Monday, June 30, 2014

Sateinen Päivä

I’m a weirdo. Most people keep early hours while working and use their vacations to stay out late and sleep in. I, on the other hand, turn into an early-to-bed-early-to-rise type, even though it’s almost impossible to get me out of bed before eleven most of the time. Maybe it’s because I have to make an early flight (or train, or tour) and fall into a pattern. Maybe it’s a perpetual FOMO. In Helsinki, however, I actually do know the reason – steam. The hostel sauna only runs from 7:00-8:30 in the morning for women, and there’s no way I’m not starting off my day without it. So I suddenly have an entire morning open to me.

This leaves me with a lot of unexpected time, so I’m trying to fill it up as much as possible. After the events of Pride, I was ready for a low-key day, and the weather seemed to agree with me – it drizzled all day. I decided to spend my time indoors, heading to Ateneum Art Museum for the Tove Jansson exhibit. Widely known in Europe as the creator of the popular Moomin franchise (books, TV shows, theatre, opera, comics, you name it), she’s basically undiscovered in North America, which is a pity. Her work is fascinating for all sorts of reasons.

First, we have the Moomins, a group of characters which look like hippos but are supposed to be trolls, and live in a paradise island. They’re considered children’s works now, but hold a great deal more complexity than you would think, about alienation and homecoming and all sorts of issues of identity. I’m going to get my hands on an English translation ASAP. (And if Art Spiegelman didn’t get some sort of inspiration from her I’ll eat my hat.) Furthermore, she created a vast body of artistic works, ranging from political cartoons (quite daring in WWII) to hundreds of self-portraits to landscapes to dioramas. She even illustrated the Swedish translations of Lewis Carroll and JRR Tolkien! Intense but whimsical, her work has a very personal inclination, and I walked away from the exhibit feeling like I knew her – or rather, wanted to get to know her better. In her day, she was known for her fierce independence, torrid love life and dedication to her craft. The museum also features lectures and workshops on her life. She’s considered quite the Finnish hero. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. It was an afternoon well spent, and if you’re going to be in Helsinki before the exhibit closes, I would highly recommend it. And I even got some Moomin merchandise!

After that was a brief walk to Sibelius Park to see the Sibelius monument. In the rain. Which was kind of gross, but it’s a nice park, and the ocean really does look beautiful when it’s foggy. I just hope it’s a little nicer on the ferry to Stockholm.

The next day was less rainy, but still drizzling on and off, though it of course cleared up the minute I bought an umbrella. I headed to the Forum mall to look for souvenirs, and stumbled upon the Moomin shop, where I acquired the salt and pepper shakers above. I have no use for them yet, but they won’t add too much weight, and they’re so CUTE! Downtown Helsinki is very vibrant and clearly booming, so it was a fun, relaxing way to spend the morning.

From there, it was another park (Kaivopuisto), with a charming sea walk along the Baltic. With a slightly better view than the day before, it was pretty nice. I checked out the sea birds, squinted at islands, and eventually found my way to the market building, which is full of delicious cafes and food stands. Perfect for a rainy day, though I managed to restrain myself from buying all the fish.

And following this was a night at the movies.

I am a major movie fanatic and even have a degree in the subject, and yet I haven’t been to the cinema in eleven months. Why? Simple – it’s Russia. Most European countries subtitle or dub, but Russia has come up with the dumbfuck idea of superimposing the Russian track over the English. It sounds terrible and you wind up unable to understand either language. It drives me batty, so I never bothered to go to the movies in Russia. Actually, I’ve never been to the movies in a foreign country at all (except for the USA, which functions more or less the same way as Canada), so this was both a new experience and a comforting return to familiarity.

Here are how movies work in Finland, as compared to the rest of the world.

·         Efficiency: I suppose this is probably a Finnish thing in general, but no matter how long the queue, it moves fast. I got to the theatre very close to the start time and there was a long line. I thought I’d be late (I’m like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I can’t even miss a second of the previews), but nope, I got my ticket and even managed to buy snacks. Point to Finland.

·         Reserved seating: Most of Europe seems to have this, if dim memories of my French classes mean anything, but I had never encountered it before. It’s actually kind of nice. No resentment and you know you can sit together, if watching with friends.

·         The theatre itself: seats are way more comfortable, armrests are bigger, and the room is smaller – rather cozy, in fact. It was like watching a movie at home.

