July 26th, 2010


Turku, 7/23-24

We've going to be living the wireless life for a couple of days, so this is not going to get posted until we get back to Helsinki on July 26.

Two packed days, and we hardly skimmed the surface of Turku.  Of course, we could have done our sightseeing more efficiently, but we prefer to aim for depth of experience over number of sights seen.

Also shopping.

Johanna A.  picked us up at Parainen, graciously stopped so we could get another tub of that celestial pickled herring in mustard sauce, and spent the afternoon showing us (and Tero and his 8 year old daughter Inke) through the Museum of Handicrafts, which is housed in the only part of old Turku to survive the myriad fires that have leveled the city over the years.

After two living history museums, I feel I'm beginning to get a handle on traditional Finnish urban living.  There isn't actually a word in English for how the early modern Finns organized their living space.  Apartments, while strictly accurate, conjures up visions of skyscrapers, or at least multi-story, block-like dwellings, with one door serving several suites of rooms, which isn't the case at all.  Each address is a block of one-story buildings ramifying inside the larger square, creating an interconnected maze of of smaller squares, each with between 4 and 8 entrances leading up to a set of 3 or more rooms.  At the Handicrafts Museum, most apartments include a workshop and a showroom  as well as a sleeping chamber and a kitchen.  The bookbinder is next to the goldsmith and across the street from the printer, which is in the same block as the tassel-maker, who makes glorious gaudy passementerie tassels and braids out of twisted silk floss.  All the houses are wooden, with entrance rooms to keep the heat from rushing out the door when someone comes in in winter, and tile roofs--except a few roofed with grassy turves (which, Tero pointed out, probably had a great deal to do with the fires).

Like the Amuri museum in Tampere, most of the rooms were arranged to look more or less lived in.  Unlike at Amuri, these rooms were definitely used.  We'd walk into a shop (the leather-workers shop, for instance, and the printer's) and find a woman in a homespun skirt and jacket and a business-like white coif and apron, snipping and stitching at a pair of shearling slippers, or a man in a striped smock and knee-breeches sewing signatures or inking a plate to print a postcard.   In the tobacconist's yard, tobacco-plants grew out in the courtyard, ripe leaves hung to dry over wooden rods, a rough round grinding stone with a pestle stood ready to shred tobacco for cigarettes, and little rolls of paper filled a row of pots down the middle of a long table.  Had we come another day, we could have watched cigarette makers grinding tobacco and stuffing the rolls and pasting them shut.

We were there for upwards of two hours.  Thankfully, the weather was cooler than it had been, and the sky grey, or I suspect we'd have pooped out sooner.  As it was, we wandered, peered, asked questions through the kind offices of Tero and Johanna, discussed history, aesthetics, wallpaper, and family history (Johanna's grandfather had been a goldsmith at the museum when it opened), and generally enjoyed ourselves.  When we couldn't take in any more, we headed (no surprise here) to the kahvi, where we recruited nature with tea and coffee and pastries (a rhubarb-strawberry-raspberry tart was particularly good).  Afterwards, we felt up to a little mild shopping.  Ellen found a pair of sturdy walking shoes, but all the optical places were closed, closed, closed, so I'm putting off my glasses quest to Helsinki.  Before long, everything else closed too, so we went to dinner.

Dinner felt like Finncon, Part I've-Lost-Count, as we were joined by Ben (who was one of the man who cried over "The Man With The Knives" ) and his wife Susanna, who is a translator--delightful people, who feel just as they ought about Myazaki and The Wizard of Earthsea and other subjects of importance .  We ate (duck breast salad for me, with pickled onions), drank a very nice Merlot, and talked and talked.  Inke was incredibly patient, considering she couldn't understand a word of what was being said, but we took pity on her at last--also on ourselves--and went back to our hotel to do some email and retire.  Our room was palatial, with 2 (count 'em, 2) double beds and a bathtub, tucked up its own private flight of steps in the attic of a charming hotel built in 1902.  Every room is furnished differently, in every style from Arts & Crafts to High Victorian to mid-20th century stainless, and boasts a famous parrot, who sits in his cage in the lobby, clucks his tongues, and wolf-whistles in several registers, pretty much at random.

Today wasn't quite as historically oriented as yesterday.  In fact, mostly what we did was shop and have lunch and wander, which is just exactly what one should do in a seaside town just outside a city.  Johanna and Tero and Inke drove us to Naantali, where there is an old town--this one not a museum, but inhabited by actual Finns, many of them proprietors of galleries, antique shops, souvenir shops--and a Moomin shop, where we got some things for our Moomin-lovin' friends (you know who you are) who have been writing to tell Ellen of their Moomin-longings.  There's also a Moomin theme park, but we decided that huge stuffed-looking Moomins waving and wanting to shake hands might be too scary for the adults. 

Between shops, we had yet another lovely lunch by the water and talked about stories and who in our families had told them, and memories of being a child among grownups, while Inke calmly ate her salmon and read her Scrooge McDuck comic book.  And then we walked back to where we left the car, and headed for Turku Castle, which, alas, we did not have either the time or the energy to do justice to.  It's a pity, since it's a gorgeous place, bombed all to hell and gone by the Russians during the Winter War of 1939-1940, and rebuilt in the 1970's, including as much of the original fabric of the tower and outbuildings as they could salvage. For some reason,  I was irrisistably reminded of the castle in the Danny Thomas movie Court Jester, and very sorry we had to leave without a full visit--but not without taking many pictures and visiting the castle shop, which was full of souvenirs from England and France--the European Union At Work!

We bid Tero and Johanna and Inke goodbye at Turku station, with mutual expressions of esteem and promises to come back and tour the castle and take the ferry to Stockholm.  And now we're on to the next thrilling adventure. 

