Sunday, August 22, 2010

Finland IV: Therese, Therese

(In this fourth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at language problems and a Swedish railway employee patiently willing to help me out.)

While all the credit card mess (from Part III of this series) was being cleaned up, I proceeded to reserve the rest of my rail-and-sail trip from London to Finland . The easiest part was the next part; now that I had the overnight rail (from Cologne to Copenhagen) e-ticketed, I proceeded to work on the Viking Line ferry from Stockholm to Mikko Koivu's hometown of Turku, Finland.

Turku is one of Finland's oldest cities, being also one of its' major ports: people have been living here for over 700 years. The fifth largest city in Finland (pop. 176,401), 3 million people pass thru Turku annually, en route for the Ă‚land islands or all the way across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. Turku is also where the 225,282-ton Royal Caribbean Lines mega-liner Oasis of the Seas was built, as well. Needless to say, this city has a LOT of history behind it, being Finland's first capital (the capital was moved to Helsinki in the 1800's, by the Russians).

Since the general sales agent for Viking Line ferries in North America is located in south Minneapolis, a couple of local phone calls (and two e-mails across town) was all it took to secure berths, buffets and passage, again all at a significant discount over standard rates by booking early. There was also a more practical side, as well; the Stockholm-Turku ferry of rival Silja Line was completely booked out as a charter for the night of October 2nd, so we HAD to book early, in order to make this all work correctly. Otherwise, we would have been marooned in Stockholm, with no way to continue on until the next day, at least.

So, with the train to Copenhagen ticketed, the ferry to Finland reserved, I then turned to the Swedish Railways website in order to reserve space on their X2000 high-speed tilt train from Copenhagen to Stockholm. The reserving of the train was easy enough; Swedish Railways (Statens Jarnvagar, or SJ) has online booking and ticketing, like most everyone else does; the big difference is, although you can book space 90 days in advance, SJ does not allow ticketing until 60 days prior to departure (reason being that SJ does do some business with Finland in the far north, and the Finns do nothing with their trains more than 60 days out).

When I received my reservation confirmation, it wasn't what I had hoped. I had hoped that, like most other European railways, the SJ computer would put me again in a 1 + 1 'Club Duo' situation, with two seats facing each other with a table between us, and nobody next to us (we don't speak Swedish, either, except if 'Ya, sure, you betcha' counts), like on Thalys between Paris and Cologne.

It didn't. We were placed at a table for four, which means if we talked at all, our seatmates would probably not understand anything we were saying. Not exactly the best way to spend the afternoon crossing Sweden, dont'cha know. We were very uncomfortable with the results.

Needless to say, damage control was in order. Immediate e-mails were dispatched to Stockholm, wondering if this oversight could be corrected? We had purchased deeply-discounted non-refundable, non-exchangeable tickets, which meant our tickets would be invalid for any other Swedish train but the specific one we had booked. But changing seats on the same train, same date, so that two people could sit together on a fall Saturday afternoon? They'd have to go for it. 'I gotta try', I thought.

This is where the language barriers come into play. I don't speak Swedish. My wife? No, not a word. SJ does have English-speaking customer services staff, but their command of English, while very good for a non-mother-tongue, is difficult when you are trying to talk in terms both sides would understand. And, while an absolute God-send, Google Translate can only go so far. So now, with a frustrating, 5:19 ride (from Copenhagen to Stockholm) ahead of me, now what do I do?

Enter Therese.

Therese is a very kind, understanding lady on the English-language desk at SJ's Customer Services department in Stockholm. She also understood that we would be better off by ourselves, in a 'Club Duo' situation, rather than have a multi-cultural nightmare occur on the pride of the Swedish long-haul railway fleet. She rebooked the reservation, in order to get us the 1 + 1 seating we desired, and then came back later and e-mailed me our tickets, after the 60th day prior to departure had passed, just before she went happily on vacation.

Therese was very happy to explain that we would now have seats in a 1 + 1 situation, that the changes had been made so that the train conductor wouldn't 'go postal' the second that he/she saw the tickets (the old space was released for re-sale, after the new space was booked) and that all would be well on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm.

Having settled the Swedish railway segment, all there was to do was wait for the Finnish Railways 'Boat Train' to open for reservation. Again, the e-ticket route was the way to go, as we will have less than one hour from the time the ferry is scheduled to dock at Turku Harbor (or Satama, in Finnish) until the Boat Train leaves 110 yards (100 meters) away, and the Turku Satama railway station has no automated ticket machines on site.

So now, we are all set. Every segment has been booked, paid for, and ticketed. We are finally ready to depart on the Grand Adventure, until...

(to be continued)

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