Friday, July 13, 2007

Helsinki, Finland

Lutheran Cathedral Helsinki was bright, sunny, and full of people when we arrived, which was a welcome change after gray, empty Stockholm. Continuing in the theme of staying in places that used to be other places, we got a room at the Academica Hostel, which is actually a student dormitory during the academic year. After dropping our stuff off there, we went to the harbor-side market for some food and a nice waltz, courtesy of an accordion busker. Nearby we were entertained by a street performer with trained cats, which jumped into baskets, climbed things, etc. Hilarious, because even though they were doing all this, they were still just cats, and you know how cats are. Then we hopped on a bus for a recorded audio tour of the city (first one ever available in Latin). It was a good way to get oriented a bit and see a few of the sights.

Blogger and Sibelius I had really been looking forward to seeing the Sibelius monument. Not only do I have good associations with a certain piece of his music, but it was the first thing that gave me the idea of coming to Finland at all, when I saw it on an old postcard of Grandma Jackie's. And I do like it in person as well. I would never have thought a bunch of steel tubes could be that lovely. On a side note, the head of Sibelius that you can see off to the side was tacked on as a later addition to the real monument. The artist was trying to shut up all the critics who were heckling her about it all being too abstract.

Temppeliaukio Organ Of all the churches I've ever been in, Temppeliaukio -- the Temple in the Rock -- may be my favorite. It's literally hewn right into the solid rock of the hillside, with sunlight coming in through the 13 miles of coiled copper wire in the ceiling. And the acoustics are beautiful as well, as demonstrated by a lady playing Chopin on the piano when we were there. Would have been lovely to hear the organ. But just being right there in the earth and peaceful is what I loved the most about it.

Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral At the opposite end of the church spectrum, we also visited the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral. I did love the outside of this, with the excellent shades of red, green and gold. But the inside is all the overwhelming, overdone, orthodox style that tends to just turn me off. I can't really relate to it.

Songlines Museum-wise, the National Museum of Finland had some good historical exhibits and was fairly interesting and educational. But the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum was the real winner. They have no permanent collection, so I don't know what it might be like at any other time, but when we were there it was excellent. I love modern art, but usually in a panning for gold kind of way. I was impressed with how many nuggets the Kiasma had. Without listing all of the fascinating things there, I just want to describe one of the real winners: Songlines. This is a metal globe with raised outlines of the continents. A motor rotates the globe in its frame, along one side of which is a row of small, metal reeds, like on a thumb piano. As the continents rotate, they pluck out different melodies on the reeds. Higher notes are in the North, and lower ones in the South, so that you get, for instance, a huge bass boom when the coast of Chile goes by. Absolutely brilliant, and fascinating to just watch and listen to.

We happened to be lucky and find a dance to go to on our last night in Helsinki. A local dance association was holding one of its regular social dances out near the Sibelius Park. We were running late from our earlier excursions, and we had trouble finding the place, but we still managed to get a couple hours of dancing in there. The band was accordion, drums, and bass/vocals, and the dancers were mostly middle-aged and up, though we did find a couple of other nice 20-somethings as well. People there spoke varying amounts of English, which was kind of cool to finally have to deal with, since absolutely everybody in touristy areas speaks English impeccably. A few folks also made an effort to help us out learning the customs and etiquette. Like the lady I almost insulted by only dancing one dance with. All dances there are done in pairs, two dances in a row with the same partner, and the band plays in pairs as well (two tangos, two waltzes, etc.) to help you keep track. Then there's ladies' hour from about 10-11pm, when the ladies get to ask the men for dances (though opinion seemed to be divided on whether this also included escorting them back to their seats).

As for the dances themselves, I'd heard before the trip that the tango is practically the national dance of Finland, and there were certainly a lot of them. I had worried a bit about not really knowing tango very well, but it turns out that the way it's done there is basically like a glorified foxtrot. So my basic American tango and leading skills got me through just fine. Actually, a lot of their dances seem to drift towards foxtrottiness, and you can kind of forget what you're actually watching sometimes, because it all looks so similar. You can tell the waltzes apart, though. And there was something called a humppa which seemed like a turning two-step polka, though I'm sure there are stylistic differences I couldn't pick up on the fly.

By the way, two useful Finnish words to have at a dance: anteeksi (excuse me) and kiitos (thank you). Everything else you can just mime.

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