I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

800 singers and no more pennies

I’m out for the evening in Helsinki. My guide, Hanne, explains, “We call Wednesday our little Friday.” There’s an energy in the streets. Our mission: to visit the restaurants I recommend in my guidebook and find new, better ones. I find Helsinki the least expensive of the Scandinavia capitals–the restaurant scene is affordable and fun. And there are plenty of distractions.

A huge demonstration fills the main boulevard. (The street is actually named “boulevardi”–given that grandiose title two hundred years ago. Back then–in Europe’s then newest, now youngest, capital–the concept of a grand boulevard in Helsinki was somewhere between absurd and wishful thinking.)

Then I realize they’re not demonstrators…but choral groups. From all corners they converge on the massive steps of the Lutheran Cathedral which normally overlooks Europe’s finest neo-classical square. Today the steps overlook thousands of locals, dropping by to hear this massing of the choirs. Eight hundred singers fill the steps–each group represented by a placard–to sing a rousing set of anthems. While I can’t understand a word, the songs are sung with a stirring air that must tell of a hard-fought history and a thankfulness to be who they are–the people of Finland. Then, the balloons are freed, and the groups disperse kicking off a festive week called “art goes to the pubs.” Each choir sets off to an appointed bar…and the city’s drinking holes are filled with song.

Leaving the crowd for our evening’s work, we pass a poster of a demonic-looking rock band. Hanne explained “hell froze over this year.” Europe’s biggest TV event is the annual Euro-vision Song Festival. (Most famous to boomer travelers like me as the event Abba won back in the 1970s with their breakout song, Waterloo.) Finns are perennial losers in the event and locals have long said, “When Finland wins the Euro-vision Song Festival hell will freeze over. This year, people from all over Europe telephoned in their votes and Finland’s Kiss-inspired heavy metal band “Lordi” (led by a soft-spoken charismatic Laplander) won with a cute little number called “Hard Rock Halleluiah.”

At the curb, there are no cars. I get halfway across Boulevardi boulevard and look back at Hanne still waiting. As if in needless defeat, I return to the curb. She says, “In Finland, we wait. It can be two in the morning and not a car in sight, but we wait. That’s why we have such low crime.” I said, “Germans respect authority too.” She said, this is different. “We buck authority…but follow the laws…even little ones.”

Finns seem to have a fun-loving confidence. I asked, “All of Scandinavia is so prosperous but only Norway has oil. How is this?” Hanne said, “Norway has oil…Finland has Nokia. It’s like Microsoft for you in Seattle.” Then I asked, “What then, is Sweden’s trick?” Hanne shows the standard Scandinavian envy of the regional powerhouse saying, “They never get in a war. They’re always rich…just collecting money all the time. The Swedes are like our big brother. They always win. Like in ice hockey. We won only once…back in the 1990s. The Swedes–assuming they’d win–already wrote their victory song. But we won. We Finns still sing this song. It’s the only song Finns know in Swedish and every Finn can sing it…even today.”

The Finns are so prosperous that they’re the first Europeans to do away with the Euro pennies. Prices are rounded to the nickel and the one cent and two cent coins are now officially out of circulation. (I am particularly happy today. Each Euro country has its own versions of the Euro coins and I’m filling my coin book with a set from each country. I have an ethic that I only take coins out of circulation. My big trick is befriending a waitress and getting her to let me paw through her change purse to find missing coins. The only gaps I have now (not counting the collector sets from Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City–which go immediately out of circulation when minted) are Finland and Luxemburg. They mint so few compared to the behemoth countries that you don’t see them outside their home countries. I dropped by a coin shop and purchased the Finnish penny and two cent coin (at €3, that was 100 times their face value). In the shop, I commented “it would be difficult to find these in circulation and the keeper said, “you are wrong…it would be impossible.” (So I didn’t break my ethic.)

Of the many restaurants we surveyed, the most elegant had a dining hall perfectly 1930s–Alvar Aalto-designed Functionalism. The kind of straight design and practical elegance Finns love. A private office party was raging–a crayfish party. It’s crayfish season–at $10 each, it’s far from a budget meal. But all over town Finns are doing the crayfish tango: suck and savor a big red mini-lobster, throw down a glass of schnapps, sing a song and do it again. With a “hundred bottles of beer on the wall” repetitiveness, it just gets more fun with each round.

Hanne shows me the table of Mannerheim, the heroic George Washington of modern Finland who led their feisty resistance to the USSR and is likely personally responsible for artfully keeping Finland free during and after WWII. No Finnish military leader will ever again hold Mannerheim’s rank of “Field Marshal.” But any one can sit at his favorite table…and suck a crayfish.

