I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Monday, June 28, 2010

Welcome to the working week

Workers on the dock at Harwich, getting instructions from the boss. Or so I assume, given that the guy on the right was given a jacket with sleeves. I take that as a token of authority on a job where it probably gets very chilly when you're not toting barges and lifting bales. Or pushing trolleys loaded with tourists' luggage.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday bird blogging

A swan in the Thames at Windsor.

I spent the night at Heathrow on my way home from Harwich, and spent the afternoon walking around Windsor and Eton, trying and failing to get a picture of the students in their frock coats. The swans were more cooperative.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Radio Sunshine

Back in Harwich, and that view that couldn't be anywhere except England.

It was exactly the trip I needed, and I wish I could do it all again. Even the throwing up part.

Friday, June 11, 2010

There will be blood

One of the reasons I've learned to enjoy cruising so much is that you really are out of touch with the world. There's CNN on tv, and there's Internet if you're really determined, but there are no newspapers, and no one really talks about anything except where we are and where we're going to be tomorrow.

So it was actually possible not to hear about or think about the disaster in the Gulf for twelve blessed days. Until this evening, when we approached the English coast and started passing the North Sea oil rigs. Which, apart from any negative connotations about oil leaks, environmental catastrophes, or drill baby drill, look like imperial walkers from The Empire Strikes Back.

And it's us they're coming for.

Sibling rivalries

This is a joke that Eero, the guide in Helsinki, told us:

A Norwegian archaeologist discovered copper cabling buried ten meters deep. He held a press conference and announced that this was proof that Norway had the world's first advanced telecommunications network one hundred years ago.

Sweden then announced that their archaeologists had found copper cabling twenty meters down, proving that Sweden had in fact had the first telecommunications network two hundred years ago.

So a Finnish archaeologist dug down thirty meters, and announced that he had found -- nothing. Which proved that three hundred years ago, Finland was already wireless.

He also warned us to be careful of pickpockets in the market square, who were, he assured us half-seriously, Swedes. And he told us about the "Vodka Express," the Viking Line ships that run between Stockholm and Helsinki, which in the days before the EU were a way for the Swedes to drink tax free and behave badly.

I already knew about the Viking Line, having heard much the same description from Britt in Stockholm, except that in her version it was the Finns who were the ill-mannered drunks.

We heard this mostly good-natured sniping in every country: in Denmark and Finland, it was the Swedes they complained about. In Stockholm, it was the Finns. In Göteborg, it was Denmark.

And in St. Petersburg, it was the Muscovites, who are apparently lowbrow, vulgar, and obsessed with money.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Saab story

This is probably my favorite road sign of all time. I hadn't realized that the high suicide rates in Sweden also affected automobiles. (Supposedly it's warning of a ferry landing or quay, but I prefer the auto-suicide theory. I always thought that Volvos looked so unhappy.)

Skärhamn studios

These intriguing buildings are guest studios for the Nordic watercolor museum in Skärhamn. I would love to have a residency here, though I suppose I would have to take up painting watercolors. And being Nordic.

West coast fashion

I loved the houses in Klädesholmen, with the gardens full of lilacs and the boats hanging on the exterior walls. There were lamps carefully arranged in many of the windows, and Ulla, the guide, said tourists always ask about them. "It's not a custom," she said. "It's a fashion." Then she added that she suspected everyone does it so that no one can see inside the windows at night when the lamps are lit.

Most of the houses had white mailboxes like the one on the right, but others were wood with painted ocean scenes, some of them beautifully weathered.

Where does pickled herring come from, Mommy?

The chances are very good that it came from right here, a fishing village called Klädesholmen, which produces the majority of the pickled herring eaten in Sweden. And that is apparently quite a lot of pickled herring. It's traditional to eat it with potatoes on Midsummer day, and the first dish at Christmas is always "herring, herring, and herring," according to our guide. Which made me think -- if Monty Python had all gone to university at Uppsala, instead of Oxbridge, would we now refer to junk emails as "herrings"?

Their livelihood may be herring, but the almost overwhelming smell in Klädesholmen was -- lilacs. It was a cold winter and a late spring in Sweden this year, and the lilacs have bloomed much longer and later than they usually do. Almost every house had huge lilac bushes in the front yard.

