When I was 16, I left North America for the first time to be an exchange student. My life would never be the same again. The travel bug entered me and would stay forever. Finland was a good start for me because it was a safe, clean, and modern country that presented a minimal amount of culture shock. To this day, I am still in love with Finland. It doesn't posess the 'wow' factor that other countries do, but its subtle charms make it a place that will always be perfect for me. I lived in the town of Haapajarvi in central Finland, which had around 8,000 residents and was 30 minutes away from the next equally-sized town. Despite this remote location, most people still had isolated summer cottages in forests by lakes to get away from the hustle and bustle of Haapajarvi. This is the charm of Finland.
There are things to see for the average tourist, but nothing earth-shattering. The cities and architecture are low key, which suits the country nicely. I was able to visit a large portion of Finland's cities. I will always enjoy Helsinki's neo-classical grace, Tampere's setting on a isthmus between
two forested lakes, Vaasa's Swedish influence, and Rovaniemi's touch of the Arctic. Beyond Rovaniemi, I went to a ski resort called Levitunturi north of the Arctic Circle. I also got to see traditional Sami (Lapp) customs in a made-for-tourists environment. It was still quite interesting however.
I also had the chance to visit many other countries while in Finland. The most notable place I went was Stockholm which I visted as many as a dozen times since it was a quick overnight ferry ride from Helsinki or Turku. Stockholm's setting on several islands sets the stage for many interesting neighborhoods. My favorite is the Gamla Stan, the old town which features, narrow lanes, hidden squares, the Royal Palace, and several nice churches. But there are also many surprises to be found in Norrmalm (commerical district), Skeppsholmen (a little island), Sodermalm (residential district at the top of a cliff with great views), and Djurgarden (great museums including the Vasa ship). After my time in Finland, I proclaimed Stockholm to be my favortie city in the world.
In March of 1998, I made my first trip to Eastern Europe in the form of Tallinn, Estonia. There, I found what may be the world's most perfectly-preserved medieval city; complete with several towers, an intact city wall, and a hilltop castle. Wandering the streets of Tallinn back then felt like going back in time. It's not exactly to same way now as it was in 1998. It's more discovered and more expensive. But it will always remain a special place to me.
May of 1998 brought me on a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia with the other exchange students in Finland. It was a shock to be in Russia after hearing what a terrible place it was for my whole life in Ohio. St. Petersburg impressed however with golden-domed cathdrals and lavish palaces set along peaceful canals.
Then in June 1998, I took my first and last guided tour ever. It was a three week European tour with the Finland exchange student crew that went through Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Paris, Versailles, Grenoble, Nice, Monaco, Verona, Venice, Innsbruck, Dachau, Leipzig, and Berlin. It was a nice trip, but I wanted to breakaway and stayed as far away from the group as I possibly could.
I would finally take what I consider to be my first backpacking trip in June/July of 1998, a two week Scandinavia trip through Stockholm, Uppsala, Malmo, Copenhagen, Helsingor, Goteborg, Oslo, Helsinki, and Tallinn. I turned 17 on this trip. After this trip, Scandinavia was officially my place.
I went back to the USA about a week later, but the damage was done. My simple Ohio mind had opened up and a lifetime of travel was in front of me. My life was changed forever.
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