Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, hot

This salad has wonderful contrasting flavours. Farid (from one of the Maghreb countries) made this at a dinner party years ago and I've been happy to make it from time to time ever since.

I'm never good at proportions; it's a matter of what looks and tastes good to you.

Ingredients

Moroccan olives: the sun-cured, black, wrinkly, shiny ones
Clementines or oranges.
Fresh thai peppers, or hot sauce*
Lettuce of your choice: Boston lettuce, leaf lettuce, mixed baby bourgeois lettuce, etc.
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

Pit the olives: Squish them under the blade of a wide flat knife, then squish out the pit. This kind is easier to pit than, say, Kalamata olives, because the pit doesn't cling to the flesh that much.

Chop the olives into smallish bits. Cover them with boiling water and let stand for a few minutes to remove some of the salt and to partially rehydrate the olives. Don't leave them too long, unless you like mushy olives. Drain the olives.

Peel the citrus. If using oranges, remove the flesh from the membranes. If using clementines, that's too difficult, so just slice them thinly.

If using fresh peppers, chop them very fine, mix with the citrus, and let them macerate for a while. If using hot sauce, you can skip this step.

Dress the lettuce with olive oil. Then add the hot sauce (if using) and a little bit of balsamic vinegar. (You don't need a lot of vinegar, because of the citrus fruit's acidity.) Toss to evenly distribute.

Garnish with the citrus and olives, and serve. Enjoy!


* The original recipe used harissa, but I didn't like the flavour of the brand I used. It's not very Mediterranean but my favourite hot sauce (first tried years ago, and not displaced by any other) is Arizona Gunslinger's Habanero Pepper Sauce.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Why?

Strategically self-induced nausea in response to smoking, gloom at the most wonderful time of the year, and adding insult to injury: why?

Yesterday, on Christmas Day in the morning, I took the metro and bus to get to and from the church where I was singing. Christmas is "supposed" to be a happy day, and while I know not everyone has an easy time at Christmas, it was surprise to see so many long faces on the bus and metro. Whence happiness?

Today, I went to the pharmacy to fill a prescription. While I was waiting, the pharmacist was helping the client ahead of me. She handed him his pills, and asked if he knew how they worked, and then she explained: these pills would help him quit smoking because smoking would henceforth make him dizzy and nauseated. The full course of this treatment runs for 12 weeks - yup, 12 weeks of nasty revulsion. I gained a new sympathy for smokers if quitting is so hard that sometimes self-inflicted nausea is the best way to go.

In other news, a friend of mine spent the summer cycling from BC (where he currently/most recently lived) to Newfoundland (where he spent part of his childhood). He extended his stay, spending a few weeks in Newfoundland visiting family, planning what to do next, and fixing up an old VW camper van. In late November he started to drive back to BC in his new (old) van. Alas, he wiped out in a snowstorm in the US midwest, totalled the van, and was stuck for almost a week waiting for news from his insurance company. When they finally made up their mind (yes, the van was indeed totalled), he flew home to Vancouver, just in time to catch the start of some of the nasty weather that's been the recent delight of North American travellers. Oh yes, then he got home to Vancouver and a few days later, his father in Newfoundland died.

Why, why, why? There's the Hungarian joke from Soviet times that everything that is not prohibited is compulsory. Or as the physicists (or is it the statisticians) say, if it isn't impossible, then it's going to happen somewhere at some point in the universe. So "why" isn't always a fruitful question to ask. I guess that leaves the next best alternative as "what will we do in consequence", or maybe more concisely, "how, not why".

Monday, December 8, 2008

Voting: from blues to bliss

Today, I voted in Quebec's provincial election today. A day of depressing thoughts was transformed, after voting, into a smug sense of satisfaction and gratitude.

Elections usually make me depressed. It's not the voting part; it's that elections remind us about the politicans whom I find so distasteful that I generally prefer to ignore them. Here in the province of Quebec, our government is 2 years into its mandate. Our premier decided he didn't like leading a minority government and that now was a good time to call an election to try for a majority government. How wonderful! We're about to head into difficult economic times, and our leadership apparently has no better idea on how to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars than an utterly unnecessary election. Yet out of a sense of duty, off I went to vote.

Often something happens on election day, and this time was no exception. Sometimes it happens before marking my ballot, sometimes after, but once again my election epiphany came. Voting is such a privilege. I can't swing a cat without hitting someone for whom voting is or was a matter of life and death. Why did my grandparents flee their country in the middle of the night? What about my fellow volunteer mentioned in my previous post?

Maybe I don't like my politicians, but it sure is a nice feeling that every few years I have a chance to let them know what I think about them. And when I cast my vote, no matter how I vote, I won't get blacklisted or imprisoned. My politicians - those whom I often so dislike - want me to vote, even if it's not for them.

(Thoughts on frigid winter-cycling today are on my other blog.)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Would I have had the strength to do that?

I volunteer with the Red Cross, and today attended an annual colloquium on our activities. One volunteer told about volunteering in conflict zones in Afghanistan and throughout Africa. This prompted another volunteer to tell some stories from his home country, and I am still reeling.

He explained that he had heard about several prisoners that had been tossed in prison, beaten, and kept without medical aid. The prison guards would not let anyone in to help them. He set up a protest in front of the prison with placards that said "Down with the president!" and was promptly thrown inside. His father was a high-ranking officer in the local police service, so he was confident that he would get out. Indeed, he was released soon thereafter, but not until he had spoken with a few prisoners and catalogued on what pretext they were there and what their injuries were. Once he was released, he worked with Amnesty International in order to get Red Cross staff into the prison to treat them.

He did something like that a second time, and then his father had a serious talk with him. With his youthful optimism and confidence, he hadn't realised that his actions might put his father in prison too.

The world has seen so many wars, conflicts, genocides, and massacres, and the response is "Never again." We know that we cannot be complicit. But what would I have done in his shoes?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cake in five minutes

A family member recently forwarded me a recipe which has utterly transformed me. I went from pre-schooler to teenager in the 1908s 1980s, the era of the microwave, and it was then that I developed a clear interest in baking. However it never occurred to me until now that, due to the magic of the microwave oven, you could start preparing your ingredients and have cake ready to serve only 5 minutes from now.

The texture is not identical to a layer cake baked in the oven, so you shouldn't expect that. Think a steamed pudding, or cottage puddding. Eat while it's still warm.

I offer you the original recipe plus 3 variations on the theme.

5-minute cake recipe #1 - cocoa


The concept inspired me, though clearly it needed improvement: oil instead of butter, cocoa powder instead of real chocolate... even the title of "5 MINUTE CHOCOLATE MUG CAKE" struck me as jarring. The lack of baking powder struck me as odd, though maybe it was made for self-raising flour. This came from a family member in Alberta, from her cousin in Australia.

I never tried this as written. I offer it for reference purposes only.

4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons chocolate chips (optional)
A small splash of vanilla extract
1 large coffee mug

Add dry ingredients to mug, and mix well. Add the egg and mix thoroughly.
Pour in the milk and oil and mix well.
Add the chocolate chips (if using) and vanilla extract, and mix again.
Put your mug in the microwave and cook for 3 minutes at 1000 watts.
The cake will rise over the top of the mug, but don't be alarmed!
Allow to cool a little, and tip out onto a plate if desired.
EAT! (this can serve 2 if you want to feel slightly more virtuous).

5-minute cake recipe #2 - chocolate


INGREDIENTS:
1 square (1 oz) unsweetened chocolate
1 tbsp butter*
1 egg
4 tablespoons flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons chocolate chips**
A TINY splash of vanilla extract and/or a larger splash of rum

Equipment:
1 large coffee mug
2 other mugs or bowls for mixing***
plus measuring cups, forks or whisks for mixing.

Method:

Melt butter and chocolate in mug over LOW heat. Cool.
In bowl #2 stir together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder).
In bowl #3, beat the egg and then beat in the milk and rum/vanilla.
Add dry ingredients, wet ingredients, and mix until combined.
Sprinkle chocolate chips** over. Stir only very lightly (they will sink).
Put your mug in the microwave and cook for 3 minutes at 1000 watts.****
The cake will rise over the top of the mug, but don't be alarmed!

NOTES:
* Butter: accept no substitutes
** Chocolate chips: these are required (not optional).
*** The original recipe only required 1 mug but this requires at least 3
mugs/bowls. That's because it is a Victor adaptation of a recipe. If you are clever about how you mix, you can use less.
*****My microwave is strong and 3 minutes is a shade overdone.

Five-minute cake #3 - vanilla and chocolate


It's white with brown spots... Dalmatian cake? Eat while it's still warm and
the chocolate chips are still molten. Yum.

INGREDIENTS:
2 tbsp butter
1/4 c (4 tablespoons) flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons milk
1 egg
big splash rum
tiny splash vanilla
ample chocolate chips

Equipment:
1 large coffee mug
2 other mugs or bowls for mixing
plus measuring cups, forks or whisks for mixing.

METHOD:
Melt butter in mug. Cool.
In bowl #2 stir together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder).
In bowl #3, beat the egg, milk, rum, and vanilla.
Add dry ingredients and wet ingredients to mug, and mix until combined.
Sprinkle the chocolate chips over. (They will mostly sink as the cake
cooks.)
Put your mug in the microwave and cook for 3 minutes (give or take) at 1000 watts.

Five-minute cake #4 - spice cake with (optional?) cranberries


I didn't write this down when I made it but I think these ingredients and proportions are right.

INGREDIENTS:
2 tbsp butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 c (4 tablespoons) flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch EACH of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground allspice
2 tablespoons white sugar
3 tablespoons milk
some cranberries if desired

Equipment:
1 large coffee mug
1 other mug or bowl for mixing
plus measuring cups, forks or whisks for mixing.

METHOD:
Melt butter in mug.
Stir in the brown sugar.
Stir in the egg.
In another bowl, stir together the remaining dry ingredients (flour, white sugar, baking powder, spices).
Add dry ingredients and milk to mug, and mix until combined.
Stir in the cranberries. (Unlike chocolate chips, these do NOT mostly sink as the cake cooks.)
Put your mug in the microwave and cook for 3 minutes (give or take) at 1000 watts.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christmas baking: an expression of thankfulness

Today my friend G. and I baked fruitcake together, as we do most years. Eating good fruitcake makes me feel very lucky. Making it with a dear friend is even better.

