“Forty years ago, Interrail

Thoughts August 2013

Jyrki Wahlstedt 

Forty years ago Finland was very different. Kekkonen had been president nearly twenty years already, a real Father of the country. The community I grew in was near Salo, where Nokia later had phone factories in facilities then used by Salora building radios and TVs. Almost everything was very local, all things foreign were practically unknown.

At that time, late July in 1973, after having matriculated and having done some summer work I started my first trip abroad using the then new Interrail. If I remember right, that was the second year of Interrail.

The first leg was, of course, from home to nearest port city, Turku, as the land connection to Sweden would have been quite long. From Turku I sailed to Stockholm in Silja Bore. Bore was a steam ship, i.e. it used steam engines, not many steam ships were in use in those days anymore. The destination in Stockholm was Skeppsbron, just in front of the Royal Palace. That is a luxury noone gets nowadays. In the ship I had my first touch to foreign people, there was a German guy from Hamburg. I had read German in the school, I had been quite good at it, but when he said to me something in his local dialect, I understood nothing.

From Stockholm I moved to Copenhagen. As I had grown up in the country, not in a big city, I was quite innocent, so when I met a local man, who promised to show me Tivoli, I followed him instantly. Very quickly, though, a Finnish sailor stopped me telling I would not be safe. I wonder, whether anyone would do that nowadays. Eventually I went to train station, where i discussed quite a long time with young Italians. They gave me their address, and I promised that I would try to visit them during my journey.

Most of the nights on this trip I spent in youth hostels. I have still that card with me, and I am actually using that to support my memory, as I don’t easily remember times and talks.

From Copenhagen then I took the train to Germany. Before the border there was a small incident, the Danish border control said to me, that I wouldn’t be allowed to enter Germany, because my passport was expired. He even suspected me to believe him blind. There was a reason for that, because I had managed to swim with the passport (I jumped from a boat to land, and didn’t jump too well), hence when you took the passport and looked at it in poor light, you could read numbers wrong. At last I was allowed to continue, but with warning that the German border control would be stricter than he was. Let me say that I had no such difficulties during the rest of my journey. That I had come so far without problems, was due to the fact that one could travel inside the Nordic countries without showing passport at the border.

My first stop in Germany was Göttingen on July 27th 1973. From there I started a small adventure, because I intended to visit Bach-Haus in Eisenach, the small city, where Johann Sebastian Bach was born about three hundred years earlier. It proved to be slightly complicated, because Eisenach was at the time in East Germany. First I took a local train to a place I’ve forgotten, then had a small bus ride. The last part to the border, crossing point named Wartha, I walked. I still remember vividly, how a police car stopped me, they wanted to warn me that the other side may shoot. Happily I got to the border station, where I had to buy a voucher to a hotel in Eisenach (Park Hotel). I had to wait for the bus for some time. I remembered the West Germany police, when a soldier came to me carrying a submachine gun, and said: ”Nicht laufen”, i.e. you shouldn’t run. I had no intention to do that, anyway, but was happy to wait for the bus. One of the foundest memories from the whole time is that an old couple came to the same bus and paid my fare. I cannot thank them anymore, I don’t know their names, but the kindness was something I will remember as long as I remember anything. Park Hotel was quite old, the keys were huge and heavy, the bed was huge and heavy, too. Later I went to look for Bach-Haus, unfortunately it was being repaired, so I couldn’t get in. I was happy to see the place, however. While walking I could also see the Wartburg castle, where Luther had worked in his time. I stayed only one night in Eisenach, then continued my journey. I had to buy train ticket in Eisenach, East Germany wasn’t part of the Interrail system. To do that I had to change some money, and it was really spectacular, how light those coins were, I could have blown them out of my hand (we had aluminum coins in Finland later, they gave the same feeling).

Through Limburg and Luxembourg I arrived to France. There I would have liked to stay longer, but unfortunately I didn’t speak French, and practically no one spoke English, so I left early. I spent a few hours in Dijon, there an old French man came to me, he had seen the Finnish flag in my backpack. I guess he remembered some of the Finnish achievements, perhaps the fights against Russia during WWII. He was quite friendly, but due to the language barrier I didn’t feel myself comfortable, so I took night train to Italy.