A Day in the Country-7/26

We spent last night in Paradise.

Ellen's brother's best friend from Jr. High married a Finnish diplomat whose family had owned a summer cottage near the townlet of Box, on a reach of the Helsinki Archipelago.  Her elder sister now owns the family cottage and she has other relatives in the area.  When a 1920's cottage came free last year, they bought it.  Because she's currently posted to the Finnish UN delegation in NYC, they haven't spent a lot of time there, but they happen to be in residence right now, and very generously and kindly invited us to spend a night with them.

It took some doing to get there, leaving Turku a day before we'd planned to, taking a train to Helsinki, transferring to a bus to the Shell station at Box, but we are unalarmed by transfers and dragging our increasingly dirty laundry from the train station to the bus station.  The pedestrian outside the Helsinki train station Ellen asked for direction was on his way to the bus station anyway, so we had a guide all the way through multiple left and right turns and diagonals across crowded squares, getting to the station in plenty of time.  While it tried to make up its mind whether or not it was going to rain, we watched first Helsinki and then the countryside unspool past our windows.  Stopping every few miles to pick up or discharge passengers, the bus drove us ever deeper into fields of rye and barley and potatoes divided by stands of pine, fir, birch, and spruce.  When our host picked us up in a little blue Elf, we drove deeper still, over ever narrower roads, until we turned onto a single-width dirt track between moss and lichen-speckled boulders and young firs like a forest of young masts.  At the end of the road was a rusty iron gate and a storehouse with what looked like a cow's skull (it might have been a sheep's--I forgot to ask) nailed to the pediment.

We were there.

Had I invited anyone to come stay with me in a cottage I'd spent a grand total of 3 weeks in since I'd bought it, one over a Finnish December when I'd had to stop at Ikea on the way from the airport to buy beds, linen, and dishes, I would have had to apologize (or not) for the unfinished state of the place and would my guest get their sheets out of that box--I think that's where the sheets are--and would they mind making the bed?  This place looked like they'd been living in it for years--gently faded old-fashioned wallpaper, comfortable furniture, some of it Ikea, some of it well-loved family stuff, pictures on the walls, no curtains (with that view, curtains would have been a desecration), candles and lanterns everywhere.  When I complimented our hostess on how settled and comfortable the place looked, she thanked me and pointed out that she'd had lots of practice, having had, over the course of her diplomatic career, 17 addresses in something like 25 years, one of them in South Africa, where she had become friends with our fellow guests.  We liked them, too.  She's a diplomat, he's a nuclear physicist who loves Tolkien and Robert Jordan.  Since our host loves Cyberpunk and his daughter has read a fair amount of fantasy (although not as much as her brother, who was not present), the dinner conversation was extremely convivial, ranging from SF & F to home decoration to travel tales to family reminiscences. 

But first, we had a sauna.  The men went while the women got dinner ready to be cooked, then cooked it while the women sauna-ed.  Their sauna is wood-fired rather than electric, which gives a lovely soft heat, and is built right down by the water.  This isn't allowed any more, but old structures like this one have been grandfathered in.  So there we sat, baking gently, looking out a double-glazed window onto rocks and water and the wooded spit opposite, with the reflected light of the sinking sun warming the sky and polishing the ripples to rose-gold.  Once well-done, we ran out and jumped in the water, which was cold.  Our hostess and her daughter maintained that it was beautifully warm, and we should try it in winter when you had to chip a hole in the ice.  But the three wimps more tender-skinned members of the party agreed that it was plenty cold now, thank you very much--and came out fairly quickly, puffing and gasping and shivering, to retreat into the lovely warmth of the sauna until we thawed out.

Some members of the party took a second dip.  I did not.  The whole experience, though, gave me a raging hunger for dinner, which was simple, plentiful, and delicious.

And then we retired, a little after midnight, in a tiny room next to the sauna (the main house being rather full of guests), just big enough for two extremely narrow beds with a table between them.  There was a lamp, but no running water, of any kind.  Nature's calls were answered in a tidy and extremely well-regulated and sweet-smelling composting two-holer outhouse behind the house, up a path, around a rock garden, up the patio steps, along the side of the house, then up a bank into which a number of roughly-dressed boulders had been set to serve as steps.  In short, it was a schlep, and I was a little dubious about making it in the middle of the night without falling over something, but it turned out to be perfectly negotiable, even at 2 in the morning. The sky was so light, I didn't even have to use my flashlight going up, and only used it going down because I'd lost my night vision turning on the light in the outhouse.  Ellen, who made her visit just at dawn, watched the sun come up.

Other than that we both slept like rocks.

This morning was leisurely--breakfast, more conversation, jamming the little we'd taken out of our suitcases back in.  Then our hostess drove us back into Helsinki and around the old town, showing us where she'd grown up and gone to school, where her sister was married and her own children were baptized, where her parents' favorite restaurant was.  It's an area of beautiful Jugendstil buildings, each more artfully decorated than the last with carved flowers or owls over the lintels or simple, stylized designs inscribed in the stucco.  We're going to walk around there tomorrow and take some pictures, you betcha.  Then she dropped us off at our hotel and went off to have her car inspected.

We're back in the hotel we stayed at when we first got here, in a very lovely room bordered in oakleaves, with a rosy bird and a butterfly frolicking over the king-size bed.  We had lunch (at a Nepalese restaurant) and dropped into a few optical shops in search of some Really Cool Scandinavian Frames, but it was too hot and muggy to make walking attractive.  So we went back to the hotel to do Necessary Laundry and celebrate our reunion with the Internet and rest up for a big day of sightseeing with friends (Finland!  Where the Sun Never Sets on Finncon!) tomorrow.