·         Subtitles: I think Finland only dubs children’s films. This one, a Hollywood production, had an English track and Finnish and Swedish subtitles, run one on top of the other, as Finland is a bilingual country. It was kind of interesting to watch – I’m always trying to match subtitles and dialogue during the scenes, so having two languages to play with was even more fun.

·         Price: the tickets are pretty much the same as in North America (about ten Euro), but the snacks are reasonable! I paid five Euro for a decent-sized popcorn and drink! Considering how expensive both Finland and theatre snacks usually are, it was a minor miracle!

·         God, I wish I knew Finnish so I could have seen one of the Finnish films. Time to continue on my quest to learn every language ever.

For tonight’s feature, I chose The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was great! Set in a sort of alternate pan-Central European region (it follows a modified version of the area’s history, mostly in implication), it’s the usual Anderson quirky romp, a heist plot and prison story with a distinctively dark twinge. Even gory, sometimes. It has a huge ensemble cast, including Anderson favourites Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman in cameos. F. Murray Abraham does a great job as the hotel owner, even if he’s mostly voice-over. Adrien Brody is kind of overblown as the villain, but his hair is very talented. The standout, however, is Ralph Fiennes, who effortlessly pulls off the concierge character, giving him just the right touch of whimsy with impeccable comic timing. In fact, immediately following this trip I’m going to retreat to a fantasy world where he would have a chance of getting an Oscar nomination. It’s that good, but the Academy hates Ralph Fiennes so it won’t happen. I could see the film possibly getting nominated for writing, but its only real chance is in all the technicals, especially concerning art production and costuming. Anderson is famous for giving his films a distinctive look. Here, the compositions are gorgeous, running through several time periods and geographic areas, all with the right note of insanity running through them. It was a fine film, and worth it for Ralph Fiennes alone, though there are other reasons to watch (Tilda Swinton! Edward Norton! The trains!). If you’re looking for a night at the movies, this one is recommended.

And so my time in Helsinki comes to an end. I’ve had a wonderful time, exploring natural beauty in the parks and Suomenlina, and enjoying Finnish society with Tove Jansson and the Pride Parade. I didn’t expect much from this city, but really, it’s been fun. Tomorrow I will hop a ship to Stockholm, which is going to be a total dream-fulfillment. For years I have longed for Sweden. I’ve even considered moving there. I guess we’ll have to see what’s waiting around the corner. I’ve got such fun as the Millennium Tour (following in the steps of Lisbeth) planned, but mostly my schedule is free, and I can’t wait to get to know this country a little better. On to the next adventure!

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Finland is amazing. Monty Python told me this long ago, but I did not listen.

To be honest, Helsinki was the city I was least looking forward to, not because of anything particularly wrong with it, but because there wasn’t anything there I particularly wanted to see. However, there is a lot to discover there, and it’s a great pleasure doing so. The people are friendly. The police are not something to fear. The water is drinkable. If someone’s driving on the sidewalk, it’s generally an accident. The reindeer meat is delicious. I’m not even getting lost as often. Finland, Finland, you are clearly doing something right.
On the morning of the first day, I arrived at the central station and promptly gawped at its cleanliness and security. It was something like Dorothy going from Kansas to Oz. I was so happy to be there, I promptly walked in exactly the wrong direction. Fortunately, a kind passerby offered me help (and I didn’t think he was trying to rob me!), and I was soon on my way. For a kilometre and a half. Having been up since four AM. With about a thousand pounds of luggage. By the time I got there, I looked so bedraggled that they let me check in even though it was 10 AM.

The hostel itself is a mixed bag. It’s empty student housing, which means splendid rooms for 2-4 people – more like a hotel than a hostel. I’m sharing with a nice Canadian girl from Winnipeg who does not, as of yet, appear to be a laptop thief. We have our own bathroom, tons of furniture, a nice airy space, and even a kitchenette. Here’s where the problems come in. The hostel is split up over three buildings. I’m in Building A. The cookware (which we basically have to steal) is in Building C. But the laundry is in building B, and we have to go to building C to get the laundry room key, so it’s all a lot of running between buildings. You’d think they’d have a limited supply of laundry keys in each one, but noooo, that’s too complicated.
Helsinki is an extremely clean and environmentally-friendly city, as opposed to Moscow, where recycling is unheard of and no one bikes. In fact, I’ve never really lived in a bike-friendly city, so I’m not used to it and keep stepping into the sidewalk bike lanes. So far I haven’t been killed, but there were a couple of close calls. Please, Nordic Cyclists of Carnage, do hold off on your murderous spree until I get to Stockholm and go on the Millennium Tour. Other than their bike rampages, the people of Helsinki are extraordinarily friendly and helpful. I don’t even notice their supposed taciturn nature, but then, Russians are supposedly the most reserved at all. (Only true in the sense of public appearance – once you make a friend, they’re a friend for life.)

