Tram Life: Nelonen

September 12, 2014

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My version of Helsinki’s tram schematic.

Today we’ll be talking about another workhorse of the Helsinki tram system. The highly-utilized and late-running number 4 (nelonen in Finnish) crosses the city in the opposite direction of the Metro. The 4 and 4T are the dark red lines running from northwest to southeast on the map above.

The 4 starts in the outskirts of the city center at Munkkiniemi and heads generally southwest for the entirety of its route, serving the Meilahti Hospital before joining up with the 10 and then the 7 to provide a high-frequency corridor on the northwest side of the city where the Metro is lacking. In the center, the 4 heads down Aleksanterinkatu past Senaatintori until Katajanokka. The 4 continues out to the end of Katajanokka, but when there’s a ferry at Katajanokan Terminaali the 4T operates instead, skipping the end of Katajanokka and instead going straight to the the terminal to shuttle passengers to the city center. The 4 has one transfer point to the Metro at Rautatieasema, the transfer is easy and the walk to the Metro platform is almost entirely underground, protected from the elements.

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The 4 getting in the way of a perfectly good picture.

The 4, along with the 7 and the 10, provide a transportation backbone through the neighborhood of Töölö. Now please bear with me while I make sweeping and offensive generalizations, but there are essentially three areas in Helsinki that young people magnetize to based on their attitudes: Kallio, Punavuori, and Töölö. Each has a very different feel, and essentially every neighborhood in Helsinki can be analyzed as an offshoot of one of those three cultural centers. We talked a bit about Punavuori in the last post, and as the 3 is characteristic of Punavuori, the 4 is characteristic of Töölö. While Punavuori is fashionable and outgoing, Töölö is more reserved and responsible. Where there’s a high-end design store in Punavuori, there’s a dry cleaner or pet store in Töölö. Töölö is the place where people move when they grow up. Much of the 4’s responsibility, in fact, is shuttling the neatly-dressed and -groomed professionals of Töölö into the city for the work day. However, long after Töölö goes to sleep, the 4 keeps running; providing an essential service to the city. While the late-night 3 is a rowdy reminder of Kallio’s attitude and grit, the late-night 4 reminds us that some people are just trying to get home. The 2 and 8 certainly run closer to the heart and soul of Töölö a few blocks west of Mannerheimintie, but the 4 provides a direct shot to the city center so it’s undoubtedly the tram of choice for most Töölö-dwellers.

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Just a 4 looking photogenic as fuck.

The 4 doesn’t have much about it that I would change. It’s overall a pretty solid line that helps provides much-needed mobility in an important corridor through Helsinki. However, one thing I would do is get rid of the distinction between the 4 and 4T. As with most letter distinctions with special scheduling, it’s confusing and does not lend itself to easy and spontaneous mobility. With only 100 or so meters of new track, we could do away with the 4T and simply end the line as a counterclockwise couplet. This end of the line could have a layover at the ferry terminal or could be live-looped, with a preference for the latter to allow for riders coming from the center to get home without waiting through a layover if they live after the terminal. It could then follow the new track to bridge it over to the old 4 terminal and follow the existing rail west back into the city center. That way, both the terminal and the rest of Katajanokka are always served with minimal expense.

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Admittedly I got a little carried away with the long exposure.


Tram Life 1
Tram Life 2/3
Tram Life 4
Tram Life 6
Tram Life 7
Tram Life 8
Tram Life 9
Tram Life 10
Tram Life

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helsinki_tram_nyc

My version of Helsinki’s tram schematic.

Today we’ll be covering tram routes 2 and 3, known in Finnish as kakkonen and kolmonen, respectively. The reason for covering both in a single post is because of their unholy union, deeply and seemingly irreversibly rooted in reality. The 2 and 3 make up the grotesque figure-8 on the map above, the dark and light green lines who cross over right at the Central Railway Station.

The 2 and 3 are some of the most-utilized lines in Helsinki. Starting from Kaivopuisto in the southeast, the 2 heads northbound via Kauppatori and utilizes an interlaced track segment in the center to get from Aleksanterinkatu to the Central Railway Station. From there it heads southwest to Kamppi then turns north to serve the entirety of Töölö before finally heading east to its layover. From the layover at Eläintarha it continues east as the 3 which heads south via Kallio, Hakaniemi, and back to the Central Railway Station in the opposite direction before continuing through Punavuori and Ullanlinna where it finishes its tenure as the 3 at Kaivopuisto and continues on as the 2 again. If that’s not confusing enough, imagine trying to figure out which one to take at the Central Railway Station, where the two lines cross: You have the option to take the 2 or 3 in both directions. To make matters worse, when the line was relabeled a few years ago from the 3B/3T to the 2/3, they bafflingly chose to number the line that actually looks like a number 2 on the map 3. Naturally, the line that draws an S on the map is actually the 2. Sigh.

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Outbound 2 on the gauntlet track between Rautatientori and Aleksanterinkatu

The 2/3 is also one of the latest-running lines in the system, continuing to ply Helsinki’s streets until around 02:00. Its continued operation late into the night makes it oft-used by bar- and club-goers as something of a pre-funk venue. The last run of the line is always littered with empty Jaloviina bottles and spilled beer running the length of the coach, and the occasional transient being coaxed back to consciousness by the operator at the end of the run is not a rare sight. In fact, the last part is really not all that uncommon any time of day. I was waiting at the tram stop in mid morning the other day and I witnessed a drunk old man, completely unconscious, sprawled across the platform being dragged by police officers into a waiting ambulance.

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Inbound 3 leaving Porvoonkatu

The 3 is the lifeline of the neighborhood of Punavuori. Punavuori is one of Helsinki’s primary neighborhoods and is the center for a lot of Finnish design shops and cool cafes, and is where the artsy crowd and famous people in Finland spend most of their time. The neighborhood oozes fashion, and the streets of Punavuori are palpably crowded with beautiful and seemingly important people (many of whom are probably legitimately important as well). The 3 runs right through the center of Punavuori along Frederikinkatu and is fundamentally part of the neighborhood’s character.

