on a tank. For example, my Gladius has a 14-liter tank with a comfortable range of 200-230km, and the maximum range I got anywhere on the trip was 290km. That was literally riding on fumes, I barely made it to the next station. The safe choice is to be aware of the map, of your riding schedule for the day, and think of whether there's another population center coming up within your range. Stopping often is not actually a good idea: you want to keep up a good average speed, and if you've only done 50km or so since your last fillup, you might only be able to fit less fuel in your tank than the pump's minimum sale amount. For me, I filled up after no less than 100km, and started looking for a station as soon as I passed 180km or so. Having a digital dash with multiple trip meter readouts is a big help; if you're riding an older bike with a manual odometer, learn to do math in your head.

You won't always have a choice of gas station brands, but as long as you're in a largish town, Shell is your friend. Shell stations are almost exclusively manned (not automatic), they stock V-Power gas, and they have a good selection of consumables such as engine oil. All of this is important.
  • Automatic gas stations in Finland, especially Neste ones, will very frequently refuse to accept credit cards issued outside Finland. I'm not even sure they take cash, but if so, that's still not a good option: they don't take coins or give change, the smallest paper bill is 5 euros, and you will want to fill up the tank to the brim at every opportunity. You can usually choose a "pay at the cashier" option if there's a shop attached, and you can just tell the clerk that you want to fill up the tank - they can set the pump to give you whatever amount of gas you need and pay later.
    • If the pump gives you an option of paying by card right there, or paying at the cashier, choose the latter. You're losing a couple of cents on the liter, but cashiers will only charge the actual amount you bought to the card. Automatic terminals will reserve money on your card before they let you start pumping. This reservation will be released eventually, but it will take a few days. Some terminals ask you how much money you want to reserve; others don't. My main bank card looks like a credit card to terminals, but is actually tied to my account balance: any reservation temporarily decreases the money I have in the bank. A Finnish ABC station reserving 20 euros while I pump 16 euros' worth is not a big deal. A Norwegian Statoil blocking out almost 200 euros (when I canceled out of the first transaction by mistake and started again), not from a bank's credit line but from my actual balance, is a major inconvenience.

  • Most gas stations in Finland and Norway sell E5 or E10 gas. Regular 95-octane, which I use in my bike at home, comes in the form of E10 in Finland - ten percent ethanol. This is actually not very healthy for an engine that wasn't designed for it (though modern bikes with electronic fuel injection should cope fine in the short term), and it definitely increases the fuel consumption. 98-octane is usually E5, five percent ethanol, which is marketed as safe for any petrol engine. Shell V-power is 100% dinosaur juice. It's higher-octane, provides better engine performance, and while it's more expensive, it does lower your fuel consumption. Again, this is not a cost question - it is a range question.  Range is vital. Anything that improves your range is worth doing.

  • You are riding every day, long distances, at high speeds. It's quite likely that you'll burn some oil, even in a healthy engine. Shell stations have a good selection of automotive goods, including high-performance four-stroke motorcycle engine oil. I know because I bought a liter of it once, and then checked other Shell stations later out of curiosity. 
That said, there may be times when you have no choice, when the only fuel available to you is crappy 95-octane E10 from a suspicious rural gas station. That's part of the adventure. Make a mental note to stop at the next Shell station you see, and at least be thankful that the only fuel station within range was not a diesel-only Neste Truck!

The Details

My Gear

Bike: 2009 Suzuki SFV650 Gladius, Oxford Daytona heated grips, Renntec crash bars, Puig windscreen.
Armor: Modeka Yuma jacket, Modeka Quebec Pro trousers, Modeka Sahara Traveler gloves, Falco Mixto boots, HJC ZF-9 helmet.
Luggage: Mototravel soft sidebags, Adidas backpack attached with elastic cargo straps.
Sanity: HTC One X with Navigon offline navigation and about ten gigabytes of audiobooks, Zagg Sparq battery pack, HP Mini 5103 netbook for the camps.

My Route

Day 0:
Tartu-Tallinn (via Piibe mnt) - 200km or so.

Day 1:
Tallinn-Helsinki (Viking Line XPRS ferry) - 2,5 hours and 80km.
Helsinki-Lahti (freeway)
Lahti-Jyväskylä (routes 314/612/610 through the lakes)
Jyväskylä-Oulu (straight shot up route 4/E20)
Total riding: 660km

Day 2:
Oulu-Kemi-Tornio-Muonio - 350km or so.
It is possible to cross the river at Tornio and ride much of this stretch on the Swedish side, but I didn't.

Day 3:
Muonio-Enontekiö-Alta-Honningsvag - 500km or so.

Day 4:
Honningsvag-Nordkapp-Honningsvag-Lakselv-Karasjok-Kaamanen - 325km or so.

Day 5:
Kaamanen-Inari-Ivalo-Rovaniemi - 365km or so.

Day 6:
Rovaniemi-Kajaani - 335km or so.

Day 7:
Kajaani-Kuopio-Mikkeli-Lappeenranta - 440km or so.

Day 8:
Lappeenranta-Kouvola-Helsinki - 225km or so.
Helsinki-Tallinn - Tallink Star, 2 hours and 80km.

Day 9:
Tallinn-Tartu (via main road) - 190km or so.

My Costs

Average fuel economy: ~4.5 liters per 100 kilometers.
Average fuel cost in Estonia: 1.38 euros per liter.
Average fuel cost in Finland: 1.7 euros per liter.
Average fuel cost in Norway: >2 euros per liter.
Tallinn-Helsinki ferry, Viking Line XPRS: 41 euros
Helsinki-Tallinn ferry, Tallink Star: 48 euros
Accommodation: Oulu (AirBnB) - 35 euros, Muonio (Harriniva, cabin) - 20 euros, Honningsvag (Vandrerhjem hostel, single room) - 65 euros, Kaamanen (Neljän Tuulen Tupa, cabin) - 15 euros, Rovaniemi (Hostel Rudolf, single ensuite room) - 48 euros, Kajaani (Hotel Kajaani) - 65 euros, Lappeenranta (Guesthouse Kantolankulma) - 67 euros.
Nordkapp entry - 32 euros, although you can pay less if you don't want to see the movie.

This does not include food, entertainment, or incidental costs down to my own stupidity, such as having to buy a new rear tire in Lakselv, middle of the frozen Norwegian outback, for 2500 NOK - 344 euros, at least 200 euros more than the same 170/60R16 Michelin RoadSport2 would have cost back home.

As always with unconventional travel: expect it to cost a lot more than you envisioned, and have a budget reserve to get you out of tight spots. Finland and Norway are expensive places, but the people of the North don't abandon travelers.


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