After getting settled in at the Hostel Inconvenient, I decided to head down to Kauppatori Market, because my friend tried some reindeer while he was there recently and I totally wanted to one-up him. It was delicious enough, but not particularly distinctive in flavour. After that, I saw a boat heading to Suomenlina and thought “hey, why not”. Within moments I was sailing the Baltic to a beautiful island and former fortress. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of many I’ve seen this year – and boasts gorgeous cliffs dotted with flowers, along with interesting architecture and a lot of Moomin merchandise (for some reason). Usually when people list things to see in Helsinki, it’s at the top, like Red Square in Moscow or the giant Easter egg in Vegreville, Alberta. It’s three euro fifty each way from the market, the trip out is extraordinarily pretty, and it’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Here are some photos.

Best of all, though, is an event of very fortuitous timing. I grabbed a free guidebook at the station and discovered, purely by chance, that this week is Pride. That’s right – my first day out of the country that has spent the past few years inducting itself into the Homophobic Hall of Shame, and I stumbled right into the gayest week of the year. To say I was excited is an understatement. (This is the embarrassing part where I admit that before this, I had never attended Pride. I know, I know, I’m Canadian and studied in Toronto, but I was never in Toronto during the summer, and I came from a backwater where the mayor once declared that they couldn’t call it Pride because being gay is not something to be proud of.) Immediately, I made plans to go, after a lovely morning sauna, of course. (Yes, my hostel has a sauna. Yes, it’s wonderful. Deal with it.)
It feels weird to even talk about this in the open, actually, after ten months of watching everything I said. I detested Russia’s anti-gay stuff, of course, but it was impossible to express that without risking deportation or imprisonment. Like in Poland, it’s strange to have that worry suddenly disappear.

I showed up at the square a bit too early, but it was right next to Kauppatori, so I went back there and had a fish lunch and bought souvenirs. When I got back to the square, it was starting to fill up with people – friendly people, happy people, crazy people. There were impromptu dancefests and raucous DJs and, for some reason, a lot of Canadian flags. I thought there were an awful lot of Canadians for one event in Finland, but when I asked some guys, they explained that some people from the Embassy were selling them. Not giving them away. Selling them. Knowing how expensive Finland is, and unable to recall any incident that made Canada and Finland special friends, I wondered how they could spend good Euro on a foreign country’s flag. I finally concluded that they considered us a bastion of tolerance and sexual prowess. (Maybe I can’t talk – I bought a Pride flag myself.)

Aces and drag queens and bears, oh my! The parade was full of crazy characters, including about eight hundred versions of Conchita Wurst, who has apparently caught on in the gay community. She was here herself to perform earlier this week. I’m sure she’s seen it all by this stage. Interestingly enough, Russia put up a big show in the parade. There are many Russians in Finland, whether tourists, immigrants, or simply Russian-speaking Finns – enough so that the signs in tourist areas are in Russian, as well as Finnish, Swedish and French. The Moscow Rainbow Association made an appearance, waving signs preaching tolerance and denouncing Mr. P. They got the biggest roar of applause I heard that day. (The Mr. Gay Finland float got the second-most applause. Whether it’s because of the shirtless men, or because they started to play “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls while they were driving by, is up for debate.)

After a long walk, the parade ended at a park, where thousands of people had gathered. There were booths set up by various LGBTQ associations from all over the Nordics, but most importantly, there were food trucks. Everyone was wasted (you can drink in parks in Finland, apparently) and up for a good time. An outdoor concert had been set up. The Russians again stole the show when one of the Moscow Rainbow Association proposed to his boyfriend on stage. The cheers went on forever. (Finland, incidentally, does not have gay marriage, which surprised me – being one of the utopian Nordics and all – but the Finns I consulted told me that the public is increasingly upset with this and that Parliament is set to debate it soon.) My favourite performer was this brilliant singer, Aino Venna, who kind of reminds me of a combination between Amy Winehouse and Paul Simon. After her set, I approached her maybe hoping to get her iTunes channel, but she actually gave me a CD and autographed it! Here’s a link:

As political barriers have continued to fall down (in some cases), Pride has taken on a very different context in recent years. Though it still has its political element, I found it to be a very welcoming and open celebration of love – just that. Everyone was out for a good time and ready to share the day with each other, even coming from different backgrounds, belonging to different communities, or holding radically different opinions. Helsinki seems to have that vibe in general, actually. It’s a friendly place, and incredibly good to its visitors. I’m looking forward to my next two days here. I’ve certainly enjoyed the beginning. Now, off to the sauna again...

