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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spring Flowers

One of the things that's really surprised me is how different the weather is here.  Now I realize that sounds completely moronic, and I don't mean that I wasn't expecting unfamiliar weather here--I'm in the far north after all!  It's more the little things that get to me: the constantly changing wind directions, the lack of rain in this green environment, and the timing of the seasons.  The whole idea that it wasn't consistently above freezing until mid-April and that there still weren't leaves on the trees in early May.  Even in hard Irish or Jura winters, we didn't face that.

In the last 2 weeks we've had another of those changes that has stunned me.  When Debbie and Todd were here the first 2 weeks in May, Todd took the picture below of the walls around the city of Tallinn in Estonia.  There was the slightest hint of green on some trees, but many who weren't sheltered were still sticks.

If you knew where to look, though, you could see the signs of spring coming.  A few days later we were wandering around downtown Helsinki and, for the first time, we saw both daffodils and tulips together.  (BTW, do tulips always bloom after daffodils?  I thought it was the other way around, but it sure hasn't been here.)   It's funny how that affects you after such a long winter, but even now just looking at the pictures makes me smile.

We also saw this other flower that looks like some type of lily but with the flower facing downwards rather than upwards or sideways.  It seems to be a pretty common spring flower here, but I haven't a clue about what it is.

These pictures were taken on May 10, and certainly when we headed up north we went back to the twig look, but by May 17 when they left the trees here had decent sized leaves and all the grass had greened up.  Now the weather is absolutely gorgeous, in the 60s & 70s during the day and high 40s  and 50s at night.  I have, of course, resumed residence on the porch on the weekends.

In other words, from winter to summer in less than a month.  I don't know if I could ever get used to this.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Helsinki's Market Squares

My friends Debbie and Todd were here for the first two weeks of May, and Todd is an AVID photographer.  How avid?  Well, when he downloaded his images of the two-week trip onto my computer, I counted close to 1,000 pictures.  And that's less per day than he took when we were in Rome several years ago.  In any case, while I gulped at the amount, I love to have them, and they're going to be the heart of my blog entries over the next month of so, I'm sure.

One sight that's picked up again now that spring has faded and summer is coming are the outdoor markets, and we spent their first full day in town wandering around getting the lay of the land.  Since the produce's colors makes for such striking pictures, Todd had a field day in the markets.  Me, I was just having flashbacks to strawberry daiquiris parties on my porch, although at 5 Euros for a small basket these strawberries were way too valuable to be doused in rum, Quantro, and sugar!

I must admit that I was actually surprised to see such a wide selection of produce at the open air market down by the ferry docks, especially because just the week before I hadn't seen anyone.  Unlike real summer markets, though, these appear to be more variable; for example, a few days later in the middle of the week were were taking a ferry to Tallinn and it was raining quite hard.  When we cut through the market square on the way to the ferry, not a stall was to be seen!

Gardening fever has also seemed to strike, even though gardening in Helsinki is confined to balconies and small patches of land.  As I looked at these beautiful stalls full of flowers I was so, so tempted to buy a few planters and hang them on the balcony for our floor!  Much to my amazement, too, many of the plants were the same or at least recognizable.  I don't know why, but I expected slightly different plants, more localized varieties ... that sort of thing.

Here I really was having flashbacks to the huge displays outside Home Depot, Woodley's, and a bunch of other places in early March.  Of course, it was early May here.  Then again, the Finns haven't had to worry about a late freeze destroying their flowers, unlike us overly-enthusiastic southern gardening types.

The main markets, though, are these enclosed market halls, and there are two main older ones: one down near the ferry terminals and the other about 10 minutes walk from campus in this neighborhood called Hakaniemi.  The pictures here are a mix from both market halls, since they have very similar styles; I'd say that the main differences are that the one near the ferries is much more geared towards tourists and prepared food while the one in Hakaniemi is larger (2 stories instead of 1) and focuses more on raw materials.  The general line I've gotten from my Finnish friends is that, if you can't find it in the Hakaniemi or Stockmann's markets, it isn't to be found.

So here's Debbie and me (large black shadow in the distance) wandering through the one near the ferry terminal.  This picture makes things seem much more spacious than they felt; inside it seems crowded and bustling, although far from the chaotic feeling I've had at some of these markets in France.  Just more about maximizing space than cramming things together.

