Sunday, August 22, 2010

Helsinki - 17-20th June 2010

15 min before landing at Helsinki Airport

I’ll do my best to keep this one to billiard-related material, but it’s gonna be tough. Helsinki during the week of the summer solstice was a stupendously great idea, and I enjoyed many things which I will only mention here briefly. Luckily for the Billiard Traveler’s trillions of fanatical followers, there is definitely some billiard lore and gore to be scripted into the pool junkie historical archives.

We landed in Helsinki on Thursday, June 17th 2010 (we is me and two most excellent work buddies, Kuke and the Chad). The picture above was taken somewhere over the Baltic see, at about 10pm. The cool thing is that the sun stayed at that spot until about 12:30, after which it finally dips just below the horizon for an hour (not low enough that you can see stars, not even close – sky is still blue!) and then starts rising slowly again around 2:00 am. It’s kind of…. The opposite of tiring. Like detiring. We didn’t sleep much on this trip, but still didn’t feel tired – the constant daylight is energizing.
The Chad (left) and Kuke (right).
You can probably smell the lack of interest
 in billiards wafting from this pic,
but I did manage to get them to come out and
 shoot on Friday night.

We went out for a couple of drinks after checking in to our hotel at around 11:30pm (Kuke conveniently had Skandic points saved up so we only had to pay for 1 night!). We stayed out till about 2am, waiting for the sun to finish setting, but it didn’t and started rising again. When we got back to the room we definitely made sure we had good blinds on the windows.

Friday morning we went on a bus tour of the city, which was pretty good. They had a nice selection of languages including Latin (!) that you could choose from for your tour. I did mine in French, Saw lots of cool landmarks and got a short taste of the summer daily life in Helsinki.

Daily life in Helsinki - as I am tricking my brain into remembering it.

And... something different.

On the Bus, we were briefly taught about the Suomenlinna Island Fortress and decided to go there in the afternoon. Here is a map of Helsinki overlayed with our recorded path for June 18th.

As you can see, to get to Suomenlinna Island, you take a boat (duh). The boat goes through plenty of little islands with little red houses on them, and in 20 minutes you dock at Suomenlinna.

The bastions of Suomenlinna
We did a guided tour of Suomenlinna, during which we learned all about the history of the fortress. Very cool.

Russian 6 inch 35 caliber naval gun
During the visit, I got a txt msg from a knucklehead friend of mine Jeff who had told me a month before that he would just happen to be in Helsinki that weekend with his girl, as the first leg of a tour of the Baltic countries and Russia. The text message said he had arrived to Helsinki and was about to “head to some Island fortress and grab some food and drinks there”. Unfortunately, my outgoing text messages were not getting to him, so I couldn’t communicate back. So we are on this island in Finland and essentially Jeff and Kathy just happen to also be coming there. This remarkable coincidence was just the beginning of a string of good fortune, and very soon I will show you this as we transition to the meatiest morsels of billiard discoveries.

Russian Pyramid table at the restaurant on the island.
Totally random discovery which led to awesome things.
The only problem is that I don’t know what time Jeff and Kathy will show up. So I decided to wait at the arrival dock on the island while Kuke and the Chad went to look for a place to grab some food and drinks, as well as watch the USA vs I FORGET soccer match. They come back about 25 min later, and tell me they found a place which has beer, a table with a TV, food, and also happens to have a POOOOL TAAAAABLLLLLLLEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!

I immediately ask them a billion questions (is there anyone shooting? What does it cost? What kind of pool table is it and so on, and they say either no or don’t know to all my questions, get bored with my pool nerdiness and go back to the restaurant while I still wait for Jeff and Kathy to show up.  Basically I'm sitting on the dock with my spyglass that I always carry around, scrutinizing incoming ships...

Finally I spot Jeff and Kathy getting off the boat, meet up with them, and we head to the restaurant.

It turned that there was no “pool” table. There was a Russian Pyramid table! First time I had ever seen one in real life.

Do those pockets look tight to you? Maybe you need a couple of close-ups:

Side pocket... a bit tight

Corner pocket... Does it even fit?

Strangely, though, I didn’t see a set of Russian Pyramid balls there… Instead, this is what they had :
The pool balls, OK. But what in the world are those sets of 5 balls?? I really want to find out at this point, but the others are watching the soccer game and drinking beer in the back room so I join back up with them to eat and catch up with Jeff and Kathy whom I had not seen for a while.
From left : Kuke, Kathy, Jeff
Awesome steak with herb butter and believe me or not, the best potatoes I’ve ever had.

So we are drinking and eating for a while, and suddenly I hear that familiar clank of ivory : somebody is shooting!!! I leave the others to their stupid world cup soccer match and this is the scene:
Finnish dudes playing a game I had never even heard of

Jani explaining the game of Kaisa to me

There is a group of 4 Finnish dudes playing with the set of five balls. They are keeping score on a chalkboard. I'm just staring at them playing this game, trying to understand what is going on. All I can tell is that pocketing balls is a good thing and that they always shoot using a white ball (but there are two white balls). After they finish a match, I ask one of them about the game (everyone in Finland speaks pretty much perfect English). He proceeds to explain the game to me. Essentially, you have one of the white cue balls and your opponent has the other. You make points by pocketing any ball (except your own). White ball is 2 points (you can pocket your opponents cue), red is 3, yellow is 6. If you pocket a ball and also make a carom in the same shot it gets you extra points.

