St. Petersburg is located at the easternmost end of the long and narrow Gulf of Finland, a shallow appendage of the Baltic sea. On the north, the gulf is bordered by Finland, and on the south by Estonia; the entrance to the gulf is guarded by their capitals -- Helsinki and Tallin. Approximately 400 kilometers or 250 miles separate Helsinki and St. Petersburg, the distance of 40 minutes in flight time. Fifteen minutes to climb to altitude, fiften minutes to land, which leaves about ten minutes in the air. Just enough time for the flight attendands to serve packages of apple juice and pick up the empty cartons.
This was the last leg of my journey yesterday, and I did it twice - after we climbed to altitude and had our juice, the pilot announced that there was a glitch in the navigation computer, a problem that would not affect our flight, but without solving which the plane could not take off again, and this problem could not be fixed in St. Petersburg, but only in Helsinki, and so to Helsinki we were returning. The flight plan monitors hanging above the chairs all throughout the cabin showed our plane making a u-turn right in the middle of the blue triangle formed by Helsinki, Tallin and St. Petersburg.
Finnair planes are supermodern: they are equipped with cameras at the front and the bottom of the craft, allowing the passengers the view of the runway as the plane runs to take off, and then quickly switches to show the trees and the houses under the plane's belly. This was particularly cool a feature on the previous leg of my journey, as we were taking off from JFK airport in New York. The clear skies allowed us to see the cityskape of Queens, and then far into the fields of Connecticut -- before the displays were switched to the flight entertainment program (a wide selection of TV shows and movies, Avatar being the highlight). Watching the runway disappear under the nose of our plane during take off was exhilirating, a feeling not unlike I experience when I fly in my dreams, especially when the camera suddenly switches from the view of the sky and the clouds straight ahead to show the land receding below.
I think this is a great stress relief for those of us who might feel tense or scared during take-off -- take-off becomes a show, the experience looped through the camera eye loses a degree of immediate sensory details (we pay less attention to noises and vibration, and more to the visual experience of it), and acts upon us in much the same way as a videogame or, a better analogy, a 3D ride in an amusement park. The only problem, in Helsinki the cloud cover hangs so low that the second and third times I got to enjoy the view, it only lasted moments before being obscured by white mush.
My parents were shopping the entire time -- all while I took off in Helsinki, turned around over the Finland Gulf, landed back in Helsinki, waited for the computer to be fixed, was moved to another plane, and took off again. My parents went to Lenta, one of the giant local megasupermarkets, and shopped for everything from pears and watermelon and chocolate waffle cakes to dish soap and toilet paper and the new dish drying rack for the country house. And after they picked me up from the airport two hours after my scheduled time of arrival, we went home and had a giant feast. You can only go so far on two small cartons of apple juice for breakfast, and I was starving. We spent the afternoon chatting and reading and watching Volker Schlöndorff's 1984 rendering of Swann's Way, Un Amour de Swann, with Jeremy Irons and Alain Delon -- and not napping. Okay, maybe napping just a little bit.