Saturday, 22 December 2012

David in the north

Finland 2012 Some short notes. Journalism is the first draft of history. This is a first draught. No serious editing beyond picking the most obvious typos. iPad autocorrect can be a pain in the arse.

 Saturday 15 December 2012

I'm here! Not sure where my luggage is. Late out of SYD; put into holding pattern before SIN. Had to run from arrival gate to departure gate. I made the flight but not my bag. A long process to report this to the service desk in HEL. Not the only one booked from SYD that went astray, apparently. Great flat - more later. Will be very comfy and a great base.

 The first touch of cold was as I left the terminal to get the bus into town. Unbelievably freezing. By the time I had crossed one road and walked a few metres my feet were freezing. It reminded me of my first blast of tropical heat, way back in 1985, when I walked off the plane, at Jackson's Airport in Port Moresby. That same kind of heavy punch. Fortunately I had taken my big new anorak as carry on, plus a few cold weather items - Helen's hat, gloves, scarf. I almost packed the anorak in my checked baggage, but decided to see if I could claim GST. So fortunately it was in my carry on. It is great and warm. Not so the RM Williams laughing sided boots. Warmth leaks out through the elastic sides and there is not enough tread on icy ground. Kept slipping. So went to by some new boots. The ones I really liked we're $stupid$ so I got a budget alternative that are fine. So now I have warm feet and not as much slipping.

 I went shopping at Stockmann, a huge department store. It reminded me of DJs in its heyday, before it was driven down market. Well staffed, well stocked. I really went in for a bit of spare underwear until baggage arrives. Plus boots. But the first thing I saw was a great coat. A goretex outer, but looks like a smooth cotton. Black. Beautifully cut. Bugatti. Long line. V smart. We fell in love straight away. Expensive, but I negotiated a 20% discount. I'm sure we are going to be very happy together. It's already apparent that several different weight of coat are practical. The Mountain Designs anorak is very warm, but too warm when inside. For around town, the Bugatti will be great.

A quiet night in and early to bed. Slept like a stone.

 Sunday 16 December, Helsinki

 Woke early, feeling odd after a long sleep. Still dark outside at 0700; by 0900 a bit lighter but not a lot. Still fascinated by little things - snow drifts that have buried parked cars, will need of be dug out. Watched a bloke spend 10 minutes brushing snow off car and scraping ice off windscreen before driving away. Hard to be quick or spontaneous. A brief step outside for a breath of fresh air before bed involved 5 minutes of dressing up ...

 A long meandering walk this morning into the city. Not always quite sure where I was but that's part if the fun in exploring a new city. It started off cold and got colder. A weather time sign at one stage said -5C. I suspect this is a new PB. Started snowing; got heavier. The snow was fine but the wind is biting. When it hits you in the face my teeth were aching. Yet to experience it so cold it hurts to breath, but aching teeth were notable!

 Shopping at Marimekko design heaven on Esplanadi - the main shopping area.

 Monday 17 December 2012

To city for cash, then sight seeing. Alvo Aaltar's 1962 academic bookshop building in the city centre. I loved the simple classic restraint of this building both inside and out, and the way it sits polite fully within the streetscape, undeniably modern, but not imposing on the older Jugenstil neighbours. Inside the walls are dressed with plain white marble. Like other modernist masterpieces the proportions on the facades are just right. I think this sense of proportion is what marks great Bauhaus - separates the best designs from the also rans.

I caught the metro one stop to Kamppi; as I exited from the station I looked down the hill and saw the Helsinki central station, where I got on, about 300 m away. Laugh! As I walked through Kamppi I realised I had walked parts of this the day before, on my long march. Had lunch at Ravintola (Restaurant) Martta, which is associated with a long-standing women's organisation dedicated to education for women. It was a friendly, informal neighbourhood bistro with a casual feel - the sense that some of the punters were regulars who had a daily lunch here. Delicious, cheap food. Serve yourself salads - beetroot, lentil, and cabbage salads, followed goose leg confit and rustic potatoes fries. Delicious. Cheap. Friendly. Good. Marimekko mugs at help yourself coffee station.

Wandering. Yet another Marimekko shop, in Kamppi. Thought about fabric for the drinks table. Unikko in different colour ways. Bought black leather gloves. Cool! Did NOT buy anything in Marimekko!

Tuesday 18 December

 Train 3+ hours to Imatra in Karelia. Dense forests all the way, and flat snow-covered areas I guess were lakes. Difficult terrane for the Winter War. Some delays in travel so by the time I finally got to Imatra it was latish and hungry. Delayed seeing rapids and dam until after lunch.

