ELSEWHERE, 2010: Helsinki. Queen of the Baltic

IMG_0825.JPGWhat idiot travels?

Sight-seeing, apart from the fact that he had already seen everything, had for him — a Russian and an intelligent man — none of that inexplicable importance that the English manage to attach to it.

— Vronsky, freed by living abroad, completely at liberty, in Anna Karenina (purchased at Singer bookshop in St Petersburg and read by Myrna in the Balkans).

On March 30 on our first night away we kicked our way through the snow banks round to a Helsinki restaurant called Karl Johan tucked away in a corner of Yrjonkatu. (It’s George Street, just George Street. No excitement. Foreign that’s all.) We were there at the suggestion of a woman who ran the deli round the corner in Kalevankatu, and it was very good: great food, cosy in a formal way, friendly enough with, although it wasn’t frequented by tourists, a waiter who didn’t mind speaking English. I had the ‘menu classic’: asparagus, steak with a pepper sauce and rhubarb pie.

Seven weeks later on May 15 after a very warm day — the hottest for three years, all of 25 degrees, which had the populace in spasms of delight, a stationary queue of 100 metres or so trying to get into an outdoor pool for example, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people shedding their clothes in the city and sitting in the sun drinking beer, the sun which set after 10 that night — we went again.

(I know now that it is next door to a uimihalli, an indoor pool where men and women take daily turns to swim optionally unclothed.)

The same guy wasn’t there. Unusually for Helsinki, the people who were serving were less enthusiastic about speaking English. And we’d brought our baggage along. We were off directly to the airport, but the gesture was deemed slightly uncouth.It’s a stylish restaurant.

I worked my way through the carte. It all looked good and, without reflection, ordered the ‘menu classic’: asparagus (which I preferred to snails), steak with a pepper sauce and rhubarb pie.

All that time and money, all those arrangements and epic moments and startling experiences. I had after all eaten bizot at Skradin, inter so many alia. And nothing had changed.

What do we travel for?

That is the question that which has been dropped in the pond of these pages. See what you can make of the ripples.

••••••••••••••••••

QUEEN OF THE BALTIC

A cup of coffee (cappuccino): €3.50 ($A5.25)

IMG_0831.JPGIt was grey when we arrived, the grey of six o’clock in the morning and minus six degrees, abetted by tower blocks, airport concrete and snow banks full of road grit. Arrivals are easy targets, happy to be there but un-oriented and tuned differently.

I’m sure 90 percent of the really silly things travellers do happen within three hours of arrival.

But in this case the bus was where it ought to be, it had the right number and the right destination, it didn’t keep us waiting, it was warm, and took a generous route that let us watch a city waking up in the cold. It stopped where I thought it would and the main buildings and streets hadn’t moved. The walk to the hotel wasn’t far and they had a room free which in excellent English they were happy to offer us.

And minus six sounds a lot worse than it is. Brisk certainly, but not life threatening.

We reviewed the central station with its colossal art deco caryatids thinking how this stage of snow makes everything look like a building site, bought a three-day tram ticket, a map and ‘See Helsinki on Foot: 7 walking routes round town’ and considered ourselves settled.

IMG_1664The cafeteria had bits of fishy and other attractive substances on small roundels of rye. This made Myrna happy.

Being there was the rest I had hoped it would be — food without challenge, a comfortable bed, no language problems. The hegemony of English, I thought at the time, has taken new strides. This will be discussed further below in terms of the cultural and linguistic incompetence of the traveller and how embarrassing it is to be monolingual. But like a lot of things in Finland, Finns appear perfectly happy to be bilingual in English and that very exotic language Finnish (actually usually multilingual with Swedish and Norwegian as well and often Russian). There is no apparent fear that English will swamp and finish Finnish.

I’d like to know where that sort of cultural confidence comes from in a country that is not yet 100 years old as an independent entity.

For most of its 500 year life, Helsinki has been either a trading post for Sweden or a forward defensive post for the Russians of St Petersburg. It has been burned to the ground twice since 1730 and yet it has the look and feel of stability and permanence. Its current population is 530,000 with another 800,000 outside the municipal boundaries mainly spread along the coast line, but it plays smaller. Apart from its hugely maritime aspect its most distinctive physical feature is what you can’t see — the amount of it underground. In the central area the big shopping developments have about 1,700 shops below deck mined out of the pink and blue granite on which Helsinki is built. Often during the day you hear the phut of blasting. Finland’s population as a whole is 5.25 million; its other city of significance, Turku. It might have the same number of serious drinkers as Scotland, and that’s a lot[1]. The weather-beaten rural type is at least as common as the straight-haired ice blond with piercing blue eyes.

En passant, we will note that Absolut vodka is made in Finland; that Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, won nine gold and three silver medals at three Olympics in the ‘20s; that Jan Sibelius was Finnish and that ‘Finlandia’ is self-referential; and that Finnish school students lead the world in most areas of international testing.

We were there because Isaac our travel agent has something going with Finnair, and I had been there briefly once before on a stopover and thought it seemed like somewhere worthy of further investigation. And so it proved.

