gray but grand helsinki weekend.

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It’s been a while since I did something quite so frivolous, but I made a spontaneous trip to another country this weekend. I was in Stockholm for three days between when my mother left (thanks for visiting, mom! highlight of my spring!) and when I’m heading to Canada for my grad school visit. Instead of flying back to Visby or taking the ferry, at not insignificant cost and only to be home for one working day, I figured I’d go see one of the nordic cities that was still on my list of to-visits. The flight to Helsinki was only $100. I bought the ticket.

Unfortunately, as my friend Aino said when I asked her what I should make sure to see in Helsinki, “It’s definitely not the best time of year there.” I think it was sunny for a grand total of about two hours during my entire visit. But that didn’t make it bad. Far from it. I think that Helsinki is one of my favorite cities I have visited so far: it’s very alive, and has a fascinating and beautiful mix of classic style, art deco architecture, and modern design. I loved it.

Right off the plane I took the bus to the city and walked to the design museum. On the way there, I was serenaded by a string quartet. They were pretty good, and it was a lovely omen for my visit.

The design museum was great. I can’t say I know a lot about design, and tend to be pretty ignorant of modernism – I had to take art history in middle school, but we never got past the 1920’s and didn’t cover architecture at all. Sure, I’d heard of Alvar Aalto and seen Marimekko prints everywhere. Other than that, I was pretty ignorant of Scandinavian design, other than knowing that it was based in simplicity and functionality. I remember staying in Aino’s flat in Davos in December, and being amazed at how sparse it was. Yet every single item in that flat was beautiful.

The design museum took me through how such an aesthetic emerged. I admired the handcrafts that were the pride of Finland in the late 1800s and early 1900s; saw a video of the amazing Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair; watched the shift from classic European and Russian elements to art deco; and then, suddenly, the emphasis on functionality of the mid-century postwar years, where Finland became the most acclaimed country in Europe in terms of design. Tableware, art pieces, everything was beautiful. Glass in particular. Then plastic. Cute pop clothes. Finally, angry birds.

I understood how my grandfather, an ad exec in 1970’s Atlanta who had traveled the world as an officer in the navy, would have admired and coveted Scandinavian glassware.

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There was also an exhibit featuring Danish artist and fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, who I had never heard of before. It was pretty fun!

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I spent much of the rest of the trip exploring the city on foot. I’ve been very busy recently and so I couldn’t spend all day every day having fun – I had to stay in my (lovely) hotel room and do some work, too. I tried to schedule those times for when it was raining. The rest of the time, I walked and enjoyed all of the details of Helsinki’s landmarks.

Poor Finland: it was part of first the Swedish empire, then given up to Russia in the early 1800s. There was a famine, then a declaration of independence in 1917 and a civil war. The country fought hard during World War II and bore the weight of rationing and deprivation. Throughout all of this, they maintained a sense of national identity. The street signs may still be in both Finnish and Swedish, but this sure as heck does not feel like Sweden. Based on my limited experience in Russia, it doesn’t feel much like there, either.

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I was impressed with the mixing of styles, which somehow felt very right. Two Lutheran churches, a few blocks away from each other, are quite famous: the cathedral, built in the mid-1800s, and the Temppeliaukion, built in 1969 (more on that later). The two buildings couldn’t be more different in many ways, but it didn’t seem strange that they should exist in the same city fabric. Plus, while the Temppeliaukion is very modern, the other churches in the city also feel quite unlike the cathedrals I have visited in the rest of Europe. Finland is strongly Lutheran and as a result the interiors generally lack ornamentation. There’s not much stained glass, no gargoyles, no paintings on the walls like in the Uppsala cathedral. The interiors are light and leave a lot of room for thought. Finland loved white colors and clean lines far before Alvar Aalto.

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One of the most amazing places was the Temppeliaukion church, a Lutheran temple designed by the Suomalainen brothers and built in 1969. Another church was planned to be built on the site in the late 1930’s, but with the breakout of war, it never happened. 30 years later, the Suomalainen brothers took over and built something completely different. It had no tall spire, like the original, more traditional plan; it was round; it was partly underground. From the outside, the church doesn’t look like much.

