Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love)

August 16th, 2014 10:23 am by Dave and Ray

Some people are just so nice. Our friend Amber and her boyfriend Claes drove 100km from Stockholm to our ferry landing at Kapellskär. Then they they drove us to Stockholm and bought us dinner. It’s hard to pay for dinner when your hosts know the language and you don’t. They delivered us to our boat hostel, an old boat anchored on Södermalm near Gamla Stan with a great view (from the bar on the top, not through our porthole). Ray’s cousin Hans joined us for a drink, then we went to sleep in our tiny compartment.

Thursday we were on a mission. We went to the Stockholm City Museum at 11. We told them we wanted to see a painting made by Ivar Neumann, Ray’s great-great uncle, which wasn’t on display. They told us to go to the “documentation room” when it opened at 12. We walked around the museum until then, seeing, among other exhibits, “United Stockholms of America”, a photo essay about the eight localities in the US named Stockholm. Most of them are in the states around Minnesota and have lots of Swedish immigrants (there have been 1.2 million, historically!) but one is in Texas and was renamed from Snuff Town because snuff is vaguely Swedish; the artist found no Swedes there. At 12 we went to the documentation room, told them what we wanted, and they said they’d look for it and get back to us soon.

After a half hour or so, they tracked us down (surveillance cameras, I suppose) to the “Dark Side of Stockholm” crime exhibit, told us a recent computer upgrade made it impossible to find the painting, but they were looking for a computer which hadn’t been upgraded. Apparently they found one; they tracked us down later to a room not even on the map in the brochure, and told us to go to the warehouse on the pier and meet Maria.
We fussed at the bus ticket system for a while (again the problem with American credit cards being obsolete). We got off the bus at a warehouse on the dock, next to a deserted “Semester At Sea” cruise ship. We phoned Maria. She met us at the door, and escorted us to a brightly lit room with lots of art restoration tools; the painting was on a table in the middle of the room. Next to it was a magazine from 1888 with an etching made from another painting by Ivar. We took lots of pictures, and had a fascinating conversation with the docent, who is a furniture restorer when there aren’t overseas visitors. She gets a few like us; the previous one was from Russia, looking for a parachute which was in their collection. It must be fun to have all that space to keep things.

After we left, we went to the Moderna Museet and learned of Nils Dardel. He was a famous artist, if you had heard of him, on the border of Symbolism and Surrealism and Mexican Cartoons. His sensibility seemed entirely gay, except for the cruel trick God played on him by making him like vaginas. If Justin had been a painter in the early 20th century, he could have been like Nils Dardel.

We stayed there until it closed, then we met Amber for dinner in a little cafe at the Opera House. Swedish tapas, basically. Another data point on the main curve which illustrates the $100 diet: if you never spend less than a hundred dollars for a meal, you won’t get fat.

On the way we were accosted by a friendly drunk who explained that he got around the Swedish liquor prices by shoplifting, and we saw an oddly self-contained demonstration against the Israeli massacre going on in Gaza. I say self-contained because I’ve demonstrated against massacres before, especially ones I could have been drafted to carry out, and at the edge of the marches and demonstrations there were usually a bunch of people with leaflets to hand out. (I suppose in modern terms, that would be placards with QR codes; does anyone ever actually look at those? I’ve never been curious enough even to aim my phone at them, or look up how to do it. Do I need an app?) Anyway, there was none of that here. Scandinavian reticence. The Age of Facebook. If you never talk to anyone who doesn’t agree with you, how does your mind get changed? Certainly not by the mobile phone banner ads that float so severely in front of about half the sites you go to, that make you realize at a zen level, that you really didn’t need to know what they were talking about, after all. In its own way, the Internet is an ad for non-attachment, but what isn’t?

Friday it was time to move on; once again Amber and Claes were incredibly nice, and offered to take us to pick up our rental car in an obscure location south of Stockholm. Perhaps the obscurity was responsible for giving us a nice car and only charging us for the tiny one we asked for. This one, a diesel Hyundai I30 (called Elantra in the US), had a six-speed manual transmission, air conditioning that worked, an iPod interface, cruise control, adjustable intermittent wiper speed. The only challenge was finding how to open the fuel door (the trick is to push on the right side of it). Over the time we had it, it got about 40 mpg. Pretty nice. We drove it to Gavle, where our friends David and Isabel live; David put us up in his mother’s house (she was in Long Beach attending to her first grandchild). Gavle was having a little festival, which we walked around for awhile; eventually we had dinner at a place which was between English menus. This had the result of them misunderstading my order for “cod” as “calf”: I thought the texture and color were pretty odd for fish.

Saturday we had breakfast at David’s place, then drove for an hour to Falun to see Helene. We hadn’t actually ever met her, but Justin had told her all about us, and as soon as we met it was really like we’d all known each other for a long time. She took us to Falun’s copper mine, and arranged for us to have a guided tour in English which turned out just to be the three of us and the guide. After three weeks of heat wave, it was actually quite pleasant to put on a warm shirt and long pants and go in a mine at a temperature of 40ºF. The mine operated from about 700 AD until sometime in the 1990s. Now it is a World Heritage site.  (So there’s hope for all those lopped off West Virginia mountains, after all. Butchart Gardens is a repurposed quarry, for another example.) In addition to a huge pit at the surface, there are tunnels and rooms underground. There were challenges getting the ore up to the surface, and pumping out the water that would otherwise fill up the mine: a bell would stop ringing if the pumping ever stopped as a signal to miners to head for the surface ASAP. Various forms of power were used over the years to accomplish these tasks including horses and a water wheel.

After the tour, we checked into our airbnb place, basically a real B&B using them as a listing service, then got a ride back to Helene’s place. She was throwing a kräftskiva (crayfish party) in our honor; unfortunately most of her friends had other plans, so there were only four of us eating (there were also some teenagers, but they were in their own world). We drank our bottle of blackcurrant wine, which was delicious, not sweet at all. They also plied us with beer, some mysterious shot, aquavit, and red wine. The food was open face sandwiches with chanterelles and cheese, and boiled crayfish. All the food groups: bread, cheese, shellfish, fungus, and alcohol.

Sunday was a day with a lot of driving, but it was split up by a visit to Thomas and Bibo from Berlin, who were spending two weeks at Bibo’s mom’s summer home across a lake from Arvika. On the way there the skies opened up with thunder and pounding rain. We had been listening to 24 Days of Drone from KFJC’s Month of Mayhem, a series of 24 hour-long live performances of sustained ambiences, but when the rain started, its drone overpowered the one on the iPod, so we just listened to it. The rain stopped about the time we arrived, and we had some salami and cheese we’d been carrying around, and some blackcurrant pie Bibo’s mom had made from fruit from the backyard. Delicious. After a walk in the woods, we got back in the car and headed south. We stopped to take a picture in Åmål, a boring small town which was the subject of the 1998 film “Fucking Åmål”, along with the high school girls who fall in love with each other. In the US, the film was renamed “Show Me Love”. Then we headed towards Göteborg, finding the airbnb a bit out of town. By the time we’d dropped off the luggage, headed into town, and got gas, most places’ kitchens were closing and we had kebab fast food, by no means as good as that we’d had in Berlin. (We probably could have eaten at the Hard Rock Cafe, but it’s the principle of the thing. Plus the food probably isn’t very good.)

In 2008, we traveled through China, and found a hotel in the middle of nowhere that just didn’t serve coffee — it’s not part of the Chinese rural culture, so it just wasn’t there. They had tea, but coffee simply wasn’t on the menu. After a bout of caffeine withdrawal, I traveled with instant coffee ever since that day. It turned out the stupid B&B in Göteborg didn’t serve coffee either, because the owner doesn’t drink coffee personally, and regards it as a drug. (It is one. So?) Fortunately, I had my own, but hopefully she will get a bad airbnb review as a consequence. We left right after breakfast and headed towards Malmö. (Update: she wrote to me personally saying she would start stocking coffee!)

