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…

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