West coast islands

I want to say that the west coast of Sweden (this is Stenungsund, north of Göteborg) is kind of bleakly beautiful, rockier than the islands around Stockholm. But that's not necessarily true, as these two pictures show. The day was definitely bleaker; this is more of what I expected in Scandinavia. And the islands we passed sailing into Göteborg were bare and rocky, but the rest of the country around the islands was serenely beautiful. As you can see.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

There is no pain, you are receding....

...a distant ship's smoke on the horizon.

Tonight we sailed under the Great Belt bridge, cutting through Denmark on our way back to Sweden. I had never heard of it before, and probably wouldn't have paid any attention except that the captain made such a point of mentioning it in his daily update.

And after having been confined to my cabin for two days, any excuse to leave it seemed like a good idea, so at ten pm I grabbed my camera and took the elevator up to the top deck.

There were already fifty or sixty people up there -- the best positions at the front railing were already taken -- and more arriving every minute, in formal dress from dinner, carrying cocktails. It was all very giddy and giggly, like a party where the guest of honor was running late. The sun had set and the evening was foggy, and there was no bridge to be seen but that didn't stop everyone from taking pictures of the nothing that was not there and the nothing that was, as my pal Wallace Stevens used to say.

At first the bridge seemed like a trick of my eyes: it was there and then it wasn't and then it was, a thin slice of fog growing darker and more substantial. As we approached we could see the cars and trucks flashing their lights in greeting. The top of the ship seemed to clear it by mere inches.


Sailing from Estonia back to Sweden, and the Baltic is becalmed. No breeze, no waves, the surface of the sea as smooth and calm as a mirror.

I have been released from my cabin, but hundreds of other people are still quarantined, and they are probably grateful that the sea isn't rocking them around today. I was down in the infirmary on the second deck when the ship's engines started up and we sailed out of St. Petersburg, and I can attest that rolling around on the waves while vomiting is not a pleasant experience.

Otherwise, if you have to be sick, doing it with room service and doctors on call and free movies on tv is definitely the way to go. Although when I felt I was finally ready to try eating something yesterday morning, and I asked room service for toast and tea, their response was, "I'm sorry, madam, you may have toast but you are not allowed to have tea yet. Would you like more Gatorade?" Later, I thought I might try a plain turkey sandwich, but I got rice and a banana.

So when I was finally cleared from quarantine I went immediately to the buffet, and the chicken leg and mashed potatoes I ate was the Single Most Delicious Meal I ever had. Ever.

Here's a breakfast tray left outside someone's room for pickup, a common enough sight on a cruise ship, except of course for the pink plastic Biohazard bag.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Here is Tallinn, viewed up close through the miracle of a telephoto lens from the balcony of my stateroom. Which is, alas, as close as I was allowed to get.

I was in quarantine, having been one of the unlucky hundreds on the ship who caught a nasty stomach virus. The first day in St. Petersburg I didn't get back from the ballet until after midnight, and then I didn't sleep well -- we're now so far north that the few hours between sunset and sunrise pass in a weird gray twilight and it never really gets dark.

So when I woke up yesterday morning with no appetite and a splitting headache, I thought I was just tired, maybe that I was coming down with a cold. I hadn't yet heard that people were getting sick, but I felt awful enough to cancel my planned eight-hour tour of Romanov palaces. A difficult decision but a wise one, since by early afternoon I was in the infirmary, along with several dozen of my fellow passengers, trying to fill out a lengthy information form asking about everything I had eaten for the past three days in between bouts of puking into white airsick-style bags.

Eventually they gave me a shot to ease the nausea and sent me back to my room with pills and some Gatorade, and strict instructions to stay there until otherwise instructed.

Not that I had any interest in doing otherwise at that point. St. Petersburg and Pushkin and the Alexander Palace were not nearly as appealing as my bed, and that's where I pretty much remained for the next 24 hours.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Welcome to the working week, Russian edition

I'd known before I'd even signed up for this trip that because of the restrictions on visiting Russia without one of the very expensive and hard to obtain tourist visas, I wouldn't be able to go anywhere in St Petersburg except on an official tour. What I hadn't realized was how frustrating I would find it. Except for the inside of the Hermitage and the State theatre, all I saw of the city was from the inside of the bus. I would have loved just five minutes wandering through the crowds on the Nevsky Prospekt last night, amid the couples and families and packs of teenage girls eating and shopping and strolling as though it were the middle of the afternoon and not almost midnight on a Sunday, when there were (presumably) jobs to get to the next morning.

