Monday, September 29, 2008

Stockholm by air and by land and by sea

If only the bright boat there were sailing rather than just sitting obscured by a streetlight. Anyway, it wasn't a particularly productive trip for the photo department, but climbing up to a hill on the island opposite the old town on a last afternoon to find a series of hot-air balloons floating (at seemingly dangerous altitudes) over the city was a definite highlight. The balloons seem so out of place that to our photo editor's eyes, in many shots they look photoshopped in, even though we know they weren't.

We failed to get a picture we planned on using to demonstrate it, but Boston:Dunkin' Donuts::Stockholm:H&M. There were literally street corners downtown where you could see three or four H&M retail locations within a block or two. One quite stylish Swedish woman your correspondent talked with said she does all her shopping in the U.S., because she was tired of all the H&M that predominates Sweden. She was too polite to say so, but it probably doesn't hurt that you can probably buy a cashmere sweater in the U.S. for the price of a cup of coffee in Stockholm.

In other world-beating Swedish retail news, the Swedes say Ikea "ee-KAY-uh," and it's theirs, so they must be right. Other Swedish sources indicate that everyone from the lowliest drone to the grandest millionaire in Sweden has some furniture from EeKAYuh. We only know this from work-related sources, because unlike the carpet-bombing approach of the H&M, even in Stockholm, Ikea only has warehouse stores in distant suburbs. In any case, if you want to start getting snobby about authentic pronunciations of your some-assembly-required bookshelves, you have the appropriate ammunition.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Water Everywhere

Stockholm is a great walking city. You have a small section of old winding streets and medieval-feeling churches and homes (although most of them are full of shops selling tourist tchotchkes - one of the best things about Riga's Old Town is that the tchotchke factor is fairly limited); you have an efficient grid-layout modern section of town with neighborhoods and street-level retail; and maybe best of all, you have water all over. Stockholm is built on a series of islands, and it makes for lots of pleasant waterfront bars and cafes and such. We spotted these people taking turns paddling against the current coming over a spillway under a bridge. They weren't hard to spot, since there were twenty or thirty people leaning over the bridge staring at them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Archipelago

We went out on a boat on three-hour tour, and did not get stranded on any islands. There were no coconuts to be seen anyway, which was the key to all of Gilligan's hijinks, anyway. The archipelago of islands great and tiny stretching out from Stockholm is pretty in a windswept and grey kind of way. It's not unlike Maine. We passed the first ever automatic lighthouse. The boat tour featured an on-board brunch (for those of means) that featured Swedish delights such as some sort of cold herring casserole.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Old Tallinn

How adorable is this? A perfect little row of olden houses with perfect little white clouds above. Not perfect: the exposure on the picture, but oh, well.

Anyway, Tallinn's Old Town oozes charm. Maybe to it's detriment. Some argue that Riga's less-charming Old Town is actually better because it doesn't have enough charm to attract quite so many cruise ships, and therefore it's still-pretty-nice buildings don't all contain tourist trinket shoppes. Being fair, Tallinn's old town is a nice mix of tourist trinket shoppes and bars catering to bargain-hunting Finnish drinkers. There were also some art galleries and some restaurants, though your correspondents had absolutely no shame in going to "Route 66 American Pizza," which The Lovely Katherine pointed out we would never do if we had come to Tallinn from America on a vacation. But being local to the region, Estonian food is not so different from Latvian food. And a man can only have so many meals of breaded meat and potatoes over two years.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


This is the Orthodox Cathedral in Tallinn. It has a proper name, but your somewhat lazy correspondent doesn't have his field notes handy and isn't going to go get them just to put the correct name on this church. The inside was quite impressive, but they didn't allow pictures. Outside the Cathedral (and Riga's Orthodox Cathedral, and maybe every Orthodox Cathedral), there were several older ladies with headscarves (one might even call them "babushkas," I suppose) begging for alms. It seems that there are never men - apparently they're otherwise occupied, or begging is women's work or something. I gave them each 10 kroons, which is about a dollar, but is paper money in Estonia, where they have notes worth as little as 20 cents U.S. In Latvia, by the way, they have coins all the way up to a $4 coin, which for some reason has a picture of a cow on it. It's an easy way to lose serious cash to seat cushions at movie theaters or public buses. Or church pews, I suppose, to weakly attempt to tie this back together.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


This is a liquor store that was near the apartment we stayed in, home of a fellow Foreign Service Officer in Tallinn. It was the most no-frills, clinical, fluorescent, and large display of liquor your correspondent has seen. This is but a detail because it was impossible to catch it all. The liquor is all behind a counter, so the bottom shelf here is about waist-height, and the top was at least 12 or 13 feet up; this captures maybe a quarter of the width of the whole thing. And that's all there was to the store. No extra doo-dads for sale at the register. One long counter, one till, one wall of liquor.

They drink a fair bit in these parts. Our Latvian teacher always told us that the attitude here is that beer isn't really alcohol. There is a certain small portion of the population of Latvia that really enjoys vodka, as evidenced by the way they smell on Sundays or on trains or really, now and again, anywhere and everywhere.

