From messy micro-ventures, to long-haul lols. Follow my exclusive travel journal for Rein as I plunge head first (standard) into a series of solo missions, occupying the arena of the Gonzo on a #freerein exploration of what it means to travel alone as a woman.
(Dedicated to Dr Gorilla and all who seek to avoid him)
I haven’t knowingly been to Bangor, but I have deliberately been to Pori, which is sort of the same thing.
There’s an eponymous tune* that originates from Bangor, the smallest city in the UK, that I can lovingly appropriate for artistic license here, in reference to a small Finnish City, and it goes a little something like this:
Didn’t I have a lovely time, the day I went to Pori
Pissing down day, failed to have lunch on the way,
And all for under a Euro you know.
(Original song: Day Trip to Bangor - Didn't We Have a Lovely Time, by Fiddler’s Dram*)
Once upon another life, and in an attempt to endear myself to a class of primary school kids, I told a group of 7-8 year olds that I got married in Finland, where Santa Claus comes from. I later found out, that at the end of that day, half the class went home and confidently informed their parents that: “Mrs Willoughby got married at the North Pole by Santa instead of Jesus, like most people do”. Misconceptions of Finland (and School Librarians) are not uncommon.
Pretty much every year since I was 18 I have spent at least a little time during the Summer months in Finland and even got married in Turku, a city in the South-West of the country, in 2007. Contrary to popular opinion Summer is actually a thing in Finland and it might surprise some people to learn that not all Finns are snow shrouded misery dwellers of an infinitely long dark night. A sizable proportion (i.e. everyone I know and the population is unfathomably tiny in relation to its land mass with roughly 5.4 million people, flexin’ in an expansive 338, 424 square km) emerge from their cold AF chrysalis as rather magnificent Midsummer mentalists: where there’s a waterway there’s a riverboat and where there’s a riverboat there will be hundreds of happily tanked up Finns savouring the novelty of their moment in the sun.
On the morning I set off for Pori, from Turku, the weather could have been very Britishly summed up by any nana in a bus stop as “very wet rain”. In very un-British fashion I didn’t have an umbrella so purchased one, from the bus station terminal I was due to leave from, which seemed legit with “I love the weather in Finland” written in English, in block capitals across the top of it. As you sometimes do in a bid for human connection in solo travel situations, I cheerfully gestured at the irony of the brolly slogan and then to the sky in a bid to engage the cashier, who, as it turned out, was more pissy than the weather and gave me the sort of look reserved for everyone who isn’t flying economy on a long haul flight, and with that I took my failed attempt at brolly banter and climbed aboard the Onnibus; like the Megabus but with truly cheap tickets - my round trip on special offer at 0.88 cents - and breathable air.
Shortly afterwards, I was joined by my seat-mate who regarded me with zero interest and spent the entirety of the journey with his headphones in, rapping verses out loud (complete with an array of surprising and demonstrative hand gestures) from a seemingly endless repertoire of Finnish Rap tracks. He was, if nothing else, amusing and easy enough to ignore and made a refreshing change to the revolving parade of drunks and desperados who generally like to sit next to me on lengthy, uncomfortable journeys. On this occasion the journey was just long enough (roughly two and half hours) to appreciate a speckled sunrise through the endless candle shaped spruce trees that tend to mark most road trips throughout Scandinavia and when the time came MC Jazz Handz and I went our separate ways at Pori bus station, in the city’s centre square. He in the direction of what I genuinely hoped would be a successful rap career and I, in one of life’s synchronicities, in the direction of the city’s art museum, Pori Taidemuseo, to check out Hip Hop Photographer Chi Modu’s Uncategorised exhibition.
As a laughably inadequate teenager, back in the day Saturday’s were mostly about lying on my bedroom floor listening to Trevor Nelson’s Rhythm Nation (with BBC 1Xtra added to the mix when it started) and congratulating myself on having risen above formative teen tantrums, where weekend’s were spent knocking about town in knock off Kickers nicking tubes of cheap lip gloss on a dare, and instead choosing the moral high ground of the world inside my headphones blaring out “blunts, 40s and bitches” instead. Chi’s name tended to come up quite a bit on Trevor’s show, so naturally when I idly scrolled upon the exhibition’s info on instagram it rather felt like some kind of delayed right of passage / pilgrimage to visit and that’s what propelled me in the direction of Pori with pretty much no other plans of what else I was going to do there.