We set our dried fruit (raisins assorted, currants, dates, figs, dried cherries) to soak in rum in advance, then make our dark fruitcake with generous amounts of butter, brown sugar, eggs, and spices. Now it shall age, but first comes a bath of more spirits.

I think it is a travesty that fruitcake has become so despised by so many. I imagine a time when food was scarce, when spices brought from afar were a special luxury, when eggs weren't abundant year-round, and when sugar was a special treat, and when distillation was a special sort of alchemy - and suddenly fruitcake comes to encapsulate something special, luxurious, and wonderful.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Who would have guessed? (and welcome!)

Welcome to my new blog for general musings. (My other blog, Cyclophilia, chronicles my cycling adventures.)


When I was a wee lad, one each of my older brothers and sisters were on the local swimteam and swam competitively as pre-teens and teens. My mother was rather involved in the operation of the swimt-eam as a volunteer. Consequently, I spent a lot of time being towed along to/from the pool, and many weekends revolved around going to some swim-meet that E. and S. were swimming in, often with a long drive to and from another town or city. (Or so it seems in hindsight.)

As for me, I didn't get very far into swimming. I took swimming lessons but wasn't interested in the competitive aspect. I forgot how to swim, but took it up in my mid-20s. In adulthood, E. and S. have dropped swimming for different reasons, but I joined a masters-level gay swimming club, A Contre Courant. (The word "masters" means non-professional adults who aim to improve, practice regularly with coaches, and may or may not participate in competitions. I swim recreationally.)

Today I volunteered in our swim-team's annual swim-meet. As a child, going to swim-meets was somewhat tedious, but as a time-keeper, the day passed very quickly.

So what is the "Who would have guessed" part? As a child, I probably never even noticed the score of other volunteers and officials, let alone guessed that one day I might be swimming or helping with the operation of a swim-meet. There is a lot to be said about the infinite possibilities of childhood, but what I love best about adulthood is the possibility to do (not just think) many of the things we might always have wanted to do - or never even thought about.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fintics #9: Finland once more, then back home

(June 6-8, 2008) Punctuality is a typical Finnish trait. My friend Jari was 5 minutes early at the aiport to pick me up, but my flight from Riga was 10 minutes early. He drove me back to downtown Helsinki (in his small, cute Citroen), to the same Katajanokka neighbourhood where M&M&I had been staying, only this time I was staying not in the hostel but with Jari and Philippe in their gorgeous apartment. Think Wallpaper, or some other magazine of modern interior design, and you've probably pictured what it looks like.

Jari and Philippe made a fabulous supper for us:
- a chilled apéritif based on white tea (Philippe is a tea connoisseur);
- first course: sesame encrusted salmon, pan seared, with a raspberry garnish, and tomato and basil salad, with rosé wine;
- main course: Caribbean-flavoured chicken breast, inspired by J's travels to Martinique (mmm, cardamom); asparagus with mayonnaise
- bread and 4 kinds of cheese
- macerated berries for dessert

After dinner, P. was a bit tired so stayed in, and J. and I went for an evening stroll around town.

The next morning (Saturday, my last full day in Finland), Jari and I had breakfast while Philippe slept a little longer. I might add that Jari and I had met in cycling events in Montreal during the 2006 Outgames. So he and I went for a bike ride around Helsinki, including a stop at a factory outlet for some of the famous Finnish houseware designers. After we had done a nice loop of cycling, we met Philippe (on bike) and went for another ride to a café in an art museum, where, rest assured, we had suitable refreshments (coffee and pastries). We returned via the Munkiniemi district, past embassies and fancy houses.

After showering and getting changed, the three of us went out to dinner with three of Philippe and Jari's friends (two French women, one Finnish man). My appetizer was marinated oxtail, marinated horseradish, and garlic cream; main course, tender and delicious lamb with mixed veggies; and dessert, a rhubarb crumble topped with a spiced nutty topping and vanilla ice cream; and a lovely very short espresso to conclude things. Great food, wonderful company.

But the day wasn't wonderful enough yet. I had told Jari that the one thing missing on my trip was experiencing a genuine Finnish sauna. Since saunas are pretty ubiquitous, I was thinking maybe we could go to some place in Helsinki... but it was much better than that. We drove to the cottage of J & P's friends, Filip and Jouni, in Mäntsälä northeast of Helsinki. Jouni is a Finnish Finn, and Filip is a Swedish Finn; our conversation alternated between French and English. (I've already expressed my amazement at European multi-lingualism, right?) Their cottage is set admidst birch and pine trees on a small lake, and from the dock we admired the ducklings and lilypads. The cottage was small, a little bit rustic (it had electricity and cold water, but no hot running water and there was an outhouse for those matters), but above all, the cottage was very cute. Filip and Jouni have a lovely golden retriever, rather a glutton for attention. Filip was toiling at some repairwork in the sauna, so the smoke would exit via the chimney instead of spilling into the sauna, and Jari helped him with that. So, close to midnight, though still with plenty of Finnish summer light, three of us headed into the sauna (Filip and Philippe abstained).

So what does a Finnish sauna look like? The cottage itself was one large room, entered via the front porch. But from the front porch, you could also take a different door, into the ante-room of the sauna (changing area, storage, etc.). The sauna had the wooden benches you'd expect, and a wood-burning stove in the corner with hot stones on the top, a ventilation window up high that could be opened if necessary, a drain on the floor, plus a showerhead. The stove had its own water reservoir, to store hot water. There were several buckets of lake water, and a ewer (is that what you call it, sort of like a giant ladle), for washing up. The wall thermometer wasn't working right; Jouni estimated the temperature at 60C, which is not hot by Finnish sauna standards (they can go up to 80 and even 100C). Whatever the temperature, it was very pleasant, though when you splashed water on the stones, with the hot steam, I found it hard to breathe for a little while.

After a while in the sauna, we ran down to the lake. Jouni dove in; Jari noted how cold it was; I tried gradually easing into the water, which was a mistake, as I only got waist deep. But no matter, back to the sauna we went for a bit more sweating and steaming, and then we washed up once more. I had a chance to try the pine tar shampoo I'd read about. This is something I wish I had a chance to buy to bring back. Yes, it does smell like tar, but only a little bit, and not in a petrochemical way; mostly it smells like pine. Between the smell of the pine-wood smoke (remember, the sauna chimney had been leaking earlier in the night) and the pine-tar shampoo, I had the lovely pine-tar-smoke smell in my nostrils for days. I can still smelll it.

After we finished with the sauna, we joined Filip and Philippe in the living room for more chat. Filip had roasted some sausages in the fireplace (sausages and beer are traditional after-sauna snacks).... and eventually, we turned in for the night.

A friend of mine loaned me Lonely Planets for this trip. The L.P. for Finland has a section on Finnish jokes which seem to have been created by Norwegians who were struck by certain aspects of Finnishness. The two stock characters are the manly heroes Pekka and Toivonen. "Small talk is not common among Finns. When Pekka and Toivonen meet again after a long time, they go to a sauna in the woods. They drink vodka for a couple of hours. Pekka asks how Toivonen has been doing. Toivonen says nothing, but continues drinking for a couple of hours. Then slowly, he replies: `Did we come here to babble, or did we come here to drink?'" We weren't that averse to conversation, but what felt so pleasantly different from Canada was that the occasional moment of silence was also okay.

The next morning, we had a very, very lovely outdoor breakfast with coffee, juice, breads, jams, cheese, pastries, scrambled eggs, and other things I've surely forgotten. Then Philippe, Jari, and I thanked our hosts and drove off.

I had one last errand to do: a trip to the Iitala factory outlet for some Finnish ceramics on the way to the airport (where Philippe and I had stopped in the day before). When Philippe and Jari weren't looking, I also picked up a small vase/candleholder for them as a very small token of my appreciation. You see, there is a very plain but famous Finnish vase that Iitala will put out in a new colour every once in a while, and I noticed that Philippe collected them, but was missing a colour. The next day was actually Philippe's birthday, so he was tickled pink by my gift of the pink vase.

I said my goodbyes and thank-yous, and they dropped me off at the airport, where I met up with Mom and M..

Our Finnair flight (on an MD-11) from Helsinki to New York was notable in at least one regard. Our tickets had not all been purchased together, and initially we would have been seated separately, but Mom managed to work things out so that we could sit together, and it was in the window section (rather than the central no-view section). Our flight path took us from Finland, then over Sweden and Norway, then over the ocean, then over Iceland and Greenland, then more ocean, then Newfoundland, Labrador, Quebec, Maine, New York. I was excited because I'd always wanted to see the ocean from a transatlantic flight. I am told that usually there are clouds in the way, and alas that was true that day, but we got an even better treat of a view. I am also told that Greenland is almost always cloudy, but the sky changed from cloudy to clear just as we got to Greenland. We had fantastic views of sea-ice, glaciers, fjords, and mountains peaking through the snow and ice in places. Just as the clouds had parted to reveal Greenland, as soon as we were again over open water, the clouds covered things up again. I asked the flight attendant to thank the pilot for giving us such a great view.

A few hours more and we were in New York. The in-flight display panel showed ground temperature in the 30s, and I was worried about thunderstorms, but we landed all right. I didn't enjoy the US Customs or Immigration experience, but I think I have an irrationally negative reaction to being ordered around; on the plus side, it was fast and efficient... and unlike their Canadian counterparts, US security didn't object to my plastic cutlery. Anyway... because Mom and I had only carry-on luggage, we were able to get to the gate fast and catch an early flight to Montreal. Our plane got out onto the tarmac, and was in queue, almost ready for takeoff, when the thunderstorms I'd feared did hit. They were sufficient to ground all air traffic into/out of JFK, Newark, and La Guardia, so we had to wait both for the storm for pass, and next to be given our turn for take-off by the New York-wide air traffic control system. Eventually we did get clearance to take off, and the clouds that we passed through were remarkable giant marshmallows. It was fun to fly over New England and try to see what I could recognise from the plane. We landed in Montreal, waited to clear customs, and there we were, back in Canada. Mom stayed with me overnight.

The next morning, we had some free time so Mom and I shopped around Montreal a bit, and I took her to my favourite travelling / luggage store... and then Mom took a cab to the airport to conclude her trip.