On the way, there was a sign on the freeway (it was nice to have freeway after all the little roads) which displayed the World Heritage icon and advertised Radio Station Grimeton. Wait, what? I took the exit, the sign said it was only 6km away, so we went, and decided to stay for a little while. It was built in the 1920s for the purpose of sending telegrams to New York. The radio waves were very low frequency (17.2 kHz, with a wavelength of 18 km) and very high-power (up to 200 KW) and were produced by an enormous alternator. Three large “liquid resistors” in which the level of the sodium hydroxide could be adjusted absorbed any extra energy, and were cooled by a heat exchanger. The station consumes 400 kW and only outputs 200 kW, so it had a pond next to it and pipes to carry the excess heat away. Even in 1924, the north was still the place for heat sinks. Another large machine modulated the signal from the telegraphy key onto the low-frequency carrier. Six large tower antennas radiated the signal, which followed the earth’s surface to somewhere on Long Island. Telegrams going the other direction were received at a completely different facility several kilometers way. We only had about half an hour, but it was a pretty interesting little place.

We arrived in Malmö, returned the car, got on the train, and got stuck at the Copenhagen airport. There was a problem on the track between there and the central train station, and everyone had to get off and complete their trip on the metro. (I wish someone had told us the train tickets would be valid on the metro, but oh well.) We found our four-story-walkup airbnb, the kind where a room in an apartment is free because the resident moved in with her boyfriend but doesn’t want to lose it just in case. We hooked up again with David, who we’d seen at the beginning of the trip, and went to another tapas-like experience. We had nine $16 tiny plates which were essentially bar food. Sweet and sour. The grilled cucumber a little burned. The cress was wilted and one piece was just a stem. They appear to have charged us for tap water. In a bowling alley you would never assess the saltiness of French Onion Soup when it came with your bonito, but at 5 euros a bite, you do.

Anyway, it was super-fun hanging out with David.

Tuesday was our last full day on the trip, and we spent it walking around and shopping; no castles or palaces or museums. We dropped into some art galleries, and into a church with an amazing old organ. We passed a fascinating little neighborhood called Nyboder, a large group of long row houses built in the late 1600s as naval barracks. Today they are all painted the same yellow color. We returned and picked up a few presents we’d seen in the antique shops near the apartment, and went over to David’s house to have dinner with his girlfriend and kids. His two-year-old daughter was a bit frightened by our beards, but finally got over it. The food was delicious and the conversation was fun.

We’d found a good coffee place Tuesday morning, but it wasn’t open in time to make it to the airport. Another place that opened at 8am was Joe and the Juice, which it turned out we’d been to at the airport on the way in, and were puzzled that they not only didn’t squeeze oranges at all, but that you couldn’t even get just grapefruit juices, only one of the blends of three ingredients on the menu. Stupid conceptual cafe. As we approached it, a young Negro started yelling at us, having decided that we were not only Jewish but apparently Israeli as well, blaming us for the genocide being inflicted on the population of Gaza. Ultimately we walked away, but he did hit Ray with a gob of spit. Racial profiling. The ignorance of racists is saddening. This man had obviously never seen any real Hasidic Jews, maybe only caricatures. We weren’t even wearing hats. It would have been an interesting social experiment to tell the immigration people in America that I had been spit on by an African and see whether they are forward-looking enough to go into an Ebola panic, but I would rather stay out of the newspaper these days (he said, on the Internet).

Google Maps suggested the 380S bus would take us to the airport, but it turned out that it only took us to the metro, so we took that to the airport. We got on the plane and went to SF. The seats on SAS are exceptionally close together, especially for a region where so many of its citizens are very tall. The 6’6″ guy across the aisle got his foot run over by the trolleys because there wasn’t room for it in front of him. Once again, the modern refrain: “Why do you hate your customers?”

Paul picked us up at SFO but didn’t seem psyched about going to Clear Lake, so we went home and slept for awhile. The two of us left the next morning and got to Clear Lake in time to see Philipp for a day, whom we’d missed in Berlin. It was nice to have a vacation from the vacation, three solid days of no museums, tons of food, watery beer by day and cocktails by night, lots of sun, and about twenty friends. The lake even almost lived up to its name; the usual algae bloom wasn’t there. The levels of the lake were lower than usual. It seems likely we regained any weight we might have lost on the trip. It’s not something I monitor closely.

As we left on Sunday, there was an unfortunate accident: Adam and Jenny’s dog Sadie got a fishhook in her paw when swimming. But things got much worse when she tried to pick it out with her jaw, and the hooks at the other end got in her lip, effectively attaching the paw to the lip. Someone found a wire cutter, and Alex ultimately broke through the hooks, relieving the pain and the awkward attachment. Of course, at that point what Sadie wanted to do was to head back immediately into the water. That was not going to happen; she got tethered in front of the cabin for the rest of the day.

We said our goodbyes, headed back through sleepy Cache Creek Canyon past the picturesque Cache Creek Casino, and stopped at Winco for some peanut butter. (Don’t shop spontaneously at WinCo. They had this stuff labeled “Gruyere” which turned out to have the word “processed” in it. It was white Velveeta, how is it they get to use the word Gruyere in the label? Could they have called it a Macintosh, or a Faberge egg? The Swiss need to file a lot more cease-and-desist letters.)

Roam on Fillmore in SF still has excellent hamburgers, and we got back home, rested and mostly over the jet lag, ready to get back to the normal routine. To the extent that not crossing borders every few days may be called normal. Judging just by the numbers, nonexistence is the most normal thing there is. The post-proton universe.

Global Warming in Finland

August 5th, 2014 12:11 am by Dave and Ray

The heat wave continued the entire time we were in Finland. None of the cars we drove or the hotel rooms we stayed in had air conditioning. The windows opened in all the rooms, but mostly to provide an opportunity for mosquitoes to enter. The mosquitoes weren’t too numerous (except on our long walk in the woods, where we slathered our skin and clothes with bug spray, twice) but the ones there were were annoying.

We followed the instructions from our airbnb host, taking a bus from the train station, which stopped directly in front of the apartment. The room was minimal, with no air conditioning. After awhile, we headed back into town, walked around the beach for an hour or so, then found a really nice restaurant, Juuri, with “Finnish tapas”. The first thing that happened is they brought free tap water to the table. In Russia, water at restaurants was quite a profit center: since St. Petersburg tap water is sketchy, healthwise, people generally drink bottled water. Restaurants always managed to find some imported water in glass bottles to maximize their revenues, especially on the hot days we were there. In Helsinki, the tap water, besides being completely safe, has won several taste tests compared with bottled water, so restaurants serve it as freely as in the US. We started with what they called a “blackcurrant mojito”, using blackcurrant leaves instead of mint. The “tapas” were actually quite tiny; we ordered six of them without really filling up at all. There was a trout sausage, a carrot with tarragon, a pate, and a couple presentations of herring. The main course was a very flavorful trout served with potatoes which tasted like butter, and tiny bits of morels. We then ordered the cheese plate, tiny bites of four interesting cheeses from Finnish farms; then dessert, yogurt pudding with a distinct licorice flavor that appeared to come from crystals of salt sprinkled on it. It hasn’t been topped by any meal we’ve had since, even at more expensive places.

