Monday, August 31, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 9

Compared to the lush, varied views as you fly in and out of Finland, it doesn’t take long for the stereotype of Iceland to assert itself from the sky – vast expanses of grey, with not a tree in sight. The cab ride from the airport reinforces the same impression – you can see some interesting terrain in the distance, but the immediate view is just flatness, punctuated by the occasional warehouse. We’re staying at the 101 Hotel, a boutique hotel (“member of Design Hotels”) which Ally read about in the New York Times. It doesn’t take long to realize how expensive Iceland is, even compared to Scandinavia. The cab ride came to something like $160 (even with the 10% discount for cash – hey, nice gesture!) and the hotel room is far more expensive than we would really have gone for, even given our lackadaisical approach. But what can I say, neither of us had checked properly. You can see the attention to design in the room, but it’s not always for the best – I nearly walked into the bathroom mirror several times. Also, it has the least stable wi-fi of any of our hotels so far, and it’s also the noisiest location, with Ally having been bothered at various points in the night by music from an adjacent nightclub, by voices, by traffic and by what sounded like horses. Of course, design can’t fix that, but maybe better sound-proofing would have helped a bit.

Oh well, you can’t win them all. The hotel is on a very plain-looking street, but Laugavegur, the main shopping thoroughfare, is one block up. It goes a long way in both directions, crammed with distractions. We arbitrarily chose a place to eat called CafĂ© Paris, although unlike the places I mentioned in Helsinki, this makes no actual attempt to evoke Paris. We split a cheeseburger and a Caesar salad, just for a change I guess, and walked a bit more afterwards. The next morning we covered some of that area again, along with a brief walk through the old part of Reykjavik, and then headed down to the waterfront, where the main eye-catcher, excepting the mountains in the background, is a newish, lonely-seeming concert/conference centre. There are more signs of construction around town than you might expect – perhaps reflecting the country’s recovery from its financial crisis.
We seldom rent a car on our trips – I think the last time was in Australia a dozen years ago – but it seemed like a necessary step this time. A guy from the rental company brought it, a little blue Hyundai, to the hotel at noon. We're spending the next three nights in the Ion Adventure Hotel, which is actually only an hour or so from Reykjavik, but ought to open up a whole different world (it’s just 18km from Thingvellir National Park, sometimes regarded as the country’s most important - although also the most touristy). The directions sound impenetrable on Google Maps, but actually only amount to taking the correct route out of the city, and then not missing a particular left turn along the way. Of course, we missed the left turn (well, I was navigating, so it was just me) and had to double back.
After that point we hardly saw any other vehicles until we reached the hotel, and you quickly start to realize how you could bury deeper and deeper into Iceland, to all intents and purposes limitlessly, reorienting your entire sense of proportion and scale (we did briefly consider, during our planning, whether to do a more extended driving tour, which I guess is one of the iconic ways to spend time here, but we concluded it wouldn’t really suit us). For most of the way, the road ran alongside a big pipe, and we eventually came to the geothermal power plant from which it emanates – we stopped at a lookout, and spotted the hotel a few kilometres away, so that was easy. It might not immediately sound too appealing to say that the hotel, nestled against a mountain on one side, faces a power plant on the other, but in this case it really only means a soothing background of pristine white steam clouds. Also not far in the distance is Lake Thingvallavatn, which is Iceland’s largest. The hotel is a base for helicopter tours among much else (the helicopter below is safely taking off, and not coming down in a disastrous whirl of smoke, as you might momentarily think).

Soon after checking in, we went out and randomly followed a trail up the mountain. We ended up walking a loop of 9km or so, much of the first half above the power plant, which has an aesthetically quite pleasing geometric tidiness to it. After that we wandered through a craggy area of boiling pools (signs warning of scalding temperatures) and warm streams, and then descended down between the lava fissures, giving us a feeling (albeit highly illusory) of isolated adventurism. We climbed out and walked back, mostly through a big meadow (causing outrage among more displaced creatures, this time sheep). And that was a very satisfying initial walk in what I guess is the real Iceland.

I only emphasize that point because up to then, Iceland was seeming rather artificial. The 101 Hotel was a mistake – even if we’d liked it, it would only have buried us in a little self-contained design bubble which doesn’t help to integrate you into a place. The Ion Adventure Hotel is actually its cousin in the “Design Hotels” pantheon (it's on the very next page of the global “Design Hotels” book they both proudly display in the lobby) but everything about it is more rational and pleasing (even our room’s bizarre floor to ceiling photograph of a horse’s eye doesn’t seem too grating). There’s nothing you can do about the prices though. We had lunch here after we arrived, and there’s basically no point even contemplating what it ran to (the modest chocolate bar in our minibar costs $18). This kind of price-inflation environment isn’t alien to us – we met in Bermuda for Pete’s sake! – but in Reykjavik it wasn’t really clear that the trip would deliver the kind of memories and satisfaction to make it worthwhile. But now it seems that it will, so we can just stop focusing on it (well, more or less)…

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 8

Breakfast at the Skandic Grand Marina was a bit of a surprise, after the sleepy rhythms of Inari – the buffet was vast and frantic, surrounded by people with heaping trays desperately circling in search of a free table. After surviving that we left our bags and headed out for a final stroll in Finland. We walked north from the hotel, following a new section of the coastline. After an hour of winding round the water, we were about ten minutes from the hotel on an as-the-crow-flies basis. At one point we passed what may have been Finland’s entire naval fleet; otherwise it was mostly elegant old buildings and water views, an easy-going Sunday morning feel. There’s a little island called Tervassari, connected by a bridge, and we walked around that. It has a dog run and a playground, not too much else. Based on our admittedly limited experience, Finnish dog runs are usually small and bleak.