THE END of Fintics 2008

Friday, June 6, 2008

Fintics #8: Sigulda, Gauja National Park, and farewell to Latvia

Mom, M., and I woke up at 5:45am to get an early start on the day. We took the tram from our Riga apartment to the vast central market where we expected to buy breakfast, but it wasn't yet open. It was a warm and still day, with what looked like a smoke-cloud hanging in the otherwise blue sky. Eventually the market DID open but our timing was a bit tight with respect to the train schedule; I seem to remember Mom and M. staying at the train platform (maybe buying our tickets? or did we buy them the day before?) and me going to the grocery store alone. This was the place (or one of the places) where I observed customers buying their groceries without exchanging a single word with the cashier. One of my purchases was cloudberry (bakeapple) yogourt. I was really surprised to see commercially-available cloudberry yogourt. To my knowledge, the plants are hard to cultivate, and only bear one berry per plant, so I would not have guessed that you could buy cloudberries in a cheap product like yogourt. (Expensive jams or liqueurs I would have guessed, but not yogourt.)

It had not rained in about two weeks, maybe more, so everything was very dry. Our train (another 1960s-era train, nothing fancy but passable) went mostly through forest. We could see from paths at the edge of the forest, or from occasional diggings for construction or roadworks, that the soil was deep sand. We passed several stations, some of which were just clearings in the woods, but the station at Sigulda was rather beautiful. Perhaps this is because after the Pskov-Riga railway went through in 1889, the local landowner sold off land for wealthy Riga-folk to build country houses.

Not having had much breakfast, we stopped in a cafe in Sigulda for pastries and the sort. Our next stop was the local tourist info kiosk to find out how to get to the national park (we had missed a bus, but could walk). The shop sold some traditional Latvian carved walking sticks. I didn't buy one, and I do regret it, because they were beautiful and as an example of a local handiwork, they are one of the few things that you can't now buy anywhere in the world, but I think I was worried about whether I would use it, and mostly, whether it would get confiscated by airport security.

(Somewhat out of context: I had a note for that day that a lot of people are very friendly. I think I was feeling guilty about my reaction on the evening we arrived in Riga. A man walked up to us outside the train station - recall that we were obviously tourists, with our luggage - and he looked questionable to me. It was dusk, and I misunderstood his imperfect English - I thought either that he wanted to sell us drugs or that he had bad intentions toward us - it turns out that he only seemed to want to ask us if we needed directions.)

So off we walked from Sigulda toward the park. Gauja National Park is located on either side of the Gauja River ravine. Over the millenia, the river has eroded the sand and the underlying soft sandstone. There is a cable-car over the river but we didn't take it. (I'm not sure how much I would have enjoyed the experience as I think I acquired a certain degree of vertigo as an adult.) We walked down one bank of the ravine, crossed a bridge, and then walked on a trail through the forest. It was nice to finally get into a forest, since although we had seen the forest from buses and trains, this was our first time walking in the country not the city. Most but not all of the flora looked familiar when it came to the trees, but the understory was a little more different. It was an attractive forest, with well-spaced trees, and although the trees had fully leafed out, the understory was full of diverse plants. (In eastern North American mature hardwood forests, once the trees leaf out, they cast so much shad that there isn't much growing below.)

One of our first destinations in the park was a famous cave, apparently the Baltics' largest. In size it was a little underwhelming, but it was neat. It was a large open space, with lots of light coming in. The soft sandstone of the cave was filled with "graffiti", except that can you call it graffiti if it's etchings of people's initials etc. from centuries ago? Many of these had eroded away to the point that you couldn't quite read them, which kind of added to the charm.

Next we hiked up the side of the ravine. There were stairs most of the way, but with some questionable steps along the way. At the top of the hill, we saw the stone ruins of a medieval castle. It was not made from the soft local sandstone, so I wondered how far away the stones had been transported from. A few more steps, and we could look across the valley to the next castle, that one in red brick. A few more steps, and we were at the top of the hill on the former grounds of a manor, which had been nationalised in the communist era and converted to a TB sanatorium.

We had a bus schedule so we could take the bus back down, but we had to find the bus stop. I saw one woman pass by pushing a baby stroller, but as soon as I smiled at her she looked away. Oh well... A few more steps, and we found ourselves in the museum-village, inside a convenience store. This was one of the rare occasions when the natives didn't speak much English, but communication wasn't a problem; we bought some ice cream, and thanks to pen and notebook and drawings, managed to figure what we needed to know. We found our bus-stop. The mini-bus looked oh-so-very-1980s Eastern bloc.

This was where Mom and M. went one way, and I another. M&M would spend more time in the park and a few more days in Latvia, but I would head off to visit my Helsinki friends. M&M got off the bus part way down (to visit another castle perhaps?) but I continued back into the town of Sigulda.

I had some time before the train back to Riga, so I stopped in a small restaurant for lunch. It was a little fancy-looking and pricy in comparison with some other Latvian restos, but it was one of my more interesting moments. At the next table there were a few Americans who had hired a few locals. I couldn't quite decide what it was; at first I thought it might be a foreign business delegation with the local chamber of commerce, but later I thought perhaps they were tourists who just hired local guides to get a better sense of the place. They talked a lot about Baltic culture and Baltic economics. They talked about how to foreign tourists, any single country wouldn't be enough of a "draw", yet the countries are too proud or divided or jealous to cooperate. The best quote I overheard was that "We Latvians have no friends," in that the Estonians think of themselves as distinct from the other Balts and connected to the Finns, and the Lithuanians feel a historical connection to Poland (because of a shared monarchy in, I think, the 16th century), leaving the Latvians with no friends except maybe Russia (she said it, not me!).

On my way back to Riga, I wrote in my notebook, "Aboard train: alcoholism must be a big problem - you often smell it off people in public, or see people drinking in public places, and sometimes the drinkers are very young people." I can no longer remember if there was a specific person on the train that prompted that in me. What I do remember aboard the train was the contrast of a young teenager, dressed punk-style, all in black, with a mohawk, surrounded by.... 2 "babushka" style older "peasant" women, one wearing a kerchief and carrying a bag of flowers, the other with her small dog sitting on a blanket on the seat next to her. The small dog was a source of great amusement to the young child sitting across the aisle. The train conductor didn't react at all to the dog.

(Lupines, by the way, are a very common wildflower throughout the Baltics. My Finnish friend would later tell me that one Finnish name for them is roses of the poor.)

Upon arrival in Riga, I had time for one more stroll through the vast market. The outdoor flower market was gorgeous. Mostly they sold cut flowers, but also plants, and even dahlia tubers with photos of the promised blooms. Since the flowers were so cheap, and so beautiful, I decided to buy some to bring to my Finnish friends. I choose a mixture of blue and white to recall the Finnish flag.

I caught the bus from the market to the airport. The way that ticket collection works on the airport line is that you board the bus, and a ticket collector (not the driver) comes to see you to collect the fare. (If you have bulky luggage, you have to pay extra!) The collector, a not-large woman perhaps in her 40s, seemed to know that trouble was in the air when a certain group of youths boarded, and they refused to pay. She went to talk to the driver, and (but?) the bus just drove on, and at some point they got off without paying. It wasn't only the refusal to pay, there was something else about them that was very disrespectful.

Riga Airport is a new building, very recently built, and is very attractive both outside and within. Our e-tickets said to check in something ridiculous like two hours early for a flight to Finland, and we thought maybe that was just being conservative, but we asked some locals who said you really do need that time. Check-in was manual (as in, computerised, but there weren't automatic self-serve kiosks) and the lined moved slowly. The only other quirk was that the waiting areas needed more bathrooms (there were lines for them). Otherwise it was a very comfortable and beautiful airport. To board the plane, we left the gate and hopped onto a shuttle bus which took us to the plane out on the tarmac.

The purchase of my Air Baltic flight had an interesting story behind it. Mom initially booked tickets for the three of us to fly from Riga to Helsinki on the last day of our trip, just before the Helsinki-New York flight. She got a very good deal on Air Baltic. After she booked this, I heard from my Helsinki friend, who travels a lot, and realised that the only way I could visit him was the last 2 days of my trip. I looked into changing my Riga-Helsinki ticket, and found out it would cost something like $100 plus any difference in fare. The new ticket was cheaper, but still I would have to pay $100. So instead I just bought a new ticket for... 1 Lat, or about $2.60 Canadian. Okay, there was a bit of surcharge but I think it came out to about $50 or $60 grand total!!! How can the airfare be so cheap? Air Baltic seems to do well by flying in Finnish vodka tourists for the weekend. My flight was a Friday AFTERNOON flight from Riga to Helsinki. They had a good number of empty seats on the plane to fill at whatever amount they could take in, and I guess what they really wanted to do was get the plane to Helsinki to embark a number of Finnish cash-cows.

This was the day when I was most grateful for travelling light. I had decided to travel only with carry-on luggage on this trip. Blue One (for our Helsinki-Oulu leg) and Air Baltic both restricted carry-on to one bag, period - not 2 pieces plus an extra small bag like on Air Canada - so I had one large (but legally-sized) backpack with all my stuff. This meant that in the morning when we left Riga for a daytrip to the national park, I didn't worry about having to go back to the apartment to get my extra luggage; I just carried my backpack all day long - from the early-morning tram in the city, through the market and train station, on the train to Sigulda, on our hike over hill and dale, on the minibus back to Sigulda, and so forth to the airport. I'm now sold on travelling light.

And there I was on a plane back to Helsinki.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Fintics #7: Riga

The entry to the Riga building where we were staying was quite nasty - dark, dank, dirty, almost scary - but our apartment, fortunately, was much nicer. My Latvian friend Lauma has since told me that this is a common problem: when apartments were privatized, you bought the apartment itself, but no one really owns the front door, inside hallway, or inside stairs, and just who is responsible for the roof is not clear either. Stairways in some buildings can be falling apart, hallways filled with garbage. Ours wasn't that bad, though it was, well, dicey. As for the apartment, it was small but well-renovated - and well-stocked. We had high-speed internet, a nice tiny kitchen... as well as a large selection of Christian tracts (cartoon booklets) from California, presumably provided by the UK owners of the flat, educating us about the moral perils of evolution and the like! We had been expecting a washing machine (as we had in Tallinn) but didn't have one; we hand-washed some laundry, which didn't really dry that well, as the apartment was damp and not well-ventitlated.