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Inside, though? yeah.

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The space was completely amazing. It wasn’t that big, actually, and being drilled in the rock could have made it feel dark and damp. Instead, I felt the expansiveness of the space around me. It was one of the most intense sensations of atmosphere I have ever felt. The light streamed in from the upper walls, and strips of copper coiled around and around on the ceiling, creating a sense of infinity. Without a single illustration from the Bible, I could understand how you could feel God in this space.

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On Aino’s recommendation, I also went to the Ateneum museum, Finland’s national art museum. The first floor housed some amazing paintings and sculpture which helped me understand the Finnish perspective. The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, has been on my reading list for months, and my interest has only been renewed. The art was beautiful, and among the works there was mysticism as well as realism about the challenges of agrarian living and poverty. Beautiful, beautiful pieces.

The reason Aino had mentioned the Ateneum, though, is that it had an exhibition celebrating Tove Jansson’s 100th birthday! I was so excited when I learned this. I read the Muumin books growing up and absolutely loved them. In fact, the last time I went to Finland (back in 2010, when I was skiing way up north and didn’t get to see the city), I took this picture in a souvenir shop with some Muumin goods:

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Picture me equally excited as I spent an hour perusing Jansson’s work. The exhibit was quite incredible. It included a lot of original artwork from the books, as well as sketches where she developed the final form of the illustrations. There would be the same general picture as a rough line drawing, a fully articulated pen-and-ink, and in paint, for instance. I didn’t realize that the stories had also been a comic strip, so that was cool. One of her friends also built elaborate dioramas of Muumin scenes! What fun. It made me want to go find and read all of the old Muumin books in my grandparents’ house, and then buy all the ones they didn’t have. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start here).

Jansson didn’t just make the Muumin books, though, she was also a “prolific” artist and writer, as Aino said. Many works of different types, from drawings to paintings (among my favorites: an early one called “Mysterious City“, and a series of more abstract paintings of sea waves from the 1970s) and even huge frescoes.

Another highlight were prints that she made for the left-wing satire magazine Garm. Many of her messages were perfectly easy to understand even if you don’t know Finnish or Swedish. They were remarkably pointed, including during the war years. Here is a good example. This made me even more convinced that Jansson was a pretty remarkable lady. Big thank you to Aino for pointing out this exhibition!

Besides the architecture, art, and design, Helsinki was just a nice city to be in. There is lots of outdoor space, green lawns, and the port. Because of the weather I skipped going to Suomenlinna, the island fortress that is a must-visit. So I guess I have to come back another time. But it was a really delightful city to be outside in. (click to enlarge)

I’m really glad I made this weekend trip and can’t wait to come back to Helsinki in the future! I didn’t even sample the food or music scenes, both of which are fairly legendary at this point. Helsinki is becoming a more and more hip city. I hope that by the time I come back, it hasn’t gotten to hip for me.

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A Finnish Feast, Finally!

I was hoping that after sipping on this “country wine”, all of our boys would grow comparable moustaches to this jolly fellow. Unfortunately, the wine doesn’t appear to have any impact on their ability to grow facial hair.

Anyway! Last night we had a more delicious meal than usual, thanks to Dick and Judy’s generosity. Our benefactors had considered taking us out to dinner here in Rovaniemi to sample Lappish cuisine, but in the end it seemed like the cheaper, and more fun, option was to buy the ingredients ourselves and cook up our own feast. So that’s what we did.

Grocery shopping was a lot of fun. Dick and Judy took us girls with them and we spent at least an hour, it felt like, browsing every aisle of the “Citymarket” and finding all sorts of treats. Then, we came home and started cooking them up.