The meandering path of the 2/3 all but guarantees riders will board and alight somewhere along a relatively straight path. One could certainly get from Kallio to Töölö using the line as a one-seat-ride, but there are at least half a dozen quicker and easier ways to make the same trip. Continuing with the trend of Helsinki failing to utilize the massive investment of the Metro as a high-capacity and extremely frequent means of connecting the northeast quarter of the city to the center and western portions, the 2/3 runs as duplicative service not only to the Metro but to several other tram lines for much of its route. To achieve what I am proposing, first, about 400 meters of new track would need to be laid on Frederikinkatu between Bulevardi and Kamppi. Once laid, the 2 and 3 should be routed as a single line, the 3. The 3 would start near Kaivopuisto at the existing 3’s terminus and continue along the normal routing through Punavuori. Instead of heading into the city center along Bulevardi it would continue straight up Frederikinkatu past the 6’s east-west route to the Kamppi Metro station (both the 6 and the Metro would provide easy transfer points to the city center) where it would meet up with (and follow) the 2’s current right-of-way. Instead of turning south through Kallio the 3 would continue east through Sörnäinen (another Metro transfer point) to finish its route around Hauhon Puisto. These changes, by encouraging riders to make quick and easy transfers, get us closer to completing the grid in Helsinki. In addition to creating a huge mobility asset in the form of a generally north-south connection on the west side of the city center, we free up a considerable amount of service hours by removing duplicative service elsewhere. Those service hours could then be allocated as extra runs on the 9, for example, to make up for less 3 service through Kallio. The current architecture of the tram network (the 2 and 3 included) does essentially nothing to encourage Metro usage. Instead, trams are almost a competitor to the Metro. Since the Metro is already there, has a massive capacity, is entirely grade-separated, and runs extremely reliably and frequently, trams should be focused on getting people to the Metro, not taking them along the same path.


Tram Life 1
Tram Life 2/3
Tram Life 4
Tram Life 6
Tram Life 7
Tram Life 8
Tram Life 9
Tram Life 10
Tram Life

Tram Life: Ykkönen

August 26, 2014

This is the first part of an ongoing series dedicated to the social and technical underpinnings of the tram network in Helsinki. Phonetic transcriptions will be omitted in this series because with all the street and neighborhood names it would get cray, and let’s be real, y’all don’t care that much.

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My version of Helsinki’s tram schematic. Arguably much better looking than the official one.

For the first installment, we’ll be exploring the 1 and its sister the 1A. In Finnish, the 1 is known as Ykkönen. This word is related to the word for “one”, and is akin to referring to a line in English as the n e.g. I’m going to take the 8 home.

The 1 is a strange, vestigial relic of a tram line that harks back to an earlier era in Helsinki’s history. The 1 runs from Käpylä in the north to Kauppatori in the center. Its extension, the 1A, runs from Käpylä to Eira in the southwest. Both have schedules that are largely unintelligible, generally run peak-only with large headways, and do not operate on the weekends. Between Käpylä and Eira the 1 and 1A service the important ridership centers of Kallio and Hakaniemi and continue through Kruununhaka. The 1 and 1A are the light blue dashed line on the map above.

The 1 is not a particularly high-ridership line, owing to (in my opinion) the incomprehensibility of the schedule and the fact that it’s never there when you need it (due to the large headways). Many riders come and go throughout the central portions of the route. When the 1A opens its doors along Tehtaankatu on the southern end of the route a mix of young professionals from Ullanlinna and Punavuori hipsters get on for an easy ride to the center. They’ll filter out somewhere between Kauppatori and Hakaniemi and be replaced the grittier punks and skaters of the traditionally working-class Kallio. By the north end of Kallio the only ones left are the families and young parents on their way back to Käpylä. Käpylä is a strange neighborhood, it’s one of the first instances of the Garden City Movement in Finland which manifests itself as a sparse community of two-story single family homes surrounded by wooded areas. The neighborhood was first designed as a sort of workers’ housing commune in the 1920s, and the alignment of the 1A illustrates to this day the ebb and flow of workers from decades ago.

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The 1A at its layover at Telakkakatu.

Pinned at the other end of the alignment is Eira. An old district of Helsinki, Eira has some of the city’s most expensive apartments and is populated by mostly upper-class urbanites. The 1A skirts the north side of Eira and terminates at the shipyards of Hietalahti. Around the middle of the last century many of the workers who lived in Käpylä found employment at the Hietalahti Shipyards and the 1A was the answer to increased transit demands servicing those two points. However, due to the nature of the commute, the 1A was realized as a unidirectional peak-only service designed to bring workers to the shipyards in the morning and to bring them back home in the evening.

Long gone is the sound of the shipyards’ shift bell, and many of the workers now live elsewhere around the city. Slow to respond to these demographic changes is HSL, the organization responsible for planning and operating transit in the Helsinki area, so the 1 and 1A continue to operate on strange alignments and schedules optimized for commuters who are no longer there. Needless to say, the lines are still used when they make sense for the rider, but these cases are not frequent.

If it were my decision, I would do away with the distinction between the 1A and the 1 and simply label the whole line the 1 and give it an intelligible schedule (similar to the other lines). The one aspect of the 1A that I do like is the crosstown service in Southern Helsinki, so I would maintain the east-west routing through that corridor. The routing would remain the same until Hakaniemi where instead of following the 3 north through Kallio, it would utilize the right-of-way and rail of the old 2 (currently unused) along Toinen Linja with a short extension from Wallininkatu crossing Helsinginkatu and onto Sturenkatu to meet up with the existing 1 routing right around the Urheilutalo stop. Helsinki’s tram network could use some work when it comes to completing the grid, and these changes would provide good crosstown connectivity and transfer options at strategic points throughout the city. Stay tuned for a map of all my proposed changes in the final installment of this series, because I’m sure you’re all waiting on the edge of your seat.


Tram Life 1
Tram Life 2/3
Tram Life 4
Tram Life 6
Tram Life 7
Tram Life 8
Tram Life 9
Tram Life 10
Tram Life

My Block

July 24, 2014

I’m finally settled into my place in Helsinki after a hectic past few months. This condition certainly won’t be permanent though, as it goes I’ve already got some upcoming travel plans. Most importantly, I’ll be heading back to Seattle for a couple of weeks in August for a dear friend’s wedding. I’m looking forward to that quite a bit, but not so much the long plane trip.