IMG_0827It has a tram route that takes you to everything tourists are supposed to want to see, always an interesting set of decisions, but unreservedly I love a tram ride. We got off at the Temppeliaukio Church which is cut into granite bedrock and has classy auditory characteristics. More interestingly for me, it is adjacent to a kids’ playground where the toddlers were rolling round in the snow banks, oblivious to the climatic handicaps, happy as Larry. I am not attuned to snow; we aren’t it’s fair to say. It bleaches the colour out of everything and objects, shapes lose their definition, but it also must shift behaviour. Near the playground we walked past a dog obedience class which was operating as a dog obedience class does albeit in heavy snow. A little further away was a tennis court with about 10 centimetres of net showing above the icy surface. Had the net been there all winter? Had someone mucked up or is that just what you do? Maybe the net was made out of some sort of weather resistant high grade tungsten webbing or something. Was a big thaw anticipated the next day? Was the snow cleared daily at some stage so the court could be used? It didn’t look like it.H-the tennis net But I’m not sure about snow behaviour. Whereas, if every year six to eight months were snowy, you’d know. You’d have a plan. You’d put your shops underground for example. But what an impact seasonality must have here, and, as we discovered two months later, what tremendous excitement for a warm, clear day.

IMG_0780.JPGWe saw what we were supposed to from the tram. (Click on the photo to the left to see its significance.) But late in the day stumbled across a Marimekko store.IMG_0795 An American temporarily teaching set design for film and television in Helsinki who shared a compartment with us on the train to St Petersburg described Marimekko as ‘hideously ‘70s’, but we thought what was there looked pretty good.

I know what he means. It’s a bit freehand and dedicated to the ecstasy of the spirit, but against the grey background of the winter environment it’s a splash, many splashes, of vivid living colour. It was better than anything else in the sad and dusty design museum which was kitted out with, more than anything else, uncomfortable looking chairs. (Finland. Design. Remember? Did you ever know?)

Next day we took a No. 4 tram to the end of the line and walked home, always a good way to see a place. It carted us off north to a different bay on the surface of which people were skiing and walking their dogs. IMG_0797This bay was quite sheltered and might have taken longer to thaw than the main bay which had a foot or two of ice encrusting it.

We stumbled across Seurasaari Island on which there is a large collection of old Finnish farm buildings (for heritage maintenance purposes) which, following the theme of survival in the cold, intrigued me.

About a quarter of them were from above the Arctic circle and all of them were constructed out of wood, just wood, not a nail or a sheet of iron between them. Just a stone hearth and backing for a fire. Such clever technology. See the photo of the hexagonal base of a wooden windmill as proof: 24 shaped logs all dove-tailed in three dimensions so to speak. H-The wooden windmill.Check the baseDespite the ingenuity, I cannot see how these buildings would not have been freezing to live and work in.

That night we ate at a Finnish equivalent of a VET hospitality training centre. The importance of experience to culinary skill was confirmed.

Later again on the television (20 channels, lots in English (UK and US) and nothing to watch including the unbearably lightweight BBC World News) we ran into an Australian televangelist whose message was that Captain Cook and James Phillip had brought Sundays to Australia in 1770. He was emphatic on this point. It was central to his message which was that only one of the Ten Commandments was about time and thus was the only one which was proofed against time and context. (I think. He was going pretty fast for me.) Exodus: ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.’ Deuteronomy: ‘Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.’ But he had a riff about Cook and ‘James’ Phillip that he wouldn’t let go. And presumably someone was paying him for this. [For our overseas guests, Cook and Capt. Arthur Phillip never did anything together. Cook touched on Australia in 1770 but didn’t stop. Phillip arrived in 1788.]

Life, and perhaps travel life especially, is full of post modern ephemera. It wasn’t long after that we were sitting in a café in Zagreb listening to a Croatian sing, in Croatian, ‘I come from a land down under’.

I wanted to go to Suomenlinna (‘Fort of Finland’) partly because the guidebooks referred to it as unmissable and sometimes they’re right, but mostly to see how you get a boat, a smallish boat, through a couple of kilometres of ice. I took one look at the bay and assumed it wouldn’t be happening.H-Russian Officers Club from the ferryThis is a ferry trip to Suomenlinna, an island, six islands really, the two big ones separated by a narrow channel, several kilometres from Helsinki harbour. I was assured that this ferry goes every half hour 8am to 6.30 pm every day of the year, and when we wanted to go it did. Finland. Great.

We motored past the remarkable Russian Officers Club building on its own island [in the pic above] and five or six other insular oddities, banging and crashing for 30 minutes, lifting up on floes and then cracking them. I think the cold must provide wonderful opportunities for the skills and inventiveness of engineers.

An invulnerability fantasy in concrete form, the building of Suomenlinna commenced in 1748 and like many such things was intended to be state of the art, ie first line of defence against enemy intrusion/ domination of a body of water type art. The defensive line was Sweden’s eastern boundary and wickedness could be expected from the Russians to the east and the Teutons, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Danes and others to the south. To give the Russians the shits (note this is only 50 years after the building of St Petersburg commenced) France put a lot of money into the very substantial cost of building it. Very French one might say.