Tuesday morning we went back into town for breakfast and stamps, then returned to the apartment to get our stuff, and to the train station to go to the airport to get the rental car. Unfortunately, we soon found out the rental car (despite having less than 10000 km on it) had a non-functional air conditioner: it probably used more gas to have it on but it made no difference in the temperature. So we turned it off and cracked the windows somewhat. Our mission was to get to Kuopio, about four hours northwest of Helsinki, but we decided to go look for one of the points in the “Struve geodetic arc”, a series of carefully surveyed points on land, stretching from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea, from which one could, in the 19th century, measure the curvature of the earth — it was discovered that it bulges somewhat in the middle. Now you just look at Google Maps. Our experience was driving to a marked parking lot on a lake beach, looking for a trailhead, getting lost, looking some more, almost giving up, and finding a trailhead, walking about a kilometer to a sign in the woods, and walking back. It was a nice walk, and we found wild blueberries on the trail. We had a conversation with a man and his son who live there and had ridden bikes down to the lake. Then we got back onto the road and headed to Kuopio.

The Finnish countryside is beautiful. It consists almost entirely of forests, interrupted in the south end by farmland, and further north by lakes. If Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, Finland is the land of 10 million lakes. After seeing the lakes up north, returning south many of the fields of rye and wheat looked like green and brown lakes filling in between forested hills (which are presumably piles of massive boulders built by glaciers, covered with soil and trees).

When we arrived at Kuopio, we found we had dithered too long: the hotel had a “smoke sauna” and a traditional Finnish dinner only on Tuesdays, and by the time we got there they were basically both over. Whatever: we’re not big sauna users anyway, and in the hot weather it seems even more pointless. We found some other modest restaurant in town, featuring vendace, a kind of sardine native to Finland.

Wednesday morning we backtracked to Verkaus, home of a mechanical music museum, run by a quirky German guy. The most amazing thing about the museum is that practically every machine in it is functional: the guy would tell some political or ethnic joke, then turn the next machine on for 30 seconds or so. It was a lot of fun. The most modern machine there was a PianoDisc, which allowed tempo changes and transposition, via remote control, of the music played by the attached piano.

We then headed to what has been for me one of the high points of the trip, a six-mile walk in the forest outside Kuopio. Near the trailhead we found a few wild strawberry plants, which had the most intensely flavored tiny strawberries we’d ever had. Before long there were tons of wild blueberries, which for awhile distracted us so much I worried we wouldn’t complete the loop. As usual, there were lots of plants we’d never seen. There were only a few birds, like grouse or something, who were eating blueberries as we walked by, causing them to fly several feet away. We walked by a perfectly serene little lake. We noticed a car parked by a campground, and then found a couple rummaging in some bushes; it turned out they had little scoops designed to pull blueberries off plants. Much more efficient than pulling each berry off individually with fingers. As we neared the end of the loop, we came upon a newly-constructed wooden fire lookout tower, which we climbed and appreciated the view from. Ray asked “are they going to burn it Saturday or Sunday?”

After the walk we followed signs to a place that seemed like a winery: it had the word “viinitila”, and also “ravintola”, the word for restaurant. Since it was so close by (and already almost 8pm), it seemed worth checking out. The road to it was suddenly interrupted by a ferry crossing; the place was on an island. There were signs saying the winery/restaurant and ferry both stop at 9pm. We decided to see how much we could eat or drink or buy in 60 minutes, really hoping we’d get off the island in time. The ferry just goes back and forth if there is someone who needs to cross. There were no questions about tolls — either the state or the island residents pay for it. The winery, Alahovin Viinitila, turns out to make wine from berries: white and black currants and strawberries, mostly. They also make wonderful apple cider. They gave us one of each of the dinner items they were serving: a cabbage soup with sheep meat, a beef/pork stew with mashed potatoes and salad, and fresh strawberries with whipped cream. That and some cider. We bought some blackcurrant wine which we will probably drink in Sweden somewhere. We left the place at 8:54, easily made it onto the ferry along with two other cars, and sat there for 15 minutes while a half-kilometer-long flotilla of logs got tugged through the strait. I suppose the poor ferry driver has to keep ferrying as long as anyone is there.

Thursday we packed up and left and drove toward Rauma, passing other iconic Finnish towns such as Nokia and Lappi. Just before we got there, we stopped at Sammallahden Maki, a neolithic archaeological site consisting of several large piles of rocks, determined to be burial sites. Two formations were called the Church Floor and the Long Wall. That is pretty much the extent of the descriptions about what is known about this site. The signage is fairly nonexistent.

Rauma has one of the largest preserved “Old Town” neighborhoods in the world, with several buildings dating back to the 1680s. The town has a great architectural consistency, for the same reason that all consistent towns do: it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt all at the same time. As we arrived, we found ourselves unable to follow Google Maps’ directions, because a street fair next to our hotel (with no air conditioning) had blocked the roads. We improvised another route and parked. The fair was an “international street fair” with food booths from several countries (Germany, Italy, Spain) and trinket booths we didn’t pay much attention to. I was happy to see an Italy booth with a cappuccino machine, since I hadn’t really seen much in rural Finland.. We went to a place in Old Town for dinner (“goto Kök and Bar”). As we wandered back, we found a telephone museum, which was opening itself to the public for one week. It’s not really a museum so much as it is one guy’s collection, stored in an old building. The owner’s son arrived just as we stood there and stared, and he let us in and pointed everything out. There was an old-fashioned switchboard that was connected to several of the old phones: you could crank from one, and a switchboard connection would pop open; you could hook it up to another and crank from the switchboard, and the other one would ring. Most of the phones were from the pre-rotary era, but there was one section of rotary phones, and even one little shelf of ancient cellphones. Almost everything there was made by L.M. Ericsson’s company — nothing by Western Electric.

Friday morning we returned to the Italy booth for breakfast (and several other places that served various sweets and pastries). Then we walked around Old Town a bit more, which had several Open Houses for its annual Lace Week celebrations, mostly people having yard sales. After awhile we hit the road back to Helsinki, stopping in Turku to see the Sibelius museum. We had about 45 minutes to see it before it closed; it had a pretty impressive collection of old instruments, particularly keyboard instruments. One room highlighted Sibelius’ life and works.

Driving in Finland was a little nerve-wracking: there are speed cameras everywhere. And the speed limit is constantly going back and forth between 80 and 100, and it is annoying to have to keep such close track of which one it is currently at. The cameras are very ancient-looking, like the ones I saw in South Africa in 2001. For awhile I figured the cameras facing me were the ones to worry about, but later I decided it was the ones across the road facing my rear. Hopefully not every minuscule transgression witnessed by every camera results in a hefty fine: while many people seemed as intimidated as in Australia, driving at the limit plus 5 or so, there were still many drivers who didn’t seem to worry about going 20 over the limit. I hope there isn’t a pile of mail after I get home. The freeway from Turku back to Helsinki didn’t seem to care so much about the speed: it was 120 almost the whole way.

We dropped the luggage off at the Eurohostel (no air conditioning), returned the car to the airport, picked up our three-day Helsinki Cards, and took the airport bus back to town. We found a restaurant with “Lapland food”, a large appetizer plate with reindeer jerky, smoked reindeer, salmon tartar, sardines, etc., then went back to the hostel to prepare ourselves for using the Cards as much as possible in the next 2.5 days.

Saturday we headed straight to Suomenlinna, ruins of a fortress on a group of islands just off of the mainland. The ferry is part of the same system as the buses and trams, and was included on our cards. The place was packed with locals taking advantage of the hot weather to sunbathe and picnic. Our cards also entitled us to a guided tour (we were the only ones on the English-language tour). Ray found it a bit odd that our guide, a journalism student who gave us a good overview of Finnish history, recounting the wars which caused transitions between Swedish rule to Russian rule to independence, didn’t seem to know which side his grandfather was on in the Finnish civil war. We had a little picnic with pretzels and German salamis we’d gotten in Rauma, and visited a military museum and a submarine.

It was fairly late in the afternoon when we got back, but we squeezed in a visit to the Design Museum. Design is one of the things Scandinavians are famous for, especially furniture. The museum had its permanent collection downstairs, with many beautiful objects. Some are timeless, like Fiskars scissors, unchanged since the 1960s. There was an exhibition upstairs featuring the life work of Ilmara Tapiovaara, whose career was spent designing furniture and interiors for applications ranging from low-cost postwar student housing (Domus Academica), hotels, and Finnair planes.