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Kallion Kirkko

I had the good fortune of securing a flat in Helsinki before I even arrived. I had been keeping a close eye on the postings of such things while I was traveling a found a good spot whose renter was quite responsive. We agreed to have my friend Anne, my original Finnish confidante, come check the place out. Anne picked up the keys and had them waiting for me until I arrived. The downside to this was paying a month of so of rent without actually living in the place, but it certainly beats trying not to overstay my welcome anywhere.

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Porthaninkatu

The pad is pretty dope. It’s a studio on the 6th floor of a building in one of Helsinki’s densest neighborhoods, Sörnäinen [ˈsørnæɪnen]. It’s facing away from the street and has a nice balcony that overlooks a park. I never really thought of myself as a Kallio [ˈkɑlːio] dweller, Punavuori [ˈpunɑʋuori] or Töölö [ˈtøːlø] always seemed more fitting for me, but the transit connectivity here is pretty unbeatable. The flat is a couple meters from the Sörnäinen Metro station, the 615 airport bus stops right across the street, and a major tram stop is less than a block away. Since the Metro provides such quick and easy service to the center of town I haven’t been taking the trams much, but the #8 provides easy access to Töölö and the west side of town where the Metro is lacking.

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Too Finnish for words

I have a love/hate relationship with the Helsinki Metro; it’s a great mobility asset for the city, but it’s crippled in a lot of ways. The city refuses to run it past 23:30, which is pretty pathetic for any transit system, let alone the supposed transit backbone of a city (there has been a recent trial on extending the operating hours until 01:30 on Friday and Saturday, which certainly helps). They’re extending it west into Espoo [ˈespoː], this will undoubtedly ease the commute from Espoo to Helsinki, but there are a handful of corridors inside the city which need this more. Unfortunately none of these in-city corridors will be getting such treatment in the near future, and the system will likely continue operating in stasis once the western extension is complete. At least they’re working on automating it, so we may see some improvements after that’s complete.

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Looking towards the main station

The trams here are done quite well. Implementing useful surface rail in mixed traffic is a difficult task, but where many American cities fail (I’m looking at you, Seattle and Portland) many European cities excel. The trams in Helsinki run at-grade with a mix of dedicated- and shared-right-of-way. Compared to most European cities, Helsinki (unfortunately) sees a lot of car traffic, but the trams are given pretty good signal priority and can make it through fairly congested stretches without much issue. Many of the busiest corridors have dedicated right-of-way and are able to skip the traffic, which results in a quick and high-capacity line, typically operating at 10-minute headways throughout the day. Architecturally, however, the tram system could use a bit of work. Reorganizing current service into a more frequent grid and doing away with some of the radial and silly-shaped lines would yield wonderful results. Also with the trams, unfortunately, late-night service fails to deliver. 24/7 service is not required (or warranted) in most transit systems, but the occasional run along familiar routes between 01:30 and 03:00 would be tremendously useful. As it is now only a few lines (2, 3, and 4) run up until about 01:30 (the others heading back to base at around 00:00). Middle-of-the-night service is a bit of a point of contention, and it’s hard to weigh the demand against the expenditure. However, the ridership on the scattered and disorganized late-night bus service indicates that the demand is certainly there.

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In front of the Hakaniemi metro station

While I’m writing this post it occurs to me that Seattle and Helsinki have a lot in common, maybe that’s why I’m drawn to both. I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve rarely (if ever) had a desire to move to a city that’s perfect. New York? Paris? Copenhagen? Stockholm? They won’t do… their transit is too good, their laws too sensible, they’re already dense and urban. Instead I’m drawn to living in the smaller, more backward neighbors of these cities. Cities where the transit is good, but needs work. Cities where proposals for increased density are projects that supporters can get behind, and indeed are combated by equally zealous opponents. Cities where arcane laws (alcohol sales in Finland, for example) still need public outcry to be overturned. While the transit situation is arguably a lot better in Helsinki than it is in my hometown of Seattle, both are facing their issues which require support from the public. Both cities are not as dense as their comparable neighbors, and they both have small and somewhat-organized groups of people pushing for a more urban fabric. Essentially, both cities are teetering on the edge; one bad decision away from utter calamity. A constant uphill battle to maintain the relative utopia. One lapse in concentration and the city you know and love will be destroyed forever. The opulence and prosperity of places like New York and Stockholm puts them square in the not-worried-about-it category; they don’t need my help. I’d rather stay somewhere like Seattle or Helsinki and fight, however futilely, for the things that I think the city would benefit from.

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Possibly the most legit living situation I’ve ever been in…

Horn OK Please

July 4, 2014

Trucks are a phenomenon in India. Their bodies are meticulously hand-painted with elaborate designs and emblazoned with evocative phrases like “Top Speed!” and “Road King.” Otherwise mundane components of the truck are labeled with flashy, calligraphic script boldly identifying themselves as “Diesel Tank,” or “Tools Box.” The trucks are personalized for their owner and advertise a great many things. Among the more cryptic (but also ubiquitous) messages is the phrase “Horn OK Please” painted across the back. What does it mean? Please honk at me? It’s OK if you see me honking at somebody? Honk if you need to pass me? Traffic in India is a sea of random horn-honking anyway, I don’t see why they need to let you know it’s OK.

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King of Road

The linguistic situation in India is overwhelming, to say the least. There are 22 official (and countless other unofficial-yet-still-widely-spoken) languages in India representing the Austroasiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, and Sino-Tibetan families. The northern two-thirds of India mostly speaks various Indo-European languages (distantly related to English, Spanish, German, Russian, and others that we’re familiar with). The southern third speaks a few Dravidian languages, one of the world’s other primary language families. Each region in India has its own local language. One of these local languages, Hindi, is something of a lingua franca for India. Many official duties are performed in Hindi and many Indians speak it in addition to the local language(s) of their region. Due to common ancestry and/or areal influence the phonological systems of many of these languages (at least in the southern two thirds of the country) are quite similar (extensive use of retroflex consonants, contrastive aspiration, breathy voicing, etc), so to a linguist who has spent most of their time steeped in Western Eurasian and Circumpolar languages like myself it’s tough to try to differentiate between many of them. To make matters worse, various Hindi or English words and phrases are commonly thrown into whatever language is being spoken. There are quite a few Indians who are not proficient in Hindi, so English plays a dominant role in inter-region communication as well. Indian English is a legitimate dialect of English spoken by many in India, but its phonology is also heavily influenced by native Indian languages such that sometimes, depending on the speaker, it doesn’t even sound like English. With all that said, my phonetic transcriptions in this post will include the source language in addition to the pronunciation.