H-SuomenlinnaIt’s a great site, an island in the south of the bay with a pointy bit that sticks out in the direction from which it might be assumed the enemy might come, but like all such affairs lacks something in the way of manoeuvrability.

I remember seeing a fort at Walbrzych in Poland that had been re-fortified, before, during and even after World War II, so many times people had lost count. More layers of concrete, lashings, another three metre thickness of stone, two more wings at differing angles. Let’s do it. The overwhelming sense that edifice provided was that it was at least as much about imprisoning its inhabitants as it was about impressing and seeing off invaders.

Suomenlinna took 17 years to build as far as it has been built, never finished, and most of the contents of the Swedish Treasury. At its peak 6000 workers were engaged in the construction. It was the life work of one Augustin Ehrensvärd who began as a lowly lieutenant when work started and rose through the ranks with his passion clearing the way to the top.

I suspect over time during the building some of the edge may have gone off the actual defence considerations. Officers’ barracks in a lunar crescent augmented by a central statuary, sure. Mini cathedral with a lighthouse in its spire, a requirement. The orchard would have provided essential food, well the non-ornamentals anyway; and, even if there are fewer of those, how about keeping plant diversity alive in the advent of an extrinsic holocaust? But the series of ornamental ponds and the arboretum might just have been for the officer’s wives.

No one took it on till 1808 when it surrendered 36 hours after being attacked. From Wikipedia: ‘The Russians easily took Helsinki in early 1808 and began bombarding the fortress. Its commander, Carl Olof Cronstedt, negotiated a cease-fire, and when no Swedish reinforcements arrived, Sveaborg [Suomenlinna’s Swedish name], with almost 7,000 men, surrendered. The reasons for Cronstedt’s actions remain somewhat unclear. But the hopeless situation, psychological warfare by the Russians, some (possibly) bribed advisors, fear for the lives of a large civilian population, lack of gun-powder, combined with their physical isolation, are some likely causes for the surrender.’ And also the fact that the fortifications weren’t pointed in the right direction.

With a good smearing of irony, the Russians made it their own until Finland’s independence in 1917. The only other time it came under strenuous attack was when, as a far distant part of the Crimean War, an Anglo-French fleet bombarded the Finnish coastline for two consecutive summers. The best that can be said from that series of encounters is that all the guns on Suomenlinna weren’t knocked out. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a playground, especially in summer, for Helsinkians.

It didn’t detain us at any length. We banged back across the ice and bought a fishy and leguminous feast at the market. Five guys — Lebanese? Algerian? Syrian? Sons of Shem anyway — were playing in the street outside Stockmann, a department store but also an institution. (It also has an enormous branch in St Petersburg.) Three saxophones and two accordions in a fabulous acoustic environment, and could they play or what! Awarded equal first place in the best music heard while on tour.

thThe strangest thing we saw in Finland was the film ‘The Blind Side’ with Sandra Bullock most sympathetically playing a rich, good-looking, suburban American lady, a stretch I know, for which she won an Oscar.

This has nothing to do with Finland but everything to do with narrative arcs. There wasn’t one. It went from 32 to 100 (if 100 is playing football in the NFL), maybe really from 62 to 67, directly, painlessly, without torment, complication or hurdle — a straight line of zero gradient. And I wonder if perhaps this is something new. True heart-warming stories consist solely of good news. Perhaps they are running alongside the one-dimensionality of video games in this regard. This might be the new world or yet another malfunction of mass education. Everyone gets it, but what are they getting? Even Mr Deeds (who came to Town rather than Washington) had some significant setbacks.

We ate cakes at Fazer and went home puzzled.

Kiasma, the modern art gallery, was sort of between exhibitions and had nothing to draw and catch the eye. That’s the polite commentary.

But there were 60 or so Eschers in the Amos Andersen Gallery. I have never seen an Escher in the flesh, and let me tell you they are small (considerably sub poster size) and tortuously perfectly formed. th-1So perfect in fact that after 15-20 minutes you start to get dizzy and they hurt to look at — one in particular, ‘Inside Out’, which I’d never seen before. Focusing on one small point made possible one perspective only, but as soon as your focal point shifted even slightly the whole thing flipped and wherever you were looking was out of whack.

Escher was lionised by associations of mathematicians who were responsible for his early, and belated, success. His wife left him at 47 and the evidence is there in the work. (The Gallery is the six storey mansion of a very successful dead businessman who left it to the Helsinki Art Society as a venue to exhibit its work. It is a magnificent example of grand, restrained, tasteful comfort.)

We left Finland not one vowel worse off. (Helsingin Kauppapakaorheakoulun Ylioppilaskunta. I think the last word has something to do with ‘university’, the first ‘Helsinkian’ ‘of Helsinki’, the rest … . Kiitoss.IMG_0814.JPG

•••••••••• To continue the trip, read on here.

[1] Helsinki – 60° 10” N., almost shares a latitude with Thurso – 58° 36” N.

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