We started with appetizers. Three kinds of Finnish flatbread: a soft, white one; tougher, dark brown bread; and hard crackers. Three kinds of pickled herring: mustard, dill, and something with carrots in it that was nonetheless kind of purple in appearance. The mustard (sinapi) was my favorite, and the herring was overall much more delicious than the cheap canned variety we had tried earlier in the trip. Then, three kinds of cheese, including a soft, herbed one, something hard with a brown rind, and a huge, flat round of “squeaky” cheese which we heated up in a frying pan. It didn’t exactly taste like much, but when warm, it was completely delicious on the soft white flatbread. We had lingonberry jam as well as plain, unsweetened lingonberries, both of which were delicious. To top it off, we had an entire smoked salmon.

Why get a fillet when you can buy the whole fish? The outside was leathery and looked really cool. We had Dick carve it up for us, and the meat inside was incredibly delicious – much better than most vacuum-sealed fillets you can pick up. There was a lot of it, too. What a treat.

We wouldn’t have guessed this at the outset, but we had eaten so many appetizers that we barely had room for dinner. Dinner was delicious, too, though, so we just continued stuffing ourselves silly. Hannah had made nice rye bread, and we had mashed potatoes and roasted root vegetables: golden beets, parsnips, turnips, celeriac, carrots, onions, and garlic. The real show-stopper, though, was reindeer! We got some very thin fillets, and cut them into even smaller strips, then pan-cooked them with onions and wild mushrooms. It was beyond delicious. I think in a way I had almost been hoping that reindeer wouldn’t be that good, because then I wouldn’t have to live with the disappointment of not eating it more often. Well, at least if it’s cooked how Judy did it… I am sad not to eat that every day! But that’s what treats are, something you get to enjoy only on special occasions.

By the time we were done with dinner, we were complete stuffed and exhausted. We’d also been sipping a couple of local “wines” which turned out to be more like fruit liqueurs, or, frankly, Smirnoff Ice. They tasted like fruit juice and vodka, I’m not even kidding. With a ton of sugar and 15% alcohol, even a small glass gave us that sleepy feeling in combination with the ridiculous amount of food we had just consumed.

But we couldn’t stop. I had made cheesecake, using some frozen cloudberries, which are a bit like orange raspberries but taste completely different and unusual. I was nervous about the cheesecake because I’d made exactly one in my entire life and was all of a sudden throwing this together with no recipe, no measuring cups, and generally no idea what I was doing, but it turned out fine. I made the crust out of toasted hazelnuts and ground up digestive biscuits, and the cake out of a mixture of quark and mascarpone, with eggs, sugar, lemon juice, and cloudberries. I also made one of the cakes with only quark, which Ollie can kind of eat, unlike mascarpone, which wreaks havoc on his lactose-intolerant system. I also made a cloudberry sauce to go on top, but I liked the cloudberries much better in the cake than on their own.

Well. That about did it. We were useless and falling asleep for the rest of the night, content in our food comas.

Thanks, Dick and Judy, for allowing us to have an incredible feast!

Leaving Muonio.

This morning, after a cold, easy classic ski, we said goodbye to Muonio. We packed our skibags, packed our duffels, swept the floors with the funny little angled broom, and put the dishes to dry in the cupboard rack above the sink for the last time. Finally, we got in the car and drove away from Lomamaja Pekonen.

We had no idea what our living situation was going to be in Rovaniemi, but I knew I would miss the perfectly-designed little cabin, which really made the most of its tiny space. I’d miss the heated floor in the mudroom, the mini-sauna to dry your clothes in, and the cute little cup-size shelves over the stove.

Okay, so I wouldn’t miss the stove. It was a terrible electric two-burner system which took forever to cool off and burnt almost everything. I won’t miss that.

But almost everything about Muonio I already miss. I certainly miss the skiing. We were just beginning to explore the possibilities in Muonio – they were starting to groom the long trails to other hotels and ski areas, and Lauren and I had explored a new trail this morning. I had seen my fifth reindeer on the trail (the first four were all together), and I wish I could ski the high loop around the windmills one more time.