Having just under five hours to explore the city (Pori being chiefly known for it’s major annual summer Jazz Festival - so much so that even the football team changed its name to FC Jazz) I headed time-anxious straight for the exhibition and spent a good three hours wandering the completely isolated open plan exhibition space, which basically resembled my bedroom circa. 1996-2000, albeit after mum had been in to clean: floor to ceiling ‘posters’ of Tupac, Nas, and Mary J Blige (among many others) big beats leaking through massive speakers dotted about the space and collected gig memorabilia. Had there been a random pair of dirty knickers in the corner, a bed with a week’s worth of plates under it and secret drawer containing fags and contraceptives, I would have laid down and never left. Regrettably though, the time did come to leave and seen as though my phone had died in the whirl of the snap happy hours I’d spent there, that meant I would have to find my way back to the bus stop sans Google Maps and Trip Advisor reviews; bibles of the drunk, directionless and generally lacking, in some way.
Having not scheduled in time to actually eat or drink anything, the first thing I needed on leaving Pori’s properly cool art gallery was coffee. It had momentarily stopped pissing down just enough for me to be able to see that there didn’t appear to be anywhere in the immediate locale of the gallery’s waterfront location, so I headed back in the direction of the bus stop and presented myself at the first suitable looking provider of good coffee. As is often the case in most countries that are not the UK in Europe, you take your seat, someone takes your order and you pay when you’ve finished at your table, rarely approaching the bar in even the most basic of establishments, so I sat in the corner and awaited the approach. It was only after a few minutes that I realised the previously lively group on the other side of the coffee shop had fallen silent and were now staring at me. Now, it has to be said, people staring at me in Finland is nothing new: as a woman who cuts a petite frame with (at the time) waist length black hair, I was Pumbaa from the Lion King in a nation of elegant yellow feathered leggy Ostriches, so I just figured they were figuring me, as per the norm. A few moments later a concerned looking lady of older years approached and asked if I would like to join the group. Now, this was new on me, but I thought why not, and besides there was coffee on that side of the room. It was only when I took my seat at the table of curious strangers that I realised that, oh shit, this might not actually be a coffee shop.
“You are speaking English? We welcome you with our bad English!” the concerned looking lady said beaming. At that point I think she realised I had clocked the two younger, slightly dishevelled looking, girls crying in the corner and the large guy behind the cashier’s till talking to himself and shaking so alarmingly that I nearly declared on impulse my First Aid training. Still hoping for what I came in for I ventured if I could “get a drink?”
Concerned Lady: “Ah I see, yes I see.”
(Period of silence, more staring, girls’ cries in the corner have graduated to howling.)
Concerned Lady: “How long have you wanted this drink?”
Me: (Jokingly, not quite grasping the situation): “Oh gosh, since half past 6 this morning! I have been looking for something to drink since the minute I woke up!”
(Curious, slightly smelly strangers begin to nod furiously)
Concerned Lady: (Reaches for my hand, pats my hand.) You are brave.
And then it properly dawned on me.
Me: Oh I’m so sorry! I think I have misunderstood! I am interrupting your (searches frantically for appropriate word, begins to stand up and motion to leave) meeting.
Concerned Lady: (Beaming wider) No, no you are welcome! You MUST stay!
A comical exchange ensued with me gesturing firmly towards my bus ticket, the time, and finally, my UK passport. Eventually and after much hand holding, followed by assurances from me that I would seek the help I so desperately needed when I arrived back home, I left as swiftly and politely as possible and made a break for the bus stop, just to say making it. On the journey back to Turku, starving and bereft of coffee, the bus rode past Pori’s random break dancing statues and I thought about MC Jazz Handz and how much I would love a beer right now.