To the Buttenhoff - where a traditional Finnish Christmas lunch was available, as well as a la carte. I went for the trad christmas lunch, natch. Given the chill outside, the immediate offer of rum toddy on arrival was very gratefully received. Drank this as I settled down for a serious nosh. Buffet entrees of various cold fish dishes - smoked salmon mousse, gravlax, herrings with dill and onion, plus rare roast beef, spuds, a salmon pastry roll. All delicious. Bread is standard with these cold dishes, generally referred to as "salads". Followed by great mushroom soup. Rich with sliced mushrooms. Note to self - make this next winter. Great with rye bread. Mains was a "ham plate" or a "salmon plate". One or the other, served with mashed mixed veg. The ham was delicious. The mashed mixed veg was a huge mound of inderterminate origin - I suspect a lot of spuds and pumpkin(!), plus some greens? And huge amounts of butter. Seemed to be the kind of stodge you would need to hoe rows of cabbages in frozen ground as an east wind emerged from Siberia. Desert was delightfully simple - prunes in Madeira with chantilly cream. Then coffee left me in a lovely relaxed state. Plus more glühwein - glogi in Finnish.

Too late, too dark to see the rapids now. And not wanting to miss transport connections back to railway, so back I went, and onto the train home. So - you could say I travelled 3 hours each way just to eat lunch. Alternately, you could say that I saw a lot of eastern Finland, had a pleasant train trip, saw some sun for the first time in days, and enjoyed a good meal. Imatra has been a fashionable spa town since the days of Catherine the Great, who came here to see the rapids. Though these days there is little old and interesting in the bit that I saw - it all reminded me of Coffs Harbour. But with snow.

Region now dominated by hydroelectricity industry plus tourism in summer.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

To Fiskars village, west of Helsinki. A Finnish woman on the plane had recommended this destination and I'm glad I followed up. Fiskars is a small village that has been the site of an iron foundry since 1649. (As an Australian with a European heritage, just that date is mind blowing, coming just a short time after the first Dutch contact on Western Australia, and long before the First Fleet). Their was a short-lived iron mine here (BIF??), but later, iron ore was imported from Sweden. The site was attractive because of the good connections and the forests (presumably for charcoal for smelting). A whole iron-based industry developed, with fabricators, cutlers, etc. In the 1960s Fiskars designed scissors with bright orange handles - easily visible in the desk or drawer jumble - and they became world-famous. I got me some.

These days the iron works are gone and the town has reinvented itself as an artists and crafts venue. I looked in a bunch of shops which ran the usual gamut from twee and touristy, very LCD, through to some beautiful and stylish textiles, silver ware, and general design. There was a lovely woman running a gallery and we had a long conversation about design, and then I noticed her RM Williams boots, so we talked about them, and Australia. She seemed impressed that I recognised the boots immediately. I was impressed that a Finnish woman was wearing them ...

 Fiskars was enchanting - a small village, so far removed from the hustle and bustle of Helsinki. It was snowing gently most of the day, and the snow here was soft, pristine, white. Not the grey-beige hard-packed ice on the streets of Helsinki. I spent quite a while just wandering the village, looking in shops and around the streets. Astounded to see ducks swimming on the stream - that was flowing, not frozen. Thought they all flew south for winter ... Eventually, I decided to stay overnight in Fiskars as it was so delightful. The only pub in town was open, so I got a room. I was the only guest. A delightful night at the Fiskars Wardshus. The manager was a lovely woman who was pleased to hear I was Australian. As so often in travel, she has a daughter living in Adelaide - doing the whole young traveller thing. Mum misses her and worries she won't come back - daughter has met A Boy in Adelaide. Anyway, we talked a lot about Oz and the usual discussion about how far away it is. Australians seem aware of this and accept that travel means distance - especially to Europe - but on the other hand, Europeans just seem overwhelmed by the idea of going to Oz. I point out that the distance is the same for them as it is for us, but they don't have the mindset that such travel could be conceivable.

All this talk of travel, and the freewheeling, only partly planned activities over the last few days, have made me reflect on travel and how to do it. I realise that all my previous leisure travel overseas was with a former partner, and I think this is where I am now unlearning some habits. Her anxiety about so many things, including travel, really impacted how we travelled. The thought of doing things in a free and spontaneous manner like the last few days, was impossible. Contingencies had to be ready. Answered to when, where we would eat, sleep, what to see, required endless debate. And if something didn't go quite according to plan she became even more anxious and looked to me to make it "right" immediately, even if there was no solution ... The solo part of the trip to NYC started to show me that travelling without that constant stressor could be really interesting and delightful. So the question in my mind is - am I just a selfish bastard who is no good mixing with other people, or was it travelling with her constant anxiety that made travel at times such an ordeal? Certainly, I think on these solo jaunts how nice it would be to share with someone else. It would be great to travel with someone who was open to possibilities as they unfolded and didn't require a definite plan of everything before departure. These are important questions to contemplate if I am to seek a relationship. At the moment, I really think sharing the moments would be a lovely thing ...