I even miss the racing. Yesterday I felt like I began to figure things out. It definitely wasn’t one of my best races ever, but it was just a normal race. I went out there and I skied, and I went pretty hard, and that was that.

I have never been an excellent early-season racer, but I think with a few races under my belt I might have the early-season blues out of my system (hopefully). Luckily, there are races here in Rovaniemi, but I wish I could keep racing against the better field from Muonio now that I’m feeling more confident.

Here in Rovaniemi, we’re back in a city. We’re definitely outside the city, but you can no longer walk out of your driveway and be anywhere in town three minutes later. That was nice.

As ski racers, we travel around the country and the world, rarely spending more than a week or ten days in each new place. It was a treat to get to enjoy Muonio for that long. But you learn that you can’t be too sad when you leave somewhere and head to the next race; you have to think of what was great about it, file it away in your memory, and then look forward to what’s next. If you really love it, you’ll make it back someday.

Will I make it back to Muonio? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll come back to race here next year, and maybe I won’t. It’s not something I’ve decided yet. But my first experience above the Arctic Circle was a great and interesting one, and I want to come back to this circumpolar region in the future for sure. I’d like to explore more in the winter, and I’d like to see it in the summer, too, when it’s the land of the midnight sun.

Suomi love.

The consensus here is that Finland isn’t the most exciting place in the world. Which isn’t to deny that there might be much more exciting parts of Finland than Muonio, being in the middle of nowhere as we are, or that we aren’t actually excited to be here. We are!

But, well, things can be a little drab (just check the lighting in the photo above).

Nevertheless, there are things I love in Finland. First of all, the skiing. We were on great snow at the end of October, how cool is that?

Here’s a list of seven other things I love.

1) Sparks. Referred to in English as kicksleds, these things are sweet. They are the little red wagons of Scandinavia, only better. Every day we see old people kicking their sparks home from the grocery store, laden down with the night’s dinner ingredients. We also saw some very cool camoflage-bedecked high school students sparking home from school, which was awesome.

Photo: Nordqvist.fi

2) Nordqvist Tea. Our first black tea selection at the grocery store was “The Emperor’s Bride”, which despite its funny name turned out to be excellent. Excitedly, we finished the box so we could try more tea. Other varieties have names such as Faithful Friend, Tiger’s Daydream, Carribean Sun, and non-sequiturs like The Wisdom of Stay and Cheery Rainy Day. Carribean Sun is my current favorite; on the Nordqvist website, its picture is captioned with “Memories are like sand in swimwear.” Very profound.

3) Lingonberry Jam. On our first grocery outing, we bought a tub of Dronningham lingonberry jam, and it’s been one of the best things to happen to us so far. It goes on toast, in oatmeal, and even into the homemade applesauce I cooked to disguise some rather rubbery pork. You can find lingonberry products in the United States, but they are expensive. Here, they are commonplace, and that is a very good thing.

4) Sunsets (and sunrises). I think I mentioned this before, but because the sun hangs so low in the sky all the time, sunsets and sunrises last forever. They are beautiful. In fact, unless it is cloudy, the light is generally beautiful here. So maybe I should change this one to “The Light.”

5) Reindeer. On the drive to Olos, the ski area, we have seen reindeer crossing the road several times. Reindeer are pretty cool. They come in different colors! And the best thing about this was that the first time we spotted the reindeer, Hannah became completely frantic trying to catch a glimpse of them from her less-than-ideal seat in the van. Luckily, she managed to see them. If not, there would have been tears, I’m sure of it.

6) The Info Board at Olos. I didn’t realize I loved this until today, when it no longer displayed just the date and time, but some other messages as well. The information cycles through, with several messages in Finnish, several in English, and universally understood schedule for racing. My favorite message is posted below.

7) Life. Finally, as part of my new job for FasterSkier, I have had the opportunity to interview some really incredible athletes. The first of these interviews, with Swedish biathlete Bjorn Ferry, was posted today. Check it out. I have the best job in the world – or two of them, actually!

That’s all for now. I promise I’ll try to write more frequently.