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Oh, OK then.

After a grueling flight (we even landed an hour early, clocking in at just about 15 hours) with way too many screaming infants per capita we landed in a hot and muggy Mumbai (Marathi: [ˈmumbaɪ]). Fortunately the logistics seemed to be working out alright and the driver my company hired was waiting outside the gate with a sign with my name on it. The driver deftly navigated the insane traffic commonly-associated with big cities in developing countries; I was silently grateful that it was him, and not me, doing the driving. Mumbai is one of the largest cities in the world by most measures, the scope was becoming evident block-by-block. We finally arrived at the hotel, also organized by my company. The hotel stood like a glass-armored sentinel among the drab, concrete highrises in Thane. Effectively built as a gated community, the security measures had long been forgotten and the reinforced gate stood propped open.

Another driver showed up a short while later and whisked me through the dusty streets to my company’s office complex. Unbeknownst to me, my arrival was something of an occasion. I was greeted at the front door by a number of employees, most of whom I knew by name and online persona but had never met in person. They had flowers for me and performed a small welcoming ceremony where a bindi was applied to my forehead. As much as I hate being the center of attention, the gesture was heart-warming and lovely. Moreover, this was all for the guy they only know as the one who sends the outage notifications before doing network maintenance; I wonder how they treat the execs.

Early the following morning I headed for Bangalore (Kannada: [ˈbeŋgəɭuru]), where the majority of my business was to be conducted. There’s not a lot going on in Bangalore, but it’s somewhat nice-looking (if you don’t look at the not nice parts of it, like the piles of garbage and open sewers). After two weeks in Bangalore I headed back up north to begin my week-or-so of vacation in the north of India.

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Doorway in Austin Town, Bangalore.

I flew from Mumbai to Srinigar (Kashmiri: [ˈsrinagar]), and immediately noticed the pleasant effect the elevation (around 1500m) had on the weather. It was no longer oppressively hot and muggy, but a comfortable 20C with blue and sunny skies. Srinagar is the co-capital of Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmiri: [ˈdʒɑːmuː kaʃˈmiːr]), the northernmost (and most hotly-contested) state in India. The territory is a subject of much contention between China, India, and Pakistan. Where the actual border lies depends on who you ask, but the Kashmiri people generally consider themselves autonomous and just try to stay out of the conflict. Srinagar is a beautiful city situated on the shores of Dal Lake. There are a huge number of ornately-designed wooden houseboats on the lake, many of these are hotels and guest houses these days. Much like Venice, the typical form of transportation around the lake are taxi boats called Shikaras (Kashmiri: [ʃiˈkaːra]).

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Typical scene from Dal Lake.

I had a very relaxing stay there which mostly consisted of hanging out on the houseboat with the family that ran it. Paradoxically, the entire staff was male, including the foul-mouthed, tiny old Kashmiri cook/cleaner/handyman/all-around-badass, Abdul. I woke up ridiculously early on my final morning there to check out the floating market before heading off into the mountains for a night. The market is a tradition among residents of Srinagar and it’s well-known as the place to go for produce, the only catch is that you need to get there by 05:30. Before the sun peaked over the mountains the ever-present Abdul coaxed a Shikara over to the dock after having prepared breakfast. I departed at just after 05:00 with another of the workers (Guys? Cousins? Friends? I’m not sure what any of them were, but they all seemed to have some relation to one another and all seemed to do some amount of work at some point or another). We had a leisurely row out to a location across the lake, glassy and perfectly still aside from the occasional wake of a Shikara loaded to the gunwales with produce for sale (seriously, one more onion and some of these things would quickly take on water and sink). I mostly watched the commerce, but it was certainly a sight to see; the Shikara drivers expertly navigating amongst a swarm of other boats, shouting over each other in Kashmiri, negotiating this way or that, or simply smoking a pipe and observing.

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Boat-bound vegetable peddlers.

That day I continued my journey east from Srinagar. I spent the day hiking around a village called Naranagh (Urdu: [ˈnaranaɣ]) off the Srinagar-Leh highway. The village is populated with Urdu speakers who apparently have a strong distaste for the neighboring Kashmiri people. I met a kid in town who taught me some phrases in Urdu (آپ کانام کیاہے؟) and warned me repeatedly not to talk to the Kashmiri people I might run into in the mountains. I found these fears to be unfounded, I talked to plenty of Kashmiri people both in Srinagar and in the mountains and they all seemed like swell people. On my way up the mountain I ran into a couple Pashto shepherds as well. This area is considerably east of where Pashtuns are usually found, El Niño perhaps. The following day I made a hectic jeep-to-jeep transfer from the driver who gave me a ride to Naranagh the previous day into a new jeep chock full of chain-smoking Ladakhis heading east for Leh (Ladakhi: [ˈleː]).

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Me and the Ladakhi Boyz throwin’ shapes on the way to Leh.

The twelve hour journey from Srinagar to Leh was nothing short of spectacular, in all ways. The landscape slowly transforms from lush, temperate forests to arid, high desert over the course of the 400km road. The reason it takes 12 hours to go 400km is due to the insane switchbacks, overall lack of road maintenance, and manic traffic. From Kangan (Urdu: [ˈkaŋan]) the road climbs and climbs and climbs more. Switchback after muddy switchback it climbs, through some of the highest mountains I’ve ever seen. The road is incredibly narrow, one side a sheer cliff with hundreds of meters to fall, the other side an unyielding stone wall. Despite these incredibly dangerous surroundings, there is a constant stream of jeeps and buses driving at absolutely unrealistic speeds. Laying on the horn and passing other cars around blind corners was not uncommon. The drivers who drive this highway for a living seem to have the process down pretty well though, despite the harrowing theatrics, nobody seemed to go careening over the edge (at least not while I was watching), although we got uncomfortably close quite a few times.