Here's one of the few ordinary Russians I saw who wasn't on the other side of a bus window: the security guard at the souvenir store we were allowed to visit after the Hermitage.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The beauty of urban decay

St Petersburg flew by in a series of quick flashes sliding off the bus windows. One minute it reminded me of Paris -- those elegant façades. Then it looked like San Francisco -- the buses running from trolley wires. And suddenly you couldn't be anywhere but Russia.
I love this building, the domes, the ornate detail above the window arches. And then you look closer and see the broken windows and the plants growing out of the ledges.

And now for something completely different

This looks like it could be a summer house somewhere on the Northeast coast -- of the United States, that is.

But it's actually another pastel behemoth near the Winter Palace.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town...

Here's a building we passed on the way back to the ship (taken from a moving bus, so not too clear unfortunately.) This is as far from the Winter Palace as you can possibly get. I'm oh so tempted to make some glib observation about not being surprised there was a revolution, but this building is hardly an argument for communism. Or a market economy, or an oligarchy, or whatever it is Russia has now.

It took me a while to realize what I found so interesting about this picture: every window is different. It's a crazy quilt of different shapes and colors, and I've never seen an apartment building like it.

Sunday afternoon on the Neva

It seemed a shame -- for all of a minute or so -- that we had such beautiful weather in St Petersburg and I'd spent the entire day inside a museum. I can see beautiful summer skies in New York after all, but I can't see the Hermitage there, so I think I made the right choice. But here's a picture of the clever people who remained outdoors -- this is the Peter and Paul cathedral, in the fortress across the river from the Winter Palace.

Here's another picture where you can really see the bell tower.

More of a muchness

I like this picture because I love those green marble walls as a backdrop for the statuary, but also because this gallery was relatively minimalist. After an hour in the Hermitage I was starting to feel as though I'd eaten an entire box of chocolates. And followed it with several pieces of birthday cake. With ice cream. So so much. Sensory overload.

Three million pieces of art are one thing, but then there are the walls. And the ceilings. And the doors. And the floors. And giant vases and bird baths and clocks -- it's one thing for art to be of no use whatsoever, but what's the point of a bird bath a pterodactyl could sit in? I imagine someone presenting Catherine the Great with that green monstrosity on the right (and I mean monstrosity in the nicest possible way) and her thinking, "Christ! Not another six-foot malachite vase!" After a while, you can't even see any of it.

I think next time I visit the Hermitage -- and I do intend to return -- I may hire someone to lead me around so that I can be blindfolded except when I'm directly in front of a painting.

The Gold Room

Not really -- no photos are allowed in the actual Gold Rooms, where they have diadems and earrings and vessels of solid gold from Scythia and India and Iran, and swords that look like something out of a bad swords and sorcerers novel: hilts and scabbards of jewel-encrusted gold and elaborate patterns inscribed on the blades.

These are just the everyday gold and crystal-laden chandeliers of the Romanovs, what they were forced to make do with while they kept the good stuff locked away.

Imperial hallways

Obviously, you can't see the Hermitage in four hours. You can't even see the highlights in four hours. We focused on the Italian collection, plus the Gold Room, and it still quickly became a blur of gilt and gold and wood inlay, vaulted hallways, endless columns, and galleries for which the word ornate was completely inadequate.

Oh, and paintings -- quite a few of those as well. One in particular, a Leonardo da Vinci madonna, was so luminously beautiful that I was grateful to see it in person; I don't think a reproduction could capture the way the painting seemed to glow, as though it had its own light source.

But sometimes it was hard to even see the art in the midst of all the too-muchness of the surroundings.

The Hermitage

Here's the façade of the Winter Palace. The sherbet pastel of the walls was not nearly as much of a surprise as the realization that the decorations were apparently the inspiration for the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

St. Petersburg

Visiting Russia feels like stepping back into the Cold War. We have to go through passport control every time we leave or return to the ship, so if you take three tours in one day, that's six lines to stand in, with silent disapproving scrutiny from six Russian immigration officers.

The woman I got this morning looked like a younger version of Colonel Klebb in From Russia With Love, but without the easygoing charm. When she finally handed back my passport, I said, "Spasiba." She didn't respond, but I think her scowl may have relaxed by a millimeter or two. And when I saw her again this afternoon, she didn't scowl at all, which I think may have been her version of a smile. Clearly I'm a genius at international relations.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The awful Finnish language

But I don't mean awful in the way Mark Twain did when he complained about German. Awful as in inspiring awe.

