Madeleine Robins

September 6, 2017

Finland and Estonia in Bits and Pieces

Filed under: Conventions,Travel — madeleinerobins @ 7:38 AM
Tags: , ,
2017-08-04 17.50.32

The Helsinki rail station.

Others have written reports about the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki. Yes, it was swell–and better attended than they expected, to the extent that you often could not get in to events you wanted to see because other people were already in the room (they take occupancy rules seriously at the Helsinki convention center). I had, as earlier noted, never had a driving interest in traveling to Northern Europe, which is why I was so delighted to find that I loved it. Herewith, a handful of reasons.

  • Auspicious beginning: let me tell you that Finnair is a pleasure to fly with: comfortable seats, flight attendants who did not look as though they were down to their last nerve, real (and tasty) food in decent quantity. The thing that pleased me most, however, was something done for another passenger. I was one row behind the bulk head, my friend Pat was directly in front of me, and also on the bulk head row was a lovely woman with a highly personable baby.  Finnair does something I’ve never seen any other airline do: it has a contraption whereby they hang a bassinet off the bulkhead, so that instead of holding your child for ten hours, you can put the baby down, sing her to sleep, and get some sleep of your own. Baby slept, mom slept, nearby people slept… brilliant.
  • The Ladies’ Room at the Helsinki airport has birdsong piped in. After a 10-hour flight it was unexpected balm to the soul.
  • We stayed in a prison our first night there: very comfortable, excellent breakfast, and you can go visit the remaining cells (one for a group, one an isolation cell, both calculated to remind you of just how fortunate your life is). Also, I saw a hare the size of a respectable beagle charging across a park when we went out to dinner.
  • Next time I go to Tallinn I will take the Tallink ferry both ways. We took Viking over, and it was like being on a sea-going version of Reno: not as flashy as Vegas, but full of smoke, drinking, and people obsessively playing casino video games. Not my scene. The cloud formations from the deck were amazing, though.
  • Living in Tallinn, even for just a few days, is like walking around in a Grimm fairy tale. It’s not just the architecture, or the great stone walls that circle the old city, or the cobblestones, or the carefully maintained shops that sell reindeer pelts and handbound books… it’s everything. And yet it’s a thoroughly modern city (WiFi everywhere–we’re not savages, you know). Suffice it to say that we had a bronze chimney sweep outside our apartment door (the apartment itself was charming and comfortable, and retained a touch of the vibe I think of as cold-war Third Man… something about the halls, the stairs, the lace curtains and deeply recessed windows). I recommend Tallinn highly.
  • If you go to Tallinn, may I suggest a farm-to-table restaurant called Farm? Here’s the front window. I had the game cutlets (basically red-deer meatballs), and we split the Spiced Baltic Char Ice Cream on a Stick with various vegetal relishes as starter. A wonderful, wonderful restaurant–I think we sent everyone at Worldcon there.
  • I also dined at Olde Hansa, which purports to be a medieval merchant’s house, serving a medieval merchant’s feast. It managed avoid being twee and Medieval Times-ish, and the music and food were unexpectedly good. On this trip I ate venison, elk, bear-and-boar sausage, moose, and reindeer. My vegan daughter is doubtless horrified, but I found them all tasty.
  • We took a day trip along the Estonian coast with a guide named Yvgeny to the city of Narva–right across the river from Russia. Seriously right across the river: the Estonian and Russian fortresses are lined up so they probably lobbed stones at each other. We visited Toolse Castle, a fortress on the Estonian coast (one of many fortresses built along the coast to protect the country from invaders by sea,of which it appears there were lots). The Estonians seem to have been in a long series of occupations for a millennium or so, the last being by the Soviets. So here is what Yvegeny characterized as “the most Soviet Monument ever.” He’s not wrong.
  • I was sad that I did not get to see the Oldest Continuously Operating Apothecary in Europe–it is closed on Sunday, which was the only day I managed to get there. We found an excellent place for breakfast in Tallinn, but did not go there on our last day because Viking Ferry cancelled our ferry and we all had to get to the terminal–and then to another terminal–and negotiate a new passage back to Helsinki on Tallink. They did not foil us! We got back and checked in to our new home and so there, Viking!
  • Our place in Helsinki was half an hour from the convention, a delightful top-floor apartment with a terrace and sauna. For the purpose of conventioning, I have to say I prefer to be closer to the con… if you have to go back to change your shoes or get dressed up, it’s awfully tempting to just stay there, have a glass of wine in the livingroom, admiring the sky (especially after a really spectacular thunder storm). The neighborhood reminded me a little of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived for many years, so I felt right at home.
  • The Helsinki public transportation system is clean, goes everywhere, and (thanks to the munificence of the city and the convention) we had complementary travel for the week, which was wonderful. The system does have its share of “you know this if you’re a local” issues: the Number Two tram magically turns into the Number Three tram at some point just past the harbor, which caused some merriment and confusion. But these are the adventures that make a place yours.