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Careful, rocks inside.

Kargil (Kargili: [ˈkargil]) is the midpoint for the journey, and it’s a midpoint for a number of continua that this road represents. The landscape becoming drier; the greens becoming browns, the rivers less abundant. The facial features becoming more Asiatic and less Indo-Iranian; the faces rounder, the eyes narrower, the skin lighter. The religion changing from Islam to Buddhism; less mosques, more prayer wheels, strings of colorful prayer flags hanging over the roadway. The dominant language changing from the Indo-European Kashmiri to the Sino-Tibetan Ladakhi. Kargil is a legitimate mix of all these things, the more Asiatic-looking Ladakhi people intermingling with the Indo-Iranian-looking Kashmiri people, praying at the same mosques, spinning the same prayer wheels, speaking the same language. The end of this drive became spectacularly hellish; the elevation (3500m) was getting to me, and the 12 hours of swerving, bumping, cigarette-smoke-and-diesel-fume-inhaling road was wearing thin. I was able to get a little bit of sleep in between my head slamming against one thing or another inside the car until we finally reached Leh.

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This was a great improvement over the cramped back seat of a manic, careening jeep.

I suffered from altitude sickness and some other unknown ailment to varying degrees for pretty much my whole stay in Leh. It was my original intention to do some trekking, but I was pretty well waylaid by feeling crappy. On top of this, I can’t imagine doing any sort of real exercise (like trekking with a full pack) at that elevation; walking up one flight of stairs winded me pretty sufficiently already. I ended up renting a scooter and exploring the stunning scenery that way. The city of Leh and the surrounding areas are incredibly beautiful, it’s nestled high in the Himalayas and surrounded by mountains on all sides. The people and culture of Leh are essentially Tibetan, but there is a fairly large Muslim minority as well. For the most part, the ethnically Tibetan people are Buddhist while the ethnically Kashmiri people are Muslim, but there’s a decent amount of overlap on both sides. There are two mosques in Leh that do the Muslim Call to Prayer (Adhan, Arabic: [ʔaˈðaːn]). Strangely, the muezzins (Arabic: [muːˈɛzɪn]) of these two mosques perform both the best and worst Adhans I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately the minaret of the worst muezzin was right outside my room, so I awoke every morning at 03:30 for the pre-dawn Salat in the form of a tone-deaf, butt-rock power-chord, pig-latinized Adhan (seriously, how does this guy keep his job?). Shortly after this thoroughly aggravating and deeply disappointing Adhan the other mosque across town would lull me back to sleep with the haunting and melancholy progressions of a perfectly-executed Adhan. While I don’t associate with any religion, I find great beauty in religiously-inspired things. There’s something wonderful about the piety of the muezzin, lovingly performing his routine, calling the faithful to prayer. Many of humanity’s great works of art can be attributed to an incredible dedication to some higher power in the artist; while I may not feel that myself, and while I may have misgivings about the fundamental faith on which that dedication lies, I guess I’m glad it’s there for some people, for now.

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These Buddhist monuments are scattered all over the place in Ladakh.

Speaking of great works of art inspired by dubious religious adherence, how about the Taj Mahal? I was fortunate enough to spend a day out in Agra (Hindi: [ˈɑːgrə]) on my way back from Leh. I was truly in awe of the beauty of this structure. Built as a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s third wife, construction began around 1632 and took more than 20 years by 20,000 workers to complete. Seeing the intricacy of some of the designs immediately explains the workforce. The entire thing was handmade down to the centimeter, the designs on the white marble are not painted, but carved from other stones and inserted into corresponding gaps carved into the marble. On top of that, the entire site is perfectly symmetrical with the exception of the actual caskets (holding both Jahan’s third wife as well as Jahan, which wasn’t part of his plan).

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No big deal.

Anyhow, I’m currently back in Mumbai taking care of a few final work details before heading back to Finland and I can hardly contain my excitement. I rode a local last night, which is one of those infamous trains in Mumbai where people are so packed in that they’re hanging out the doors and standing on top. The Mumbai Suburban Railway carries 7.5 million passengers per day (which is, hilariously, considerably more than the entire population of Finland every day). I got on at Marine Line Station and rode up to Bandra Station at around 21:00. The trains operate at around 3 minute headways all day, but even this long after rush hour they were still crush loaded. In order to ensure a spot passengers grab on and clamber aboard through a sea of people before the train comes to a stop. Likewise, in order to avoid the crush of boarding passengers, those wanting to get off must jump off while the train is still slowing down (that is, if you can even navigate from your spot inside the train to the doors).

Personal space isn’t much of a concept here, and spoken like a true westerner I’m definitely looking forward to having mine back. On top of that, I’m looking forward to being able to walk down the street without being deafened by horns or almost being run over by a constant stream of cars. I’m also looking forwarding to being able to leave the house without immediately being drenched in sweat or Monsoon rains. Among the things I certainly will miss is the food*… the biryani in Bangalore, the wazwan and chapati in Kashmir, the momo and thenthuk in Leh, the pav bhaji in Mumbai, the fresh mangoes and coconuts on every corner… the list goes on.

India has been good to me, and for that I’m grateful.

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This way to Helsinki.

*
biryani: (Telugu: [birˈjani])
wazwan: (Kashmiri: [ˈwazwan])
chapati: (Kashmiri: [tʃaˈpati])
momo: (Ladakhi: [ˈmomo])
thenthuk: (Ladakhi: [ˈtʰentʰuk])
pav bhaji: (Marathi: [pao ˈʋadʒi])

New York Minute

June 5, 2014

After exactly three weeks in New York I’m heading to the opposite side of the world tomorrow. It took quite a bit of deliberation to bite the bullet and go for the direct flight from Newark, NJ, to Mumbai, India. This flight, scheduled at a little over 16 hours, is one of the longest currently scheduled commercial flights in the world. I was torn between taking a day or two somewhere in between to split up the tedium of such a trip, but I ended up opting for the direct path just to get it over with. On top of that, I’ve been having such a great time here in New York that it was tough to commit. My flight was originally scheduled for today, but I showed up to the airport and met a huge mob of people and learned that today’s flight was canceled due to mechanical issues with the plane. They’re sending a replacement from India, but it won’t be here until tomorrow morning. At least they put me up in a reasonable hotel.