The next day we explored Riga. One of our first stops was the vast market for breakfast. The main buildings were four WWI zeppelin hangars which were converted to a market in the 20s or 30s, and apparently the market is Europe's largest. The covered markets house only part of the market; outside and behind there are many, many more stalls, including a large and beautiful flower market. (The Balts, and perhaps the Finns too, love giving flowers; there was a beautiful but smaller flower market in Tallinn, just inside the city walls.) The market was not a tourist-trap; it was, as far as we could tell, where ordinary Riga-folk would do their food-shopping. It wasn't as Englishified as most of our Estonia experiences were, and at least once I had occasion to take out my notebook to finish a transaction (writing down that I wanted 100g of this, asking for the price of that, etc.)

In both Estonia and Latvia, whether in grocery stores or in markets, most of the produce looks like you would expect in a western market - strawberries from Spain, citrus from Italy, etc. - and the prices, after conversion, are what you would pay in Canada, except that bananas are very expensive (EU banana policy?). I suppose the labour must be relatively inexpensive, as restaurant meals in Latvia and Estonia can be cheap, depending on where you go though (many places in prime locations have high prices for tourists, but off the beaten-track can be cheap).

The outdated infrastructure we had seen on the train ride (rusty benzene tank-rail-cars, manual signals, dilapidated stations) would be repeated in Riga itself, with aged Czechoslovakian trams (look up Tatra streetcars on Wikipedia if curious). They go very v-e-r-y slowly on corners, and when you look at the condition of the rails (and the cobblestones, yes, stones, that seem to keep the rails in place), perhaps you are grateful not to be going fast, because safe and slow is better than fast and derailed.

After the market, we got ready to visit Old Riga. First we stopped at the tourist info kiosk; unlike the previous night, it was now open, but the young employee was not very interested in being helpful. We waited for a tram from the market to Old Riga, and when it arrived, we witnessed something rather extraordinary - a woman in a wheelchair somehow crawled/dragged herself (and her wheelchair?!) up the steps into the tram. Actually, it was more like, turn around, and has she just done what I think she did? It struck me that in Riga we saw quite a fair number of more or less disabled individuals. I wondered how many of them might have been injured in far-away places like maybe Afghanistan while serving in the old USSR's army.

Old Riga doesn't have the same kinds of fortifications as Tallinn, and some parts are not as far along the reconstruction/renovation path as Tallinn, but it too is beautiful and astonishing. In the main town square is a stunning brick "gingerbread" building from the Hanseatic era. You would be forgiven for assuming it had always been there, but up in the gable there is a gold inscription to inform you, "Anno 1334 Renov. Anno 1999". Later I read that it had been razed by the Soviets as an example of bourgeois decadence (possibly after incurring war-time damage?) and rebuilt from nothing in the last few decades. Simply astonishing. We saw the outside of a synagogue being renovated (I think this was just about the only one in Riga that was not destroyed in the Nazi era, because setting fire to it as for the others would have risked setting all of Old Riga aflame), and the inside of several churches. The largest church had rather an interesting feature: to enter it, you had to descend a flight of stairs. We read that in the 800 years since it had been constructed, it has sunk 1/2 to 3/4 of a storey into the city's soft sandy soil. By this time we were beginning to suffer church-overload, so we didn't choose to pay to go into this church (though it was very grand).

We visited another information centre in Old Riga, and unlike at the bus station kiosk, the woman here was very friendly and helpful. We inquired about an excursion to Sigulda National Park, and asked about a package tour she had, but hesitated at the price; she agreed it was pricy and helped us figure out that we could go on the train on our own. That would be our next day's excursion. But we still had sites to see in Riga.

We visited the Occupation Museum. The building had been built in Soviet times as a museum dedicated to Soviet heroes, but it's really quite an ugly and dark building (situated just next door to the newly-reconstructed medieval hanseatic building of striking bourgeois decadence). I think it was larger than the Tallinn occupation museum (and certainly larger than the Tartu KGB museum), though similar in concept, illustrating when and how the Soviets came, how they took over, how and when they deported people (and how many), when the key dates were, and so on. Mom and M. remarked that what was missing in these museums was a sense of what life was like for an ordinary person in Soviet times, but visiting these museums certainly is worth while and helps put things in perspective.

Our walk through Old Riga took us past some interesting sights, including the Presidential Palace. Out front, there were two (honour?) guards, but they didn't stand stick-still like the British or Canadian or Finnish ones do; they would stand for a bit facing out, then turn so that they couldn't see each other, and march away. They did this in perfect synchrony, even though they couldn't see each other, so they must have an arrangement, like A will listen to B's boot-steps, and they will both take X steps away before turning around. Amusing to watch for a few minutes! There was also a third guard, but he didn't wear a fancy traditional uniform; he was in beige-toned fatigues, and his gun was much larger and more menacing, and his patrol looked more assertive and functional than ceremonial. A few minutes later we saw some people (VIPs and politicians?) leave the palace.

We also walked through the oldest, narrowest street of Riga, past some very charming buildings, including one whose first storey looked like it had been excavated out to make a gateway, and whose side-pillars looked like old cannons.

We had supper in a pub featuring traditional Latvian food. With the bread basket there came a small dish of not butter but probably lard with chunks of bacon and crackling - very tasty I have to admit. M. and Mom finally had a chance to order blood sausage, though I think they were a bit disappointed. I tried a little bit, and it was crumbly and not particularly tasty.

In the evening, we took a tram to the Art Nouveau district to admire the architecture. There was a wonderful variety of styles and features, from slightly more geometric (more Art Deco?) to (orientalist?) sculptures in the building walls of women and animals, to (Art Nouveau?) organic flourishes and swoops. Most of the buildings had been renovated to a fine state, though work was still progressing on some of them where you could see that they had suffered years of neglect. Some of these grand buildings were private residences, some were academic institutions, and many were embassies. While walking around the area, a retired couple came up to chat with us - the husband seemed proud to mention that he was a retired university professor - and they were very friendly. You see, I don't think that all Balts are rude or impolite!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fintics #6: From Tartu to Valga (Estonia) to Valka (Latvia) to Riga (Latvia)

From Tartu, we travelled on to Latvia. Mom had planned that we'd take the bus, except that it turned out that the Tartu-Riga bus didn't run on the day we wanted. Fortunately we encountered an extremely friendly and helpful somewhat older Estonian woman in the bus station who helped us figure out that we could take the bus to Valga (Estonia) and then the train from Valka (Latvia) to Riga. This pleased me greatly, as it sounded much more adventurous than just taking the bus, and the train-buff in me would choose the train over the bus any day.

We waited for our bus in Tartu. Most people were relatively orderly about getting on the bus, but one woman with a swarm of young children pushed her way ahead and into the bus. She sounded Russian to me, in comparison to Estonian, but she could have been Latvian as Russian and Latvian sound similar. The bus was crowded without air conditioning, and the day was a little warm. There were about 10 passengers standing on the bus for lack of seats. Across the aisle from me there sat an old man who looked very drunk and was drinking more from a bottle. At one stop, his seatmate (in the window seat) got off the bus, and after letting her pass, he sat back down in such a way as to prevent anyone from using the free seat. From his illness to his rudeness, it was all very sad in so many ways. There was at least one polite (though somewhat shabby-looking) older soul on the bus, who had let everyone else board the bus before him, and therefore was standing rather than sitting for his journey.

Valga and Valka had once been one town, but when Estonia and Latvia were formed as republics in 1920, an international commission (or maybe just one British general) established the border, dividing the town. Things were especially difficult in the Soviet era, as the border was rigidly enforced and you needed hard-to-obtain permits if you wanted to do so much as bury your dead on the other side of the border. This surprised me; they had both been absorbed firmly into the USSR, so why would an internal border be *that* strictly enforced? Now that Estonia and Latvia are both part of the EU (and within the Schengen zone), the border is gone, and the two towns - or "One Town, Two States" as their slogan goes - are cooperating once more. They have torn down the walls but left some of the border-posts, signs in Russian to get out your passport, etc. It was refreshing to see this, as sometimes it seems that the Balts are so eager to move on from the era of the Soviet occupation that they might be relegating their history to the dustbin.

In general, Estonia is more prosperous and is doing better than Latvia, but in this town, it seemed like perhaps Valka (Latvia) was doing better than Valga (Estonia). I suspect Valka is important to the Latvian psyche ("On November 15, 1918 the decision to proclaim the independent Republic of Latvia was made in Valka. The red-white-red flag of Latvia was raised here for the first time," says Wikipedia.) Valga (Estonia) seems to have more of the old buildings, and more to rebuild. We had a few hours here, after the bus and before the train, which I found very interesting. Even in this tiny off-the-beaten-path destination (it's on the bus lines, but I think western tourists stick to the bigger cities), the restaurant where we had lunch offered an English-language menu. The presence of English and the ease of communication overwhelmed me. One of the more striking things in Valga/Valka, to me at least, was a strange smell that hung in the air in many places, and reminded me of bone-meal. It turned out to be associated with the train tracks, and I later encountered the same smell in Riga on the platform of the train station, but I don't know quite what it is.

In contrast, there was a smell I associate with Tallinn (but which we perhaps smelled in other places too), and at first I thought it was wood smoke mixed with coal. Later I wondered if the smell might be only woodsmoke, but from pine trees (pine is rich in tar), which we don't commonly burn here, but pine was the most common tree in Estonia.

What I think was shared by all three countries we visited was the general dustiness, much much more dusty than Canada. It had been unusually dry prior to our visit, so I don't know how much of the dust was due to that, and how much to the fact that the soil is fine and sandy, and how much might reflect local and regional pollution, and how much might be that this part of the world has less forest than Canada, and how much might be because of the frequency of old-town streets that were cobbled rather than paved... but whatever the reasons, it was much dustier than here in Canada.

Did I mention the ubiquity of English? Well, make that near-ubiquity. We had a bit of an adventure back in the grand but dilapidated train station, where we had to confirm:
- the departure time (there was a posted schedule, but it wasn't entirely clear to us),
- the price of the train tickets, and whether we could pay in Estonian currency on the Latvian train (Mom wanted to use up her Estonian cash as we would not be coming back), and
- that the Latvian train would indeed come to the Estonian train station (this is a recent restoration of service; in pre-EU days the Latvian train did NOT continue to the Estonian station, and folks needed to find their way to the nearest Latvian train station, some 7km outside town).
The older clerk didn't speak English, but she did speak German. Mine is rusty, but drawing some pictures and numbers in my handy notebook cleared these things up.