That night we went to Postres, a one-star restaurant which was pleasant and tasty and interesting, and quite expensive. It didn’t compare to Atelier Amaro in Warsaw, though. They featured a variety of aquavits: we tried about three of them. A Norwegian double-cask was the most interesting, served with the meatballs.

Sunday we went to two museums. The Amos Anderson museum was opened to showcase the collection of Mr. Anderson, a businessman, politican, and art enthusiast. Now it features various temporary exhibitions as well. The Big Picture was about large art, where the artists were all asked what they thought about the factor of size of an artwork. (My favorite answer, from Jarmo Kukkonen, was that a large artwork makes the viewer look small.) Another included the life work of painter Beda Stjernschantz, who made various portraits and landscapes in what she called the symbolist style, around the turn of the 20th century. I think you’d have to be Finnish to know what they symbolized. Another featured art about people working. The funniest was from a group called Icelandic Love Corporation, and was a portrait of Mr. Anderson made out of tights material (essentially serving as large round pixels).

Kiasma, the contemporary art museum nearby, had a floor where several Marimekko designers made various works: one favorite was a little glass shed containing hundreds of various green objects. A retrospective of their permanent collection had thousands of ribbons hanging from the ceiling, which one was invited to walk through. I liked a room containing a table, a bench, a lamp, and a mirror, except that you couldnt’ see yourself in the mirror, only the other objects. Strange. The other floors featured Alfredo Jaar, a South African artist most of whose works draw attention to the first world’s neglect of the continent, and worldwide social injustice just generally. After finishing the pretzels and another salami, we felt like we needed salad, which we found at a Moroccan place a little bit away from the center of town. We also walked over to examine two cow sculptures we’d noticed earlier from the car: they were made entirely out of parts of wrecked cars.

Monday we went to the airport, and flew to Mariehamn in the Åland islands. They are basically the San Juans, but they are much smaller and more numerous (6000), and are completely flat. They are officially part of Finland, though they are ethnically Swedish, which is the official language. They have their own postal system, license plates, and Internet domain (.ax). There are buses in town, but none at the airport, and very sporadic service around the main islands. So we took a taxi (4 km for 15 euros) to the hotel (with no air conditioning), walked the 1.5 miles to town and back the first day, and rented a car the second day. We found a nice enough restaurant in town, and took advantage of an increasingly rare opportunity to have some foie gras.

Tuesday we walked into town and picked up the car (the only one available had no air conditioning), then headed up to Smakbyn, a distillery on the next island over. Their dinner menu looked good, but we had other plans; we had a simple lunch there, including a salad with smoked-not-cooked lamb pastrami. They distill a rum from sugar cane, and they make several fruit-based liqueurs, served in gorgeous bottles with a blown representation of the fruit inside. We tasted the pear version, which was delicious. There is another variety I saw at a store with a moose head in the bottle instead of a fruit: the only Google hit I found on its name called it a “moose eau de vie”. (Today we found a bottle of the pear liqueur at the local Alko (the government alcohol store; supermarkets sell only beer and wine) — it was impressively expensive. After it’s all gone, I’ll keep the bottle as art.)

After lunch, we went to Bomarsund Fortress Ruins, the ruins of a large defensive compound the Russians started building in about 1830, shortly after they took control of what is now Finland, including the Åland islands. Unfortunately for them, the English destroyed it in 1854 in the Crimean War: my favorite line from the info panels was “The enormity of their plans was perhaps its greatest weakness”. I’m sure there are software projects that could refer to. There was a 3-mile trail around the area, passing by fragments of the original buildings, buildings whose foundation had been built, and buildings which had only been planned. There were drawings of the plans displayed, obtained from the Russian archives. The outside of the main fort was made by carefully interlocked pieces of stone, looking much like the construction style at Macchu Picchu. In addition to the fortress itself, the walk provided excellent views of the archipelago: just as the Finland mainland has tons of lakes, so Åland has tons of islands. When you see them by flying over them, it’s a smooth transition from Finland Proper to the Turku Archipelago.

We had a little time left to visit Kastelholm, ruins of an old stone castle from the 1600s. Drawbridge, keep, all the usual stuff. An info panel said some prince “was to be kept in custody, in a style befitting royalty”. Like Lompoc, I guess. The castle is open until 5 all summer, and until 6 in July; stupidly, the adjoining parts of the complex were closed by the time we got to them at 5:15. When will Europe learn that the gift shop should always be the very last place to close?

We had made reservations for a dinner tour of the Stallhagen brewery. There were the two of us, another party of four, and a woman from Åland who now lives in Chicago, hosting a party for 39 of her family members. It felt like we were wedding crashers. But the tour was interesting. Their beer says “Slow Beer — Hand Made”, and the guide explained that they let beer ferment for up to 18 weeks, while big “chemical” brewers might let it ferment for as little as 18 hours. He also said that they get hops from the Czech Republic (for bitterness) and the US (for aroma) but that global warming is allowing them to consider growing their own. They served half-glasses of four varieties with four tiny hors d’oeuvres, and another full glass of our choice with dinner. The guide said that some beers improve by sitting in a cellar for a few years, and that they were asking the government for permission to label a beer as “Best After” a certain date. All the beers we tried (standard, dark honey, lemon/ginger, and dark vanilla/cinnamon) were fairly lightweight but still had interesting flavors. Now we are on the ferry to Stockholm, and I just had their IPA, which has a nice amount of bitterness but is still fairly light.

Pink Russia

July 21st, 2014 9:23 pm by Dave and Ray

We acted like millionaires when we got to Belarus: one dollar is 10,000 Belarussian rubles. I withdrew three million rubles in the first 48 hours. Things are often absurdly inexpensive, though: paid-for WiFi at our first hotel was US$0.54 for three hours; most museum admissions were about US$1.50. The subway in Minsk was 37 cents a ride. Gas is about the same price as in the US, about $4 per gallon; in Western Europe it’s about double that. Our dinner checks ran at about US$45 for meals with wine at nice places. There were some amusing ATM error messages in Belarus and in Warsaw: in Warsaw, it didn’t sense that I had taken the cash, and it told me the cash had been retracted and never gave me a receipt. In Belarus, after I had taken my cash and card, it said “transaction cancelled”. Wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t charge my account in both cases? Turns out it did; oh well.

Our first stop in Belarus was Brest; the bus arrived around dinnertime. The tourist agency made all the arrangements, as part of the deal to get an invitation to Belarus (you need to be invited to get a visa); therefore twin beds. It seemed very Soviet, certainly from that era. In particular, in between eavery pair of rooms was an unmarked door with no handle, which served as a listening post for a human being, who had to peer through a hole in the wall and listen on microphones in lamp bases and such. How primitive that seems, compared with modern listening capabilities! No wonder America won the cold war.

We found a hotel a block away with a nice restaurant, where we had various salads and an excellent piece of grilled sausage. On Saturday we walked to the Museum of Confiscated Art, which contained mostly items of religious art that people tried, and failed, to smuggle to Poland and the West after the Soviet Union fell apart. There were a few photos showing places the art would be hidden. Most of it, they didn’t catch. Anyone who went to NAMM in the early 1990’s will recall the gift shops at the Anaheim Hilton and other hotels were chock full of Russian icons, being sold at Disneyland-souvenir prices. So ever, the spoils of war.

We walked afterwards to the Soviet War Memorial for the Hero Fortress of Brest, which was many times larger than the one we had just seen in Berlin. First you walk under a 40-foot-high star-shaped opening in a concrete wall. A quarter-mile or so later you arrive at a piece of concrete just as tall sculpted into a soldier fixing his grim gaze with Soviet Socialist resolve, on the ruined walls and polished marble memorial stones below. The Hero Fortress of the Alamo seems penny ante by comparison. The island contains rebuilt military buildings and a large church. There is an archaeological museum displaying the remains of a village from the 1300s made of log houses, quite well preserved by the bog they were buried in. There is also a war museum illustrating the effects of WWII on life in Belarus. There is not a lot of English labeling in this memorial, but how much is needed to see what the Nazis did to Eastern Europe?

