Before we get started I should put something out there: The Finns have a bit of inferiority complex when it comes to their neighbors, the Swedes. It’s often said by Finns that the Swedes are better looking, better at hockey, smarter; you name it, essentially better at everything. Much like the people, the capitol cities of each country have a bit of a rivalry as well. I’ve heard many things about Stockholm and how wonderful it is, and the troubling part is that it all seems to be true. Cities like this, at some point, you need to assume are just showing off.

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View from Jian’s brother’s student housing.

Stockholm is bigger, older, and more dense than Helsinki. Many would also consider it more beautiful, with elaborate waterways dividing the city into districts and a number of subtle hills which give it a crucial and complementing depth that’s lacking in Helsinki. Where Helsinki has six stories, Stockholm has eight; where Helsinki has a two line Metro system that closes at 23:30, Stockholm has a seven line system that closes at 04:30; where Helsinki has perhaps a couple trendy neighborhoods, the entirety of Stockholm is trendy. In fact, there’s really not much to dislike about Stockholm except for the feeling that it’s intimately aware of its own superiority. That and the fact that Swedish is a totally silly language.

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No big deal.

The flight from Helsinki is a mere 40 minutes, and the timezone is one hour behind Helsinki, so I arrived right around the same time I left. I met up with an old traveling buddy Jian, whom I met in Georgia several years ago. He lives in Stockholm and he was nice enough to let me stay at his place. He took me around to a few popular places including the City Hall where the Nobel Prize ceremony banquet and dance are held. There is a tower in the building that overlooks the city, quite like the one in Copenhagen. In fact, it’s said that the architect visited the one in Copenhagen while it was being built, discovered its intended height was 105 meters, and promptly returned to Stockholm to redesign his tower from around 100 meters to 105.6 meters. Sound familiar?

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At least the view’s nice.

The next day I had some free time in the morning so I bought a day pass for the public transport system and went to discover the network. I ended up hanging out at a cafe in Södermalm and enjoying the abnormally sunny September day. I met up with Jian later and we went on a bike ride around the massive central park corridor in Stockholm and ended up at his friend’s house for some dinner. It was a short visit, but I had a great time and met some fantastic people.

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An improbably quaint alley in the old town.

I’m glad to be back in Helsinki though, there’s a vibe to it that can’t be beat. Perhaps it’s the history of constantly being outshined by its metropolitan neighbor that imparts a certain humility into Helsinki and its people. Maybe it’s the Finns’ modest and unassuming Uralic lineage rather than the smug dominion of the Vikings. More importantly, I’m not sure what attracts me cities like Belgrade and Helsinki when bigger and better things are always right next door. Maybe it’s repentance for always trying to be the best at things in my own life. Maybe it’s just that I like something to work towards, and with near perfection already achieved there’s not much to get behind. I know that language has a lot to do with it– Finnish has long been one of my favorites. Indo-European languages have never interested me much, but with the success and widespread expansion of the Indo-European people themselves, it’s hard to find a metropolitan and developed Western city in which anything non Indo-European is the de facto standard.

With that knowledge, I’m happy with my home right now. Helsinki has a charm to it that’s hard to quantify, and however backwater it may be next to Stockholm, there’s no amount of hip bars or restaurants that can compete with the magnificence of Finnish morphology; just look to words like pysähtymättä, vahingoittumattomampi, and ymmärtämättömyys for proof.

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The Russian Messenger

September 2, 2013

After weeks of preparing my visa, which consisted of visiting and submitting paperwork to various different bureaucratic institutes and dealing with the worst clerks imaginable, the border crossing was quite painless. The difference between Finland and Russia was stark, the change plainly noticeable even while rocketing by at 220km/h on the high speed train. The fields and houses at first were well-kept and orderly, the property was clearly delineated. At some point after Vainikkala, people were hanging out dangerously (by Finnish standards) close to the tracks, accessed through holes in the poorly-maintained fence, fires were burning in makeshift pits next to stations, men were dangling fishing lines from bridges. I felt like I was back in Serbia. The same frame of mind permeates more than just the Balkans. Arriving in St. Petersburg was again a similar feeling: The dilapidated structures, the taxi drivers and trinket-sellers hawking their wares, and the air itself weighing heavy.