Monday, September 15, 2008


So, on the way to and from Helsinki, we spent some time in Tallinn, Estonia. We quite enjoyed it. They have an Old Town that is surely the model for those little diorama houses that moms (not my mom, but some moms) set up around Christmas. This is a really old clock, from the side of a really old church.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


These are the little stickers they give you as a ticket when you enter the Kiasma, Helsinki's contemporary art museum. I kind of imagined that the art there would be amazing because weird contemporary art seems like the kind of thing Finns should be really good at. In a victory against stereotyping, it was like any contemporary museum with some really good pieces and a lot of blah ones. And then you leave, and if you're like a lot of people, you put your sticker on anything handy near the exit.

That's all from Helsinki. Moving on next time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The staff had a good time in Finland. We rented bikes and pedaled about; we saw some art; we sipped coffee at cafes on the sidewalk like the continental sophisticates we are. It was all lovely except for trying to get dinner.

One of our day-job co-workers is, in fact, a Finn. She grew up in Helsinki and now claims that she knows nothing about it, and only goes to the country house with the sauna when she visits our homeland. Our primary source of information thus dashed, we were stuck with Lonely Planet to guide us to a restaurant we could afford and also enjoy. Feeling the casual Finnish vibe, we didn't change out of our jeans. So we picked a spot, somewhat outside the center, and enjoyed a longish but pleasant walk up there, The Lovely Katherine worrying about whether we could get in wearing jeans and your correspondent assuring her she was crazy. We arrived at our destination, and there were a couple occupied tables and about 30 unoccupied ones. And we were turned away. No reservation. We decided maybe Finns eat late, and tried another establishment nearby. Again - no reservation, no luck.

Now, these places were not exactly busy. And while I know the Europeans eat a bit later than us, it was already 8:00 or 8:30 by this point. Unless they had a ton of reservations for 9:00, we were being denied either for wearing jeans, or for not being locals.

So we walk back towards downtown, figuring we'll find something. And places are looking fancy or full, and we wind up at a tourist trap listed in the trusty Lonely Planet, and it's at earliest 9:00 and we're hungry and we've been walking all day. So we settle on the tourist trap, because they're obviously happy to serve tourists in jeans. We each have one beer, I have a reindeer filet (it was a minor goal to have eaten reindeer, I'll admit), the Lovely has stewed beets because they're out of the fish. It is eminently unsatisfying.

The tab? $100. Plus tip. I'm not kidding. Two beers, one real meal, and a pile of steamed beats - $100. Putting the "trap" in tourist trap. We consider ourselves fairly seasoned travelers, but obviously not seasoned enough.

Anyway, above is a cool old car on the streets of Helsinki. Since we have more Helsinki pictures than Helsinki stories, we'll add: here's a picture of a guy selling potatoes from a boat. Neither has anything to do with the story.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

More Churches in Helsinki

It's another church! In Helsinki! And crazy clouds! Something different next time.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Rock Church

Picture before last (not the one with the furs and the knives) was taken on top of this, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko or "Rock Church." Helsinki is built on a rocky coastal area. Sometime in the 60's or so they got bored with building their churches on top of the rocks, and decided to drill this one out of a rock outcropping, making a sort of artificial cave-church. Hey, why not? It's actually quite pretty inside. If I knew more about the Bible I would guess there's some clever joke I could make about Peter being the rock that the church was built upon and this being like going to church inside Peter's stomach. If you can actually turn that into something clever or funny, feel free to post it in the comments. Comments about the house band at the "Rock Church" will also be considered.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Consumer Opportunity

I am sorry to report that we did not spend any money at this stall at the Helsinki market. Very tempting of course, and surely a spot frequented by locals whenever they need furs. And also knives. A lot of stores would probably do more business if they added "Also Knives" to the end of their name. Would you rather shop at Toys 'R' Us, or Toys 'R' Us, Also Knives?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Of Helsinki

Traveling here in Europe is a bit different from traveling in Guatemala. There, we would wander off on some weekend trip and find some modest-sized town with some colorful local flavor and surely something odd to spice things up. In Europe, on the other hand, we travel for a few hours, and we're in a relatively important world capital that has its own local charm to be sure, but is also in some respects a lot like developed cities all over. That's only sort of a complaint.

We had a fabulous time in Helsinki. It felt almost like America, which can surely only be true in comparison to Latvia, and is mostly meant as a compliment, however the Finns might take it. Of course it was very Nordic, with bike lanes everywhere and cool inventive architecture and blondes in every direction. But there was also, on the surface, more racial diversity than Latvia, and better stores and bars and coffee shops. They may be a bunch of socialists, but they were never communist subjects, so they just seem to get the kind of capitalism that makes us feel at home. Or maybe, it's just that when some minor consumer inconvenience arises in Latvia, we instantly think "these poor people, recovering from Soviet oppression. They just don't know how things should work," when the same problem could easily happen in the U.S. and would have us asking to see the manager. (Well, maybe some of us. I don't think I've ever asked to see a manager in my life. I don't want to meet the manager; I only talk with the waiter because sometimes I'm too lazy to cook. Maybe that's what set my course for foreign living.)

Anyway, the picture above is taken from the top of a church in Helsinki. No, really. More next time.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Farther North

Yes, they have stuff farther north than Riga. Whole nations even. We were surprised, too, but you can look it up on a map. Your faithful correspondents took advantage of Labor Day (American) weekend, when many Americans are enjoying a last bit of the summer heat, to go north to Tallinn and Helsinki, where it is practically winter already. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, is pictured above from the apartment window of a colleague posted there. More soon on Tallinn and on Helsinki, where your correspondent wore a sweater and a jacket all weekend and The Lovely Katherine even had to buy gloves to bear the chill of August in Finland.