We returned to the hotel, walked to the train station, and boarded our train to Minsk, pausing only to be photographed with a bridesmaid and her mother in a wedding we passed. Happens all the time. Joining us in our train compartment was a professional accordion player (his father taught him, and his two brothers play it also). In the first five minutes of conversation we determined that we were both familiar with Alloy Orchestra (he and they had played in a silent film festival in Odessa, we’d seen them at the Castro) and Nik Bärtsch (he was a fan, we’d just seen them in Warsaw). So we found stuff to talk about for the whole four hour ride. He played us his demo video of his trio (a bass player and drummer) but we couldn’t manage to transfer it to our computer. Trying to deal with computers kills conversation. Anyone who listens to his music and doesn’t get excited should go to jail. It was also extremely sweet of Yegor and his wife and three year old son to take us to our hotel in Minsk.

Bonhotel is a modern business hotel a few miles from the center of Minsk, not far from a subway stop but far from things like places to eat or things to see. Fortunately, it had a nice restaurant open late, in which breakfast was also included. On Sunday we took the subway into town, and just explored the extremely wide main road starting at Independence Square, extending up to the Victory Tower. We passed the main government building; we stopped to be contaminated near old brick Roman Catholic church with a pergola out front featuring soil samples from Chernobyl and Alamogordo; we passed the KGB building. We found a place with fresh orange juice, and a post office (every post office we visited in Belarus seemed to have different ideas about the necessary postage for postcards and which stamp (M, N, or P) was required). We probably overpaid but we are hopeful everything will be delivered. Midday we passed a TGI Friday’s; for dinner we ended up at something that seemed TGI Belarus, in that it had a long menu and quirky decor. It was actually quite good.

Monday morning a tour guide and driver picked up us and our luggage, and took us to see Mir and Nesvizh castles, 90 minutes out of Minsk. Both of them belonged to Polish princes in the Radziwill family (perhaps you recognize the name: a descendant prince later married Jackie Kennedy’s sister). They were largely destroyed in WWII, and fairly completely rebuilt recently. They went to lots of auctions to find furnishings similar to those which were originally there.

Monday night was the first of two nights spent on a train. The train left Minsk at 8:30pm, and took a roundabout route to Vitebsk, arriving at 5:50am. The train for Tuesday didn’t leave until 10pm. So there were many hours early and late in the day to kill — we ended up spending time in the lobby and restaurant of a big hotel, and in the left-luggage room, where they had an outlet for charging our phones. We spent the midday hours visiting the Mark Chagall home, some other city museums, and the Mark Chagall museum, which contained many prints of his work. We also had a decent dinner, with awesome rye bread.

Wednesday morning we arrived in St. Petersburg, and took a taxi to our hotel. It had a meter, but the price sure climbed quickly. At one point there was incredible gridlock and we couldn’t move for ten minutes. Things in St. Petersburg are maybe twice as expensive as in Belarus, which is still a bargain for subway rides, or bottles of water in grocery stores. Gas is still the same price as the US. Dinners in tourist restaurants approached US prices.

The entire trip so far has been cloudy and a little rainy. Some days, especially in Belarus, we carried our Antarctica jacket shells, and for one mad dash from the metro to the hotel in Minsk in particular, we are glad we did: it rained really hard for just a little while. But the whole time in St. Petersburg was sunny and warm every day, with no rain at all, and the time in Finland promises to be the same. And since the day goes from 5am to 11pm, that’s a lot of sun.

We left our luggage at Hotel Regina and explored the neighborhood, finding a place to have coffee and orange juice and then walking around the Peter and Paul Fortress. We didn’t actually buy any tickets to see the church or the prison, or any of the other attractions like the rampart walk or the torture museum or the Leonardo Da Vinci museum which each had a separate $7.50 admission not included in the basic admission, but felt like we kind of got the idea. We got back and checked into our room, bought online tickets for the Hermitage, and rested all afternoon. In the evening we went to Chekhov, a delightful little restaurant near the hotel. Homemade sauerkraut, duck pelmeni, and beef stroganoff which was described on the menu in terms of how recently the beef was bought, were all really good. It did seem at some point though that our waitress lost interest, never delivered some pies we’d ordered or asked if we wanted dessert. Fortunately, we were completely full, but we had to ask someone else to get us the check.

Thursday we arrived at the Hermitage just before it opened, and exchanged our voucher for our tickets. We spent the entire opening time from 10:30 to 6pm wandering the galleries, marveling at the building itself, and mostly concentrating on European art. Dinner was at Tsar, whose major claim to fame is that it is massively overpriced. OK, its toilets are like thrones, and one of them has racy wallpaper, and there is lots of sturgeon and caviar on the menu, but though we avoided those items, everything we got tasted decently good, especially the Siberian pelmeny and the venison in cowberry sauce, but cost over twice as much as anywhere else since we left Berlin.

There is a roving European biennial of contemporary art called Manifesta. This year it took place in St. Petersburg, at the Hermitage. A large hunk of it was located in the General Staff building across from the main Hermitage complex, but in order to bring attention to it, all of the Hermitage’s Matisse works were moved from the Winter Palace and some of the Manifesta art took its place there. Most significantly, one of these rooms showed an artist who tacked up 16 drawings of great men, listing their accomplishments. The point was that all of them are gay: this exhibit had a “16+” warning ensuring that no impressionable youngsters might get any ideas. No one seemed to be checking IDs, though. I can imagine the museum having different opinions from Moscow. Stalin regularly executed museum directors from Leningrad, in his day.

So Friday we started off the day in the General Staff building (our two-day ticket included admission to that as well as a few other places) and saw the Manifesta work there. (Actually, we started with the Matisse works including “Danse” and “Musique”.) Some of the more interesting works included:

  • a video of some guys who drove a car from Belgium to St. Petersburg and crashed it into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace (the car was there, next to the tree, and children playing in it, not the usual Hermitage policy toward touching art);
  • a full-size sculpture of six apartments on the fifth and sixth floors whose “walls” had come crashing down onto the ground
  • a tunnel with photos of a project where a guy lived with the Hermitage cats underground for six weeks: they eat mice. This also is rated 16+ for reasons I can’t imagine. There does seem to be a bit of a furry culture in St. Petersburg. The empresses are all pictured wearing ermine with the tails of the animals dangling out, and you see people on the streets even on a hot day in hats with animal ears (and one poor fellow leafletting for a boat tour or some damn thing, in a full on zebra/skunk/???? costume when the temperature was 30 all day long). Maybe they are afraid kids will turn into cats.

After this we returned to the main Hermitage complex and saw exhibits of Russian culture, Dutch and Flemish art, and just a taste of Greek and Roman antiquities before once again it became 6:00. We had targeted a Georgian restaurant on the opposite side of the nearest metro station, but we found another one much closer which turned out to be really good. Our waiter was the son of the owners. Of course, we had cheese bread (essentially pizza, but they will be offended if you say that, and the cheese is much tastier than on pizza). Other items included chicken in egg-lemon soup, beef stew, and homemade Georgian wine. It was all really good, and relatively inexpensive.

