El albergue

El albergue

Monday, August 27, 2012

So long for now, my friend

According to the vendor, hats are the cheapest way to
get a face lift...who knew?

Helsinki now lies many miles behind.  I glance across the stiffly tumbled bodies of my two sleeping neighbors out the window at an expanse of fluffy white clouds that occasionally part to reveal glimpses of some country below – which it is I have no clue.  And yet just a few hours ago I was saying goodbye to my friend before she headed off the work.  I was looking around the quiet apartment to make sure I had left nothing.  I was walking between train and bus on my way to the airport.  Now, behind me is a truly beautiful country, one whose plants seem to be fairly be bursting forth with fresh life and vigor as they make the most of the sunny hours before dark winter comes, one whose interesting architecture and sweeping landscapes both make for pleasant vistas, one whose people are quietly friendly and inviting.  

Picnic time!
I’ve really enjoyed my week in Finland.  I had my doubts at first about being on my own so much, but I passed many a pleasantly contemplative moment in silence, with no need for making conversation and no worries about whether I might or might not be boring my travel partner out of their mind.  It was quiet.  It was peaceful.  It was thoughtful.  

Of course the observation deck would have a fighter jet
And the rest of the time, I really enjoyed spending time with my friend Elina.  We hadn’t seen each other or even talked a whole lot for a year and a half due to our separate busy lives, and yet right off from the start our friendship felt as sure as it had when we were hanging out in Madrid in the fall of 2010.  We had lots of lovely and fun conversations as well as plenty of moments of companionable silence.  She showed me around and took care of me – she was quite a wonderful hostess.  We shared delicious food, went on walks, ventured out in kayaks, picked wild blueberries and raspberries, enjoyed an afternoon at the public sauna, rummaged through a flea market, picnicked on rocks overlooking the bay, watched a marathon, visited important city sites, and generally packed quite a lot into these days we were together.  Overall, a most excellent, excellent trip.

Picking blueberries in Central Park

Go, go, go!

Such peace, such peace...

Until next time, Elina!

Helene Schjerfbeck

I think I can say without a doubt that Helene Schjerfbeck is now one of my favorite artists.  Never heard of her?  I hadn’t either before coming to Helsinki, but apparently pretty much every school child here in Finland knows who she was.  She’s one of the most important figures in the Nordic art scene, and the beautiful Ateneum art museum in the center of the city has a wonderful exhibition right now in honor of her 150th birthday, or some such thing.  There are a few hundred of her works displayed chronicling her journey from a more Naturalistic style as a young woman to a very modern, minimalistic approach in her later years.  The thing that captured me the most in the exhibit was, besides the variety of styles, the sheer beauty inherent in nearly every single painting.  She chose, for the most part, to paint human subjects, saying, “There’s nothing as interesting as the human face,”  and it’s remarkable the emotion that she seems to be able to call forth both in the expression of the subjects themselves and in the viewer (or me, at least).  There is such grace in every stroke of her brush, pencil, pen, or whatever tool she happened to use.  I think that right there is probably why I like so many of her paintings so much – they are full of grace, a certain softness that makes the eye contentedly happy.

The Convalescent was one of my favorites


I’ve been infected.  I was feeling solemnly contemplative as I sat here on the rocky outcropping next to the Sibelius monument, looking at the beautifully bright pipes jumbled together in decorative, floating clumps that remind me of an unearthly pipe organ and wondering what they mean, what they might possibly stand for.  When suddenly a group of American tourists trundled off their bus to take their 10 minutes’ worth of pictures before moving on to the next photo-snapping point.  Two of the ladies in particular  were enjoying themselves as they snapped pictures of each other sticking their heads in the pipes and giggling uproariously.  Just hearing them, my serious mood evaporated and a smile spread across my face – I do believe they’ve quite infected me.  It’s a good infection though, one I’ll welcome with open arms rather than seek to get rid of.  Maybe I’ll even spread it a little to someone else…

I found out later that this mystical organ was dedicated
to the music of the famous Finnish composer... 
...Jean Sibelius

Childish art

I came to the flea market this morning hoping for a treasure trove of fun things I could sort through to find the perfect mementos.  And although there is indeed an impressive array/smorgasbord of only heaven knows what, my favorite thing that I’m taking away isn’t something that I bought but rather something I saw…

