Thursday, June 7, 2007

Some good tunes

Here are a few bands and tunes I brought back from my trip:

All good things must end...

I think it's finally time to finish up the European portion of this blog. Our final day in Finland we spent around Helsinki. We first went to Saapi's office at the Finnish Medical Association, where they had a very impressive collection of paintings from many famous painters. We then got on the trolley and walked around the city square, saw the old church, and went through a few touristy shops (there were some very cute moose caricatures on various items).

We went to an open-air market down by the harbor, where my mom got cornered by a very fun fashion designer who worked almost exclusively in felt. After a brief fashion show by my mom (she decided she was too pale to buy any of the bright colors in the woman's wares), we moved on to a very old (though beautifully refurbished) cafe for some caffeine.

From there, we moved on to more Merrimekko fabric and clothing stores and Iitala glasswares. Then to Stockmans, the enormous department store. There, my dad was introduced to the price of high and mid fashion these days--he was mortified. Eija also was generous enough to buy me a graduation present of a copy of The Book about Moomin, Mymble, and little My--a sort of Finnish Dr. Seuss equivalent involving the Moomins (mystical, adorable hippo-looking characters).

After a quick bite in the Aalto Cafe of the Stockmans bookstore, we did a bit more wandering to the Helsinki equivalent of Times Square (it's nowhere near the size...not even close), the modern art museum (which Eija doesn't like because it was designed by a Brit), and another fabric shop (mom's got some sewing to do). Then back to the harbor to board our ship to Stockholm.

The cruise was pleasant again, though my mom had been struggling with some digestive issues and spent much of the time in our cabin. My dad and I hung out in the bar area (the cover-song-playing-dude-with-guitar was much better this time around) and talked a lot about education of all kinds.

We got to Stockholm at around 10am and boarded the bus to the central station. We got a locker for our bags and a couple bus passes for later. Then we walked. And walked. And walked.

We finally got down to the Museum of Modern Art, which was pretty awesome. Obviously it didn't have all the incredible works of the more famous museums, but they did have a very impressive collection of Picasso, Chagall, Warhol, and others you'd probably recognize. It was a lot of fun to see these works in person--something I haven't really had the chance to do before.

We grabbed a smoothie in the cafe, then went to the architecture part of the museum (which my mom and dad really loved, but didn't interest me at all--I like nice buildings and all, but I don't have the training to appreciate models of buildings).

Realizing that the smoothie wasn't going to hold us for lunch, we walked back towards downtown and stumbled upon the Taste of Stockholm Festival. Perfect! We had some pad thai (pretty tasteless, but we were hungry enough that it tasted delicious) and went on our way.

After lunch (and after seeing truckloads of recent graduates partying it up literally in the beds of huge trucks), we hit the National History Museum. We were excited to see the Scandanavian Design exhibit, which turned out to be good, but nothing too amazing. I think what I was most impressed with was the glasswork. Throughout the years, they've done some encredible engraving and some even more incredible work with colors. Then we went upstairs to see the 19th Century French artwork (mostly impressionist). After walking around that exhibit for a while (they had all the standards of Renoit, Monet, Degas, etc), we were struck by the incredible lack of color. Either old Scandanavian collectors couldn't afford the best works, or they abhorred the bright colors that were so characteristic of impressionsm.

We headed back to the central station via bus (thank goodness we saved those bus passes for late in the day), grabbed our belongings, and hopped on another bus towards the hotel (all of 6 blocks, but we had a free transfer within the hour, so we decided to use it). The hotel was a gorgeous and luxurious 4-star business hotel near the pedestrian shopping district.

Not long after we got back to the hotel (though long enough to rest our tired legs and feet), we headed back to the Taste of Stockholm. My parents went for some calamari and fries, while I went for some sort of curried chicken plate (when I came back to our seat on a bench and declared "I have no idea what I just ordered," the guy on the other side of the bench started chuckling). The weather turned very cold and windy and it was all we could do to huddle together and drink our Murphy's Stouts.

The next morning, we woke to a beautiful breakfast spread in the lobby, then headed to the station to catch the bus to the airport. Our plane was severely delayed (well over an hour) because of all the security checks that had to happen before the US would let it take off. We finally took off sometime after 11am, and got into Chicago around 12:40pm (short flight, right?). I think we've all handled our jet lag pretty well, but it was very nice to come home to Nat, Julie, Jed, and Sharon taking care of dinner for us.

It was a helluva trip, made me notice a lot more about my own life and culture, and I would absolutely go back in an instant--if only it wasn't so expensive.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Tallinn (the old city)

First off, my apologies to everyone involved with my errors (spelling, ordering, etc). I had hoped not to butcher languages as badly as my dad made a habit of on the trip, but my own phonetic spelling habits apparently don't translate very well to Scandanavian languages and names. Sorry, and thanks to Eija and Vilma for the corrections!

