Man In A Suitcase

Helsinki, Finland

I once spoke at a seminar for a Swedish software distributor. The conference took place on one of the ferries that run overnight from Stockholm to Helsinki and then back the following night. It was March, which is cold but survivable in Stockholm. Helsinki was another matter. Our ship was designed to break through ice of up to a meter in thickness. Although the ice that trip wasn't quite that thick, it was certainly thick enough to impress me. (It made a sort of Rice Krispies in milk sound as we broke through it.) I was also impressed with the city itself, or at least what little I could see in the two hours before all my extremities froze.

One of the benefits of traveling on holiday is that you get to choose when to go. And after seeing Helsinki in the dead of winter I was glad of a chance to visit when it wasn't covered in ice. It's really quite a lovely city, with its parks and its malls and its waterfront (and -side and -back) and plenty of interesting architecture. I was particularly impressed with how clean the city is. Especially the morning after an annual festival that demonstrated that the locals' reputation for alcoholic excess wasn't mere rumor.

When my tour guide announced a stop at a local church I was less than enthusiastic. But I wasn't prepared for this particular church. When presented with a commission to build a church on a rock, the architects decided instead to build the church in the rock. The result is unobtrusive from the outside but airy, warm and inviting inside. A pleasant place for a service, I imagine. And even better for an impromptu piano concert during our visit.

Hvittrask, Finland

This country-looking house was the creation of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. Saarinen and two partners created a small village at Hvittrask as a combination of residence and workshop. It's a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. Despite the traditional exterior, the inside is a remarkable example of Scandinavian design. Many of the rooms and furnishings reminded me of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, both friends of Saarinen. (Although who influenced whom would be hard to say.) The partnership at Hvittrask wasn't without problems, of course. One of the partner's wives decided to change partners, a story told in this stained glass window from Saarinen's home. You'll notice that, although the lady is being serenaded by two men, she only has eyes for the one on the left.

Tallinn, Estonia

For the geographically challenged, a bit of explanation. Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic Republics that were annexed by the Soviet Union and then gained their freedom with its collapse. Tallinn is due south of Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland. Its proximity and its prices (particularly for alcohol) make it a popular destination for Finns and Nordic people who like to have a good time. (A very good time.)

My visit to Estonia was brief, arriving one morning by sea from Stockholm and leaving the next morning for my encounter with Russia. Our transport was an Estonian ferry called the Baltic Kristina, a small and not terribly glamorous ship. (You haven't lived until you've tried to sleep aboard such a vessel. And my experience with the shower in my cabin deserves its own page.) But the ferry did have its compensations, including good and inexpensive food and drink, magnificent views of the archipelago as we left Stockholm and some wonderful entertainment. These folks were a pleasure to watch and sometimes to hear. But the highlight was a singer in the other lounge. His renditions of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash were remarkable. And his performance of Bad Moon Rising brought forth emotions never imagined by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Imagine Bad Moon as done by Dylan and you'll have some idea. By the time he was done I was ready to kill myself. (And the shower in my cabin was happy to oblige...)

Estonia has a tense relationship with its Russian neighbors. The country has spent most of its history as a colony of one conquering nation or another. But most of them left the Estonians and their culture alone. The Soviets had other ideas; in their determinination to create a new Soviet state they did their best to destroy every aspect of their subject people's lives. They moved huge populations from one country to another in an attempt to break the common bonds of language and heritage. The Estonians are left with the result: a large minority of ethnic Russians who have lived in Estonia all their lives and neither know nor care to learn the language. Theirs is the imposing Russian Orthodox church on the right. It's ironic that the church faces the pink palace of the Estonian Parliament, a reminder (as if they needed one) of their neighbors to the east and the unreconciled minority within their borders. And the Canadians think they have problems?

The Parliament building and the Russian church stand near the entrance to Tallinn's old city. The old city is so picturesque you almost can't stand it. It's on two levels, with long stairways leading down to the narrow lanes of the old walled city. Nowadays the old walls are home to sweater merchants, selling knockoff versions of Norwegian designs at much better prices.

Eventually you reach the old square, filled with open air cafes on such a brilliant day. Better to stay here and enjoy the local brew. Because as soon as you reach the end of the old town you're in the modern city. And that's as ugly as anyplace else designed by the Soviets. I did enjoy my wander through the imaginatively named Tallinn Department Store. Until, that is, a well-timed bomb scare suggested that the old town might be a better place to shop.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California