Saturday, after two seven-hour days of museum wandering, we slept in. When we finally got going, we visited some other sites, starting with Church of the Spilled Blood. No, not Christ’s blood: the tsar Alexander II’s blood, which is more mission-critical. He was mortally wounded in an explosion, and his son built a church where it happened, including constructing a intrusion into the canal so that a shrine could be built at the exact spot. The church itself is fabulous inside and out: like St. Basil’s in Moscow, it has brightly colored enamel towers and whimsical construction. Inside, every wall and ceiling is covered with bright mosaics, recently restored since the Communists were not really into maintaining a shrine to an assassinated Czar. They used it as a storehouse, I think. The floor is many colors of marble. Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at an Armenian place, trying not to order too much: a “curled dock” salad, a soup which was basically raita, eggplant dip, and bread (again, basically pizza dough, this time without cheese). We then found an obscurely located post office to buy more stamps (Russia is definitely cheaper than Germany was or Finland will be): it was through a closed door, up a dark staircase, then through another closed door. The next stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, an immense Romanesque church where you can walk around the dome and get good views of the city. We did that, then went inside the church, which again had sumptuous paintings, carvings, and mosaics. We walked along the river for awhile, but it was too sunny and noisy. There isn’t really a malecon and definitely not picturesque male hustlers as in Havana. Only just a big trafficky street and the sun blazing down on the Admiralty buildings and you at the same time, in stereo. I realize it’s precious to complain about the heat at 60° N but it was hot. We eventually gave up walking and returned to the Armenian restaurant for dinner, where we had pickled okra (and some other mystery vegetable), tomato salad, delicious homemade noodles, and “whipped beef”, which was an enormous slab about the consistency of fish cake. We somehow had room for dessert, advertised as a “cottage cheese pie”: essentially it was cannoli filling served on a saltine cracker. You can’t really go wrong with cannoli filling.

Sunday started out with a pleasant breakfast at Zhan-Zhak Russo, a seemingly French cafe (which turns out to be a chain; we saw another one later). They accommodated my request for strong cappuccino, they served double the quantity of fresh OJ for the single price at breakfast time (400 ml vs 200), and we split a nice omelet with sausage and potatoes on it. An aspiring director was filming just inside the front door. We walked across to Vasilevsky Island, and continued the Manifesta tour at another site. After a few hours of that, we walked to the subway passing a pro-pro-Russian-Ukranian demonstration, the guy said he was “against America”. I didn’t think of pointing out that they wouldn’t change hearts and minds by shooting down airliners until we passed, but then I didn’t want to get in a fight. Also he didn’t speak English so much, and he’d probably just want to bring up Iran Air 655 and then we’d say KAL 007 and then he’d say Cubana 455 and I wonder if these flight numbers get played in the lottery, or avoided? You’d have to be Rain Man to keep up with major power perfidy in airspace alone.

We went south to see a monument of the Defenders of Leningrad, and the cute little pink and white Chesma Church we’d seen on a postcard. You could base a vacation on postcards first, and then ideas of what to see. Dinner afterwards was at Severyanin, a Russian place where the winning dishes were homemade noodles made out of flour ground from crab-cherry seeds served with pumpkin, more delicious rye bread, and delicious ice cream which tasted just like rye bread.

We found the lowest proportion of people who could understand English in Belarus, though people in tourist places in Minsk communicated well and Prime Tours connected us with a guide who spoke well. At one museum in Vitebsk they rustled up two young women who between them were able to recall enough vocabulary to show us stuff. The tourist industry in St. Petersburg runs deep, and the impression there, other than the occasional Soviet architecture, is that you are in some dreamscape Vienna/Paris mashup. The Soviet-era fashion echo is strong in Belarus: the young women largely dress like Mrs. Peel and the older women like Divine. St. Petersburg could be anywhere, fashionwise. A bit more numerous mullets, some which would frighten Ah Q. Really why travel at all, except to see countries where somebody picks up their damn litter. All these places are quite tidy compared to San Francisco, and they have lots of vodka bottles to contend with.

Here’s tidy: A demolition machine which is entirely covered with a green canopy, to keep dust from escaping. Film at never.

Many people in Minsk and St. Petersburg were very friendly and wanted to take pictures with us. We have been getting more aggressive about taking pictures back, and some day we will post them. Meanwhile…where do those photos go? We must be all over imgur and flickr, but I can’t think of a single instance where anyone has linked to us and said, hey, that’s you guys and 15 middle-school Russian girls in the Peter and Paul Fortress! The world is still big.

We took a fast train to Helsinki, where we are now. Our adventures here in the continued heat wave will be covered later.

We Wish We Were from Praga

July 12th, 2014 12:43 pm by Dave and Ray

The charming old buildings in Old Town Warsaw date all the way back to 1946. The Royal Castle dates back to 1984. Warsaw was bombed in 1939, and the Germans declared that Poland no longer existed. The Warsawians developed an insurgent force and staged an uprising in August 1944. They were fairly successful in resisting the Germans for about five or six weeks, until the town was basically razed. So much of what you see nowadays has been completely reconstructed. We started Tuesday with a visit to a small exhibition about the reconstruction. Then we walked through New Town, and Ray checked out the Marie Curie museum I’d visited in 2009. Continuing on our walk, we saw two monuments: a statue of a train car full of crosses, and another monument, in the approximate form factor of a large boxcar, to the 300,000 Jews from Warsaw ghetto. It is at the site of the railroad platform (Umschlagplatz) from which they were taken to Treblinka and Oswiecim to be gassed by the Nazis. We then visited the Jewish cemetery, with graves ranging from illegible to plain to fancy in a beautiful forest setting. This whole route was intended to end up at the fairly new Warsaw Uprising Museum, but it turns out it is closed on Tuesdays. Oops. So we headed towards the center of town, saw a little modern art museum, and looked at the Soviet socialist-realist Palace of Culture and Science building, now home to to a cinema, two museums, many offices, and a view on the top floor (which we didn’t bother with. All town photos from viewing platforms are the same).

Dinner Monday night, on the main tourist restaurant strip, featured a traditional rye soup, with white sausages and egg, which was very tasty. Everything else was fine, though not especially memorable. Dinner Tuesday night was across the street from there, and featured delicious apple cider, and various fillings in pierogis.

We weren’t able to get a dinner reservation at Atelier Amaro, allegedly Poland’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, but they suggested lunch. So on Wednesday morning, we took bus 116 to the Poster Museum in the Wilanow estate, which has as its exhibit just now the Poster Biennale. There were a couple hundred posters on display: it seemed a large percentage of them were advertising plays. One group of them did creative things with text, though they weren’t nearly as interesting as those in the New Gallery doing creative things with graphics. We had time to walk around the gardens of Wilanow before heading up to lunch. The return bus let us off at another set of posters along the edge of a park, all created by two Japanese artists: these were more interesting than most of the ones in the musuem.

Atelier Amaro’s subhead is “where nature meets science”. They like using their liquid nitrogen and their vacuum machine. We shared all six items on their menu: an example of one of them was a powder made out of smoked eel and horseradish, topped by edible flowers, with a cherry sauce poured next to it. Another was melt-in-your-mouth rabbit kidneys covered with some green sauce to make them the same color as the broad beans they were served with. Absolutely everything in the meal was stunning. The waiter took us downstairs to the tiny kitchen afterwards. What is it with these glorious restaurants and their tiny kitchens? True, Atelier Amaro is about the size of the Umschlagplatz monument, but I have a decent kitchen for one person and I can’t find a place to set down a pot:  I think that a Michelin Star means you have enough sense not to put junk mail on the counter.

After lunch, we hopped on a bus and dashed to the Uprising Museum, which opened in 2004. It is comprehensive, with tons of stuff to read and things to look at. Little drawers in the walls opened to show some person. Little eyepieces embedded in the wall revealed a video screen simulating a slideshow. All text was in Polish and English. Movies actually produced during the uprising, to raise the morale of the Warsaw citizens, were shown continuously. One wall showed a series of letters a German officer wrote back to his commander, at first quite frustrated at how prepared the insurgents were and how difficult it was to make any headway, but later starting to get more confident and pleased that they were able to squash the rebellion. And a six-minute 3-D flyover film of a model of what Warsaw must have looked like after it was bombed left a sad impression. The whole thing gives a pretty good education on what life was like during the war. Walking back from the museum, we had some further appetizers at a little wine bar a couple other guys who ate at Amaro suggested we check out.