I was browsing one seller’s table of old clothes and random knick-knacks when I saw a stroller parked next to two fellow female browers.  Since it’s universally known that babies are, usually, adorable, and I happen to believe this universally known fact, I sneaked a peak at the little blonde guy seated there.  And I noticed that he was happily engaged in something...  He had taken off one of his little leather loafers and was daubing what remained of his ice cream on a stick all over it, inside and out.  His caretakers were completely oblivious as he explored his experimental artistic side and swirled the popsicle stick about the inside sole, occasionally lifting it to lick at the chocolate that still clung on.  Of course, once the two women did realize what a creative genius their little charge was, they merely dabbed at the sticky mess before surrendering the masterpiece to the childish hands once again, with the one stipulation of a few soggy napkins that pretended to stand guard inside the shoe.  Who knows, maybe he’ll be a famous painter some day?

Another little kid with ice cream - her cone was as big as her head!

Foodie Time!

Nom nom nom
What do you call these things?  No idea.  The name on the label is completely indecipherable to me, but I just wolfed down all three pastries in the bag with relish here on the edge of the dock next to the Market Square.  With the breeze off the ocean on my face, the water gently moving at my feet, and the bright sun warming my legs, I don’t really all that much care what they are called.  All I know is they were delicious.  A thick square of airy pastry folded over a creamy blend of broccoli and feta.  The inside soft and slightly chewy.  The outside flaky and just the right amount of crispiness, with toasty brown shreds of Swiss cheese liberally adding that delightful extra touch.  Was it something traditional here in Finland?  No idea.  Either it was, and I just experienced a true Finnish delight, or it wasn’t and I just experienced a true (insert nationality) delight.  Either way, it was totally and completely worth all the wonderful, buttery calories.

Heaven help me
I’m simply putting off the inevitable by picking up this pen and starting to write, but I can’t help it!  I want this moment to last forever!  I mean, who wouldn’t want to prolong the eating of the most perfect cinnamon roll so as to be able to savor every tiny bit and morsel of heavenly deliciousness for as long as possible?  When I bought this astounding pastry from the tiny, hectically cluttered café that looked like somebody’s back kitchen, it seemed to be nothing more than a cinnamon-y, sugary croissant.  But oh, it is so much more that that.  It has the soft, bready texture of a cinnamon roll, and it HAD the shape of a lumpy homemade croissant, “HAD” being the key word there, as I am agonizingly reaching the final few bites.  Some of the edges have that incredible chewiness that comes from sugar that has melted into oozing little puddles in the oven and then soaked into the bread.  There is the perfect amount of moisture – you know, that amount you always dream of producing yourself in your own cinnamon rolls but never quite actually end up achieving.  Oh! And the spices!  They feel hand-ground practically.  Seriously, as I nibble the tiny chunks of cinnamon, I can just imagine the spry grey-haired lady bustling around the café grating pixie dust over her pastries as she weaves magical spells of tasty delight into her products.  There’s something besides cinnamon too.  Something darker.  I’m not exactly sure what it is (Cloves? Nutmeg? Something magically mysterious?), but it adds an extra pungency that sometimes borders on a kick.  As I finish off the last bite (one of the chewy, sugary bits), I’m kind of sad that there isn’t any more.  And yet, I am really, really, really ridiculously happy with what I just ate.  Oh man am I ever.

A Trio of Churches

The center of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland

The Helsinki Cathedral feels nearly barren as I look around and think of all the incredibly ornate churches I’ve been to in Spain.  It was the same impressive feeling of vast, open space induced by huge domes arching up to the sky, but there is so much more white, smooth surface here, more simplicity, more visual peace.  It is not without adornment, but the decorative column heads and arch details are unassuming and quiet – rather than call attention to themselves, they serve as a complement to the whole, adding to instead of detracting from the desired focus on the altar and pulpit, which besides the moderate chandeliers and magnificently impressive organ are the only parts of the interior displaying gold gilt and bright colors. 

Interesting facts about the cathedral: 
It was originally known as St. Nicholas’ Church.
There is a statue inside of Mikael Agricola, the father of the Finnish Reformation and literature.
Besides the normal Lutheran church services, other events to take place here include official state and university functions.