I think I may have finally found my bakery here in Finland!  (One of my weird predicaments this year has been that I can't find bread that lasts more than a day or two, and it kills me to pay several Euro for a loaf of bread when I'm going to throw most of it away!  This is particularly weird because I like rye bread, the traditional bread style in Finland, and rye bread is supposed to last longer than regular wheat bread.  I blame it on the construction at the Towers! :-)   )

This is the traditional style rye bread, which I really like.  One of my other problems, though, is that the loaves are so big and that, unlike some other styles, they don't seem to sell these in half loaves.

This one stall in Hakaniemi has the most elaborate display of sauces from all over the world that I've ever seen in a market stall.

Of course, we can't forget the jams!  Seriously, I'm amazed at the variety of berries the Finns have--or at least have access to.  I mean, at home you can expect strawberries, raspberries, cranberries at Christmas, and blueberries, but here they have at least 6 other types commonly available in stores during the summer and additional ones I've never seen before made into jams and jellies.  Not surprisingly, I have yet to run into one I haven't liked, even the supposedly really sour yellow one that was used as a flavor base for some cheesecake I recently had.  My Finnish colleagues were waiting for me to pucker up, but all I could say was, "Yum!"

Once Todd stopped drooling at this stall, he took a lovely picture. :-)

See what I mean about the variety of produce available in these stalls.  Now I do get what Anna meant when she told me how expensive things got in the winter and how their taste wasn't as good because they were imported from a distance, and she was dead-on right.  But if you're willing to pay ... and, remember, things are always more expensive in Norway!  (I can see that I'm going to have absolutely NO control over my food budget once I return after a year of paying Helsinki food prices!)

I was sorely, sorely tempted, especially since the skins were so soft, but the cost of shipping them home would be as much as the cost of the skin itself!

Everything a knitter needs in neatly organized storage cubes.  Makes me wish I had that kind of skill! Actually all of upstairs in Hakaniemi was full of shops like this: downstairs food, upstairs housewares, clothing, nick-nacks, etc.

And if the food inspired you or the shopping exhausted you, scattered throughout both markets were stalls selling ready made food and little cafes.  The ones that always astonish me are the miniature sushi bars.  On the one hand, the idea of just buying sushi in something as bustling and messy as these markets makes me wonder about the sanitation; on the other hand, if the fish is coming from the stall next door, you can't get much fresher.

Peter the Great's Frontier Palace

The pictures of St. Petersburg here and on the next several blogs are a mix of ones Jaime took during our visit and my friend Todd took during the visit he and Debbie did in early May.  Since Todd's images filled in some of the gaps I had in the photos from the trip Jaime and I took and, of course, I'm still blogging about St. Petersburg :-), I figured I'd ignore chronology and go for theme.  Great way to justify delays, huh? :-)

One of the sights the Russians seemed fascinated with was Peter the Great's first residence in St. Petersburg, something that is more evocative of modern Russia's idea of what a great man should be than anything particularly dramatic for the eighteenth century.  Every one of our tour guides and drivers wanted to take us there, and for Debbie and Todd it was the first place they stopped.  I'm sure what is dramatic is that it's a good quality, wooden, country house from the early 18th century, nothing particularly dramatic and certainly much more comfortable than most "hunting" lodges from that time would've been.  It's just that Russia in particular is obsessed with the idea of Peter the Great as a big man, physically and historically, and a big man must live in a big, dramatic way, right?  Just shows how far we've come--the pictures below were big for a cabin built in the middle of a swamp and one that was intended to be a temporary home while his real palace was being built.

I found the construction techniques fascinating and love the fact that the wooden building was painted so that it looked like the exterior was made of brick.

In any case, one of the main rooms of his "cabin" was the study, which I've pictured below.  The Russians are obsessed with how low the ceilings are given that PtG was c. 6'4".  Definitely a cottage, not a palace, but an awfully comfortable cottage.

One of the things Todd's always great about, and I'm horrible about, is taking pictures of the guides to something he's taking a picture of, that is, if a guide is available.   (He did this in Rome, too, which has been a godsend as I look at the pictures several years later.)  Here's the information provided for the main room.