We walked back through the centre, reliving some previous locations such as the biological gardens. We went into Helsinki’s big book store. I think it’s the biggest, but seems to emphasize presentation and carefully selected choices over completeness – the movie section had about fifteen titles. I guess that makes sense when everything else is on Amazon anyway. Even last night from here, since we were talking about it, I ordered some books for Ally on In the course of our trip we’ve done a little bit of reading. I downloaded the latest New Yorker and got through that; I also finished a short book on Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death and I’m now reading a book on Bernardo Bertolucci. Ally read all of Paul Auster’s Sunset Park and is just starting on John Irving's In One Person. We both read the news and other transient Internet material more than anything else though. Certainly a change from when we started traveling and the search for an English-language newspaper (often a day or two old) was part of the daily routine. So far the Wi-Fi has always been super-high-quality and always free (in the UK a few months ago, hotels were still charging extra for it).
The strangest thing in this bookstore was that although they carried The New Yorker, it was the July 6th edition i.e. 6 or 7 issues out of date. Distribution obviously can’t be that far behind. Maybe they think this was by far the best recent issue and they’re stubbornly sticking to that until a better one supplants it. It did have an interesting if not very uplifting account of trying to get hostages out of the Middle East. Anyway, the lucky streak I mentioned yesterday continued into today – the weather was gorgeous throughout our walk, then darkened as soon as we were done – by the time we were settling down in the airport lounge (courtesy of Icelandair’s “Saga Class”) it was pouring, although later it cleared up again. The taxi driver told us that fares to and from the airport are capped at 39 euros, regardless of what the meter says; funny how the previous three drivers failed to mention that. We gave him the difference as a tip.

And that’s it for Finland. I don’t think we ever absorbed a single word of Finnish, except for “ravintola,” which you soon learn means “restaurant.” Of course, a restaurant that needs to include the word “restaurant” in its name isn’t always of the highest quality. The three-and-a-half-hour flight to Reykjavik took us a good chunk of the way home, although it didn’t exactly feel like that. We seemed to be alone in the front section, until a half hour into the flight when another woman appeared, from the direction of the cockpit, disappearing back there half an hour before the end (she spent the intervening time watching sitcoms). Is that how Icelandair flight audit works maybe? Now, on all of our trips we like to go to one movie if we can. Ideally this involves (a) a movie we couldn’t already just have seen back home, or (b) a different kind of movie theatre, by virtue of its vintage quality, or quirkiness, or whatever, or (c) ideally, both. It didn’t work in Helsinki because the movies were all entirely familiar and everywhere just looked like another multiplex. But through Internet research we’d identified that Reykjavik has a new art cinema, the Bio Paradis, which is currently showing the French (but English language) film Love. It’s on at 5.30, 8.00 and 10.30 – given the time change (i.e. 5.30 would feel to us like 8.30) only the former was really a possibility. So, much as this might seem like a strange approach to a new country, we planned basically to arrive in Iceland, check into the hotel, go to the movie, and leave all the other discovery for later.

It worked, but just barely – at 4.10 we were still waiting for our bags, with Reykjavik 50km away (and of course 50km can take 25 minutes or 75 minutes depending on local conditions). We got to the hotel at around 5.05 and it so happened that the movie theatre was on the same street so we achieved it easily (especially because they had fifteen minutes of trailers, but then you can never count on that either). It’s very funny to have had the experience of essentially flying halfway across Europe to get to a movie on time. The film itself was a bit of a gamble too, having not impressed too many people at Cannes with its vast amount of explicit sex (and in 3-D!) and reportedly clunky story-telling and character-building in other respects – there was a risk that Ally in particular would just hate it, especially as it lasts well over 2 hours. But in the event we both found it very interesting, certainly not unflawed, but with flaws (or ambiguities as the case may be) that sustained several hours of conversation afterwards, which is really the main test. And so Love joins our classic pantheon of movies – Brothers Bloom in Jerusalem, Weekend in Copenhagen, Two Days in Paris in Hong Kong, and the rest.
Of course, there was more to our first day in Reykjavik than just that. But the rest can wait…!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 7

It was raining in Inari today, thus continuing our amazing streak (which ran all through last year’s New Zealand trip) of always arriving just after or departing just before the bad weather. We had breakfast and took a brief final walk along the river. As always, the fishermen (I think it’s always been men) were out there – in one place we spotted a little collection of chairs and rods where the fishermen presumably gather and have a beer over stories of the one that got away. On that point, we’ve yet to see any sign that the fishermen ever actually catch anything. Maybe the pleasure is all in the state of mind.

Anyway, the rain would certainly have hindered our walks today. That aside though, we felt quite attached to the place. Looking at a map in the hotel lobby, we reflected again on the wonderful arbitrariness of being there, the endlessly fascinating experience of dropping into a place and having it go from tourist-guide abstraction to a very specific, if necessarily, short-lived home base (stay anywhere for more than one night and you find yourself starting to develop a routine). We’d ordered a place on the group taxi to take us back to Ivalo airport – based on today's experience, it gets you there an hour and forty five minutes before the flight departure, which seems over-cautious for an airport with (today anyway) only one destination. The current section of the trip is a little choppier than we would have chosen (four nights, four different hotels) but there wasn’t any other way to make it work. It wasn’t possible to get back from Inari and catch a flight to Reykjavik on the same day, hence triggering another night in Helsinki, and the lodge where we’re staying in Iceland had limited availability, necessitating splitting our time in Reykjavik. On the other hand, the transit between locations won’t take more than a few hours on any occasion, so every day should yield a more than adequate amount of fun and stimulation!

