Sept 19, 2014
So it’s quite a while since I have blogged about some of the places I have had the privilege of visiting. I have been to Ireland several times, and I have loved each and every visit, but I’ve already written about that lovely isle, and I can’t tell my employer where I want to go next. And to be quite frank, I have really enjoyed not travelling for work. I am a husband and a father and an architect. These take time, which seems in such short supply these days. I don’t want to be gone for a week. There’s too much to do. And yet, sometimes I do have to travel. I am in a brand-new (to me) country, and so it time to pick the pen again.
I’m in Helsinki, Finland, and I’ve been here for three days, Tomorrow I leave for Gdansk, Poland. So first some impression about the country it self.
1. The landscape is rocky, with trees. Poplar (or maybe birch) dominate, and there is very little undergrowth. The “floor” of the forest (and the forest does indeed exist whereever there is no roads or building, much like Beaverton, OR) is sparse with grass and what I think is lichen, but who really knows? Not I. The trees are open enough that one could image – yea, even expect – a line of reindeer to come ambling along. And I don’t Dahmer and Spritzer. I mean real reindeer with horns, and not one sleigh bell (and by the way, real reindeer do not look anything like caribou. They are actually pretty small. No way eight or nine of them could pull … well, never mind).
2. Helsinki sits on the southern coast of Finland. There is a mix of mainland and rocky islands. There is no sand. It’s rocky. But it appears that all of the many little island. have little communities and houses.
3. Sailboats abound everywhere along the rocky coast.
4. Helsinki get about 20 or 25 minutes less light than Beaveron at this time of year, and I notice the shortened day along with the angle of the sun, which is noticeably lower in the sky. Helsinki is north of 60 degrees, and this represents the furthest north of the equator that I have ever been. For comparison, it is approximately on the same latitude as Whitehorse, in the Yukon. North of 60. Hmmmm. Is also more north than I have been south, if that make sense. The most south I have been is 34 degrees south, which really isn’t that south at all
The people are very friendly. And it seems everyone conveniently speaks Finish, Swedish and English. Which brings me to this point. Finland has two official languages – Finish and Swedish. So there are lots of road signs in two indecipherable languages. There are alot of blond people here (“Yoo Hoo – Big summer blow-out!!”), healthy blond people (male and female). Healthy because they walk and ride bicycles everywhere. Okay, lots of riding and walking in September, but it’s also really clear that this place gets serous fucking winters. My hotel (Hanasarri in Espoo) has a big full-size snow removal tractor. Probably the hotel has more snow removal capabilities than Portland, OR. So maybe they use skis. That’s probably it. Trade in the mountain bike bicycle for cross-country skies, and glide to work.
Also, I noticed there is no litter at all. None. I was looking. I saw one empty pack of smokes and that was it. No gum stuck to the side walks. Nothing.
In my hotel, at breakfast this morning, I overheard two visitors (both with strong non-Canadian accents), discussing Canada. One gentleman had never been, the other was an expert, having skied in Canada. Once. In Quebec. Once. It was nice to hear the “Up-with-Canada” speech with enthusiasm, but I kinda think that Quebec in the winter does not completely represent Canada. Add Saskatchewan in February, Vancouver in tyhe summer, Halifax in the fall, for a little contrast!
And while I was eating my supper, an hour and half ago, I over heard a couple from Russia arguing with the waitress over how much Vodka they could be served. The argued in English, which was convenient for me, since I cannot speak or understand Finish, Swedish or Russian. Anyway, on to the nature of the argument. I really do not think there is a law dictating the limit of vodka that can be served. However, the waitress was emphatic that she would only give the gentleman from Russia 30 grams. Go figure. And yes, they were using the term grams.
Tomorrow I leave to Gdansk, Poland. I have a contrived plan that will let me visit the National Museum of Finland, on the way out of tow, which should be very interesting.
So more to come……
Sept 21, 2014
So a few final points about Finland. I did not know this, but Finald was part of Russia for over 100 years. It was a Duchy of Russia. Wikipedia has some good historical notes here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Duchy_of_Finland . And the country still has close ties to Russia.
As I explored the National Museum, which is housed in an old church, I could see the developing relationships between Sweden, Russia and Finland. It is very fascinating. Sweden and Russia went to war with other in what is now Finland several times. Odd that the Russian couple argued over how much vodka can be served at lunch.