During my time here I’ve had the good fortune of being able to catch up with a lot of old friends. Mad love and respect to homegirls Danielle, Holly, and Maggie for their hospitality in letting me crash. In addition to seeing my much-loved old friends, I’ve met tons of new people whom I’m bummed to be leaving so soon and I’ve consumed tons of rosé (I weighed it to make sure) on tons of rooftops around New York.

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The view from Maggie’s roof

In addition to spending a lot of quality time with friends new and old, I was able to complete both official tasks I had on my agenda. The first of which was work-related, and took quite a bit longer than initially expected and required driving out to Edison, New Jersey many more times than I would have liked (the latter number is 0). The second was putting into motion my application for a residence permit to Finland. I visited the consulate here in New York and the woman at the desk was very helpful in processing my request. Unfortunately, the people responsible for accepting incoming supplementary documents are not nearly as helpful. I’ve sent in my proof of insurance several times and I’ve gotten nothing but noncommittal responses and stories of how they can’t help me because they’re processing so many applications. At any rate, this is the last hurdle in the way of getting my residence permit so I’m hoping everything gets squared away soon.

I’m working on figuring out a rough itinerary of where to go for my free time in India. It’s looking like I’ll be spending most of my time in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir up in the north. Stay tuned for riveting tales of whatever goes on in those places before my trip back to Finland.

 

It’s Mutual

April 18, 2014

I was informed today that I’ve been accepted to both Master’s Degree programs that I applied for in Finland. It’s nice to know that Finland feels the same way.

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I do not find this decision to be incorrect.

For the uninitiated (read: pretty much everyone), shortly before I left Finland last time I was convinced by several of my lovely Finnish friends to apply for one of the many English language Master’s Degree programs in Finland. At first I was hesitant, believing that I wouldn’t be able to find one that fit my interests, or that I wouldn’t have the time to pursue one, or a whole host of other potential problems. I finally came around and decided to at least take a look at the options available.

The system was surprisingly easy (it is Finland, after all), and all the programs aimed at international students across all Finnish universities are conveniently listed at one site, the aptly-named universityadmissions.fi. To my surprise, I immediately saw an international program in the Altaic Studies Department at the University of Helsinki. Too perfect? My thoughts exactly. I looked into it further and it looked like an awesome program which fit very closely with my interests in an awesome location. On top of that, like all higher education in Finland, it’s free. It was quite literally impossible to lose in a situation like that, so I decided to apply for it. As a contingency, I applied for the one other program listed that was aligned with my interests: A Master’s Degree program in “Linguistic Sciences” at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu (a small town about 4.5 hours by train from Helsinki). This program ended up being a close second, but the clear favorite is the Altaic Studies Department at the University of Helsinki.

What exactly is Altaic Studies, you ask? Well, it’s a bit convoluted, really. First, I should mention that few linguists consider the Altaic language family to be a legitimate genetic relationship. The family, first thought up in the mid-1800s has undergone many changes and revisions, but is generally believed (by supporters) to include the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic language families (the legitimacy of each of these subgroupings is not disputed by most linguists). Some farther-fetched proposals have also lumped in Uralic languages, Japonic languages, and Korean. The problem with the Altaic language family is that there simply isn’t evidence to back it up. Each of the families have some clear similarities: lack of grammatical gender (=noun classes), pervasive vowel harmony, highly-agglutinative morphology, similar pronoun forms, etc, but that’s about as far as it goes.

In order to establish a likely genetic relationship between languages, we must rely on conclusive cognate sets that correspond narrowly in both form and meaning, creating a bidimensional criterion. Further, we must be able to establish a set of systematic historical sound changes that result in the observable forms in both languages that can be applied to an input of a hypothetical proto language. Without these unshakeable tenets of the Comparative Method, we’re left with a weak theory based on impressionistic and dubious evidence. While the typological similarities between all these language families are certainly striking, we simply cannot come up with a conclusive and believable theory based on comparing these unidimensional attributes when equally plausible explanations (areal influence, for example) are present. Does this mean that these modern language families are definitively not descendants of the same proto language? No, it certainly doesn’t, it just means that we lack the evidence to claim that they are. With that said, any further debate without more evidence is useless.

On the other hand, the Altaic label remains useful in describing these typologically-but-not-genetically-similar language families, and many departments at universities around the world continue to use it as a matter of convenience. Furthermore, Altaic Studies departments tend to be sort of a catch-all for cultural or linguistic studies that have no better place to live, so a lot of research on Caucasian languages, Eskimo-Aleut languages, Uralic languages, and typologically-similar isolates ends up being published from these departments. Being that my interests are pretty much Caucasian, Eskimo-Aleut, Mongolic, Tungusic, Turkic, and Uralic languages, I think this department suits me fairly well.

The department itself is quite flexible too. It doesn’t necessarily adhere to cultural or linguistic studies specifically, but it houses students interested in all aspects of these Central Asian ethnic groups and languages. I will likely be one of several other linguistically-oriented students.

Back to the real world… The next step in the process for me is to secure a residence permit for Finland. This is the paperwork that will allow me to stay in Finland for the entire duration of my studies. This is also the first time that I’ve attempted to legitimately stay for an extended period of time in another country, so the whole process is a bit new to me. There are several locations around the US that have the required administrative functions to hand out residence permits for Finland, one of which is in New York. I’m going to be in New York on business within the next couple of weeks anyway, so I plan to handle my residence permit application while I’m there.

The next few months will be a lot of bouncing around for me. In early May I’ll be leaving Seattle, spending a few days in Denver, several weeks in New York, followed by about a month in India (Mumbai and Bangalore for business followed by a couple weeks wherever my heart desires for vacation), after that I’ll be finally (and legitimately) settling down in Helsinki for the foreseeable future.