I know the chair looks pretty, but I can't help but think of a highchair and those arms digging into my sides!

 Here's the information for Peter's dining room.

One of the other things that I always heard from the Russian tour guides and drivers was how Peter the Great would sail his small boat around the swamps, streams, and rivers near the future St. Petersburg to scout out the best situation for his new city.  While they don't have the original boat, they do have one of the same vintage.  That being said, I have my doubts about whether Peter really did this.  I mean, as bold and foolhardy as 18th-century rulers could be, I really just don't visual Peter as this lone genius in the wilderness laying out St. Petersburg single-handedly.  I know, I know--how to ruin historical myths. :-)  Kind of like the Russian shock that a czar would ever live in this little house, the Russian love of this myth is classic: the big man forming the wilderness into a projection of his greatness.

It's a cute, little boat, though.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Inside the Church of the Spilled Blood

Since I desperately need to catch up on my blogging, I figured I'd share additional pictures from St. Petersburg interspersed with more current events.  (This is what happens when I get busy writing books and articles.  For some reason, more writing in the blog during the evenings just doesn't have a huge appeal. :-)   )  I mean, I've wanted to post them and have had the pictures loaded for ages, but ...  So here's the interior of the Church of the Spilled Blood, one of the big, beautiful churches in St. Petersburg and one that was all of 3-4 blocks from the Grand Hotel. 

Even though the Church isn't particularly large, every square inch of it is covered with striking and colorful decorations, including some really dramatic icons.  Guess this is what happens when an emperor's assassination is being commemorated.

One of several altars in the church

Close-up of the decoration above the altar.

Unlike the Catholic and Protestant Christian churches with which I'm more familiar, here the domes were decorated with huge images of the Virgin and Jesus (below).  I actually found it quite evocative, especially with the windows lighting the images.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Trip to Turku

Well, I finally got out into somewhere else in Finland: Turku.  Turku was the capital of Finland until the early nineteenth century, and now is one of the larger towns in the country.  I'd wanted to go for quite awhile because it does still have some of the medieval buildings, but I kept feeling obligated to sit and write, especially after the St. Petersburg trip.  Then one of my colleagues here introduced me to one of the members of the medieval and early modern research group they have at the main university there, and he was kind enough to invite me to come to present my research on ghosts to their research group.

Unfortunately the day rained pretty solidly, but I was still able to wander around the town pretty extensively: 1 hour wandering, 1 hour in a cafe drying off, 1 hour wandering, 1 hour having lunch ... you get the idea.  Made for a pretty good excuse to get to stroll around for a day.

One of the things I'd been told about Turku is that, if I got off the main drag, the city itself was much more of a mix of old and new architecture than Helsinki.  I saw that within five minutes of getting off the train when, surrounded by all these modern cement-and-glass buildings was this much more appealing, at least to me, older, lower building.

Then I hit one of the main squares in the modern side of town, and I learned all about the process of what the Finns call (roughly translated) Turkuization: destroying the old buildings in the town center and replacing them with "modern" cement and glass monstrosities.  You know, how they modernized things in the 60s and 70s in the name of progress.  In the middle of all this 20th-century ugly--and I do mean ugly--were a few of the lovely Russian imperial-style buildings, miniature ones of those around Senate Square in Helsinki.  Unfortunately the square itself was just a big mish-mash of styles, and the biggest color came from the signs of fast food restaurants.  About this stage I started having a flashback to some of the smaller provincial French towns I'd been in, and those of you who've known me longer know that isn't a compliment.

About 15 minutes from the train station is the river that gave Turku all its medieval prosperity.  Nowadays it's supposed to provide some of the prettiest vistas in the city.  While I didn't think it was that spectacular, I kept telling myself it was raining and that it would be much prettier in the summer.

This picture was taken looking down river towards one of Turku's best known sights: the castle.  Unfortunately the day I was there it was closed, and to be honest I wasn't going to walk 3 miles in the rain to walk around its outside.  What I did find right near where I took this picture was a fabulous city museum.  It's a combination museum of medieval and early modern Turku history and of modern art.  It even had a fantastic cafe for lunch!  One of the great things they did was excavate the old city from the ruins of the great fire in 1819, build the museum around it, and set it up as a walking tour of the old city.  I love those type of museums, because you actually get a sense of how narrow the roads were, how closely interspersed buildings belonging to the rich and poor were ... that sort of thing.  Definitely worth spending a few hours.

