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It was a cold December day in Joensuu, Eastern Finland. Snow covered the railroad tracks, and I knew I had exactly 10 minutes to transfer from one train to another. “From Joensuu to Tikkurila and from Tikkurila to the Helsinki Airport,” I repeated to myself as I burned my tongue with the hot, black tea.
Every day around 300 long-distance and 800 commuter trains travel across Finland, where the state-owned VR Group has the monopoly over the railroads. One might wonder, why the trains are so popular? Perhaps because they are the fastest option—or the monopolized single one—, the most comfortable choice, and one of the eco-friendliest alternatives.
Most train tickets are sold online, even though it is also possible to get them at vending machines, R-kiosks and travel agencies. This makes buying tickets a simple process, even for shy foreigners like myself.
That December day, I found myself among those travelers, ordering tea to calm my anxiety about a possible train delay that would lead to a lost flight at the Helsinki Airport. A missed flight home . . . Mexico, for Christmas. According to VR’s website, “a large number of VR employees work constantly to guarantee the smooth flow of rail traffic. We work every day to maintain and improve punctuality.” But was that really true?
I sank into my thoughts. I remembered that the first time I ever got on a Finnish train I sat in the wrong seat. I got my ticket through their website but apparently did not read it carefully. Once I sat in my seat a young woman appeared and, as she muttered an unintelligible phrase in Finnish, I looked up at her and smiled. Like a child who has no idea what is happening, I handed her my phone and after inspecting my ticket, she told me I was in the wrong cart. My mistake was not in vain since it cost me having to walk from one end of the train to the other. That’s how I discovered the restaurant cart, where travelers can choose from an assortment of snacks and drinks and lonesome passengers can be found sipping their coffees next to chatting groups of middle-aged women.
When traveling during the winter, fields of infinite snow take hold of the landscape. When I looked through the window, dozens of snow-covered trees passed by, making them seem like moving creatures in a winter wonderland. Sometimes a house would rise over the white ground, with a gentle yellowish light coming through one of the windows. I wondered about the people living there. Would they, well-adapted families living in the desolate frozen countryside, have the same worries, dreams and hopes that I have?
As I was exploring the train, I noticed the wide range of available seating options. One can choose from face-to-face seats, individual seats, lower deck seats, upper deck seats, working compartments, pet seats and seats for allergic people. If this is not sitting variety then I don’t know what is. I’ve tried the face-to-face seats, which led to awkwardly staring at a stranger for hours, the working compartments where I was able to peacefully work in silence next to a businessman, and the individual seats where I have sat next to old, knitting ladies and hyperactive, small boys.
Yet, it’s not all roses when traveling on a Finnish train. The hot tea made me want to visit the restroom. As I made my way down the aisle and through the glass doors, a stale smell pointed that I had reached my destination. The small, messy toilet seemed out of place in that otherwise neat train. I faced a difficult choice: either go in there and suffocate with the smell or let my bladder explode. I chose the first one and learned to never do that again.
About four and a half hours later it was announced that the Helsinki Airport station would be the next stop, and I sighed in relief. VR train did, in fact, guarantee the smooth flow of rail traffic since I managed to get to the final destination in exactly the expected time.
A light to Mexico City was waiting, and my bag was full of Finnish gifts.