Finland at last.

The day you have all (?) been waiting for has arrived – I’m going to tell you about the great white north.

I made it to Finland, safe and sound, after about 29 hours of traveling. Yikes! I’m still very jet-lagged and having trouble sleeping at night, which means that I am not enjoying things as much as I otherwise would. I haven’t taken any great pictures yet, but here are a few mediocre ones so you can see what it’s like here.

We’re staying in a cute little cabin complex. We have two cabins, one for boys and one for girls. Our cabin has two rooms with two little twin beds each, and a living room/kitchen/dining room with a pullout couch that our coach sleeps on. The kitchen has only two burners and no oven, so cooking is interesting but hasn’t been a total bust. The boys made a delicious stir-fry last night and Dylan is planning to make stew this evening, so we definitely aren’t starving.

The first day we skied, there were only 3.8 kilometers open, but it was very good skiing. We were literally overjoyed to be on snow and probably zipped around a little faster than we should have, just due to the exuberance of the situation. Skiing in late October is unheard of in all but a few places in North America, and even in those places, it certainly isn’t reliable. Here we were on well-groomed trails, doing real skiing! It is still unbelievable.

It snowed for much of the last 24 hours and there were a lot more trails open this morning. This was a relief because pretty much all of our skis have been 2 hours long and doing so many little laps gets a bit boring. Today I got sick of skiing around the short, well-groomed loop with a hundred other people, so I struck out up the hill and ended up skiing along the top of the ridge below some windmills. I had a beautiful view of the countryside, which is comprised entirely of wooded hills and a few lakes. No mountains, just hills. Even at noon, the sun hangs in the corner of the sky, casting everything in a pinkish yellowish glow. I was psyched to be up on the hill with no other skiers around, enjoying the view, even if it meant skiing in some ungroomed powder.

It is a little stressful to ski here – there are so many people, with skiers from Finland (of course), Russia, Sweden, Belarus, Estonia, the Ukraine, and God knows where else. I am constantly getting passed by people who are faster than me, and the Russian coaches have a disconcerting habit of wordlessly staring at you when you ski past them. Being off on my own was so much more relaxing – I could think only about myself, what pace I ought to be going, and not worry about everything going on around me.

At this point, we are very much in training camp mode, doing a not-insignificant amount of volume. In between sessions we only have the time and energy to do things like read and knit. During our jogs around town we have found some cool stuff, though, so here’s a bit about Muonio.

There are two grocery stores, called S-Market and K-Market. Both stores count yarn and canned reindeer meat, and thermal underwear among their wares. S-Market is my favorite, perhaps because it is a little bit more light and seems to have a slightly better selection. The other one, Pepa refers to as K-Mart, which is funny because it doesn’t sell appliances, clothes, or plastic crap like the American chain. The boys theorize that S-Market and K-Market are owned by competing families a la Mantagues and Capulets, except that because we are so far north, the feud is progressing very slowly.

We also found a thrift store which we intend to hit up next week. We were running along, arbitrarily deciding what all the buildings we saw were – Finnish doesn’t have much in common with any language I’ve studied, so the names weren’t much help. For instance, one building we decided was a nursing home because it just felt right. Then Lauren said, “I bet that one is a thrift store!” Yeah, right. How likely is that? We ran up to the door and under the hours, in English, it said “Secondhand Shop.” Wow!

We have also found a couple of schools, a café, and what Lauren calls an “olden-days museum,” which unfortunately seems to be closed for the winter. Also closed for the winter: the “Grilli,” which is too bad because I would love to buy a reindeer burger there.

We ran by a number of bus stops, which I thought was really cool since the town isn’t even very big (about 2,000 people), but yesterday I realized that I hadn’t seen a single bus, so public transportation might not be a reality after all. Very confusing.

The river is quite beautiful and full of swans, both white and black. The whole setting is very picturesque; it’s too far in the middle of nowhere, but other than that, I could see Lapland getting a lot of tourism.

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll get some better pictures up soon!