When the train came, it introduced us to the hierarchy of Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. Finland's infrastructure is modern and often cutting-edge (like the fast, sleek, comfortable electric trains we took between Helsinki and Turku). Estonia is on its way; some things (like urban and intercity buses) are up to date, some things had been cut and are now slowly being phased back in (like intercity trains), and some things stumble on in a slightly outdated manner (like Tallinn's trams). In Latvia, perhaps the Soviet occupation was rougher, but the general pace of progress seems slower. Our diesel train was pretty old-fashioned, with vinyl-covered bench seats, no air conditioning, and "openable" windows that wouldn't always open or easily close. Some of the stations we stopped at were quite beautiful though run-down. Other stops were little more than clearings in the forest with a dirt path, presumably leading to some village or another nearby. Sometimes at intersections we would pass by a small signal house, where a woman (never a man) in an official grey uniform would come out with a little tennis-racket-like signal which she would flip one way or the other (though it wasn't clear to me whether this signal was for the train or for the road traffic).

The forests we travelled through were quite pretty - well-spaced trees, mostly pine, but also a lot of birch, amidst lots of sand, with a charming mossy-shrubby understory.

As we got close to Riga, we saw the urban decay that you sometimes see on the train approach to cities (abundant graffiti, sad-looking buildings), along with some frighteningly dilapidated looking tank-rail-cars labelled "Benzene" (i.e., petrol).

Mom had planned to arrive in Riga by bus, so our directions were from the bus station. Instead we arrived by train, and the tourist office was not open in the evening to give us directions, so it took us some time to find our way. We knew that the bus and train stations were next to each other, but the exact relation was not clear. Once we were finally on the right tram heading the right way (hint: the first tram we took was not the right one), it was easy to find our apartment.

Fintics #5: Tartu, Estonia, and some general observations about post-Soviet life

June 3-4, 2008

The next day we took the bus to Tartu, which is home to Estonia's oldest university and also their supreme court - in a sense, it is the country's intellectual and cultural capital.

Tartu has a beautiful town square and downtown, impressive cathedral ruins and castle ruins (partly grown over, partly restored), a lovely botanical garden, and possibly my favourite church of the whole trip (St. John's in Tartu). The baltics have lots of sand but not a lot of stone, so building in brick became popular, leading to a particular style known as brick gothic. Not only are the bricks used decoratively in this church, there are brick or terra cotta figurines throughout. The church was almost completely destroyed, in WWII I assume, but was recently restored. It's astonishing; when you go inside and look on one side of the church, you see the original brick, and the walls are not quite straight; across the nave, you see the other side of the church has been rebuilt pretty much exactly as it must have once been, and you can tell the difference by the verticals being truly vertical.

Again in Tartu, M. and Mom split off from me for some of the explorations; they visited the anatomy museum and the cathedral ruins while I went to the KGB museum. That suited me fine, as body parts in formaldehyde are not my thing.

One of Tartu's twin cities is Tampere, Finland. Tampere operates a sort of cultural mission in Tartu which is part art gallery/space, and part bed-and-breakfast. That was where we stayed. It was a beautiful old wooden building, and its only fault (though you can hardly fault it for this) is that the ceilings were very low and I kept hitting my head. Ouch! Other than that, it was very cozy, and we had high-speed internet as a plus.

The craziest meal we had on this tyrip was in Tartu - incidentally, in the University café, in a beautiful room in a beautiful building - well, it wasn't the meal that was crazy, the food was delicious - it was just the waiter's notion of service that was crazy. The other waitress on staff seemed quite upset with him so perhaps he was... new? or on the way out? At least I hope it isn't normal to wait endlessly to be served, and to be given instead of the bill, the change from another client who'd just paid in cash.

Here I also had "Vama", the traditional Estonian dessert, though it was quite different from the version I'd had in Tallinn - the milk component was a rich custard or maybe even something cream-based rather than clabbered milk.

Mom came out with one of the best sayings of the trip as we were waiting and waiting and waiting for our waiter: "This is what I hate about eating in restaurants, you know," she said; "the company!" We all burst into laughter.

As we were leaving Tartu, I saw one of the sad sights on my trip. We were walking on a pedestrian bridge over the muddy brown river (all the rivers we saw in Finland and Estonia were muddy and brown) and looked down to see an older woman fill three large containers with water and then carry them away. I hope this wasn't for drinking. Even if she was only getting water for her garden, that's awfully hard work. For a water-blessed Canadian like me, it's sad to think about being so poor that you have to ration your water. (We may have been near the edge of the neighbourhood described in Wikipedia as follows: "The historical slum area called Supilinn is located on the bank of river Emajõgi, near the town centre and is regarded as one of the few surviving poor neighbourhoods in Europe from the 19th century. At the moment Supilinn is rapidly being renovated.")

And on the topic, let me share my observations on Estonia and its people. Mom and M. had very different reactions, so maybe mine aren't entirely accurate or fair. My observations may be isolated incidents, but as a tourist just passing through quickly, all you can hope for is to observe slices of life that may illustrate, as for a short story, not thorough analyses as for a novel of Tolstoy or Mann. So first and foremost, Estonians don't smile much. The Finns aren't big smilers either, but they do so a little more, and they don't react the same way; in Estonia (and Latvia too), smiling at a stranger sometimes just inspires fear in them. I described the incident in Tallinn where the baby-pushing woman ran away in fear - okay, it was evening and I was a solitary large male - but there were other similar instances; in Tartu I tried to ask a man for directions near a busy pedestrian bridge, and he just ignored me and walked away. Even when I went to church in Tallinn it was not welcoming; as mentioned previously, the elders at the door just ignored me, and the parishioners didn't seem friendly to each other; and that is a church that describes itself as having a special connection with the down-and-out. Some Estonians were extremely generous and helpful with us, but somehow they seemed to stand out to me as atypical.

There did seem to be a lot of parents with young children, more visible than in my Montreal (a city supposedly undergoing a natality boom) so I suppose that many Estonians are confident about their future.

Estonia is doing many things very well (like its reconstruction, capitalist development, infrastructure renewal) but it's easy to see how empty and materialistic much of it is. There is an ugly side to the cheap vodka and empty pleasures; in Tallinn, I saw two drunken youths rough each other up, one pushing the other into the car-connections of a (fortunately not in motion) tram and continue at it for a few minutes. In the post-Soviet era, Estonia seems to have swung from one extreme to another; perhaps it used to be each for his own within a repressive state, but now it seems to be each for his own with no safety net; my Finnish friends tell me that life is almost impossible if you are an Estonian pensioner unless you have family to support you. The affluent are conspicuous and doing very well but I think life is very hard for many. It's uncomfortable to contrast the crass materialism of the wealthy with the plight of the poor.

It's easy to understand many of these outcomes, given a society that had been brutalised with a psychosis of terror for more than 50 years; I know it's somewhat hypocritical for an affluent Westerner to reproach the eastern bloc for emulating the West a little too much; but all the same, just as there were wonderful and beautiful things in Estonia, there was also much to make me feel sadness, discomfort, and maybe even a kind of regret at times.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fintics #4 - From Finland, to Talllinn and Haapsalu, Estonia

May 30 - June 2, 2008

Our hotel in Oulu had a nice buffet breakfast, which we enjoyed at some frightfully early hour. We then took the bus to the airport for a flight back to Helsinki. By now experts in Helsinki public transit, we took the bus back downtown, did some tag-team lunch shopping in Stockmann for sandwiches, pastries, juice, etc. (this time I knew which kind of "yogourt" and juice not to get), almost took the tram in the wrong direction (oops, did I say I was an expert? sleep deprivation has its effects), eventually caught the right tram in the right direction, found the ferry terminal, arrived just as it was leaving, bought our tickets, ran aboard as the last passengers.... and set sail!

Helsinki is separated from Tallinn by just 80 km of water. There are many ferry connections; my timetable shows 30 ferries from Helsinki to Tallinn; not all of those run every day, but there were 19 choices on the Friday that we left, both high-speed catamaran ferries and regular ferries, as fast as 1hr 40 min, or a leisurely 3 hour crossing. Tallinn is a popular destination for Finns (and also other northern Europeans) for vodka tourism (the restaurants and bars are cheap by Finnish standards) and also for cultural tourism (tickets to concerts, opera, ballet, etc. are also relatively cheap). Our Friday ferry departing 11:30 seemed to have a fair number of younger vodka tourists, who were evidently intent on getting an early start to a weekend of drinking.

The ferry crossing offers wonderful harbour views; both Helsinki and Tallinn are as beautiful from the sea as from the land. Approaching Tallinn, you see the many spires and towers of the medieval city. After disembarking, we caught a taxi. I'd read about Tallinn taxi drivers being rather dishonest, and there were large signs on the taxi dashboard explaining (in English too!) what rates you should expect to pay; Estonia seems to be working very hard to make Tallinn a tourist destination. Our taxi took us to the inside of the walled medieval city, to the apartment rental office, in the shadows of St Nicholas Church, one of the larger and older churches, dating back to the 13th C. This particular church was almost completely destroyed in WWII; reconstruction began in 1953 and it reopened in 1984 as a museum and concert hall; it is once again a church in the post-Soviet era. The inside is gothic in architecture (pointed arches, groins and vaults) but fairly modern and bright in decoration.

Most Tallinn buildings (at least in the more touristy sections) underwent a very thorough and impressive restoration in recent years. Buildings are not the only thing undergoing reconstruction in Estonia. There is quite a bit of infrastructure work going on throughout the country. Within Tallinn's medieval walls, they seemed to be working on the plumbing: in some places, if you looked at the cobble-stone roads (NB - irregular round STONES for the most part, for genuine medieval charm, not regular granite paving blocks), you could see a line where the stones had been lifted and replaced. In other places, you could see or smell them working on sewer excavations. I had been in struck in Helsinki by the number of municipal workers keeping the city beautiful; in Tallinn (and Latvia), what I noticed was the scale of renovation and infrastructure, especially in the most touristy places [off the beaten track is not as well-tended; not everyone is sharing in progress; but to say that only the nicest parts are getting spruced up would be an exaggeration]. So Finland can devote energy to maintaining its beauty, while Estonia (and Latvia) are working very hard to catch up.