The Italian youth hostels didn’t stamp my card with dates, so I can’t tell exactly the order, in which I visited the cities, but the following is what I think is the most logical one. The most memorable part of Italia for me was Pisa, and probably the first place, too. Earlier I mentioned the Italians I met in Copenhagen. The address they gave me was in Pisa, so there I went. When I arrived to the address, belonging to family Pacinotti, no one of my acquainces was there. Instead there was a butler, who drove me to the family’s summer place in Marina di Pisa. After the day there I was shown the city, that really was a lovely place with its leaning tower and all the history in every stone allover. I think I must have appeared impolite, I was quite shy at the time, and I admit that my manners were not very good. So if some of them reads this, I am very grateful for my stay and have very fond memories, thank you, Andrea, Annalisa and Christina.

From Pisa I went to Florence (Firenze), there I made my only mistake with trains. I intended to go to Perugia, but I entered a train that didn’t stop at the station I had planned. So I went to Rome, and immediately took another train that took to a small city, Foligno. The hostel was quite small, as was the city. Therefore it was quite a surprise to meet another Finn there. A greater surprise still was that the person was a second cousin of my classmate, a small world! Everyone in the hostel went out that evening to market to eat water melons, a very warm evening in every sense.

After Foligno I then went to Perugia. It was quite a climb from the station to the city and hostel. The hostel was the only unpleasant one during the whole journey. It smelled bad and was quite dirty. So I continued my journey through Bologna to Ferrara. In the train I talked with an Italian, who seemed to think, not surprisingly perhaps, that Finland was a Russian satellite state, like e.g. Poland, East Germany, and the Baltic states. I hope I could assure him that this wasn’t true, though of course at the time the situation was so that the reality of living as a neighbour of Soviet Union could not be forgotten.

Italy also gave me some of very tasty memories. It may sound odd, but there I ate my first pizzas, drank first espressos and cappuccinos. Maybe there were some restaurants and cafes in Helsinki or in some of the other bigger cities, but in the countryside these were then completely unknown. In the restaurants I also had wine, not a normal thing in Finland.

From Italy I travelled to Yugoslavia, first Belgrad, then through Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, the last part on a narrow rail track the copassengers travelling with e.g. hen.

Dubrovnik was my main goal, there was a music festival I wanted to see. Because of my adventures in Italy I was a day late, and I was very happy having made a reservation in the hostel. Otherwise I would have had to change plans radically, because the hostel was full, and without the reservation I wouldn’t have been able to stay there at all. Most of the concerts I was in were in Atrium of Rector’s Palace in the Old Town. The Old Town was a very beautiful place, I still feel the smooth, warm stones in my feet. The Rector’s palace was a lovely place, people were in two floors listening the performances. I still have two programmes left in my archives. The first is that by Ralph Kirkpatrick, on Aug 16th, who played Bach’s French Ouverture (BWV 831), Couperin’s Ordre No. XI, Bach’s Italian Concerto (BWV 971), and six sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. The other concert was by Friedrich Gulda, on Aug 17th, and it was quite a happening. The program says Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (i.e. preludes and fugues from both books). He, however, threw the programme completely away, he played e.g. Debussy, and if I remember right, he carried with him a clavichord, put it on the grand piano, and played Bach on it.

Although Dubrovnik is a seaside city, there is no proper beach, so that when one wants to swim, one has to take a boat to a nearby island. The water was very clear, so that even I could jump in, although I don’t see well anything that’s far away. On the island there even was a small restaurant, where I ate e.g. very delicious filled green peppers. Well, in the city I dined in a restaurant and asked for a little bottle of mineral water, then got a bottle of one litre. This happened, because the waiter heard German "Liter" instead of English "little"…

On the way back home I took the first part by plane, to Zagreb. The airport was surrounded by mountains, so it was quite exciting. From Zagreb to Venice, from Venice to Zürich.

Switzerland is in the very centre of Europe. I have so far not mentioned anything about communication. Now it is so easy, when almost everyone has a phone in pocket, and the mobile networks cover almost every inhabited place. I used postcards:) Well, in larger cities the main post offices had also tele departments with phone boxes, where you could place international calls. This came to mind at this phase, because in Switzerland everything was in so good order.

The rest of the journey contained no big events, from Zürich to St. Gallen, Reutte am Tirol, Oberammergau, and then Malmö in Sweden. There I went to see sister of my godfather, however it was almost impossible to find the place, because it took a very long time before I could get anyone to understand what I was asking, though the only thing I asked was the street. Swedish in the south resembles Danish, very different from that learned at school.

This journey has given me a lot to remember!

PS I will scan some documents I still have and add them here…

© Jyrki Wahlstedt 2013