The game is called Kaisa, and is the Finnish national cue sport.  So here's the crazy thing. Jani is actually a complete pool junkie - and a knowledgeable one at that! Here he is detailing the history of the game of Kaisa:

Are you kidding me?? I happened to walk into THE place where the Finnish national cue sport was likely invented!! Not only this, but Jani is quite modest. Through later conversation he admitted that he is currently ranked 24th in Finland in 9-ball (as he says, he had a poor season lol) and that he is sponsored by Suomen Biljardmyynti (Finlands Billiard supplies) and Jasalste corporation - Actually Jasalste are sending him to the US open this year!  Hoping we can meet again in October :)

One-pocket with Jani - Baribal pool hall, Helsinki
After many beers at this historical establishment, we took the boat back to Helsinki. We made plans to meet Jani at a pool hall in Helsinki later that night.  The pool hall was recommended to me by @PoolJar on Twitter.
I managed to drag Kuke and the Chad out to the poolroom, and we did meet Jani there.  I played a bit of one-pocket and a bit of 9-ball with Jani, but mostly we were just talking.  When the place started closing shop (and I can't remember what time it was, but the sky was a bit dark so probably around 1 or 2 am) we went to a club/bar place in Helsinki which is open late.  It was great talking to Jani about cultures, language, gambling and many other things.  I'm not sure again what time we walked out and headed home, but the sun was shining bright as it usually does at equinox in Finland!

That's that as far as pool goes for that weekend.

The next day, we took a daytrip to Estonia - here is a brief summary.

We're about on the 7th floor of our hotel - when we wake up, this is the scene down below in the plaza:

Hockey is life.
Young addicts
There is just HOCKEY everywhere.  Who would figure that one of the coldest places on earth would actually MISS playing hockey during the summer, so come up with rules and layouts and tournaments for ALSO playing it in the summer?

We keep walking, trying to reach the port on time for our tickets for the "cruise" to Tallinn, Estonia.  It's about 2 hours each way, on a really nice cruiseship! I think it was 36 euros roundtrip. Not bad!
So apparently the Finns love going to Estonia, in large part because of the fact that the alcohol is soooo much cheaper on the other side of the Baltic.  On the way there we saw a ton of people, but very few had any luggage.  On the way back, just about everyone had a roller-trolley loaded up with asstons of beer and liquor.  and they are all drunk, and drinking on the boat too...

It was raining when we got to Tallinn, but lightly.  Reminded me of October or November season in Normandy, France (where I am from).  Tallinn is an interesting city - it's not at all like I had imagined it.  It's has a commercial center with high-rises and lots of industry, and also an old-city area which is an extremely well preserved walled medieval city.
Here is the trip from Helsinki and a bit in Tallinn, before my reception gave out (Verizon you suck!  On the other hand, am I being unreasonable to expect mobile data coverage in the middle of the baltic?)

The old medieval city of Tallinn
We walked around Tallinn for a bit, looking for a good place to eat. Wikitravel had recommended Olde Hansa: The ruling king among Tallinn's restaurants with some of them trying to copy its style.
"       The place is simply medieval, not just in terms of food but also in the sense of performance - no electricity, no music except live and authentic, no modern inventions. The house special is bear meat "marinated in rare spices and cooked over a fire in honour of Waldemar II, the brave King of Denmark"       " 

So we went there, and it was indeed really cool.  I had a wild boar stew, Chad had some kind of goose leg and luke had the elk, boar, and bear (!) sausage.

The Olde Hansa menu.  It was very well done and quite funny, zoom in and take a look

Kuke's assorted sausage plate

Ye Olde Tallinn Towne Halle

We also quickly visited the Tallinn orthodox cathedral at the top of the hill (during a service, which was quite different from anything I had seen before.  Unbelievable amount of incense!!!) and we toured the grounds of the main castle complex.

The Chad "touring the castle complex"

See this ledge on this picture here on the left?Obviously, it looks like a quick challenge for us idiots.  The Chad starts climbing it (pictured) but cannot make it all the way up.  So I decided to have a go at it and I got up there.  Coming down was less easy... let's just say it doesnt look as high on the pic as it does in real life when you are up top!

After this pleasant but all too short visit of Estonia, we got back on the boat, now fully loaded with fully loaded Finns and their beerstash for the week.
The next day we did not do too much - visited the awesome fish market (where there was a pan-flute band... which everytime I see pan flutes I cannot stop thinking about that South Park episode lol) and also visited this cool church built into a ginormous rock.  

And i'll let you go with a picture of your favorite billiard traveler getting in touch with his Estonian pirate sensibilities....
Estonian Pool-Hustling Pirate