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 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.