Stay tuned for blog posts in the near future about each of these places (although probably not Denver because it’s not very interesting).

Friends

March 20, 2014

Friends seem to visit me abroad in twos. Only two friends came and visited me during my first stay in Belgrade. Friends, of course, can’t be blamed for not coming to visit; it’s a very long trip, after all, and talk is abundant. The friends who do end up visiting tend to be in Europe for some reason or another and end up dropping by. The two friends that visited me last time coincidentally showed up within a week of each other. This time, two more showed up- again unplanned- within a week of each other. When it rains, it pours, so they say.

duroc

Spoiler Alert: We went to Paris.

First, a friend from the music scene back home, Blaze, came through Belgrade and hung out for a day or so. I picked Blaze up from the bus station after an ill-communicated action plan; she was set to arrive at 22:00, but apparently her bus showed up almost three hours early (an early bus in the Balkans? Practically unheard of.) She didn’t have a phone nor my address, so she was forced to wait until our arranged meeting time of 22:00. I ended up finding her after a lot of confusion about arrival times from generally unhelpful information desk workers. The following day we embarked on a bit of a whirlwind tour of Belgrade; she was set to leave the following morning at about 04:00, so we had pretty much the whole day in addition to a late night planned. Unfortunately the weather was miserable for pretty much the entire time; the rain was pouring and the streets were flooded. We went out to the Chinese Market in New Belgrade; longtime readers of this blog will know my affinity for that strange spot in the city, but it’s sure to provide for a fun and non-traditional tourist experience. After that we headed out to Zemun [ˈzɛmun] for some coffee and a stroll along the Danube. It was almost entirely dark by that point and the rain was still coming down hard so the river walk wasn’t quite as much fun as planned. We finished up the night on Skadarlija [ˈskadarlija] where I commissioned one of the gypsy bands to play my favorite Serbian tune Stani, Stani Ibar Vodo.

During my previous stay in Belgrade there was a “bar” off an alleyway in Skadarlija, it consisted of an old man’s living room that was converted into a gathering place with several long, wooden tables. No sign marked the entrance, and I don’t know what it was called (if it even had a name). You were meant to knock on the nondescript door. The man (who was always home watching TV in the other room, it seemed) would open the door, scrutinize you for an agonizing several seconds, then beckon you in. He had only one type of beer, he would shuffle into the other room and return with a few bottles for you. The charm and absolute eccentricity of his house had a special place in my heart, but it seems he has shuttered his doors after who-knows-how-many years of operation. Another bar has replaced the old man’s house on the alleyway in Skadarlija. While certainly more conventional, this new establishment has cheap beer and an equally intimate feeling. Determined not to forget what this place was called, I asked the woman (evidently named Natalija) the name of her bar on my way out. Her response was “I don’t know… Natalija’s Bar, how about?” Fair enough.

Later that week I took the all-too-familiar train ride from Belgrade to Budapest to meet another friend from Seattle, Kate. We met up and stayed at The Loft (a hostel at which I spent quite a bit of time during my last stay in the region), it was great catching up with some old friends there and knowing that some places just don’t change. The following day Kate and I went to the famous Széchenyi [ˈseːtʃɛɲi] baths in Budapest and I miraculously ran into some old traveling buddies of mine there (the same ones I visited in Turku in this post). Matt spotted me from across the courtyard by my tattoos (I knew those would come in handy some day). After catching up and seeing what was new in our respective lives we parted ways and Kate and I headed back to Belgrade the following day. Evidently the weather gods of Belgrade were more fond of Kate’s visit and it remained balmy and blue-skied for the duration of our stay there. Our flight to Paris was eye-bleedingly early on Friday so we opted not to sleep and headed straight to the airport after a night on the town. Kate wanted to see the much-touted party barges on the Sava River before we left. We ended up at 20/44, not historically my favorite spot, but they were playing some great, newish bass music. After 20/44 we cabbed back to my house to pick up our bags and we were on our way.

I’ll never understand how Serbs can be so damned cheerful on flights that early in the morning; it may have been my general irritability at not having slept, but being surrounded by screaming babies and loud Serbs on the cramped and hot flight was certainly not enjoyable.

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But then there’s that… so that’s cool.

Kate was put up at a posh, new hotel in Paris for work and she was nice enough to let me crash there. Both avid rum drinkers (she’s the GM of a rum bar in Seattle, I’m a regular at the same bar), we set off to see what Paris had to offer in the rum sphere. Kate and I share a similar taste for rum made on the Francophone Caribbean Islands (called Rhum Agricole), and Paris being the de facto capital of the Francophone world has a lot of it.

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Rhum for days.

Aside from having tons of agricole, Paris is a really cool city. I know it’s played to heap praise onto it, but I’m going to do it anyway because it’s well-deserved. This was the first time I was able to experience Paris as an adult which certainly makes a difference. My typical traveling style includes very little formal sightseeing and instead relies on riding public transport around, hanging out at cafes and bars, and generally just having a good time; we embraced this to the fullest and got a great look at the city in the meantime. Serendipitously, the public transport was free for the whole weekend we were there (I still haven’t figured out why yet, but I’m not complaining); Paris is one of the overall densest cities in the developed world and the metro system there does a fantastic job of connecting the neighborhoods. The stop spacing is a bit extreme at times, but it’s more-or-less legitimized by the high density; the overall speed doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted either, so it ends up serving a streetcarlike walkshed with grade separated, high capacity transit. The whole weekend was spent drinking coffee, wine, and rhum, and eating as much French food and pastries as we could handle. The ultra hip yet paradoxically traditional Jewish neighborhood of Le Marais [lɛˈmaʁɛ] was a favorite of ours. The chic clothing stores juxtapositioned with synagogues and the payot-sporting hasids walking by swanky cocktail bars provided an odd but lovely contrast.

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I call this one Le Parisien…

Why can’t the language of Paris be something interesting like Greenlandic or Adyghe? If it was I would move there in a minute.