Actually we did have a tiny amount of adverse luck today because our flight had to circle Helsinki for an extra forty minutes or so, due to a big wall of bad weather (which at least is optically interesting, seen from above). But it didn’t really affect anything. We got to our hotel and took off almost right away, catching a ferry to the nearby (15 minutes) island (actually six linked islands) of Suomenlinna. This is on the UNESCO World Heritage list as an unusual monument of military architecture – a sprawling sea fortress from around 1750, which at various times has been controlled by the Swedish and the Russians as well as the Finns. Some of the fortress itself is in disrepair now, and you feel like you're wandering around a much older ruin. But other parts of Suomenlinna, containing much newer, painstakingly well-maintained buildings in pastel shades, have something close to a toytown feeling. You can easily wander round for a couple of hours, following the coastline, walking down to little beaches or exploring the inner streets, absorbing one postcard-worthy view after another. People live there too, so the ferries go back and forth for about 22 hours a day. It felt like every prime spot on the island had already been staked out by some couple or group – it’s easy to imagine many of them would still have been there well into the night.

I mentioned on the first day that we didn’t overhear a lot of English, and now it seems this reflects how we weren’t really following a tourist track there. Today we heard plenty of it, very often being used within diverse groups of people apparently drawn from all over (I also heard one young English woman muse on the disparity between “trash” and “rubbish bin”). I still doubt that Helsinki is a major destination in the scheme of things, other than for those making brief excursions as part of a cruise (two big ships docked side by side today – the London Eye thing is positioned exactly to sweep up the passengers as they disembark). It’s a difficult city both to photograph (everything’s so big and multi-faceted) and to sum up (being a place of many small pleasures rather than a few obvious major ones). But if you plunge into it with all that in mind, I doubt anyone should ever be disappointed. Not in summer anyway.

Suomenlinna has plenty of restaurants too, but we came back around 8 and chose a restaurant on the mainland – a place called Strindberg, on a strip which seems to model itself after Paris (not the only such strip in the city) – wicker chairs arranged in two rows, all facing the same way, etc. We ate inside – Ally had croque monsieur and meatballs; I had asparagus soup and Caesar salad with crayfish (all pretty good, but I probably had the better luck there). When we left, the annual Helsinki midnight run was in full swing – through most of dinner, we could see people heading over there in blue shirts. It starts and ends from the square in front of the cathedral; I mentioned that we’d had the space entirely to ourselves after dinner on Tuesday – tonight was just about the complete opposite, filled with sponsorship booths, music stages, and of course enormous hullabaloo around the finish line.
We saw some of the front-runners cross the line and then returned to the hotel. To mix it up, we’re staying this one night in a different location – the Skandic Grand Marina. In most respects it's not as good a choice as the earlier one, being a little more off by itself and with a rather bland conference-type ambiance, but even this paid off because on our entire walk back we were able to watch the main pack of runners (the race has 11 staged starts), accompanied by excited crowds, fireworks in the bay, blaring music, and the London Eye thing (I guess it has a proper name, but who cares what it is) all lit up. It seemed like one of the happiest, most trouble-free cities you could imagine. And so with that experience happily under our belts, and given that we hadn't had a proper nap today, we more or less wound down our final night here, even though Helsinki had plenty more to give.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 6

At around this point in the trip, one of us always remarks to the other that even if we were going home tomorrow, the vacation wouldn’t have been too short. This doesn’t mean we’ve had enough, only that the experiences are so dense and full and satisfying that you hardly feel entitled to more. By the time the trip actually ends, after this much experience again, we’ll feel so satiated that it’ll seem we must surely have been permanently changed. Whether this feeling lasts beyond that, of course, is quite another matter.
Again, we both woke up earlier than we needed to, but went back to sleep eventually. I keep thinking I hear the sound of a kettle boiling, but actually I believe it’s just the ceaseless rush of the river outside. Otherwise it’s very quiet around here. I mentioned that Finnish people aren’t the most convivial, and that seems even truer up here. It wouldn’t be such a surprise if “sour-faced old bat” was actually part of the job description at the hotel. Still, everything seems to run efficiently. This morning, as we’d requested, they had a packed lunch waiting for us, even though (referring back to yesterday) much of it seemed to consist of the same stuff as the buffet breakfast.

We walked today on the Otsamo trail, for which (out of post-walk exhaustion) I will copy the blurb from the local guide: “The trail leading to Otsamotunturi Fell lies on the northern side of the Juutanjoki River, alternating between a pine forest and the riverbank. The last three kilometres of the trail ascends the slope of Otsamo, passing the mountain birch zone and reaching the treeless fell top. The top of the fell provides a panoramic view of the entire area: from Lake Inarijarvi down to the Juutanjoki River valley, the Hammastunturi fells, the Lemmenjoki fells and the Muotkanturi fells. The same trail is taken on the way back, which makes the total trip 18.4 kilometres long.” And they mean long. The combination of the extra five or so kilometres or so compared to yesterday, and the tougher climb at the end, certainly took it out of us. It’s distinctly satisfying though to do such a walk and not to encounter a single person, there or back (all we saw at one point was a fisherman in the middle distance), so that you get to the top and have the whole sweeping view to yourselves. You also have the outhouse to yourself, but given that it’s secured to its precarious spot by two dodgy-looking wires, you may decide to steer clear of it.