About five minutes from the museum was the square where the cathedral is.  You could definitely tell this was the old administrative heart of the city: lots of telltale neoclassical yellow buildings. 
There I met Marku who took me out for another cup of coffee--lovely but I was well-caffinated by the time I staggered up the hill to the university.  Yes, the university in Turku really is a "city on a hill."  Unfortunately, the city was designed by the same folks who designed the high schools built in the late 40s, 50s, and early 60s in California, and they're having the same problems with "sick buildings" that we are with those structures, too.

This is the view from the front of the cathedral where I waiting for Marku, the colleague who'd invited me to present.

See what I mean about the mix of yellow neoclassical buildings.

Just for the hoot, here's the first slide for my presentation and the outline, which came next.  I kept myself from playing the "Night on Bald Mountain" music while we were setting up, although I do use it when I present to my students.  I figured I should act more serious here.  :-)

I was actually really pleased and surprised at how many people showed up: I'd guess there were about 100 in the lecture hall.  I found out later that it was advertised on both the research group's listserv and generally around the university.  I was also chuffed that I managed to gauge the length and tone of the presentation right.  Well, length I knew for sure, and tone I figure since I got about 45 minutes of questions from the audience--so much for the proverbial reserve of Finnish audiences!

I did, however, have one of the weirder presentation experiences once the the talk was over.  This lady about my age came up to me to speak privately.  She'd already asked me a couple of questions during the Q&A, and it often happens that someone comes up to me after a public lecture to tell me about some personal ghost experience, so I wasn't too phased by her coming up.  In any case, she starts to ask me another version of the question she'd asked before about how people in my period got rid of ghosts, with this hint that she was hoping that their techniques might work now, too.  I guess I looked confused enough that she felt like she had to explain why she was so persistent about it.  Language really was not an issue here; her English was quite clear and I made a point of telling her that.  Well, over a period of a few minutes, it comes out that she lives in the Finnish equivalent of a halfway house with several other women who've been released from prison on parole, and all of the women had originally been convicted for killing their husbands or some other man who had been mistreating them!  Now she didn't state this anywhere as matter of factly as I just did; she was quiet and somewhat embarrassed and spoke with lots of pauses.  She just calmly told me she had murdered a man.

Well, I tried not to show I was as shocked as I was, although believe me, I made sure I had a sense of where people were and the layout of the room!  That being said, she really seemed quite calm--peacefully, albeit obliquely, assuring me that it was in response to violence, that this type of thing unfortunately happens, and that all the women she lived with were haunted by the ghosts of the men they had killed.  She came to the talk in the hope of learning something she could use to exorcise the ghosts.

Sad to say, I couldn't help her, although I did give her some places she could go to look for modern cases.  She thanked me profusely and left.

Definitely not my usual "ghosts in my life" story.

After that, the rest of the evening was much calmer.  Two lovely colleagues at Turku took me to a microbrewery that also had a great restaurant--microbreweries here in Finland seem to have real and good restaurants attached, not just places for appetizers and hamburgers--and we walked up to the train station.  I took the last train back and, boy, could you tell it was the last train.  Welcome to my private car!

My day in Turku went from 7 am to midnight.  As you might imagine, I crashed the next day!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Hard-Working Dude

The bright and sunny season is now upon us, and I've been celebrating a lot recently by working ridiculous amount.  I don't know why, but everything has seemed to come due in May and early June.  That means I spend from c. 9-6 in the office everyday, then there's whatever I do at home.  At least it's bright and sunny out, and I can enjoy it from my big picture windows.  (And, thank God, from the deck on our floor of the Towers.)

Notice, however, I didn't say working like a dog, because Ted has his very own way of passing the day while I'm at my desk.  Snorts, snores, and other noises provide background, and he works by woofing whenever someone knocks and by begging for his banana for lunch  (Yes, I said banana).

Good thing he's not afraid of the door! :-)

Good thing the door locks!