Пока Россия, Hei Suomi

On the Russian side of the border

About twenty minutes ago, I crossed the Finnish border, and we’re currently speeding through the countryside, though I’ll be in Helsinki by the time this is posted. Wi-fi is a tad sketchy. Since we were dealing with Russia, I expected a million things to go wrong, but it all went smoothly and I’m safely on European territory. Crossing the border was no big deal – if your papers are in order and you have nothing to declare, it usually isn’t. I might have gotten teary when the Finnish border guard stamped my passport, out of sheer relief. It’s hard to have the Motherland on your back for ten months.

However, I did have a great time during my last days there, and I have tons of beautiful pictures to show for it. Moscow may be the centre of things, but St. Petersburg is by far the more beautiful and interesting city. On the second day, I awoke early and went to the Nabokov museum, getting lost about six times on the way. The museum occupies Nabokov’s former home, which is extremely close to St. Isaac’s Cathedral and simply reeks of prestige and power. Though the Nabokov family and most of their peers fled Russia following the revolution, a lot of artifacts managed to trickle back in, many of them thanks to the writer’s son. 

Nabokov is my favourite writer (along with Tolstoy), and I’ve been hoping to visit the museum since I learned I was going to Russia. In fact, I was the first visitor there that day, and the sullen babushka guarding the exhibits even had me help open the place. It’s not a big museum, but it offers a deeply personal glimpse into his life. This includes personal photos with his family, a lot of his scientific work (he was an avid lepidopterist), and of course, a lot of writing – first editions from his private collection, novels from his childhood that inspired him later on, and even pamphlets of his work smuggled into the USSR. They...weren’t too keen on him there. 

My favourite exhibit, by far, was a looping tape featuring his interview with the BBC in 1962, around the time of Pale Fire’s publication. I kind of expected him to be grumpy and snobbish, since in his books he doesn’t so much take the role of Writer as he does Supreme Asshole, but in fact, he’s warm and funny and incredibly interesting. He was like someone’s grandpa. I wish he was my grandpa. His accent is very odd – sometimes sounding Russian, sometimes French, sometimes British, but mostly vaguely “European”. He also has an accent in Russian – even I could hear it. I sat spellbound for almost half an hour watching him.
And best of all, the museum is absolutely free. That’s right, you can look at Nabokov’s butterflies and listen to him banter with the BBC for nothing. I, by contrast, would have gladly given my left kidney to get there.

From there it was only a quick hop to St. Isaac’s, so I pretty much had no choice but to go. Once again, it was lovely. I’ve seen a lot of Orthodox churches lately. They’re all stunningly beautiful. The Catholics have put up a good show, but overall I’d say the Orthodox win for style. Not too keen on the lack of pews, though. And yes, I did pay the exorbitant fee to climb up the colonnade, which gave a nice view of St. Pete. Here’s some pictures.

After that it was a long, meandering walk down Nevksy Prospekt back to my hostel, passing by Gostiny Dvor and the Cathedral of Kazan. I even went shopping there. It didn’t burn my wallet too badly, but I hope everyone back home likes magnets.

The next day, Wednesday, was set aside for the Hermitage, and what can you say about that? It’s everything you’ve heard it would be and more. Everything is exquisitely built, covered in gold and extremely lavish. The furniture is astonishing, and the art – the art! What variation! What beauty! One moment you’re looking at ancient Siberian mummies, the next you’re inches from a Picasso, then you’re face to face with a long-dead Tsar. One of the highlights was a temporary exhibit of imperial clothing, from the time of Catherine the Great onwards. You all know of my obsession with interest in the Romanovs. Here, I could look at the most glorious royal clothing to my heart’s content. Basically, it was the visual equivalent of a rich dessert. Some belonged to Catherine the Great and the rulers in between that no one pays attention to, but the vast majority belonged to Alexandra Feodorovna and Maria Feodorovna (wife and mother, respectively, of Nikolay II). This meant tons and tons of pre-war and Edwardian wear, otherwise known as exactly the kind of stuff you see on Downton Abbey. The embroidery and detail were extraordinary, the fabrics glorious. Heartbreakingly, some items even belonged to the children, including Olga’s debutante dress. They also included the toys, just to add to the pathos. It was fascinating.  No pictures, though – it was запрешено, as the museum babushka kept shouting at people.