We had our lunch up there, supplemented by a few wild blueberries – they’re as ubiquitous under your feet there as grass in a city park. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the mountain had been teeming with creatures, gorging themselves on blueberries. Actually though it feels oddly quiet here too – I guess the red squirrels prefer the easy pickings around the hotel. But we got our big wish – we saw a reindeer! Just a single one, wandering among the trees. It saw us and gave us that quizzical/outraged look you get from wild animals all over the world, before concluding we didn’t pose much of a threat, and heading off at its own pace. Probably not a major wildlife sighting in the scheme of things, but a nice authentic local touch.

Did you know that the Lemmenjoki fells are named to commemorate Finland’s love for the immortal jokiness of Jack Lemmen? Anyway, it was fairly cool today, and we made good time, faster overall than yesterday (we only ever find this out at the end because we don’t have a watch and don’t bring our cellphones, thus existing in perfect abstraction). We were understandably worn out when we got back though. But this is one of the many fortunate things about us as a couple – we always have the same ideas about what to do, and much the same amount of energy to devote to them. The late afternoon/early evening rest period in the hotel is certainly a key part of the vacation formula for both of us. We both nap a bit, we check in on Ozu (looking good; hasn’t had to wear his cone for several days), I write this, we read the inspiring news from back home, like the guy who was lured into an alley last night, beaten unconscious and robbed. So it sounds like they already did to him what the Republicans are trying to do to America. (Drumroll!)
We had a choice between heading back to PaPaNa or back to the hotel restaurant, and decided on the latter, mainly because of the menu. Ally had pasta (with reindeer of course) and I had Lake Inari trout (maybe the same one that so recently was flaunting it on the fishcam). We had some wine and then switched to our by-now predictable Karhu, for which we moved to the hotel’s bar area. Two things I didn’t previously document about ordering Karhu: (1) it always comes in a distinctive and no-doubt brand-mandated bear-themed glass, and (2) Finnish servers always do what we would back home call an “underpour” i.e. they pour it 95% of the way to the top and then consider that good enough, whereas Canadian and I think British servers strain to pour you a full glass. So I guess they inherently have a glass-not-full mentality? We didn’t expect to shut down the place, but we were by ourselves for the last hour or so – the hotel seemed very quiet tonight (perhaps it’s at its peak in the winter). Even at 11 pm though, there were still two people fishing in the river nearby. On our (excluding the fishcam) ten channels (which I’ve been enjoying checking up here because it’s so much more fun when it's only ten), excluding  the one that always shows landscapes, every single one was showing subtitled English stuff (including yet another dating show, Hercule Poirot, Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, Grey’s Anatomy, and a Canadian documentary about marijuana). Surely Finnish culture, sour-faced or not, glass-not-full or not, depends better than this…?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 5

Today we had breakfast for the first time on the trip, which always makes good sense before a long walk (handy tip for the day!) The hotel has a nice buffet, along with a sign sternly informing the guests that the buffet items are only for breakfast consumption and aren’t to be used to make sandwiches for later. Our plans thus dashed, we walked to the nearby supermarket and picked up some basic supplies, which came to the ridiculous-even-for-Scandinavia total of 40 euros. I’m sure there was a mistake there but sadly we didn’t really focus on it until later.

Our project for the day was to walk to the Pielpajarvi wilderness church, 7 or 8 km each way from the hotel. It was built around 1760 by the shore of a lake, near a winter settlement area. Entire years sometimes went by without a pastor ever making it out there – even in a good year, the schedule was sporadic at best. It’s surprisingly big though, looking capable of seating 500 people at a push, and even now it’s sometimes used for special events, including weddings. Despite apparent issues with maintaining it, it’s very impressive and beguiling.

I assume wedding parties would charter a boat, because the trail might be a challenge for the older guests at least. Actually it’s not that onerous – the ground is very flat so there’s no great climbing involved, but it’s often rocky and concentration-demanding. It winds through quiet forests of conifers, passing a series of lakes. When the water's frozen, it creates snowmobile routes that go on for miles and miles. Today was a good walking temperature, although the kind of day when you keep changing your mind about how many layers you want on. Most of the buildings that once surrounded the church are gone, but there’s a wooden sauna there, and a cooking hut or something. It looked like one of the groups we passed on the way out might have camped out there for the night. We enjoyed our super-expensive lunch on the steps of the sauna, looking over the lake.
Last night we overheard a British man at the hotel saying how he did this same walk yesterday and he came across some reindeer. He told several people this and it was obvious he’ll be telling the story hundreds of times in future years. Mind you, one woman who seemed to have a bit of local knowledge was obviously skeptical, so maybe it’s an outright lie. Maybe he’s lying about the gluten intolerance too (you know, just to get out of eating his wife’s lousy cooking). Anyway, we never saw a hint of any reindeer. You pass through a gated fence in a couple of places, apparently to keep the reindeer from wandering, but we couldn’t even guess what side of the fence you might find them on. Maybe it’s all just theatre for tourists, like airport security. We did see a dog walking the trail, but only a very small and uninteresting one. Otherwise all we have to report is the sizeable population of red squirrels around the hotel grounds.
Anyway, it was a very satisfying walk. As usual though, we didn’t see too many people along the way, and, the Sami museum aside, you wonder what else might draw people to Inari, if not to spend the day walking. It's the starting point for a two-hour lake cruise, twice a day, but I can’t imagine that’s a great attraction in itself. Maybe a lot of people just come here to fish. The town itself feels very much like somewhere you might encounter in rural Alberta. I’m just saying that as a true-life impression (which Ally shares) – take it as you will…
We were certainly ready for a rest by the time we got back. As I mentioned, it’s a more modest hotel room, but you quickly settle in. It has two tiny little single beds, but they can be pushed together (I mean, not that we would ever know for sure whether they could be or not, but it looks like they could be, you know, if anyone was ever to try). We both slept quite well on the first night, although we both did spend some time awake at various separate points. Maybe we’re not used to it being so dark and quiet. As I write this in the late afternoon, the fish camera has struck gold - a big fish hovering right in the middle of the screen. One of the other ten channels is showing America’s Next Top Model.