I've been to Hungary, and I've been to China, so this isn't my first encounter with a non-Indo-European language, but I've never seen anything that looks or sounds quite like Finnish, full of double letters and umlauts and words that are several inches long. Swedish is the second official language of Finland, so all road signs and street signs are in both Swedish and Finnish, and the Finnish has the effect of making Swedish look perfectly comprehensible.

For example, the Temppeliaukio church is named for its location, Temple Square in English, Tempelplatsen in Swedish. (The church is in a neighborhood called Töölö, which manages to have three umlauts in a five-letter word, something I don't think any Indo-European language can accomplish. Take that, German!) Kruununhaka becomes Kronohagen in Swedish. Vanhakaupunki is Gammelstaden.  And Käpylä  is plain old Kottby.

After hours of riding around trying to parse the signs, I started to understand some of it: Saari is apparently the equivalent of the Swedish holm or "island". Kaupunki means "town" or "city." Mostly I was completely lost.

I was especially interested in the accents. Both Eero and the woman who gave the tour at Hvitträsk spoke flawless colloquial English, and it was very hard to discern exactly what made them still sound so foreign. What does a Finnish accent sound like anyway? It wasn't in the vowel sounds, I decided. It was more that the rhythms and stresses just sounded a little off, a little flat. And somehow I want to say "deep" as though they spoke from somewhere below their throats, although there was nothing unusual about the pitch. Maybe it was just all the forests of birch around us, but I kept thinking of elves and ents, of Treebeard saying Hroom! That's what it sounded like to me. Although maybe it's just that the written language looks like a dialect of Elvish that had me thinking I'd somehow wandered into Middle Earth.

Bright time

Here's a cafe in Helsinki.

Even on such a breezy summer day, the Finns want to be outside, enjoying the "bright time," the five weeks in the summer when it never really gets dark. If they have a name for the seven corresponding weeks in the winter when it never gets light, Eero didn't tell us, although he did admit that it can be hard to get up and go to work when the snow is deep and it's twenty degrees below zero and it's going to be dark all day. (You think?)

Clearly those conditions create the mindset where sitting in a 200 degree room while beating oneself with birch branches, followed by a bracing roll in the snow, seems like a pleasant way to pass the time.

Temppeliaukio church, continued

Closeups of the interior.

Within this rock I will build my church

The Temppeliaukio church was not something I was particularly excited about seeing, though as every tour in Helsinki went there, there wasn't any way to avoid it. It sounded like a gimmick -- Let's take a big rock and carve a church into it! -- more like something on the level of the ice bar in Stockholm than anything actually worth visiting.

And the exterior is unspectacular: concrete wall, dome, big rock. It doesn't prepare you at all for what's inside, how the light coming in through the ceiling plays over the rock walls, how the simplicity of the design creates such a powerful sense of serenity that you're willing to convert to any religion that would allow you to regularly spend time there. You sit cradled in the earth, and you look up to the sky. What could be simpler?

What could be more like what a church is supposed to be?

Scandinavian Modern

I took this picture from the bus, while in motion, so it's a little blurry, but it's still one of my favorite pictures from the architecture tour. I love the curved windows and the wood surrounding the glass and metal terraces. I don't think I had time to notice what kind of view you would have, but as long as it's not a garbage dump or a factory I don't think it matters. And I didn't see a lot of those in Helsinki.

The White Lake

Hvitträsk means "white lake" in old Swedish, and here's the view of the lake from the Saarinen children's bedroom in the main house.

A bracing dose of Modernism

I'm not a Modernist junkie -- I get very tired of the ubiquitous Barcelona chairs and tulip tables in what often feels like every single home pictured in the shelter magazines.

But in the midst of all the National Romantic style wood and stone at Hvitträsk, there's something very refreshing about this red Womb chair in front of the white relief, part of an exhibit on the Saarinens in America in the main house.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this is one of the few chairs at Hvitträsk that you're actually tempted to sit down in. Saarinen may have designed it many years after he left Finland, but I'm sure he still had awful memories of the uncomfortable chairs in his childhood playroom. Hvitträsk has a lot of cozy built-in group seating, but most of the chairs, while interesting to look at, are not anything I would choose for reading, say, or watching tv. Or, really, sitting.

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