And speaking of close ties, it is only a four and a half hours driving time from Helsinki to Saint Perterburg. Really (Map from Helsinki to St. Petes). This is the closest I have ever been to Russia.
I grew-up during the cold war, My parents were both radar operators, and I have memories of stories of Canadian fighters intercepting Russian bombers coming over the arctic – Like this story – only a few decades earlier. I remember seeing an unexpected snow fall one year, and wondered for a brief moment, if it was nuclear fall out. Silly in retrospect, but the feelings were genuine at the time. I am personally keenly aware of the effects of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In short, they were the bad guys. And yesterday, while stowing my luggage at the train station so I could wander around downtown Helsinki unencumbered by the weight of my belongings, I noted a train scheduled to leave for Saint Petersburg. It was scheduled to leave in twenty minutes. I found that somehow odd, and yet comforting. I may look to take that train if I am ever back this way again. But in the interim, I find myself aware of how close I am. I want to visit and learn.
I recall how, on my first visit to China, how different from my expectations I found that country to be.
Sept 23, 2014
I am now in Gdansk, Poland. The name of the city is pronounced ‘dansk. The ‘G’ is almost silent. Most people (except those who pronounce the G, and those worthies are universally from North America), provide just the slightest pause before the ‘dansk’.
I spend a very wonderful day on Sept 21, 2014 (Sunday) walking around through Old Town. It is, as advertised, old. The city itself is over 1000 years old. Wikipedia has a great article on Gdansk. I was feeling a little cautions before I went. I decided to fill up my hotel room safe with my electronics – except my mobile phone, and passport. I also left Eva’s 35 mm DSLR in my room, I was concerned that I would look like a tourist target. I wanted to blend in, rather become the target of a robbery. Anyway, I was very surprised when arrived in Old Town. It was a huge wonderful massive center of tourism. And not in a bad way. There were literally hundreds of tourists (many of them toting DSLR cameras), many kids, many different languages. I may have even heard a few words in English, but I am not completely sure it was not my imagination filling in sounds that I miss.
In old town, there is the largest most wonderful church I have ever seen. Saint Mary’s Basilica is massive. It was built in the 1400’s and completed in 1502. It is the largest brick church in the work. It is still an operating Roman Catholic Church. A mass that was in session when I arrived prevented me from taking a tour, but I sent a silent prayer for my much missed family while I was standing in the vestibule.
There is a very large touristy industry involving jewelry created from amber and silver. There are dozens of stalls offering such goodies. While walking around, a small protest consisting of about 25 young people made their way through the crowd carrying signs and ganging drums. I miss Portland. 🙂 I have no idea what caused the people to be upset – they signs they were carrying were, for some reason, written in what I believe was Polish, although of course I can not be sure – but they protested in peace. And there forgotten by the crowds within seconds, unfortunately.
One other note I had lunch in an outdoor cafe overlooking the canal. I had some Polish cuisine (dumplings of some sort). The waitress asked me if I wanted a beer, and in keeping with local tradition of drinking early and drinking often, I agreed one would be a good idea. Upon examining the extensive menu of available brews, I selected one (based entirely on nothing at all). The waitress, in passable English, warned me the bottle was “strong”. Slightly offended, I gave her a look that, at once, said, ‘Hey. I;m Canadian, and not a small one at that.” She shrugged and served me. It was strong. One beer, and I am walking around for 45 minutes waiting for my balance to completely return…..
One point of context. I almost never drink in foreign counties (except for when I am in Ireland. One mustn’t offend the Irish when they are drinking….). I may have a glass of wine once I am back in my hotel after dinner, but I tend to play it safe. So getting half buzzed at lunch in a very unknown (to me) country is unusual in the extreme.
The people in Poland, the ones I have met, are very nice. There is enough passable English (better than my impassable Polish) to get by. The costs of things are not too bad, at least not for me. I do not know if the local find the prices high or not. Since Sunday, I have been working, which is expected of me, since my employer is picking up the tab for this trip, which is in point of fact a business trip and not an expedition.
I picked up a silver and amber necklace for Eva, Baltic Amber is very popular in Poland for jewelry, although I did not know this at all.
One final point. I got caught in the aftermath of the fire in the control center in Chi-town. This added some hours to my trip. I left my hotel for the airport at about 7:00am on Friday, which was 10:00 pm Thursday. I got out of the taxi at my home at 7:45am on Saturay. Close to 34 hours of travel. Longest trip ever. And I still have problems sleeping on air planes……