We walked a few blocks further, past the impressive town square (town hall, another high spire), past a smaller baroque church, past countless cafés and restaurants, past many embassies. Our rented apartment (on Pikk street) was beautiful and located off a quiet courtyard.

(As an aside: there had been some misunderstanding about our arrival date. Our apartment rental company thought we were coming the day before. The woman said she'd wanted to call us when we didn't show up, except that travelling Canadians never have cell-phones. That's because the vast majority of Canadian carriers use old cell-phone technology rather than the newer GSM technology that is standard in Europe and many/most other parts of the world. We could have rented a cell-phone in Finland, but a rental kind wouldn't have worked in Estonia or Latvia.)

That evening, we went to see a ballet (Don Quixote) in the Estonian National Opera. The tickets were quite affordable so Mom had bought us box tickets. It was strange to think that we were sitting in seats that once would have been reserved for the Communist party elite, while Mom herself was a 1956 refugee from the communism of Hungary. In fact, we looked up at the concert hall's frescoed ceiling, and saw a fine example of Soviet art, showing the unity of soldiers, factory workers, and farmers. The opera building had been damaged in the war and rebuilt early in the post-WWII Soviet era.

While the church and concert hall I mentioned previously had suffered in WWII, overall, Tallinn didn't seem to have suffered the annihilation of, say, Rotterdam or Dresden. Over the centuries, the immense fortified walls had encouraged the construction of many beautiful buildings within Tallinn's walls. Except for some Art Deco/Art Nouveau, there are very few truly modern buildings (inside the walls) and the old ones have almost all been restored to top shape as embassies, restaurants, high-end offices, high-end apartments and houses, or high-end shops.

The Orthodox cathedral on Toompea Hill, overlooking the city, was built in the early years of the 20th century (when Estonia came into the Russian empire?) to compete with the city's other big churches (mostly Lutheran, some Catholic or other denominations). Almost all of Tallinn's churches are impressive. M., Mom, and I visited St. Olaf's (Evangelical Lutheran?) on Saturday; M. and I climbed the spire (a seemingly-endless spiral stone staircase) and at the top of the tower we walked outside, protected by some metal cage-railings, for a 360-degree panorama of the city and harbour. This church claims that its spire and its nave were, at one point, Europe's tallest. That feature made it useful during the Soviet era, as the spire was used as a radio/communications tower. I don't recall if it was this church or another that the Russians used to spy on the city, but the tower of St Olaf's has a great number of small windows with strategic views of the city and harbour. Some of the steps on the sprial staircase are slightly wider - these are the steps next to windows - suggesting that "here is where you should sit down with your binoculars and gun for surveillance of the city and harbour". Probably that defensive construction predates the Soviet era. I guess it marks me as a naive North American, but it's so strange to think of a church as a place of belligerence. Oh well, as the great Lutheran hymn opens, "A mighty fortress is our God..."

On Saturday evening, we explored Toompea Hill (with the aforementioned Orthodox cathedral). As we were contemplating the city, a man walked up and started chatting with us. He was peddling music: he had a backpack full of Estonian CDs and a discman so you could try before you buy. At first I was worried about his intentions and later I realised he was what he seemed to be, a street peddler, and he and I talked quite a bit. Although not a musician himself, he knew a lot about Estonian composers, conductors, concerts, etc. I ended up buying two CDs from him, one about a composer I knew (Cyrillus Kreek, whose works I'd sung last year in my chamber choir), one from a new-to-me composer (Hugo Lepnurm). What an unusual (and difficult?) way to earn some money. That it was worthwhile for him to do this, though, suggests that there must be a fair number of culture-tourists in Tallinn, and that it's not all vodka-tourists; and perhaps that some Estonians have to be very creative to find a way to earn a living.

Tallinn's beauty is part of the reason I took around 1400 pictures on the trip. After much agony, I managed to eliminate a mere 371 of them. In Tallinn, there are so many beautiful buildings everywhere you look.

On Sunday morning, when Mom and M. went on their own, I went back to St. Olaf's for the church service (as this was going to be my only occasion to hear choral music on the trip); the service was slightly evangelical and rather long (about 2 hours), but the music was good. An interesting experience, and it was fun to try to practice my Estonian when it came time to sing hymns. I was surprised by the atmosphere though. There were elders at the door, but they didn't greet me or offer anything like a hymnbook. The congregants, mainly senior citizens, didn't look that friendly either; one woman came in a bit late, and it was a long time before anyone moved to make space for here in the pews. In fact, what really struck me was the minister, because he smiled and radiated positivity (even though I couldn't understand a word he said); he was probably the first Estonian whom I'd seen who genuinely looked happy.

After church, I spent some time checking out a building across from the church. It looked kind of Art Deco; I had a hard time figuring out what the terra-cotta decorations on the outside walls signified, with busts of doctors and engineers in classical garb; perhaps it had once been an academy of sorts. Presently it houses the Estonian "Siseministerium" (I have no idea what "sise" is). Then I got a hint of one of the building's previous functions when I found a plaque, only in Estonian, where the words "repressiviorgani" and "okupatsiooni" hinted at the building's role in the Soviet era. The lower windows in the building had been bricked over, presumably to prevent any shouts or cries inside from being heard outside. At that point a woman came up to me with very broken English to try to explain the building - I understood Siberian deportations, but didn't know if she was trying to tell me that she herself had been deported from that very building.

That was then, this is now; and a minute later, I bumped into Mom and M. in the French-style pastry shop next door. One of the pastries they had ordered featured a cabbage filling within buttery pastry (quite literally a cabbage roll, as it were).

We had declared Sunday to be our museum day, and since M. and Mom share a similar pace for museums which is quite different from mine, we split up again after the café. I made two stops for some brief shopping (one, some pottery I'd seen the day before and really liked; the other, small gifts for friends and colleagues, in a shop whose owner was the friendliest Estonian, and one of the nicest people generally, I've ever met; she was the second Estonian I met who smiled). Then I stopped in at another church (Swedish Lutheran) to check out the acoustics... just in case my choir ever comes this way... before heading to one of the towers of the city wall, where you can climb up and check out the city. This one was called "Kiek in de koek" (I may have the spelling wrong) which means "peep into the kitchen" for the excellent vantage points it gave of much of the old town. As with the spire of St. Olaf's church, it was boggling to imagine the work in lugging all that stone up such heights to create something so massive and solid.

Then, I made my way to the museum of the Soviet occupation. When I went to where I expected the glass building's entry to be, there was a door (emergency exit?) with a sign which said curtly something like "This is not the museum. Go back that way." Then on the sidestreet, I noticed a very low entry which I had just walked past minutes ago. I had to duck to get through and into a small courtyard, where I was dwarfed by trees and confronted with a very dark imposing door which decided to slide open to swallow me up - an unwelcoming opening to remind you of the past, I suppose. It was a physically small museum, and their main exhibit was a series of television monitors chronicling different periods of the 20th C, each video lasting 20-25 minutes. I found it interesting, but M. and Mom, whose visit to this museum partially overlapped with mine, found it too much to digest.

M. and Mom were astonished that on our museum day, I had only visited 2 museums (the city-wall-tower and the occoupation museum) while they had visited no less than 17. Well, I don't recall their exact number of museums visited, but it was impressive for one day. While I was still in church, they had already visited more museums than I'd see all day long. However, I'm sure I enjoyed my museums more than they did!

That evening, we had supper in a restaurant specialising in pork. M. and Mom shared the meat feast for "two" (or three or four). I had boar (I think) in a lovely juniper cream sauce, with potatoes, and mixed veggies with a surprise of tasty pumpkin strips. Here was where I first tried the dessert which is one of Estonia's "national" dishes, called Vama. It consisted of clabbered milk thickened with ground roasted stuff (peas, yes, peas of a sort, were one of the roasted things, along with grains) and garnished with berries. It sounds bizarre, but it was rather like a runny yogourt with muesli and berries. In this restaurant, it was on the light and tart side; I found it delicious, and very nice after a heavy pork meal.

(I later read on a food-blog that that name "vama" refers to the roasted ground grains, and that it can be served in many different ways, though the modern practice is as a dessert with a sour dairy product and with a berry jam or compote. If curious, see
http://nami-nami.blogspot.com/2005/07/cooking-estonian-kama.html or
http://nami-nami.blogspot.com/2007/08/shf-34-estonian-kama-modern-traditional.html )

We had bought Tallinn cards which, for a fixed cost, cover public transit, museum admission (but you can only go to a given place once; they swipe your card through a machine to check; they even do this in churches, outside of service-time!), and various other perks. One of the perks was free admission to various swimming pools / spas. On Sunday evening, when Mom and M. were pooped and I wasn't, I headed out. The spa was located on the outskirts of Tallinn. The card came with an excellent guidebook and a good map, except that the map was sketchy about these outskirts. I thought I had it figured out, so I hopped on a modern bus and got a nice view of the edge of the harbour (green and park-like; also smelly in spots, and I'd guess there are still many sewage-system improvements needed). The modern bus I was on had digital panels to announce the name of the next cross-street, which made navigation easy. Or so I thought! I got off at the street bearing the right name. I was a little surprised by what I saw. In the old city, there were all sorts of high-end cars and SUVs; I thought that might just be the foreigners and diplomats; but this neighbourhood was also filled with BMWs and Mercedes, big sedans and SUVs, even some gas-guzzling Hummers, which seemed eager to drag-race each other after a red-light. Set amid tall graceful pines were detached and semi-detached 2-storey modern villas and townhouses, safely protected behind gates (yes, I mean gated communities). I was looking for #11 but the street numbers went 4, 6, 8, followed by a long gap, then 24, 28, 32... I tried to ask a passing woman with pram for directions, but as soon as I smiled, her expression froze, and she looked down. When I then gestured to my map, and said something like "Excuse me," she scurried away. Very frustrated, I headed back to my bus-stop, and went back to Old Tallinn.