We walked to a nearby place called PaPaNa, which received some disparaging online reviews in the past ("There were four of us and we all felt ill after eating here") but at least seemed to constitute an interesting change (notwithstanding the hotel’s reminder that “in our restaurant we respect the clean northern flavours”). It worked out better than fine – we had six Karhus, and a reindeer pizza (reindeer, mushrooms, peppers, blue cheese) which would have held up anywhere (don’t know about clean and northern, but certainly flavours). The establishment itself had a somewhat sparse but enjoyable atmosphere, supplemented by a ramshackle pub-style eccentricity (why a large African mask propped up over there? Who knows?) and a diverse clientele (crusty old-timers who paid no attention to us, and just a little more in the two female visitors who came in later; the local young brigade who mainly hung out upstairs, sometimes emerging for cigarette breaks [it appears they’ve banned indoor smoking in such establishments, but it’s clear that many Finns regret it]; obvious tourists like us, some of whom we’d seen earlier in the day). The soundtrack was of vintage quality – not one but two Jefferson Airplane tracks over the course of the night. We'd also heard one of these ("White Rabbit") in the Helsinki Public Corner earlier in the week, so it seems that there’s a distinct constituency in Finland that doesn’t feel so great about the recent evolution of popular music. We left around 10 pm, but could have stayed longer. Back in the room, I learned that the Academy has voted honorary Oscars to Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee, so you never know when the cultural temperature is going to soar!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 4

Maybe we should have wound down at the Public Corner last night regardless of the four hour meal, because we both had unusual trouble getting to sleep. In conjunction with my setting the alarm at 5.30 am, to get this diary and other bits and pieces done before leaving for the airport, it meant we went through the morning in something of a haze. I barely registered the flight to Ivalo at all. But then it was only some 90 minutes. Helsinki airport this morning might have been as empty as any airport we’ve ever seen. Anyway, if I’d known at the time, as I do now, that today was National Dog Day, I would certainly have found it easier to whip up some energy.
It’s very exciting to feel you’re engaging fully (or at least, some form of fully) with the world, that you can look at the possibilities of the globe and through some mixture of past experience and research and instinct conclude that of all those possibilities, we want to go there. That’s what we did this year with Helsinki and Iceland. But it’s almost as exciting, in a more whimsical way, to pick the occasional destination almost at random. We decided this year that if we were coming to Helsinki, then we’d also go somewhere else in Finland, but as we all know, no one outside the country itself can name a single other Finnish location, and the guide books don’t provide much help in shaping one’s sense of the place. We decided then, probably because it seemed likely to provide the best contrast with Helsinki and the best story in itself, to go to Lapland. For much of the year, this plan might require a major commitment to skis and snowmobiles, but even Lapland gets a break for a few months, and there’s currently no snow here. It’s a brisk temperature though – around 14 degrees today, compared with around 23 in Helsinki. Ivalo is Finland’s most northern airport, and from there we went by taxi another 30km or so further north, to the village of Inari. One could certainly travel up further, but stopping at Inari isn’t doing too badly latitude-wise.

We’re staying at the Hotel Tradition Kultahovi, which is much more modest than our Helsinki residence (three nights for the price of one, basically) but quiet and pleasant: everything looks and smells like pine. From our window we have an unimpeded view of the rapidly flowing tree-lined river Juutuanjoki. We went to a local restaurant for a snack. They say the Finnish are a taciturn people, and this place was full of glowering construction workers who seemed to have little interest in each other, let alone in us. Since the population of Inari is only about 600, it doesn’t take long to cover the sights. We tried out a river-side trail, but it seemed mainly to wind through garbage-strewn back lots, and even then didn’t go on for long. We did briefly wonder whether a more rigorous approach to choosing a location might have been useful on this occasion.

But then, as they always do, our plans started to take shape, as we studied the possibilities and worked out our ideas for the next two days. We’ll see how that turns out. For today, we went to perhaps Inari’s major attraction, its SIIDA museum devoted to the history and culture of the Sami (the “Lapps” in Lapland). The Sami are the most northern indigenous people of Europe, often associated with nomadic lifestyles, although the Finnish Samis have traditionally been more settled (based around semi-domesticated reindeer herds) than those in Norway and Sweden. The museum has a large open-air section, preserving traditional Sami dwellings and structures – more than a few of them constituting ingenious traps for foxes, wolves and other predators. There’s a display of relatively provocative images, many drawing on mass media imagery to argue for a better defined (and seemingly more aggressive) approach to preserving Sami culture. Then there’s a more traditional series of exhibits, seemingly not really updated since 1996 and so showing its age a bit. The whole thing concludes, of course, with a classic filmed cabaret performance by the most famous of all the Samis - Davis Jr.