Simplistic beauty

The Finnish Orthodox Church is the second of the two national churches in Finland, and at its heart is the Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Western Europe according to the Helsinki tourist booklet.  In contrast to the Helsinki Cathedral, the Uspenski Cathedral fairly shines with the bright reds, blues, and golds that predominate the paintings and delicately intricate designs that cover a large part of the walls and every inch of the ceiling.  The chandelier coming down from the star-speckled central dome has a weighty look of importance about it.  The rich scent of hot wax from the burning incense candles perfumes the air, lingering in my nose as I walk out the simple side entrance open to visitors.  I look up at the brick walls and copper domes, a brilliant golden cross crowning each pinnacle, the city spreading out beneath its hill.  It is as different from Spanish cathedrals as is the neoclassical Helsinky Cathedral, and it is beautiful.

Interesting facts, courtesy of the tourist booklet:
This cathedral is one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history.
The members of the Finnish Orthodox church account for just over 1 percent of the population.

I loved the geometric patterns painted on the ceiling and walls.

Not exactly the typical church exterior
The Rock Church is different from either the Helsinki Cathedral or Uspenski Cathedral.  Indeed, it’s rather different from any church or cathedral I’ve ever seen in my life.  Just imagine with me a huge mound of solid rock in the middle of Helsinki, apartment buildings and small businesses rising up on every side.  Now, imagine a great big hole dug into the rock, and a church sanctuary placed inside.  Rocks have been built up around the hole, and a large, flattish dome of rolled copper is held up by ray of steel and glass.  The stone of the walls in unfinished, evoking an earthy, natural feel.  There’s a beautiful, beautiful pipe organ to the left side, but at this moment there is a concert pianist closing up the shiny concert grand piano on which he has been pouring out his heart for at least the past hour.  There are also mobs of tourists wandering around, flashing their cameras and chatting in nearly normal voices, but I was more or less able to block them out as I sat and soaked in the music…wup!  There’s the piano encore!  …lovely…and now as the cover gets drawn over the shining instrument, I guess it’s time for me to move on – out from this rocky church and on to the next sight to see…

Just look at that organ!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Moments of solitary reflection

What traveling on my own often looks like

When I booked my flight to Helsinki, I wasn’t really thinking about anything other than the fact that I was going to visit a friend in a country I’d never been to before.  I didn’t really think about the fact that the local language was a complete mystery to me or that I’d be spending a lot of time exploring on my own, unaided, with no one else along for the ride because although I am on vacation, my friend wasn’t.  In all reality, the language thing is going to just fine, as every one of the people I’ve worked up the courage to talk to speaks excellent, or at least decently passable, English.  But the whole being all alone thing is kind of strange, I have to admit.  I’m so used to traveling with roommates or friends or family that I don’t really know how to travel and explore by myself.  How do I articulate and form those shapeless ideas and feelings I get when I look at a beautiful building or piece of art or contemplate a peaceful scene if there is no one with whom speak?  Impressions shared are more meaningful and real than those that simply lie silent within you, aren’t they?  Maybe…or maybe not.  

Now, isn't this nice?

Welcome, Traveler, to Airport Park, the most relaxing rest area you’ll find in any airport.  Here at Airport Amsterdam Schipholl, we want the best for those like you who have a couple hours to spend between flights with no possibility of going outside and enjoying the calming influence of nature.  So, we have brought nature to you in an oasis of peace and tranquility in the midst of a long and potentially stressful day of travel.  Take your pick of benches cleverly made to look like logs, bean bag chairs, stylishly simple reclining lounge chairs, or fun circles of cushioned seats as you let the sounds of bird song and gently murmuring water sooth you.  Look around and let your eyes rest with our soft natural lighting and abundant greenery.  Relax.  Read a book.  Sends emails from our conveniently located internet station.  Take a nap.  Nibble on that smashed cheese and bell pepper sandwich you packed in your carry-on many hours ago…or if that doesn’t suit your fancy, grab a treat at our lovely Park Café – the blueberry muffins are quite nice.  You will, of course, be watching the clock until your next flight, but in the mean time, the Airport Park is here for you.

And here it is!

Finally, the long-awaited next installments are here!  I know you’ve all just been waiting on the edge of your collective seats to hear how my trip to Helsinki went.  After all, who wouldn’t be?  So, just to make all you wonderful people happy, I’m going to be posting lots of everythings from my week – fun facts, pretty pictures, and just some traveler’s thoughts.  Enjoy!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Coming soon...... a blog near you.........
All sorts of adventures in and about the great city of Helsinki, Finland!  I'm supposed to be flying off tomorrow (although we'll see because I somehow ended up on the standby list - sigh), and I'll be staying there for just over a week.  Don't worry though, I will be sure to take lots of pictures and post ALL of them.  Haha, just kidding!  But I will be putting up my favorites for sure.