Anyway, Tuesday evening we spent a bit more time in Jyvaskyla, including a great dinner and a trip to the natural history museum. The museum is located in the base of a watchtower overlooking the city and surrounding area (the Kujalas gave us a tour of the city from the viewing deck, which was a nice rest for our tourist legs).

We then hopped in the car and drove to Helsinki (about 2.5 hrs)--I'd tell you more about the car ride, but I slept through most of it. We got to the Kujala's apartment just in time to take advantage of their weekly sauna time (many apartments in Finland have their own sauna--I'm jealous). It was yet another different type, with a pretty large room without windows (it was in the basement) and an electric heat unit (and yes, you still pour water on the rocks on electric saunas, contrary to popular American belief). After sauna, we headed upstairs for a beer or long drink and an early bedtime.

The next morning, we woke up and readied ourselves for the cruise to Tallinn, Estonia. The forecast for Helsinki called for rain, but just clouds a 2 hr boatride south in Tallinn, so Eija insisted that we only bring one umbrella. We got on the boat (about the same size as our cruise ship from Stockholm to Helsinki) around 10:30am and found much of the boat already having cocktails (my parents and I opted for water).

When we got to Tallinn and got through the passport checks (all customs we ran into abroad are far far easier than in the US), we were greeted by our guide- a mid-30s woman who had lived in Tallinn her whole life and proved to be a lot of fun. We got in a van and drove off. The first area we drove through was a mix of old houses--some had been refurbished, others were well worn and showed their age.

Our first stop was at the palaces of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (known as mini-Versaille). The buildings and surrounding gardens are beautiful and now serve as government buildings (I think one is the President's place).

From there we got back in the van and drove to the amphiteatre, where choruses of up to 30,000 can sing together on stage, and many more thousands can sit on the opposing hill and listen. Singing got Estonians through much of the Soviet occupation, and the tradition continues with a huge choral festival every 5 years (the next is in 2009). The amphitheatre grounds was the site for many moments of solidarity throughout and following the occupation.

As we drove to the Old City, we passed many apartment buildings clustered together--tiny, thin-walled apartments ("renovated" since soviet occupation, but still very sad looking) that provide housing for over a quarter of the city's residents (including our tour guide).

In the old city (where our bus left us), we saw a number of very old churches and parts of the city wall (2/3 of which is still standing, thanks to Tallinn's traditional policy of handing over the city's keys instead of fighting). Aaaaaand is started raining. Hard. We hurried down the path from the upper city (power) to the lower city (merchant wealth), bid adieu to our tour guide, and ducked into a cafe and a brewhaus for some lunch (beer). We debated what's at the end of the universe (Eija says sand, and challenges all to argue against her), then moved on to a couple more sights (yep, still pouring rain) before settling in to our incredible 4-course dinner at a french restaurant called The Egoist (a sign of its class: we were the only diners there until just before we left, when a high-powered exec entertained government officials in the hopes of setting up shop in Tallinn's ports).

From there, we headed back to the ship and headed back to Helsinki. Overall, Tallinn was striking both with its history and beautifully preserved buildings and roads, and depressing with its leftover misery from the Soviet era. It was the first time I had seen the effects of Communism up close and personal, and it was tragic--and it had a profound effect on the people: the guide joked "an introverted Estonian speaks to his own feet, an extroverted Estonian speaks to your feet." It seemed somehow appropriate that it rained there, though I am confident that they can rebuild in the long run.

Friday, June 1, 2007

a quick hello

Happy 40th Anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band! Is it as big a deal back home as it is here? Just thought I'd give a quick hello to let y'all know I'm still alive and kickin. I'm sitting in our very nice hotel lobby in Stockholm using my 15 minutes of courtesty internet time. We've been to Estonia, Helsinki, another ferry across the Baltic Sea, and most recently the Taste of Stockholm festival here in Stockholm. The weather is freezing cold (okay, 14 degress C, but I haven't felt that in NC since Feb) and we saw the first of the sun today that we've seen in a very very long time. Tomorrow morning we wake up around 7am local time in order to get back to O'Hare around 12:40 and up to Milwaukee by 4pm. Once I get there I'll be sure to give a full update on the last few days, but for now I'm being overwhelmed by smoke and need to go back to our 4-star hotel room (if I've learned anything this trip, it's that I'm supremely spoiled...even if I thought I was before).
Much love to all and I look forward to sharing pictures, memories, and more good times upon my return! Everyone in Milwaukee save a beer for me!