I could go on and on… about the Estonian stone lion whose claim to fame is that he is said to resemble Vladimir Putin.

Or the strange “goat” than hung out in the Town Hall Square in Tallinn and would bleat a thank you if you gave him a coin.

 

 

 

Or–good lord, the arts center in Helsinki on the way from the rail station to our apartment, which had a giant statue of a pike–the fish, not the weapon–looming over the picnickers and joggers. Would have put me right off my rye-bread-and-butter (the rye bread–dark and molassesy–is magnificent) had I been picnicking under it, but I am not so hardy a soul as a Finn.

The convention was lovely, but really, I want to go back to Finland and Estonia again. Why did I never realize this before?

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September 16, 2015

Everything Changes

Filed under: Cities,Travel — madeleinerobins @ 7:12 PM
Tags: , ,

Food-CityLast weekend I was in New York City for a meeting about The Most Fabulous Project I’m working on for Serial Box: a thirteen episode serialized story set in the Restoration, and… okay, I’m getting off topic. I was in New York, city of my birth and of my heart, and even better, in the neighborhood where we lived when my daughters were born.

Lots of things have changed. You expect that in New York–particularly in a neighborhood that was going through growing and gentrification pains even before we moved away 13 years ago. The old-style restaurant down the block from P.S. 163 (my younger daughter’s kindergarten) has been replaced by a Whole Foods. Gabriela’s, our favorite Mexican restaurant on Amsterdam, has moved to Columbus Avenue and gone upscale. The McDonalds on Columbus and 90th is gone (I didn’t think McDonaldses ever went away). Some stores have had long-overdue facelifts. And Food City is closed.

I think–though I haven’t been able to confirm this–that Food City has a brief role in a wonderful movie called They Might Be Giants, in which the protagonists (George C. Scott, playing a judge who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes, and Joanne Woodward, playing a psychiatrist named Watson) are cornered by the police in a large supermarket fronted by an empty plaza.* More importantly to this story, it’s also where I did my grocery shopping for the ten-or-so years that we lived near by. I fought skirmishes with my daughters over candy at the checkout counter. As a toddler my younger daughter had a pretend game she played where she would be an abandoned child who lived in Food City and hoped I would take her home and adopt her (the ladies at the checkout found it hard to keep a straight face when this was going on).

And on 9/11, I went over to the market to pick up a few things, because the world was looking a little chancy just then, and who knows if we’d need milk and apple juice? I’ve said elsewhere that what I saw at Food City moved me: people picking up a gallon of milk–but not two–a package of toilet paper, but not two, and so on. You could practically see the thought balloon over their heads: “someone else might need some too.” It made New York feel just a little safer, there in this little crowded down-market supermarket.

I have lived off and on in New York for a large chunk of my life. Things change. Tear down a building and you find the echoes of buildings that stood there before. Dig for a subway and find a cemetery or the bones of a ship beached centuries ago. But you get accustomed to thinking that some things are fixtures. Heaven knows enough “why is that place still there?” stores and buildings still exist. But I raise a metaphorical glass to Food City, where I knew where the flour, pork shoulder, and olive oil lived, and where I saw my city at its best.

 

* Really, find They Might Be Giants. It’s a perfectly lovely film that will repay the search.

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