We bought a few things in the gift shop. We don’t do a lot of souvenir buying though – as I mentioned, we already have the wooden Finnish sheep from a previous visit. Ally did buy a Moomin-themed umbrella the other day, but that was a gift for someone else. The Moomins are “are a family of white, roundish fairy tale characters with large snouts that make them resemble hippopotamuses,” as explored in various Finnish books, comics, spin-offs, and a theme park. It's hard to get away from them in Finland. I don’t remember whether I truly dreamed about being savaged by a rabid Moomin or whether I made it up, but I certainly believe now that it happened. It must say something that we didn’t buy the Moomin-themed umbrella from some junky souvenir store, but rather from the serious and respectable gift shop attached to the Museum of Contemporary Art. We didn’t see a Mapplethorpe-themed umbrella – after all, you’d be arrested whenever you tried to use it.
We ate in the hotel restaurant, which also has good views of the water. It’s a well-used river – even after it went dark, at least four people were still out there fishing, and two separate bonfires were visible in the middle-distance. The TV was displaying the hotel’s “fish camera,” by which you can watch a real-time feed of what’s happening beneath a strategic spot in the river, but eventually it got too dark and dissolved into static (we can access the fish camera on our room TV as well - it might even be the best of the ten available options, which as I write include that US show about naked dating on a desert island [about half the shows are in English with subtitles]). The food was pretty good – Ally had a reindeer/potato mixture (which somehow reminded me of school dinners) and I had "organic root vegetable patties"; we drank some wine and then a couple of Karhus. By then we’d outlasted all but a few tables. We took a brief walk outside (so much colder than Helsinki!) and that was basically that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 3

Once again, the late night yesterday necessarily meant a late start today. I complain about it every year, but it’s always true: I’m getting slower and slower. At one time I would have written this diary, scanned all my usual web sites and more – now I’m straining merely to tick off the first of those. Mind you, almost everything on the web sites is transient and barely worth knowing anyway – I’ve often wished I could hypnotize myself into simply not caring about the news. Strangely, Ally spends much less time on the web than I do, yet whenever I mention something I've come across, she seems to already know about it. Even, for example, the article in yesterday’s New York Times on the obscure topic of Japan’s high volume of abandoned dwellings. Very annoying.

Everywhere we go, we see posters for the forthcoming Helsinki production of Billy Elliott, which sounds like an interesting cultural transplant. Less widely advertised is the pending series of concerts by Motley Cru and Whitesnake and Motorhead and Bullet for my Valentine! They’re all on the same poster, as if it’s inherently a package deal. And maybe it is. We started out on a weightier cultural note today, by going to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. I’ve seen many or most of the images before in various places, but they never get tired, nor do the ripples of Mapplethorpe’s life and environment. The museum didn’t have too much else on display unfortunately, although in the entrance hall a young couple was writhing slowly and sensuously around each other on the floor (maybe it’s a set assignment at the local theatre school or suchlike, because when we left it had changed to a different young couple) and in a second floor studio, a trio sits as if hypnotized, chanting mysteriously. Who’s to say what constitutes an “exhibit”? Maybe the visitors are more on display than anything else?

We then walked up the north eastern part of downtown and took in a couple of standard tourist sights, both surrounded by a larger throng of tour-bus types than we’ve seen anywhere so far. First was the Rock Church, a church built directly into a cliff in 1969, a pleasant if modest architectural achievement. A short walk from there is Sibelius Park, containing a monument to Sibelius in the form of several hundred steel pipes, evoking an evocative cloud of creation, or perhaps a giant misshapen claw. Near to that there’s an effigy of Sibelius’ face, set into something that vaguely resembles a steel fish. The latter in particular seems to evoke an endless stream of silly photographs. Walking through a non-descript but pleasant neighborhood, we came to the Olympic Stadium, from Helsinki’s hosting of the 1952 games. It’s a functional-looking but not overly dated structure, without the flourishes of such stadiums now, and all the more commendable for that. We walked back alongside another lake before arriving back downtown, more or less back where we started.

It’s difficult to get one’s bearings in Helsinki – you’re virtually never walking directly north-south or east-west, and we keep finding that one familiar spot has bent into another in a way we didn’t expect. I’m particularly unsure of things because I overly rely on Ally to do the navigating. But it doesn’t matter if we sometimes end up taking the long way – there’s always plenty to look at. As in all European countries, you still come across stores that seem to get by on almost nothing. Last night we walked by a place with a window display of light bulbs and hair dryers. It wasn’t even in a cheap neighborhood. Or you see toy shops devoted to the kind of heavy-molded plastic doll that you’d have assumed went out of production in the 60s. Or convenience doors selling nothing but two kinds of juice and a selection of two factory-made cakes. It’s very endearing. Anyway, we sat on the stairs in front of the cathedral for a while, and explored further in that neighborhood. We came back through the harbour market, where I was on the verge of impulsively ordering some salmon soup and reindeer meatballs before Ally basically shut down the idea. I had to settle for a sandwich from the hotel lobby instead. Readers, this is something I’ll never forget.
We spent a few hours in the hotel. It doesn’t look like Ozu’s had to wear his cone again. He’s just curled up fast asleep, shutting everything out. I bet Ozu would never have voted against salmon soup or reindeer meatballs, especially not the latter. We had dinner in a place we’d booked from Toronto, signing up for its eight-course tasting menu – Ask Restaurant. In hindsight we might not have booked it if we’d known we would already have had two such good meals, but it worked out wonderfully anyway. Spanning almost four hours, the official menu reads: kohlrabi and beef; white fish and turnip; chanterelle forest; potato and bone marrow; parsnip and pike perch; beetroot and wild duck (actually two courses); blueberries and milk; gooseberries and butter. Most of those descriptions though only give a vague idea of the actual item; not to mention at least five other little servings that came out along the way. Along with the accompanying wine pairings, it was a remarkable (and, of course, expensive meal). As it got later, we engaged in more banter with the servers, eventually ending in a discussion on the possibilities of a novel called “Potatoes are in my Blood.” I hope I don’t forget about that.
Afterwards, walking back after midnight, we barely passed anyone on the street until we reached our square, which is a wonderful kind of experience – three days ago we didn’t know Helsinki at all and now, in a certain experiential sense, it’s all ours! We didn’t go into the Public Corner, but walking past we could see that the woman wasn’t on the poker machine tonight, so that was good news too. Unless of course she’d just temporarily stepped away at the moment we happened to walk past…