My mom gave me some advice somewhat recently. She was essentially just reminding me to not be too much of a nomad, since at the end of the day, friends and family are all we have. These words were particularly powerful and I’ve been trying to keep them in mind ever since. Seeing friends, old and new, reminded me of how important these relationships are. The friendships I have forged in the emotional and chaotic world of traveling are some of the closest I have, but getting back to Seattle and going to my usual hangouts has shown me that the bonds built here from mutual interests and sustained contact can be equally strong. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to stop traveling, but I certainly hope that I can maintain the great friendships that I’ve built along the way.

Anyway, a bit of a busy two weeks for me, but I made it back to Seattle in one piece and I should be here for the next month or so. Lots of potentially significant things over the next few months, so stay tuned for my upcoming plans.

Sober Sabbaticals

February 17, 2014

Haters disperse: Zürich is legit. In Zürich [ˈt͡syɾi] (in the local dialect) they speak Swiss German. Oftentimes in standard German the phoneme /x/ is realized as [ç]. In Swiss German it’s typically either a back [x] or [χ], and it’s always heavily-fricated. The phoneme, whether realized as a voiceless velar fricative [x] or a voiceless uvular fricative [χ] is a very recognizable sound and I got used to hearing it constantly.

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Zürich

I’m just returning from my first trip to Switzerland. Switzerland is right in the middle of Europe, which makes it even more inexplicable that I hadn’t been there up until now. I managed to visit Liechtenstein, the microstate on the border between Switzerland and Austria, while I was there as well; inching ever closer the the achievement-unlocking status of having been to every country in continental Europe (only a few left at this point).

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A serendipitous juxtaposition.

I had a free weekend and found a cheap ticket, so I figured I’d jog over while I had the chance. Unfortunately the visit to city with the most clubs per capita in Europe coincided with my month of sobriety in February. I’m sober every February, but rarely do I wish I wasn’t as much as this February. Zürich has a ton of great bars and clubs, so I guess I’ll just have to visit again to get a proper experience.

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Note the portrait below.

The city itself is quite small with a modest overall density, but it’s very walkable and the public transport is phenomenal. It doesn’t have a super high capacity mode like a metro system, but the surface rail and trolleybuses do a great job of moving people around the city efficiently. The city center is fortunate to be quite sparse of cars, so the transit is able to effectively navigate with little delay. Plus they have 25 meter double-arcticulated ETBs which are mental.

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Hess lighTram BGGT-N2C

I woke up at a little after 4am on Friday morning after having gotten maybe two hours of sleep to head to Trg Slavija in Belgrade to catch the airport bus at 05:20. I ended up in Zürich and navigated my way to the hostel with the hopes of being able to sleep a bit, but alas check-in time wasn’t until the mid afternoon. I relied on heavy coffee consumption and constant exploration to get through the day. Most of it involved walking around and finding neat little cafes and bars and wishing I was in them drinking a cocktail. Ten-or-so cups of coffee later and I ended up not getting to sleep until the wee hours of the morning again.

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Stadler FLIRT EMU with some unimpressive scenery in the background.

The following day I woke up at a comfortable hour and decided to head to the little country of Liechtenstein [ˈlɪçtn̩ʃtaɪn] a few hours away. Liechtenstein is a strange place, I’m not sure what their primary import/export is, but they still have a prince that lives in a castle in the the capital of Vaduz [ˈfadʊts]. I got off the train from Zürich in Sargans [zaːˈgans] on the border and hopped on the bus toward Vaduz. I got into town and wandered for a little bit. I was stopped by a group of women having a bachelorette party; apparently it’s customary to take a Polaroid-style picture with the bride, receive a party pack of hair conditioner and an airline shot of some alcohol derived from figs in return for giving them some money to finance their party. The picture didn’t really turn out, so all I have is a bleached-out photo, conditioner I left at the hostel, and an airline shot I can’t drink until March 1st. The town of Vaduz is quite beautiful, nestled in the alps and covered in vineyards. That’s about all it’s got going for it though, there’s really not a lot going on.

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The prince actually lives there…

The following day I explored more of Zürich on foot. My primary goal was to visit the Chinese Garden, but I ended up completely on the other side of town due to a poor understanding of the street network. After walking for many countless miles, I ended up at the Chinese Garden. It was closed, like LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE on Sundays. I’m used to European Sundays, but it’s unbelievable how dead this place in particular is on the Sabbath.

I love the city and I met some great people while I was there. I’m definitely looking forward to making it back and properly exploring the bar/restaurantscape.

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The only memento of the bachelorette party I have.

Aids to Language Learning

February 14, 2014

Learning a language is hard work. The thought of it is romantic and enticing, but a huge majority of casual language learners give up on a language long before they approach any sort of proficiency because it’s simply an unending slugfest of brutal, difficult, and time-consuming work. Practicing the language can be logistically difficult and is always utterly exhausting. Working the brain like this in ways it hasn’t been worked before is often even more exhausting than physical exercise.

Everybody learns in different ways, and what comes naturally to one person may not so easily to somebody else. I argue that vocabulary is the critical piece to learning a new language. Grammatical rules fall into place with repetition, as do new words, but you can’t fill in the template of grammar without words. With that said, I typically focus most of my energy on simply learning words. We stumble our way through the structural intricacies of a new language and make many mistakes along the way, but you can get your point across if you know enough words. The more often you practice that process the more natural the rules become.

Unfortunately, studying vocabulary is probably the most exhausting part of language learning (for me, at least). I used to simply skim my notebook of terms that I’ve written down and quiz myself to commit them to memory. This isn’t hugely helpful and requires a lot of motivation.

The good news is help is here. I’ve recently discovered a website designed to aid in this process called Memrise. It’s free to use, and more importantly it’s fun and engaging (neither of which did I believe until I started using it). If you’re at all interested in learning a language (I have at least a few friends in mind whom this will certainly help) I urge you to visit the site, create an account, and dedicate a little bit of time each day to further your knowledge. There are tons of courses available, even on obscure languages such as Greenlandic and Wolof, so whatever language you’re trying to learn probably has at least one course on there. The organization of the courses caters to embedding vocabulary terms into memory for quick recollection and is designed around learning sets of new words and then “watering” them with repetition.

Seriously, give it a try.