Thursday we started with another uprising monument near our hotel, and a military-themed church I’d seen on my previous visit. Then we zoomed down to Savior Square, where some folks have erected a large rainbow arch in the square. It was in fine form, but apparently it frequently gets damaged: Warsaw and Poland have a ways to go as far as acceptance of gays is concerned. It’s the Roman Catholic Church, you could say, but the Church hasn’t affected their fondness for Copernicus. Then we got on the tram, and crossed the river to the “up and coming” Praga neighborhood.

Up and coming it is — there is construction everywhere. A little factory is being turned into Santana Row, with lofts and apartments around the outside, and stores in the middle. But there is still some culture: we peered into a photo studio, and the photographer invited us in to have our picture taken holding a “We wish we were from Praga” sign. She said she had filmed 300 people for the project. There are lots of cute little cafes with funny names like Absurdum and Sens Nonsensical. But our ultimate destination for the day was the Soho Factory nearby. In that complex, first we went to the Neon Museum, much like Buchstaben in Berlin, with a collection of neon letters off of buildings. Many of them had been restored, and were properly displayed in the building. There were a couple of galleries and a little store. And there was a restaraunt, with a sit-at-the-bar room open 24/7 for food, and a nicer more expensive sit-at-tables room. Its food was OK, but nothing moved us like everything at Amaro did. It’s Yoshi’s.

And then it was time for the jazz show, one day of the Warsaw Summer Jazz Days festival. It appeared to be presented by some well-known person: the official logo for the festival featured the hat this person wears. We are fans of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, and they opened the show, playing their polyrhythmic ambient composed sonic experience for about 80 minutes. Next was pianist Gerald Clayton, whose music sounded classical at times, but was all extremely pleasant with a lot of dynamic range. Last was Now Here, with Marc Cameron and Gary Peacock, basically three old men playing more traditional jazz, with muddled piano (one must be careful using the sustain pedal in a concrete factory), tons of melody on double-bass, and competent drums. Afterwards we found out how infrequently night buses run — we shared a taxi with someone, which only took us about halfway and we ended up walking 20 minutes anyway.

Friday was regimented with Swiss precision: breakfast at 9 (Old Town is deserted before then, and everything is closed), see as much of the Royal Castle as possible from 10 to 11:30, then get on the 12:00 bus across town to find our 1:00 bus which took us to Brest in Belarus. We did find the bus, spent about 3.5 hours driving and 2.5 hours at the border, and now we are here, back behind the Iron Curtain.

A Big Fat Romanian Wedding

July 7th, 2014 7:13 am by Dave and Ray

We arrived at the Bucharest airport, where we caught a bus to the train station. (How many forms of transportation can one put in a sentence?) Our Hello Hotel was a couple blocks away, and consisted of identical tiny rooms with super-efficient use of space. We bought train tickets for the next day, and then our friend Bogdan and his girlfriend Alina picked us up and took us to Goccia for dinner. He pointed out at the next table a Romanian DJ whom we would have heard of if we were Romanian. It is a nice place. Afterwards Alina directed us to Eden, a place longtime Bucharest resident Bogdan hadn’t even seen, a beer garden on the grounds of ruins of an old royal summer palace. One large area had tables set up under the trees, with a bar nearby; another one, also outside, was down two flights of stairs, and had a DJ playing. It was quite unusual and pleasant to be able to drink alcohol with friends in public and still be able to hear them speak. A concrete space under the palace connected another bar space with the restrooms, somewhere between an art gallery and a junky basement. Imagine if all the pieces from “Defenestration” had landed in fornices and walled-off stairwells.

Thursday we took a six-hour train ride to Pașcani, where our friends picked us up and drove another hour to Iași. The trains directly to Iași run at stupid times of the day, either overnight or leaving at 5am. Thursday night began the 72-hour marathon of our friend Stef’s Romanian wedding festivities. Actually the festivities proper started Friday afternoon at 3pm, with a quick civil ceremony at a government building, with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March looped the entire fifteen minutes of the Communist-era ritual. They continued Saturday at 4pm, with a religious ceremony in a just-renovated 17th-century Orthodox church, which had a few of the original frescoes in dim paint on gray concrete, but mostly completely new brightly colored ones covering the walls. It was curious in that we were all sitting down, and photos were encouraged. The wedding photographer even was ushered into one of the pulpits before the iconostasis, which was open until the end of the service and then the curtain rung down. Try doing that in your average tourist Orthodox church.

After a coffee interlude at a nearby cafe, we all drove up the hill overlooking the city south of town for the party at Motel Bucium, which got started at 9pm and went on, so I heard, to 5am. We lost steam around 2am, and retired to our room. Each of the four courses constituting dinner came out about every two hours or so. By far the principal activity was dancing — a variety of traditional Romanian songs and popular Western hits were played, either completely live by the five-piece band, or with a couple members and backing tracks, or purely as recordings while the band was on break. Some of the choices seemed a little odd for a wedding, such as “I Will Survive”, and “Roxanne” (despite the fact the bride’s name was Roxana). The dancing ranged from individual to massive circle dances. Most people were pretty spaced out the next day, though mostly from lack of sleep.

All of the rest of the time before, after, and between the wedding events was spent consuming this or that with our many friends there; beer, food, coffee, homemade wine, ţuică (Romania’s “white lightning”). Several guests were pretty incapacitated after heavy drinking Friday night. My favorite place was Beraria Veche, which had a comprehensive menu of Romanian food. The most disappointing place was Little Texas, which was having its Independence Day weekend special menu. It seemed everything went wrong: the Independence Day Salad Ray ordered arrived as an Independence Day Cocktail; the Lincoln Burger was delivered with chicken though the menu clearly said beef; there were only three ribs served on the plate, instead of three slabs of ribs as one might expect in Big Texas. Even the Texas flag in front was hung upside-down. They just got a new owner and while he has concentrated on expanding the facilities, he’s not really paying enough attention to the food. Sigh.

Anyway, it was fun catching up with Radu and Andrei, who we’d met in California when they were in high school, and their parents and posse, though we only talked with the ones who spoke good English. We also met Radu’s two-year-old, Luca, a smart, happy little kid. I had the feeling that if I spoke Romanian I’d understand him pretty clearly; Radu said that the main problem is pronouncing R’s, which came out as L’s. That’s a common problem in English, too. We are all born Chinese.

Sunday afternoon Radu dropped us off at the Iași airport (renovations and a bigger runway coming soon) for our trip to Warsaw with a layover in Rome (kind of like flying from SF to LA with a layover in Denver, but saving $150 USD per ticket by so doing). We had reservations at a hotel near the Rome airport which had a seafood restaurant, Pascucci al Porticciolo, which has one Michelin star. We were disappointed to learn, well in advance, that it was closed on Sunday nights; I picked out another restaurant a bit further away. When we arrived at Fiumicino, all of the taxi prices were shocking and highly variable (20 euros to 55 euros for three kilometers): we bailed on the alternate restaurant (which hadn’t replied to my reservation email) and just headed for the hotel, which was closer. We ended up sharing a taxi with a family, each party paying 15 euros for a three-mile trip. Such a racket.

When we arrived at the hotel, we asked if there was any place to eat, and they said “we have a restaurant”: it was open after all! We quickly changed, and sat down to a raw-fish-centric seven-course tasting menu at 10:45pm, which was excellent. They did space out one of the courses, but we reminded them and then they brought it: “parmigiana del mare”, a base of “tomato paper” with eggplant, burrata cheese, and perfectly cooked calamari. Other courses included an oyster served under green apple and basil sorbet, gnocchi made with green beens served with tuna, and two various tartares of fish. We ridiculed ourselves a bit for getting so upset at elevated taxi prices while not batting an eyelash at the 205-euro bill for the meal, but some people are just like that, I guess. The place felt much more like a restaurant which also has rooms with beds than it did like a hotel which also has a dining room. But need I mention that the hotel was styling intensely in its own right: white hallways lit with large recessed blue rectangles in the ceiling.