On Monday morning, we went on part of a bus tour to cover some of the Tallinn sights we'd missed, then went for a daytrip. We had an inexpensive and tasty (but salty) lunch in the definitely-not-intended-for-foreigners local market outside the city walls near the bus station and then hopped on a bus to Haapsalu on the western coast of Estonia. Haapsalu had been a fashionable spa at one point, and the train station (now the bus station, as Haapsalu is no longer served by passenger trains) features an immense, grand platform - apparently it was the longest covered platform in the Russian empire. In the Soviet period, Haapsalu and vicinity were militarised and civilian access was highly restricted (we saw some ruined buildings that looked like ex-barracks). Haapsalu was also hometown to Cyrillus Kreek, the composer whose works I'd sung and whose CD I'd bought the day before. There were advertisements for some excellent-looking concerts of his music, one the day before our visit, one a few days later. (This seemed to be a pattern on this trip: I frequently missed interesting concerts by a day or two.) As for the Baltic coast itself, the shore was a little bit disappointing; what we saw was reedy and had lots of flotsam. We passed some grand old buildings and a small old Orthodox church that hadn't yet been fully fixed up (in a few years I suppose it will be up to... Tallinn standards?) as well as a 17th (?) century Lutheran (?) church. Haapsalu has amazing ruins of a medieval episcopal (meaning, bishop's?) palace. Some of the church is still standing or has been restored (closed when we were there) but most of it is now a beautiful park. If you like castles and ruins, Finland and the Baltic states are great places to visit!

The highway between Tallinn and Haapsalu took us past a lot of small and medium-sized farms. Every now and then we would see the abandoned ruined buildings of a collective farm. In fact, I don't recall any of the large collective-farm buildings appearing to be still in use. Not to express any nostalgia for collectivization, but all the same, it's sad that those farm buildings aren't serving any purpose whatsoever any more.

We had a bizarre tram-moment in Tallinn when we were trying to get to the market near the bus station. I thought we stepped into a movie set because the tram was loaded with police officers all standing together, plus a video-cameraman. It turns out it was Police Day. I guess they were doing PR work. As far as I could figure, they seemed to have two rather different aims: First, to make the police seem friendlier to the general public, they were handing out candy. Second, to recruit new police officers, they were handing out stickers, depicting a dark and stormy street, a busty female officer at front holding a radio receiver, a male officer behind her pointing a revolver, a sports car racing down the street, and behind that, two agents with helmets and machine guns aiming at some unseen threat. Obviously if you want a career filled with excitement, and a career as a movie stuntman/stuntwoman doesn't work out, you should sign up for the Estonian police force!

Something else that struck me as strange was that in the group of perhaps 8 PR police officers, there were only 1 or 2 male officers, huddled at the back, and the rest were women.

When we got out, we saw that the tram was painted in different colours for the occasion. It was somewhat surreal, but the police were friendly, and a little bit helpful in helping us realise that we were going in the wrong direction and in figuring out what tram we should take to get to the market.

Something that struck me in Tallinn was the social place of Russians. Like much of the Baltics, Tallinn underwent a period of Russification in the Soviet era, but in the post-Soviet era, the Russians no longer sit at the top of the heap. Russian and Estonian sound very different, so even for an English speaker, it isn't too hard to tell who is who, or at least, to tell who is not Estonian. (It's not nearly as easy to tell the difference between Latvian and Russian.) We had a Russian cab driver; the security agent / doorwoman in the building where we went to pick up the apartment key was Russian; when we went to the definitely-not-for-foreigners local market outside the city walls near the bus station, many of the vendors were Russian. In the modern shopping mall where we did some grocery shopping, I didn't notice any Russian; within the old town, I didn't notice any Russian staff in the cafés, restaurants, museums, or shops. Ordinary Russian people seem to occupy a low rung in post-Soviet Estonia, yet there are a few Russian cultural institutions (a small Orthodox church in Tallinn's lower old town, the large Orthodox church in upper town, two theatres just outside the walls) which are very well maintained. I can't help but wonder where the money is coming; is mother Russia providing funding to maintain a good face in the Baltics?

The Finns and Estonians have a reputation for not saying much, but of meaning what they do say. In a modern western-style grocery store in Tallinn, or was this (also?) in Helsinki and maybe Riga too, I observed client-cashier interactions that occurred without a single word being exchanged. In Tallinn one evening, I was caught off guard because the cashier (a young woman) greeted me first. This was somewhat unusual, and I answered back, "Hello, how are you?" which is a perfectly natural thing for a Canadian to say. She looked at me, intrigued and amused and almost stunned. I don't remember if or how she answered; it was the reaction of surprise which caught me, and I immediately realised the unusual nature of my question: why would a perfect stranger, one who was obviously passing through, ask her how she was doing?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fintics #3 - Oulu, Finland

The next day, we checked out of our Helsinki hostel. We took a tram to the train station, then had another breakfast of pastries (and coffee for me) before taking the bus to the airport and heading on to Oulu.

Fortunately, Finnish airport security isn't as nutty as Canadian, so no one confiscated my plastic cutlery.

Oulu is located at the northern terminus of the Gulf of Bothnia, pretty close to the Arctic circle. We took a bus into town, and several things were noticeable: very attractive leafy suburbs, frequent small outbuildings in backyards (which looked kind of like North American sheds or baby-barns, but their chimneys suggested they were saunas), and beautiful paved multi-use bike-paths (with underpasses for the bike-paths to keep cyclists and nordic-rollerbladers [i.e., with poles] safe at busy highway intersections!).

Here the trees were just starting to leaf out, unlike in Helsinki where they were already fully-open. I guess that being north matters. The trees were mostly birch and some pine.

We stayed in a very, very nice hotel in the centre of town, and after checking in, we went out to explore the town. One of our first stops was, naturally, a café, for lunch and sweets; Mom and M. had quiche, but I had another round-rye sandwich; my dessert featured vanilla cake, apple filling, meringue topping, and a generous dousing of vanilla creme anglaise; M. had a cake [coffee-flavoured?] and Mom had a pastry [which I think had more cardamom].

Mom's foot was aching, so rather than doing a lot of walking in Oulu, we hopped on a city bus for the nearby island of Hailuoto. Public transit in Europe is impressive for me; destinations that might have no service at all, or just a few times daily if they were in Canada, have regular service in Finland, maybe hourly, maybe better. So we took a municipal bus through Oulu's suburbs, alongside more bike paths in the middle of outlying villages and farmland, and when we got to the giant éoliennes (what do you call them in English? the giant graceful windmill-windfarms) at the coast, the bus waited a bit. The bus, and some other cars, then took a pretty fast ferry and crossed over to the island. Our bus continued to the other side of the island and stopped for a while at a fishing wharf on one end of the island before coming back. I'd misread the map of the island, inferring topographical lines of elevation which simply didn't exist: I was expecting a hilly island, but in fact it seemed like a giant flat sand-dune of an island, forested in places by well-spaced pine trees, with an undergrowth of lichen and moss and small shrubs, but cleared in other places for fields. It looked like a magical fairy-land. The bus driver not only delivered the residents, he also picked up mail and dropped off prescriptions - rather charming.

We had a supper in the old industrial-district of Oulu - in fact, the wooden building that housed our restaurant was once a whaling warehouse. This restaurant had been recommended by a colleague of mine named André who did his PhD in Oulu and continues to do his fieldwork (anthropology/archaeology) there. When we first got to the resto, we were worried because the wait-staff kept ignoring us, but eventually they seated us, and it was worth the wait. André had promised us "actually edible Finnish food" but it was delicious. I had lamb in a red-wine sauce with buttery scalloped potatoes and mixed veggies; M. had arctic char in a morel (?) sauce, and his potatoes were boiled; Mom had cabbage rolls dressed with a lingonberry (?) cream sauce, and her potato was baked. I don't remember the other desserts, but mine bore an intriguing translation along the lines of baked cheese dessert - it was rich, creamy, and mostly solid, served very hot, garnished with bakeapples/cloudberries. The "cheese" part was not bad (worth trying, though maybe not worth ordering again; I think it was milk that had been gelled by the addition of rennet) but the bakeapples were delicious; I'd never tried them before.

We dined late, around 9:30pm, and it was later yet by the time we finished. Mom and M. were tired so they went back to the hotel. The reason I'd wanted to come to Oulu was to experience the midnight sun, so I went out for a walk on my own. The waterfront of Oulu, with plain wooden Hanseatic-looking storehouses here and an elaborate brick market building there and elegant restaurants a little farther, looks something like a cross between Lunenburg (Nova Scotia) and Amsterdam (or rather, what I imagine Amsterdam to look like since I've never been there), with the occasional modern building (serving as a theatre or something) thrown into the works.

In a park/square, I saw some unusual park benches. I've dubbed them "Lutheran park benches": they have a lower railing for you to put your feet up, but they have no backs, and the bench-seat is a second long narrow railing. I guess they don't want you to get too comfortable; certainly you couldn't lie down and sleep on these.

What I'm used to seeing in Canada is that after the sun sets, it's dark within half an hour. Not so in Oulu! In fact it's hard to say exactly when sunset takes place because it lasts so long and never really gets dark (in summer that is). I have pictures* of beautiful pastel reflections in the harbour at 11:00pm, others of the crimson-pumpkin peak of the sunset at about 11:30, and 11:50pm pictures of daffodils that look like they could have been taken in daylight. In other pictures from 12:50am, where the sky peaks out from clouds, it looks straw-coloured; that's as dark as it got before I decided I had to go to bed, as we had an early flight next morning.

* Yes, I have pictures - too many in fact. I haven't been able to narrow it down to fewer than 1200 picture, which is why I haven't shared them yet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fintics #2 - Turku, Finland

We took a daytrip by train to Turku, the medieval city on the west coast, which was the former capital, from medieval times until the 19th century.

As we set out from our hostel in Helsinki, I offered Mom and M. part of the chocolate bar I'd bought, and they refused it, for the mere reason that they'd just brushed their teeth! (I don't understand such silly reasons for refusing chocolate... especially when we were planning to have more breakfast in the train station.) The train itself was very fast, modern, and comfortable.

Turku looks very different from Helsinki; the buildings tend to be shorter (1-3 stories instead of 3-5), older, often more ornate, plus there is a fair amount of clapboard-exterior-houses (vs non-flammable claddings in Helsinki, mainly stucco). Whereas Helsinki is a maritime city on a peninsula of sorts that juts into the sea and on an archipelago (you are never far from one of the many harbours), Turku lines a river as it empties into the sea, with the castle at the river's mouth and the other buildings either inland or river-side.