Monday, August 24, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 2

Not too surprisingly, we got going rather slowly today, which didn’t matter at all. We spent the day covering more or less the entire downtown map of Helsinki. At the end of this we decided that the market we saw yesterday was indeed the one we remembered from a decade and a half ago, contrary to our impression yesterday. In part, it wasn’t as recognizable yesterday because it was the end of the day and they were packing up, but time had also distorted our memories of it a bit. Perhaps nothing on those long-ago trips is quite as we remember it, including the bill. We went into a store selling the same wooden sheep I mentioned, and it costs over 400 euros. Even allowing for inflation, it’s hard to imagine we were ever quite that captivated by it. They also come in bigger sizes though so we did exercise some restraint in that regard.

It was another warm but not scalding day today and Helsinki confirmed itself as a fine walking city. Throughout our strolling, we were tempted away from the street by a trail along the water, or an open-air market, or a patch of shade. There’s a park right behind the hotel containing a botanical garden, and behind that an inlet that defines the right shoulder of the downtown core, a few paddle-boarders calmly moving along as if on a non-urgent errand. We eventually circled round and walked back down to the southern end again, looping up with the beach we found yesterday. As in all Scandinavian cities, there’s an easy mix of transit – the volume of cars doesn’t seem too heavy, bikes are much more prominent than back home (although not as much as in Copenhagen say), trams and buses come and go regularly, and all of this seems to exist in a natural unstrained harmony. There’s a buried corridor right down the middle of town, seemingly on an old underground railway track or something like that, reserved solely for pedestrians and cyclists – I imagine most cities would envy that. The city certainly has its modern flourishes – a new concert hall, a modern art museum: it has plans for a new Guggenheim museum, although that’s been subject to controversy. Still, perhaps inevitably, the spaces surrounding those areas tend to be stark and rather unengaging, compared to the time-beaten old squares (and Helsinki has a lot of those).

We happened on several markets, both interior and exterior, and had lunch in one of them. Even by normal city standards, Helsinki seems defined largely by eating – every block just piles one choice on another. Fast food isn’t particularly prominent, but we’ve walked past dozens of open air cafes, and just about every kind of ethnic speciality (we’ve seen at least four Nepalese places, just for illustration). Local delicacies like salmon soup recur frequently – I’ll have to try that somewhere. Perhaps it follows that the streets aren’t necessarily bursting with physically attractive types as per the Scandinavian legend. Apparently the government has a plan to stamp out smoking within thirty years, but I’d say they have a long way to go on achieving that. This is all only to say though that the city conveys a very easy, naturalistic quality; it’s extremely easy to be in. I think we’ve been seeing more baby carriages than we do in most places, which gives an impression of normal life winding around the tourist attractions. Certainly more often than at home, these baby carriages are in the custody of men rather than of women.

Finland, of course, is one of the more expensive places that one might choose to vacation in, and we’re dealing with this issue by choosing not to think of it in the least. This seems all the more necessary because, the web tells us, our investments back home are being decimated by the ongoing market decline. Finland knows all about this, its economic situation apparently being rather dire, in part because of the decline of Nokia and of its paper industry. Of course, it’s hard to pick up on this when you’re just a tourist, but I suppose the easygoing qualities I’ve described above could be taken for a lack of economic vibrancy. I certainly don’t think we’re seeing quite as much forced cellphone activity as you do everywhere else – I don’t even know if we’ve walked by a phone store. Maybe people took the Nokia thing personally.
We returned to the hotel after five hours or so and both had a bit of a nap. Naturally, we checked in on Ozu via the Urban Dog webcam. He’s been licking and chewing on himself in recent weeks because of seasonal allergies, and although that’s mostly behind him now, I felt I should leave them his protective cone just for safety. Yesterday when we checked in, he was wearing the cone, which makes for a bit of a sorry sight. Today he’s back to normal. Later we went out in search of a restaurant called Juuri, specializing in Finnish tapas (or “sapas”) – we once again covered a big chunk of downtown in search of it (although we discovered on the way back that there would have been a considerably more direct route). They had just one table available, but that’s all we needed! It was a wonderful meal, and the only real caveat is that you just wanted the tapas to be bigger. I don’t know if real Finnish people eat them though – everyone in the restaurant seemed to be a visitor, and on the web I can hardly find the term "sapas" except in connection with Juuri itself. On the way back we returned to the Public Corner, agreeing we wouldn’t stay as late as last night. We managed that, but just by five minutes. Didn’t I say you can’t stop at one Karhu!
It doesn’t take long to immerse yourself in little local stories. We recognized several patrons from last night, one of them an Asian woman who spent hours on both nights sitting in the back of the place playing electronic poker or something. This can’t possibly be good and it seems to me someone should stage an intervention. I don’t suppose she’d appreciate it from us though…

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 1

We weren't very worried about our flight to Helsinki because we were going on Icelandair through Reykjavik, and it’s so startlingly cheap (compared to Finnair at least) that we ended up indulging ourselves and booking business class. It’s a modest business class compared to some – no fancy pods or fully horizontal sleeping quarters – but it’s certainly easier to sleep in the larger seats, with no one sitting next to you. In fact, we’re booked in the exact same seats, in the fourth row on the right hand side, for all four legs of the trip. We flew out of Toronto just after 9 pm, having gone to see the fine film Mistress America and then out for lunch earlier in the day, and were both asleep before they served dinner. We arrived in Reykjavik about four and a half hours later, and easily made the connection to Helsinki an hour later. We had breakfast on that flight, but otherwise slept through much of that too. So by the time we arrived in Finland, at around 2 pm, we’d more or less had the equivalent of a night’s sleep.