I also enjoyed the display on Ancient Egypt, as well as the Hall of the War of 1812 and the various throne rooms.  But really, even looking at the walls was great. If you go to St. Pete, the Hermitage should be number one on your to-do list. It’s also incredible value – my ticket was only $17.95 USD, which I think I would have paid just to look at the architecture. (NOTE: Buy your tickets online and print them out ahead of time – you’ll easily save two hours waiting in line. They have a special booth for online tickets.) My only regret is that I couldn’t spend the entire week there. Probably it would have been best to set aside a full day. Even after four hours, I barely saw anything – which wasn’t helped by the winding halls. Get a map if you go – I got lost another dozen times. What can I say, it’s one of my talents.
Back on Nevsky, I met up with a friend who moved to St. Petersburg following her graduation from U of T. It feels like half of Toronto moved to Russia in the past year. I guess we’re all a bunch of loonies. Most of them get jaded in a few weeks, but hey, it’s character-building. Over sushi, we traded crazy Russia stories and people-watched. It’s very weird to meet a school friend halfway across the world, but I was sure glad to see her.

For my last day in Petersburg – and Russia, for that matter – I decided to go a little further afield and hit up Peterhof. Back when Peter the Great was clearly compensating for something establishing Russia as a great European power, he decided to build himself a big ol’ palace. What’s more, he wanted to outdo Versailles in the process. I haven’t been to Versailles, so I can’t really compare, but it’s certainly the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited.

Situated right on the Gulf of Finland, it consists of several palaces in an enormous garden, studded with fountains. Seriously, they even have a sign declaring themselves “the fountain capital of Russia”. Everything is white and gold and ostentatious. On a sunny day, it’s almost blinding. Everything is meticulously kept. I can’t imagine the army of gardeners and metal polishers they must employ. One of the things they do employ is a military-esque band, which serenaded us with World War I-era melodies all afternoon (there’s a lot of WWI-anniversary stuff going on this year). It was a glorious ending to a great time in SP.

Peterhof was a favourite of all the subsequent tsars, who tended to go there in summer. Many royal family members were born there, including Grand Duchess Anastasia. It’s easy to see why they loved it so. When I die, if reincarnation is real, I want to go back in time and be an Imperial Russian aristocrat. Prior to 1917.
Getting to Peterhof is relatively easy, and there are several different ways to do it. Because I’m a cheapskate, I opted for the minibus+metro combo. Hop on the red line to Avtovo (there are several other stations from which you can connect), then cross the street and climb into any mashrutka that has the ПЕТЕРГОФ label. Ask the driver to let you know when you arrive, as they don’t always announce the stops. It takes around forty-five minutes and costs 60 rubles each way. Entrance to the upper garden is free, but the lower garden (including the Grand Cascade) is 500 rubles, and the palace is an additional 400. I opted for just the gardens, and believe me, it was more than enough.

After some last-minute souvenir shopping, I went back to the hostel for an early night, hampered by some noisy drunk folks, a babushka who didn’t understand why it was annoying to read all night with the overhead light on, some idiots who thought it was a good idea to bring a baby to a hostel dorm, and a Brazilian couple who got a little too friendly in the next bunk over. My alarm went off at 4 AM, at which point I was basically the walking dead. Fortunately, things were okay from there. A smooth checkout, a quick cab ride over the Neva with a driver who didn’t even try to cheat me, and a train ride through the Finnish and Russian countryside later, I’m feeling a whole lot better. In fact, I’ve put on my Triumphant ABBA Playlist to celebrate. Sure, wrong country, but trust me, once you’re out of Russia the differences are minor.

Now that I’ve reached Finland, a lot of the pressure is off. From here I need no visa, have total freedom of mobility, and don’t need to register anywhere! Contrast this with Russia, where I was basically considered a criminal unless the police didn’t feel like getting rich that night. I keep checking my passport for a migration card, feeling scared when I don't have it, and then remembering that I don't need one anymore. Everything already looks super clean and modern, and I’m feeling the culture shock even though I haven’t even been to the supermarket. Also, everything’s in Latin characters and I’m scared. Since Helsinki does not have a huge amount of attractions I want to see, the posts will probably be minimal from here – I may not update until I get to Stockholm. However, I’m in Europe proper and I’m feeling great.