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I had not fully committed to the idea of spending a night out on the town by the time I found Belgrad, or at least a bar which shared the name. There was a foosball table front and center. This bar was clearly the place for me. I ordered a beer and made myself comfortable next to the foosball table, which was at the time occupied by some fairly decent players. I was invited to play, and in spite of the table’s design (it was a Garlando) I evidently made a good impression as I was called back to the table a number of times by the best player there. The gesture itself took some getting used to: I was approached by a stern-looking man (different every time) who uttered something unintelligible and waved me toward the table. At the table there was an occupied side, players waiting. On the opposite side was my partner, standing next to a conspicuous gap on the offensive rods. Evidently my team mate nor the opposing players spoke any English, so the communication that ensued was largely gestural and contextual. I learned their rules somewhat quickly, or at least relied on their grunted input in situations I wasn’t clear on.

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The next day I spent wandering around the city in search of a belt buckle. Before I left, I noticed a store in Kruununhaka with a display case full of interesting belt buckles, many of which appealed to me. I refrained from buying one thinking that my altogether relatively-new belt buckle had many years of life left in it. In a serendipitous turn for the worse, the buckle failed irreparably the morning after I arrived in Russia. My quest, nativized into a readily-understandable discourse by my Russian friend, was met with confusion and a much-repeated retort of something like “Why don’t you just buy a new belt?” Clearly not the point… I have a perfectly functional belt with a single component in need of replacement, but apparently even Perestroika couldn’t maintain that distinction. My translating friend is also a teacher of Russian and English, and she was teaching a beginner level English course that night. I decided to join her and see if my native English sensibilities could be of service. The class was a lot of fun, the students’ initial reluctance to participate eventually thawed and they saw themselves asking me various questions, in stilted and awkward English, about life in America, Russian women, and borscht. While only a fleeting interaction, I hope my being there provided even a little support in the ever-laborious slog of language-learning for them.

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The following two days were spent with a fellow student from the language program in Vaasa that I was meant to attend in July and some of her friends. Our traveling styles differed drastically, and the change took quite a bit of getting used to. However, it was because of her that I ended up going to the Hermitage and Petergof at all. Without her insistence I surely would have stood outside each for 10 minutes and then convinced myself that I had seen enough and moved on; now at least I can say that I have legitimately experienced them. The night before my departure had auspicious plans, from the first rumblings of them I was fairly certain that they were not going to be to my liking. First and foremost, I don’t like planning evening outings around timelines; I’d much rather let the fluidity of the night do what it does. However, logistically, St. Petersburg is a difficult city, most of the city’s many bascule bridges open some time around midnight, and remain that way until the early morning. With that said, before inviting others out we had to be sure that we had the resolve to stay out until the bridges closed at around 0600. I don’t have a problem staying out that late if I’m in an environment that I’m comfortable with, <hipster> like an underground bass music event </hipster>. The club we went to was anything but, the bouncers were wearing ski masks and urban camouflage, plastic party lights and disco balls shown through the windows upstairs, and blaring Euro Trance was leaking from the drafty entrance. The only respite to this doomed night was that the club was right next door to Belgrad, the bar I went to the first night. I tried to pull a Cherokee Fadeaway, and at first I thought I was successful. I went to the bathroom, and simply couldn’t will myself back to the dancefloor, so I took a sharp left, descended the stairs, and was let out into the night. I proceeded to Belgrad and played a few games of foosball until I received a barrage of phone calls. Note to self: The Cherokee Fade does not work well with Russian guests. All in all, it was no damage that couldn’t be undone by a good night’s rest. We all had lunch the following morning and they saw me off at the train station.

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Now that I’m back in the land of belt buckles, I’ll set my sights on procuring one tomorrow morning. It’s good to be back.