Anyway - Fiskars. Dinner. More traditional Finnish ingredients but with a modFinn twist. Glogi to start with as a warmer upper. I am really enjoying this and see how essential mulled wine is in a cold climate. Then an amuse bouche- celerey& champagne soup - warm, intense, delicious. Soups fit into this climate as well. Salmon three ways - as a "salad"' which here seems to mean just about anything served cold - what I would call smoked salmon mousse, with dill mayo. Then salmon roe, simple, unadorned, delicious always. Then salmon "pastrami". Cured, with a herb crust. Delicious, delicate, subtle. Then reindeer fillet, seared & pan roasted to blue. Ideally cooked. Lean, gamey, good flavour. Reminded me of kangaroo, a bit. I think, like roo, it could get tough and dry if overlooked, but this was great. Served with a carrot purée (ho hum) and a chocolate sauce. Now this was interesting. Clearly inspired by chocolate molé of Mexico, it was rich, dark, intensely chocolatey, and not at all sweet. Finished with the pan juices to give it a taste of the reindeer. I liked this a lot. I should experiment on this with seared roo fillet. Desert was chocolate fondant. I know, two chocolate things. But I can't walk away from chocolate fondant ... And the Finnish element was more berries. Blackberries this time - as parfait, sorbet, syrup, and fresh berries. Yes, fresh. I'm sure these were not frozen. In the middle of winter. Fresh blackberries always remind me of days in the Adelaide Hills with very young Claire and Eleanor, picking them on searing January days, at Bernie Farrow's place. Such a change from snow-bound in Fiskars.

Thursday 20 December 2012

A day with lots of activity, so an early start. An impressive spread for breakfast. She had said "breakfast is included" and what a feast! Toast, pastries, yoghurt with blueberries, fruit, cold meats, cheese, salad, boiled egg. I could only scratch the surface. And all this just for me. I was made to think of the desultory effort at country motels in NSW at times. Little boxes of cornflakes. Blah blah.

So back to Helsinki and a quick pack for trip to Stockholm and Copenhagen. Excited. Overnight ferry ride. More anon.

The symbolic centre of Helsinki is the area adjacent to the harbour at senate square and the cathedral. The cathedral is a lovely domed baroque wedding cake confection in white, with blue domes. Sitting high, with imposing steps leading up to it. Immediately in front is a Christmas market with food and handcrafts for gift giving. Lots of interesting stuff, even if I was not in a position for buying some of the food stuffs. Chocolate coated fresh cranberries caught my eye, though, and fresh honey from Helsinki. I asked how bees cope with winter, but the language barrier prevented understanding. Clearly they do. A number of blacksmiths at work. I find this fascinating and would love to learn this craft, if I had time. I would like to make wrought iron stuff ...

Lunch was in a market tent, served by Santa Claus and Mrs Claus. Food from Lapland. After waking the market for a while, in steadily falling snow, I was FROZEN. Mr and Mrs Claus didn't seem to notice. Good Lapland stock, I guess. Lots of interesting food options. I had fried vendace - small fish, 2 - 4 cm long, deep fried whole, similar to whitebait. Delicious hot, in that fried, fishy, salty way, served with garlic sauce. They also had the ubiquitous salmon served several ways, but most interesting was with little potatoes balls. Looked like good warming food. And a bunch of different reindeer sausages. Served hot, including a a blood sausage. Will need to try these soon.

So, after more marketing and making myself sufficiently cold - I found a cafe with a window seat and a glorious view of the cathedral. A cuppa. And later some glogi. Delightfully warming. Travel in cold weather requires a different approach to things. Outdoor activities need to be interleaved with sitting in a pub or cafe with something warming in front of you. Alright by me. I find that I am enjoying the cold weather. Not, mind you, "being cold", but experiencing something so new to me is interesting. I don't know how I would feel if this was my lot; but I know a few weeks of this experience and then I will be back to the summer in Sydney, glad to have shared a northern winter. If I lived here full time I might have a different view. One thing - this trip has sparked an interest to see the north in summer - it must be unimaginably different to what I am experiencing now.

So down to the harbour, to my Stockholm ferry. Wonder again why checking in is so complicated for a plane, compared with checking in for a ship. My booking was in the system. No request for ID. A boarding pass/cabin key printed out. On I walked, and found my cabin. Simple. My cabin is the cheapest option in winter, when there are no deck seats sold. Lowest cabin deck (#2), below water line?, so we are expendable in a a titanic scenario, shared with 4. As it happens, only two others arrive. They spend the entire 11 hour trip sleeping; we have no contact.

The ship is pretty cool - plenty of dining options - and time passes quickly. Ice in the harbour as we pulled away, but most of the trip in darkness. In the morning, we pass between islands as the darkness slowly lifts, and we make the approach to Stockholm in mist and low overcast with snow.

Friday 21 December 2012

 It's 0645 and I have been awake for a while. Still pitch black outside but lots of lights - the approaches to Sweden are though an archipelago and we can see lots of small islands. It is delightful standing under cover on deck and watching the fall of snow. I find this entrancing in its soft, silent, gentle drifting movement - until the cold drives me in. I'm dying for a cuppa, but nothing open for a while yet. But the galley adjacent is emitting the smell of chorizo cooking. That would be great right now!

 At breakfast over a cuppa, I discover, again, the joy of reading. In the breakfast buffet are munkipossu. "Little pigs", they are a flat, Finnish jam-filled doughnut with a distinctive shape. Rectangular, with pinched out bits to make the pig's legs and snout. Even though I have never seen them, I recognise them immediately. All the coppers in the Helsinki detective fiction I have been reading eat these doughnuts, like cops all over the world. And I know about munkipossu through reading. I think that's cool!

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