We step onto the rooftop terrace with a glorious 8th floor view of Helsinki. The late-setting sun is gleaming on both the Lutheran cathedral and the golden onion domes of the Russian orthodox church. They seem to face off, symbolizing how east and west have long confronted each other here in Finland. (Europe’s second mightiest sea fortress–after Gibraltar–fills an island in the harbor…the reason for Helsinki’s birth.)

Below us on the neighboring rooftop, six bankers wrapped in white towels are enjoying a sauna. In all great office buildings–whether banks, insurance companies, or research institutes–a rooftop sauna is an “elemental and essential part of the design.” (Free snacks and drinks at the sauna after work from 5:00 to 9:00 is an almost expected perk.) One big fat guy was so pink from the heat that–with his white towel wrapped around his waist–he reminded me of a striped pool ball.

The Finns seem happy. Their woman president, Tarja Hallonen–just re-elected for a second 6-year term–has an 80% approval rating. And they are proud of the way they tackle challenges confronting their society. With the coming of bird flu, they tented their famous market and everyone here seems to crow about how those Swedes had a case of bird flu…and the clever Finns did not.

Estonia: There’s a vest on every chair

I’m livin’ large in Estonia…and marveling at the exciting change this region is undergoing. On a visit to the Baltic region back in the 1980s, labor was cheaper than light bulbs…when touring museums, an old babushka would actually go through the museum with me turning on and off lights as we went from room to room.

Those days are long gone. Estonia’s thriving capital, Tallinn, is like a Petri dish of capitalism. Since Estonians won their freedom in 1991, it has blossomed. The country has the strongest economy, most freedoms, and highest standard of living of any republic that was part of the USSR. (Locals claim that, by some measures, they are now one of the freest countries on earth.)

While traveling here, you can’t help but ponder the great irony of Russia’s communist experiment. Statistically Russia–once the supposed champion of radical equality (as far as Leninism and Marxism was concerned)–is now infamous for having the worst equality. Estonians are much better off today than Russians not because they have more money per capita (they don’t), but because the wealth in this country is distributed much more evenly. Observing the differences between societies, it seems that the distribution of wealth, if you honestly get right down to it, is what much of politics is about.

Today, for my mid-morning coffee break, I stepped into a courtyard. At the entry the landlord hung a photo of the place in 2000…it looked recently bombed out. Today, it looks much the same but inhabited by thriving little businesses. I wanted to sit at the courtyard’s trendy little cafe with its wicker chairs rocking on the rough cobbles. The seat I wanted seemed empty but it had a vest hanging on it. So I looked for another empty spot…it had a vest too. I really, really needed a coffee. Then I realized every chair had a different vest hanging on it. Estonian chic. Tallinn is thriving with little creative businesses.

After traveling in Norway and Sweden, it’s refreshing to be in a cheap country again. Being able to order without regard to price stokes my appetite. And with the fierce language barrier in non-touristy eateries here, it’s good the economic stakes, when mis-ordering, are not high. (Imagine, there are only a million people who speak Estonian–a language related to just about nothing, yet spoken with a noticeable gusto. It occurred to me, I don’t know a single word in this language–making it a strong contender for my worst language in Europe.)

It poured down rain today…locals claim they really need the rain. But it makes my research so messy–balancing a goofy little umbrella on my head and shoulders, hovering over my treasured notebook, trying to keep it dry. I have a pocket sized black notebook (Moleskine…I’m evangelical about Moleskine books) and the part of my guidebook I’m currently working on (ripped out of the big book with the cover stapled on–so it’s both pocket-sized and official-looking). When my border scribbles and notes get wet, I get very anxious.

By the way, many travel writer’s pride themselves in not taking free rooms thinking that might corrupt their assessment. I take free rooms all the time and–don’t tell the hoteliers who host me–this is, ironically, not in their best interest. I must sleep in 70 hotels a year (140 nights, average 2 nights each). I can’t begin to actually sleep in each place I recommend. By sleeping (for free or otherwise) in a place, I catch things you wouldn’t catch otherwise. Last night: thin walls (persistent snorer), no dark window covering (big problem especially in the north, he “ran out of steam” in the remodel), and lumpy pillows (you don’t appreciate a good pillow until you sleep on giant cotton balls). His listing took a hit.

I was noticing how, for the first evening and morning of my time in Tallinn, I didn’t meet one American…no one recognized me. I was a little disappointed. There were lots of tourists…but nearly no Yankees. Then, the cruise ships unloaded their day-trippers. Wow, it was one big PBS love fest…old home week. I had travel buddies on each corner. There must be 50 Americans visiting via cruise ship here for every over land traveler. Estonia is being discovered and it’s about time.

Disappointing Squirts in the Tiger City

Scandinavians are avid sun worshippers and a common ailment here is “solsting” (a fun twist on sun burn). But solsting is tougher to get this far north and for that reason, Scandinavians report a kind of tourist boom. Tourism here (especially cruise ship companies that visit the Baltic Sea region) is up as Europeans from the steamy Mediterranean region are finding a new Nordic attraction: escape from their summer heat.