If the taxis hadn’t been so rapacious, we would have gone directly to the backup restaurant, and missed the main event. Insert Panglossian homily here.

In the morning we took another 15 euro taxi back to the airport (three kilometers and 16.90 on the meter! but he did settle for 15) and caught our flight to Warsaw, where we will spend three days, not including today, which is being spent relaxing and doing errands, such as writing these words. We are staying at Castle Inn, a charming little place in Old Town I stayed at in 2009.


Two Pieces of Evidence

July 1st, 2014 12:44 pm by Dave and Ray

We left San Francisco Thursday at 5:30pm and flew to Copenhagen, arriving early Friday afternoon. The plane flew north of the terminator, so that there was daylight the entire flight, though they turned off the lights and closed the shades so people could try to sleep. Ray prefers a window seat, especially when flying over Greenland, and especially when not one person on the plane was looking out the window for one second the whole ten-hour flight. Why travel at all if you are so incurious?

We had a six-hour layover, and our friend David picked us up at the airport, took us to his house, showed us the cool 3D-printed watch he’s making. I was not aware you could 3D-print bronze. Apparently you fuse fine powder with laser light. As with all art in this century, the actual making of it occurs miles away from the artist. It’s work enough just specifying. And while his day job is writing signal processing software, he has involved himself with mechanical engineering and circuit design for this project. What a guy.

David walked with us through some parks and put us on a train back to the airport. A very nice way to spend a longish layover. We then boarded a short flight to Berlin, and took a taxi to our friend Philipp’s house. His friend Simone let us in, then we went to find some food open late (we found Turkish food a couple miles away) and then immediately went to sleep.

It is unfortunate that we did not get to hang out with Philipp in Berlin, because he is a very fun person. But it was wonderful of him to let us stay at his house and take his car everywhere. He had to go to Munich for a film festival; had we known that in advance perhaps we would have planned differently. He lives southeast of the center of Berlin near the Plänterwald park, a short walk from various S-trains and buses.

Saturday we intended to visit two museums. As we waited for the first to open, we went into an exhibition next door called Material Evidence, where people were showing very large prints of war photography taken in Syria and Ukraine. In some cases they had collected some items pictured in the photos, such as a dummy intended to reveal the locations of snipers, and a hanging bar used in what used to be a restaurant for torture. Having visited Syria in 2004, and Kiev in 2009, it was very sad to see all of the needless death and destruction that has plagued both places recently.

Then we went into Buchstaben, which collects donated display lettering and neon from the sides of buildings. At this point they have a rather large collection, all carefully cataloged and identified. It seems to be arranged in the building mostly by color. Our friend Skot collects this type of thing himself, and our friend Steve is interested in fonts, so it seemed like a good place to check out on their behalf. Next to an exhibit showing how illuminated letters are constructed, there was a video clip from Inglourious Basterds showing the remants of a letter E, part of CINEMA, which was salvaged from the theater explosion at the end; as a movie prop, its construction was much less rigorous than something designed to be used for decades. But it fit the meme of Photo/Artifact from Photo which is of concern to curators on that city block.

We arrived at Sammlung Boros in time for our reservation. It is a contemporary art collection, with lots of young unknown artists and a few well-known ones like Ai Weiwei and Wolfgang Tillmans. It is located in a bomb shelter built in 1942, built aboveground with six-foot-thick walls. After the war it was used for a prison and then a warehouse; after the wall fell it was a fetish sex club and rave venue. Around 1996 it started being used to exhibit art, and has been ever since. It is quite an eccentric building: there are doubly-interleaved stairways on all four sides. The art was all right, but the guide was very enthusiastic. One of our favorite pieces was a popcorn machine by Michael Sailstorfer, which has been running continuously since it was installed.

The concrete that formed the building was pure crap. They have cut away some of the interior walls — the slave labor that built most of it had no conception of a grid of rebar, they just dumped in random hunks of it in twisted masses. It is best to see Sammlung Boros sooner in life than later.

In June, 2012, we met Thomas Rentmeister, a Berlin artist, and attended the opening for a show he had in Wolfsburg later that year. We had dinner at his studio Saturday night with him, his girlfriend Bibo, and Simone, which was very festive. It turns out the popcorn machine artist is his next-door neighbor. The studios were spacious and contained many of his past works, all carefully boxed up. The boxes were very cute and sturdy. He showed us some new stuff he is working on.

Sunday six of our friends from Braunschweig drove 200km and met us in the nearby town of Potsdam; I had hoped to see a college friend there as well but he was out of town too. We spent seven hours at Sanssouci Park walking through castles, and the wooded area they were located on. It was the summer home of Frederick the Great. His wife had a room there too, just to keep up appearances, but lived in Berlin. All the rooms were sumptuously decorated; I liked how the rooms had niches at the far end for a bed, so the rest of each room, larger than the living rooms of most people I know, could be used for entertaining guests. Several rooms were dedicated to writing (with sloped desks, an innovation at the time) and concerts (Frederick played the flute, and pianos had been custom-built for him). A Chinese pavilion had statues of Chinese people made by sculptors who had never seen any. We returned to Berlin just in time to meet Thomas and Bibi for another dinner, this time downtown at “Katz Orange”, the restaurant of a friend of his. It featured meat which had been slow-cooked for 12 hours: we had some amazing lamb shoulder. Everything we had was good, and the hazelnut schnapps at the end was quite nice.

Monday morning was spent in the apartment doing laundry. We left the house around noon and drove two hours to Muskauer Park, another estate with castles which straddles the Polish border. Here the focus was on the grounds; we rented bikes and visited all the points of interest on the map. Many of them were places where Mr. Fürst Pückler, a designer of many parks, had intended to build something that ended up not actually happening. Whatever — it was still nice to putt around on bicycles. Monday evening we ate at Schneeweiss, a German restaurant Philipp recommended, which combined German standbys such as goulash and dumplings with a fennel-orange soup with avocado tempura.

Tuesday we started at Five Elephant Coffee, which easily could have been in SF. We visited the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, an impressive monument to the Soviet soldiers who died in Berlin in the war, many of whom are buried there. Then we went to Martin-Gropius-Bau, an exhibition space showing not only the David Bowie exhibit we saw last year in Amsterdam, but also “Evidence” by Ai Weiwei, 18 rooms containing much of his recent work. The entire large floor of the space was filled with 6000 stools dating back to the Ming dynasty, collected from families all over China. As we walked around in a replica of the cell in which he was imprisoned in 2010, we noticed two video cameras. Sure enough, a monitor nearby was displaying the feeds from the cameras. He continued his habit of making things out of unusual materials: handcuffs in jade, rebar in marble, and river crabs in porcelain. (The Chinese word for river crab, “he xie”, is pronounced like the word for harmonization, a euphemism for violent suppression of dissent.) We had an early dinner at Rutz Weinbar, which paired various modern takes on German food with various German wines, all delicious. Especially the German cheese plate.

Tomorrow we fly to Romania for the anchor event of the trip, our friend’s wedding.


June 15th, 2014 10:48 pm by Dave and Ray

We are going to Romania this summer to attend our friend Stefan’s wedding.  On the way, we will fail to see our friend Philipp in Berlin (but we will stay in his house while he is working in Munich); afterwards we will see a jazz show in Warsaw, a few places in Belarus, and St. Petersburg, especially the famous Hermitage museum.  Then we will drive around Finland and Sweden, visiting the Åland islands which have elements of both, and return home after a day in Copenhagen.