We took a taxi into the city. It followed the familiar pattern (for us anyway) of many such initial European journeys – a rather non-descript light-industrial stretch, although with more surrounding greenery than we’d probably get back home (this portion of the journey passed very quickly, given that we had a stereotypically aggressive cab driver); the slow build-up of the city (very sleepy today, it being Sunday); then an escalating density that makes us think we'll be hitting the really good stuff in a few minutes; then the cab suddenly turns up a pleasantly tree-lined side street and there’s our hotel (I’m quite sure our European hotels are almost always on pleasantly tree-lined side streets). It’s the Radisson Blu Plaza, a safe brand-name choice, which delivers those nice little extras – not just a coffee maker in the room, but a Nespresso machine too! – along with some semi-inspired local “touches.” Walking to the room, the numbers are lit up in the floor, alternating with offsetting circles of light, suggesting a budget-challenged sci-fi show’s notion of “futuristic” set design (we later realized that the numbers are lit up in blue, red or green depending on the status of the room occupant, which seems like a very gaudy way of asking not to be disturbed). It’s the only hotel room I’ve seen that supplies the guests with sunglasses. And there’s a TV embedded in the bathroom mirror. It doesn’t actually work – it just displays abstract patterns of static, which is probably more appropriate to the bathroom.
We went out for our initial walk, with a map from the hotel lobby, but no real plan otherwise. Actually, we had a small plan, because we spent an afternoon here some thirteen or fourteen years ago on the way home from Norway. We had a stopover which was long enough to take a bus into town, where we walked around a harbourfront market area and bought a souvenir wooden sheep, which we still have. It seemed like an obvious idea to go there again and see how it compared to our memories, but we never ended up finding it. Our hotel is centrally located, across from a casino, with many surrounding restaurants and sidewalk cafes; today, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the neighbourhood seemed to be aspiring to Paris. The “fashion district” is just a few blocks away, then we started heading towards what we thought was the water – this shouldn’t be hard to do, as the city is on a peninsula, with water in basically every direction. But as often happens, we managed to bury ourselves right in the centre, getting lost in street upon street. This didn’t matter of course – it’s fun just to keep going and see what happens, or whether anything will ever happen, just taking in the general European-ness. Our guide book comments that Helsinki “isn’t quaint, it isn’t regal, it isn’t even terribly old,” and at first impression that seems about right – it’s not particularly distinctive, visually or tonally. But it also feels integrated, unforced, and at ease, and if it’s not terribly old compared to say Rome, you should compare it to our neighborhood of glass condos.

Eventually we did hit the water, but at the south end of the city, far from our original intention. We came to a beach – not a very big one, but crammed with people (because the world over, you have to make the best of what you’ve got) and we bought an ice cream from a vendor who identified himself as Cyprian. Naturally, everyone speaks English if you want them to, but otherwise we barely heard any English in the streets today – it’s probably not a major vacation destination for non-Scandinavians (actually, the plane from Reykjavik was the emptiest one we’ve been on for a while). We walked up along a coastline path, dotted throughout with cafes – all very active and happily occupied today. For most of the way, you’re looking across at various small islands – some of them have restaurants, with boats taking customers back and forth every twenty minutes or so; another has a museum; another a fortress. We came to a market that was packing up for the day, but not the one from the earlier trip. Helsinki has its own London Eye-type wheel near there, because I guess that’s what places do. We walked back past the cathedral, although we might have taken the white columns and green cupolas to indicate parliamentary pomp more than spiritual rapture. Earlier this year, a music promoter caused a minor scandal by placing a thousand racy photos of rapper Nicky Minaj on the steps leading up to it, but today they held only people.

We went back to the hotel and slept for an hour or so. At around 8.30 we wandered for a while and eventually went into a restaurant called Aino, tempted mainly by my notion of ordering reindeer. It was entirely our kind of place – white, clean design, modern wood surfaces, no nonsense. Ally had cauliflower soup and a carrot crepe; I had salmon and the reindeer. It was a wonderful meal, and went by super-fast so we decided to have a beer near the hotel, in the outside space in a bar called The Public Corner. We ended up staying until 1.20 am, so I guess it was more than one beer (you try drinking just one Karhu!). The Public Corner isn’t actually on a corner, but is embedded into a row of cafes and apartment buildings, facing an enormous square, with the railway station on the far side. I assume the square is often used for events, but today it was just a huge cobbled space – back home, developers would certainly be petitioning to build on it. Even late on Sunday night, the people-watching was of excellent high quality. I remarked at one point how, compared to home, more people were just sitting by themselves having a drink; at one point I went to the washroom and when I came back, after a mere two-minute absence, two of these single-person tables had merged, and the man and woman were chatting away as if they’d been together forever. Maybe Helsinki is the true City of Love? On the other hand, as we’d seen earlier, the apparent attempt by some to create a bridge of love locks doesn’t seem to have acquired much momentum…