We visited Turku Cathedral (stunning!), and also a museum of medieval Turku (which had been buried and built over, then excavated to reveal impressive vaulted constructions). Turku castle was amazing. The castle was vast and overwhelming, built in phases from the 1200s through the renaisssance, and restored starting in the 1930s; it had played host to kings and queens, had great halls, small chambers, prisons, dungeons, hard-to-reach attics to keep the damsels safe, royal chapels, courtyards, balconies in the courtyard for the minstrels or the royals, fortifying walls, towers...

After the castle, we went to the Sibelius museum, where we checked out the collection of musical instruments. One of the more interesting instruments was called a mono-something (mono-chord?), where you played a keyboard to select the pitch, but drew a bow across the string (like a violin) to produce the actual sound and control the volume and expresssion. I didn't have time to get to Sibelius Museum's section on Sibelius himself because we had to go to a concert in the museum's concert hall given by a young classical guitar player. He was a young musician (music student), and played with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, both M. and I were embarrassingly bad at keeping our eyes open, as we were quite tired.

After the concert, we made our way back to the train station, bought sandwiches from a cafe, and had a picnic supper in the facing park, before taking the train back to Helsinki.

Although the young woman in the Turku tourism office was not that great, others in Turku were so friendly and helpful, from one municipal bus driver (far too nice to ever work as a bus driver in, say, Montreal) to the Sibelius Museum clerk to another young woman on the street who leapt in to translate for us when we were trying to figure out bus directions.

Our train got into Helsinki around 11pm; you could say that sunset had taken place around 10:15 (while on the train) but it was still plenty bright out at 11:00 in Helsinki.

Food interlude: typical Finnish breads are rye. (In fact, rye bread has a special name distinct from wheat bread, in both Finnish and Estonian I think.) Some rye breads are variations on a moist, very slightly sweet, slightly spiced and caraway-laced loaf which I especially liked. There is also a small flat dark rye bread, kind of like a coarse moist pita, except that in size it is the diameter of a hamburger bun. In Turku, or was it elsewhere, my sandwich was made with this dark rye round, filled with sliced ham, a fried egg (!), lettuce, red peppers, and cheese.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fintics #1 - Getting there, and time in Helsinki, Finland

(This is an account of a vacation I took with my mother and younger brother M. at the end of May and start of June to Finland, Estonia, Latvia. As a title for this trip, I've compressed Finland and Baltics into "Fintics.")

May 25-27, 2008

Mom, M., and I had a wonderful time on our trip. If nothing else, we should get a prize for the intermodality of it: planes, trains, automobiles (as in the occasional taxi-ride), inter-city buses, urban buses, trams, small medium and large ferries, and for me (but not Mom or M.), a bit of biking. Plus, of course, lots of walking!

The brief version: I'm not good at brief summaries of trips. I guess the best thing I could say is that I most enjoyed and most felt at home in Finland, though Estonia made greater impressions on me. However, this one-paragraph summary makes no mention of FOOD, or 1001 other things, so....

Here begins, the not so brief version!

Mom started her flight in Sydney, Nova Scotia, I met her in the airport in Montreal for our flight to New York (JFK), and we met M. there in JFK.

In Montreal, I was selected for a "random" (?) check while going through security. This meant a thorough pat-down, and a complete check of my carry-on baggage. I travelled ONLY with carry-on, so this took some time. The guard was nice enough about it, but I really didn't expect that my plastic knife would be confiscated for the reason that the plastic blade was serrated. Sheesh! The said SERRATED plastic fork was replaced by a near-identical blue plastic serrated knife on our Finnair flight (but made of cheap breakable plastic instead of my sturdy lexan). Some people have an ex-wife; now I have an ex-knife.

Now, you may have noticed something special about that last paragraph: I travelled ONLY with carry-on. I am by instincts a packrat at home, and my instinct is "I must be prepared for X,Y,Z", so I am especially proud of this accomplishment. Some of our flights allowed only one piece of carry-on baggage, and I still made it. Well, a minor confession; toward the end of the trip, Mom took a very few small things in her luggage for me when I had more liquids than my 1-litre bag would allow. I am so glad I travelled that light. It was nice not to be burdened with too much baggage. It did mean having to do frequent laundry (much of the volume in my one bag was not even clothing), usually by hand, but for me that was a happy trade-off. If any of you out there are drawn to the idea of travelling light, but don't know how you could do it, I urge you to read http://www.onebag.com. Even if you don't decide to travel quite that light, there are a lot of great suggestions to pack better/lighter.

Anyway... The sky was beautifully clear as Mom and I arrived in New York. We circled around the city for a while and had a great view not only of the buildings and beaches, but also of the many boats in the harbour - a major naval (military) event was taking place that day; I think it's called Fleet Day.

If there are any plane buffs out there, our transatlantic flight (New York/JFK to Helsinki) was on an MD-11, one of the last planes with one jet engine on each wing and a huge 3rd engine on the tail. Finnair is one of the last commercial airlines that still flies MD-11s - I understand that they've been a victim of their own success with their Asian flights, and had to keep using the MD-11s a little longer than planned while other newer planes are being built for their fleet - I was therefore expecting something rundown, but it was a nice enough plane.

Helsinki is a relatively young city for Europe (it slumbered till the 19th century, when Finland went from Sweden to Russia, and the capital moved from Turku to Helsinki). It is not that large. I loved its neoclassical elegance (though Mom found it a bit cold and treeless). The red-brick Orthodox cathedral that overlooks the harbour is stunning, and its "onion" domes had recently been refinished in gold leaf; the gleaming white Lutheran cathedral, which dominates the skyline from the main (south) harbour, was much less ornate, but to my eyes, grand in a somewhat restrained way. We visited a third church on a bus tour, which had been carved out of the rock, and covered with a circular roof - very impressive. The buildings in Helsinki are mostly a mixture of neoclassical, art deco, art nouveau, some romantic-revival, and various modern styles.

On the Helsinki waterfront, we were surprised when our bus tour pointed out what looked like an odd sort of wooden floating dock with funny benches or picnic tables, but turned out to be facilties for Helsinkians to wash their carpets (area rugs) - yes, with the harbour water. Nearby were a giant ringer and giant drying racks. I was kind of skeptical about this; was it an old tradition, merely preserved to amuse tourists? That is, until later when we saw rugs actually drying on the racks!

In Helsinki, we also visited Suomenlinna, the island fortress that was built over the centuries to protect Helsinki (and Finland) from naval attack. It's accessible by public-transit-ferry. The island (actually islands) now feature some residents, some artists with studios, and lots of fortress reconstructions. The scope of the constructions really impressed me - having grown up in peaceable North America, it is hard for me to imagine living in the war-like mentality that would have dictated building this sort of thing, with no end of massively thick, tall stone walls.

On Suomenlinna, we had a lovely picnic of bread, cheese, coldcuts, pastries, and such which we'd picked up back in downtown Helsinki in the deli and grocery store of Stockmann, which is northern Europe's largest department store. The amusing part of the meal was the mixed-berry "yogourt" I'd chosen; it turned out not to be yogourt at all but rather a grain-based yogourt-substitute. After that I started paying more attention to labels!

I had another food gaffe. M&M&me bought some fruit juice and snacks from a grocery store near our hostel, for breakfast purposes. I chose a rhubarb and currant juice. I didn't realise it was artificially sweetened (the sucralose kind perhaps, which tastes bad though not quite as bad as the aspartame kind). Fortunately Mom and M. fared better with their juice choices.

Finnish is impossible to understand. It is close to Estonian and distantly related to Hungarian (which my mother speaks), but about the only Hungarian-like words we found were voi = vaj = butter, and vesi = viz = water. For me, as an English-speaker with some German, Swedish was often decipherable. Only 8% of Finland is Swedish, but the country is bilingual, and schoolchildren learn Finnish, Swedish, and impeccable English (plus sometimes other languages too). So almost without exception, we only had to deal with Finnish (or Swedish) when looking at things in print, not in speech.

On the morning of our second day, I found myself wondering if the sun ever sets in Helsinki. When we got to bed between 11-12, it was just as bright as when we rose at 7am the next day.

One of our Helsinki restaurants, called Kynsilaukka/Garlic (on day 1), was a bit disappointing. Not all dishes were very garlicky at all! To make matters worse, Mom slipped on an uneven floor while sitting down, mucking up her foot and ankle a bit for the next day. We had better luck the next evening in a Russian/bohemian restaurant in our neighbourhood, where the food and service were both much better. These two restaurants introduced us to a common feature of eating out in restaurants in Finland, Estonia, and Latvia - expect lots of rich sauces with your meals. Other food adventures in Helsinki included our first lunch, on the waterfront open-air market, where we bought small fried fishes along with potatoes and veggies, and had to be very careful to keep the seagulls from eating our lunch for us. (Some of the gulls looked like our Canadian gulls, but most were a smaller white gull with a black or brown head.)

We also enjoyed checking out some of Helsinki's pastry-shops, either stand-alone cafés, or in the covered markets. Cardamom is prevalent, which suited me fine. I enjoyed cardamom danishes with rhubarb topping, cardamom danishes with gooseberry topping, pecan cinnamon rolled pastries [no cardamom!], and cardamom buns with a reservoir of butter/sugar at the top.

In Helsinki, we stayed in the Katajanokka neighbourhood in southeast Helsinki, very close to downtown, and right on a tram line. I'm a bit of a tram and train junkie, so that suited me just fine. We had some fun adventures exploring the city on trams. Sometimes we even went in the direction we'd intended! I tried many times to flag down trams, but never quite succeeded; tram drivers seem quite determined to pick up passengers only at the regularly-scheduled, clearly-marked (when you know what markings to look for) tram stops, not in the middle of a block when a tourist flaps his arms helplessly, but it did take us a bit of time to figure out what the markings for the stops were.

In Finland, the standard and generic greeting is "Hej", pronounced like "hey" in English. You could be greeted by a person much your senior in a very nice café or shop, and they would say "hej". Of course it's the local norm, but to English ears the juxtaposition is strange between the informal sound of "hey" and the slightly more formal setting. That often made me, well, smile.