In Oslo, there’s now a big statue of a tiger in front of the station. A local explained to me that Oslo’s nicknamed the “Tiger City” because in the 19th century when country boys would visit, the wild and crazy “New York City of Norway” would “make a mark on their soul.”

Tiger or no tiger, I find Oslo more of a kitten. Still, this year I spent more time then ever trying to spice up the “ya sure ya betcha” homogeneity of the Oslo scene. Oslo seems to relish the fact that it is not all white and blond. While the normal sightseeing is contained in the monumental and classically Norwegian city center, a short walk takes you to the two trendy multi-ethnic zones. Grunerlokka–with its funky shops, old hippies, bohemian cafes–is the Greenwich Village of Oslo. But–unless your travel experience is limited to Iceland–Grunerlokka is a poor excuse for colorful.

Oslo’s rough and tumble immigrant zone is simply a stretch of a street called Gronland. (Gronland, I believe, means Greenland. This reminds me that for years Copenhagen’s skid row was a square where its poorest citizens, natives from Greenland, would hang out–ruined by their inability to handle alcohol.) Oslo’s Gronland street is where Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, and the rest of Oslo’s immigrant community congregate. Colorful green grocers carts spill onto sidewalks, the various kebabs and spicy borek–$2 to go–make the cheapest meals in town. Dueling Tandoori restaurants actually offer meals for under $10–unheard of in Oslo. But if you’re looking for a multi-ethnic splash of color, Gronland is a disappointing and pastel squirt.

Generally in my travels these days, I just hop a taxi from the airport. But yesterday as I flew from Norway to Sweden, I happily rode the train. Oslo and Stockholm each placed their airports even more ridiculously distant from downtown than Denver. The difference (which takes all the ridiculous out of these airports) is their slick express train connections. Oslo’s futuristic Flytrain Express makes the 30 mile journey in 20 minutes four times an hour for $20. (Stockholm’s is about the same.)

Sweden is progressive. It prides itself in being the most emancipated country in the developed world–45% of its parliament members are women. But there are still proud “bun mommies” as they call their “soccer moms.” In fact the country is experiencing a baby boom as the grand new harbor promenades that loop all around this watery “Venice of the North” are clogged with baby strollers. I found myself playing a goofy little game of seeing how many pregnant Swedes I could capture in the same photograph. [stay tuned]

News flash: Stockholm’s national museums are now free. As long as the current left wing government has its way, Stockholm’s national museums will stay free. If the right retakes the parliament, fees will be reinstated. As I update my guidebook, I have to try to predict the situation for 2007.

While researching my guidebooks, I’m picking up enough fresh ideas and vivid-for-TV-experiences for new TV scripts. Scripts falling happily out of my research work is the kind of efficiency that turns me on. (But here in Scandinavia, they don’t “kill two birds with one stone”…they “kill two flies with one swat.”

One time grills and the Paris Hilton effect

Every time I come to Norway, I’m fascinated by their experiment in government. When I report on it, I routinely get fellow Americans angry at me for bringing home news of a land where the desired alternative to big bad government is not little good government but big good government. I’m not necessarily in favor of this (and I certainly wouldn’t want to run my business over here). But I don’t find it offensive either. In fact, I’m challenged by it. Here are a few observations gleaned from conversations I just had here in Oslo. (In response to a comment below: Norway is resource rich–lots of oil money. But without oil money, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have essentially the same priorities and somehow manage.) Norwegians look forward to November. It’s “half tax month” as the government wants people to have some extra money for the upcoming holidays. With their current booming economies coupled with tax incentives for new babies, the Nordic countries are experiencing a baby boom. Paternity leave is very generous here. Scandinavian families get nine months leave at 80 percent pay which the mom or dad can split as they like. On top of this, men are required–use it or lose it–to take a paid month of paternity leave when their baby arrives.

While there are more babies around here, there’s less smoke. Just a few years ago, smoke was a real problem for American travelers in Europe. Now, much of Europe is actually less smoky than the USA. Italy went smoke free…then Ireland…now Scandinavia. The bars, restaurants, cafes, trains…it’s clean air for all.

I was just in one of Oslo’s infamous old “brown cafes”–so named for the smoke stained interiors. It was so old and brown that it still smelled of tobacco…but there hasn’t been a smoker in there for months. With the strict no smoking rules (a bar can lose its license if it allows smoking inside), restaurants are now routinely equipped with blankets so smokers can eat outside–even in the cold season. (To consume nicotine indoors, locals are using snuff–“snus” in Norwegian.)

Oslo has its prostitutes and needle junkies. In fact it seems most of the prostitutes are drug addicts too. Cameras panning the streets from atop buildings seem to ignore the sale of drugs and sex as this society is more tuned into violent crimes rather than what it considers “victimless crimes.” While wasted people who always remind me of Vikings and their whores after payday still seem to rot on the Oslo curbs, the lack of violent crime in the country is impressive by any standard.