So in a week or so, be looking out for the next installment!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bits of a trip

La Costa Brava, north of Barcelona, is simply beautiful

Last week, I went on a sort of last-minute trip with a group of friends to the beach near Barcelona.  And while there is no way I can show you everything I saw and experienced, here are a couple little highlights of moments from those lovely 5 days…

The moon rises from behind the hills, an amber eye casting its glance on the world spreading out before it, on us, five sardines stuffed into the bright blue of our car and heading steadily on down the road to Barcelona.  It sways from one side of our windshield to the other as we follow the twists and turns of the highway, alternately blinking off behind one hill and reopening its lucid iris to blink yet again behind another hill, effectively shutting off its light from our own eyes.  And yet its glittery bronze aura continues to give away its presence, a sure, mystic sign that the face of the goddess of night has hidden itself for but just a moment and is soon to shine forth again.

Now this is the life.
There’s a girl zooming past us in the street, her body bent forward over the steering wheel as she glances back to change lanes and glances forward to check the upcoming round-about.  She’s got a cigarette dangling from her lips, its extreme tip barely held in place by the faint pressure of her concentrating mouth – rather in the style of someone from a cartoon.

We sit on a bench near the Arc de Triomf, relaxing beneath the shade of the trees as we watch an old man methodically breaking apart a baguette and tossing it in handfuls to the flock of pigeons swarming about his feet.  The bread finished, he starts to walk away, and the pigeons sort of ebb around him, uncertain whether to stay near the food abundantly scattered about or follow the one who so generously just gave it to them in hopes for more.  A few go with the latter option, and the old man smiles when he sees them, amused by their waddling along behind him as he turns the corner.

Brazilian couscous for breakfast prepared by the mother of two of the girls on the trip – De. Lish. Us.  A simple steamed mixture of corn meal, yucca flour, coconut, and butter – De. Lish. Us.

The smell of evergreen trees at the camp site near the beach takes me back to happy memories of camping with family.  Breath deep and sigh.  And smile as the earthy, green scent works its way down to the bottom of my soul.

The gentle waves of the sea rock us back and forth as we float, arms and legs outstretched, on its surface.  The water is chilly, not as cold as the water off the coast of Central California, but chilly enough to completely take away the overwhelming heat of summer.  It makes me want to stay out there all day, simply soaking in the cool so that I can take it back to Madrid with me.

It happened again

It happened again, guys, my mind has been blown away by putting cheese together with things I wouldn’t normally ever have thought of putting it together with.  It all started this morning with me really just wanting to make banana pancakes with those incredibly ripe little guys I had stashed away in the fridge in order to keep them from going bad on me in the midst of all my erratic vacationing and away-from-homing.  So I tossed one into a bowl, mashed it up, and mix in most of the normal things that normally go into pancake batter.  I wasn’t following a recipe (WHAT??!! That doesn’t sound like me AT ALL…) so they didn’t really end up like the beautiful little fluffy rounds of bready goodness my dad always flips off his griddle, but they were tasty enough to cover for any strange textural things going on. 

Anywho, I have a friend from Venezuela subletting one of my roommates’ rooms for the summer, and recently she’s had her mother and cousin here visiting.  So there’s a lot of South American love going around over here, which is more than fine by me.  But this also means that we get to share a little bit of culinary culture.  Like this morning.

I offered my visitors some pancakes, which they accepted gracefully despite their slight strangeness, and they proceeded to put on butter, jam…and mozzarella cheese!!!  What is this sheer craziness I see before me?! 

Of course, who am I to judge, right?  Not too long ago I myself had been breaking the barriers that typically enclose the world of cheese.  So who was to say this wouldn’t be delicious as well?  Well, I tossed a little sliced creaminess on top of my peanut butter and homemade apricot jam, and you know?  It wasn’t half bad.  Far better than that I should say.  Maybe I’ll be joining in on this Venezuelan norm and strewing cheese of all types about on any and all pancakes, waffles, dessert crepes…  I promise not to get too carried away though…maybe.