Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible. ~ Aristotle
My father says I have no sense of direction. And for the most part, he's right. So when I was investigating various study abroad options, I knew I would have to take my "directional impairment" into account. After all, I wouldn't want to accidently take the wrong train and end up in Russia.
Finland has a very good mass transit system that's easy to use, even for someone like me. There's a website (www.hsl.fi) that tells me how to get anywhere I want to go. However, it's not fool proof. And sometimes there are a few too many options. Here's a little Public Transportation 101 so you can see what I mean.
There are four major modes of public transportation: bus, tram, train, and metro.
The bus routes run like the MTC routes, only more frequently. If I don't want to walk to school, I can take a 506 that picks up near my apartment. It's about a 25 minute ride and the bus drops off a few blocks away from the school. PLEASE NOTE: If you accidently take a 505 instead, you can get off at any point and eventually pick up a 506 across the street that will take you to school. Plan on being about an hour late for class when that happens.
The tram (which is in the yellow and green vehicle in the picture) runs along tracks in the street. I can pick up the #6 from school and it will take me into downtown Helsinki (called "the Centre"). It drops me off in front of the main railway station (also pictured above) where I can hop a train or get on to the metro. PLEASE NOTE: The trams go all over town and use the same street as the cars. It's not uncommon to look out the window and see a car driving along side of you, just inches away, with no barrier in between.
The train is by far the fastest and most convenient mode of transportation. One of the train stations is a short walk from my apartment, and every train stops at Pasila Bӧle (my stop) both on the way into the Centre and on the way back. There's no need to look at a timetable because there's a train leaving every 5 to 10 minutes. PLEASE NOTE: The trains and the trams share some of the same numbers (4, 6, 7, 9) so when someone gives you directions, be sure to clarify the difference between train and tram, or you may end up on the opposite side of town.
The Metro is the underground subway. I take it from my language class (located on one of the University of Helsinki campuses) to the Central Railway Station. I think this is the easiest of all the modes to use because at every platform there is a big map of the entire line. You find where you want to go and get on the train traveling in that direction. At each stop, there's a voice that tells you in Finnish, Swedish, and English where you are. PLEASE NOTE: If you don't recognize the name of the stop, get off and hop a tram going in the opposite direction. (I haven't done this one yet, but there's still time.)
With the right planning, you can get anywhere using one or more of these modes of transportation. But when all else fails, you can call on the fifth mode of public transportation, a taxi. Just make sure you have the street address of where you want go.
Now that you have a brief overview of the public transportation system, here are some things I have observed while taking it:
1. Public transportation is highly utilized. I frequently see entire families riding together. Infants in baby strollers are not uncommon. Even dogs come along for the ride. The infrastructure of the transportation system is such that you really can get pretty much wherever you need to go. Could explain why two out of five Finnish residents don’t own a car.
2. There are many different ways to pay your fare. There are cards that you can purchase at the Central Station that give you unlimited rides from two weeks to an entire year. You can also purchase a single fair from a ticket machine, a convenience store, or with your cell phone. If all else fails, you pay the driver when you get on. And unlike MTC, the drivers make change.
3. There is very little eye contact and no idle chit chat. Finns are by nature reserved. There is no striking up a conversation with the stranger in the next seat. No one will even make eye contact if they can help it.
4. Although English is widely spoken throughout Finland, many Finns (especially those over 40) don’t speak English or know only a little English. This is also true of many of the bus drivers, whether they are originally from Finland or not. Thus, it’s best to ask (in Finnish) if someone speaks English before you ask a question. This is especially helpful when asking for directions as many people won’t acknowledge you are speaking to them if they hear a question in English.