I don’t know how the down and out manage to afford their alcoholism. Restaurants and bars are too expensive for the average Norwegian to use carelessly. Young Norwegians love their alcohol. But they b.y.o.b. These days young people “vorspiel” (pre-party) at home, go out for a couple hours around midnight to nurse one expensive drink with a wider social scene, and then “nachspiel” (after party) with close friends at home. In a Norwegian bar or restaurant a beer costs $8 (compared with $4 in Ireland and $1 in the Czech Republic). But beer is only $1.50 a bottle when purchased in a grocery store. $10 six packs, no problem.

In Denmark tourists see countless young revelers out on the streets, canal-side, and littering the parks drinking beer. It’s off-putting until you realize that the consumption is no greater than in England or Ireland…it’s just that while pubs there are affordable, in Scandinavia (because of the extremely high alcohol taxes in bars), “going out” means “going outside.”

Another way Norwegians cope with the high cost of eating out is with the “one time grill.” These foil grills–which cost about $3 at a supermarket–are all the rage. On a balmy evening the city is perfumed with the smell of one time grills fired up as the parks are filled with Norwegians eating out.

Another difference many American visitors notice in Scandinavia is the casual approach to nudity. I’m not talking just mixed saunas. Parents let their kids run naked in city parks and fountains. It’s really no big deal. Norway has co-ed PE classes with boys and girls showering together from the first grade. If you ever end up in a Norwegian hospital and need an x-ray, I hope you’re not modest. Women strip to the waist and are casually sent from the doctor’s office down the hall past the waiting public to the X-ray room. No one notices…no one cares. I find it ironic that while America goes into a tizzy over a goofy “wardrobe malfunction,” it is our society that statistically has the problem with sex-related crimes.

And what about dogs you ask? Small dogs are the rage these days in Oslo. They call it the “Paris Hilton effect.” Chihuahuas sell for $3,000 each in Norway. Bulgarians are routinely caught smuggling dogs in (they then kill the dogs). I asked my Norwegian friend about Chihuahuas. She said “We have two.” “Why two?” I asked. “So they can have babies. We just sold some and I paid off my credit card debt.”

Yoko Oslo

Following the news from overseas, it seems more like entertainment than ever. A journalist is caught intensifying the smoke in a photo ornamenting his covering of a Holy Land bombing. It seems CNN reporters are getting progressively sexier–blondes filling their flack jackets, husky voices under desert-colored helmets, bringing home the heroics and the carnage. Today, all day, is coverage of an event that didn’t happen–a horrific, multi-plane cataclysm with the marks of al Qaeda all over it. Thousands of flights cancelled. You can take only wallets onto the plane. No liquids! A reporter with an exotic Man-From-Uncle-type name is at Heathrow wringing as much “frustration and despair” as possible out of people delayed at the airport who seem to be taking the delays in stride. Already I’ve had several requests from news reporters for tips on packing liquids.

I’m in Oslo…a world away from the commotion. A “congestion fee” keeps most cars from the center of town. A new tunnel takes nearly all the rest under the city. The old train station facing the fjord boat landing is now the Nobel Peace Prize Center, explaining the vision of a man who dedicated the wealth he earned inventing dynamite to celebrate peace-makers. The towering brick city hall–where the prize is awarded–stands high above the harbor action. A weather-beaten sailor stands at the stern of his boat hoping to sell the last of the shrimp he caught before sunrise this morning.

There’s a light mist. A sturdy harbor front boardwalk glistens as if happy to be the city’s dancing floor. I stand at the edge of the scene and marvel at about a hundred Norwegians swing dancing–in what seems like a microcosm of a content society.

Normally Norwegians are annoying in their good looking self-assured perfection. But these are just extremely normal people–a little over-weight, a little wrinkled, maxed out in what life will bring them–dancing in content twosomes in front of yacht club-type bars and restaurants most of them likely can’t afford. It’s mostly American-style two-step to the recorded oldies…familiar tunes with unfamiliar Norwegian lyrics…there’s a line dance without much of a line and no cowboy hats. Girls looking up at their tall guys with big smiles. No one’s trying to hook up. They are hooked up.

Then, I turn around. Like a mirage, a small, fragile, older Japanese woman with a huge aura walks by otherwise unnoticed. Her attendant holds an over-sized black umbrella over her head…keeping a white beret dry. I have to say hello and thanks and mucho gusto or something. I walk fast to reach her but her attendant grabs my arm and says gently, “I’m sorry sir…not now.” And Yoko Ono walks on by.

(Back in my hotel, cursing my lazy decision not to lug my camera along, I Google “Yoko Oslo” and discover she’s performing here…the day after I fly to Stockholm. Oh well.)