Porvoo is a small town a short drive from Helsinki, Finland’s capital. It’s mostly known as a tourist stop for its tiny Old Town with traditional wooden houses. There is a church that dates from the 13th century.
As for me, I associate Porvoo with a tourism and hospitality school which many of my ex-collegues in the travel industry had studied at. Back when I was choosing my future career as a young adult, some twenty years ago, Porvoo was the only option for tourism studies (that, and Lapland) – Helsinki had none. I didn’t want to relocate to a smaller town, so I decided to study marketing instead.
Times have changed and now there are plenty of travel degrees available in Helsinki. Probably more than there are jobs available, making it harder than ever to land a job in the industry. I guess all those reality TV shows about tour guides and every other job on the planet, as well as social media, have made an impact; tourism must seem like an attractive career option for young people.
When I started my career in outbound tourism, I was a university student and spoke several languages. That was a good enough fit. I remember flipping through the yellow pages (how old does that make me sound?! I’m only 40!) looking for the addresses of all the airlines located in Helsinki.
They used to have town offices back then, where people booked their flights – this was before internet sales had really launched off at all. (I think a rudimentary version of internet must have existed already.) Flights were also quite commonly booked on the phone, either via a travel agency or directly with the airline.
I was already working in customer service, but I really, really wanted to work for an airline and feel the world at my fingertips… so I typed open applications with a typewriter to all of them – maybe five or six – and sent them in the mail.
Though there was no job ad, just my spontaneous letter, I got an interview at a large airline, located absolutely in the core center of town, and I got the job. The woman interviewing me said her daughter had the same name as me. (Snow isn’t my real name, you know!) Personal chemistry was often a factor in job interviews. I believe it still is.
I was in heaven – I had gotten my dream job! It was “just” a call center job answering the phone and booking flights but it was oh-so-exciting! It maybe doesn’t sound like much, but to me it was a big step towards what I wanted my life to be like.
There were little airplane models of the fleet placed along window sills for decoration. There were world maps on every wall of the office with bright red pins carefully placed on top of the world destinations the airline flew to. Blue pins marked where partner airlines flew. The world was conquered.
I was put into training with two other newcomers my age, whom I befriended quickly. We were given thick manuals with airport and city codes which we had to memorize. LAX, DXB, HKT… the difference between STO and ARN… it was exciting that I was getting paid to study geography and airport codes! Another manual was about the Amadeus-based reservation system which we had to get familiar with. We sat there studying our manuals in an empty conference room with windowed walls offering views of downtown bustle.
Colleagues played a big part in my growing enthusiasm for the aviation industry. With their mid-winter tans and street smart attitudes, they talked of exotic travels they had done.
One guy my age told me how he had traveled solo to South America sitting on a beer canister in the galley, since all the seats were occupied. During landing, the beer canister wouldn’t stay still… Oh, those were the days! (That would never have happened in Finland, by the way, where safety always rules. Good old boring but safe Finland.)
Do you remember when passengers could fly stand-by? That was a good option for students. They’d go to the airport early in the morning of their intended flight, report at check-in, and wait for everyone else to board. If there was space, they could purchase a very reasonably priced ticket.
Back then, flights often operated half-empty in order to provide a variety of flight times for the customer to choose from – competing by offering choices – very unlike today’s scenario where each flight is cost-efficiently packed full. The same airline might have had for example 4 or 5 flights to Paris daily, whereas today there would only be one option. Flying was quite expensive, too, before low-cost airlines entered the scene (they didn’t always exist).
So, this was a “little” prelude to what I think of whenever I hear Porvoo: my ex-colleagues in aviation and a little trip down memory lane to a completely different era.
To be honest, I can’t remember if I’d ever been to this small town before the trip we took last weekend: hubby, myself and the toddlers. Now that we finally have a car, getting around with the twins is so much easier!
I recently wrote about Old Town areas often feeling touristy and fake. What about Porvoo then? It definitely caters to tourists and there are market stalls and little shops selling this and that. But there are no large crowds of tourists, only a handful of both locals and foreigners (I heard Spanish several times.) And there are no touts, no one forcing anything down your throat, no one asking you to come in. Those shops and stalls would be there anyway. So no, it isn’t a tourist trap at all.
The shops were picturesque on the outside and inside. We couldn’t resist buying an illustrated parrot poster for our children’s discreetly jungle-themed bedroom.
We had cake and smoothies outdoors, while birds picked at the leftovers on nearby tables. We parked the stroller at a bench near a rose bush to give the boys their snacks, the intoxicating rose scent drifting our way.
We dodged traffic on a tiny, cobblestoned road only to realize there was a wedding taking place at the old church. Of course there was a wedding, it’s summer after all. Guests were flooding to the scene in fancy summer dresses despite the strong, cool wind. A woman was wearing very high heels, walking expertly on the cobblestones. The sunshine made the colors of the town pop.
Now, I have new memories for whenever I hear Porvoo. The boys’ first visit to this town.
Thanks, Pooja, for your recent comment that inspired me to write about these old memories!