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Helsinki, Finland: After a week in Russia, I find a familiarity here that's comforting. A broad highway bringing me from the airport is cut through birch and pine forests reminiscent of my hometown in Canada. On this Friday afternoon, there is an exodous from the city to cottages in a lake district, while residents remaining in town this summer weekend are loading up with picnics to take to offshore islands. City streets are clean, department stores modern and well stocked, the railway station with its underground shops is as vast as any in North America. Almost everywhere I go I hear English spoken. But all this and a historic past comes with a strictly European flavour.

Bounded on three sides by water, Helsinki grew up around its harbour. A tiny port called Helsingfors by Swedish founders in 1550, it became the Finnish capital under Russian rule when the Czar decided the former capital Turku was too close to Sweden and too far from Russia. Now the harbour is lively with pleasure craft and fishing fleet, sightseeing tours and ferries to other Baltic ports, cruise ships off-loading passengers for a few hours on shore.